Saturday, December 12, 2009

Chapter 16


16


Think about it.

Dale was starting to believe he was becoming the world champion on concentrated thinking. Over the next few weeks, Flynn took him aside on several afternoons and evenings when the outside work was done, and Dale found himself studying the concept of perfectionism in depth from books and journals, writing reports which Flynn then made him discuss and relate to himself until Dale felt fully equipped to open the Wyoming branch of Perfectionists Anonymous. A comment which, when muttered to Gerry and Riley, caused a good deal of amusement and no few speculations about what the meetings would be like.

"Proper rows of chairs," Riley suggested cheerfully, fending Dale off when Dale grabbed up a handful of hay to stuff down his neck, "And timetables for speeches, and stopwatches-"

"You've missed the point totally," Gerry pointed out. "The whole idea is to overcome perfection. They'll all have to arrive late and deal with a piece of litter on the floor without tidying it up, and come untidily dressed – oh come on darling, you even wear jeans as if you moonlight as a mannequin in Macey's."


"I do not!" Dale objected, and Riley gave him an apologetic nod and a smile that took the sting out of the teasing, good naturedly pulling his shirt off to get at the hay down his back.

"Yeah you do. But we love you anyway."

Aside from their joking, Dale was aware of the irony that Flynn was helping him to use the perfectionism itself to absorb the information and to become an expert in it: he knew he wasn't capable of researching any subject without being meticulous. One evening Flynn showed him a detailed assessment proforma based on diagnosing perfectionism and associated difficulties, and they spent several hours completing it together, Flynn guiding Dale through the process and the scoring so that it was something Dale did himself rather than was done to him. Apart from the sheer intellectual challenge of it, which Dale couldn't help but be attracted to, the information and the process was surprisingly intriguing.

"Will the conclusions of this be passed on to anyone else?" Dale asked when the proforma was complete and they'd scored it. Flynn shook his head, sitting back on the couch.

"No. It's no one else's business but yours, and you did the assessment for yourself so you have the ownership. I'm only interested in you having the knowledge for yourself. The only information I'm bound to provide to your corporation is that you and I agree that you're ready to go back to work."

"Really nothing more?"


"Really nothing more." Flynn confirmed. "We're in the business of helping gifted people to straighten themselves out, not inform on them. If we didn't think you were fit to do the work we wouldn't clear you as fit."  

And when your clients decide they're unfit and quit for themselves? Dale put the form down, uncomfortable at the thought.

"Do you do many assessments like this with clients?"

"We're resourced for them." Flynn said mildly. Dale heard his tone and glanced up, realising what he had known for some weeks and what Flynn had never actually told him. Another symptom of the reality gap between being a client here and yet not a client.

"It's ok." he said slightly awkwardly, not sure how to put it. "I do know you're a psychologist."

"Gerry?" Flynn asked without heat. Dale nodded.


"He doesn't know I'm a client, he didn't know it was relevant information. He told me you'd had a lot of work published"

"He's a born gossip." Flynn said dryly. "How do you feel about that?"


"I always assumed from the start that there was that kind of knowledge here," Dale said candidly. "It wasn't much of a surprise and no, it doesn't bother me. Why would it?"

"What we do isn't based on psychology and we don't raise those expectations in clients." Flynn said, watching him. "Like I told you when you first arrived: what we do is what Philip always did from old fashioned common sense and instinct, because it works. But yes you're right, it helps to have the knowledge in the background. I keep on top of the current assessments and profiles and I train in them as new assessments come up that are relevant to our clients, but it's not often I use them. If I do, it's most often for my own information or as we've just done this one, something done together to help clarify."

"What kinds of profiles?" Dale asked out of sheer curiosity. Flynn shrugged a little.


"Wide range. From depression and suicide risk scales to attention deficit, OCD, addiction diagnostics, that kind of thing. The clients we get are as diverse as any group of individuals, no two the same."

Although Dale was willing to bet not many needed to stay this
long. He swallowed the thought, hoping Flynn hadn't picked up on it. The conversation with Riley about withholding information was still very fresh in his mind, and he was still trying to work out just what information needed to be shared and what was- well. Beneath notice or just damn private. Flynn had been over – and over – the need for him to say concerns aloud to an objective audience and not to let things nag at him, but surely that applied to serious things. Really serious things. Not this kind of thing.

Flynn got up and held out his hand for the paperwork.

"Shall I hold on to that? We're done for the evening, come find something more relaxing to do."

Yeah, hold on to the paperwork Flynn, we don't want the resident nut case to obsess over that too.


Dale resisted the urge to pull a very childish face and got up, heading into the family room as he knew Flynn would cheerfully look him in the eye and wait for him to leave before he put it away wherever it was that he kept all the information other than that short, basic profile Dale had written on the first night they discussed perfectionism. That was apparently the sole thing he was allowed to keep in his possession. Which was exasperating, and yet was actually, at a very private level, very reassuring too. It wasn't lack of trust and Dale knew it: Flynn's message was a lot clearer than that.

This happens on my time, in my way, and I'm in charge of this, not you. So don't even bother stressing about it.  

Sometimes he was surprised that Flynn didn't mark his territory and beat his chest.

Summer was getting closer. There was still daylight outside, and Ash was sitting on the porch, watching Gerry and Paul play with the dogs with a ball in the yard. Having wandered out in hope of finding Riley, Dale hesitated in the doorway but it was too late. Ash glanced up and smiled, and unable to just back away, Dale was forced to come the rest of the way on to the porch, trying to take a grip on what Flynn had told him several times, very firmly.

Ash is a Top. Not a monster. He does not require proof from you of adequate brathood.

"Had a chance to look at those journals yet?" Ash asked cheerfully. "There were a few good articles in there."

Actually, Dale had kept them in plain sight in the kitchen and made sure that Flynn saw, convinced that Flynn would confiscate them on sight, but surprisingly, Flynn had simply made a casual question as to where they came from and then said nothing else. No one seemed to mind about him having them or reading them. Which Dale had since avoided doing, with very mixed feelings. The journals were currently sitting under the cot bed he was using in Flynn's room where he didn't have to look at them or acknowledge their presence, and he hadn't mentioned that to anyone either.

"No." Dale admitted, wondering how not to explain why. "I – haven't exactly-"

He was painfully aware of Ash watching him struggle for a minute, then Ash sat back in his chair with a surprisingly kind look.


