Friday, December 11, 2009

Chapter 5


Dale slept perhaps two hours after that: used to working most of the night and sleeping in cat naps it wasn't difficult to wake when he heard the others start to move, or to pull his head together quickly and efficiently. He ran his head under cold water, shaved and dressed, and by the time he came downstairs for breakfast the mirror had shown him someone fully awake, alert and capable.

"Where's the fire?" Paul demanded when he came into the kitchen. Dale looked at him blankly, not understanding. Paul shook his head, sounding very wry which Dale didn't understand either.

"You'd better sit down and work on chilling out before you take off. Did you see Riley?"

"No?" Dale said honestly. Flynn glanced up and Paul shook his head at him.

"He's probably a little sleepy this morning, since some people had an adventurous night."

Flynn's eyebrows rose and not quite sure why, Dale moved with alacrity towards the door.

"I'll see if he's awake."

"What was that about?" Flynn demanded as Dale escaped upstairs. Paul pulled out his chair and sat down.

"Guilty conscience. I found the two of them looking over David's map at four thirty this morning."


"Dale was very exact about the time when I asked." Paul said serenely. "I'll deal with it after breakfast. Good morning Jas."

Jasper kicked off his boots in the kitchen doorway and came to sit down, stretching until his shoulders cracked.

"The colt's doing fine. I'll call Clara over this morning to take a look, but I don't think he'll need stitching or anything more than an antibiotic shot."

"Riley did a good job with him." Flynn said shortly. Paul gave him a look of exasperated affection.

"Riley always does. And you could try telling him that if he's speaking to you this morning."

It took several minutes of concentrated shaking to get Riley conscious. He was heavy eyed throughout breakfast, and when Paul requested both Dale and Riley to help him with the clearing of the table, Riley moaned expressively. Paul took no notice, beginning to wash dishes while Flynn and Jasper went out to start their own work. There was some relief for Dale in seeing Flynn leave: Paul, however annoyed, was far less imposing. Once they were gone and the table was cleared, Paul still didn't look in the least cross, but he leaned against the counter, indicating the still pulled out chairs.

"Take a seat you two."

Normal people really didn't speak to CEOs like this. Dale slid into a chair with as much reserved dignity as possible, and watched Riley flop into another one opposite looking remarkably apprehensive considering Paul's gentle tone.

"It was five minutes, we were awake anyway –"

"What were you doing up in the first place?" Paul looked across at Dale, who responded automatically to a straight question.

"I couldn't sleep."

"And how long were you downstairs?" Paul asked. Dale considered, puzzled by the peculiar faces Riley was pulling at him.

"Probably about three hours. I went out for a run-"

Riley's head crashed straight down onto the table beside him, making him jump. Paul's lips twitched but he didn't look round.

"You went out for a run?" he repeated gravely. Dale nodded.

"For a couple of hours. It helps me sleep."

"And the rules about getting out of bed at night are?" Paul invited.

"Only to the bathroom." Dale reiterated, thinking of the house rules. "But I couldn't sleep."

"Mhm." Paul looked at him for a moment and then gave him a mild nod towards the door. "Flynn's in charge of your programme, I think you'd better go and talk this through with him. Come and tell me when you're done."

That sent an unpleasant bolt through Dale. It seemed such a simple thing for an adult to get up when unable to sleep, but Flynn and broken house rules were a different matter altogether. He got up rather slowly, aware of his stomach starting to clench as if he'd been ordered out of class to the headmaster's office.

This is stupid. You're a grown man, pull yourself together.

"He's in the stables." Paul said, waiting. There was no help for it. Dale pulled sneakers on, closed the kitchen door behind him and made his way across the yard.

He found Flynn starting work on the horses that currently occupied the stables – several of them, including the pregnant mares, he groomed and put out into the pastures daily, and he was buckling a head collar on to one of the mares when he saw Dale.

"That was quick." he commented, raising an eyebrow. Dale folded his arms, making the matter of fact report in the same way he would have given unpalatable news to another department head and grimly quashing the churning inside. Department heads didn't put a riding crop or a paddle across your backside when they were sufficiently displeased. And he had an uneasy feeling that he probably deserved it.

"Paul asked me to let you know I went out for a run last night. I couldn't sleep."

"And you met with Riley on your way back?" Flynn asked, finishing the buckles.

"Yes. He was in the kitchen and he took me up to see the map."

Too late, Dale realised that was possibly a little unfair on Riley – tale telling was something long since left behind at prep school, but then Riley was liable to be 'spanked' as he put it, according to rules Dale yet didn't understand and which appeared to be as mad as everything else around here. Hoping he had not caused Riley any problems, he stood back as Flynn unlatched the stall and led the mare past him towards the pasture.

"Come on." Flynn said over his shoulder when Dale didn't follow.

It was several minutes walk to the pasture where the other pregnant mare was grazing, moving lazily across the grass under the sunshine with her huge belly apparently causing her a good deal of smugness rather than discomfort. Dale leaned on the fence and watched Flynn release her companion, hooking the gate securely behind him.

"How far did you run?"

"Up there." Dale indicated the route towards the airstrip. "I suppose that's three or four miles there and back."

"In the dark."

There was something about the way Flynn said that, that made Dale feel still more at fault. And yet he hadn't said it with any kind of accusation at all.

"There was a good moon." he said shortly, trying not to sound defensive.

And I'm not twelve for pete's sake, you cannot lay down the law about what a grown man does in his own time when he's kept your damned rules all day.

"Why are you here?" Flynn asked bluntly, folding his arms and leaning back against the gate to look straight at him.

Prepared to withstand any nonsense about hours and rules, that question took the wind out of Dale's sails in one swoop. It was a minute before he could answer, and when he did, he was aware his voice didn't entirely conceal the bitterness, just hid it behind crispness and formality. 

"Because I broke down. Because I adopted habits which are unviable long term, and was unable to break myself out of those habits alone."

"One of which is?" Flynn asked, cocking an eyebrow.

