TI: Cole

Pairings: None
Categories: Contemporary
Implements Used: Hand, Paddle
Type: Pre-slash
Series: The Island Series

Thanks to Melanie and Kel for the excellent beta job. We appreciate all your hard work, ladies. :-)

Dedicated, as always, to R T & M - Tops extraordinaire.

And to 7B. He knows why. :-)


The Island: Cole

Dash & AJ – 11/30/02

 

 

Cole wandered aimlessly down one of the many trails on The Island, not headed anywhere in particular, just enjoying the warm sunshine and exercise. He spared a pitying thought for Bill, the mining camp doctor who was covering his practice. He loved his home state, but given a choice between The Island and Alaska in January... Lifting his face to the dappled sunlight filtering through the trees, he laughed from the sheer joy of it.

 

He paused midway across a narrow footbridge where the trail crossed the creek and then, leaning against the railing, stared down at the sunlight glinting off the clear, swift water running below and mused about his time on The Island. Completing the number of hours required for the Top Program had been a long drawn-out process since he was unable to leave his practice for any length of time. Fortunately, he wasn't required to live on The Island as the Orphans were, although he did have a required number of days in residence.

 

The Island had anticipated these time restraints and had set up lecture series', seminars, and workshops throughout the country. Over the past year, he had seen enough of the airports in Seattle, San Francisco and Denver to last him a lifetime and racked up enough frequent flyer points for a nice honeymoon once he'd found his Brat. And once he'd finished this seminar, he could start the process of looking for that Brat. He hoped it would go well; there would be more Orphans available during the summer, but he didn't want to wait that long. The idea of spending another long, cold winter alone did not appeal to him and starting his search in January should give him plenty of time to find a partner, jump through the required hoops, and still take his Brat home before the next winter.

 

His thoughts were interrupted by a large splash upstream, followed by a loud, strangled yell. Instantly on alert, he left the bridge and jogged up the trail, keeping an eye on the creek for anyone struggling in the water. Rounding a bend, he was just in time to see a naked man take a running jump and cannonball off the top of a waterfall into the deep pool below.

 

"AAGHH!!" he shouted as he popped up, laughing and shaking his head. He splashed water in the direction of another young man treading water nearby and they both laughed and shouted as they shot waves back and forth between them.

 

Cole thought at first that they were a couple frolicking together and started to back off, then saw the two figures in the water glance up at the falls and start cheering. As another naked young man prepared to leap he realized that they were all Brats and, if he remembered correctly, this area was off-limits to Brats. He cringed as the third young man enthusiastically flung himself off the rocks and plummeted into the water.

 

Leaving the trail, he cut down to the creek, but by the time he got there the Brats had heard him crashing through the undergrowth, grabbed their clothes and scattered. Cole searched the area for a few minutes, then gave up. Obviously they knew the area better than he did and were long gone. He was headed back to the admin area, wondering whether to report the incident or not, when he heard a muffled cursing on the trail ahead of him. This time he moved more quietly and came up to the slender, dark-haired Brat before the young man, who was balanced on one foot and plucking at the other, realized he was there.

 

"Problems?" Cole asked, tactfully keeping his eyes above the naked Brat's waistline.

 

"Yeah," the man replied distractedly. "I stepped on a thorn."

 

"Why don't you put your shorts on and then I'll give you a hand with it," Cole ordered.

 

"No, that's all right. I'm not really supposed to talk to Tops that I haven't been introduced to," he explained absently, still examining his foot.

 

"You're not supposed to be skinny-dipping at that waterfall either," Cole pointed out. "But you didn't let that stop you. Now put your shorts on and let me take a look at that foot before you break the thorn off or drive it in deeper."

 

"Well, if you're going to put it that way..." The young man grinned, picked up the clothing from the ground next to him and, modestly turning his back on the other man, gave the Top a great view of his taut, firm butt as he quickly pulled on his shorts.

 

"Sit on that log over there," Cole ordered gruffly, pointing out the convenient resting place, "and let me take a look."

 

"No, I don't think so." The Brat abruptly changed his mind. "I'll just hobble back to the Infirmary and take care of it there."

 

"Don't be a baby," Cole told him, correctly interpreting his reluctance. "I'm a doctor and I know what I'm doing. Now *sit*."

 

The young man promptly sat down on the indicated log. "Yes, Master," he said with a grin.

 

"What’s going on here?" a new voice asked as Cole found the thorn and grasped it between his thumb and forefinger.

 

Cole looked over his shoulder, recognized a member of The Island's security team, and went back to what he was doing, allowing the Brat to explain.

 

"Nothing," he replied easily, smiling up at the guard. "I stepped on a thorn and we're getting it out. It's all under control."

 

"Must have been a long thorn to go through your sandal, Carlos," the man said in concern. "Maybe I'd better take a look or call someone."

 

"It's out now," Cole told him, holding up a wicked looking thorn. "He should have it looked at and some antiseptic and antibiotic ointment put on it, though." He held out his hand to the guard. "I'm Cole Dearborn. I'm here for the seminar on matching." In spite of Carlos' frantic shushing gestures, he explained how he had come across the Brats skinny-dipping, lost them in the undergrowth, then found Carlos again.

 

Carlos glared at the Top, then spoke placatingly to the guard. "It’s not as bad as it sounds, Garrett. We were just fooling around by the creek. Nobody was in any danger. Thanks for getting the thorn out, Cole. Hope you have a nice stay. I need to get going. I don't want to be late for soccer."

 

"Nice try, Carlos, but you know the rules," Garrett told him, as he thumbed his radio on. "Martin, can you get in touch with Andre and tell him that Carlos and I are on the way to the Detention Center?"

 

"Is there anything I should do, or anyone I need to talk to?" Cole asked as Carlos gave an elaborate sigh and slipped his sandals on.

 

"No, I don't think so. We'll contact you at the hotel if we need anything, but this seems pretty clear-cut. Thank you, though."

 

"Yeah, thanks a lot," Carlos said over his shoulder as he followed Garrett down the path. "I can't tell you how grateful I am."

 

~~~~~~~

 

Cole shifted restlessly on the hard chair, supposedly listening to a lecture on choosing the right partner, but actually thinking about the Brat he'd encountered earlier. Carlos seemed like a bit of a handful. He wondered how he was doing and how much trouble he'd gotten into.

 

"For tonight, gentleman, please read the first two chapters in your materials, and the personal essays that go along with them. We'll be covering those tomorrow." Cole jerked his attention back to the matter at hand as the instructor wound up his talk.

 

"For your journal entry tonight, I'd like you to think about what you're looking for in a Brat," Reynolds ordered. "You'll be using these notes later in the week when you start filling out the info sheet that will be given to the Brats you're interested in. Any questions?"

 

One of the other Visiting Tops raised his hand. "Can you tell us a little more about the info sheet? What kind of information is included on it?"

 

"We'll go into it in more detail toward the end of the week," Reynolds explained, sitting on the edge of the desk again. "But basically it's a bullet list of your personal statistics, hobbies and interests, and two short essays. One is about your personal philosophy of a discipline relationship and one is on what you're looking for in a Brat."

 

"And the Brats do a similar sheet?" another man asked.

 

"Yes, they do. You'll be meeting most of the Orphans in residence at the Sunday Social. If there's one - or more - that you're interested in, jot down their name and cottage number. Then you can fill out a request for their info sheet and they'll be given yours in return. But we'll cover all of this later in the week." He stood again, indicating that the class was over, and they all filed out of the room.

 

Cole turned down an offer to join a couple of the other Tops for a cup of coffee in the dining hall, preferring to be alone with his thoughts for a while. He followed one of the many paths, lost in thought, until he found himself passing the Infirmary. On impulse, he entered the building and found Dr. Marcos' office.

 

"Hi, Herm," he said, rapping on the open door. "Am I interrupting?"

 

"Cole, good to see you again!" Herm looked up from the file he was reading and smiled at his guest. Getting up, he came around the desk and warmly shook the younger doctor's hand. "I'm just trying to catch up on some paperwork. Come in, have a seat. Are you finally here for the matching seminar? How long are you staying?"

 

"I'm here for two weeks this time," Cole said with a smile, taking the chair Herm offered him. "One more week of Top Orientation and I can start the matching process. Then, since it's such a long trip, I'm going to stay an extra week and knock out a couple of relationship classes, too."

 

Herm smiled. "So it has nothing to do with the climate of Alaska in January, hmm?"

 

"Well... that might have had a little to do with the timing," Cole said with a laugh, "but not with the decision to stay an extra week. I can't really take the time to come as often as some of the other guys, so I have to make it count when I do get here."

 

"It's taken you a while, Cole, but I think you're one of the best-prepared Tops I've seen in a long time," Herm assured him. "You've made up for your lack of residency in other ways."

 

"Thanks," Cole replied, somewhat embarrassed by the frank praise. "Our email conversations have helped a lot, I think. That and the TI Tops List. I think both of them gave me an insight into the relationships that simply taking classes wouldn't have been able to."

 

"I'm glad I could help. And it goes both ways. Our conversations help me remember that there's a real world out there. I get a little insular at times," he admitted with a smile, "dealing only with men and run of the mill cases. How's that patient you were telling me about? The one with the placental separation?"

 

"She's fine. She had a healthy baby girl, a little early, but doing fine as well." They continued to talk shop for a few minutes, then Cole casually mentioned, "I met a Brat today."

 

"That has a tendency to happen around here. The place is crawling with them," Herm replied with a chuckle. "I assume there was something special about this one?"

 

"Well, he was naked," Cole laughed, and Herm raised an eyebrow.

 

"That is a little unusual, even for here. Go on," he encouraged.

 

"I was on the bridge over the creek, watching the water and enjoying the weather, and I heard someone yelling. I thought they might be in trouble, so I went upstream and found three Brats skinny-dipping. When they heard me, they took off. I caught up with one of them on the trail, though. He'd stepped on a thorn and was trying to get it out. I removed it for him--"

 

"Only a dedicated doctor could come across a naked Brat and focus all his attention on the thorn in his foot," Herm commented.

 

"And then someone from security came by, so I explained the situation and let him deal with it," Cole finished, good-naturedly ignoring his friend's interruption

 

"Did you get a name or are you just going to search for a Brat with a bandaged foot?" Herm asked teasingly. "Kind of a new twist on Cinderella, isn't it?"

 

"Of course I got a name," Cole laughed. "It's Carlos. Do you know him?"

 

"Sure," Herm replied. "It's a small island. I know everyone."

 

"And--?"

 

"And what?" Herm asked innocently, then laughed again as Cole scowled at him. "Oh, you want me to tell you about him!"

 

"Yes!" Cole told him with a grin.

 

"Let's see. He's a B6, in Andre's cottage. 24 or 25, I think. No major health problems, although he does catch colds whenever they go around. He's had all the usual childhood illnesses and I think he broke his arm when he was 10 or so, but I'd have to check the records-- Ouch! All right! You don't have to get violent!" he laughed, fending off the paper clips the other man flicked at him. "He's a nice young man, intelligent but not real studious. He has a quick mind and a wicked sense of humor and I hear he goes through more than his share of the cottage soap."

 

They talked a little more about Carlos and then the conversation turned to the medical cases that each had dealt with recently.

 

"Would you like to join me for dinner?" Herm asked as Cole finally stood up to leave. "Or have you already made plans?"

 

"I'd like that, thank you," Cole accepted the invitation. "At the hotel, or are you cooking?"

 

"Takeout," Herm replied with a grin. "I'll see you at my cottage about 7."

 

 

"How many times have we dealt with this Carlos?" Andre asked, bringing his hand sharply down on the bare bottom over his lap.  "You know the waterfall is out of bounds, yet you get caught there over and over.  Sooner or later, this lesson is going to click even if we have to do this every week."

 

Sobbing and struggling against the arm pinning him down, the Brat cried, "I don't know. It's not fair! It's a great place to go. It's fun!"

 

Andre stopped the spanking and laid a hand on the hot bottom. "Carlos, I've explained to you why you're not allowed to several times.  We're not going to go over it again.  And it doesn't really matter. I've told you not to and that's all that counts, and every time you decide to ignore that, you're going to find yourself in this situation."

 

"But it's not fair!" the Brat cried out again, tears flowing down his face.

 

"It doesn't have to be fair."  Reaching to his side, the Top took a small paddle off the table.  "This is the fourth time we've talked about this young man, so from now on, every time you're found at the waterfall, you'll be paddled."

 

"No! Don't!"

 

Raising the paddle, Andre brought it down with a sharp crack, then set a steady rhythm an and pace that continued until the young man's man struggling ceased and his pleas became wordless sobbing  After delivering a last five quick swats to the center of his bottom and leaving the Brat gasping for breath, Andre put the paddle down and began to rub his back.  "Ok, deep breaths for me.  It's over," he said gently, pitching his voice to be heard over the sobs.

 

Thirty minutes later, the Top led the still crying Brat back into his bedroom and helped him lay down on the bed.  He said on the edge and softly stroked his cheek.  "OK?" he asked softly.

 

Carlos nodded, his eyes heavy, and whispered, "Lie down with me. Please."

 

"I will. Let me go get you some juice and I'll be right back.  Then I'll lay down with you until you fall asleep.  All right?"

 

The Brat nodded again, his eyes already drifting closed.

 

He rolled over and stretched the next morning, then groaned softly and collapsed back into the pillows. "It hurts," he mumbled.

 

Andre pushed the sheet down, exposing the warm, slightly pink bottom. Gently patting it, he replied calmly, "I’m sure it does and it should. But you’re not bruised, you’re not that red or hot and, most importantly ---"

 

The Brat quickly finished the sentence for him. "It was a fair punishment, I deserved it, and you’re not going to let me lay around in bed all day." Glancing up through his lashes with his best 'poor, pitiful me' look, he asked, "Am I right or are you finally going to be nice to me?"

 

Andre raised one eyebrow, and with a quick "Ha!" gently swatted the exposed bottom before standing up. "Five minutes, babe, and if you’re not up, you’ll get more than that little love tap."

 

"You’re such a Top!" Carlos yelled after him as he left.

 

Andre stuck his head back in the door and smiled at him. "And you, young man, are such a Brat. Now get up or you're going to miss breakfast."

 