"Dale, you don't have to explain. Not met any Tops outside the ranch before?"

Dale shook his head, taken aback. Ash patted the chair next to him.

"No tails, no horns. You don't need to call them sir unless you're in a situation where you think it would really help, and you don't have to account to them for anything. Believe me, I'm on holiday and I'm not looking to straighten out every brat I meet. Sit down and relax."

Dale carefully took the offered chair, not quite sure what to make of that. Ash crossed his ankles, slouching comfortably.


"I had some contacts from the Scholz Corporate while I was in Germany, they're sounding me out for sales over there. There was an interesting article on them in the second journal, the history of their take over."

….which Dale knew a lot about, having been one of the advisors called in to negotiate the take over, and which confirmed something in Dale's mind that was more than slightly alarming.


"You know my name, don't you?" he said warily, and Ash smiled, giving him an apologetic nod.

"I'm afraid so. You're rather well known in the field? You know, I read about the work you did with Scholz, particularly the embezzlement you dug out? I'd always wanted to know how you spotted it – although you're on holiday from work too and you really don't have to talk about it if you're not interested!"

It was said with a friendliness that would have made it easy to politely evade the conversation and leave, and for a moment Dale was very tempted, still more alarmed that someone who knew the name and reputation of Dale Aden was here where they would inevitably discover the personal mayhem and incompetent brat that lay underneath it all – but Flynn had said to try. Dale took a breath, steeling himself.

"A.N.Z were drafted in to be an impartial watchdog if you like, when the negotiations started to get really acrimonious- we were looking at the history and finances of both sides, auditing them for the lawyers. It took weeks, but one of my accounting team spotted evidence of a write off we couldn't then trace, and we unpicked it from there. Very well concealed. And not helped by the records going back so far that we were looking at yellowed paper in vaults and needing translators to read it."

"You worked with accountants through translators?" Ash said, eyebrows raised. Dale smiled involuntarily, recognising the shock that could only come from a fellow number cruncher who knew firsthand what audits were like.


"It was a room of about thirty people. Accountants, secretaries, translators, their book keepers, my team, and my PA and I both spoke German better than we let on. That helped a lot. We started to see a problem about five o clock one evening, they were getting more and more restive and in the end we locked the doors, sealed the room and went through everything again with a toothcomb. Worked through most of the night, but no one managed to get to a computer or phone to alert the rest of the company, and by about four am we had it. One of the best cover ups I've seen."

"Who sealed the room?" Ash asked with interest. "That must have taken a lot of shouting."

"At that time in the evening, no." Dale said lightly. "They were tired and panicked, they knew A.N.Z meant business and we didn't give them time to argue."


The 'we' was misleading: Ash, knowing exactly who had led that team and made that decision, whistled softly.

"Wow. Is it often that exciting?"

"The troubleshooting is." Dale sat back into his own chair, distracted in spite of himself and reflecting on a couple of the more recent cases. "Well the team audits can be, depending on what you find and what politics are involved, but to be honest it's the straight forward detective stuff I enjoy most. The kind of problem Gerry had– I could sit and chase that kind of thing for fun by the hour. Number cruncher by nature."

The voice was flowing; he could hear the confidence building in his tone.

Confidence in what? These are just subjects I feel secure in. I can turn this on like a tap!

"But you get the politics and the big picture too. Want a drink?" Ash got up, and rather surprised at the sudden change of subject, Dale stood up too, following him to the doorway of the kitchen. Ash poured a couple of glasses of juice from the fridge and held out one to him.


"I see Flynn still drinks this stuff by the gallon. I never buy it at home, Gerry won't touch it, but it makes a change."

"You live in Seattle?" Dale asked tentatively, still thrown by the change in pace. Ash nodded, following him back on to the porch.

"That was where I grew up. Beautiful city."

"And that's where your company's based?"


Ash nodded, sipping juice. "Same premises for twenty three years. Gerry's much better at the pick up and move on thing than I am. I tend to take root where I am and get attached."

It was radically different to the fragments of conversation Dale was used to dipping in and out of with the people he worked with – you got all the superficial yatter about people's boats and airport experiences and the locker room talk which Dale had always evaded as much as possible – but how
it was different Dale wasn't sure. Maybe it was just the knowledge that this was not just a man talking about his partner; it was a Top, talking about his brat in a tone that gave away open affection. Maybe it was that, like Jasper and Flynn and Paul, it wasn't just casual noise, killing time until the work started again, and based on subjects that Dale knew would never in his lifetime have any relevance to him; it was said with sincerity and it expected equal interest, it was about a life that Dale had an extremely sensitive sense of connection to, and it was hard not to stand and openly gawp like a kid at a sweet shop window. Ash leaned on the porch rail and smiled at him, waiting until Dale leaned on the rail beside him, trying to find something sensible to say before he looked like a complete idiot.  

"…..how did the company start? Was it your venture?"

That was a safe question: no MD could ever resist telling the 'set up' story. Reserved, watching himself as carefully as Ash, Dale listened and let Ash talk.    


*


The hay situation was definitely at the top of Flynn and Jasper's minds. In the last few days Paul had ridden up to the tops barns and come back with a list of the amounts left up there, and slowly but surely the hay sheds and barns around the house itself were being cleared. The hayloft that Dale and Riley had stocked together in spring was half empty when Dale took a fork and brush up there. It was straight forward work to pitch down the older bales, to re stack the rest and clean the floor, it gave a lot of time for brooding, and Dale was hot and dusty and absorbed when he heard Jasper's voice in the yard.

"Anyone around?"

"I am." Dale called back, doing what Riley did with the hay ladders, setting feet either side of the rail and simply sliding down to the floor for speed.


Jasper had dismounted in the yard, Gucci was tied to the barn wall and Jasper was leading one of the red cattle by the halter towards the stable, a thin and shivering calf in tow. He glanced up at the sight of Dale with a quick smile of relief.

"Hi. Take the cow into one of the loose boxes and put the overhead lamp on?"

