~*~

Book 3 of the Falls Chance Ranch Series

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Chapter 5



5

He was wet with sweat. It wasn’t possible to tell how many times Dale had taken apart and rebuilt the saw, but his dark hair was damp, his shirt was sticking to him, his hands were shaking and he was stuck. Well and truly stuck, and so immersed he didn’t hear Flynn walk across the floor to him, or look up until Flynn crouched and gently took the pieces out of his hands.

“That’s enough. Come on kid.”

He took Dale’s hands to help him to his feet and walked him towards the yard too fast for Dale to fight it. Jasper closed in and quietly shut and locked the barn behind them, pocketing the keys, and Flynn steered Dale up the porch steps to the swing, sitting down beside him. Paul went into the kitchen and came back with a damp tea towel, crouching to hand it to Dale. For a moment Dale didn’t move, hunched forward with the towel in both hands, looking at it, then he buried his face in it. Flynn held on to him and rubbed his back, feeling him shudder.

“I’ve got him.” he said to Jasper over Dale’s head. “Will you check on Riley?”

Jasper gave him a calm nod and walked unhurriedly away towards the corral.

“He’s hot.” Paul said quietly. He had a hand on Dale’s neck, unable to keep his hands away; Paul’s need to comfort was always very physical. “This is higher than normal for him.”

Most likely with stress. Flynn looked at Paul’s dark eyes for a moment, reading his concern and knowing exactly what he was thinking. Then he took Dale’s arm and got up, taking Dale with him through the kitchen and family room and into the study, shutting the door behind them with one elbow. He sat down at one end of the couch with Dale beside him, leaned back, and let the quiet of the room sink into them both.

This was a room that they both associated with calm and comfort. The colours in here were calming, the order of the room was calming, from the dark leather couches and the two dark wood desks to the shelves of books. It was silent and cool, and Flynn let his own body relax and his breathing deepen and quieten, knowing that too would reach Dale, he’d feel it even if he wasn’t consciously aware of it. It was still a long time before he heard Dale’s breathing start to slow down to keep pace with his.

“Want to tell me what happened?”

Dale had sat down with his elbows on his knees, hands loosely linked, head down. Flynn couldn’t see his face but he heard the answer, soft and defeated.

“No.”

His tone was exhausted. And the not looking up, the face hidden. It reminded Flynn of the conversation they’d had some months ago when Dale first really told him about his breakdown at A.N.Z. And his own gesture came back to him this morning – of smoothing Dale’s hair back from his face. He’d seen Paul do it the last few days. That instinctive gesture they made as if they were trying to brush back shields. To see Dale more clearly, when they knew at some level he was disappearing.

“We are going to talk about this.” he said firmly, “Sit up and look at me.”

It took a moment for Dale to lift his head. His grey eyes were red and exhausted.

“When did today start to go wrong?” Flynn said in the same tone. Dale shrugged slightly.

“I was awake most of the night, I was tired-”


“Thinking about this project.” Flynn finished for him. “You said this morning that you thought you might have to give up on it.”

“I can’t find it.” Dale stifled a bitter laugh between his hands, putting his elbows on his knees to hunch forward again. As if bowed under something, Flynn thought. Or struggling to keep something held down. “I’ve gone over it and over it-”


“Look at me.” Flynn said very sharply. Dale’s head jerked up instinctively.

“Say that again.” Flynn commanded. Dale swallowed and Flynn saw him think about what he’d said with a lot more care.

“I was having trouble with-”

“No, that wasn’t what you said or laughed about. Say that again.”


Without the defense and the detachment of laughing he really didn’t want to. Flynn saw him swallow twice before he got it out and his eyes dropped. “I can’t find it.”

“And that’s something you find funny?” Flynn demanded.

His exaggerated seriousness pulled Dale after it, he saw Dale close trembling hands and shake his head, briefly but hard enough to be very sincere.

“.........No.”

The door opened softly and Jasper let himself in and came to lean on the edge of the desk, arms loosely folded. 

“Dale? Riley said that he noticed you having trouble with the fence the other day.”

“What was the trouble with the fence?” Flynn asked. Dale didn’t answer, shutting his eyes, and Flynn could feel the shame boiling off him.

“Needing to touch every fence post as you walked past, and going back and starting again if you didn’t do it right.” Jasper said gently.

Flynn looked sharply at Jasper, who inclined his head very slightly, dark eyes steady.  

Yes, it looks like it’s gotten this bad, and no, I hadn’t seen it either.

“We know this happens when you’re anxious enough, it’s not a secret, so stop looking like you were caught picking your nose.” Flynn said flatly to Dale. “There is nothing wrong with it, it happens, what matters is how we deal with it. How many days has that been bothering you?”

“I don’t know-” Dale began and winced at Flynn’s sharp interruption.

“Rubbish.”

“Six.” Dale shut his eyes again, tipping his head back. “It started slowly, it’s only been bad the last three or four.”

“What else?”

There wasn’t much point in trying to deny it now; Flynn was going to go on looking and sounding like that until he said it.

“It’s just looking for this gap in the evidence.” Dale said tiredly. “Going over and over the data at night, I know it’s not a good idea, but it’s difficult to stop.”