~~~

 

"Cole, we're going over to the dining hall for lunch," one of the other Tops said after class. "You want to join us?"

 

The dining hall, like the education building, was in the admin area across the creek from the resort and several of the VTs had formed the habit of lunching there rather than trekking back to the hotel. It was also, as one of them had pointed out, a good place to get a look at the Brats they were all so interested in.

 

"Sure," Cole replied. "Thanks."

 

There was a short bottleneck at the entrance and the men took their places in line, making casual conversation as they waited to have their badges scanned and pick up their trays. Once past that point, though, the line moved quickly, and soon Cole was choosing the toppings for his personal pizza and helping himself to the salad bar while it cooked.

 

"Over there." Drake pointed at a table where the other men were sitting down.

 

"The sexuality class you're taking sounds a hell of a lot more interesting than the nutrition class I'm in," Steve was telling another Top as they sat down. "But since my credits in the life skills classes are seriously lacking and Paul has some food issues, Emerson sent out a personal note with the brochure, suggesting that I consider it." He laughed again as he added, "Somehow it didn't sound like a suggestion I could refuse."

 

"How long have you two been promised?" Cole asked curiously. "I’m just starting my search."

 

"Three months now," the other Top replied. "We have another three to go before we're bonded. Sometimes, I wish I could just kidnap him and carry him off."

 

Drake nodded. "Tell me about it. I put in a request for Taylor and I'm waiting for the official word on whether he's going to accept or not. The suspense is killing me. I know he's going to say yes, but--"

 

"Congratulations, Drake. Taylor seems like a great guy," Steve said toasting the other man with his Sprite.

 

"If you don’t mind me asking," Cole glanced around at the other men, "do any of you know anything about a 6 by the name of Carlos? He’s in Andre's cottage."

 

"If it’s the same Carlos, and I think there's only one, I do. Paul mentioned him and he seems to really like the guy," Steve said thoughtfully. "Says he has a great sense of humor and he's fun to be around. I think they're in the same History class together, but I wouldn't swear to that." 

 

"I’ve met him." Drake offered. "He's a friend of Taylor's and you’re right, he does have a great personality. You can get his info sheet, but I'm not sure if he's available for a match yet. He wasn't when I met Taylor. From what I understand, Andre didn't think he was ready yet, but I'm not sure why." 

 

"I don't understand. Once they finish their orientation period, aren't they automatically ready to be matched?" Cole asked in confusion.

 

"Usually, but not always," Steve replied. "It isn't a hard and fast time limit. Sometimes Cal and the TT will decide that a Brat needs a little more time for some reason."

 

"It wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve heard of a TT holding an Orphan back for an additional month or so," one of the other men agreed as he stood and picked up his tray. "It doesn't mean there's something wrong with him, just that he wasn't quite ready for a relationship yet. And they tend to err on the side of caution here. Coming, Phil?"

 

"What’s your rating, Cole?" Steve asked as the other men left the table.

 

"I’m a 9. You think they’ll have problem with me being interested in him? I know they prefer a 2 number difference." 

 

"I wouldn't think so," Drake replied. "I know they prefer 2 levels, but they do make exceptions, especially if you're a low 9 and he's a high 6."

 

"A lot of it depends on how much else you have in common," Steve remarked. "And speak of the devil--" He nodded at the door.

 

"There he is with Taylor," Drake chuckled.

 

 

"I'm sorry you got in trouble yesterday," Jamie said as they walked to the dining hall for lunch. "Thanks for keeping me out of it."

 

Carlos shrugged. "It's OK. No sense in both of us getting in trouble. And isn't Garth supposed to be here this weekend?"

 

"Yeah. I can't wait to see him."

 

"So there's no sense in having Andre give him a bad report so you have to spend the weekend dealing with that instead of having fun," Carlos said reasonably.

 

"Thanks," Jamie repeated. "There's Taylor, waiting for us."

 

"Thanks for not saying anything yesterday," Taylor told Carlos as they joined him. "I'm accepting Drake this weekend and it would kind of get us off to a bad start, you know?"

 

"Yeah," Carlos agreed. He ran his ID through the scanner and picked up a tray. "It would be kind of a bad way to begin your relationship. What are you eating?"

 

"Pizza. And a salad." He made a face. "Andrew says I need more rabbit food in my diet."

 

"I'm going to get a sandwich," Taylor announced. "I'll meet you guys at the table, OK?"

 

"OK," Carlos said, scanning the room in search of a vacant table. "How about over-- that's him!" he hissed, grabbing Jamie's arm. "That's the guy that got me in trouble! Cole something or another. What's he doing here? Why isn't he eating at the hotel where he belongs?"

 

"Where?" Jamie asked. "I didn't get a good look at him. Which one is he?"

 

"Over there. The one in the dark blue shirt, with the brown hair and glasses."

 

"He's cute."

 

"He's a jerk."

 

"He's sitting with my Top." Taylor frowned. "Do you think he's telling him about the creek?"

 

"No, I don't think he got a good look at you two. If he had, you'd have been in a lineup by now. Jerk."

 

"He’s still cute," Jamie said with a grin. "You think he’ll recognize you again?"

 

"Like I care. And even if he does, all he'll remember is that he got me in trouble."

 

"I don't know." Jamie considered it. "If I saw a naked man hopping up and down on the trail, I'd remember him."

 

"But you wouldn't recognize him later," Taylor teased. "Not unless he took his shorts off again."

 

"They're looking at us," Carlos pointed out, ignoring their banter.

 

Taylor smiled and waved at Drake, who waved back and then made a beckoning gesture.

 

"Come on, let's go say hi," Taylor urged.

 

"Are you kidding?" Carlos asked in astonishment. "Why would I want to say hi to him?"

 

"Because it will look like you're avoiding him if you don't. And he's cute," Jamie told him. "Now come on."

 

"Hi, Taylor." Drake stood up and took his hand. "Have you met Steve and Cole? Steve is matched with Paul K. and Cole is here for his last class before matching."

 

"Hi," Taylor replied as he leaned in for a quick hug. "These are my friends, Carlos and Jamie."

 

Cole stood and shook their hands. "Jamie, it's a pleasure to meet you. And Carlos, it's a pleasure to see you again. I was hoping we'd bump into each other soon."

 

Carlos quickly shook hands, flashing him a tight smile. "It's a small island, so it's hard not to bump into people sooner or later."

 

Cole ignored the Brat's coolness. "I'm glad it's sooner rather than later, then."

 

Jamie glared at Carlos warningly and jumped into the conversation. "Carlos told us what happened yesterday. That was really nice of you to help him with that thorn. Wasn't it, Taylor? I stepped on a splinter one time and they ended up having to do surgery because I put my weight on it and drove it into my foot. I couldn't walk on it for almost a month. It's a good thing that didn't happen with Carlos."

 

"I'm glad I was there to help out," Cole agreed. "How is it feeling today, Carlos?"

 

"It's fine. Thank you. If you'll excuse me, I need to get lunch."

 

Drake glanced at the clock. "You do too, babe," he told Taylor. "I don't want to make you late for Group."

 

"It was really nice meeting you all," Jamie said with a bright smile, grabbing Carlos' arm as he started to walk away. "Maybe we'll see you again this weekend. We're going to be in the sandcastle competition on Saturday. If you're down at the beach, come and say hi. Or join us, if you want to. We can always use another Top on our team."

 

"I don't know much about sandcastles," Cole replied with a smile, "but I'll be sure to say hi."

 

"See you then. Gotta go," Jamie said as Carlos broke free and headed back toward the food line. "Talk to you later."

 

"I'll see you tonight, Drake. Nice meeting you two." Taylor lingered long enough for another hug, then hurried after his friends.

 

"What is your problem?" Jamie hissed at Carlos when they were back in line.

 

"My problem!" Carlos stared at his friend incredulously. "What's *your* problem? You were babbling like a brook! 'Why don't you join us, Cole?' he mimicked in a falsetto voice. "'I can always use another Top!"

 

"You are *such* a jerk!" The younger Brat shoved him angrily. "Somebody had to say something! He was trying to be nice and you were acting like a spoiled brat. And I don't mean that in a good way!"

 

"Well, excuse me! Maybe if you were the one having trouble sitting today, you'd feel a little differently!"

 

"Oh, please! That is such crap! You got in trouble because we were skinny-dipping and you got caught. If Cole had caught me instead of you, I wouldn't be pissed at him."

 

"Ha! You'd be ranting at everyone in sight about it!"

 

"I would not! It wasn't anything personal! Tops don't cover for Brats in trouble and you ought to know that by now!"

 

"Guys," Taylor touched their shoulders warningly. "People are starting to look at us. And I don't know about you, Jamie, but I'd just as soon not tell the whole dining hall we were the ones with Carlos yesterday."

 

Jamie lowered his voice, but continued to press his point. "He seemed like a nice guy to me. And he remembered you and tried to be nice today..." his voice trailed off as he waited for Carlos to say something. When his friend didn't reply, he continued apologetically. "OK, so maybe he went a little overboard yesterday. But he's really cute. Right?" He smiled tentatively at his friend.

 

"OK," Carlos agreed reluctantly, "I guess I'd agree that he's cute."

 

"And he's probably a great guy when you get to know him."

 

Carlos rolled his eyes. "Don't push it, Jamie. Let's just leave it at 'cute jerk', OK?"