Dale took the halter and Jasper stooped, picking up the calf which immediately started to struggle and bellow. The cow struggled too at the sound of the bellowing, but she clearly didn't have much strength left. When he pushed and coaxed, she gave in and limped where Dale took her, into one of the loose boxes, where Dale snapped on the overhead heat lamp and went for a bale of straw, scattering it thickly to cover the scrubbed concrete floor. She lay down almost immediately, head down. Shutting the stall door, Dale came out into the corridor where Jasper was carrying the calf to the big low railed pen near the door, the one where Dale knew sick or orphaned lambs were kept in season, and he put the little beast down, running his hands over its ribs.


"It looks poor." Dale commented, standing to watch. "The mother's breathing hard."

"She's got fluid on her lungs." Jasper said without looking up. "I don't think she's got much milk either from the look of the calf. You know where the supplement is, by the medical supplies? Make up a feed for the mother, three parts high grade, one part the supplement – just mix it in with your hand – and I'll make up a bottle for this little girl. The mother needs a rest from her."

He got up and headed towards the house, and Dale collected a bucket, taking it to the feed bins and mixing a generous amount. The cow didn't even lift her head when he put the bucket in her reach, nor take much notice of him when he rubbed and then swatted her flank, trying to rouse her to get up and eat. Jasper came down the corridor to watch, one of the large feeding bottles in his hand.


"She's not interested, is she? Try an antibiotic shot for her, get the vials and I'll show you how to make it up. Second shelf."
           
He'd watched Flynn and Jasper do this often enough, and neither of them tended to step in to do things for you, instead giving the time to talk you through doing it yourself. The sheer number of skills Dale had acquired since he came here would fill a CV and completely bemuse a Corporate interview panel. Dale opened the packets and set the syringe, bringing the bottle and hypodermic back to Jasper who was holding the bottle while the little calf pulled energetically on it, milk running down her chin. The warm, sweet smell of it mixed pleasantly with the fresh dust of the straw and the calf's large brown eyes which watched Dale with curiosity over the edge of the bottle as she braced her little feet against the floor to suck harder. Jasper glanced back at the syringe, nodding approval.

"That's it. Draw up the whole vial, clear it of air and hang on a minute."

The little calf reluctantly released the bottle only when she was quite sure it was empty. Jasper stepped over the rail and followed Dale down to the stall where the cow lay, gesturing Dale ahead of him.


"Put it in her neck – further up, more central. Yes, there."


The cow didn't stir as Dale pressed the antibiotic into her neck and he withdrew the syringe as gently as he could, watching her with some concern.

"Give her a couple of hours and we'll see what she's eaten." Jasper said from the corridor, watching with him. "She should pick up a bit now she's in the warm."

"Sharps box?" Dale asked, holding up the syringe. Jasper nodded, stepping back out of his way.


"Yes. Mind your hands. What were you working on?"

"Hay loft. Flynn's over in the shed on the other side of the paddocks, clearing that one too."

"Getting ready for re stocking." Jasper took the bottle apart, dark eyes still on Dale. "Are you ok? You don't look like it's been a good morning."


"Fine thanks." Dale dropped the sharps into the box as mechanically as he answered, and he saw Jasper calmly and deliberately set the two parts of the calf's bottle down on the windowsill and hold out a hand to him.

Dale looked back at him for a moment, bewildered, and then his stomach made a sudden and sharp clench to the left as he realised his own tone and expression. No, Jasper had to be kidding. Jasper leaned over to take his hand and drew him gently out of the stables and into the yard, guiding him towards the house.

"I am fine," Dale said, aware his voice was sharpening with sheer alarm. "I just –"

"Boots." Jasper said gently, pausing at the kitchen door. His face was as calm as it always was, there was nothing in the least rough or angry about his movements, he was completely unhurried and that helped – Dale looked at him for a moment and felt his immediate sense of panic die away to be replaced by an emotion he was a good deal more familiar with.


Oh you bloody idiot, Aden.

Jasper put a hand on his shoulder, prompting him, and Dale braced his hands on the door frame, heeled off his boots and let Jasper steer him through the family room towards the study, where without the faintest sign of hurry or annoyance he collected the wooden paddle from the bottom drawer of the desk and took a seat on the couch, holding out a hand.

Several thousand speeches crowded Dale's head, from shock, to a primal yell that this was not fair, to an expectation that he at least got to argue about it first. Jasper's face was understanding but he clicked the fingers he was holding out.

"Dale."

You stupid bloody idiot.

Dale felt his face turn scarlet and start to burn in earnest. He stepped closer to within reach of Jasper's hand. Jasper drew him gently forward, turning Dale across his knee, a longer and narrower knee than Flynn's and somewhat higher from the ground, and Dale felt every nerve underneath the seat of his jeans flare into life with sheer apprehension. He didn't realise until afterwards, that was all he felt – there was not the slightest sense of alarm or even hesitation about this being Jasper, it seemed as perfectly natural as it did whenever Flynn took this seat on the couch. The only thing on his mind was an extremely healthy concern for what was about to happen to his backside and exasperation with himself. He felt the light touch of the paddle squarely across the seat of his jeans, the warmth of Jasper's body beneath and against his, and the light pressure of Jasper's palm across his back, and then eight hard and shockingly accurate whacks landed, unhurriedly and each one in exactly the same place. Dale's eyes were stinging by the third and he was squirming by the fourth. Jasper paddled every bit as hard as Flynn did; there was absolutely no sense of this being a mild reminder. It rang like gunshots and it damned well hurt. Dale was breathless and his eyes were blurred when Jasper helped him up, and involuntarily Dale put both hands back over his blazing backside.

"I asked," Jasper said gently, "if you were ok."

That should have sounded like the most stupid possible question to ask at that moment in time, but what was struggling to burst out was anything but smart alec replies. It was like an over stacked cupboard being opened, Dale was aware of words tumbling forth without his conscious will or permission.


"I was thinking about something Riley told me, and Ash asking about Scholz- and the journals he gave me which I haven't looked at and no one's said anything about-"

Jasper reached for his hand, clasped it firmly in his long fingers and drew Dale down to sit on the couch beside him, elbows on gangly knees, black-brown eyes steady.


"The journals? These are the Wall Street ones Ash gave you?"

"I thought Flynn would confiscate them like he did everything else work related." Dale found himself pulling his knees up to his chest and hugging them like a teenager.

"And that bothered you?" Jasper said mildly. "You couldn't have asked him, or Paul, or me?"