All right, I know. I get it.

"Running or exercising to control stress."

"Over-exercising." Flynn corrected quietly. "It is not normal to throw up. It's not normal to push yourself that far, or to use exercise to self medicate when you can't sleep or can't relax. What did I say to do if you had a problem at night?"

"I am not going to wake you or anyone else," Dale snapped. "That's ridiculous."

"Do you have the answers as to what to do instead of run yourself sick, or lie and worry yourself crazy?" Flynn inquired. "That's what I'm for and what your firm is paying me to give you. I'll tell you what you're not to do, Dale; if you don't know what to do instead, then you need to ask for help. I don't care what time of the day or the night it is. I expect you to come straight to me. Are we clear?"

Dale looked at him, too angry to answer that, and not even sure what he was angry about. Flynn looked straight back, unmoved, in a way that reminded Dale suddenly and physically, that Flynn stood a good half head taller than he was, and a good deal broader, and that the tanned forearms under the short sleeves of his shirt contained a great deal of strength. 

"You will not at any time leave the house for a run without checking with me first. And you will not leave your bed for any reason but to go to the bathroom OR to come to me for advice if you need it. If you make it necessary, I'll take steps to make sure you're supervised at night."

"You'll WHAT?" Dale demanded, outraged. Flynn didn't move.

"If I was breaking you of an alcohol addiction I wouldn't leave you to sneak down to the cocktail cabinet at night. However hard this is, these addictions need to be broken and I need your help with it. Are we clear?"

This man ought to be in charge of a bloody chain gang somewhere, not fields and horses. He was shameless. And he was still looking, as if what he was saying was completely reasonable.

"Yes." Dale spat eventually. "It is perfectly clear. Thank you. I've fully absorbed that threat."

"Good." Flynn said evenly. "I've got the rest of the horses to move. You can start on cleaning the stalls please."

"Paul requested my presence in the kitchen when you had said all you felt you needed to," Dale said with acid courtesy, resisting the urge to clench his fists. "So if you'll excuse me-"

"I haven't excused you." Flynn disappeared into the stables without looking at him. "I want the stalls done first. So Paul can wait. And think about the timing please."

There was a pitchfork within reach. Dale looked at it for a minute, digging his nails into his palms, then gave Flynn a brief, stiff nod that was half a sardonic bow and stalked towards the first of the stalls. If his lordship wanted the bloody stalls done, to the time that he wanted, then so be it.

With a mathematician's brain and a vicious sense of satisfaction, Dale analysed the task with the same conciseness he had applied to many other problems but never before with this much rage. There was an hour and a half to fill. The stall was approximately ten steps from end to end and each step took a set time, each square six feet of straw took a set time to lift, the walk with the barrow down the corridor to the muck heap took a set time – the arithmetic was child's play. Using his watch to double check exactly on the timing of a second, Dale counted while he moved, breaking each action down exactly to the allotted time. He was engaged in the third stall when Flynn cleared his throat. His expression was unreadable and he was standing at the end of the hallway.

"What exactly are you doing?"

"Chores. To time." Dale said with brusque satisfaction. "As asked. By your reckoning I have eleven minutes and twenty five seconds per stall, each step therefore needs to take one point seven seconds to fulfil the requirement."

Flynn made no comment, simply looking at him. Dale leaned on his pitchfork and courteously indicated his watch.

"How much time would you prefer me to allow for this conversation, or should I subtract it from the overall allotted time for the task? I can recalculate if necessary, it's no trouble."

Flynn made no answer to that, merely lifted a finger and beckoned.

It was such a bizarre thing to do that for a moment Dale had no idea what he meant, then with some sardonic satisfaction that he had actually shaken the man's convictions- and despite himself, not quite daring to refuse - he laid down the pitchfork and went down the hallway to him. Flynn put a hand on his shoulder, led him out into the sunlit yard and overturned an empty bucket by the wall.

"Sit there."

Aha, more sitting therapy.

Dale gave him a polite bow and took a seat. Flynn picked up the barrow he'd been pushing when he stopped to watch, and continued with his work, taking no further notice of Dale.

Initially there was satisfaction. Within a few minutes, there was distinct restlessness. And no little sense of annoyance that the damned man wouldn't even fight properly.

"Sit." Flynn said briefly when Dale got up to stretch his legs.

"For what purpose?" Dale asked with grim politeness. And realised, as he looked, with a distinct uneasiness that Flynn had taken over the cleaning of the stalls. On the previous days the work had been left waiting as long as necessary while he was made to sit.

"Because you're clearly not fit for work today." Flynn carried on sweeping, long and steady movements that flexed his back beneath his shirt.


That had sinister connotations. There had always been something to do, every day, something hard and physical from the first day of shifting the pile of rocks. Dale sat slowly back on the bucket, stomach chilling. The man wasn't serious. He wouldn't expect anyone just to – sit – for the extent of an entire day? No. This was just posturing, the standard manoeuvring in any power exchange, just a threat to intimidate and reduce resistance. Dale had used the same tactics himself in making deals. In a moment the chance would be offered again.

Ten minutes.

Twenty minutes.

"Dale, sit." Flynn said again without looking round. On the point of going mad, legs starting to itch with sheer inactivity, Dale walked several times around the bucket before he could make himself sit again – and he sat only in the now urgent need to compromise between dignity and survival.

"You wanted it done to time, it was BEING done to bloody time, how else should I slow it down!" he snapped at Flynn's back. Flynn didn't respond. Dale dropped his head into his hands, digging his fingers into his temples. To not do was impossible. This was impossible. Unendurable.

"All right. I'll do it properly. I'll try. I'll stop screwing about like a good boy, just like I promised yesterday - will that satisfy you?"

Flynn went on sweeping, calmly, still not responding.

He was bluffing. He had to be bluffing. It was like trying to fight with a brick wall.

Ok you bastard, I'll wait. I'll wait you out, you're not going to get an apology or begging from me.

