Saturday, December 12, 2009

Chapter 15


15



There were heavy, thick clouds blown along the horizon like misshapen ships, grey against the distant mountains. And the horses ran on the pastures below, hooves thundering on the turf, and on the high boulders of the falls a man with thick chestnut hair spread his arms like a swan and dived, falling forever towards the pool below where the water crashed against the rocks. Two men, barely more than boys, huddled shoulder to shoulder in the hay in a barn by the flickering light of a lantern, and passed a thick ceramic bottle back and forth between them, and wheels rattled and cranked on a stone trail, echoing in an empty wood. And a man sat at a heavy oak admiral's desk with the lamp dimmed, and worked while all around him others slept peacefully and safely under his broad roof in the dark.

"Flynn? Are you awake?"

A wooden bed frame creaked. Dale stirred in the dark, aware of someone passing very near to him and of blankets moving.   


"Mhph. You've got cold feet."

"Move over."


"Can't sleep?"

"Dreaming." Riley's voice was already thickening with sleep as he settled down. Dale turned over, hearing Flynn's grunt.

"'s a gale out there tonight, it sounds wild."

Riley didn't answer again, but the soft sound of their breathing was steady and nearby, deeply reassuring. Dale lay in the shelter of it, listening to the wind and the trees beyond the window, and sank back into sleep with the man behind the desk softly turning pages in a heavy ledger with a maroon binding, a silver and black fountain pen in his hand.




Riley was wrapped around Flynn when Dale woke, and Flynn lay with an arm around him, although his eyes were open. He gave Dale a wry smile when he saw Dale watching and Dale felt himself flush in response. The sight of Flynn bare chested and sprawled out was a far too pleasant one to be caught gawping at like a teenager.

"That was a bit of a stormy night."

"I slept through most of it." Dale said honestly, flushing still darker on a rush of acute embarrassment as he realised what Flynn meant. "No thunder or lightening."


Both of which would have driven him straight out of bed, and Dale was well aware that Flynn knew it; was just too kind to comment. What kind of a man was afraid of thunderstorms? And who could have any use for such a man? 

Flynn stretched as Riley stirred and curled tighter against him like a sleepy cat. It was like seeing Flynn pull Riley down into his lap in the kitchen – ashamed and bitter, the very unselfconsciousness of it, the gentleness of it cut through and warmed Dale, pulling his mind away from his own failings and making it impossible not to stare.

"Going to be creeks and the river to clear all day," Riley mumbled into Flynn's side without opening his eyes. Flynn snorted.

"Don't even think about swimming."

"It's fun when it's running fast."

"I'm going up to check for cast sheep." Jasper said from the doorway, leaning against the frame to finish buttoning his shirt. "Riley, come up with me and we'll do the west creeks and the north river. Paul's heading out to check on the foals."


"We'll get the south and east." Flynn gave a groaning Riley a push out of bed and Dale slid to his feet, padding into his own room to get his clothes. Ash appeared on the landing, blinking and sleepy in a t shirt and shorts.

"Flynn? We heard the storm. Need us to do anything?"

"If you can check the buildings around the house and the stock in the paddocks we'll be fine thanks." Flynn pulled jeans on, buttoning them rapidly. "We won't stop for breakfast, but no reason you two can't have a meal and some time to yourselves."

"Put a t shirt on under your shirt," Riley advised, pausing in Dale's doorway as Dale finished dressing. "Layers. If you get one wet then you'll have the other to put back on, we'll be in and out of the river all day."

"Thanks." Dale took a t shirt from the dresser and began to pull his shirt off, and Riley paused, watching him.


"…..are you ok? Still bothered about last night?"


Well that was as good an excuse for being miserable as any. Dale gave him a reserved shrug, not looking up. "It's not a pleasant thought that I'm seeing things. It's easy to say it's nothing-"

"Hey, we didn't laugh it off." Riley said apologetically, moving back into the hallway as Dale came out and following him down the stairs. "Really. It just is that we're used to Jas, and he is
spooky, he's seen all kinds of things on the land and we're used to it. To us that's very different to sick, like you were when you first came."

"Take something to eat," Flynn ordered, looking up from the kitchen counter where he was knocking back a mug of tea. Paul had obviously thought of the issue of breakfast before he went out: the round rolls that he baked himself were in a basket on the table along with sliced cheese, fruit and cold sausages, and a large pot of tea. No matter how early Paul got up, he seemed capable of pulling time out of thin air to ensure the others ate, and ate what Paul would call 'properly'. Riley broke a roll in half and stuffed it with cheese and sausage, eating with one hand while he pulled his boots on, and Dale jumped a little at his hand which fell with rough comfort on the nape of his neck, squeezing.

"Don't let it worry you, you've probably never been out of an office long enough to notice whether you're the kind of person that sees the spooky stuff anyway – not too many ghosts in an office. Just the spirit of photocopiers past."


He grabbed a hat, a jacket, and headed down the steps still eating. Dale pulled riding boots on and Flynn tossed him one of the round water bottles they all carried, paused at the table to split two rolls, filling them generously with the sausage, and handed one firmly to Dale.

"Let's go. We usually try to go out as soon as it's light after bad weather, too many animals out in the open."

Riley and Jasper were still in sight, cantering up the north pasture towards the tops as Flynn and Dale carried tack out to the corral. The wind was dropping rapidly, the sky was starting to clear from heavy grey to racing clouds, and the morning was beginning to warm a little. Two of the three sheepdogs, Tam and Ash were gone; presumably with Jasper and Riley. The third, Shane, who usually hung around to go with Flynn if he could manage it, sat waiting at the corral gate with his tongue out, looking thoroughly pleased with himself.

"When you've seen David," Flynn said abruptly, tugging at Nekkid's girth. "Has he been telling you to do anything wrong or dangerous? Anything that makes you uncomfortable?"

He'd obviously missed nothing of Riley's conversation and he sounded every bit as calm about it as Riley had. Dale shook his head. "No. The first two times he warned me back and pointed out the cougar – the last time it was like he was waiting with me at the falls until you came."

"So it felt safe."

Dale nodded slowly. As a matter of fact, while Dale was well aware how stupid the thought was, it had felt almost protective.

Yeah right. Why would David give a damn about you?

Flynn yanked his stirrups down into place.  

"When you were seeing the office scenes, how did they feel?"

Dale was already ahead of him, fastening Hammer's girth. "Yes, it was different. I was bothered, I knew something was wrong, but-"

"Think about it." Flynn gave him a brief look over Nekkid's back. "We dream in symbols. What were you telling yourself through those office dreams?"


"That I needed to do something urgent." Dale said bleakly. "I knew there was danger but I couldn't make anything happen to stop it. I suppose that I knew the breakdown was serious and I had to get out."

"Ok." Flynn pulled himself up into the saddle and waited for Dale to mount up. "So what could you be using an image of David to tell yourself?"


Dale looked at him. Flynn didn't say any more, just leaned down to close the corral gate behind them, latching it securely, and they headed south, down into the home pastures, Shane running ahead of them.

What could you be using an image of David to tell yourself? It was a rhetorical question, Flynn was demanding no answers, just riding calmly alongside him and leaving him alone to think. Who else understood like this or knew how to have conversations like this? Dale swallowed on a wave of emotions he really didn't want to think about and concentrated instead on Hammer, saying nothing until they were in sight of the river. Some of the sheep grazed down this far on the west banks, moving down into the woods, and the sight of them reminded Dale of something Jasper had said, which was very definitely not related to Flynn or to being insane.

"What's a cast sheep?"

 Flynn glanced back, riding one handed and keeping Nekkid at a very brisk trot.

"A ewe on her back that can't get up. They get heavy with lambing fat, even worse when they're in lamb. I bred up our stock to be hardy, but we breed for weight and wool too and that makes them higher maintenance for shepherding."

"And they sell for meat and for wool?"


"More for meat here, although we do a wool clip once a year." Flynn led the way down onto the river bank. "Where I came from, we grew sheep for meat and wool equally, both incomes. We had Corries. Corriedale breed. When we started up this flock I built up a stock of Corries and then we cross bred them with Romneys, another hardy breed, and that's the main body of our stock now. Bit different to the local breeds around here, but the rougher breeds do well on this kind of land."

"What kind of land did you farm on at home?" Dale asked lightly, not sure if it was safe to ask, but Flynn grunted, apparently unconcerned by the question.  


"Ever been to Otago? South island. The bit of it that our run stood on is all foothills under the mountains.  Looks a hell of a lot like this. I left home burning to get away from miles of grass and rock and sheep stood arses to the wind, and where did I end up?"

In spite of his mood, Dale couldn't help a smile at Flynn's tone.

"That bad?"

Flynn grimaced. "Worse. I came out here at the end of my first semester because I couldn't earn enough to pay college bills and rent rooms through the breaks. One of the deans was an acquaintance of Philip's, knew my background and knew Philip was looking for someone who knew something about sheep, and Philip offered me free bed and board every vacation I wanted it in return for working here as a ranch hand and advising him on establishing a sheep flock."

"You must have been livid." Dale said dryly. Flynn gave him one of his brief grins that lit his eyes and for a moment showed a good deal of humour.


"Spitting. Once I got here and realised it even looked like home I nearly got right back on the plane. It was like a curse. Go half way round the world to escape and I still ended up at the back of beyond, out in all weathers, farming bloody sheep. Philip knew he had me cornered because it was work I could do, been doing it all my life, and I was broke with nowhere else to go. I was lousy at bussing tables and it didn't pay nearly enough."


The thought of Flynn waiting tables was – possibly scarier more than it was interesting. Shane suddenly darted towards the river bank and Dale looked to see what had caught his attention, then turned Hammer to follow.

"Sheep down."  