 

~~~

 

"The role of the Match Coordinator," Reynolds lectured, sitting in his favorite spot on the edge of the desk," is, surprisingly enough, to coordinate matches."

 

Cole smiled at the slight joke as he opened his notebook and uncapped his pen. At last they were getting to the important part of the week's lectures.

 

"But that isn't as simple as it appears on the surface," Reynolds continued. "I think the normal perception is that they function like chaperons at a school dance, introducing the wallflowers in the right ratings brackets and forcing them to dance with each other, in the hope that they'll fall madly in love with each other." There were a few chuckles as well as some sheepish grins from the Tops in the class.

 

"Nothing could be farther from the truth. Pritchard, along with his staff, probably knows more about both the Tops and Orphans of The Island than any other department. You're just entering a phase that they've been working toward since you completed your ratings testing months, and in some cases years, ago. They've already considered your needs and desires, your rating, personality type, location, and many other factors, and they've created a profile, both of you and of what they consider to be your ideal Brat."

 

"Sounds like the FBI," one of the men muttered and the others laughed.

 

"But if that's true, why are we bothering to do info sheets?" another one asked. "Why do we need to write essays on how we feel about discipline and what we're looking for if they already have a Brat chosen for us?"

 

"Good question," Reynolds acknowledged. "The answer is that they don't have a specific Brat 'chosen' for you. Rather, they have a pool of Brats in mind; men that they feel you would be compatible with based on the profiles they've created. The essays you write this week will help them verify their decisions and perhaps add or subtract Brats from that pool, based on what you write. Also, those essays are directed more specifically toward the Brats who request info about you. It gives them a chance to see how you think and feel about issues that are important to them. You'll get the same information from any Brats you're interested in."

 

"So we go to the social, they introduce us to the Brats that fit our profile, and we decide which one to fall in love with?" another man asked.

 

"I wish it was that simple," the instructor replied with a laugh. "But for starters, not all of the Brats will be at any given social. Some won't be quite ready to be matched, others are fostered elsewhere. Also, the Match Coordinators aren't necessarily looking at a romantic attachment. They're looking for maximum compatibility, which will lead to a good, stable, long-term relationship. Of course, some of us do manage to fall in love in spite of their practicality," he laughed again.

 

"What if we're interested in a Brat outside their pool?" the man asked. "For instance, I've heard that they don't allow matches with more than a 2 point difference in ratings. I'm an 8. What if I'm interested in a Brat who's a 5?"

 

Cole, who had been doodling idly on his notepad as he listened, looked up intently.

 

"You ask for his info sheet," Reynolds replied. "We don't insist that there's a 2 point difference in ratings. That's simply a guideline, based on years of research and information; while about 70% of our couples have a 2 point difference, the range we look for is 1-3, with the Top being the higher of the two. In our experience, if the difference is any greater or less than that, the relationship may work in the short-term but it doesn't last in the long-run. Since our goal is long-term relationships, we discourage anything more or less than 1-3."

 

"What if it is greater?" he persisted.

 

"We take the VT out to sea and feed him to the sharks, and lock the Brat in a small cage until he agrees to abide by our choice," Reynolds replied. "Seriously," he continued when the laughter had died, "you're all free adult men. You can make any choice that you want to. But you've all been tested, you've all had the classes explaining why ratings are important, and you're still here. Why would you make the commitment of this much time and money if you're not going to take advantage of our expertise now?"

 

"So if, say, a T5 got together with a B8, you'd have no problem with that?"

 

"I didn't say that," Reynolds pointed out. "I said we look for a range of 1-3, with the Top being the higher number. I also said you're free adult men and can make any choice you want. I didn't say we'd necessarily support that choice. We are willing to work with individuals where we think the relationship is viable, but we won't do it if we think the relationship is doomed to failure. You're free to ignore our dictates in those circumstances, but if you do you're on your own. The Island will not support the relationship.

 

"Don't you think that's a little harsh?" one of the other men asked.

 

"Why?" Reynolds asked reasonably. "We have a reputation that we're proud of. Why should we jeopardize that? Other organizations have rules and guidelines that their members are expected to follow. Why should The Island be any different?"

 

"So a 3 point difference isn't that rare?" Cole asked, bringing the conversation back to the point he was interested in.

 

"Not at all." Reynolds willingly changed the subject. "And remember, the ratings are only one aspect that the MC's consider. They also look at personality types, common backgrounds and interests, location, and a lot of other points that are too complicated to get into in this class. If you're interested in the details, feel free to ask Pritchard about it. Does everyone have their MC interview scheduled with him? Good. We'll spend the rest of this session discussing what will be covered in those interviews."

 

 

Cole stared at the computer screen, trying to form vague thoughts into coherent sentences, sentences that didn't sound pompous or egotistical.

 

The info sheet was divided into three parts and he'd breezed through the first two parts with no problem. Of course, that was partly because the first part said 'Do not write in this space', he thought wryly. That section contained details concerning his rating, type, and other matching details, and would be filled out by the Match Dept.

 

The second section was similar to an application for a dating service and contained his physical description, profession, home location, hobbies and interests, and similar information, and he had swiftly filled it out.

 

The third section would never be found on a dating service application, though, and it was the one that was giving him the most trouble. He considered the first question again. 'Please describe your personal philosophy on discipline partnerships'.

 

He thought a little more, then began to type. "I agree with the philosophy that a Discipline Partnership is made up of equals, with each person having an active role in the relationship and each carrying the burden of making the relationship run smoothly. But, I also feel strongly that, as the Top in my future relationship, I will have the ultimate say over my Brat's actions and behavior. How the balance between equality, which seems key, and domination, which seems to play an equally important role, interact and mesh together, I don't yet know. I do feel that constant punishment is not necessary in these types of relationships. While it is certainly called for at times, and I will have no problem administering it when those occasions arise, I believe that dealing with a situation before it escalates is as important as punishing after the fact."

 

He stopped and read over what he'd typed. Did that sound too pompous? After some internal debate, he decided to leave it and come back later.

 

'Please describe your ideal relationship and how your Brat would fit into it.'

 

"Constant sex in front of the fireplace with a partner who is both submissive to my wants and independent enough to think up ways to pleasure me by himself." Cole laughed as he quickly deleted the sentence, thinking of how the very serious Pritchard would react to it.

 

Taking a sip of water, he stared at the screen for a moment before beginning to type again. "I don't know that I have an ideal relationship in my mind other than one where both my partner and I are happy, content, and in love with each other. I picture us fighting from time to time and getting on each other's nerves occasionally, but always making up quickly and meaning it when we both apologize for the hurt things that might get said in anger. I want to be able to talk for hours about different things, some important, some silly, and also be content without talking, as we read or watch the fire or the snow or stars. I picture coming home late in the evening after a long day at work to a partner who has cooked dinner and kept it hot so we can eat together as we can share our day with each other. My partner would have to be independent when needed because, as a doctor who is on call 24/7, I do occasionally have to be gone for long hours at a time. But I also want a partner who is comfortable with our roles in the relationship and who is…." Cole paused, thinking about the word he wanted to use. 'Submissive' didn't seem exactly right. Minimizing the program, he opened Word and accessed its thesaurus. "…. and who is deferential to my wishes, respects my decisions, and is willing to be punished when I feel it's called for."

 

He read it over, then leaned back in his chair and thought about what he'd written. Would Carlos agree with his discipline philosophy? Would he fit into the type of relationship that was Cole's ideal? Would anyone, or was he asking too much? With a sigh, he saved his work and shut down the computer. He'd reread it tomorrow and make any changes then.

 

~~~

 

Cole set his breakfast tray on one of the small round tables, then went and got a newsletter from the stack near the door. The deck behind the hotel looked out over an open area sloping to the creek and he'd eaten breakfast there every morning since he'd arrived. Usually he ate in quiet solitude, but the tables were filling rapidly today.

Visiting Tops had been arriving steadily since the night before, eager to start on a weekend filled with seminars and social activities. He took a sip of orange juice and then stared into space, lost in thought. He was through with all of his Primary classes and ready to start his official search for a Brat. The thought was exciting, exhilarating - and terrifying.

 

"Excuse me. Would you mind if I join you? It's a little crowded this morning."

 

Startled out of his reverie, Cole smiled at the Top standing by the table. "Not at all," he replied, laying his newspaper to one side. "Have a seat. I'm Cole Dearborn."

 

The other man put his tray down and shook the offered hand before sitting down. "Garth Hunter. Nice to meet you. I've heard a lot about you already."

 

"You have?" Cole asked in surprise.

 

"Yes. My Brats, Dylan and Jamie, are in the same cottage as Carlos," Garth explained

 

"So you're the Top with two Brats!" Cole blurted, then flushed. "I'm sorry," he apologized, holding up his hand. "I'm not normally that rude."

 

"Not a problem. It's a common reaction. At least you didn't add 'Are you crazy?'" Garth laughed, arching an eyebrow.

 

"What's it like, knowing you're about to make such a commitment?" Cole asked as they began to eat. "If you don't mind talking about it."

 

"Not at all. It's one of my favorite subjects," Garth replied with a smile. "It's different than just falling in love." He paused to take a sip of his juice and think of the best way to explain it. "In past relationships, there was always that initial rush of excitement followed by a let down later on. There hasn't been in this relationship, at least not for me. It's been more like finding that old sweatshirt that fit you perfectly, not too small or too tight or too long or too short; it's just right. My relationship with Dylan is like that; we fit together and complement each other. Not that it's always smooth sailing but even when we're arguing, the fit is still right."

 

"What about Jamie?"

 

Garth laughed again. "Jamie is a bit different. I love him as much as Dylan, but in a different way. I love him for who is he now, but I'm also going to love watching him develop into the man I see in him already. I'm looking forward to being part of that growth and helping him explore all his potential. I'm looking forward to our relationship growing with him and helping him to realize how special and talented I know he is."

 

Cole thought about that as he bit into his toast. "Is it hard, knowing that he's going to change so much in your relationship?" he asked.

 

The other Top shook his head. "No, not really. I have total confidence that our relationship will be able to grow with him." He smiled. "What I do worry about, though, is whether I'm good enough to guide him through it. Guide, but not lead; keep from getting hurt too badly, but not coddle and prevent him from learning from his mistakes." He took another bite and nodded, almost to himself. "That's going to be a difficult part of our relationship, but he's worth it." Then, with an almost sheepish grin, he added, "But that's probably not something that you'll have to have to worry about."

 

"No, I think I'd do better with a Brat that's a bit older than Jamie and a bit more settled as well."

 

"Regardless of who you end up, Cole," Garth said, "it's going to be the hardest, and yet most fulfilling, relationship you'll ever be in. You'll wonder why you waited so long to find him and then you'll wonder how you ever lived without him."

 

Cole laughed, slightly embarrassed by the sense of longing he felt at the other man's words. "I can't wait, but at the same time I'm a little nervous. I don't think I handled the situation with Carlos very well."

 

"Don't worry about Carlos," Garth advised. "He might act annoyed, but he wouldn't be here if he didn't want someone keeping an eye on him."

 

"We'll see. He seems like a nice guy, but there are plenty of interesting men here."

 

"Have you signed up for the sandcastle competition yet?" Garth changed the subject.

 

"No, I don't know much about building sandcastles. I thought I'd just walk around and watch them work."

 

"You won't meet many Brats by watching them," the other Top advised. "Why don't you join our team? I think I'm the only Top so far, so I'm way outnumbered. I need some support here."

 

"I don't know," Cole hesitated. "Like I said, I don't know much about it. We don't have too much sand in Alaska."

 

"You don't have to know much. The Brats do all the prep work and they have it all planned out. You'll have fun," Garth urged. "And Carlos is on our team," he added with a twinkle in his eye.

 

"All right," Cole decided impulsively. "After all, how hard can it be to build a simple sandcastle. You just fill molds and dump them together, right?"

 

Garth chuckled.

 

"What?" the other Top asked.

 

"Nothing," Garth replied, unwilling to discourage his new recruit. "The signups are in the lobby. We're the Blue Dolphins this time. Competition starts at 2, so I'll meet you here at 1:30 and we can walk down together, all right? Wear something you don't mind getting wet." He took one last bite of his eggs and stood up. "I need to get going. I have a meeting with Hobbes this morning. It was nice meeting you, Cole."

 

"Nice meeting you, Garth."

 

 

Cole was waiting on the hotel porch a little before 1:30, feeling slightly apprehensive and regretting his impulsive decision. The last thing he needed was to look foolish in front of a large audience, especially one that included Carlos. He hoped that the baggy swim trunks and Mariners t-shirt he had on were all right. His summer wardrobe was a bit limited and he hadn't really brought anything else to wear in the surf. He wondered if it would be possible to scratch his name or pretend to have a migraine. Hell, he thought, he'd even have a real migraine if it got him out of making a fool of himself.

 

He turned as Garth came out of the hotel, followed by Drake, and was relieved to see Garth wearing faded blue trunks too, while Drake was in cut off jeans. Not that it mattered, of course, since he was backing out anyway.

 

"Cole, I'm glad you're here. I was a little afraid you'd back out once you'd thought about it," Garth confessed with a laugh. "Have you met Drake? His Brat, Taylor, is on the team and he's going to join us."

 

Sighing, Cole abandoned the idea of a migraine and greeted the other men. "So Taylor accepted you?" he added to Drake. "Congratulations."