Thirty minutes.

Thirty five minutes.

No. No, this couldn't be done. This was beyond a joke now. Dale kicked the bucket clear across the yard as he got up, grabbed the second pitchfork from the wall where it hung, and attacked the final stall still in need of cleaning.


No. If one refused to hear, if one refused to compromise, they would have to deal. They would have no choice. There was a limit to just how far they could push.

"Dale." Flynn's hand closed over Dale's arm, pulling it back to take the pitchfork from him. Dale wrenched himself free.

"Get off!"

A second later the pitchfork was yanked from his hand in one clean, powerful swipe he couldn't have resisted if he'd had time to try, and was flung out of reach to clatter harmlessly on the cobbles of the hallway.

"Get your butt back to the doorway and sit."

The obscenity that Dale spat back at him was one Dale was faintly surprised he even knew. Flynn neither reacted nor moved an inch, levelling a finger at the doorway.


The bastard didn't even shout. Flynn put out a hand to take his shoulder, presumably to march him back towards that blasted bucket, and the white heat that had been smouldering all morning abruptly detonated like coal gas given a spark. Dale lunged at Flynn's face with a fist that hadn't been raised like this since he was fourteen. Flynn grabbed his wrist without any apparent difficulty, and without knowing quite how it happened Dale found himself spun so his back was against Flynn's chest, Flynn's hands clamped over his wrists, and he was hustled into the yard faster than he could resist no matter how he pulled or twisted. Flynn walked like a tank, taller and broader and simply pushing Dale ahead of him. A moment later they were away from the stables and in one of the meadows where the long grass made walking any further too difficult, and Dale twisted, doing his best to stamp on or to kick any part of Flynn within reach. 

Flynn said nothing throughout, evading his efforts without difficulty and not releasing the iron grip over Dale's hands, until in sheer exhaustion Dale dropped his head and stood still for a minute, panting. The grasp was entirely painless, which was more annoying still: Flynn wasn't even out of breath.

"Are you done?" Flynn said behind him, making no attempt to let go of his wrists. "Giving up yet?"

"Fuck you." Dale said without lifting his head. He heard the mocking in Flynn's voice, it immediately re ignited the fire.

"Oh come on, I know you have more than that."

Dale promptly lashed out at him, doing his best to sock Flynn in the jaw. Flynn didn't even let him turn around.

"Is that all you have for me? I haven't made you any more angry than that? Come on, try it again. Hit me. I know you want to. Try again, HIT ME."

The bellow was as provoking as the teasing. Dale thrashed and struggled, silently and with all his strength, doing his best to tear his hands out of Flynn's grasp. He had no idea how long they fought. He knew at some point he'd gone to his knees and Flynn crouched in the grass still holding him without effort. The man's strength was ridiculous.

"Come on Dale. Use that brilliant mind of yours and figure out how to get me off. It has to be good for something."

There wasn't the breath left to swear. Dale struggled desperately to get his fists free, to get to Flynn's throat, but the grip wasn't breakable. He was beyond panting and the meadow was starting to blur in front of him when his muscles finally mutinied on him and he flopped in Flynn's grasp, trying to drop down onto the grass, gulping for breath. Flynn held him where he was, not letting him go, not letting him fall. There was silence in the meadow for a while; just the distant and occasional baaing of sheep and the wheezing of breathing that had begun to hurt. And then, without warning, Dale felt himself begin to shake, hard, all over.

Flynn sat down on the grass, an arm came around him and physically lifted him so that he leaned with his back against Flynn, Dale could feel one of Flynn's legs under him, his breath against the back of his neck and a very deep voice that didn't hold a trace of mockery now.

"All right. It's all right. Let it go, you're going to feel a lot better when you do."

Dale clutched the arm around him, shaking hard, lips tight, absolutely silent. It was taking all his strength not to move, not to make a sound.

Another hand, large and rough, closed over the nape of his neck and rubbed, deeply and very firmly, and the touch seemed to take apart every effort he was making not to breathe.

"It's okay, there's no one to see you. I've got you, let it go now."

Dale took a breath, that was all, but he felt the shaking suddenly fray apart, and the rush of tears exploded as if breaking past a dam. Flynn said nothing at all, but the heavy arms fenced around Dale didn't let go, and that large hand continued to rub slowly over his neck.

He had no idea how long they sat there. He was aware when Flynn helped him lie down on his back in the grass that the sun was directly overhead and that his face was stiff was salt, although he was finally breathing quietly. Flynn hadn't said a word and he said nothing now, just sitting with an elbow propped on his knee, a scant few inches away. Dale swallowed for a while on a very sore throat. He was exhausted as though he had run a marathon and his head was splitting, but what he was mostly conscious of now was a terrible sense of humiliation.

"I've never behaved like that to anyone." he said unsteadily when he could make himself speak. Flynn shook his head at once.

"No. That badly needed to come out. The usual rules do not apply out here."

"I'm so sorry."

"You've been building up since you came downstairs this morning." Flynn gave him a look Dale couldn't read. "I think we know now that you get hyper when you're short on sleep."

"I promised yesterday to cut-"

"Yes, you did," Flynn interrupted quietly, "and you meant it. You meant it today too, I know. This isn't going to be a quick or an easy process. Dale, look at me."

That tone made Dale's eyes snap up and Flynn held his gaze.

"I can see how hard you're trying. I don't doubt that for a moment."

That helped.

Dale put his hands over his face, trying to wipe off both salt and stiffness. Flynn got up, holding out a hand. Dale staggered up to his knees and let Flynn pull him to his feet, wincing against the sun. Flynn said nothing but he walked slowly, guiding Dale close with him up the porch step and into the cool of the house. The house was silent and there was no one else in sight. Dale found himself turning a dull, dark red at the thought of any of the others having witnessed that scene in the meadow: he hadn't even thought who might be within earshot. Flynn took him straight upstairs to his room with that arm around his shoulders.

"Get undressed, I'll be right back."