“So you’ve been losing sleep for a while, and now you’re tired and you’re fried.” Flynn said succinctly. He held out his hand to Jasper, who pulled the bunch of keys from his pocket and handed it to him. Flynn found the key he wanted, separated it from the bunch and put it in Dale’s palm. “Go lock the office and bring me the key back.”

“This is not out of hand,” Dale began and this time they heard him do it. Take control of his voice, straighten up and turn the calm, reasonable voice back on. “I agree maybe I’m a little stretched, but I’m not at the point where I can’t-”

Flynn interrupted him sharply enough to get him up on his feet in a hurry.

Move.”

They waited while they heard Dale walk upstairs, Flynn with his eyes on Jasper’s. It was only a minute before Dale brought the key back and Flynn took and pocketed it, pointing to the couch.

“There.”

Jasper got up, unfolding his arms.

“Ri wanted a hand outside. Let me know if I can help.”


To Dale, that sounded extremely ominous.

Without looking at Dale, Flynn went to the bookshelves, looking along the lines as Jasper left, and he pulled several volumes down and put them on the desk, pulling out the admirals chair to take a seat. And then looked up and nodded at the couch, voice deeper.

Sit
.”


When Flynn looked and sounded like that, Dale’s legs moved independently of the rest of him.

“I know we need to talk about this.” Flynn informed him. “And I know we’ve had these conversations plenty of times before, and you know exactly what about and why. But you’ve chosen not to talk, and this is not a one way street. I am not the only one with any responsibility here. So the ball is in your court, Dale. I’m here, I’m ready any time you are. You make your mind up as to when you want to do something about this.”

He waited a moment, looking steadily at Dale who returned the stare with a heart starting to thud uncomfortably for reasons nothing whatever to do with chainsaws, feeling increasingly like a deer caught in car headlights. Or worse, an extremely naughty ten year old. And Flynn sat back, picked up a book and apparently settled down to read it.

“I told you I don’t like that I haven’t found the answer yet, but it’s not that bad-” Dale began as reasonably as possible.

Flynn put the book down, marking his place, and leaned down to the bottom drawer of the desk, removing the lexan paddle. With that in his hand, he got up and came over to Dale, taking his arm in a competent grasp and pulling him to his feet.

“Put those jeans on the desk.”

Oh not good. Not good, not good, really not good.

Stomach tumbling, somehow Dale got his boots off, removed his jeans and found himself folding them compulsively, straightening them before he laid them on the desk. Flynn indicated the couch with one brisk wave of the transparent paddle.

“Put your hands on the seat.”

Oh so not good. Dale bent slowly and put his hands down on the cool leather, leaning his weight on them and wincing in anticipation, and the sound
thwack
of the paddle landed across both cheeks through his thin shorts, nudging him up on to his toes with a yelp at the resounding sting.

“Without the bullshit.” Flynn advised, taking the paddle back to the desk and sitting down with his book again. “Take a seat.”

That word, that tone and this sensation were very powerfully rooted in several very potent memories of past conversations which were rushing back to Dale with alarming clarity. In t shirt, socks and thin shorts, feeling very vulnerable and very warm, Dale gave him an apprehensive look and tried to find something – anything – to say that would not encourage Flynn to pick up that paddle again.

“I’m sorry. It probably might have been more sensible to say that I was -”
Flynn got up without looking, picked up the paddle as he came over and indicated the couch seat. Dale got up still more slowly, resisting a very childish urge to put his hands behind him.

“Ok, yes, I should have said something, but this is my job to handle-”

Flynn looked at him, eyebrows raised, waiting. Dale winced and turned around to bend over, shutting his teeth. Two equally brisk thwacks landed across his backside in swift succession, setting it alight. Dale yelped at both, not able to stop himself.

Ow! Flynn for Pete’s sake, not so damn hard!

Flynn stepped back, but didn’t return to the desk, paddle in hand, and Dale straightened up, shifting slightly from foot to foot, having difficulty catching his breath. That shocking sting was ridiculously focusing.  Everything that had seemed so rational two minutes ago was shifting itself rapidly on his mental balance sheet into a column marked ‘whatever you do, do not say that’.

Knowing it was very undignified and really not able to help it, he put his hands very gently over his blazing backside and rubbed, his mouth starting to work enthusiastically and quite independently of his brain.

“All right, I was hiding it, I didn’t want anyone to think I was making a mess of this and this is child’s play compared to how I used to work! It isn’t like I’ve been doing anything awful, it just does wind me up when it’s something this complicated!”

Flynn pointed at the couch again. Dale stepped back in alarm.

“Flynn! That’s the truth!”

“You’re brighter than that, and so am I.” Flynn informed him, still pointing at the couch.

Dale resisted the urge to groan and somehow bent over again, resuming the depressing view of the dark leather at close hand. The thwack this time was still harder, and stung more than the previous three put together. Dale hissed through his teeth and when Flynn said nothing, he hurriedly got up, putting his hands back to try and contain the blaze, and shifting restlessly from foot to foot. Flynn folded his arms with the paddle still in his hand, and leaned back against the desk. Broad, very calm, his posture said it all.

