"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."
"Really nothing more?"
"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?"
"What kinds of profiles?" Dale asked out of sheer curiosity. Flynn shrugged a little.
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.
Yeah, hold on to the paperwork Flynn, we don't want the resident nut case to obsess over that too.
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 carefully took the offered chair, not quite sure what to make of that. Ash crossed his ankles, slouching comfortably.
….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 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.
"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."
"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.
"And that's where your company's based?"
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
"Sharps box?" Dale asked, holding up the syringe. Jasper nodded, stepping back out of his way.
"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."
"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.
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.
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.
"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?"
"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?"
"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?"
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.
"Then serve you right, they warned you." Riley said, not unkindly.
"Someone as –" Dale trailed off, not sure how to put 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?"
And Flynn? And Jasper, and Paul and Gerry and Riley, the other people Philip had used his myriad skills on?
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-
"More like he'd have been outraged at how little I get it." Dale muttered. Paul laughed.
"Paul." Dale said with some embarrassment. Flynn raised an eyebrow.
"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.
How did you say these things straight out? Dale swallowed, trying to phrase it.
Flynn turned him around and swatted him, not gently, and on an already tender place.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"What?" Flynn invited when Dale trailed off.
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.
Yes, every time. Dale felt the rush of warmth at the thought.
"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.
"It's all right, you've told me now." Flynn said without reproach. "When exactly did you tell Riley, do you remember?"
"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.
Flynn waited until Riley nearly reached him before he made a grab for Riley's collar.
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.
"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!"
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.
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.
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.
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."
"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."
"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.
"I'm serious, but that doesn't make me right." Ash said serenely. "I think we'll see."
"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 talked to you about New Zealand?" Paul asked, surprised. Dale nodded.
"And you don't?" Paul said genially. Dale flushed.
"You're not a client, get over it." Paul said gently. "You show him. He's in the study."
Dale shut the door behind him and held up the key.
"My God! I never knew what happened to this, it was the only thing Philip ever wrote with!"
"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.