Stiffly, Dale peeled his jeans and socks off and before he was done folding them Flynn passed him to pull the bedcovers back. He was carrying a washcloth and a glass of water. Dale slid under the sheets and gratefully accepted the water as Flynn folded the washcloth.

"What got you out of bed last night? What were you thinking about?"

It was his usual tone: uncritical, calm as though nothing unusual had happened. The familiarity alone was reassuring; Dale found it no effort to answer nor to look the older man in the eyes.  

"Work. What needed doing."

"What started you thinking about work?"

That was less explainable. Flynn sat down on the edge of the bed while Dale washed his face, scrubbed at sore eyes, and then looked at his hands, getting steadily more uncomfortable.

"I don't know." 

"You didn't much like Riley and I sniping at each other, did you?"

"I've handled meetings so vicious we've had to have security guards in the room," Dale said in some resentment. His voice sounded thin to his ears, still hoarse from crying.

"At work." Flynn pointed out gently. "Where you're secure in who you're being and what you're doing."

There was no answer to that. Dale drew up his knees and hugged them. Flynn put a hand on his head, ruffling his hair.

"Lie down and get comfortable."

The sheets were cool, the pillows and mattress soft against aching head and back. Flynn didn't move beside him, taking the washcloth and glass.

"Riley and I have been friends for a very long time." he said quietly. "We're used to each others' quirks, we both have hot tempers and we're used to bickering sometimes and making it up – it doesn't mean there's any bad feeling behind it, it's only noise. I'm sorry that we bothered you yesterday. I can understand why."

Dale swallowed on the urge to insist it hadn't bothered him at all, but he was too tired to lie. Flynn put a hand on his head again, smoothing his hair back from his forehead. It was a deeply comforting gesture.

"You're going to be fine, you're quite safe here. I want you to sleep for a couple of hours. Call me if you need anything."   

Riley was hovering in the kitchen doorway when Flynn came downstairs, and his expression held open concern: considerably more than Flynn remembered seeing over previous clients, many of whom Riley had liked. 

"Is he ok? I heard the row you were having. Paul kept saying you were both fine and to leave you alone but it sounded horrible-"

"He's worn out, that's all." Flynn put the washcloth and glass in the sink. "You've seen plenty of clients melt down. He's only been here a few days and he's still stressed as all hell, it's going to take him a while to burn it off."

"I've never seen you wrestle with a client before now." Riley said darkly. Flynn didn't argue.

"They all go through that stage in some form, Half-pint. It's the same basic problem. And if you wanted to help, you could have remembered that he really could have done without the missed sleep last night."

"It wasn't that long and I wanted him to see the map." Riley said, unabashed. Flynn shook his head at him.

"At four thirty in the morning you had no business being out of bed yourself. I'll hope Paul made that clear."

"Through about three million lines." Riley indicated the set on the side, grimacing. "He said to show them to you before I could go anywhere."

Flynn picked up the sheets and scanned through them quickly, counting out loud.

"Four …. seven… twelve…. sixteen of them not up to scratch. Re write those and we'll call it done – and don't grouch at me young man, you know perfectly well they need to be legible."

"Paul doesn't fuss about that!"

"I do." Flynn handed the paper to him. "Sit down and get on. Am I to take it," he added more diffidently, "that you're talking to me again?"

"Yes, you grumpy old so and so." Riley stretched up on tip toes to wrap both arms around Flynn's neck. "You better be glad I'm nicer than you are."

Flynn hugged him tightly, lifting him off his feet for a minute.

"If you didn't scare the hell out of me-"

"Nothing happened!" Riley said, exasperated. Flynn grunted.

"You were late, that was enough. If anything happened to you-"

"Nothing did." Riley kissed his cheek and let him go, taking the papers across to the table. "We have the check in times for good reason, if we're late it means we need help, and I did. I don't
come in late without a good reason because you kick my butt from here to Mexico if I do."

"I should think so." Flynn said dryly. Riley sat down at the table, spreading the sheets of scrawled lines in front of him.

"Dale is different."

It was said matter of factly, but with determination. Flynn sighed under his breath but pulled out a chair and sat down on the other side of the table.

"Yes. He is. You're quite right."


Paul had Riley's rather crumpled and scrawled lines in his hand when he looked into the study a couple of hours later. Flynn looked up from the desk where he was reading and gave him a faint smile.

"You found them? He finished them, muttering the whole time, and got me to check before he went out."

"I saw you made him rewrite some." Paul came over to look at the papers on the desk, resting his hands on Flynn's shoulders to read. "Dale?"

"There were some things I wanted to check in the information we collected from Banks, I was starting to think we had some bits missing."

"And do we?"

"We do. I just got off the phone with Jeremy Banks." Flynn sat back in the chair, looking at the handwritten notes in amongst the typed sheets. "Dale was something of his protégé and has been for some years, I think Banks tried to protect his privacy as much as possible. When I talked to him and he realised he wasn't helping Dale any, he opened up a bit more. We knew Dale went to the same boarding schools his father did, full time from the age of eight."

"That was more or less in the paperwork." Paul sat on the edge of the desk, watching Flynn tap a pen on his notes.

"What Banks didn't tell us was that the headmaster at his public school appears to have realised quite early on that he had an exceptionally gifted boy on his hands, and he supported Dale in taking exams at an accelerated rate. He handed Dale over to Oxford University two years early, placing him with a tutor the headmaster knew, who was as keen to support Dale's studies and who took Dale to live with him and his wife as he was too young to go into the dormitories. Oxford University is to the UK what Harvard is here; the University has multiple links with organisations in search of the exceptional. Dale was headhunted by several corporations, one of which Banks was working for at the time, and they supported Dale in continuing with his studies while he took on part time work for them in apprenticeship. From what Banks said, it was exciting work for a kid, it was a serious intellectual challenge so Dale loved it and did as much of it as he could get his hands on, and no one in that corporation understands the word 'addictive'. As soon as his degrees were finished he moved straight into a full time post."