 

"Thanks," Drake replied. "Are you ready to go? Do you have sunblock?"

 

"Practicing, Drake?" Garth teased the other man, and Drake laughed sheepishly.

 

"Already put it on and I have more for the beach," Cole admitted. "Let's go build pretty castles."

 

Both Garth and Drake laughed and Cole looked at them inquiringly.

 

"You haven't done this before, have you?" Drake asked.

 

"No, why?" Cole replied.

 

"You'll see," Drake said enigmatically and spent the rest of the walk extolling the virtues of his new Brat.

 

When they got the to beach, Cole understood why they'd laughed. Obviously sandcastles were a serious business here. Ankle-high ropes divided the beach into ten large rectangles with walkways between them. Each rectangle had a colored pennant waving gaily in one corner and a wood and canvas form in the center, with piles of sand nearby. A 5-gallon bucket of tools and supplies stood near each form while clusters of Brats gathered impatiently outside the boundaries.

 

"We're the Blue Dolphins this time," Garth explained, leading the way to the rectangle with the blue flag. "The colors are randomly assigned and the Brats pick a name for the team based on that color. The category is announced at the same time and the Brats decide what they're going to make and build a form the right size and shape. Then on the morning of the competition they have an hour to set it up and pack it. Once that hour is up, they're not allowed back into the area until the starting bell rings."

 

"Hi, Garth! You're late!" Jamie spotted him and bounded over to them. "Ready to go? We're going to start in a few minutes." He paused for a quick hug and kiss and then ran back to his friends.

 

"Hi, Garth." Dylan followed more slowly, with a ready smile for the Top and his friends. "You're not really late. We still have about 10 minutes, but Jamie's getting a little impatient."

 

"Jamie's always impatient," Garth observed, giving Dylan a quick kiss and then putting an arm around him as they walked to their rectangle. "You've met Drake and Cole, right? Drake was on the Golden Dragons' team a couple of months ago, but this is Cole's first competition. Do you want to give him a quick rundown on how it works?"

 

"Sure," Dylan replied. "The category this time was Animals. We're doing a python swallowing a rat. It was Carlos' idea," he added with a grin as Drake groaned and Garth laughed. "We came down and stomped out the foundation and set up and filled our form this morning. Jamie has the plans that Garth made for us," he flashed a quick grin at the Top, "and we can start carving as soon as the bell rings. Any questions?"

 

"Why do we need a foundation and forms?" Cole asked in confusion. "I thought we were building a simple sandcastle, not pouring concrete."

 

"We used to build simple sandcastles. But then a Brat found a book on sand sculptures and things got a little more complicated." Drake explained dryly. "It's been hell ever since."

 

"You make a foundation by piling sand, pouring water on it, and stomping it down," Dylan explained. "So you have a firm base for the sculpture. Same thing with the form. You fill it full of sand and water and pack it down on top of the foundation so you have a solid pile to work with. Otherwise it slumps."

 

"Come on, you guys!" Jamie yelled. "We don't have much time!"

 

"Just watch and you'll catch on," Drake said comfortingly as they joined the Brats. "I didn't know what I was doing last time and we took 3rd place."

 

"OK," Carlos said. "Let's divide up the jobs. Dylan, you and Garth had better start the carving. You have the steadiest hands and understand the grids. Taylor, you and Jamie are on sand and water detail for now."

 

"We're mounding the rat, right?" Taylor asked.

 

"Right. Do either of you two know how to mound?" Carlos asked the other Tops.

 

"I do," Drake volunteered as Cole shook his head.

 

"Make slurry? Slip? Pattycake? " Carlos asked as Cole kept shaking his head. "OK, Taylor, you help Drake mound the rat, and you'd better man the sprayer, Cole. You do know how to spray water, right?"

 

"Carlos," Garth said warningly.

 

"Sorry. I didn't mean to be rude." The Brat sounded sincerely repentant as he gave Cole a quick smile. "It's not hard. You have to keep the sand wet, especially where there are fine details, because they crumble if they dry out. Just spray it anywhere you see the sand looking dry."

 

"It's almost time," Jamie announced, bouncing in place. "Is everybody ready?"

 

Cole took a deep breath and nodded, hoping he didn't make too much of a fool of himself.

 

"Don't let Carlos get to you," Dylan murmured quietly in his ear. "He doesn't mean anything by it. He's just nervous because he's in charge this time."

 

Cole nodded as the bell rang and Brats all over the beach leaped into their work areas, followed more slowly by the Tops. He took the sprayer filled with seawater that Jamie handed to him as the Brats pulled the form away, leaving a 3x5 rectangle of sand about a foot high. Standing back out of the way, he watched as the Garth and Dylan worked, amazed at how quickly the outline of the snake appeared. It really was sculpting, he thought, but with sand instead of stone. At the roughly carved head, Drake and Taylor worked together, mixing a slurry of sand and water and mounding handfuls of it into the back end of a rat.

 

"We need water, Cole," Dylan called, and Cole hurriedly began spraying the drying sand. Soon his world had narrowed to the snake in front of him and the comments of his teammates, only vaguely aware of the crowd that had gathered to watch.

 

In what seemed no time at all, Carlos was taking the sprayer from his hands. "Your turn for a break," he said. "You're doing great."

 

Cole stretched and flexed his fingers. His hands ached from operating the trigger on the sprayer for so long. He glanced at his watch and realized that they'd been working for well over an hour.

 

"Take about 15 minutes to walk around, get something to drink, and look at the others," Carlos advised, "and when you get back you can help do the scales."

 

Shouting and swearing from one of the other teams was followed by groans from the crowd and Cole looked at Carlos questioningly.

 

"Sounds like somebody's having problems," the Brat observed.

 

Dylan stepped over the rope boundary, coming back from his break, and announced, "It was the Red Rovers'. They were trying to do a cobra coming out of a basket and it slumped."

 

"Collapsed," Carlos explained to Cole. "The whole thing?" he asked Dylan.

 

"Most of it. They're out of the competition."

 

"Serves them right for doing a snake too," Jamie muttered

 

"Jamie," Dylan reproved him.

 

"Well, it does!"

 

Cole left them arguing about it and walked up the sand, stretching his legs and looking at the other sculptures. He passed a sea turtle, a snail, and a pig, as well as the remains of the cobra and basket before he reached the food pavilion. He got a bottle of water from a metal tub of ice and drank thirstily as he looked around. Not everyone was working on sand sculptures. The beach was filled with people, some splashing in the surf and others stretched out under umbrellas. Farther down, an enthusiastic game of volleyball was in progress.

 

"Hey, Cole," Hobbes greeted him, digging in a cooler nearby and coming up with two bottles of iced tea. "Having a good time?"

 

"Yeah, I am," the Top replied, somewhat surprised to realize it was true. "Are you on one of the teams?"

 

"No, it seems like too much work for a Saturday," Hobbes replied with a laugh. "We're lying on the beach instead. Much more relaxing."

 

"Much," Cole agreed. "But no sense of accomplishment when you're through."

 

"True," Hobbes admitted. "But I'll live without it. I get enough accomplishment Monday through Friday." He laughed again. "Talk to you later."

 

Cole watched him start back up the beach, then returned to work.

 

"Why don't you start on the scales?" Carlos asked as he stepped back over the rope.

 

"All right. What do I do?"

 

"Take this shell," the Brat instructed. "And press gently into the snake, overlapping each one just a little. Here, let me show you." Cole knelt by the snake, shell in hand, and Carlos knelt behind him. "Start here, and press gently. Not too deep or the ridges will dry and crumble, but deep enough to mark it." He positioned the other man's hand and, covering it with his own, pressed down on it.

 

Cole tried pay attention to the instructions, but it was difficult with Carlos leaning against his shoulder, breath warm in his ear, and cool hand covering his. He swallowed, grateful that he'd chosen the baggy swim trunks over shorts. What would it be like to wake up on a cold winter morning with the Brat spooned against him, breathing softly against him, hand around his waist, holding him close--

 

"Cole? Are you all right? You look flushed. Maybe you should take another break."

 

"What? Oh. Yeah, I'm fine," he replied. "I think I can handle this now."

 

"Good. When you get down to about here," Carlos marked a spot on the snake's back, "switch to this smaller shell so we taper the scales as it gets narrower."

 

"Got it," Cole replied. /Bad,/ he thought moodily.

 

"Five minutes!" one of the judges called, clanging loudly on his bell. "Five minute warning now!"

 

Cole hurriedly put the last few imprints on the tail, then stood, arching his back and stretching his arms above his head. They'd done a good job, he thought, admiring their work. The python writhed realistically across the sand, his head up and jaw wide open, showing a wicked pair of fangs. Taylor had taken a fine-toothed comb and raked it over the rat's body, making bristly hair, and the tail was long and thin, looking disgustingly realistic.

 

Dylan finished striping the pedestal with a wide-toothed comb for the finishing touch just as the final bell rang. Gathering their tools, they stepped out of the rectangle.

 

"Ohhh, my back," Drake groaned, stretching luxuriously after he put the tools back in the bucket. "I'm getting too old to be bent over for so long."

 

"We can go back to your room and I'll give you a nice massage," Taylor offered mischievously.

 

"No, that's all right," Drake declined the offer with a grin. "I don't think I can run fast enough to stay ahead of Andrew, either."

 

They all laughed, then Garth suggested that they get something to eat while they waited for the judges to do their work. "They don't like us to hang around during the judging and I'm hungry enough to eat a horse."

 

"We don't have any horses, but I know where there's a nice, sandy rat," Carlos offered generously.

 

"*Not* until after the judging," Dylan protested. "Then he can eat it if he wants to."

 

"No, thank you. I'd rather have one of the burgers I've been smelling for the past hour. Let's go," Garth urged.

 

Grills and buffet tables were set up on the beach where Cole had gotten his water bottle earlier and the mouth-watering smell of hot dogs and hamburgers was nearly overpowering as the hungry team got in line.

 

Cole chose a hamburger fresh off the grill, then went to the buffet table where a wide variety of salads and side dishes were available.

 

"Is that all you're eating?" Carlos asked as he joined Cole and began piling condiments on two hamburgers.

 

"I may come back for seconds later," Cole replied, watching in amazement as Carlos finished with his burgers and began spooning chopped onions onto a hot dog. "Maybe you should get a second plate."

 

"I have one. Dylan took it to that picnic table over there." He pointed to the table where Dylan was setting plates down.

 

"Oh." Cole mentally reviewed his grocery budget. If Carlos ate like this at every meal, it would triple, at least. Possibly quadruple.

 

"What do you want to drink?" Jamie bounded up to ask them. "Garth says I'm supposed to get drinks for the group. There's milk, water, iced tea, raspberry iced tea, lemonade, hard lemonade, coke, diet coke, or sprite."

 

Cole chose lemonade and sat at the table with the others, enjoying the meal and the company of the enthusiastic Brats.

 

Carlos alternated large bites of his meal with an animated description of where he'd gotten the idea for their design.

 

"We were watching Crocodile Hunter - have you ever seen it? - and Steve ran across this boa or something that had tried to swallow this huge capybara but it was too big for it. So this thing was stuck half way in and he couldn't get spit it back out because snakes can't regurgitate. It was disgusting."

 

"Do you like Crocodile Hunter?" Cole asked as the young man paused to take another huge bite out of his burger.

 

"It's great.” Jamie jumped in enthusiastically. "Steve's insane. I mean, he's saying 'oh, this bloke's a little irritable' as this cobra is spitting venom at him. And 'blimey, this guy can bite!' as blood is dripping off his hand. He's great!"

 

"He needs a good Top," Garth observed dryly.

 

"Well he can't come here for one," Ryan announced with a laugh as he walked up to them. "He'd have every Brat on The Island out hunting poisonous spiders and snakes with him."

 

Before anyone could comment, the judges blew their whistle again.

 

"Judging's over," Ryan told them unnecessarily as the Brats hurriedly shoveled last bites of food into their mouths, then started tossing paper plates and cups. "I'll let you go see how you did. Garth, I'd like to talk to you before you leave, if you can spare me a few minutes."

 

"All right, I'll catch up with you later. Jamie! I'm not through with that yet!" Garth made a grab for his plate. "Calm down or I'll make you sit still for ten minutes before we go."