"No, that didn't bother me," Dale admitted. "I left them where Flynn could see them and I knew if he didn't want me to have them he'd say so, so it was pretty clear it was ok, and it's ok because at some point I have got to get my head around being able to cope with work without flipping out – that wasn't what's wrong with them."

"You almost always are about three steps on from where you look as if you are." Jasper said dryly with something almost like amusement. "What does bother you about those journals? Where are they?"


"Under the bed." Dale admitted, embarrassed at how childish it sounded. Jasper waited, not asking questions, and Dale took a breath, thinking it through.

I don't want to look at the damned things because I'm not going back to work and I really don't know how I feel about that.

"And I don't get Ash," he said almost angrily. "He's nice and I could talk to him all day about the kind of things he's interested in, I always did like MDs who had the drive to do things themselves-"

Jasper, watching him, saw him flip quite unconsciously into the work tone and expression as he said it, and then flip straight back out again into the reserve they were used to.

"- but I don't get him and I hate that. It drives me mad."

"Why do you need to 'get' him?" Jasper asked calmly. "It takes years to really know someone. Isn't it ok just to enjoy his company?"


"Lecture B, part a, sections 4 through 6: I'm a perfectionist and I hate not being sure of the impression someone's getting of me." Dale said acidly.

And you're hopping, flaming mad, with no idea of what you're feeling or how to deal with it, Jasper thought with growing amusement as much as understanding. That was about the most acid, honestly bratlike tone he had ever heard from Dale, and privately he thought it showed that the work Flynn had him doing was starting to pay off. The two worlds of work and personal life were starting to collide and this awkward, simmering emotion was an extremely healthy sign.    

"So what do you do about it?" he asked casually, aware he was not improving Dale's temper, and in his own mind that was no bad thing. Time and space and a little gentle provocation to boil up and boil over on his own was sometimes exactly what Dale needed, and he had a safe place here to do it in. They were going to need to watch for him resorting to his usual escape hatch of going off alone, but Jasper was a believer in letting Dale get the lid off for himself where he could.

"Tell you or anyone else handy," Dale said exasperatedly, "Which makes it clear to everyone concerned that I'm a raving lunatic. I don't understand the justification for this 'explaining everything to everyone' business anyway. Riley tried to tell me,"


Oh bullshit, Aden, you did understand it, you just wish you hadn't.

"You can't demand that people share private thoughts and empty their heads, it's not reasonable, it's probably against the Geneva convention and it's certainly not enforceable!"

He was as startled by Jasper's smile as by the hand that squeezed his knee, with real affection but without concern.

"And you'll be another three steps further on from that, which is? And Flynn might not mind being called a bastard, but I do."

The glare that raised from Dale was heartfelt and sincere.  

"One: no one is demanding I share every thought, just the ones that I pick to death and get upset about. Two: they sound rational in my head, I know they don't when said out loud to someone else, and I need the feedback on whether they are rational or not. And three…."


He trailed off, not able to say it. Jasper's hand on his knee squeezed again.

"You understand about why it is you want to trust us, even though it's hard. Why did I spank you?"

There was not the slightest doubt in Jasper's voice that Dale knew, which made Dale more than slightly ashamed of himself.

"For lying, knowing I was lying, and trying to keep all of this in my head."

"Which is not an objective criminal offence." Jasper said mildly. "We're not the police. It's completely subjective, and it's completely personal to us. Isn't it?"


That hit like a hammer and for the first time Dale truly saw the other side of it. That was exactly what made the difference. There were people and the normal rules that applied to them. And then there was 'us' and for the first time Dale really got what Jasper meant by it. Flynn, Jasper, Riley and Paul were not just 'people'. The insight struck a wave of emotion far stronger than Dale was at all prepared for.  

"Because it wasn't just lying," he said with real remorse, very aware now of exactly why he had deserved that paddling and exactly how kind Jasper was being about it.
"It was lying to you, knowing I was lying to you. I'm sorry, I'm really sorry."

"You're forgiven." Jasper put a hand around the nape of Dale's neck, pulled him over and kissed his forehead. "You're not a client. We want to help clients. What we want for you – and what we expect of each other – is something else again, and you know that. And don't think we don't know you well enough or care enough about you to see straight out for ourselves when you're anxious or unhappy. You have responsibilities to us to belong."


He didn't explain further and Dale found himself attaching to that phrase, chewing it, wondering what it meant. Jasper patted his knee and got up.

"You've got a hayloft to finish when you're ready."

They walked together into the yard, Jasper heading towards the stable, Dale towards the hayloft, subdued and somewhat chagrined that along with the smarting of his behind, his head had cleared to a surprising degree, and the twisting of his stomach was gone, leaving him feeling freer – and grumpier -  than he had all day.

You're an intelligent man, Aden, why is it the route to your brain is still via your backside?

He paused at the doorway to the barn, suddenly struck by a thought which staggered him.

"I'm working alone on this! I've been working alone for days now!"

Jasper smiled at him from the doorway of the stable, dark eyes warm. "Looks like it to me."


*

                
"Well they're sneaky beggars. You should know that by now." Riley said calmly when Dale came to help him put away the colts he had been exercising. "If they'd told you up front what they were doing you'd have panicked."

Instead of which, Flynn had just gradually worked further and further out of sight until it was quite normal to Dale to be involved in a project for several hours, knowing nothing more than that Flynn was somewhere in the vicinity.


"What happened?" Riley said bluntly, and Dale realised he'd semi consciously put his hand back to rub again at the seat of his jeans. An hour later it was still uncomfortably tender and very strongly on his mind.

"Jasper. I said I was 'ok'. He begged to differ."

"Then serve you right, they warned you." Riley said, not unkindly.


"Riley!" Dale protested, shocked, and yelped as Riley paused in hanging up tack to bat him lightly across the back of the head.

"Catch on. They'll quit when you quit."


He said nothing else, as if there was no need to. With a casual assumption that Dale understood things just as well as he did, which said – very clearly – you're one of us. Which felt very good and was therefore still more bloody annoying.

Paul, Ash and Gerry were in the kitchen when Dale heeled off his boots at the door and Paul looked up and smiled, which helped even less.

"Hey love. The kettle's hot, want a drink?"