Flynn cantered ahead of him and Dale dismounted on the river bank where one of the large, shaggy ranch sheep was lying half in and half out of the water. For a horrible moment Dale thought it was dead, then Shane nosed at it, the creature turned its head and gave them a look of hopeless despair, and Dale realised it was simply exhausted.

"Straggler." Flynn said shortly, digging a pair of odd bladed clippers out of his saddle bag and climbing down the bank. "Long fleece. Occasionally one'll grow unusually long like this and get water logged when they try to cross."

Dale crouched, ready to help, but Flynn grabbed the animal by the head in a powerful and surprisingly gentle grip, hauled it bodily up the bank and rolled it onto its back, propping its head and upper back against his knees and rapidly starting to run the shears down the animal's shoulders. The sheer strength and the competency of his hands was staggering to watch, he did it as second nature as though he had been doing it all his life – which quite likely he had as a boy and a teenager in the shearing pens on his family's sheep station. Dale found himself fascinated, and not by the shearing. This was an educated, skilled man; a deeply unusual man. The sheer breadth of who Flynn was took Dale's breath away. It took Flynn barely two minutes; the fleece fell away in huge lumps, and the sheep seemed surprisingly chilled out about the whole business, letting Flynn roll it around with a benign expression and without struggling. It lurched to its feet when Flynn let it go, and Flynn pocketed the shears. Shane walked around it, and the sheep began to trot ahead of the dog up the bank.


"Have to get it under shelter for a few hours or it'll freeze, especially while it's wet." Flynn said, mounting up. "There's a lean-to down in the woods."

Shane responded to his whistle and ran the sheep ahead of them down the river bank. Beyond the falls the river widened and became thickly littered with rocks rising up out of the water. Flynn led them on along the bank a way, and then drew Nekkid in, watching Shane chivvy the sheep without hesitation down the bank to a shallow spot of the water.


"This is called the Crossing." he said to Dale, nodding at the stretch ahead of them. "See the path on the pasture?"

Dale shaded his eyes, looking where Flynn indicated. The grass grew thickly, nothing but pasture spreading out ahead and around them towards the foothills in the west where Bandit and the brood mares roamed – but approaching the river, the grass grew thinly in what looked like a long, straight road, marked at intervals by bare rock showing beneath the turf. As the horses stepped out into the shallow water, Dale looked down and saw they were walking on a wide shelf of rock with deeper water beyond, and beneath the deeper water-

Flynn paused as Dale reined Hammer in to look.

"It's a wagon. At least one, probably more. This was one of the old wagon trails. Seven or eight miles through the woods is the town of Three Traders, that was a trading post. Shoshone trading with the wagon trains. Until the railroad came through here, and then it became a railroad town."

"There's a town that close?" Dale asked, surprised. "I thought Jasper went miles to buy food and vet supplies?"


"He does, Three Traders has been abandoned since the sixties, since that stretch of railroad was abandoned. There's nothing up there, but the marks of the trail are still around on our land."

"So Riley was serious about train wreck ghosts?" Dale started Hammer moving again up the opposite bank and after Flynn into a trail through the woods, ducking under the lower branches.

"Kind of." Flynn said bluntly. "There are a few graves around in the woods. Probably wagoners. Jasper thinks there's a Shoshone burial site right over on the south west of the ranch, although there isn't much to see. It's very old land."   

Shane ran the sheep down a grassed bank between the trees and Flynn swung down from Nekkid, following Shane. A long, low shelter was built in the lee of the bank, wind proofed, and the sheep disappeared inside. From the scuffle of sounds within, it was not the only sheep in residence. The day was continuing to warm and Flynn did nothing further, just whistled to Shane and came back to mount up.

"We'll go on down through the woods and come back up the river. There doesn’t seem to be too much to worry about down here, looks like the north got the worst of the gale."

They were riding the horses up a steep bank still thick with last autumn's yellow leaves, when Flynn paused and pointed Dale's attention down at the hollow below them. It took a minute for Dale to see what the object was that he was pointing out between the dark tree trunks. Then as he recognised the shape, he realised. The carriage was still upright, stood on iron wheels, rusted, square, with the steps clearly visible at the back. The engine, coupled to it, had tipped over on its side and was impaled in the soft bank. No paint or iron remained to be seen. Grass and moss covered the fat bellied shape and only the odd bulge in the earth was left to say what it had once been.

"That was the wreck." Flynn said, nudging Nekkid to carry on. "The railway ran some way further up along the top of the bank here, almost a mile away, but the ground was too soft and the rails moved out of place. The train derailed and ran downhill until it fell off the shelf here and buried itself in the woods. Either it couldn't be moved or they decided it wasn't worth the effort of getting it out again, but Philip always said the story was no one was on the train when it derailed but the driver, and he jumped clear before it fell."


"So no ghosts." Dale said more or less to himself as they emerged from the dappled woodland into the bright light of the south east pastures where sheep grazed ahead of them peacefully on the green expanses.

"Flynn? What made you decide to stay here? You came here hating it and you didn't want to stay – what made the difference?"  

Flynn shaded his eyes to look across the pastures over the sheep, watching for glimpses of any down, any too still, any struggling.

"Philip. I didn't hate it, and Philip knew I didn't. Him being here made all the difference in the world."

And we know just how that feels, don't we Aden? A dry voice said at the back of Dale's mind.

Shut up. Dale thought back fiercely, and followed Flynn down towards the shining blue ribbon of the river in the distance.




They followed the river to the mid north sections by the tops where they found Riley and Jasper, stripped to the waist and hauling out fallen branches from the water, and the rest of the morning was spent working together on clearing stretch after stretch as they moved further north. By mid day they were all soaked to the skin, and Dale paused to stretch his cramping back, grateful for the steady warmth of the sun overhead. He and Flynn had also stripped down to avoid getting clothes any wetter than they had to and Flynn was nearly hip deep in the river, hauling at a fallen tree with Jasper. Flynn was solider than Jasper; broader at shoulders and chest where Jasper was long and joints punctuated the leanness. His skin was darker than Flynn's, and Dale could see his heritage, the length and straightness of bone, the power at the shoulders and hips like a cat, where Flynn's was in his chest and limbs. They worked in perfect co ordination without looking at each other, and without needing to count to synchronize their pulls at the tree. Riley sat down on the bank to drink from his water bottle, pushing wet hair back out of his face.

"You realise as wet as this, it makes no odds if I swim?"

"If you want to swim," Jasper said serenely, nodding down river, "You go swim. No one's stopping you."

"That's no fun, you're all watching." Riley grinned at him and tossed the water bottle across to Dale. Dale tucked it under one arm and caught the tree as it came into his reach, helping to haul it up the bank and out of the way before he collapsed down onto the grass, unscrewed the water bottle top and drank deeply from it. Flynn dropped down on the grass beside him and lay on his back, looking up at the sky. Jasper climbed up the bank and eased himself down on Dale's other side, taking the water bottle as Dale passed it to him.


"I think we're done."

"Yeah, just the stables and the yard work to do." Riley said, stretching out on the ground. "I ache all over. What time is it?"


Dale felt for his watch in his abandoned pile of clothes. "Nearly one."

"How bad are you aching with that damaged arm?" Jasper asked Flynn, who shrugged, working his shoulders a little.

"Not bad at all. I always do better to work it out than sit around stiffening up."

"I brought lunch if anyone wants it?" Paul's voice called through the trees.

"I love that man!" Flynn yelled back.

Riley got to his feet and went to meet him and a moment later Paul and Riley, both loaded with saddle bags, came through to the bank and Paul crouched on the grass to unpack, looking around the four of them.

"Are you all as cold as you look? The foals were fine. I think Bandit took the herd up to shelter in the rock pass through the night, they were all of them dusty and rolling in the grass this morning when I caught up with them. Hot tea –"

"Sweet." Flynn caught the thermos Paul threw to him and began to unscrew it.

"Sugar," Paul tossed another packet to Jasper and Riley promptly went to sit with him, taking the other saddle bag with him. "Flynn: painkillers and anti inflammatories, take them and shut up. Dale, open those honey. You look frozen."


Dale took the box he was passed and unwrapped it, finding triangular pasties still warm inside.

"You've been baking!" Riley said falling on the large, dark cookies Jasper was unpacking. "When did you have time?"

"I had an hour at home before I headed out here." Paul said comfortably. "Gerry and Ash not only got the yard cleaned up, they did the stables and the corral, feed bins and water. They left a note. Emmett turned up and they've gone fishing, so we have the afternoon to ourselves."

"There's the barn up on the tops-" Flynn began and ducked as Riley flicked cookie at him.

"No, we're not
starting that today, it'll take days."

"These are Cornish pasties." Dale said in surprise through a mouthful of warm pasty. Paul smiled at him, unscrewing another thermos and digging for cups.

"I'd forgotten how I used to make them for David. It's actually nice to remember something else to cook with lamb, we have a freezer full of it. Riley get those wet jeans off, you're shivering. Dale, you too."  
 
In the end they all four of them stripped to the skin, and they ate lying on the bank, drying out and warming up in the sun. Jasper watched Flynn shift his shoulders uncomfortably for a moment, then eased past Paul, patting Flynn's hip.


"Turn over."

Flynn moved without protest, stretching out on the grass, and Jasper knelt astride his hips, sinking his long fingers into Flynn's neck and shoulders, working them with care over the bruises.  It was like a living picture from some Greek temple, the running water and the grass and the two men entangled together, Jasper's long, lean body braced over Flynn's more powerful one, his eyes and attention completely on Flynn below him as he moved. Riley had sprawled on his back, skin pale against the green of the grass, and had his eyes closed. Paul set his back against a tree trunk, pulled a book from his pocket and picked at a piece of grass to chew, glancing up as Dale, with the early warning signs of a very uncomfortably physical response to the scene before him, slid discreetly down the bank to the river.

"Watch the currents, they're stronger than they look."