 

A few minutes later, they were looking over the sand sculptures and reading the notes the judges had made about each one. As the different teams headed back to the competition area, Cole realized again how different the Brats' personalities were. Some, including Jamie, went straight to their sculpture and had eyes only for the ribbon displayed below their flag.

 

Others read each sculpture's notes carefully, then inspected the sculpture itself, comparing it to the others around it. He was surprised to see Carlos in this group. He would have placed him in the other one.

 

"Second." Jamie came back to them dejectedly. "We only got second."

 

"Second is good," Dylan told him. "Did you see the one that got first? They deserved it. Look at the detail on it."

 

"Who got first?" Carlos asked, looking up from his inspection of the sea turtle.

 

"The Green Giants," Dylan replied. "They did a pig, kneeling on a platter with an apple in its mouth. They did a drip pile for the tail and carved vegetables on the platter all around him."

 

"What's next?" Cole asked as the Brats headed off to inspect the pig.

 

"They'll be handing out the prizes in a few minutes," Drake replied. "Then after that there's dessert and a bonfire on the beach."

 

"We get prizes?" Cole asked in surprise.

 

"Oh, yeah. The Brats insist on it," Garth laughed. " The team leader gets to keep the blue, red, or yellow ribbon and each team member gets a gold pail about the size of a shot glass for first place or a silver shovel for second. Everyone else gets green ribbons for participation."

 

"Cool," Cole replied.

 

~~~

 

"Watch out!"

 

The lawn where the Sunday social was held sloped down to the creek across from the hotel and Carlos and Jamie had snagged coveted seats on the wide retaining wall flanking the steps down to the water. They glanced up at the shout, just in time to duck as a Frisbee sailed over their heads and landed in the bushes behind them.

 

"Leave it, Brent!" one of the TTs called after the Orphan sent to retrieve it. "You all know better than to play Frisbee here."

 

"Okay, Randy. Sorry," Brent called back.

 

Carlos scooped up a mound of melted cheese with one of his tortilla chips and looked after the Brat speculatively. "I think he likes Randy."

 

Jamie glanced at the Orphan, who was walking up the slope to the buffet table. "No way."

 

"Yes way," Carlos said doing his best 'dude' accent, grin widening as his friend rolled his eyes. "And I think Randy likes him, too. I'll bet you ten bucks that Randy announces his retirement by the end of next month.

 

Jamie stared at the couple, now talking quietly in line. "Sucker's bet," he said with a laugh. "I don't think it will take that long.

 

"What won't take that long?"

 

"Garth! Hi!" Jamie greeted his partner with a wide smile. "How long have you been here?" He leaned down for a kiss, almost dumping his plate in the process.

 

Reaching up and putting a hand on his Brat's chest, Garth gave a gentle push. "Sit up. I don't want to wear your tacos." As Jamie sat back, he continued, "We just got here a few minutes ago. Where's Dylan?"

 

"He's over…" the younger man paused, looking around. "I don't know where he is now; he was over there talking to Zach a few minutes ago. Hi, Cole." He repeated the cheerful smile as he greeted the man standing slightly behind his Top.

 

"Hi Jamie, how are you doing today?" Cole smiled back. Then, glancing at Carlos, he added a more subdued, "Hi, Carlos."

 

"Hi, Cole, it's nice to see you again," Carlos said.

 

"I'm great," Jamie replied to Cole's question, discreetly elbowing Carlos in the ribs at the same time. "And, I really want to thank you for your scale work yesterday. You did a great job."

 

Cole looked puzzled, then laughed. "Thanks. I'm glad you liked it. I think it turned out pretty well myself, considering that I've never done anything like that before. Carlos showed me how to do it, though. He's a good teacher."

 

Carlos shrugged. "It's a pretty simple job."

 

"Well, I appreciate it and I think it made a big difference," Jamie told him. "I think we should have won. You two make a great couple .. .pair. Sorry." He laughed as he corrected himself, and his plate tipped, showering shredded lettuce and cheese over Garth.

 

Garth sighed as he brushed himself off. "Come on, Cole. Let's go get something to eat before I end up wearing the rest of Jamie's"

 

"Sorry, love!" the young man apologized, not sounding sorry at all.

 

Garth said something quietly to Cole, who looked over at Jamie and smiled.

 

""What," Jamie demanded, "is he saying about me, Cole?" Garth paused on the steps beside Jamie, and the young man tilted his head up for a kiss, then pulled back at the last second leaving Garth kissing thin air. "Nope, not until you tell me."

 

Garth pulled his Brat off the wall and kissed him hard before swatting him gently. "I told him that you're a brat but he'll be one of the luckiest men on earth if he can find someone half as wonderful."

 

"Oh," Jamie replied with a shy smile, his teasing forgotten.

 

"Come on, Brat. Let's find Dylan and get something for me to eat. I'm starving."

 

"Jamie is so much in love with him. It's amazing sometimes," Carlos said almost to himself as Garth put his arm around the young man and they went up the steps together.

 

"Yes, they seem to be very happy together. Garth talks about them both a lot."

 

"You want a nacho?" Carlos asked, offering the plate to Cole.

 

"Thanks," the Top replied, sitting on the wall next to him and taking one. They sat companionably together, finishing off the nachos before Cole spoke again. "I had a great time yesterday. Thanks for letting me work with you."

 

The Brat shrugged uncomfortably. "No problem. But it wasn't just with me. It was with the whole team."

 

"I still appreciate it, though. We got off to a bit of a rocky start--"

 

"I'd say a thorny start myself," Carlos grinned.

 

The Top burst out laughing. "Yes, you're right. I'm glad you seem to have put it behind you, though."

 

"Well, Andre helped in the 'behind' department." Carlos gave an elaborate shudder, followed by a quick grin.

 

Not knowing exactly how to respond to that comment, Cole settled for a light chuckle, then sat silently for a few minutes, pretending to watch the people socializing on the lawn but actually watching Carlos out of the corner of his eye. "It's a pretty day," he said finally. "Back at home the high is 10 and it's cloudy and gray."

 

"Where's home?" Carlos asked curiously.

 

"Clearwater Creek, Alaska. It's a small town in the interior, accessible only by plane or a very questionable road. It was originally a mining town; now it serves as a base for several timber, mining and pipeline camps in the area."

 

"Wow," Carlos said, clearly impressed. "I've never been to Alaska. I'm not even sure if I've ever met someone from there before. What are you doing up there? Are you a doctor for one of those camps?"

 

Ridiculously pleased that the younger man remembered what he did, Cole smiled as he shook his head. "No, I'm town doctor. I got a grant for med school from the state of Alaska in return for a 5 year commitment to practice there. That was 8 years ago and I can't imagine working or living anywhere else."

 

The Brat smiled at him. "It sounds like Northern Exposure."

 

Cole chuckled. "Yeah, it is kind of like that, but hopefully I'm a little less neurotic than Dr. Fleishman and the town isn't quite as eccentric as Cecily."

 

"Do the moose really walk through town like that? Mooses? Meese?" Carlos questioned, stumbling over the right plural.

 

"Yes, sometimes they come into town but it's mainly into people's yards to graze on their plants, not walking down Main Street. And they're fairly harmless, as long as it isn't mating season. So what about you? Where is home when you're not on The Island?"

 

"Maine," Carlos replied. "I love it there, especially in the winter." He glanced around at the tropical beauty that surrounded them and then shrugged. "I don't know. I like it here a lot, but I miss the change in seasons sometimes and I miss winter. I love that cold, crisp feeling in the air after a big snow. And being out in it all day, skiing, snowboarding or whatever, then coming in and curling up and drinking hot chocolate in front of the fire. I take it you ski? Do you have sled dogs? That looks like it would be so much fun."

 

"Yes, I ski, and I've been dog sledding, but I don't own any sled dogs, just an old mutt. We mostly use snowmobiles or ATV's to get around. We have sled dog races during our Winter Festival, though. Not as big as the Iditarod, but still exciting, at least for us. You know, I was thinking during the sandcastle competition that it would be pretty easy to adapt that to snow. Maybe we could add snow sculptures to our competitions next year. "

 

"Yeah, it would be pretty easy," Carlos replied knowledgeably. "You'd have to adapt some of the techniques but it wouldn't be too hard. In some ways it would be easier because snow packs so much easier than sand does." He sat, lost in thought, as he considered it.

 

"So what did you do in Maine?" Cole gently brought him back to the real world.

 

"A little bit of everything. I worked on a lobster boat for a couple of summers. I tended bar one summer, played waiter in the winter and worked in a bookstore. Had plenty of free time to go skiing whenever I wanted to."

 

"So you're a jack of all trades."

 

Carlos nodded and half-smiled. "Yeah. My dad actually use to say that, that I was a jack of all trades and master of none. But it was good. I paid my bills and managed to get by. Things were good, even if I didn't have any long-term goals."

 

"I don't think there's really anything wrong with searching for your direction--"

 

"Cole, just the man I was looking for," Pritchard hailed him. "Hello, Carlos, how are you doing today?"

 

"Fine, thanks," the Brat replied.

 

"You don't mind excusing us, do you? There are a couple of people I'd like to introduce Cole to."

 

"Well, actually--" Cole began.

 

"No, go ahead, it's fine. I need to go find Andre, anyway," Carlos said quickly. "It was good seeing you again, Cole." He slipped off the wall and was gone before Cole could reply.

 

"It was nice of you to keep him company, but there are two Brats I think you'll be interested in and I wanted to introduce you to them."

 

"What about Carlos?" Cole asked. "We seem to have a lot in common. Isn't he ready to be matched?"

 

"Well," the older Top said with a sigh, "technically he is but to be honest, I have my doubts. Let's put it this way, he's eligible, but no one is advertising the fact, including Carlos."

 

"May I ask what the problem is?"

 

"I really shouldn't discuss it," Pritchard said regretfully. "It is rather confidential, but..." He pursed his lips indecisively. "I will say that he's a rather frivolous young man, with no sense of the gravity involved in this type of decision. In my opinion, he isn't settled enough for a long-term relationship. However, I think you'll be very happy with either of these other young men."

 

Leading the way to a cluster of young men, Pritchard nodded at one of them. "That's Travis, in the yellow shirt. He's 25 years old and had been with us for almost 7 months now. He's a nurse from a small town outside of Cheyenne in Wyoming, where he worked in the ER of the regional hospital."

 

"Really?" Cole asked, assessing the young man and liking his looks. "I'd like to meet him."

 

The older man smiled. "Good. I thought that his background and profession might interest you, and hopefully give you two a chance to find more things in common. He's a very nice, respectful young man. I think you'll hit it off well. Travis!"

 

The young man looked over, and then excused himself from his friends, and Cole got a closer look at him as he came over to them. He was a dark-haired young man, of medium height and build. He looked fit and like he enjoyed outdoor activities, Cole thought.

 

"Travis, I'd like to introduced you to Cole Dearborn," Pritchard told him. "Cole just finished his final classes and is starting his search for a partner. I think you two have a lot in common."

 

Cole held out his hand. "Hi, Travis, it's nice to meet you."

 

"Nice to meet you, too, Cole."

 

Pritchard smiled benevolently at them. "Well, I'm just going to leave you alone and let you get to know each other. I'll catch up with you, later, Cole."

 

The Top nodded in his direction. "Okay, thanks."

 

"Bye, Pritch," the other man said, then turned to Cole, smiling as he shook his head.

 

"What?" Cole asked. "We don't have to talk if you'd rather not--"

 

"No," the Brat said shaking his head again. "It's not you. It's Pritchard. He's so formal and serious about everything; no one else seems to have such a big stick up their butt about things, not even the other Admins. Sorry, I know I shouldn't say anything, but--"

 

"Would you like to go get something to eat or drink, or just sit down somewhere and talk?" Cole asked, changing the subject.

 

"Why don't we get something to eat? If you're hungry, that is."

 

"I'm starving. All I've had since breakfast is half a plate of nachos," Cole replied with a smile.

 

A few minutes later, plates loaded with Mexican food, they sat down at a small table away from the crowd on the lawn.

 

"So what do you do for a living, Cole?" Travis asked.

 

"I'm a doctor, a family physician, in a small town in Alaska."

 

"Wow, I bet you really do the whole gambit, then, huh?"

 

Cole nodded. "Yeah, I see a little bit of everything. I've gone from delivering a baby to a mining accident to simply sitting with a man dying from old age, all in the same day."

 

Travis looked thoughtful. "I think I'd like all the variety; calm moments mixed with exciting ones, quite a change from the ER."

 

"That's right, Pritchard was telling me you worked in an ER. How do you like it?"

 

"I enjoy the work a lot, but the non-stop trauma gets to me after a while. What kind of staff and facilities do you have?"

 

They had finished their medical discussion and moved on to a friendly argument about the best team in baseball when Pritchard interrupted again.

 

"Hi, Cole. Sorry to bother you, but Logan is looking for Travis and I have another Brat I'd like you to meet."

 

"All right," the Top replied, wondering if anyone ever told him to get lost. "It was nice meeting you, Travis."

 

"Nice meeting you, too, Cole. I really enjoyed our talk. Maybe I'll see you again before you leave?"

 

"I'd like that," Cole replied sincerely.

 

"Very nice young man," the older man said as Travis walked away.

 

Still watching him walk away, Cole smiled. "He seems like it. Very competent and self-assured. He doesn't strike me as a typical Brat."

 

"Brats come in many shapes and sizes with many different needs and personality traits, as I'm sure you've learned in your classes."

 

Cole nodded. "You said you have someone else for me to meet?"

 

"Yes, Cody Jackson. He's still in school but due to graduate after next quarter with a degree in English. He'd like to become a teacher once he leaves here. He already has his Bachelors in History."

 

"There's a small school in Clearwater Creek. I'm sure they could use another teacher," Cole said absently, still thinking about Travis.

 

Pritchard nodded. "That's what I thought, too. He doesn't have a medical background, but he's from a suburb of Chicago so he's used to cold weather. He's a very nice young man. Good sense of humor, intelligent, and easy to talk to."

 

"I'm looking forward to meeting him."

 

"Good, I'll introduce you to Cody, then, and I also have two or three other Brats in mind, but they're not here today. You'll still be here next Sunday, right?"

 

Cole nodded. "That's my plan. I'd like to have two or three Brats that I can email or chat with after I return home. Then, if it all works out, I'll be back here about a month after that."

 

Pritchard smiled at him. "It sounds like you've got a good plan worked out, Cole. Let me see if I can find Cody for you."

 

 

Cole sat at the desk in his hotel room and stared at the form in front of him. It was a deceptively simple form for something that could make such a difference in his life. The first few lines were for his information. There were several blocks below that, each requesting the name of an Orphan, his cottage number (if known), and his Temp Top's Name (if known).

 

Taking a deep breath, he laughed out loud at his own nervousness. "Get a grip man, it's just a form," he said softly to himself. The excited butterflies in his stomach matched the feeling he'd had when he made his initial call to The Island so long ago. Picking up the pen, he laughed again, this time more from excitement rather than nerves and quickly but neatly wrote "Travis, Cottage 7B, TT – Unknown" in block 1.

 

His pen paused, hovering over block 2, unsure if he should write Cody's name or not.

No, he finally decided. He was a nice enough young man, but he just wasn't what Cole was looking for in a Brat. There was no point in spending more time with him or taking up his time either.

 

But what about Carlos. That was a harder decision. Carlos was available for matching, they seemed to have things in common, and there was definitely a spark there, but the other VTs had expressed doubt about his readiness to be matched and Pritchard obviously had reservations about him.

 

 In addition, Carlos himself had said that he lacked direction. He didn't have the time to spend with a Brat that wasn't sure what he wanted or needed a long dating period. The isolation and harsh climate and his own long, unpredictable hours called for a person who was stable and self-sufficient and knew what he wanted from life. A phrase from class came into his mind. ' Why would you make the commitment of this much time and money if you're not going to take advantage of our expertise now?'

 

No, he decided, as much as he liked the young man, he'd better take advantage of Pritchard's knowledge and experience. He signed the form, put it in its envelope and went down to the lobby. He was standing at the bottom of the stairs, looking around for the drop box, when he saw another man go by, carrying a similar envelope.

 

"Excuse me," Cole called after him. "Do you know where we take these?"

 

"Yes," he replied, pausing to let Cole catch up. "It's this way. Is this your first time?"

 

"Yes," Cole admitted. "And I'm a little nervous about it. What about you?"

 

"No, I'm already matched. I'm just dropping this off for a friend. Can I give you a piece of advice? From someone who's been there?" he asked with a smile.

 

"Sure," Cole replied. "I'll take all the advice I can get."

 

"Go with what feels right," the man said. "I know what they tell you about the Match Dept. and the best possible compatibility and all that. But when you get right down to it, you're the man who has to live with the decision the rest of your life. So go with what feels right, even if it doesn't seem logical or practical." He dropped his envelope in the slot. "Good luck," he said as he walked away.

 

"Thanks. And thanks for the advice." Turning away from the mail drop, he headed over to the front desk. "May I borrow a pen for a moment, please?" he asked the clerk as he opened his envelope.

 