"I am going to pee." Dale said with vicious courtesy, heading for the bathroom. "The thought crossed my mind approximately forty eight seconds ago, and in the interest of not withholding key information I felt I'd better notify you. I'm quite happy to supply it in writing or in triplicate."

The stunned silence behind him as he closed the bathroom door was some small satisfaction.

In the kitchen, Gerry started to laugh and Ash got up from the table.

"Gerry, out."

"Did he really just-" Gerry began and Ash pushed him towards the door.

"I didn't hear a thing. We're going for a long walk, somewhere a very long way out of earshot."

"You're no fun," Gerry complained, and Ash shut the kitchen door behind them.

Paul folded his arms and leaned against the kitchen table, waiting until Dale emerged from the bathroom.

"Dale Edward, come here right now."

Dale came to him with a contained air of patience that would have done credit to a Board meeting. Paul looked him right in the eye, using a voice that would have made any Board squirm in their chairs.

"If I ever hear that kind of sass from you again I'll soap your mouth out. Go sit on the stairs, and I'd better not hear another sound from you."

Go sit on the stairs. This was supposed to be some appropriate punishment in the weird world of Yanks was it? Dale gave Paul a polite, open armed bow, and yelped as Paul took his arm, turned him sideways and swatted him soundly, once across the back of each leg.

"Stairs."

Not barked: Paul didn't bark, he barely even succeeded in sounding cross, but somehow – somehow he had a presence that made you think twice about pushing any further, no matter how insane you felt at the time.


*


The stairs were rather a hard sitting surface, which made for a sobering experience when you'd been paddled. And swatted. Despite himself, Dale discreetly rubbed the smarting back of both thighs while he sat on the foot of the stairs. There was very little in sight in this part of the house. A section of the family room and the door of the study. The deep stairwell stretching up to the landing. Very little to look at. It was possible to hear Paul puttering about in the kitchen, but nothing more except the steady ticking of the grandfather clock, and the hands on its face moved around at glacial speed. The door of the study stood open and Dale could see part of the dark, polished desk beyond. Philip's desk.

For some reason Dale found himself nervous about fidgeting because of that open door; another of the irrational beliefs that Flynn kept telling him to look out for. It was not as if Philip sat there with an eye on him, watching out for a bad tempered brat not sitting quietly as he was supposed to be. Although exactly what Philip would have done with such a brat, Dale was afraid to think. What had Philip done with a difficult teenaged Flynn? If that book of carefully cut out articles was anything to go by, Philip had loved Flynn and been overwhelmingly proud of him. And he had understood Flynn, known how to reach him and draw him into the family. From an embittered teenaged boy who had been rejected by his family and left his own country, to the many faceted man who ran this ranch and had his heart and soul bound up in Riley, Jasper and Paul. It was hard to imagine that Philip had ever made Flynn stand face to the wall as Dale had seen Riley do, and done himself on no few occasions. It was hard to imagine what someone as powerful as Philip would have done with so strong a personality as Flynn.

"David used to sit there and scowl exactly like that when Philip sat him on the stairs." Paul said dryly, kneeling down at the coffee table in the family room with a tin of polish and a cloth in his hand.

"David?" Dale said, shocked.

"He spent a good deal of time parked where you are now." Paul nodded towards the study door. "Right where Philip could keep an eye on him."

"Someone as –" Dale trailed off, not sure how to put it.


"Strong? As David was, doing what you're doing?" Paul smiled. "Honey, you think you're not a strong personality yourself?" 

No, I'm a wimp, we get this.

"What was Philip like?" Dale said on impulse, looking across at the desk in the study. Paul sat back on his heels, applying more polish to the cloth.

"A natural listener. He could get anyone to talk to him about anything, you just found yourself pouring it out without ever realising what he'd done to set you off. Everyone confided in him, that was what made him such a brilliant advisor and why we always had some CEO here overnight for a meal and a quiet word about sorting out whatever had gone wrong. David was lively and noisy, he was the front man for both of them, but Philip just had this atmosphere of calm, and everyone responded to it."

"I can't imagine someone as powerful as David," Dale began, not quite sure what he meant or if he even meant David, "With all he did and the kind of person he was – it just makes me think what could someone have been like who could Top him?"


"It's skill, not force." Paul said, amused. "Philip wasn't any kind of boot camp Sergeant. He didn't need to be. He understood David and they loved each other to pieces, that was most of how it worked."

And Flynn? And Jasper, and Paul and Gerry and Riley, the other people Philip had used his myriad skills on?


"Have any of us used brute force on you?" Paul asked when Dale looked at him. "I can't see you responding to or tolerating that for one second. You wouldn't let it near you."

No, never force. Dale found himself thinking for a moment of Jasper in the study this morning, Jasper with his soft voice and quiet hands and innate, peaceful understanding- Paul with all his warmth, who was anything but forceful or alarming. Or Flynn, who did
use force, but only to contain or to comfort when you felt like you were at the end of the world- and you felt anything but brutalised when he did it. Those memories of being overwhelmed and held by Flynn were easily some of the safest and most potent of Dale's life. There were some seriously impressive personalities in this house, but-  

You have responsibilities to us to belong.

What Jasper meant was that this was two way. That was how it worked. It wasn't enough just to love them. You had to let yourself be loved – you had a duty to the others to accept as well as give, and to show them the trust of expecting their love and believing that it would be there. Which was damn hard.

"It's all based in emotion, isn't it?" Dale said aloud. "It's-"

He broke off, embarrassed at himself, but Paul nodded. "Yes. Philip was exceptionally good at helping people to get their emotions in the right place, and then swooping in and doing what they needed. Which usually cemented the bond even tighter. I think that was why he tended to make friends for life, he was as open hearted as Riley is. He would have loved you, you know?"

"More like he'd have been outraged at how little I get it." Dale muttered. Paul laughed.


"You don't think Philip would have understood you? Sweetheart, what do you think makes a Top? Philip taught generations of brats to 'get it'. He had exactly your kind of mind, your kind of perception, he spent his whole life looking out for bright young MDs and he loved mentoring them, that was exactly how we got started with clients here. And he had a very soft spot for any brat. Trust me, he would have loved you." Paul got up and folded the cloth. "Is there any danger of you behaving yourself if you come down off those stairs?"

It was kindly put, but Dale still flushed, knowing what Paul could, and probably should have said and it added yet more to the maelstrom of emotion he was wrestling with.