"So he never actually 'did' college." Paul said aloud, frowning. "Or not in the usual sense at least."

"Only in the academic sense, not socially. He was running several years above his peer group from the age of twelve or thirteen." Flynn capped his pen, sitting back in his chair. "If you're as bright as Dale is, and you're by personality an overachiever, a compulsive perfectionist….?"

"And you're getting a lot of attention and reinforcement for your academic achievements," Paul said dryly, picking up the thread. "and a level of intellectual stimulation that's satisfying……not to mention gaining the school a good deal of recognition actually. I can't imagine they would have thought of slowing him down."

"That's the gap I was looking for." Flynn said shortly. "Banks' information painted a picture of a good exec simply overachieving and cracking under the pressure. Socially, they told us there were no issues. Handled his personnel well, he was well liked, respected, no temper, no insensitivities, no isolation. They found him confident and charming, to the point where they used him as a weapon against difficult clients. Hell, most if not ALL of our clients have a major social issue somewhere in their difficulties that's very well known at work, it's usually part of the personality type. Dale comes to us with apparently no
social issues at all, he can take instructions, he can work as part of a team…. Yet with us he's shyer than hell, he finds it hard to cope with conversation-"

"Unless it's Riley." Paul added.

"- he gets more stressed than he knows how to cope with when people around him are tense with each other and he doesn't handle emotion well at all. Which is not the profile of your average successful CEO."

"Take him out of the work context and he doesn't cope."

"Bingo." Flynn dropped the pen on the sheets. "Academically and technically he's brilliant. Socially, he can handle anything within a learned business context where he's in control. Take that control away, take the context away, and make him relate to people without that framework –"

"And you get the kind of scene I saw out in the meadow." Paul said wryly, sitting on the edge of the desk. "Riley's absolutely right you know. We've never seen that kind of melt down with a client."

"Rubbish, we get to that point with most of them when they really start to let go the stress."

"Tears, yelling, doors slamming, storming off, yes." Paul gave him a look. "Not like that
. The last time I saw that kind of performance was about eighteen years ago when it was you and Philip wrestling each other out there in the paddocks."

Flynn looked down at the desk and Paul stifled a smile at the awkwardness in his face.

"You swore a lot more than Dale did. Hon, I heard you tease him into blowing his fuse, you did exactly the right thing. You weren't going to calm him down, poor boy, if you hadn't pushed him into letting it loose he would have simmered all day with all of that locked up inside. Flynn, I'm increasingly thinking Riley is right."

"Riley's instincts usually are." Flynn said, not looking up. "He had this spotted within twenty four hours."

Paul ran a hand over his face. "I suppose we were bound to run across one sooner or later as a client. And we know what we're dealing with; in many ways this makes life a lot easier for all of us, Dale included. Want me to check in on him?"

"He was asleep when I went up an hour ago."

"I'll take him a drink and see if he's fit to get up for lunch." Paul got off the edge of the desk, watching his friend shuffle the papers back into their folder. "Are you ok?"

"Missing Philip." Flynn said it abruptly, getting up and locking the file into his desk. "He'd be just what Dale needs right now, this is the kind of thing he really excelled in."

And Flynn knew exactly what it felt like to be exhausted with out of control emotions himself, although he'd deny it ever happened. Paul, who had been in this house while Philip ploughed untiringly through the stormy few months it had taken to get a young and volatile Flynn to settle into this household and to decide he trusted them, tactfully didn't mention it.

"This was what he left us to do though, wasn't it?" he said mildly. "Not just carry on with getting the business clients back on their feet, but to keep on looking for the few that are one of us. Now we know, how are we going to handle it?"

"I'm going to stop assuming that he knows what to do for a start." Flynn said dryly. "I don't think he's got a clue of the most basic things, he's virtually institutionalised. And stop giving him the space I've been giving him. Most of them need the space and time to themselves to think: Dale just uses that as somewhere to hide."

"He's very calmed by routine." Paul said, reflecting. "We have no problems at all at mealtimes and bedtimes when he knows exactly what to do and the instructions are very clear. And you brought him right down yesterday morning stopping him fidgeting just by holding his hands when you were getting him to sit still on the porch and calm himself. It's quite touching how willing he is when he knows what you want of him."

The problems came when he didn't know, he wasn't sure and he panicked.

"I'll see to him." Flynn followed Paul into the kitchen and poured a glass of juice into a tall glass, shutting the fridge with his hip. "Don't wait for us to eat."


Dale was awake and sitting on the windowsill in his room, looking out over the pastures towards the aspen wood. He looked around when Flynn tapped on the door and gave him a thin smile at the sight of the juice.

"It's the citrus fiend."

"Too right." Flynn sat down on the bed, handing him the glass. "How are you feeling?"

Dale held it in both hands, looking down into the juice. "Better thanks. The headache's gone."

And now he didn't know how he felt. Limp, washed out, uncertain and fragile. He was curled on the window sill with the wariness of a wild animal, large, dark eyes guarded under dark hair. Whether it was seeing him sitting there in the vulnerability of t shirt and boxers, or whether it was that he still looked pale and upset, Flynn found himself no longer reading that wariness in his face as cynicism.

"Drink that." He said quietly. "And put some jeans on."

Dale raised an eyebrow at him. Flynn waited, and Dale slowly got up from the windowsill, gulping back the juice before he went to pick up his abandoned jeans. He followed Flynn downstairs and out of a side door that meant avoiding Paul and Riley, whose voices could be heard in the kitchen. For that, Dale was grateful. Flynn walked with him towards the stables and into the tack room, pulling down a saddle and bridle which he handed to Dale.

"Want to tack up Hammer again? You seemed to get on ok with him yesterday."