The water was fast, but it was also blessedly cold. This testosterone lark was far more trouble than it was worth.



What could you be using an image of David to tell yourself?

Well that didn't take ridiculous amounts of brain power.

While Flynn and Riley bickered amicably over the shower upstairs, and Jasper took the one downstairs, Dale escaped dry and dressed and found himself in the family room, alone, with nothing there but the steady tick of the clock and the cool familiarity of the brown leather chairs and the rock and wood of the house. He'd always liked this room. It was comfortable without being cluttered and it had an innate masculinity to the décor. Unfussy, muted, a retreat. He dropped into one of the armchairs and realised a moment later how comfortably he was sprawled, and that to drop down like this had become second nature, done without thinking, like the daily pulling on of riding boots and jeans.

What could you be using an image of David to tell yourself?

Flynn had an amazing knack of snatching fear away from you before you'd even realised what it was that he was doing. Phrased like that, the answers were easy to find. An outward personification of what his instincts had already gathered – that a cougar was approaching. That Flynn had been coming towards the falls. Or much, much more simply…

That you belong. David would be the ultimate permission to think of yourself as being part of this, the lifestyle and the ranch. Permission to feel at home here.

Dale almost flushed at the presumption of it.

Yeah, like they'd want some obsessed number cruncher with bad nerves who has no idea at all what a proper brat looks like, never mind does?

"Hey." Ash's voice said from the kitchen doorway. He was in jeans and socks, a sweat stained shirt balled up in his hands. Dale got up at once, uncomfortable but managing a smile.

"Hey. Everyone's showering."

"Gerry's putting horses away." Ash returned the smile, holding up the shirt. "This is beyond in need of washing, I wondered if I could stick it through the laundry?"

"I can do that." Grateful for an excuse to do rather than talk, Dale headed into the kitchen ahead of him, into the small laundry room that opened off the side of the kitchen. The presence of an 'experienced' couple around the house threw him: Flynn, Paul, Jasper and Riley understood about his own inexperience and he knew they were uncritical. A 'real' Top around, who lived the lifestyle, got the concepts, and probably saw straight through him, was a little more than Dale felt able to handle. He'd been avoiding Ash still more than he avoided Gerry, who's perceptive eyes were just as nerve wracking. 


Ash followed, watching him set the machine.

"Thank you. It looks like we're going to be here a few days, Gerry's very keen to stay, and I hate letting clothes that messed up sit around."

"You're welcome." Dale would have headed back to the sanctuary of the family room but for Ash's indication towards a suitcase in the kitchen with several familiar papers balanced on top.


"I dug that out of the car on my way in, and I found a few Wall Street Journals if you wanted to look before I throw them out? No one else appreciates them, I don't think anyone even listens to the news headlines out here."

The journals had been one of the many office rituals that for years Dale had been used to reeling away. Ash was already handing them to him and Dale took them, turning them over in his hands.

"Thanks."

"You must be news deprived out here. Do they even use a computer?" Ash said cheerfully. Dale nodded briefly.

"Once in a while. Not often."

Ash grinned. "Not exactly keeping a finger on the pulse of the world. I don't get it, but Gerry does. He loves being cut off from everything, and he always seemed perfectly happy like that when he lived out here."


"Long live the blackberry." Dale said dryly, and Ash laughed.

"I haven't fallen victim to that yet, I suppose it'll come. What do you find most useful?"

"Well the 8700 is about the best I've had my hands on so far." Dale dug his hands in his pockets, shrugging a little. "Depends on what you want it for."


"As an electronic leash, obviously." Ash said wryly. "But it is useful to not be so desk based, I think that's an area I'm going to need to build on in the next year or two."

"I'm peripatetic most of the time, and I get by with the Bluetooth tech, a decent fax machine and a really good PA, but the PA isn't replaceable. Technology just doesn't have the organisational skills or initiative." Dale led the way into the kitchen where Ash leaned on the table.


"Do you employ your own or go with whoever you're allocated?"

"Company paid but from my interview and on my time." Dale said dryly. "She's based in one office unless it's a serious priority project and I can't do without her, but the technology is there for communication, and distance isn't much of an issue to effective working. The time zones can be a problem sometimes, but she's very flexible."

"I think this is where I'm going wrong," Ash admitted. "Not prioritising or paying for the right person to come do the job. I've gone through a series of temps and secretaries, but that's not the same as a high skilled permanent post."

"False economy." Dale said simply. "The number of projects I've gone into where the top layer of personnel are right but there's no second layer holding them up, and what you get is a bunch of highly trained, highly paid people wasting their time doing a lousy job on administration work to save costs on wages… The outlay is the fore runner to expansion. Get the administrators right and the top layer personnel are freed up to do what they're good at."

"When you're looking at expansion," Ash began, and paused as Paul came into the kitchen, heading towards the fridge which he opened without a glance back at them.

"Expansion…. What do you need to know before you decide it's good to go? How do you make that call?"

"It's a high stack game," Dale said crisply. "There's no way around it. You have to be sure that the market's out there to be taken, expansion revision analysis and all the rest of it, but equally the investments have to be in place. I've seen whole syndicates come down like a house of cards because they worried too much about keeping hold of profit margins they were already sure of, and another more flexible corporate swept in and stole the new market and the old markets too."

"It's so bloody hard to quantify." Ash said with feeling. "I mean I can go crazy on the variables and I have been doing - the brand-value, employment generation, forward and backward integration – it's endless. It still comes down to one strategic decision and hoping to God you've kept enough of an eye on market and competitors."

"And the future of the firm." Dale said simply. "That gets overlooked time and time again. It isn't about analysis of intangibles- it's never a pure mathematical gamble. It has to be a chess move. Your correlation matrix, the optimising algorithms, it still all goes to hell in a hand cart unless you've got a very clear read on the psycho-social aspects of the management, especially if you're looking at mergers or any kind of multi cultural co operation. That's the real difference in risk. I'll take a risk on paper any time if I know the management team are strong and have a real grip on the firm's strengths, weaknesses and exactly what the nature of the firm is."

"But when you're explaining this to an investor," Ash moved out of Paul's way as Paul put down the makings of dinner on the table and began to lay out vegetables. Dale shook his head.


"No. You can quantify an investor by wealth, that's the principle aim of investing. The units of a firm are more interrelated than the assets of an investor and their objectives are not just based on wealth creation. Not if they're any good."

"I didn't understand one word of that." Paul said calmly, peeling onions. "Dale, there's a sack of potatoes in the cold store by the garage, bring me enough for seven of us?"

"Sure." Dale jogged down the steps of the porch and Ash gave Paul a slightly apologetic smile.


"Sorry, I really couldn't resist. Dale Aden – how often do you get the chance to get his advice for a small business?"

Paul smiled, chopping vegetables. "You talk as though he's some kind of walking guru, and I look and I see Dale."

"You've got no
concept of the kind of knowledge he's got." Ash said with heartfelt sincerity. "Imagine if as a writer you met up with Dan Brown or John Grisham over the dinner table? The contemporary best in the field?"

"I probably wouldn't be able to keep shtum, no." Paul admitted. "But we are trying to give Dale a break from work."

"I didn't realise." Ash said penitently. "You don't usually try and keep your clients off the subject."

"Most of them are work obsessed, and it isn't easy, but Dale's a bit different." Paul dug in the cupboard for a huge stock pot which he planted on the top of the stove. "I know Gerry eats dumplings. Do you?"


"I'm easy to feed." Ash said cheerfully. "I'll go and see if a shower's free."

"We'll eat in about an hour." Paul called after him. He heard Dale come up the steps two at a time and heard the thud of potatoes on the table behind him, as brisk as the voice. 

"What do you want doing with these?"


"Stick them in the sink and rinse them for me?" Paul asked, coming back to the table to chop vegetables. Dale dropped the potatoes in the sink and ran the tap over them, whistling softly to himself. The change was subtle but it was all consuming. Even his body language was different. Watching him, Paul could see both the confidence, the weight he took more squarely on both feet, the head and shoulders lifted and back where usually Dale stooped slightly, and the tension in his neck and hands, one of which was tapping rapidly on the draining board as he turned the potatoes. Whatever he was thinking about, it was very apparent to Paul that he wasn't finding it pleasant.

"Did you mind Ash picking your brains?" he asked lightly. Dale glanced back and grinned, a quick and easy smile that Paul saw with a mildly horrified fascination. It wasn't Dale's and it went nowhere near his eyes.

"I've never minded any interest from a small business with someone talented at the head. 'Big' isn't 'good'. What does Ash do?"

"Some kind of alarm security system." Paul watched Dale drop potatoes into the colander waiting for them with speed and a deftness that would have served a tennis championship, and grab a cloth to wipe the counter down.

And in the final event for potato rinsing, going for the gold medal, it's Dale Aden-


Paul laid the vegetable knife down, watching him toss up and catch the last potato before he dropped it into the basin. He never showed this kind of carelessness or vivacity around the house with them, it was completely alien.

"There's dust tracked all over the floor, I saw Gerry forget to-"

"I'll do it." Dale said cheerfully, heading for the closet where the mop and bucket lived.


And he's coming up the first straight, it's Aden in the lead and surely no one can pass him now-

Paul got up and put his hands gently on Dale's shoulders.

"Honey."

Dale looked at him, surprised. Paul took the mop out of his hands.

"Calm down. It's ok."

He could see the expression on Dale's face: not the one he expected which was Dale's usual I don't understand and it worries me
look, but the detached one he remembered from Dale's first few days here which went with a sardonic and slightly amused eyebrow and said you Yanks are crazy.

Flynn came in to the kitchen, still tucking the tail of a clean shirt into his jeans and deeply thankful, Paul caught his eye. He saw Flynn clock the look and glanced immediately at Dale, although his expression didn't change.