"….I'm sorry for mouthing off at you." he said awkwardly but sincerely. And the ready compassion in Paul's face pulled out another rush of confiding before his conscious mind even engaged.

"I'm angry, Paul.  I don't know even why, it's not really with anyone or about anything I'm being asked to do, but I feel – ready to bite something."


Paul came up the stairs to sit beside him and Dale shut his eyes at the familiar weight of Paul's hand on his shoulder, not hesitating to turn and lean against Paul's chest where Paul drew him. For several moments they sat there in silence and Dale felt Paul's chin against the top of his head and the warm pressure of Paul's hand rubbing slowly up and down his back, draining away tension and uncertainty. It helped. It helped to a ridiculous degree.  

"I think some of the reason," Paul said gently after a while, "Is that you're stewing about something. And that's just my guess, and you're quite right that we can't make you talk about it. You have to want to. But if you are worried about something honey, then I'd think very hard about what to do about it."

Ouch.

Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch. Bugger.

Dale got up off the step, taking a deep breath and steeling himself.

"Do you know where Flynn is?"
  


*



He was walking across to the corral and he stood and waited when he saw Dale heading towards him, his Stetson casting a shadow down over his face. Solid, relaxed, familiar as breathing, and Dale's chest tightened at the sight of him, at the quick smile Flynn gave him that reached only his eyes and not his mouth.

"Hey. The hayloft's immaculate, you did a good job there. I wondered where you'd got to."

"Paul." Dale said with some embarrassment. Flynn raised an eyebrow.


"What happened?"

"I kind of mouthed off to him." Dale admitted, flushing, "And I got into trouble with Jasper earlier on, and I got clouted by Riley too, so all round-"

"Riley?" Flynn smiled at Dale's expression, dropping an arm around Dale's shoulders as they walked and yanking him over into a rough hug so that Dale crashed against him, against warm, hard muscle and the clean smell of cologne and sweat and horses. "So not a great morning?"

"No." Dale leaned against the corral rail and Flynn climbed up to sit astride it, dropping the head collar he carried down over the post, still very near him.

"What's going wrong?"

"I need to talk to you about something." Dale said slowly. "I didn't think I - but – it's probably bugging me and I feel bad now that I'm sitting on it. I didn't see it before as sitting on information, it just didn't feel like a good time-"

"Dale." Flynn shifted position on the rail. "Don't think about it, just say it."

"I've thought about it a lot." Dale looked down at the grass, gathering himself, then looked up at Flynn's dark green eyes. "I'm-  not going back to work for A.N.Z. I pretty much decided a few weeks back. I knew this last year I wasn't surviving, it's good in some ways but it's awful in others and I can't do it any more. And that's not being afraid to go back and face the work or holding it together, not obsessing, any of the rest of it, which is the work stuff." he added, mentally pulling together several threads, all of which he realised had been bothering him for a long time. "I said to Riley it was like – like a vegetarian continuing to hunt. I know
what's wrong about it, it doesn't fit with who I am or even what I want or might want, or any –"

"Slow down." Flynn said gently.


Dale took a breath. "I can't see any Top who'd be bothered with me ever agreeing to that kind of working life and there's no room for any kind of relationship or life around that, is there?"

"Who'd be bothered with you?" Flynn swung a leg over the top of the rail and dropped to the ground, putting a hand under Dale's chin to lift it. "No. No Top is going to want to let you work like that around a relationship; and don't throw in what you want like it's the least important part of all this. What do you want?"

"I guess I fit this kind of lifestyle," Dale began tentatively. Flynn shook his head.

"No. You told me you know what you want, you can say it out loud. What do you want?"

"If I ever did get how to –" Dale started and jumped at Flynn's soft but extremely meaningful,

"Dale……."

How did you say these things straight out? Dale swallowed, trying to phrase it.


"I – like knowing where I stand, it calms me down, it makes complete sense and I feel sane. I feel safe, which sounds stupid –"

Flynn turned him around and swatted him, not gently, and on an already tender place.


"Never mind what you think I think, or what anyone else might think, what do you want?"

Dale put both hands behind him, stung into blurting it out.

"This kind of lifestyle! I don't mean I expect to stay here and I don't know what the hell I'd do for work and who'd want all the Perfectionist crap anyway-"

His voice was rising with panic as the dam released and Flynn put an arm around his neck, pulling Dale against him, holding him tightly, and feeling Dale's arms lift and lock around his neck in return.  

"Easy. It's all right. You don't have to make any decisions now, you can be here for as long as you want to and you've got all the time you need. These are all things we can work on, it's fine."

"That was what Riley said." Dale said unsteadily. Flynn was rubbing his back, somehow a very different touch from Paul's - a slow, steady pressure that didn't seem to affect how tightly he could hold you or how very safe he could make you feel, or that nothing, no matter how terrible, looked nearly so bad from inside his arms. Dale shut his eyes and felt Flynn pull him closer, the firm pressure of a kiss on the top of his head.


"Dale it's all right. Yes, it's terrifying stuff but you have us and you have no deadlines. Get your head around that. No deadlines."

"I didn't know if you'd want to try and talk me out of it." Dale said almost inaudibly. "I was supposed to come here to be fixed for work."

"It's not for me to talk you into or out of anything, and you didn't come here to be fixed for anything." Flynn said evenly. "You came here for us to help you figure out what you wanted and equip you to do it. That takes as long as it takes, and it happens in your time. You're not the first client who decided to retire, and you know you're not the first brat who spent time here working out what he wanted."

No. That helped.


"As for a Top being bothered with you-" Flynn put Dale back to look at him. "Do you think Paul and Jas and I are insane or just being polite?"

Ouch again, Aden. What did Riley say? '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.'

"I got in to trouble with Jasper this morning," Dale said, acutely aware of how stupid the term 'in trouble' was for a grown man but finding no meaningful substitution, "Because he asked me what was wrong and I said I was ok. Just 'ok', that's fine anywhere else on the planet!"

"But not here." Flynn agreed, not debating it. Dale leaned both hands on the fence, stifling a brief urge to kick the post, hard. "Riley then basically said serve me right. I was vile to Jasper and to Paul and I knew exactly what I was doing, and I hate
this 'no lying' crap!"