They rode out in a different direction to yesterday – not up towards the steeper plains, but down river behind the ranch, where it was flatter and less rocky, and skirted the aspen woods. It was a warm, bright afternoon and the horses walked at a comfortable pace, feet quiet on the grass. Within half an hour, the ranch and the outbuildings were nowhere in sight and there was nothing to see but sheep dotting the landscape, grazing quietly. Flynn rode without talking, one hand in his lap, but there was nothing uncomfortable about his silence. Dale found himself slowly relaxing, breathing in the sheer peace of the movement of the horses and the quiet of the landscape around them.

A long way down river, a large pool formed around a steep, grey outcropping of rock, dotted about with pines.  The grass led right up to the shallow banks of the pool, and Flynn reined Leo in, dropped to the ground and tied his reins up, letting him step up to the pool and lower his head to drink. Dale slid down from Hammer and had to follow the big horse to do the same with his reins as Hammer was so keen to get to the water. Flynn dug in the saddlebag on Leo and tossed Dale a packet of sandwiches before he stretched out on the warm grass, propping himself on one elbow to eat. Dale slowly sat down beside him, looking out over the water.

"This isn't the falls?"

"No, that's about a mile further on." Flynn nodded in the direction of the open land. "The river goes under ground here a little way, under the rocks."

It was so quiet. There was nothing to hear, nothing at all but the occasional bleat of the sheep. Some way towards the woods, just in the lea of the water, stood a large, circular cairn of flat, grey stones, stacked to about waist height on a man. Interspersed amongst the grey were slabs of pink and white quartz that glittered in the sun, surprisingly bright amongst the sombre indigenous stone.

"Eat those." Flynn said quietly, leaning over to unwrap the sandwiches. Dale picked one up automatically, taking a bite and chewing slowly. Then he paused and Flynn looked around, surprised as Dale said very softly,

"Did I hurt you this morning?"

"Of course you didn't." Flynn carried on eating his own sandwich, watching Dale's face and picking up quickly from the cue before Dale could open up a wash of self recrimination. "We need to talk about why that happened."

"It happened because I lost my temper about trying to slow down." Dale flushed, head down. "I was screwing about, cheating, and I know I was. Getting angry is no excuse for not trying."

And this boy's own exacting standards were going to be another problem here unless they were firmly stamped on.

"If you had been calmer and had enough sleep, and hadn't been trying to deal with a night of worrying, you most likely wouldn't have been stressed enough to lose your temper." Flynn said mildly. "Which we talked about this morning and sorted out. What are you going to do if you can't sleep or you can't stop yourself worrying?"

"Talk to you." Dale said softly but promptly, glancing up at him.

"Exactly. I expect you to do that, and there will be consequences if you don't. That's not optional. Do you understand?"

That should have been threatening or intimidating. It actually wasn't, any more than Flynn's tone. Calmed, Dale processed that and nodded slowly.

"Good." Flynn sat up, propping his elbows on his knees. "You're struggling with your chores. Not in the doing, I have no doubt you could do yours and mine too, extremely efficiently and in half the time it would take me, but that isn't what we're working on."

Dale shook his head. "I can feel it when I'm thinking straight. I do rush. It's a habit, I can feel the adrenaline flowing."

"It's a vicious circle," Flynn said mildly. "You rush because the adrenaline is high, and the more tense and quick your movements get, the more you convince your body that it's in a dangerous situation and the more it produces adrenaline. The only way to reduce the adrenaline is to learn to slow down, even if at first you don't feel any calmer. It's breaking the circle. You're struggling, and this is not about you struggling."

Or failing, he added to himself. Dealing with failure at anything at all was an experience he seriously doubted Dale had much of, and getting him used to that was going to be a slow process of gentle desensitisation. Letting him fail at the moment was going to do nothing except produce guilt and panic.

"For the moment I'm taking away those chores. I'm going to limit work altogether and we're going to work on you calming down and slowing down. You use work far too much as a means of getting away from yourself."

"I can't not
do." Dale said rather anxiously.


Dale looked down at his hands, pulling at the sandwich which was rapidly coming to pieces.

"It drives me spare, it feels – awful-"

"And running away from that kind of tension is a habit I don't want to reinforce." Flynn said gently. "We need to deal with that. We'll do it together, I don't expect you to do this on your own and without help. We need to change that habit, and that's the first goal."

"And the next one?"

Dale's eyes had immediately gained intensity. Flynn swallowed on a sudden urge to smile.

"Down boy. One thing at a time, and I'll tell you when. Eat up. We need to get you back with an hour or so clear before dinner, you've got some lines to write for Paul."

It was said matter of factly, without rancour or reproach, which hit the pit of Dale's stomach like a flood of butterflies.


He was still quiet when they dismounted in the corral, and he was aware of Flynn's eyes on him. When he took the saddle across to the gate, Flynn took it from him, slung it on the top rail and put an arm out to block his way.

"What? I can hear you stewing."

No one had ever said that before. In the real world, no one said anything at all until you completely flipped and hallucinated, and then they said as little as they possibly could.

It was almost impossible to put into words. Dale stood for a moment, wrestling with a mind and a tongue that had never let him down before, and concepts he wasn't even sure he understood. Flynn leaned on the gate rail, relaxed and apparently in no hurry.

"Just say it. It doesn't need to come out right first time, we'll straighten it out."

Dale took another breath, trying to unleash the flood of thought and conviction and deeply uncomfortable conclusions. It wasn't easy.

"It's wrong."

"What's wrong?" Flynn asked calmly. "The lines? Is that what's worrying you?"

"They weren't fair." Dale blurted out. "And I'm not annoyed with Paul or anything like that, I couldn't be – but that was the same as Riley, and it didn't mean much for Riley."

"He isn't supposed to be out of bed at night any more than you are." Flynn said simply as though that was a completely normal thing to say. Dale mentally marked the place where he should have freaked and didn't because stupidly it made perfect sense, and plunged on. 

"He only got up for a drink. I deliberately went out running. It isn't anything like just that it should be treated the same. I had a responsibility to do what I needed to do and not what I wanted to do. It wasn't just that I forgot or wasn't thinking, I did know. I shouldn't have given in to it. It's a minor thing for Riley, I knew I was doing something wrong."