"Need any help with dinner?"

"Setting the table would be good." Paul said just as evenly, turning his attention to the tracks on the floor and trusting to Flynn to read this right. He saw Flynn come around the table towards the cupboard where the plates lived, and without comment put an arm around Dale's shoulders, pull him over and give him the kind of absent hug he frequently bestowed on Riley in passing. And he saw Dale come unravelled like a bow given one firm tug on a trailing end.



There was a kind of energy that radiated off Dale when he was really stressed, and there was always much more evidence of it in his body than his face. Even without Paul's eyes which grabbed Flynn's and said loud and clear this is not good, Flynn wouldn't have missed the signs. Hands tense, shoulders and neck tense, a quick smile that bore no relation at all to Dale's real smile once you'd seen it, and when you watched him, he had several tricks with his fingers and hands that were subtle but repetitive. He was drumming a discreet but complex rhythm on the table now where his fingertips rested, and Flynn had no doubt at all if he got hold of Dale to check, he would find his heart rate up and his breathing fractionally shallower. People would have looked at him like this in the office, day after day, and marvelled at the boundless energy, the restlessness, the obsessiveness that came as part and parcel of it, and accepted that this was just Dale Aden.

He didn't appear aware of it which was unsurprising – this to him was a natural state, he'd practiced it for years - and Flynn didn't say anything to him. Just deliberately and gently wrapped an arm around him in passing. That was all it took, as he had thought it would. The body contact, an affectionate touch, slipped under his shields and grabbed him at far more profound levels than any amount of words would have. Flynn felt Dale stiffen with shock against him, and then look sharply down at his own tapping hand as he realised what he was doing. Flynn tightened his arm around Dale's shoulders and walked, pushing Dale ahead of him, through the kitchen door and onto the porch.

He sat down on the swing outside and had to manhandle Dale down beside him, keeping his voice calm and matter of fact.

"It's all right. Breathe."

The body sensations alone would be distressing as he became aware of them: Flynn could feel him wrestling with the flood of adrenaline, the chemical reactions swift and well trained in a body long used to running high levels of cortisol. Dale had thought of that state as being normal for so long: to experience it now, fresh, knowing what more normal body chemistry felt like, must be a shock. He probably hadn't realised how strong the difference was. Flynn didn't rush him, rocking the swing slowly with his feet against the boards of the porch. It was some time before he felt Dale's shoulders lift under his arm, the first deeper breath drawn in again.

"Ash." Dale said eventually. "I was talking to Ash, and….."

He had no idea how to explain it. Flynn's hand patted where it rested.

"Don't think, just say it out loud. It doesn't have to make sense."


He'd said that so many times, making it a litany of reassurance.

"I was talking to Ash and he scares the hell out of me anyway," Dale said thickly. "And I'm two bloody people. I've known that a few times, I just didn't realise how strong it was. I am nuts. Split personality or whatever you call it, it's a complete change of state!"

"Ok, and how long have you been chewing on that one?" Flynn said dryly, tightening his arm. "Stop that, you're not going anywhere."


Dale didn't say anything else but he stopped trying to get to his feet. Flynn waited, keeping hold of him.

"I don't know how long." Dale said eventually. "A while. You know if you saw me in the office in New York you wouldn't know me? Put me at a desk and –"

"You can do anything?" Flynn said when he didn't finish.


"I'm competent." Dale said grimly. "I know what I'm doing, I can cope with pretty much anything."

"Why?" Flynn interrupted. Dale shut his eyes and this time Flynn let him go when he pulled, watching him lean forward to bury his head in his hands.


"Because I obsess and self medicate and yes, I know."

The despair in his voice was painful. Flynn put a hand on his back, rubbing lightly and watching him.


"Dale, you do not have split personalities or any other personality disorder. You tell me what happened."

"I don't know."

"Then figure it out." Flynn said ruthlessly. "Think. You're quite smart enough to do it."


Dale took a sharp breath of frustration, hands still dug deep into his hair.

"Bastard."

Flynn didn't argue, accepting it as a fair comment. Dale stared at the ground for a moment more, then let his hands drop, head still down.


"Ash asked me for some advice on expansion. Which is bread and butter stuff, I can have those kind of conversations in my sleep. And I churned out all the lingo and – snap."

"Snap what?"


"I just fitted back into that personality again like I'd never been gone." Dale admitted.
"I didn't even realise-"

Flynn shook his head. "No. Way too simplistic, try again."

Dale glared at him. Flynn continued to rub slow circles over his back, pushing at the tension there.

"Ash makes you very anxious. He asked you for a routine piece of advice, which you gave from a very familiar script. Your body knows the script that goes with it."

"Habit?" Dale demanded. Flynn nodded.

"Habit. Posture, manner, tension, you turned on the work habit and your body just did what it's used to doing. You didn't do anything wrong."

"The whole work habit thing is totally wrong!" Dale objected. Flynn grasped his shoulder before he could stand up.


"No, it isn't. There's nothing wrong with your work or how you do it. What is wrong?"

"I don't know." Dale muttered. Flynn shook his head.

"Yes. You do."

Dale finally twisted out from under his hand and flung himself to his feet, heading down the steps towards the yard.


"Ok, I'm a nervous bloody wreck who's faked it for ten years and finally got caught out –"

Flynn was already after him and heard his voice fracture. In Riley, this kind of storm away would have been temper, easily done, based in impulse and easily regretted. In Dale, it was the very end of his tether. He captured Dale in the yard and turned him around gently but forcibly, knowing Dale was crying and knowing he was doing everything he could to swallow it down and contain himself. Dale wouldn't look at him but he couldn't break Flynn's grasp on his arms either. 


"That isn't true at all. Not one word of it." Flynn said gently. "If you can't see your courage in coming here and facing up to all of this, if you can't see the strength that got you where you are in the corporation and here, then I can, and I can see exactly why you're as admired as you are. None of it happened by chance or accident, it happened because you made it happen. What did you fake?"

Dale took several hard breaths and Flynn could feel him forcing himself under control.

"What did you fake?" he demanded again, and this time Dale swallowed, very white in the face.

"Being any kind of real person."

Ash, Flynn thought wryly. Businessman and Top and perfectly happy in both roles, leading a happily normal life with a happily normal brat. He had been aware of Dale's wariness of Ash and Gerry, something between fascination and anxiety like a kid expecting to be caught out in a lie, as if he expected them to demand proof that he belonged to this household and this lifestyle. Everyone else was going to be gathering in the kitchen shortly for dinner and Dale did not respond well at all to an audience. Flynn cupped Dale's head in his hands, pulled him over and kissed his forehead firmly.

"Bull. Go sit in the study, I'm going to excuse us both from dinner. Use the outside door."

He didn't wait to see if he was obeyed, heading up the steps into the kitchen. Paul met him there, looking anxious.

"I just saw him burst up off the swing – is he ok?"

"Yes, this is another layer we were going to hit sooner or later." Flynn said calmly, going to switch the kettle on. "Don't worry about dinner for us, he isn't going to want to face anyone and we need to talk this through."


He was aware of Paul searching him to see if he was worried, then relax slightly, reassured.

"I'll plate something up in case you're hungry later."

"Thanks." Pouring tea, Flynn paused as another thought occurred to him. "Paul? Feel like having a chat with Ash and seeing if you can persuade him and Gerry to stick around a little longer? I think there's a lot Ash could do to help if he's willing."




*



Heavy eyed, miserable, Dale let himself into the study via the outside door and closed it behind him, shutting himself in the stone walled room lined with books and heavy with the scent of leather from the couches and the green leather topped desk. The admiral's chair stood behind it, in front of the polished crystal ink wells that couldn't have been used in fifty years. Left alone it was still harder to control himself. Dale stood for a moment in the middle of the room, hands steepled in front of his face, fingers pressing sharply against the bridge of his nose. It took several minutes before he was breathing evenly and his eyes were dry.

You're pathetic, Aden.

Thank God there were no mirrors in here. Folding his arms tightly, Dale glanced down the line of the leather backed books on their shelves. Philip's books. And the thought of Philip was a less than pleasant one right now. Philip had also been a businessman, and probably would have been revolted by the scene out on the porch. And by business men who after months here still couldn't control themselves and get the idea of what they were supposed to be learning.

Flynn is wasting his damn time. I am never going to get this!

Eyes stinging again, Dale moved on, concentrating on the books. The horse behaviour tomes, the ones that Flynn had described, were lined up above the stone hearth, amongst almanacs and encyclopaedias and works of Scott. And a group of large, ancient and leather bound atlases, well thumbed. Possibly David's: it was hard to know what about them would have interested Philip. The desk was dust free and the green leather was immaculate. Dale brushed a finger over it, looking down at the empty ink wells.

A silver and black fountain pen and a man sitting at this desk, working...

Flynn had two mugs of tea in one hand, shut the door behind him with one elbow, and he sat on the couch, holding one out to Dale.

"Here. Sit down."

Calmly said, as though normal people flipped out like this all the time. Dale took the mug, fighting his self control into place with an effort.


"I'm sorry. I don't know why I freaked out like that-"


"Why are you sorry?" Flynn interrupted, waiting for him to sit down on the couch. Dale sighed and gulped at strong, boiling hot tea. Flynn made it strong enough to stand a spoon up in, powerfully flavoured and comforting.

"It isn't exactly – helpful."

"Which means what?" Flynn leaned both elbows on his knees with the purposeful expression to his face that Dale knew well. "Dale, don't tell me just enough to shut me up. You're not in this on your own. It's pretty plain from what you just told me that you're sitting on whatever you're worrying about until you can't control it any more before you'll tell me about it, and that's not acceptable."