How long do you want to play, kid? Because I’ve got all day.

Trying to massage some of the ferocious sting out of his backside, Dale let the urgent babble roll free, aware he sounded about twenty years younger and completely incoherent.

“Banks faxed me and said he was under pressure and he needed an answer, and Paul keeps interrupting and I never know when the hell I’m going to have to stop or what time lunch is, how is anyone supposed to work like that? It’s insane! This is a hell of a piece of work, it needs hours more than I can give it and I’m having to do half of it from memory!”

“You could have talked to us at any point about any of those things?” Flynn pointed out.

“You said those were the conditions!”

“Bull.” Flynn said emphatically. “Couch.”


Dale winced and admitted it, hurriedly, “Okay, I knew it wasn’t set in stone, I just didn’t want to say I couldn’t work in the terms you set, I didn’t want to admit I couldn’t make it work!” 

“Couch.” Flynn repeated.

Dale shut his eyes, turned around, took his hands away and bent over, and this thwack drew a yelp and added fire to fire.

“It’s a two way process.” Flynn told him. “If you don’t let us know what doesn’t work and what you need changing how do you expect us to succeed?”

Dale swallowed on the bitter response to that and hastily said it out loud.

“Because I expect to succeed. I should be able to do it.”

“And we should just see perfect, easy success.” Flynn said dryly. “All the time, achieved all by yourself. How much do you think I enjoy being lied to?”

“Every day I talked you through what I was-”

“Couch.”

Slowly Dale turned around and bent over again, eyes starting to blur with the sheer sting of his protesting rump, not to mention the increasing emotion. Flynn didn’t hold back in the slightest.

Thwack.

Damnit!

He didn’t even try to get up this time, gripping the seat of the couch.

Okay. I admit it. I didn’t want you to think I couldn’t do it.” 

“And even now you’re finding ways to avoid looking at me and letting me know too much.” Flynn said firmly. “Get up, turn around.”

Dale got up slowly, really not wanting to look at him, but Flynn waited until he did.

“Right now you’re avoid experiencing, admitting or even acknowledging what you don’t want to feel. If I press you on subjects you don’t want to talk about, you intellectualise, you avoid my eyes, you smile, you introduce more comfortable subjects. And it’s all about hanging on to emotional distance. If a client pulled this I’d be giving him a sharp kick up the arse speech right now about making a decision on whether he was happy with things the way they are or whether he really wanted to see things change.”

“I’m not and I do.” Dale said unsteadily.

“You’re not a bloody client, don’t think for one moment you’re getting off that easily.” Flynn informed him. “We’ve talked before about you wanting change to happen on your terms, in ways you’re comfortable with. Change with provisos and quid pro quos, with a few things kept off the table. Every time you told yourself,
I won’t tell them that because then they’ll think so and so,
you shut yourself off from us. You don’t know if we might have worked out better ways together, even if they pushed you out of your comfort zone. This is all about us making positive changes, and believe me I will bloody well give you a whole lot more motivation to participate if it’s necessary.”

He still had the paddle in his hand but Dale would have wholeheartedly believed him from his tone alone.

“We’ve also talked before and in detail about why honesty’s such a vital part of relationships like ours,” Flynn went on relentlessly, “If you’re trusting us to make decisions for you and you’re only giving us half the facts, you’re making what we’re doing unsafe. Worse, you’re distancing yourself from us so we don’t know where you are, we don’t know what’s happening with you and you’ve effectively stopped us being able to help you. We’re not having it. Partial truths, omission, holding back, however you want to term it, it’s right out, it’s something we will jump all over, every single time we see it, and there is nothing off the table between us. Not A.N.Z., not Jerry Banks. You are not the managing director for the five of us.”

It was like a bucket of icy water. Dale went on staring at him, shocked to the core with a feeling that Flynn had not only put his hand directly on some of the most personal parts of him, but had pulled them straight out and held them up in front of him. It was searing to be so acutely understood. And the terminology – we, us – and Flynn’s manner, the authority, charged down all his uncertainty and trampled it to death.

“Anything I’ve left out or that you want to add?” Flynn invited. Dale shook his head slowly, well aware of what he’d got himself into, and actually not that alarmed any more.

“......No thank you, I think that was pretty comprehensive.”

“And which of the rules you have does this affect?” Flynn laid the paddle down on the table and folded his arms, and for some reason that wasn’t any less of a sinister gesture.

“....one, two, three and eleven.”

“Which are?” Flynn said relentlessly and saw Dale swallow again.

“If I’m stressed, find someone and talk about it. No withholding. No lying. No bullshit.”

“And I’d say number nine was broken too. ‘Planned work at planned times only’ doesn’t mean lying awake doing work by memory in the small hours of the morning. Does it?”

“No sir.” 

“Remember what I told you the night you told me about the storm at school?”

Dale swallowed, damning a very well organised memory that found the instruction without difficulty.

“....If I had the feeling that I couldn’t cope- or if I was even starting to get there, I had a responsibility to let you know immediately.”