~~~

 

Cole entered his hotel room Monday afternoon, dropped his room key on the desk, and, opening the envelope that had been waiting for him at the hotel desk, took out the neatly stapled forms. Dropping into the chair, he quickly skimmed each info sheet, noting the highlights, then went back and read each one more carefully. Finally, about 45 minutes later, he sat back and considered what he'd read.

 

Physically, the two Brats were a lot alike - both 25, with dark hair and medium builds. Both had grown up in middle-class families in small towns. Both considered themselves outgoing, and both enjoyed reading, sports, and outdoor activities such as hiking and camping. They had been on The Island almost the same amount of time - Travis a little more than six months and Carlos almost eight. Outside of that, they were almost total opposites.

 

Carlos was a B6 and Matching listed his Type as Distracted/jumper. That fit what Cole already knew of him; he had admitted that he was a jack of all trades, that he had a lot of interests but didn't stick to any of them for long. He enjoyed trying new things, thought of life as an Adventure, and pushed the boundaries just to see if he could.

 

Travis, on the other hand, was more settled. He was a B7, a little higher than Carlos, but he was a Focused/perfectionist Brat. He was serious, dedicated and hardworking, and had been an RN in a busy trauma center for 2 years before deciding to come to The Island. He liked stability and routine and had organized his life into a series of obtainable goals to be checked off at regular intervals.

 

Interestingly enough, both were looking for the same thing in a Top, although for totally opposite reasons. Matching indicated that the first choice for both was FM, and both said in their essays that they were looking for definite rules and strong boundaries. Carlos wanted someone who would help him become more focused, to find a direction and stick to it, and to stop his drifting from one thing to another. Travis wanted someone to help him become less focused, to help him learn to deal with several issues at once without being overwhelmed by the number of choices. Both also mentioned a strong need for security, to know that they would be accepted by their Tops unconditionally and that they wouldn't be rejected or abandoned because of their flaws.

 

A knock on the door interrupted his musings. Sliding the forms back into their envelope, he got up to answer the door.

 

"Hi, Cole. I hope I'm not interrupting anything," Drake said as Cole opened the door. "I was hoping you hadn't gone to dinner yet."

 

"No, I didn't even realize it was time," Cole admitted, startled to realize how much time had gone by. "What's up? I thought you were having dinner with Taylor tonight." He stepped back and gestured for the other man to come in.

 

"I was, but it got canceled."

 

"Problems?" Cole asked. "You look a little frazzled."

 

"I am," Drake admitted. "I spent some time with Taylor this afternoon and he told me that he was one of the Brats you saw with Carlos last week. We talked about it for a while and I convinced him to tell Andrew, his TT. Andrew called a few minutes ago and said that he had to cancel our dinner plans and I can't see Taylor tonight. He'll have Taylor call me tomorrow."

 

"Ouch," Cole sympathized. "That doesn't sound too good."

 

"No, and I feel like it's my fault. Taylor told me that Carlos got paddled and he probably would be too, and I pushed him to tell Andrew anyway," Drake said moodily. "I know that doesn't make sense. He's the one who was skinny-dipping and out of bounds and he should have confessed it at the time. I only convinced him to the do the right thing and I think he deserves to be paddled for it, especially since this isn't the first time it's happened. But at the same time... Cole, if I'm this upset about the idea of him being paddled, how am I going to do it when the time comes?"

 

"Are you upset about the idea of him being paddled or about not being involved?" Cole asked shrewdly. "After all, he's 'your' Brat now and someone else is dealing with him intimately and then comforting him afterwards. That would have to bother you, I think."

 

"Yeah, I think that's a big part of it," Drake admitted slowly. "I felt... dismissed, shut out. I know Andrew didn't mean it that way, but--"

 

"But it still hurt," Cole concluded. "So let's go get some dinner and maybe you can call Andrew later and ask how he's doing."

 

 

"Carlos, I need to talk to you after we get dinner started," Andre said as he mixed diced onion into his ground meat mixture.

 

The Brat nodded from his place at the sink where he was washing potatoes. "Sure. What are we going to talk about?"

 

"Probably that test you flunked on Friday," Jamie teased, taking the potatoes from Carlos, rubbing them with butter, and putting them in the oven.

 

"I didn't fail it!" Carlos protested.

 

"Carlos--" The TT was interrupted by the ringing of the phone. "Scott, can you get that?" he called.

 

"I didn't fail it!" Carlos protested again, glowering at Jamie. "I just didn't do very well on it. And I was *going* to tell you about it later, until someone opened his big mouth."

 

"Sorry," Jamie apologized half-heartedly. "I thought you told him about it already."

 

"All right, Jamie," Andre said, "why don't you finish up the meat loaf for me?"

 

"That's not fair! It's Carlos's night to help, too!" he protested. "And I hate putting my hands in raw meat!"

 

"You should have thought about that before you chose to share his news with me," Andre pointed out. "Now you can do his work while he and I talk."

 

"I'm afraid not," Scott said, appearing in the doorway. "Jamie and I need to have a talk, too, about a little trip to the waterfall. No, don't look at Carlos, Jamie," he added as the Brat glared across the room at his friend. "He didn't say anything about it. That was Andrew on the phone, telling me that Taylor had confessed to being with Carlos the other day. And if Carlos and Taylor were the first two Brats, it's pretty easy to figure out who the third one was."

 

"I didn't want to get him in trouble," Carlos told Andre softly as Scott led the other Brat from the room. "That's why I didn't tell you."

 

"I know you didn't," Andre replied. "But he needs to learn to deal with the consequences of his actions. None of you are doing him any favors by protecting him." He patted the meat loaf into its pan and placed it in the oven. "Come on, why don't we sit outside and talk? Grab a couple of water bottles and the envelope on the counter while I wash my hands, please."

 

When they were sitting side by side on the swing, Andre pulled a stapled packet of papers out of the envelope and handed it to the Brat. "It looks like the VT you met at the waterfall requested your info sheet."

 

"Cole requested my info?" Carlos asked in surprise. "But I never gave him any indication that I was interested or wanted him to or anything. And I didn't fill out one on him yesterday."

 

Andre nodded. "I know, but apparently he's interested in you. He worked on the sand snake with you and talked to you at the social yesterday, didn't he?

 

"Yeah, and I met him at lunch one day, but I don't know why he's interested in me. We don't have much in common."

 

"Well, let's go over his info anyway, all right?" Andre said.

 

"Okay, but it's a waste of time," the Brat informed him. "I don't think we have anything in common." He reluctantly picked up the sheet and began to read silently. A second later, he shoved it back at Andre, "No way. He's an FM. I don't want an FM. They're too strict and anal about stuff and he's already proved that he's like that. I want an A." He moved to stand up, but was restrained by Andre.

 

"Sit," the Top said, tugging at the back of his shorts. "We're not done here. Carlos, I'm not trying to shove you at this guy if you truly don't like him, but I'm afraid you're not even giving him a chance." He looked at his Brat for a moment, waiting for him to reply. When he didn't, the Top continued, "I've already read this and I think he sounds nice. You had a good time with him on Saturday and Sunday, right?"

 

Carlos thought about it and then nodded. "Yeah, it was okay."

 

"Good. Now, he might not be right for you but I want to go over this with you. What do you have against him, other than the fact that he turned you in for skinny-dipping?"

 

Carlos was silent for a long moment. "He didn't turn me in, really," he finally admitted softly.

 

"Who? Cole?"