In spite of everything Dale almost smiled. No point in explaining about privacy or the Geneva convention or social convention: Flynn didn't care. Here only his law counted, bluntly unreasonable and unceasingly kind, and it was a better place to be than anywhere else Dale had ever found. He had no idea why, but that kind of direct demand made it so much easier to sit down and let go: it always did. He perched gingerly on the far arm of the couch, still cradling his tea, trying to order his thoughts.

"I'm not keeping back anything – nothing more than anyone does, just stupid thoughts and – that kind of thing."

"Like what?" Flynn said bluntly. "Because I can see you chewing on yourself."

Dale took another breath, feeling his face getting hot with embarrassment.

"I don't know. That after all this time I've made no damn progress and I've screwed this up too. It's one step forward and two steps back. That I'm pulling up all this rubbish about David, and he and Philip would have laughed themselves silly about me-"

The mug was taken out of his hand and plonked down on the table and Flynn yanked him off the arm of the couch and down onto the seat to face him in one clean pull.


"Do you belong here?"

Dale stared at him, knowing exactly what he was supposed to say and knowing he couldn't say it with any kind of conviction.

"Do you belong here?" Flynn demanded still more curtly.

"No." Dale admitted. "How can I? I'm too old, I don't get this, I do it wrong anyway-"

"Who told you that?"


It wasn't easy to look at Flynn's eyes when they were this grim. Dale found himself searching very rapidly through a lot of internal reasoning that had sounded very logical and convincing inside his head and jettisoning an awful lot of it, fast, before Flynn got hold of it.

"……. No one, but when I look at someone like Gerry or Ash-"


"What you're telling me," Flynn interrupted, "Is that you don't feel as if you're getting things right to your standards of achievement, and therefore you're failing, and Dale Aden doesn't do failure. So far this evening you've told me you feel like you've failed at making progress here; you feel like you've failed at being young enough and perfect enough to qualify as a brat; you feel like you've failed in being sufficiently convincing to Ash; you feel like you're unworthy of the standards you see Philip and David as holding; and I think you're also apologising to me because you feel you've failed us too in properly implementing the advice we're giving you."

Ouch.


Dale blinked, stunned and very guilty.

"What have I missed?" Flynn asked grimly. "Does that about cover it?"

Well most of it?

Dale winced, knowing Flynn well enough to be fully aware he was standing in the middle of a verbal minefield.

"I never do get one bloody thing right!"

"No, you don't mind about what you get right, you barely notice. You mind bitterly about anything you don't feel is right to your standards. Do you know what a tantrum is?"

Dale looked at him blankly, bewildered, with no idea what that had to do with anything.

"……no?"

"It's an uncontrolled outburst of temper, usually when things don't go how the person wanted them to." Flynn said grimly, not at all surprised and reflecting that Dale needed to be around when Gerry next demonstrated this phenomenon, since he did it well. "Unacceptable behaviour. Adults often shout or threaten, some throw things or knock things over, I'm sure you've seen a few."

Yes, several managing directors came to mind. Dale continued to watch him, wondering where this was going.


"You'd never consider shouting or throwing anything, or do anything to attack another person," Flynn went on just as grimly, "But you attack yourself, brutally, to the point of meltdown when you feel you aren't doing things as perfectly as you want. Destructive, aggressive behaviour. That's still a tantrum, it's just a very discreet one. It isn't behaviour I'll tolerate."

He said nothing else, simply pulled Dale to his feet and around to his right side, unbuttoning Dale's jeans. Dale looked stupidly down at Flynn's hands, very shocked as Flynn tugged his jeans and underwear straight down to his ankles without ceremony and turned him over his lap with hands too strong and too experienced to argue with, even if Dale had had the presence of mind to try. Stupidly, with no idea how this had happened, Dale braced his toes against the floor, propping himself on his elbows on the couch as he felt his t shirt pushed up his back under the weight and warmth of Flynn's palm, and then a very sound swat fell across one bare cheek and Dale gripped the couch quickly, ducking his head and shutting his eyes tightly, trying not to yelp or squirm. The resolve didn't last very long. Swift and stinging, Flynn's palm slapped down again and again, covering every single inch of skin and it seemed to go on forever. Dale had no idea how long it was before he was twisting over Flynn's lap, his blazing backside involuntarily trying to get itself out of the way, but Flynn took no notice whatsoever. One hand on Dale's hip anchored him where he was. It hurt: there was absolutely no question of that, Dale was aware of himself trying to catch his breath in growing desperation as the fire grew and grew from hips down to the tops of his thighs, but it was a good deal more than just sensation. It was Flynn's disapproval; it was the matter of fact way he had acted; it was the always extremely impressive act of being so simply stripped, laid across his lap and spanked; that was what really went deep.


And the very worst of it was that at the heart of everything, Dale understood profoundly and acutely why. No amount of conversation or reasoning or reproach would have made him admit to himself so clearly that he knew exactly what Flynn meant and exactly why Flynn did this, nor made him so very aware of his own actions. It was not pain but emotion that overwhelmed him very soon after Flynn began, and it was emotion that very quickly burst its banks beyond Dale's control.

His shoulders were shaking hard and he was making the extremely choked sounds that was as near as Dale got to sobbing when Flynn delivered the final few and hardest swats and stopped, resting his hand across Dale's now scarlet backside, outlined between the white of his back and his thighs.

"Are we clear that this is not a form of behaviour that's going to be tolerated?" Flynn said bluntly above him. Getting the breath to answer was a major issue, but it was fairly clear no one was going to get to move until Flynn had one he was satisfied with. Dale struggled a few times for coherency, swallowing hard.

"Yes sir."

"Come here."

It was growled, just as much of a command, and Dale obeyed it blindly, barely aware of the strong hands that helped him upright but burying himself in Flynn's arms. Flynn hugged him so tightly that breathing was difficult for a minute, but the tightness gave more of a sensation of safety and contact than anything else could have done.

"If you are chewing on anything, what do you do?" Flynn demanded in his ear. Dale shut his eyes, letting the tension in his neck go so that his head pressed heavily into Flynn's shoulder, as if Flynn could really take this from him.

"Talk to you."

"Yes. Which you did, yesterday, when you told me about seeing David, and don't for one minute think that this cancels out that success."


Ha, Dale heard his mind say automatically. From Flynn's tone he'd heard it just as clearly as if Dale had said it.

"So what's this about? And I don't mean the percentage failures of everything you don't feel you're doing satisfactorily, I mean what's this about? You said you didn't feel like a real person. What does that mean?"

"It was what I saw with Ash." Dale said as offhandedly as was at all possible when you were sobbing into someone's neck, your pants were at half mast and your backside felt as if it was torched. As an interrogation technique this was bloody effective. "The work stuff is all there, it's always been a surface layer and there's nothing underneath it, there never was."

"Which means what?"


Dale gritted his teeth, reflecting on several responses, and yelped, horrified, as Flynn swatted him hard where he was still bare and extremely sore.

"Don't think it, say it."

"I'm a bloody useless excuse for a human being!" Dale said sharply. "I don't get it, I never have done, all I know is how to go through the motions at work and that scares the crap out of me-"


Because I'm not going back to work.

"Because?" Flynn said shortly when he stopped. Dale swallowed, still not ready to go there.

"Because I have a five minute conversation with Ash and I fall apart."

"Mhm." Flynn put Dale on his feet and Dale yelped as Flynn dressed him as efficiently as ten minutes ago he had stripped him. Flynn got up from the couch, took Dale's hand and led him across to the desk, pulling several books down from the shelf.


"This one – and this one, and Yates, and Rothwellan. Sit down."

Very cautiously, Dale drew out the admiral's chair and took a seat at the desk, looking at the books Flynn was stacking in front of him. Flynn opened the upper desk drawer and took out a lined pad and a pen, both of which he set in front of Dale.


"You've got two hours to use those skills of yours to your benefit. I want a researched report on what a pathological perfectionist is. These books should contain a good amount of information, but you're free to use anything else in here you think might be helpful. If you need anything, you open the door and call me. Clear?"

Dale looked from the books to the pad with a growing sense of dismay. Flynn dropped a hand on his shoulder.

"Dale. Look at me. Is that clear?"

He was actually serious, his eyes confirmed it.

"Yes sir." Dale said automatically, reaching for the nearest book. Research was also bread and butter work; something he did near on autopilot and usually with a stack of reports several times the height of these four psychology volumes,  but sitting on a burning, well spanked backside had an extremely concentrating effect. Besides which, Dale had a nasty feeling about what he was going to find inside these particular books.




 An hour later he was utterly certain of it. It made extremely uncomfortable reading – although admittedly deeply enlightening reading too, that distracted his mind away from the heat and soreness of his behind. Still skimming and making notes, Dale was already committing the information automatically to mind. Unfortunately he was forced to conclude that he himself probably categorised as an neurotic internal perfectionist according to the measurement scales, albeit an adaptive one, which was slightly better,

The tap at the study door roused him and Paul opened it, carrying a plate and a mug which he put down in Dale's reach before he came to put both hands on Dale's shoulders, leaning over him to look at the open books and the paper. There was never any hesitancy in the way that Paul touched, it was as open hearted as it was affectionate and he couldn't seem to keep his hands away from anyone he liked. It was remarkably comforting this evening and Dale sat back with a sigh, letting Paul lean and read through the top page of his write up.
Pathological perfectionism is a maladaptive pattern of behaviours reflecting psychological, interpersonal, and achievement-related difficulties, including inappropriate levels of expectations and intangible goals. Categories include the external perfectionist whose expectations are based upon the environment, the social external perfectionist whose expectations are based upon others around him, and the most complex: the internal perfectionist, whose expectations relate entirely to themselves and reflect a form of complicated self regulation.
Outstanding achievements are often described by the internal perfectionist in terms of shame and imperfections rather than justified pride. Fragile self value tends to be entirely rooted in product based, uninterrupted success, and any mistake represents failure in all areas. They are more often driven to overachieve by fear of failure than by desire to achieve, and can feel undeserving of success, sometimes interpreting praise or good outcomes negatively as a spur to work still harder. The condition is often associated with difficulties with self esteem, and subjects can appear to be locked in a vicious circle of self-incrimination, depression and renewed determination to reach the impossible, each failure leading to more shame and self-loathing. They often demonstrate a rigid, moralistic set of expectations towards themselves.
Perfectionism is often seen in conjunction with depression, eating disorders, workaholicism, difficulties with personal relationships, high anxiety, and stress related physical disorders. All categories of pathologically perfectionist personalities also frequently reflect degrees of obsessive behaviour which can be severe. These are frequently attempts to control or anaesthetise against anxiety.
Perfectionist personalities tend to avoid disclosing information that they feel exposes an area of weakness, which can make successful therapy difficult.