 “Too right.” Flynn got up off the edge of the desk and came to take a seat on the couch, seating himself in the middle, and sitting well back in a way Dale knew, patting his right knee. “Now I plan on giving you a very good reason to make sure you do. Drop those shorts.”



*



Riley was sitting on the fence by the stable pasture, watching Mia and Nekkid grazing. Jasper walked down to him, leaning with both arms on the fence, aware that Riley knew he was there even if he didn’t look round.

The little mustang mare had filled out and the bruises and scuffs on her soft hide were healing well. She was pretty, light boned and delicate, with her very light coffee colouring and her darker socks and her dark, soft eyes. And other than the learned twitches and flinches whenever a head collar came near her face, she was surprisingly pro human. Riley had the knack of sliding under the defences of frightened animals. Jasper had several rather precious memories of a gangly fifteen year old in a paddock out here at dawn, fearlessly sitting under the nose of a vicious bastard of a gelding and petting it as if it was a riding school pony.


 “She’d have beautiful foals.” Riley said tonelessly. “Light. And fast.”

“You’re thinking of her going up with Bandit.” Jasper considered it, watching the mare step forward, nearer to Nekkid and a fresh patch of grass.



“No reason why not.” Riley said slightly belligerently. “She’s sweet natured. She likes other horses, she came from a wild herd. I can get Clara out to do the blood tests and I’ll bring a couple of the mares down here to get used to her and take care of her when she goes out into the full herd.”


“You wouldn’t want to saddle train her first?”


“Flynn wants a clearer idea of how old she is, I’m not sure she’s two yet. She’s been beaten up and ridden without anyone thinking twice about weight on her, he doesn’t want to add to any strains she’s gotten.”


Jasper nodded slowly, taking that in. Riley still didn’t look at him, voice gruffer.


“She’s a real girl. Like Gucci is. Loves being groomed, she blisses out. You could do it all day.”

And she loved socialising, she was often lifting her head to listen to them while she chewed. Jasper slid an arm around Riley’s waist and pulled him the few inches over on the fence rail to lean against him.


“You knew Dale was getting into difficulties.”

“Only the day before yesterday.” Riley hunched his shoulders, not pulling away but not looking at him. Jasper hugged his waist, speaking softly.



“You know we don’t expect either of you to tattle, but you’re not doing Dale any favours when you help him cover up this kind of stuff. It’s much better for him when it’s out in the open and dealt with quickly.”


“He said he had it under control.” Riley said very quietly. Jasper nodded, not surprised.


“I’m sure he thought he did. He’s still very new to this, honey. Not even Dale is going to get it all right on the first go, no matter how much he wants to. Come down off there, come inside and get some lunch.”

“What are you going to do?” Riley slid to the ground, giving him a slightly apprehensive look. Jasper returned it, waiting for him.



I’m not going to do anything. We said at the start, that if the project got out of control, it stopped.”


“Is Flynn going to stick to that?”


“That’s what we agreed, and I am.” Jasper said calmly. “What about you?”


Riley scuffed at the ground, not wanting to answer.


“What I want right now is for you to make him stop picking up any more projects, ever.”


Jasper didn’t miss the ‘right now’. Riley understood. He wished he didn’t, he was hurt and mad and upset, but he understood, and Jasper put an arm out to catch Riley’s waist again, hugging him as they walked.

“It’s his career. We can’t make those kind of choices for him, and even if we could it wouldn’t help. Making mistakes is part of learning, it’s helping him figure out how to handle them. Not helping him avoid them. Or protecting him forever from them.”

“That’s still what I want you to do.” Riley said stubbornly.

Jasper followed him, thinking of Paul in the kitchen just a few minutes ago, arms wrapped around himself and drinking tea in a way that meant he was more upset than he was letting on. They were both aware of Dale standing in the corner of the family room under Flynn’s exacting eye, and Riley out with the horses in the paddock, not wanting to talk to them.

“Part of me thinks Dale already beats himself up mercilessly over anything he feels he’s done wrong, so if we make a big deal about this we’re just piling on the guilt and stress. We’d do better to draw a line under it and help him move on.”

Flynn came in to join them, leaving the door to the family room open and picking up the third mug of tea cooling on the counter, which he drained as if he was parched.

“And then another part of me thinks Dale is much too used to getting away with murder for exactly that reason,” Paul went on in the same low tone, “by being upset with himself first and hardest, to the point that everyone else backs off. It’s pre-empting other people’s responses, which is about him keeping control. Again.”

“You’re usually the key witness for the defence.” Flynn said dryly. Paul grunted.

“I’ve always been the one of us who sympathised and backed off Dale and I’ve seen how it doesn’t help. I might not know what he’s doing when he’s doing it, but I do know when I don’t like it. An awful lot of this seems to me to be about control.”

“He’s used to being in full control of his environment when he’s handling the corporate stuff.” Jasper pointed out mildly, watching Flynn’s face. “Especially when he’s anxious, and this is the first time he’s brought all the baggage of his work home to us. We have to expect that we’re going to make some mistakes while we figure it out, we’re working out who we are now and it’s new ground for all of us.”

“I feel horrible that we’ve missed it.” Paul said bleakly. “I’ve missed it, I’ve been the one here with him while he works.”