 

The Brat nodded "Yeah. He saw me and stopped to help me get the thorn out of my foot. Then Garrett showed up and asked what was going on. He didn't really have much choice then. It's not like he went looking for security or called him over or anything."

 

"So it might be that he's not as strict and anal about stuff as you first thought?" Andre asked quietly.

 

Carlos shrugged uncomfortably. "I don't know. I'm just saying that it wasn't totally his fault."

 

Andre let the matter slide, returning to the subject at hand. Holding the paper so they both could read it, he said, "Let's start at the top. He's 35 and he's a doctor in a small town in Alaska."

 

"So he's old and stuck out in the middle-of-nowhere," Carlos remarked, but his quick laughter took the sting from his comment. He continued to read. "He likes reading, hiking, cross-country skiing, the Mariners, and classical music. I hate classical music."

 

"But you like everything else," the TT pointed out. "Well, except for the Mariners, but you like baseball. And you're not going to find anyone that you're 100% compatible with."

 

"Yeah, I guess." He continued to read, making occasional comments, until he reached the essays. Halfway through, he shoved the papers back at the TT. "No way. I'm not interested in him. Forget it."

 

"Why? What's wrong?" Andre asked, trying to figure out what had set the Brat off.

 

"Look!" Carlos said jabbing his finger at the essay. "Forget it! I'm not interested."

 

The TT read the essay, then looked at the Brat in confusion. "What? I'm sorry, Carlos. I don't see what you're upset about."

 

"Right *there*! It says he's going to have the ultimate say, that he thinks domination is the most important thing! He just wants someone to push around, he expects mindless obedience! I told you he's a control freak!" His voice rose in agitation and he made another attempt to get up and storm off.

 

"Carlos, stop!" Andre pulled him down again. "That isn't what he says. Read it again. Out loud, please."

 

"I will have the ultimate say over my Brat's actions and behavior," Carlos read sulkily.

 

"Keep going," Andre encouraged.

 

"How the balance between equality, which seems key, and domination, which seems to play an equally important role, interact and mesh together, I don't yet know. I do feel that constant punishment is not necessary in these types of relationships."

 

"See, he wants the ultimate say and he thinks domination is key!" Carlos shoved the paper back at the TT again.

 

"All Tops have the ultimate say, Carlos," Andre pointed out calmly, pushing the paper back at him. "That's how the relationship works. And he says that he thinks equality is key, but domination is as important. Now read... here." He pointed to a line in the next essay.

 

"I picture us fighting from time to time and getting on each other's nerves occasionally, but always making up quickly and meaning it when we both apologize for the hurt things that might get said in anger," Carlos read obediently.

 

"Does that sound like he expects mindless obedience?" Andre asked reasonably.

 

"No..." Carlos replied slowly. "I guess I didn't read that far."

 

"He also says he's looking for a partner who can be independent when needed."

 

"He says a lot," Carlos sighed, as he flipped to the next page. "I wonder if he normally talks this much, too."

 

Andre laughed. "God help you if he does. You talk enough for two people; there'll never be a minute of silence in the house."

 

The Brat laughed. "I do not," he protested.

 

They continued reading and discussing until they reached the end of the info sheet.

 

"So what's your opinion now, babe?" Andre asked, laying the papers aside and putting his arm around the Brat.

 

"He seems nice," he began, leaning back against the TT's shoulder. "I liked talking to him and we seem to have some things in common. What do you think? You think he'd be good with me?"

 

The Top nodded. "I think you have a lot in common and I agree, he seems like a nice guy. His essays are well thought out; there's a good balance in his needs and expectations. I think he could be very good for you. I think you could be very good for him, too, add some sparkle into his life. But, it's not what I think that matters so much. What do you think? There's no pressure here. If you honestly don't like him, then tell me and we'll drop it. All I wanted was for you to give him an honest consideration."

 

Carlos sat in silence for a few minutes, gently pushing the swing with one foot. "Yeah. I'm willing to talk to him again and get to know him better."

 

"OK. I'll let Pritchard know that we both approve."

 

"And there's no pressure or anything," the Brat said, almost to himself. "It's just getting to know him better. I'm not making a commitment or anything."

 

 

Travis arched the Frisbee high into the air, watching admiringly as his friend leaped for it, caught it, and sent it back in one fluid motion.

 

"Travis!" Logan called as he came down the path through the main quad. "Let's go!"

 

"Talk to you later, Will," he called as he gave the disk a final toss, sending it back to its owner.

 

He ran over to Logan, who threw an arm around his shoulder, giving him a brief hug and ruffling his hair. "So how was Group today, Brat?" he asked as they walked back to the cottage.

 

"It was good. We talked about giving up control. Oh, by the way..." He hesitated, staring at the ground

 

"By the way... what?" Logan prompted, stopping as well.

 

"It's just... You might be getting an email from Isaac."

 

"OK," the Top replied calmly. He put his arm back over the other man's shoulder and began walking again. "You want to tell me why or should I just wait for the email?"

 

"My journal entries for last week and the essay he asked for were due on Friday and I didn't turn them in," Travis confessed, then added hastily, "But I turned them both in today."

 

Logan frowned. "Why didn't you turn them in on Friday? What happened?"

 

The Brat shrugged uncomfortably. "I don't know."

 

"I don't know doesn't cut it, Travis. Try again."

 

He shrugged again. "I just got busy and I had other stuff due at the same time and I needed to sit down and think about what to write about and what I wanted to say and it just didn't happen and I kept getting further behind and I started feeling pressured and I couldn't concentrate so I kept putting things off and trying to juggle it all and before I knew it, it was too late." The admission came out in one long rush as he tried to gauge his Temp Top's reaction.

 

"OK," Logan said, giving the tense shoulders a light squeeze. "We'll deal with it when we get home. And I think we'll go back to having set homework times at the kitchen table or in the office and I'll check your work for a while."

 

Travis sighed. "I'm sorry. I just got caught up in stuff and it didn't get done. And the essay was hard and I didn't know what to say."

 

"It's OK. I understand and we'll talk about it when we get home. I'm glad you told me yourself, though and didn't wait for me to get the email. I appreciate it."

 

"You were going to find out anyway, so I figured I might as well tell you and deal with it. It's not like I could hide it."

 

Logan smiled and squeezed his shoulder again. "Yes, but you'd be surprised how many of your fellow Orphans don't feel that way."

 

"I know they don't, but it feels better to tell you. Then I don't have this big ax hanging over my head and I'm not waiting for it to fall."

 

"I have something to tell you, too," the TT said, leading the way up the path to their cottage. Something good, I think. Do you want to hear it now or when we get through in the office?"

 

"Now, please. It'll give me something else to think about."

 

"When I checked my box this afternoon, I found an Info Sheet for you, from that VT you met yesterday."

 

"Cole?"

 

Logan nodded. "Yeah. Cole Dearborn, I think. I just glanced at it. I figured we'd go over it tonight."

 

"He seemed nice. Easy to talk to and just…" Travis's voice trailed off, searching for the right word before continuing with a laugh, "just nice."

 

They went up the two steps to the cottage porch and Logan opened the door, gesturing for Travis to go in ahead of him. "Go ahead into the office and take your shorts off," he ordered, tapping his Brat's bottom, "and stand in the corner. I'll be there in a few minutes. We'll go over Cole's info after dinner this evening."

 

"I'm sorry, Logan," Travis said softly. "I didn't mean for it to happen."

 

"I know you didn't," the TT assured him. "Go ahead now, and we'll talk about it in a few minutes." Logan watched until the Brat had entered the office and closed the door, then continued to his private sitting room. Putting the inter-island envelope on the coffee table, he glanced at his watch. Morgan was collecting the rest of the cottage Brats from their Group session and he made a quick call to his twin to explain what was happening and tell them to go ahead to the dining hall, then went back to the office.

 

Travis glanced back over his shoulder and frowned as Logan came in, biting his lip.

 

"OK, come here," Logan ordered. He pulled a chair away from the wall and sat down.

 

"I'm sorry," the younger man repeated, slowly inching his way over to the TT.

 

"I know," Logan said calmly, reaching out and pulling the Brat over his knees. Adjusting him slightly, the TT pulled his boxers down to mid-thigh, exposing the pale bottom. He laid his hand across both cheeks and said, "OK, young man, would you like to explain why you didn't do your assignments last week?"

 

Travis squirmed under the firm hand. "I don't know."

 

Logan delivered two sharp swats to the center of the upturned butt before resting it again on the warm flesh. "That's not an acceptable answer, is it?"

 

"No. But I don't--"

 

Logan tapped his bottom warningly. "Try again, Travis."

 

"I just couldn't!"

 

"Because you didn't understand what they were suppose to be about?"

 

"No."

 

"Then why?"

 

Travis tried squirming again, then replied in a rush, "Because I was busy with class and cottage stuff and the chess tournament and doing stuff with friends and I couldn't juggle everything and then it got late and I got overwhelmed and I couldn't think about what to write and so I just didn't. But I did it over the weekend!"

 

Logan nodded. "OK. And what are you supposed to do when you start feeling like that? You didn't act stressed or like you were handling too much last week."

 

Travis gave a sharp laugh. "I hide it well."

 

Raising his hand again, Logan delivered another sharp swat, and the laugh became a gasp of pain. "I know you do. And that is not something to be proud of or to consider an accomplishment, is it?"

 

"No," he admitted, trying vainly to adjust his position, then giving up with a sigh. "I’m supposed to find you and tell you that I'm having trouble handling everything and that I feel overwhelmed."

 

"And what would I have done?"

 

"You would have helped me prioritize things and get back on a schedule and under control. And things would have gotten taken care of."

 

Logan patted his bottom gently. "That's right, and then we wouldn't be here, would we?"

 

Travis shook his head. "No," he whispered, his voice breaking.

 

"And this is a major problem for you, isn't?"

 

"Yes."

 

"And we've been in this position too many times already, haven't we?"

 

"Yes." The Brat's voice was despairing as he braced himself for the inevitable.

 

"Then I don't think we need to talk about it anymore, do we?" As Travis shook his head, the TT raised his hand again. Working in a pattern of two swats to each cheek and then two to the center, he didn't bother to lecture as he spanked, simply continuing his hard, even rhythm as the Brat quickly gave in to his tears.

 

The tears turned to low cries, then gasping sobs, until finally the Brat gave up the last remnant of control and lay limp and sobbing over his knees. Landing five hard swats to the center of the butt, Logan stopped and rested his hand so that it cupped the Brat's hot, red cheeks. "OK, Travis, it's over now," he whispered softly, gently stroking his back. A few minutes later, after the worst of the sobbing had died away, he carefully eased the Brat back over and helped him stand up. Moving to the sofa, he sat down with the younger man, who quickly leaned against him, craving comfort, still openly crying.

 

"I'm sorry," he murmured a few minutes later, sitting up and brushing at his tears.

 

"Shhh," Logan said, brushing the sweaty hair back from his face. "It's OK. I know you're sorry, and you've been punished for it, so it's over now. We'll work on it together, now, all right? I think we need to go back to some of the rules we had in the beginning and add a little more structure back into your schedule."

 

"But I hate that!" Travis cried. "Give me another chance, Logan. Please? I swear I'll do better next time. I can do it on my own, I promise."

 

Logan kissed his forehead. "Yes, little one, I know you hate it. But you don't need to do it on your own, and I'm not going to let you. It's what I'm here for, so we're going to do it together, all right?" He felt Travis nod against his chest and heard a mumbled agreement. "Good. Now, just sit with me for a while. I've got you and you don't have to handle everything alone. Trust me to keep you on track, all right?"

 

Travis took a deep breath, then nodded again. "OK."

 

They sat together silently for a while, Logan gently stroking his back, before he broke the silence. "Are the others back yet?"

 

"No, I called Morgan and they went ahead to dinner. Are you hungry?"

 

"A little. But I don't want to go to the dining hall. I'd like to stay here for a while longer, please? I'm tired. I was up late last night doing my essay," he murmured softly.

 

Logan nodded. "All right. I'll make soup and sandwiches for us here. Then, I think, you're due for an early night."

 

"Can we still go over Cole's info sheet?"

 

"Yes, we'll do it after we eat. When we're done you can go ahead and get ready for bed."

