Flynn's eyebrows rose and not quite sure why, Dale moved with alacrity towards the door.
Jasper kicked off his boots in the kitchen doorway and came to sit down, stretching until his shoulders cracked.
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.
"What were you doing up in the first place?" Paul looked across at Dale, who responded automatically to a straight question.
"And how long were you downstairs?" Paul asked. Dale considered, puzzled by the peculiar faces Riley was pulling at him.
Riley's head crashed straight down onto the table beside him, making him jump. Paul's lips twitched but he didn't look round.
"And the rules about getting out of bed at night are?" Paul invited.
"And you met with Riley on your way back?" Flynn asked, finishing the buckles.
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.
"In the dark."
"There was a good moon." he said shortly, trying not to sound defensive.
"One of which is?" Flynn asked, cocking an eyebrow.
"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?"
"You'll WHAT?" Dale demanded, outraged. Flynn didn't move.
"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."
Flynn made no comment, simply looking at him. Dale leaned on his pitchfork and courteously indicated his watch.
"I'm so sorry."
"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."
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 started you thinking about work?"
There was no answer to that. Dale drew up his knees and hugged them. Flynn put a hand on his head, ruffling his hair.
"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."
"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."
Flynn picked up the sheets and scanned through them quickly, counting out loud.
"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?"
Flynn hugged him tightly, lifting him off his feet for a minute.
"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."
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.
"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?"
"And do we?"
"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."
"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….?"
"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-"
"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."
"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."
"Riley's instincts usually are." Flynn said, not looking up. "He had this spotted within twenty four hours."
"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?"
"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.
"Too right." Flynn sat down on the bed, handing him the glass. "How are you feeling?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
"I can't not do." Dale said rather anxiously.
"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 took another breath, trying to unleash the flood of thought and conviction and deeply uncomfortable conclusions. It wasn't easy.
"What's wrong?" Flynn asked calmly. "The lines? Is that what's worrying you?"
"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.
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.
"That isn't for you to decide on." Flynn said very clearly. Dale nodded, exasperated.
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.
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.
"What's this for?" Flynn asked, leaning on the desk.
"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.
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.
"Flynn – that's enough, I get it, I won't do it again-"
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.
"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 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.
"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.
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.
"That wasn't fair." Dale interrupted softly. "I talked to Flynn."