Flynn shook his head, voice quietly comforting. “No, there’s been nothing to miss, nothing out of what we know as his normal range. Don’t under estimate Dale’s skill.”

“I could strangle Dale. It strikes me that in his mind with the important things the buck continues to stop with him and not us.” Paul drank tea with a grim expression. “He’s treated us like a grown up keeping nasty realities from the children. Flynn, I heard you say to him he wasn’t the senior management of this family. Each time one of you two has a battle of wills with him and forcibly wins, he pretty much sags with relief. It’s like the world is lifted off his shoulders, he doesn’t want that responsibility at all. I just wish he’d learn to trust us.”

Flynn gave him a rather gentle look. “He does trust us, love. He just isn’t about to take any risks with us. He’s still very new to feeling this strongly about anyone and he’s got thirty years plus of experience telling him that he’s the only dependable buck stopper there is. It’s protective. If he’s in control of what he does then he’s got control over how anxious he has to be about it, and if he’s in control of us then he’s got control over how safe he can keep us. What he sees as a threat to himself – like compulsions getting out of control, which scares the hell out of him, or being afraid he’s going to let us down – he’s going to interpret as a threat to us that he has to act on. He just got a very thorough spanking, and I made it very clear why, but I can understand how he hid this as well as he did, and why in his head it made sense at the time.”

“No matter how much we understand, my instinct is still to do something drastic, because he’s got to stop this.” Paul said shortly. Jasper raised his eyebrows at Flynn and Paul batted him across the back of the head.

“Stop it. He might as well have gone to New York to do this project for all he’s allowed us to help. I am not going to stand back and watch him make himself sick, I don’t care how he wants to justify it or what he thinks he’s protecting me from.”

And when Flynn freed Dale from the corner in the family room to come and join them for lunch, looking red eyed and looking horribly shaken up, Paul put down the plates he was carrying, leaned straight across the table and put a hand under Dale’s chin, making Dale look  at him.

“I’m very cross with you, Dale. You had a breakdown at the beginning of this year, you’ve got no business taking silly risks with yourself. Right now I feel lied to, I feel shut out, and I feel like I’ve let you down, and I don’t think I deserved any of that.”

Riley, already sitting with his chair sideways on to the table as though he was planning to bolt at any moment, flinched visibly. Flynn took the seat beside him, turned Riley’s chair straight and casually sat with one knee lightly braced behind it, surrounding him enough that leaving would be difficult. He and Jasper neither looked at nor looked away from Dale, wretchedly scarlet in the face and trying to force out some kind of coherent apology, which Paul interrupted without letting go of him.

“Yes, and I know you mean that, but how many times now have you apologised to me for looking me in the eyes and lying to me that you’re coping when you’re not? I want to know at what point honesty with me is going to be a bigger priority to you than whatever goal you’ve got in mind at the time.”
Fair question. Flynn felt the pressure against his knee of Riley trying to shove his chair away and get up, and put a hand on his back, rubbing comfortingly. It helped. Riley was stiff but he sat still, head down and eyes on the table. Dale was sitting but it certainly wouldn’t be comfortably, and right now he was still in a vulnerably receptive state from the spanking. Emotional, clear headed. He obviously had no idea how to defend himself from this. Flynn saw him swallow hard a few times.

“For God’s sake, he made a mistake,” Riley said explosively, “Mistakes happen, you don’t have to grind him into the ground over it!”

“It’s all right halfpint.” Flynn said softly.

“It wasn’t a mistake, I knew what I was doing-” Dale said it very unevenly and they all heard his voice break. Paul stopped him before he could get up.

“No, you’re not disappearing anywhere. I am very disappointed with you, you know a lot better than this.”

Riley made another and angrier sound and Flynn put both hands on him.

“I think we’re all entitled to an explanation,” Paul let Dale go and sat down to hand out plates. “You’ve been telling me for days that you just needed to get on with the project, that it was fine, that if we left you alone you’d sort it all out.”


“If he opens a vein will you shut up?” Riley demanded.

 Neither Jasper, Paul or Flynn reacted, they didn’t even flinch. Dale shut his eyes briefly with a horrible sense of what have I done, and slid his chair back.

“I’m sorry. This sort of thing never happened before I came here, you never spoke to each other like this.”

“Don’t you kid yourself.” Paul said sharply. “This is what happens when people live together, this is called being part of a normal marriage. It includes mess and bickering sometimes. And what you do is focus that brain of yours on sorting it out. Sit
down
. Riley, speak to me like that again and you’ll get a mouthful of soap.”

He’d barely raised his voice, so far he’d done nothing more alarming than put plates down rather more firmly than was necessary, but both Dale and Riley hurriedly sat down and shut up as though he’d slammed a hand on the table and roared. Flynn caught Jasper’s eye, resisted a very unhelpful urge to smile, and kept hold of Riley.

“Explain.” Paul ordered Dale, ladling casserole onto his plate. “What’s gone so wrong with the project that you’ve started obsessing? I haven’t seen you do that in weeks.”