"That's going to happen." Flynn said, looking at him rather steadily. "We'll live, I promise you."

This wasn't working and abruptly, Dale understood why: Flynn wasn't easy to read but there was something about his expression and the way he was talking that hit a button in Dale, leaping the intuition over the gap.

"You think I'm a perfectionist." he said quietly, and without knowing quite how, he found he'd not only come closer but was standing facing Flynn directly. "I am. But this isn't why I'm arguing. This was a minor thing for Riley, it wasn't for me. This is absolutely basically intrinsic for me, and I am trying to learn to deal with it."

Flynn was still looking at him, dark eyes very steady. The man was big. Dale wondered abruptly why it was that he noticed things like this at such awkward moments.   

"You know how fast I can write?" he asked Flynn. "How easily? That's not ok."

"That isn't for you to decide on." Flynn said very clearly. Dale nodded, exasperated.

"Yes, I know and I understand why. I'm just asking you to listen."

Flynn looked back at him for some time, not letting anything much show in his face. Most CEOs were strong personalities, used to getting their way and having things done as they wanted. Most of them were persuasive. This was the first one who'd ever been such a devastating witness against himself.

Dale looked on the outside like a still pool. Dark, quiet, reserved, everything hidden, everything cool. He moved quietly, his voice was soft, he didn't even say that much. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, you saw these single fountains of fire, shooting up with uncontrolled force. His dark eyes still hadn't moved or dropped under Flynn's gaze, not demanding, just fiercely honest. He was passionately serious, as he probably was about everything he really cared about, and it was something of a surprise to see him let emotion show so clearly. Flynn put a hand out to clasp his neck, gripping gently and firmly enough to take out some of the tension and the intensity in his eyes. The layers to this boy were manifold and paper thin in places; you suddenly found in lifting one that you'd actually ripped off several and gone far deeper than you expected.

"That's all right." He said quietly. "That's fine. Go inside, wash up and wait for me in the study. If Paul asks, tell him you've got something to do for me."

Dale looked at him for a moment, and from the expression on his face he was torn between serious decision, relief and no little apprehension. Flynn let him go and picked up the saddle.

"Go ahead Dale."

Dale let himself out of the gate and headed towards the house, aware of the sounds of Flynn taking tack towards the stables behind him.

You're probably mad, he reflected as he climbed the porch steps. You know how easy it would be to sit and scribble out a few hundred lines? It wouldn't touch you.

Yes, I know.

And it wouldn't help either.

He heeled off his boots at the kitchen door and let himself in, stomach twisting unpleasantly. No one was in sight downstairs, the house appeared to be empty. In the bathroom off the kitchen Dale washed his hands and splashed his face to get rid of the sweat and the dust, aware that he was trying to do it as slowly as possible. It took some effort of will to turn off the taps and walk through the silent house to the well concealed door off the family room.

The study was empty too, cool and with the faint and oddly comforting tang of leather and books to the air. Almost at once Dale felt himself stabilise. Without understanding why, he moved across to the desk and stood there, initially sliding his hands awkwardly into his pockets, and then after a minute when that felt distinctly inappropriate, folding them behind his back. And waited, stomach painfully tight.  

It was a few minutes before Flynn came in, and closed the door quietly behind him. He'd changed his clothes, his hair was still damp and his shirt stretched over his back as he stooped to open the desk drawer. Two paddles lay in the bottom, Dale saw them clearly from where he was standing. Flynn looked for a moment, at the dark wooden one underneath the transparent and larger lexan one, then took the lexan paddle from the drawer and pushed the drawer closed.

"We deal with this and then we're done with it." he said firmly, looking straight at Dale. "Mistakes happen, this is about practice and learning. That's what counts. Not the grade averages."

Dale nodded. His mouth was dry, his palms were prickling and he was aware that his hands were actually trembling very slightly, but his breathing was coming clear for the first time since they'd begun the ride home.

"What's this for?" Flynn asked, leaning on the desk.

Dale looked at him, wondering for a moment at such an obvious question before he realised what Flynn meant. And nodded, accepting the message behind it.  

"Breaking the rule about getting up at night. And that's all, I understand. Nothing else is important."

"Good." Flynn straightened up, paddle in his hand. "You've got nothing you need to reproach yourself for or worry further about."

And that would have been the hard part of the bargain, save that the previous two times Flynn had physically disciplined him had felt like the slate being cleared completely. Had been freeing and calming in a way that he didn't understand at all -  

You're nuts. Do you know that? You're as barmy as they are.

- and despite the large man stood there with the still larger paddle, there was no sense of panic, and a peculiarly powerful sense of trust. Flynn knew how to handle this, Dale found he had no doubt in that at all.

Flynn's voice was gentle as though he understood how hard it was to stand here.

"Bend over and put your hands on the desk, Dale."

That damned paddle hurt. Knees close to shaking, stomach twisting, it took an effort to step forward, to come to the desk and then somehow to put his hands down to the edge of it, bracing himself.

"Further back." Flynn said quietly, and Dale felt Flynn's hand at his hip, prompting him to move his feet further from the desk, bending him more strongly at the waist and making his position more stable. The heavy clasp that rested on his shoulder for a moment was comforting.

"Stand still."

Teeth gritted, eyes closed, Dale gripped the smooth wood of the desk and a second later the first heavy swat of the paddle landed, pushing his weight forward against his hands. For a split second there was only the sound and force, and then the shocking sting penetrated the denim seat of his jeans like fire. The paddle was large enough to cover both buttocks, the sheer might of the smarting tore breath out of his lungs and involuntarily opened Dale's eyes wide.