"Because it's ridiculous and serves no purpose." Flynn said with understanding. Dale gave him a glare that suggested biting a chunk out of the fence was a real option.


"No! Because now it means I can never do it again! Now I know what it means, how can I look at any of you four and do it? And I hate that because it makes me feel so damn-"

"What?" Flynn invited when Dale trailed off.


"Exposed." Dale snapped back. "Unsafe. Stupid! Yet under paragraph four b of the Falls Chance Anti-Bloody-Perfectionist act-"

Flynn laughed, one of his very rare cracks of laughter that grabbed Dale at gut level like a magnet, and hooked an arm around Dale's neck, tugging him over into a crushing hug that stifled the rest of his diatribe.


"You'll live. Stop focusing on the downsides."




It was as they were walking back towards the yard that Flynn asked casually,

"You talked this through with Riley? It sounds like he was able to help."

Yes, every time. Dale felt the rush of warmth at the thought.


"He was great. It wasn't that I didn't trust you-"

"It was just that you didn't trust me?" Flynn said, smiling when Dale didn't go on. Dale gave him a very awkward shrug.


"I didn't feel – sure enough. I wasn't sure I could justify it or knew enough to be able to talk about it –"

"It's all right, you've told me now." Flynn said without reproach. "When exactly did you tell Riley, do you remember?"


"A couple of weeks back I think?" Dale looked over, alerted by Flynn's tone. "Why?"

"Oh, no reason." Flynn strolled ahead of him into the yard but Dale caught his brief and unmistakeable wink with more mischief than he'd ever before seen in Flynn's usually rather set face. And jumped at the bellow Flynn let loose that shook the yard.

"Riley James Hamilton!"

There was an echoing silence in the yard, then Jasper came to the door of the stables, Paul came out on to the porch and Riley emerged rather slowly from the barn, looking extremely nervous.

"What?!"

Flynn beckoned to him, standing right where he was.

"Here. Now."

"I didn't do anything!" Riley protested, not moving. Flynn pointed at the ground in front of him and very slowly Riley came across the yard.


"I didn't, I haven't done a damned thing!"

Flynn waited until Riley nearly reached him before he made a grab for Riley's collar.


"You mean other than wide eyes and 'Oh Flynn however are you going to tell him?'
You evil little devil, you've been watching us going round in circles for a fortnight!"

Riley dodged out of his reach with a shout of laughter and Flynn took off after him, pelting across the yard.

"He knew what?" Paul demanded of Dale, coming down the porch steps. Flynn captured Riley at the pasture gate and scooped him up over one shoulder, carrying him squirming and laughing, back to the porch rail.

"Dale has made the decision not to go back to work for A.N.Z." he announced. "He explained this to Riley about a fortnight ago."

He propped a foot up on the porch step and slung Riley face down over his knee, bringing his palm down in a swat that was more noisy than powerful, although Riley yelped.


"So glad you don't have to be a Top hmm? You'd never be able to sort out anything for yourself?"

"Well I wasn't going to burst your bubble," Riley pointed out, trying to lever himself off Flynn's thigh and getting nowhere. "I was just bowing to your superior knowledge-"

"You little devil!" Flynn landed a flurry of swats across the seat of Riley's jeans, but either his hand was cupped or they weren't quite as hard as they looked as Riley was laughing. "I ought to spank you every night for a week, and that's before the others get started on you!"


"I can't help always being right!" Riley slithered to the ground and grinned at Flynn. "You always say it's better to learn things for yourself."

Flynn made a grab for him and Riley took off up the porch steps where Jasper caught him, digging long fingers into Riley's ribs in a way that made Riley crunch helplessly into a ball and scream.


"You're not going back to A.N.Z?" Paul asked Dale, taking no notice of this. Dale, distracted by the sight of Riley under attack from Jasper and now Flynn as well, and reaching the point of total hysteria, gave Paul a shy smile that made Paul's face light up in response.

"No. I'm done."



*



"That must have been a very tough decision." Ash said quietly some nights later when they were sitting on the porch. Dinner was over: Riley and Paul's voices were audible from the kitchen where they were washing dishes, and Ash, having rather shamefacedly asked Paul's permission, had pulled a cigar from a packet in his car and was smoking it slowly, the blue smoke curling up and across the yard. The scent was strong and spicy and oddly pleasant.

"Not so much hard." Dale said slowly. "Not to make. I knew for the last few months at A.N.Z I was burning out. I just tend to get – so blinkered – that stupid as it sounds, I couldn't think there was any alternative. What was hard was facing up to the decision and admitting that it actually is over. It's good, I get a rush of relief every time I remember, but it's bloody frightening too."

Ash, who Dale knew, understood fully what it was he was giving up, blew another soft stream of smoke across the yard. He was remarkably easy to talk to and so interested in talking what he called 'shop' – and so interesting in turn when he swapped into stories about the mild daily domestic details of his and Gerry's life as he very often did – that Dale had found himself losing hours at a time in Ash's company without noticing. It was a species of friendship that was completely foreign to him.


"You've got no shortage of time," he said casually, getting up to lean on the rail which gave a beautiful view down towards the aspen woods through the home pasture, "You can settle in now to think about what you really want to do. You'll be more than comfortably solvent, you said you've got no property or assets to worry about."

That was Tops for you: straight into the essential practicalities. And when they did, it made it clear you were one of their accepted brood. Gerry had explained it in those terms and the thought still made Dale smile.


"No, nothing to sell up. I hardly ever stayed anywhere that wasn't on expenses."

Ash laughed. "When you call in an A.N.Z. consultant, you've got the budget and you're making very sure the guy is comfortable enough to have his mind on your job. You might even say the
A.N.Z. consultant. With the reputation you've built up, you'd make a fortune from free lance consultancy alone. In fact you'd find the offers coming still thicker and faster once the word gets out that you're independent rather than representing A.N.Z.'s interests – that's unless you decide to see what A.N.Z. themselves might want to offer to you? I think you'll find they'll be coming up with a whole lot of very tempting proposals."

"I don't want to work for any company or corporate." The words slipped out before Dale had fully realised what he was saying. He was surprised at how definite he sounded. "That's what sucks me in, I'd never be able to avoid it. And I won't do anything either that competes with or takes clients from A.N.Z."