His tone and manner were working well. Flynn, watching Dale automatically pick up his fork, thought that while he looked distraught and very unsure, he was finding reassurance in Paul’s telling off.

“I can’t find the evidence I’m looking for,” he said softly but in a very different tone to the confession Flynn had heard from him an hour ago. “I’ve tried everything I know how to do.”

“So have several other teams, so it’s not inconceivable that it can’t be found.” Paul said shortly.  

Dale didn’t argue that, stirring casserole briefly and then taking a mouthful when Paul looked at him.

“Jerry Banks faxed me. He’s under pressure to come up with the answer.”

Jasper caught Flynn’s eye across the table.

Did you know that?

No. Brat.

“And this fax arrived when?” Paul demanded. Dale winced.

“Two of them. One last week, one this week. I shredded them, I didn’t want – I thought it would sound as if I was under pressure.”

“Which you were, and that’s another form of lying.” Paul said crisply. “Isn’t it?”

“Yes sir.”

Riley had relaxed some under Flynn’s hand, and Flynn watched him begin to eat. He was watching Paul warily, but this kind of conversation was familiar territory to him and the tension was going out of the room.

“And the fence business started when?”

“It crept up, I didn’t notice it for a few days.” Dale put his fork down and pushed both hands through his hair. “It just – got out of control before I realised. There were a couple of others too, not as bad. I’ve been kind of getting stuck in the shower-”

It was hard to explain about the number of times of washing, in sequence, or the other simpler things, but Paul cut in without delicacy.

“Your room looking like no one’s ever slept there, and the office tidied to within an inch of its life, yes I noticed, even if I wasn’t suspicious enough to get the whole picture. You know as well as we do you’re supposed to talk to us when this happens, not hush it up until it’s completely out of your control.”

And in that exasperated tone, it sounded like a manageable domestic fault in the league of tracking muddy boots across a clean floor, not something dreadful or shameful.

“Well we talked about the terms of you doing this project,” Paul said, putting bread on the side of Dale’s plate and handing the bread dish on to Jasper. “Flynn made it very clear to you that if it involved you shutting off and not being honest with us then it stopped. You need to email Banks this afternoon, let him know that you’ve done all you can and arrange for the papers to be collected.”

Flynn, with an eye on Dale, saw his jaw drop slightly and Dale’s eyes flash to him in alarm.

“The office is locked,” he said to Paul before Dale managed an answer, “Dale, I’ll take you up after lunch and wait with you while you email, but the office is staying locked until further notice and you can consider yourself very, very grounded.”

And yeah kid, we are serious.

Riley would have argued, passionately and relentlessly, convinced he could change their minds, and he looked as if he wanted to. Dale was still looking aghast, but he shut his mouth and more slowly went on eating.


*


Paul thought he was painfully good about it. Flynn thought he did it on pride and autopilot, too shocked to know what else to do. But while Flynn stood and waited, Dale opened an email programme and drafted a brief, courteous email to Jerry Banks apologising that he had been unable to locate any fraudulent activity and to ask him to arrange for collection of the papers at his earliest convenience. He hesitated before sending it, as if in hope that Flynn would reassure him this was only a warning, he didn’t really have to send it. But where Riley would have poured out protest, emotion and fierce resistance, Dale only hesitated a moment, long enough to be sure there would be no reprieve before he pressed send, face quiet, body quiet. Nothing showing.

Flynn waited for him to shut the computer down, arms folded, making no attempt to break the silence, and when Dale got up, Flynn herded him out of the office, locked it once more and hustled Dale ahead of him downstairs. Locking the office was unnecessary and they both knew it: Dale would not go where he was told not to, self control was not something he struggled with, and Flynn doubted that Dale would need much time to defeat a lock’s mechanism if he was really determined to open it. The purpose was symbolic. Remove the options, remove the stress, and place the responsibility squarely and overtly in Flynn’s hands.  

On the porch, Flynn stamped his boots to comfort, withdrew a small grey box from his pocket, about the size of cell phone, and pointed at the bottom step.

“Sit.”

On a hard wooden step right now, less than an hour after a close encounter with a lexan paddle, that was extremely sobering in itself. Dale sat where Flynn indicated and Flynn crouched in front of him, doing something to the box. It was electronic, not something you saw much of in this house, and whatever Flynn was doing was making the box flash lights across two small display panels. Flynn handed him the box, placing the pad of Dale’s thumb over a small black patch under the display, watched for a moment, then tapped the display which was showing a disorganised rising and falling sequence of blue lights.

“That’s your pulse. This,” he tapped the small light at the top of the display which currently showed red, “Shows green when you get your heart rate down and your pulse is slow and steady. Keep the green light on consistently for five minutes and the display will change and ask you to switch to level 2. When that happens, bring it to me.”

You want to obsess sunshine? Obsess about something useful.

Saying nothing else, Flynn got up and went into the stables. Dale looked down at the box in his lap with a rather despairing sense that however stupid it might seem to care what colour a light on a box was, right now if Flynn told him to turn cartwheels or fly, he’d be prepared to give it his best shot. And that anything was better than having Paul look at him that way again.