There then followed several beautifully drawn, immaculate and extremely complex graphs and tables which Dale apparently hadn't been able to resist and which Paul couldn't make head nor tail of, but the main text said more than enough. He leaned down to give Dale a hug, aware that Dale leaned against him instead of stiffening or pulling away.

"Make sure all of that's eaten. You're nearly finished working on this aren't you?"

"I speed read." Dale said wearily, caught Paul's eye and groaned as Paul smiled.

"Yes, ok, I would, wouldn't I?"

"Eat something, or you'll have me after you as well." Paul said mildly. "You've got about another hour."

That was a hell of a long time to fill when you'd already précised every available passage in the text books, plus compared the research and measuring techniques they discussed. Dale re read the report through once more, started to re write it with the aim of producing a better quality copy – and stopped himself, swearing.

Write a report on perfectionism and then prove to the last decimal place that you are one and an irretrievable one at that! Great, Aden.

And the fact that the handwritten copy was not perfect was bugging the living daylights out of him, a lot more than he wanted to admit. Dale got up from the table and went to stand by the windows, folding his arms.

Have I always been like this? …..Yes, probably. He seemed to remember comments from adults even as a small boy about his keeping things unusually ordered and tidy. He remembered re writing prep to get a copy free from blots or crossings out, and the stress and distress if on the weekly form lists he fell from the first few places he expected.

Be honest Aden; if you weren't first. If you weren't, you felt terrible and you worried about it for days until you got the marks up again. If you were, you worried even more because then the pressure was on to stay at the top for another week. You've been telling them all along that you were nuts.

It was starting to get dim outside as the evening drew on and Dale lit the lamp on the desk which filled the room with a soft light cast mostly on the desk top. Passing by the desk again, Dale picked up the sandwich Paul had brought him and chewed absently, more from trained habit than hunger. In this house, not eating gained you someone standing over you and nagging until you did. And he had no illusions that Flynn might come in and rescue him before the two hours were up: he knew Flynn too well. Two hours meant two hours to Flynn, and if that meant he worked flat out for an hour and then sat watching the walls for an hour, Flynn would point out that it served him right. Which it probably did.

Too sore to try sitting again, Dale freed an absent hand to rub at the seat of his jeans and continued to walk, looking at the shelves of books. Another very masculine room, and this had been Philip's sanctuary. Philip's room. Which meant it was probably not unfamiliar with subdued brats imprisoned within it. Dale looked again at the desk, trying to imagine the man upstairs in the photograph sitting at the desk. It was actually quite an alarming thought. David – Dale could, very privately, hope and believe David was a friendly presence here, but Philip…. Philip would no doubt see straight through a brat not co operating or succeeding and be very much less than impressed. From the way Gerry described Philip, he had been still more impressive – and scarier – than Flynn.

And Philip had loved Flynn, been everything to Flynn, and probably would be outraged at some neurotic perfectionist having this kind of obsessive crush on him. Dale put the rest of the sandwich back on the plate, appetite gone.

What the hell am I going to do if I don't go back to the corporation? I  made that decision, I'd be mad to go back – but really, what else am I going to do? What else am I good for? Where do I go?

There was a life here, one that Dale loved and envied, but one he knew very well he was no damned good at.

The pen rolled off the desk and dropped to the carpet, and Dale absently stooped to pick it up, having to bend half way under the desk. The lamplight from the desk lit the rug and reflected up – and Dale saw the small brass key sitting on a little ledge just underneath the desk top. A tiny key, visible only when you knelt down here and looked, but in easy reach of a hand slipped underneath the desk. He put out a hand to take it down, finding it thick with dust which was unusual in this house where Paul kept everything immaculate. It took several blows to clear it and reveal the little circular handle at the top. For a moment Dale wondered what it was the key to: the drawers of the desk were kept unlocked, he knew exactly what lay in the bottom drawer and the thought alone made his backside prickle, and Flynn had opened the upper drawer to pull out paper and pen. Whatever this key had unlocked in the past, it had clearly not been employed for years. He laid it on the desk top to give to Flynn or Paul later, and was about to continue walking when he saw the biro on the desk start to roll again. Nothing had touched it, nothing had started its movement, but it rolled slowly, not towards the edge of the desk this time but away to the edge of the green leather top. Dale put out a hand to catch it, and as his fingers rested on the edge of the green leather, he saw the problem. The drawers were set low in the desk – perhaps ten inches from the top. The piece of wood that made the shining table top was thick, but not that thick. There was another drawer here. Dale felt lightly around the edge of the desk topping: that did not appear to lift out. When he knelt beside the desk and looked, there was no compartment apparent in the knee hole directly in front – but there was a tiny keyhole to the left of the knee hole, close to the table top, and Dale's fingers traced an almost imperceptible join in the wood. Apparently David had not been the only one in the house who liked secrets.

Dale took the key from the desk, slid it into the little keyhole and the key turned smoothly in the lock. Nothing slid back, but a section of wood swung slowly outwards on a well concealed hinge, revealing two shelves and a faint smell of elderly books and dust. Several folders and boxes sat on the bottom shelf and above them lay a book with heavy leather binding. On the top shelf sat a silver and black fountain pen.

Slowly, heart thumping, Dale took out the leather bound book, resting it between his hands. Without looking, he knew if he lifted it into the light it would be maroon.


But this isn't David's. This is Philip's.

Why would Philip…….?

He laid the book on the table top and softly blew the dust off. Maroon. Dale sat gingerly at the desk and hesitated, not sure for a moment if it was his place to open the book at all, or if this was prying. Philip's belongings were the property of his family, the people who had loved him. But how did you explain a dream of a man sitting looking at this book? Sitting here now, looking it, Dale's heart thumped even harder for a moment and he had the distinct sensation someone stood behind him. It took all his courage to open the front cover and turn it back.

The pieces of paper inside had been glued to the page of the book and looked as if they were a short article cut from a journal or paper. It meant nothing for a moment, until Dale caught sight of the name at the top of the article. Flynn O'Sullivan. Dale turned the pages slowly, picking up the journal names at the head of the articles. The American Foundation of Psychology. The Carolina Institute of Mental Health. The American Medical Association. On each article the author was Flynn O'Sullivan. The articles were in date sequence, getting longer and more complex as time moved on, and covered nearly ten years before they stopped in the year 2000. It was peculiar to hear Flynn's voice in the text, a glimpse of a mind analytical enough to draw Dale's increasing respect, although glancing through one article – 'The Functionality of Hyperactivity and Hyperfocus in Management Positions' – Dale was struck by the understanding within the commentary. The article was objective, but not detached. These are people he knows, and cares about. Probably people who have stayed here. My God, he really gets this.

And someone had taken a good deal of time and effort to collect every one of these articles, to sequence them, to refer back to them, with a care that spoke of a good deal of respect. No, not respect, Dale corrected himself, thinking of the man at the table with the silver and black fountain pen. Pride. This is an action of pride. I'll bet this is everything Flynn ever had published in Philip's lifetime.

Ok Philip, why are you showing this to me?

That was a thought of enough vanity to make Dale blush – but he couldn't bring himself to close the book. He sat, looking at the article in front of him without fully seeing it, and he felt – as real and as tangible as the pressure of the seat under him – a hand gently close on his shoulder, the palm warm, the weight of a man resting there. Someone read the article looking over his head, and Dale's eyes involuntarily stung. His breath caught, he didn't dare to look at his shoulder where that hand rested, nor turn to look behind him, but he sat, looking at the book until the fingers squeezed lightly and let go. And the room was perfectly still once more.



Dale thought afterwards that he probably should have run out of that room screaming. In fact, he was left with a deep and abiding sense of peace and safety. He thought for a while and then quietly returned the book of articles to the desk, softly locked the hidden compartment and pocketed the key. He then turned out the lamp on the desk which left the room dim, nearly in darkness, and curled up in a corner of the couch, letting a number of things sink into his mind. Somewhere in the darkness across the room he knew a man worked at his desk, and his sense of order soaked through the study and up into the walls and the beams of the house. Dale shut his eyes, curling deeper into the warm leather. Out on the pastures the horses ran and the river tipped over the falls and the clouds scudded by, and the house stood in the midst of it all…

"Dale?" Flynn's voice said softly. Dale stirred and half sat up. Flynn had left the door open into the family room and the dimmed light came in through the doorway. Flynn sat down on the couch beside him, the sheets of handwritten paper in his hand.

"You were fast asleep, you didn't even hear me come in."

"Sorry." Dale pushed his hair out of his eyes, still blinking. Flynn turned the pages over.


"This is pretty thorough as a report. I noticed you followed the profile of an internal perfectionist."

"That's the profile I fit." Dale said wryly, pulling himself upright. "Which was the point, wasn't it?"

Oh for God's sake Aden, why make this like pulling teeth? Meet the man half way.


"I get it – that's probably me, and always has been." he said slightly less steadily. "And I see where the 'failure' thing comes from – that's always been the case too, that I get very depressed over one thing going wrong, the whole picture seems bad."