"And that'll be another big raft of offers." Ash agreed. "You might actually want to set the communication channels up through a lawyer, someone to filter and save you handling it. You know Philip barely ever went off the ranch? He free lanced: the word was out that he'd mediate or he'd advise and he had a steady stream of people begging to come out here for his help. It depends on the kind of thing that catches your interest and you've built up more than enough of a reputation and background of experience that you can take your pick."


"I have no idea what I do want to do. Or where." Dale admitted. "I just know a lot about what I don't want. Flynn said I was obsessed with the downsides."

"Too worried about the deficit column." Ash said, smiling. "And too scared to go look at the assets. You told me about expansion: it's a high stack game and the social factors are the biggest stake. You have to take the risk to make the gain."

"If it's numbers and figures I know what I'm doing," Dale said wryly, "I feel safe there!"

"Actually that's not true," Ash pinched out the butt of his cigar. "You were just as skilled in the social and psychological factors. You got man management. You handled very large teams of people and people aren't predictable. You might only feel safe with those skills around a work situation at the moment but you do have them."

"If I had some bloody idea of what I could do with them." Dale said darkly.


"Quit the swearing." Ash said firmly.

He saw the half startled, half alarmed look Dale gave him, although Dale did his best to stifle it, and almost instantaneously, Jasper's voice intervened from the doorway of the stables, from where he had been glancing at regular intervals while Dale and Ash talked.

"Dale, give me a hand with the calf?"

Dale promptly straightened up off the porch rail, jogging down the steps ahead of him towards the stables. Ash stifled a smile and went back to the swing, crossing his ankles as he relaxed there.

"What are you smirking about?" Gerry demanded, leaning on the back of his chair. Ash lifted his face to be kissed and Gerry obliged, smiling at him when they finally separated. Ash sat back, letting Gerry wrap both arms around his neck from behind, and then murmuring something into Gerry's ear.

"No!" Gerry said in shock. "You're kidding me?"

"Not a word." Ash said warningly. "I mean it Gerald. It's only a suspicion."


"Oh cross my heart," Gerry said promptly. "Silent as the grave, you know me! But if you're serious-"

"I'm serious, but that doesn't make me right." Ash said serenely. "I think we'll see."




*



It was while getting ready for bed one evening that Dale mechanically dived a hand into a pockets of the jeans he was about to put in to be washed, and found the tiny key from Philip's desk.

Paul was still in the kitchen, seated at the table and writing in the notebook open in front of him, and he glanced up when Dale came in.

"I thought you'd gone up to bed?"

"I had." Dale opened his palm to offer him the key. "I found this in the study. I knocked a pen off the desk and when I picked it up, I saw this on a ledge on the underside of the desk. It opens a side panel underneath the desk, you can only see it if you know what you're looking for."

"What was in it?" Paul asked in sheer curiosity, turning the key over in Dale's palm. "I'll bet David had that desk made. He had a genius for stashing things away, he was a born squirrel. You'd be amazed what's hidden all over this ranch, I'm sure we haven't yet found half of it."

"I didn't look through it," Dale said rather awkwardly, feeling somewhat guilty at having even opened the desk. "But there was a book there – a leather backed book like a photo album, and I opened that. It was full of articles Flynn had written. I think probably all of them, in sequence, cut out of journals."

"Philip." Paul said with his eyes soft. "He spent a long time encouraging Flynn to write and publish."


"He didn't want to?" Dale said, unable to help himself although it was personal information.

Paul shook his head. "He didn't have the confidence at first. I think his father probably said some very bitter things when Flynn left."

"I know he wasn't too happy there." Dale said softly. "He told me a bit about the sheep station."

"He talked to you about New Zealand?" Paul asked, surprised. Dale nodded.


"A little."

Paul nodded, eyebrows still slightly raised. "It's just something he hardly ever says a word about to anyone, and – well. Let’s just say when Flynn's really in one of his moods and you can't get a word out of him, I often think we're seeing Mr O'Sullivan Senior. I don't think at home he was used to being encouraged by anyone."

Which made it no wonder that Philip's support had meant so much to him. Dale offered Paul the key, very touched.

"Could you show this to Flynn?"

"Why not you?" Paul asked, not taking the key. "You found it, honey."

"It –" Dale hesitated, not quite sure how to put it. "It's too sensitive. It ought to be someone who loves him."

"And you don't?" Paul said genially. Dale flushed.


"Not like you three do, not for something like this. It ought to be one of you."

"You're not a client, get over it." Paul said gently. "You show him. He's in the study."





Flynn was sitting in the deep study window seat beside the open door out onto the porch, a book open in his hands, and Dale didn't recognise the cover. The desk lamp was on, it's light pooling across the green leather surface. Flynn glanced up as Dale opened the door and laid the book down on his knee.

"What's the matter?"

Dale shut the door behind him and held up the key.


"There's something I wanted to show you?"

He didn't say anything more. Just knelt down beside the desk and Flynn got up, coming to watch him as he slid the little key into the keyhole and turned it. He took the silver and black fountain pen from the shelf and handed it upward to Flynn who took it gently from his fingers, hissing between his teeth.

"My God! I never knew what happened to this, it was the only thing Philip ever wrote with!"


He turned it over as delicately as if it was something very precious and Dale watched him with his chest tightening in response. He lifted the maroon bound book up onto the desk and softly closed the compartment.

"There was this too. With the pen."

"What is it?" Flynn said with interest, coming to look over his shoulder. Dale slipped to one side, letting him stand direct in front of it and Flynn put out a finger to lift the heavy bound cover. The first page drew an exclamation from him. Then he turned another page and hooked an ankle around the admirals chair, drawing it in and sitting down to turn the pages slowly, article after article. His hair curled fractionally over his collar at the nape of his neck, the sand coloured strands shining in the dim lamplight. Looking, Dale could hardly keep his fingers back, and finally, very hesitantly, he put his hand over Flynn's neck.

"It's every one." Flynn said eventually in a slightly blurred voice, not looking up. "Every single one. I never knew he did this."

"He must have been so proud of you." Dale said on impulse, saying aloud the first thing he had thought when he saw this book.


He felt Flynn's jaw clench under his hand, heard the catch in his breathing, and Flynn's arm rose and clasped tightly around his waist. Dale went on lightly stroking the nape of his neck, watching him turn the yellowed pages.



***


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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