Just the thought of that stupidly tightened his throat and stung his eyes. You had to go pretty far to break Paul’s patience; somehow he’d never realise that before. He pushed Paul further than any of the loud, obviously stroppy and demanding brats in this family that Dale bitterly accused himself of being so superior about. He didn’t even want to think about Riley, who had escaped from lunchtime as fast as possible and had avoided his eye as much as Dale, if he was honest, had avoided his.

You let them down. You let Jerry down. Work and home; you couldn’t have screwed this up much more if you’d tried.

The whole thought made him turn hot and cold.  

Mechanically he stared at the box under his hand and tried to will the light to go green. It didn’t do much good. His stomach was clenched, he felt nauseous with the tension and the shame of it, the sheer helpless hopelessness of it.

You can’t do it. You weren’t able to hold it together when you worked for A.N.Z., you can’t hold it together now. You can’t even hang on to a few basic insights that Flynn’s spent most of a year trying to get to penetrate into your thick head.

You always knew you’d end up hurting them.

He’d reached this awful, cliff edge sense of shame and failure more than a few times in his life. He’d blunted it with work, with a double scotch, with long hours in hotel gyms in the early  hours of the morning, and a few times with grim impulses involving high places and long drops. A quiet, unseen exit.

You’re a bloody coward Aden. You always were and you always will be.

He had no idea where the box with the lights ended up; he didn’t notice.

The stables were empty, the door to the tack room was open and Flynn was doing something to a bitless bridle when he looked up. Then he put the bridle down, and any remaining hesitation Dale might have felt at all was overwhelmed by the arm Flynn held straight out to him. He buried himself in Flynn’s shirt front and felt Flynn’s arms fold around him like a gate, hard, enclosing, holding him almost crushingly tight, and that safe, familiar pressure released pretty much everything. Flynn didn’t try to interrupt the awful sounds he made, Dale could feel the weight of Flynn’s jaw against his head, Flynn’s mouth hard against his hair and the heat of his breath, and at times the weight of his hand rubbing where it rested, but mostly he just held on, and a few times Dale heard his voice, quiet and deep and so close against him so that it was less heard than felt.

“It’s ok. It’s all right. This is going to be ok.”



*


 Dale’s hard, painful, choked crying was always rough to witness, you could feel the effort and the sheer difficulty of it as if he was trying to force emotion up through impacted concrete. Every sob shook him, it was brutal, and Flynn always found himself having to consciously unclench his own muscles, relax and stop a futile attempt to breathe for him, and to offer comfort without doing anything that Dale might interpret as a hint that he should stop. And that was hard; it was far easier for Dale to swallow down emotion and force self control than it ever was for him to let it go. 

When he was slightly calmer, Flynn steered him out of the stone coolness of the tack room and walked with him through the gate into the home pastures, where the grass was soft underfoot and the afternoon sunshine was warm. Dale stumbled down to his knees and ran both hands over his face, trying to clear some of the wetness, and Flynn hooked an arm around his waist, pulled him over and dug for a handkerchief in his pocket, putting it into Dale’s hand.

“This looks to you like an awful, shattering thing. It’s not.”

Dale’s look was so incredulous that Flynn bent his head and kissed him, tasting tears and for a moment sharing his still very ragged breathing.

 “Look at me.”

He did. Grey eyes, deeply insightful about anything except himself, and right now shatteringly vulnerable. And somewhere inside Flynn, despite how awful it was to see him this upset, Flynn’s heart was singing.

You don’t even realise. You came to me. That was all you had to do.

“No one gave you supernatural powers or any responsibilities associated with them. You did your best on the project. You couldn’t find the fraud. Neither could two other teams. Your responsibility was to try, you gave it your best shot, it was time to stop and that is ok. It’s ok to stop when you’ve rationally done all you can.”

“There was more I could try.” Dale said unsteadily, and then sighed and shut his eyes when Flynn looked at him. “I know, not rationally. I tried everything I could think of, I knew the last few days I was stretching it. I’m never going to get this right. I screwed up in New York before I came here -”

“You did not screw up in New York, what happened?” Flynn interrupted. It was gruff enough to stop the rant before it started.

“......I had a breakdown.” Dale admitted.

“As a result of years of overwork and a total lack of sensible self care, which yes, we’ve spent a lot of time working on.” Flynn said shortly in his ear. “And the only reason you’re in trouble today is letting yourself get totally over wound about a project
no one
has been able to solve, and hiding it from us. I’d call that a lot more lack of sensible self care, and I’m quite capable of dealing with that, thank you.”

“Paul.....” Dale began and stopped, with no idea how to say it.

“Do you know what to do if someone’s angry with you?” Flynn said gently. “Someone you love, not a client.”


With very little family experience, having spent his school life running above his peer group, shy and given to hiding in his work, he doubted it. Dale might be a trained negotiator, capable of dealing with corporate bloodshed in several languages, but take away the professional context and a extraordinary mathematical mind didn’t help him much, he was socially alarmingly naive. And he was a problem solver, used to being considerably more intelligent and competent than those around him, whose main professional strategy had been to remove the people cluttering up the situation and solve the problem himself.