"So a relatively minor problem cuts across and makes you demoralised about everything." Flynn said quietly. Dale nodded.


"If I'm honest – this all started this morning. I mean I know I've been wound up since this morning because we talked about the storm last night and –"

"And you remembered that I know you don't like thunder and lightning." Flynn said mildly. "You also know I don't think any the less of you for it? And there's things I'm afraid of?"


"It just bothers me that I don't -" Dale trailed off, shamefaced and not sure how to explain. "It's another failure. The whole profile fits. The obsessive behaviour, the nothing ever being good enough. I thought this was just about work, the problems I had were only related to work, but it isn't, is it?"

Flynn nodded slowly. "No. And I think unless you acknowledge that and work on it, you're going to take the same problems with you wherever you go. I told you from the start, this was going to be a long job."

"And I need to quit self destructing when I hit a set back." Dale said heavily.


"Not even a set back." Flynn pointed out. "All Ash did today was show you that you haven't yet got the grip on anxiety or habits that you hoped you had. You're not any kind of split personality, Dale. You're the one keeping two sets of skills completely separate, because you won't risk the unperfected model out in public in front of strangers like Ash. And Ash bothers you because he's a Top."    

Silence. Dale wasn't sure how to answer that. There were too many issues tied up within it.

"He's a Top." Flynn said eventually. "Not a monster. You can cope with me and Jas and Paul, I suspect Ash is probably a normal person too if you get to know him, and he isn't going to ask you for a certificate to prove you're a proper brat. You don't have to be sufficiently convincing, and you don't need to be worried about what you let him see."

Dale flushed and Flynn gave that a moment to sink in before he continued.

"I was glad you picked out the information about resistance to sharing information, because that's a key one."

Dale flushed still more hotly. Flynn dropped a hand on his knee, shaking it gently.


"I get why you do it; you get why you do it; now we're on the same page and it stops. You are going to worry yourself crazy and those worries are often going to be based on disproportionate or irrational beliefs because you have this type of perfectionism. They are going to be the things you're most ashamed of and really don’t want to talk about. But there's no leeway on this Dale; that's something absolutely basic because of the kind of relationship we live in. If you are trusting someone to make decisions – proper decisions – for you then full disclosure is absolutely mandatory. Ask Riley how any kind of lying goes down here. Tops have to have every piece of the puzzle, the full picture, otherwise you're asking them to act on your behalf with partial information and without your trust and it isn't going to work. It has to be a two way trust, total trust, and it's one of the most essential and most difficult parts of this type of relationship. That isn't just disclosing facts either, it's how you're feeling, what you're worrying about, the lot. It takes time to learn how to do it, it's going to be particularly hard for you, and I do not expect you to do it effortlessly from this conversation onwards, but I expect your very serious effort on this, and you need to understand that withholding information in this family is a serious matter. Got it?"

"Yes sir."

Flynn nodded, handing him the written sheets. "Keep those, you did a good job on them. We're nowhere near done with this conversation, but you're shattered. Go on up and get ready for bed."


It was difficult staying awake long enough to change and brush teeth, and Dale fell asleep long before anyone came up to say goodnight, forgetting completely the small key in his jeans pocket.


*


"He's asleep." Flynn said when he came back downstairs. "Out like a light."

Riley, who had looked with some concern at Dale when Flynn steered him through the family room towards the stairs half an hour ago, met his eyes and went on hugging his knees, curled in the window seat, which at least three people in the room fully understood and another one had a fairly good idea of.

"Gerry," Ash said calmly, tipping over the king on the chessboard opposite Jasper. "Go up and get ready for bed."

"It's hardly past nine!" Gerry objected, lifting his head from Ash's lap.

"And you're dozing." Ash said heartlessly. "Go up and get ready for bed."

"Just because Jas is winning." Gerry groused. Ash landed an affectionate and gentle swat on Gerry's rump, pushing him towards the stairs.

"How well you know me."

"Goodnight sweetheart." Paul caught Gerry's hand and Gerry stooped to kiss him, dropped a similar salute on Jasper's cheek and Flynn took his eyes off Riley long enough to give him a quick hug.

"Goodnight, sleep well."

"He's been asleep before ten every night I've been here so far," Ash said lightly as Gerry headed upstairs. "All the fresh air and exercise. It's pretty clear you need to talk. Would you like some space or is there anything I can do to help? I wouldn't ask, but Paul mentioned earlier…?"

He trailed off discreetly and Flynn sat down on the hearth stone beside Jasper. Riley promptly got up and came to join them and Paul moved down the couch to the end, putting his arms around Riley's waist as Riley perched on the arm of the couch.

"I said we'd appreciate it and we would. Dale's had a bit of a rough day and you're the first person from the work type world he's spoken to since he came here. He needs some practice in having work conversations without snapping into overdrive. It was like throwing a switch this afternoon."

"It's more pronounced," Flynn added, "Because you're a Top."

"So are you three," Ash pointed out. "I'm not sure how I feel about being told I'm scarier than you are."

Jasper smiled, but shook his head. "No. The three of us are known quantities to Dale."

"He knows nothing about you and he doesn't understand how you fit in to the lifestyle, and moreover he has no idea what you think of him, and he's afraid it isn't much." Flynn absently twisted his watch straight on his wrist. "One of a number of things we went over in a lot of detail this evening. He had a pretty good meltdown about being a total failure, most of which was based on having panicked and switched into work mode with you, and on having seen me remember this morning that he doesn't like thunder and lightning."   

"That's rubbish. He'd never call me a coward if I was afraid of something, he doesn't think like that." Riley said sharply. Flynn shook his head.

"No, he'd never think that about you, half-pint. If it was you he'd be able to understand and sympathise. He applies totally different rules and standards to himself and they're not rational. He even knows they're not rational, but it isn't something he can voluntarily control."

"I saw the work you had him doing on perfectionism." Paul said softly. "He was taking it in, I saw he'd categorised himself."

"I thought about getting out a profile assessment and doing it with him," Flynn said briefly. "I might yet, he's more than perceptive enough to understand the process and the readings, and at this point we need the shared language to be able to discuss this with him and for him to understand why we're asking what we're asking. The brat thing sods it up slightly."

"Why?" Ash asked, fascinated.

"It doesn't." Riley said shortly, "It makes it easier. Never mind about 'it would help to talk to me when you think like this', you're straight into the territory of 'quit it right now', plus aversives. That makes total sense to Dale."

"It does." Flynn admitted. "But he's trying to get his head around two sets of new perspectives, not one, and do two things at once. Deal with the perfectionism and the whole brat and lifestyle idea, both of which contain a lot of new concepts, information and uncertainty, and the one winds up the other. We have a brat who doesn't do failure, and a perfectionist who's worrying about being a brat properly."

"He's about the least brat-like brat I've ever laid eyes on." Ash commented. "He hardly makes a sound, he works like a Trojan, he does everything asked without a murmur, I bet he doesn't even know what chocolate is."

Paul shook his head, more than slightly rueful. "Don't tell him for pete's sake or he'll feel he has to eat it, wanted or not, and we've just got him off a caffeine addiction. And trust me, Dale can brat, you just haven't seen him in action."

"You're still insisting on looking at the two things as equal and completely separate." Riley said, looking at Flynn. "That's rubbish. Dale is a brat, that's nature. Intrinsic. The perfectionist part is just behaviour."

"You're well trained." Ash said dryly.

"We get a lot of clients and we get the hang of the terms," Flynn steepled his hands, looking down them. "And Riley's good at cutting to the chase with them."

"And I've been right about him this far, you know I have." Riley pointed out. "Respond to the brat. Everything else is secondary, and if you get the brat part right you'll handle everything else anyway. How did you handle it this evening?"

There was a moment's silence, then Flynn blew down the sides of his fingers, dropped his hands and gave Riley a wry smile.

"As a tantrum, part and parcel. Your doctorate's in the post."

"And he was ok?" Riley demanded.  

"He understood exactly. Sometimes with Dale the words get in the way." Flynn crossed his arms, propping his elbows on his knees and glancing at Jasper beside him. "We're going to need to be very tough with him about with-holding in all its forms."

"We have been all along." Paul said, hugging Riley. "In fact the majority of times we've disciplined him has been about with-holding- the disappearing off alone being a major example. That's never been the cry for attention it would be with some brats, it's pure self containment. 'Leave me alone, nobody sees this problem until I'm ready'."

"Exactly." Flynn agreed. "And he expects to be pushed on the obvious manifestations. But we’re into the next stage now, we need to go up a gear. Dale's used to getting away with the more subtle versions and that's what we really need to stamp on. It's all about, as Paul says, 'nobody sees until I'm ready and on my terms'. Not talking about worries or concerns until they're serious; polite social lies which he's very good at; even to an extent things like eye contact and not wanting to be touched."

"Although that's pretty much along brat lines anyway." Ash said thoughtfully. Flynn looked up and Ash shrugged.

"Not that I have anything like your knowledge and experience here, but when I feel like Gerry's getting out of hand- which often means I've slackened off actually, or that we've got too busy and lost touch a bit – that's the kind of thing I tighten up on. Eye contact and answering properly, not tolerating the little social lies, confiding, communicating. That's what really reduces distance fast." 

"Told you." Riley said calmly. "Fix the brat and everything else falls into place."

"Philip was a strong advocate for that." Paul agreed thoughtfully. "I admit, I find it hard sometimes to be firm enough with Dale."

"What can I do?" Ash asked discreetly. Jasper answered, propping his elbows on his knees, long legs beside Flynn's.

"Talk with him a lot about corporate finance."

"Among other things." Flynn gave Jasper a brief smile. "Normalise it. He really needs the practice."