The second swat added smart to smart. Flynn was applying them slowly with pauses between, but it only allowed the sting of the previous swat to be fully felt before the next landed: it gave no time at all to let the stinging subside. Despite himself Dale found he had tensed up onto his toes and it took will and several deep breaths to lower himself back down again. Three. Louder than a gunshot and in exactly the same place. Unable to help it Dale bent his arms braced against the desk, twisted his hips and took another still deeper breath to try and absorb the scalding sting across his butt. It had been no less painful laying across Flynn's knee the other day, but it was a good deal harder to stand still and to try to hold position himself. With great difficulty he once more straightened his legs and arms, moving back into place.

That was enough. That really was more than enough. Convinced, emphatically convinced, Dale tried to summon breath to say so. Except he had handed this matter to Flynn to deal with.  

Four. Shocked, driven once more up onto his toes, Dale arched his head and straightened his body, all his weight on his hands.

– that's enough, I get it, I won't do it again-"

Mouth had apparently lost all contact with brain. Flynn didn't answer, just gently put a hand on his shoulder and Dale very unwillingly went where he was guided, bending forward once more.


Shockingly loud. Dale found himself several feet from the desk with his eyes full of water and both hands clutched tightly over the seat of his jeans, trying to stifle the sheer sting by squeezing.

"Ow –"

Wimp! You insisted on this and you're not even brave enough to stand and take it!

Flynn didn't seem the least surprised, or reproachful. Or done. Dale took a breath with difficulty at the hand on his back, which was a lot kinder than he deserved, but let Flynn guide him to the desk and lean him over once more. His backside appeared to be going up in flames, it was almost too hard to stand still and he was gulping rather than breathing, coherent thought long since fled.


Flynn's hand caught his shoulder once more as he jerked, keeping the grip on the desk by sheer force of will.

"We're done."

The hand drew him up, away from the desk, and Dale once more grabbed instinctively at the seat of his jeans, eyes watering, breathless and unable not to squirm on the spot, shifting his weight from foot to foot. Flynn returned the paddle to the drawer, closed it and then leaned with his hips against the edge of the high desk, looking at Dale.

"Sorry," Dale began, aware that his voice was undignifiedly shaky, and didn't get any further as Flynn grabbed his wrist, jerked sharply, and he crashed into Flynn's chest, Flynn's arm closing over his shoulders.

"You can stop that right now. This isn't a competition."

"I asked for it!" Dale protested, automatically trying to back out from under that arm.

"And that makes it easy?" Flynn held him off a moment to see his face. "Because if you thought that was easy I'm doing something wrong."

Dale shook his head with heartfelt conviction, staggered Flynn could have any doubts. Flynn snorted and pulled him close again, and having spent the day wrestling with this man, talking to him and confiding things in him that he'd never before considered saying aloud, Dale found himself frankly leaning against the man's shirt front which was surprisingly familiar. He was shaky at the knees, his butt radiated heat and soreness, he was breathless and he felt, ridiculously, a very good deal better. Absolved, and oddly very comforted.

Paul was in the kitchen and when Dale found himself baulking, more than slightly embarrassed and aware that his eyes must be red, Flynn gently pushed him through the doorway, standing close behind him.

"Paul? We need to let you know, we've talked about the night time excursioning and we've dealt with it ourselves."

Paul nodded, placidly unquestioning, and Flynn gave Dale's shoulder a squeeze as he moved towards the door, pulled his boots on and went outside. Paul, who had his shirtsleeves rolled to his elbows and was rolling dough on the counter, smiled at Dale.

"Why don't you get yourself a drink while – oh honey it's ok! Come here."

The sympathy in his voice was harder to take than the smile had been. Aware his eyes were humiliatingly filling once more, Dale hurriedly took the chair offered and buried his face in his hands, trying to ignore the added discomfort of a hard wooden chair. Paul sat down beside him and Dale felt two hands rubbing his back, smoothing warm circles over his shoulders.

"It's all right. You've had a very tough day, haven't you? You can't know if you're coming or going right now."

"I'm sorry about last night." Dale managed with something like a steady voice although he didn't move his hands from his face. Paul hugged his shoulders, sounding almost amused.

"Don't worry about it, it's not exactly a hanging offence love. Flynn's not upset with you is he?"

Dale shook his head. No, strangely enough, Flynn didn't seem at all disappointed or annoyed. He felt the pressure of a rough kiss against his temple, Paul got up and put him on his feet.

"Go upstairs and run yourself a bath. And soak, at least a half hour. You're not used to the riding apart from anything else, you're going to stiffen up tonight. By the time you're done it'll be dinnertime."

A bath sounded good. And Paul, in his own way, was every bit as bossy as Flynn was.
Dale headed slowly upstairs, unable to resist rubbing very gingerly at the seat of his jeans. Why this kind of soreness went with feeling this kind of calm he had no idea whatever.

He met Riley on the landing, emerging from his room still pulling a fresh shirt down over his head, and he grinned at Dale before the grin abruptly faded to concern.

"What? Are you ok?"  

"Yeah." Dale said with as much dignity as possible. Riley shook his head, pulling Dale with him into the doorway of his room, out of earshot of anyone downstairs.

"What happened?"

Riley, if anyone, should understand this: it was just finding the words to try and explain. Riley's eyes narrowed while he waited, then abruptly he touched Dale's arm, a very brief and sympathetic brush of his fingers.

"You got spanked, didn't you? What for?"

"Running. Last night." Dale admitted. Riley looked bewildered.

"Paul had lines for you to do for that – he had me writing them for an hour this morning, he said it would be the same for you-"

"That wasn't fair." Dale interrupted softly. "I talked to Flynn."

Riley looked puzzled for a moment, and then outright horrified. "You asked? You asked Flynn to –"

"I feel better about it." Dale said with some defensiveness for Flynn. "It wasn't his fault, I was upset and I just……."

Just what, he had no idea. Riley's eyes were rueful and somewhere between amused and compassionate, then without warning Dale found Riley's arms around his neck, received a quick and crushing hug and heard Riley's voice in his ear, not in the least critical.

"You are completely out of your tree, do you know that?"

"Yes." Dale agreed, rather breathless and surprised when Riley let him go. "I had noticed."  


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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