To him, still emotionally shattered from this morning, this must be terrifying. And this was such a delicate process; this was an astoundingly intelligent and competent man with skills Flynn suspected they had no concept of – and yet at times, he needed things explained so simply, broken down into such small steps that it was hard to think down far enough and to do it without patronising him. It never failed to stun Flynn that Dale never lost the courage to keep on trying, to keep on asking, even if he wasn’t entirely sure what it was he didn’t know. It was one of the many, many things that struck him to the heart about Dale Aden.

He ran a hand gently through Dale’s dark hair, cupping his head.

“Go find Paul. Explain to him what you were thinking, why you did what you did, and tell him how you feel about it now. He loves you, he understands you and he will always want to believe you, and ‘angry’ is just a temporary state of mind. You only need to be honest. That’s all any of us need.”

“I’ve never been a naturally dishonest person.” Dale said defeatedly. Flynn kissed him again, lifting his chin.

“No, you’re not. You’re naturally more honest than most people. This is about control and anxiety, and we know that, and we’ve dealt with those rules being broken. Just come out of the damn citadel.”

“You say that to patients?”

Flynn’s eyes smiled even if his mouth didn’t, and this time Dale reached to meet the offered kiss.

“I don’t do that with patients either. Go on.”



It took a while to find Paul. The house was quiet, the kitchen empty, and Dale finally, tentatively tried Paul’s office upstairs, not looking at the locked door of the family office up the short flight of stairs to his left. Paul tended to use his office to write at times no one else was around; certainly it was the first time Dale had ever disturbed him at work here, and he hesitated at the door, fairly sure you shouldn’t interrupt a writer in mid stream. It was a small, comfortable room, carpeted and filled with stuffed bookcases, and a deep window seat. Paul was seated in a deep, elderly armchair at a small desk, looking at a laptop screen, but he glanced up and Dale found himself promptly looking as horribly awkward as he felt. Young, small, pitifully inadequate. He’d never felt like a CEO in this house.

Paul shut the laptop and held out a hand.

“Come here.”


“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you-”

“Here.” Paul leaned over to catch his hand and pulled, and Dale found himself not just inside the room but suddenly and inescapably on Paul’s lap, and Paul held on when he stiffened.

“Oh stop it, no one here is going to eat you. Particularly looking like that.”

Looking like what?

He had no idea. White, tired, red eyed. And still with his shirt immaculately straight, jeans crisp, hair neat. Thin. Tired. Paul linked his hands around Dale’s hips and surveyed him.

“You look like you need about a week’s sleep.”

This was an awful position in which to try to put together a coherent, never mind meaningful apology.

I hate this.

No, you really don’t. That’s most of your problem.  

Riley would do this with artless, effortless sincerity, he just opened his heart and it flowed.  Dale took a deep breath and tried not to flush scarlet with pure discomfort.

“Paul I’m so sorry. I’m not used to screwing up most of the time- well I am here, but not when I work. I didn’t mean this to happen, I thought if I handled it – if I did what I was supposed to do and stuck it out then it would be ok, I just needed to learn how to do it-”

“Learn how to do what hon?” Paul said gently.

Dale took a breath, trying to sound vaguely sensible. “I didn’t know a consistent time to finish, it changed every day. I need to learn to deal with that. I can’t start sweating blood from eleven o clock because I don’t know exactly how many minutes I have before I have to make myself stop-”

“Because stopping is hard enough all by itself?” Paul said with compassion. “No, we’re not making this complicated. You don’t withhold from us. That’s it. We don’t need over thinking, we don’t need all the stress, just stop it.”

And that, perversely, was about the most comforting thing anyone had said today.

Dale hesitated a long moment, not wanting to say what he most wanted to know, and looking down at their hands. Paul’s larger, browner hands, linked over his, showed the quartz gold ring on his fourth finger, the twin of the one on Dale’s. The admittance, finally, was very quiet.

“So if I do better, I can finish this project?”

“No.” Paul said simply. “Sweetheart, I accept your apology. Gladly. I know you didn’t mean for this to happen, but you knew the deal. This one’s finished. I know that’s hard to handle but we’ll get through it, and the next project will go better.”

It was sympathetic, it was unaccusing, and there was probably a proper brat answer to it.

But this was the man who’d been there the day Riley had been so sick, who’d laid on the bed for hours with him the day after he and Riley walked through the mine. Who’d patiently talked him through a shopping mall, whose voice was in the books Dale had read over and over again in New York.  He hadn’t realised until this moment how very painful it was to have to face and account to someone who so truly mattered. Or how awful it was to know you’d hurt someone you felt like this about.  Instead Dale found himself twisting around to bury himself in Paul's chest and felt Paul's arms fold closely around him.



***


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009


1 comment:

Paul Wilgus said...

This was a very hard chapter for me to read. I grew up in a not very close and somewhat unloving family and have always had a hard time knowing how to behave and let myself be loved, just like Dale did in this chapter as well as others. The feelings for Dale really showed through in this chapter though I think.

~*~

It's funny how life turns out

The odds of faith in the face of doubt

Camera one closes in

The soundtrack starts

The scene begins.

You're playing you now.

~Josh Jopling Group

~*~