"Talk shop with Dale Aden?" Ash raised his eyebrows. "Er, yes please? If he gets as wound up as he did this afternoon, what's helpful to do? I wouldn't have seen the signs, I don't know him well enough."

"Keep him near the house and keep one of us in sight to start with." Flynn suggested. "He got taken by surprise today and he was already upset before it started. I don't think it'll be that strong again.

Ash nodded, getting up as they heard a bathroom door open upstairs and Gerry cross the landing. "Ok, with great pleasure. I'll look for opportunities."

"Which leaves us with one more thing," Flynn said when Ash had gone upstairs and the door to his and Gerry's room had closed. "It's earlier than I'm happy with, but we're getting to the point of Dale starting conversations about how he's going to cope with going back to his job. I could see him touching on it this evening and I'd rather we took the initiative and set the pace than he sprung the subject on us."

"You mean about him not going back to the corporation?" Riley said, wide eyed. "Flynn, however are you going to suggest that? I bet it's never even occurred to him."

"Well we can start by reminding him how many options he's got." Paul said comfortably, seeing Flynn wince. "I'd be interested to sound Ash out on that subject and see what he suggests."

"Well I'm glad I don't take clients." Riley said in the slightly apprehensive silence that followed. "All that double thinking and reasoning it out before hand."

"It'll work out." Paul said firmly. "Don't you worry."

"I'll try not to." Riley promised. "Just don't ask me, I'm just a brat.  I wouldn't be any help there at all."



                          
Dale was clearing the small barn in the corner of one of the far home paddocks – which strictly speaking was a shed more than a barn – the following morning when he heard a clunk and looked around to see Riley overturn one of the empty feed buckets and sit on it, propping his elbows on his knees.

"Hi."

"Hi." Dale said, glancing back towards the house. It was some way off: several paddocks away and horses grazed between it and them, eating the still dew-wet grass. "I thought you were working with Flynn with the babies this morning?"


"He's riding one." Riley said matter of factly. "Be gone about forty minutes. You looked awful last night, what happened?"

Dale would have answered that without hesitation – for some reason, sharing bad information with Riley was not nearly so difficult, perhaps because Riley did it so frankly himself – but for another clunk as another feed bucket was turned over and Gerry sat a little more stiffly, giving Dale an apologetic shrug.

"Yes it's me. It's a quorate meeting of the Falls Chance Brats in Residence, so no doing the scary looks at me duckie. It's plain as sin you got tanned last night."

"No one heard anything, but Flynn grabbed you before dinner and you looked like death when he sent you up to bed." Riley said apologetically.

"So this is the 'would you like to talk about it' invitation, and don't leave out any gory details." Gerry added, stretching his legs. A second later he reeled them in again and got straight up, catching Dale and yanking him across into a very tight hug, his voice changing completely.

"Oh good grief don't look like that! Honey you don't have to say a word unless you want to, I'm only teasing! this was basic curiosity and an 'are you all right' query, that's all! It's ok."

There was a surprising comfort to his embrace, something very heartfelt that reminded Dale a little of Paul, and there was no doubting his sincerity. Comfortably round, a good deal older than himself or Riley, his tone was as kind as it was sympathetic.

"The rules of the meeting state, members may tell the other members to bog off at any point in time, and the other members might even go without a fight." Gerry let him go, holding his arms to look at him, eyes serious even if the words were flippant. "So if you want to, you say it."

"It's ok." Dale said, and meant it. Riley hadn't commented, but he was standing close and Dale felt the bump of Riley's shoulder against his as Riley dug his hands in his pockets. The shed was mostly done. Dale picked up the fork he had dropped, dug it into one of the old hay bales he was clearing out, and took a seat on the nearest one, watching the other two resume their buckets.


"You don't have to." Riley repeated, watching him with enough concern to make Dale feel guilty. He shook his head, holding Riley's eyes.


"It's ok. It just wasn't a great evening. Ash – asked me a few things about work, and I kind of went into work overdrive and then, er – 'melted down' I think was the phrase Flynn used?"

It clearly made sense to the other two, both of whom nodded. Dale glanced at his knees, feeling his ears redden but keeping his tone light.

"Then Flynn asked me if I knew what a tantrum was, and it went down hill from there."

He'd been prepared for some kind of shock or teasing – tantrum wasn't a pretty word for grown men, but Riley groaned and Gerry openly cringed.

"Ouch. Walk into my parlour said the spider to the fly…"

"He's death about anything he can call a paddy, I should have warned you." Riley said with sympathy. "I threw a cup through the kitchen window once – it was an accident!" he added indignantly to Gerry as Gerry drew breath. "Well mostly an accident, it really wasn't supposed to hit the window- and Paul made him go do the stables before he'd let Flynn in the house and in arms' reach of me. I think he thought Flynn was finally going to strangle me."


"Dramatic gestures that go wrong; it happens to me all the time." Gerry murmured in what Dale was starting to think of as his Noel Coward voice.

"We'd been bickering all afternoon and I kind of pushed it a little far," Riley said ruefully, "It happens."

"It does." Gerry gave Dale another of his shrewd looks that was not nearly as critical as Dale had expected. "That was what you got tanned for? You really don't look the tantrum throwing type."

Dale felt his ears get hot again but managed a shrug. This was friendly interest, camaraderie, and it encouraged him to try.


"He said it was a very discreet one."

That produced a shout of laughter from both Gerry and Riley that startled him.


"Oh what I wouldn't give for a little discretion," Gerry said, wiping his eyes. "Ash doesn't cope well with stamping or shouting, and I'm so good at it too. Don't worry about it, it happens and I've never known Ash – or Flynn – to bear grudges."

"Flynn said to ask about how lying went down?" Dale asked very hesitantly. Gerry made a sharp intake of breath between his teeth and Riley grinned.


"The sound a mechanic makes when looking at a car …. You know when the police talk about 'zero tolerance'? Like that, only worse."

"Cardinal." Gerry agreed. "Absolutely cardinal sin. Not that I'm saying I've never done it, or I don't occasionally decide under certain circumstances it sounds like a good idea, but no. We're allergic to the whole concept. Have to be."

"And there's very clear definitions on exactly what constitutes lying too." Riley added dryly. "Lying, fibbing, omission, lack of clarity, covering up, failure to disclose,"

"David used to say he was going to install a bent, back woods lawyer in the bunk house," Gerry said, grinning, "To sit and manufacture ways of blurring information that Philip couldn't argue with. Philip just used to tell him it made no odds, he was the only judge and jury on this ranch and he knew damn well when David had a guilty conscience." 


"Gerry!" Ash's voice shouted from the direction of the house. Gerry rolled his eyes skywards and got up.

"The genie of the lamp is required. He probably wants to clean out the stables again. He's got this mad idea about 'we're family, not visitors Gerald, and families help'. I keep explaining that they don't when they're on holiday but it hasn't sunk in yet. Honey, this is like learning to play the violin. You start out thinking it's never going to work and you'll never be able to do it, but you concentrate on practicing the scales and one day the music just happens without you noticing. I promise you it's worth it."

"Very poetic." Riley called after him.

"I'd curtsey but I'm wearing a thong." Gerry called back.

Riley flung a ball of elderly hay after him and got up. "Want a hand to shift this lot? Where did Flynn want it?"

Dale grabbed at the cord wrapped around the nearest bale, heaving it up. "The corral, he said to stick it in the feed bins and let the riding horses eat it before it got past edible."

"We'll be cutting the new hay before very much longer." Riley picked up a bale, starting the long walk with him to the corral and glancing once or twice towards him.


"Scary stuff." he said eventually and lightly. "Isn't it?"

Dale looked across at him. Riley gave him a faint smile.  


"Being told you have to tell, every time, particularly about things you really don't want to confess. All the really embarrassing stuff. All the stuff you just know is going to get you into trouble – or even more trouble than you're already in."

Dale didn't answer, swallowing, but Riley could see the answer in his face.

"I know, it sounds completely insane, doesn't it?" he said lightly. "I mean, 'Hi Flynn, I just went swimming.  Alone. In the fast part of the river.  Right after eating. In the dark.  With an alligator sitting there watching'. If  I just did something stupid then no, I really don't want to tell Flynn about it."

Dale managed a faint smile in response. Riley pulled the bale higher in his arms.


"And who wants to add all the details in when you know you're already toast to begin with just on the basic information? Adding each sentence is like going ahead and saying hey this spanking isn't going to hurt much, let's up the ante and see you get really mad."

"I know it's not like that," Dale said rather hesitantly. Riley shook his head.
 
"Yeah, in a way it is like that, it just isn't as crazy as it sounds. It's one of the hardest things to do, and generally they try to help by making it easier for you to go ahead and give all that information up front. Jas, Flynn and Paul always do. The other side of the coin is that you know you're going to face the charge of lying if you don't come clean or if things come to light later on, and lying's such a major, major no-no that you can count on it just about doubling whatever it was you were going to get to begin with, and trust me, that helps too."

"So what do you do?" Dale asked softly. Riley shrugged, giving him a quick smile.

"Sometimes I do the wrong thing and try to cover it up anyway, but mostly – mostly I know if I'm asked a question, I'm going to answer it, even if the answer's going to get me toasted. Once you're there you just sort of have to soldier through, and know that you did know better to begin with and that he's not really going to kill you because he does love you, and he will forgive you.  You do it because it's something you do together because you believe in it. And because when you're not in trouble, you feel the safest and most loved you ever have."

That went deep. Riley's tone said it all and Dale knew exactly what he meant; that spoke to a level of him that didn't care about sense or logic and wished the rest of him would just shut up.

"I get that if it's something done wrong – broken rules," he persisted eventually, not sure how to explain. "But other things –"


Oh spit it out Aden.

Dale took a deep breath. "Like you said. The embarrassing things. What you're scared of. What you're worried about."

"It's no different." Riley said gently. "Really. Just think about it."


***


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009 



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