 

The other Brats returned as they were finishing their light meal and immediately began a noisy discussion about what to watch on TV, so Logan led Travis into his sitting room where it was quiet. There, Travis lay on the sofa, head in Logan's lap, and silently read Cole's info sheet.

 

"I have a couple of concerns," the Brat commented with a frown as he finished reading.

 

"OK, let's talk about them."

 

Travis shifted uncomfortably and muttered apologetically, "Sorry. Sore."

 

"Do you want to stop, babe? We can talk about this tomorrow."

 

"No, I'm OK. I want to do it now, all right?"

 

Logan nodded. "All right. So, what do you think of Cole? You seemed to have a good time with him at the social."

 

Travis blushed slightly. "Yeah. I think he's nice."

 

"'Nice' again." Logan chuckled and gently thunked him on the head. "Talk to me, Brat. What did you think of his info? What did you like? All of it? None of it?"

 

"He's an FM."

 

"Yes, that's what it says. How do you feel about that?"

 

"I don't know," Travis admitted. "I sort of like it, I think. FM's are kind of strict, though. I'm not sure how strict a Top I want. But…" He paused, glancing down at the paper, biting his bottom lip before continuing, "I bet he's pretty tight about schedules and rules and stuff."

 

"I'd think so," the Top replied neutrally. "What else?"

 

"I don't think I like this part," he said, looking at the paper again.

 

"What part?"

 

"He doesn't want his partner to work, or at least not work full-time. He said part-time would be it. That's not fair. I'm a nurse, and a good one. I don't want to give it up."

 

"Does he say why he doesn't want his partner to work?" Logan asked calmly. "I'm sure he's got a reason. And he is agreeable to working part-time."

 

Travis shifted again, wincing slightly. "He says it's because of his hours. He'd like to have his partner at home when he is so they can do stuff together. He says he also thinks that it helps for Brats to have their own activities and schedules, but at the same time not be overburdened with outside stuff."

 

"So it sounds like he'd fully support you working part-time."

 

"Yeah and I could do that. Part-time is 20 hours a week; that's 4 or 5 hours a day all week, basically. Do you think that's enough?"

 

The Top smiled. "It doesn't matter what I think, babe. It matters what you think. Can you be happy with that?"

 

"I think so." Travis considered it. "It's OK if I'm not totally self-supporting, right?"

 

"I think it is," Logan replied. ""I don't think it would make you less of a man or less of a partner to work part-time. You'd have other responsibilities, and you could always get involved with activities in the town."

 

Travis chuckled. "Plus, I'm thinking that the first year or so, he's going to want to make up for lost time. I can't imagine there are too many gay men in this little town in Alaska. I bet he's been a bit lonely."

 

"There's more to a relationship than sex, Travis," Logan said firmly, trying unsuccessfully to hide his smile.

 

Travis grinned. "I know, but it makes those long winter nights more fun. Oh!" Another thought occurred to him. "What if there isn't any place for me to work? He said it's a small town in the middle of nowhere. They probably don't even have a hospital."

 

"Maybe you can ask him about it. Even if there isn't a hospital, you might be able to work in his office."

 

"Yeah, and he said there are a couple of other doctors, like for the mining camps or something. Maybe I could work for one of them."

 

"That's a good idea," Logan praised him. "I'm sure there are ways to manage it, if you try. So, what do you think? Do you like him? Do you want to talk to him some more?"

 

"Yeah, he's nice, Logan. And he's a doctor and we have a lot in common and I think we could be good together."

 

"All right, I'll let them know tomorrow." As the Brat shifted again, he gently eased him into a sitting position, stood up and held out his hand. "Come on, babe. You've had a long day; let's get you settled into bed and I'll rub your back for you."

 

The younger man stood up, wincing as he stretched. "I think I’m ready to find someone. I'm starting to want a Top of my own."

 

Logan gently kissed his forehead. "I know, and he's out there, babe. Even if it's not Cole, I have a feeling it won't be much longer for you. And until then, I've got you and don't plan on letting go."

 

~~~~

 

Cole hesitated outside the education building, unsure what he wanted to do for lunch. Normally he liked to go to the dining hall for lunch, but Drake was having lunch with Taylor and he still felt awkward sitting by himself. He knew it was nonsense, but it felt as if people would think he was there simply to gawk at the Brats.

 

"Hi, Cole."

 

"Travis!" he said, as the Brat walked up to him, swinging a book bag. "What's up?"

 

"Not much. I just finished class and I'm going to have lunch. What's up with you?"

 

"Not much. I just finished class and I'm going to have lunch," the Top mimicked with a smile. "Would you care to join me? If you're allowed to, of course," he added hastily.

 

"Sure, as long as we have it at the dining hall. I'm not allowed to go back to the hotel or anything, but the dining hall is fine."

 

"What classes are you taking?" Cole asked as they walked along the path together.

 

"I'm taking a couple of classes, but my favorite is an advanced cooking class," Travis replied. "It's practical and Logan thought it might be a good hobby for me."

 

"Really? I'm taking nutrition and menu planning," Cole told him. "I thought it would be a refresher course for me, but I'm actually learning a lot from it."

 

They talked easily about what they'd been learning as they entered the dining hall and had their id's scanned.

 

"Are you having the pizza, the casserole, or a sandwich?" Cole asked.

 

"I'm going to have pizza and a salad," Travis decided. "What about you?"

 

"Soup and a sandwich, so it looks like we aren't going to be in line together," Cole said. "What if whoever gets through line first grabs a table?"

 

"Sounds good," Travis agreed and they split up to enter their separate lines.

 

"Hey, Carlos, isn't that Cole?" Dylan asked, pointing to a table near the window.

 

"Yeah, it is," Carlos replied.

 

"He's sitting alone," Patrick said. "Why don't you invite him over?"

 

"Why should I?"

 

"Because you like him, you idiot!" Jamie said, kicking him under the table.

 

"And I haven't met him yet!" Patrick added. "Go on, ask him to join us."

 

"Why?" Carlos repeated stubbornly. "He can see us. If he wants to sit with us he'll come over."

 

"Coward," Patrick muttered under his breath.

 

"I am not!" Carlos denied. "Fine. I'll go ask him!"

 

He got up and crossed to the small table, growing more nervous with each step and wondering why he'd let his friends talk him into this. "Hi, Cole," he said hesitantly. "We - my friends and I - saw you sitting here alone and we wondered if you'd like to come sit with us. If you'd rather be alone, that's fine," he add quickly, "we just thought--"

 

"Sorry it took me so long, Cole," Travis said, putting his tray down on the table. "They had red velvet cake for dessert and it goes fast, so I got one for you, too. Hope you like it. Hi, Carlos. What's up?"

 

"Nothing," Carlos replied, his face darkening as he looked from one to the other. "I was just talking to Cole for a minute. I'll let you to get back to your lunch now. Sorry I bothered you, Cole."

 

"Carlos, wait!" Cole half-stood, then settled back into his chair as the Brat hurried away. "I'm sorry about that, Travis," he apologized.

 

"About what?" Travis asked, sitting down and putting his napkin on his lap.

 

"Nothing," Cole replied. After all, he didn't have anything special going on with Carlos, he reasoned. They'd only talked together a few times. He tried to keep his mind on the conversation with Travis and soon succeeded. It was rare to find someone who didn't mind discussing severed limbs over lunch, he thought, as they delved into the difficulties involved in surgical reattachment.

 

 

"Hi, Herm." Cole rapped on the doorframe of the doctor's office later that afternoon. "You want to have dinner together?"

 

"Sure. Let me finish up a couple of things first, all right?" Herm asked. "It won't take me long."

 

"Sure," Cole replied. "No hurry."

 

The two men had eaten together several times, either at Herm's cottage or the dining hall. Their friendship had become closer and they both enjoyed the meals and the inevitable shop and Island talk that accompanied them.

 

"I have a new copy of the 'Archives of Family Medicine' if you're interested in looking at it while you wait," Herm offered. "There are a couple of good articles in this issue."

 

Cole accepted the magazine with a smile and sat down to read while he waited for his friend to finish up with his paperwork.

 

"So how did it go with your Brats?" Herm asked as he flipped a chart closed, set it aside, and picked up the next one. "You requested the info sheets for Travis and Carlos, right?"

 

"Yes, I did," Cole replied. "And I had lunch with Travis today. He's a very interesting young man. I enjoyed his company."

 

'He's a good man," Herm replied. "A bit too serious sometimes, but I think the right Top could convince him to lighten up a little. Just like I think the right Top could settle Carlos down a little," he added with a twinkle in his eye.

 

"So you're not going to give me any advice on which one I should choose?" Cole asked with a smile.

 

"Nope," Herm told him with a laugh as he closed the last folder. "I learned a long time ago not to get involved in a Top's hunt for a Brat. Sorry, but you're on your own there. Are you ready to go?"

 

Cole dropped the magazine on the desk and stood up. "Sure. What do you--"

 

His sentence was interrupted as Norton came to the door. "Sorry, Herm, but we have a small emergency."

 

"What happened?" Herm asked, already reaching for his white coat.

 

"Mike took a couple of Brats for a run out by the tide pools and one of them fell," the nurse said. "Mike says he has a pretty bad laceration on his shin and a possible broken ankle."

 

"Is he still on the radio? I'd better talk to him. Can you call security and tell them we're going to need some help getting them back here? I'm sorry, Cole," he added, turning to his friend. "I need to take care of this."

 

"No problem," Cole replied easily. "Emergencies happen. I'll come by later and you can tell me how it went, all right?"

 

"Sure," Herm replied. "Thanks. I'll talk to you later."

 

Cole stepped outside as Herm and the nurse hurried back to the radio. That was one thing he didn't miss, he thought as he walked back to the hotel - the way emergencies always seemed to happen right at mealtime. Some days he didn't get dinner until almost bedtime, and then it was usually cold leftovers because he was too tired to cook.

 

It wouldn't be so bad if Travis were his nurse, though. They could work together on the emergencies and then go home and prepare a quick meal together. Maybe eat it in front of the fire or in bed... This pleasant fantasy occupied him all the way back to the hotel and through his lonely meal. He could almost see the Brat sitting across from him.

 

~~~

 

"Carlos! Wait!" Cole called, seeing the Brat on the path ahead of him. He'd tried to find him the afternoon before, but he'd proved elusive. Unable to go into the Brat Compound, he could only hope that he would run into the younger man in the dining hall or main quad.

 

"Cole." Carlos' tone was cool. "What can I do for you?"

 

"Nothing," Cole replied. "I just saw you and thought I'd say hi. What's up?"

 

"Nothing. I'm just running a few errands before soccer practice."

 

"Great. Are you going to the library? Would you mind if I walk along? I finished the books I brought with me and I like to read in bed before I turn off the light."

 

"Really? So do I," Carlos replied, his tone warming. "It helps me relax."

 

"Tom Clancy helps you relax?" Cole laughed as he read the title of the book Carlos was carrying. "I stayed up half the night to finish that one."

 

"So did I," Carlos confessed, making a face. "Andre was *not* pleased about it. But I don't usually read that type of book at bedtime. I read--" He stopped abruptly.

 

"What?" Cole asked curiously.

 

"Just other things that are more relaxing," Carlos replied evasively. "Have you seen any of the movies made from his books?"

 

They walked on to the library together, discussing their favorite books and movies. Carlos, Cole discovered, preferred fast-paced plots with multiple twists and turns to what he disparagingly called "movies with a message".

 

"I read to escape," he admitted cheerfully. "Same with movies, so I don't like to read or watch serious stuff. If I want information about something serious, I'll watch the news, not look for a movie about it.

 

The exception to this preference for fast-paced entertainment was, to Cole's surprise, a love for poetry.

 

"That's what I read at bedtime," Carlos confided somewhat shyly as they were browsing through the books at the small library and comparing notes. "I don't like much modern stuff, but Frost, Browning - Robert, not Elizabeth -" he clarified with a smile, "they speak to me somehow. Edgar Lee Masters is my favorite, though. Have you ever read 'The Spoon River Anthology'? It's all these short poems written as... like epitaphs for these dead people, all from the same small town. There's a literature term for it, but I don't remember that it is. But those really get to me. It makes me wonder what will be written on my tombstone or how I'll sum up my life after I'm dead. Will I still be known as a jack of all trades or will I eventually settle down?" He paused, somewhat embarrassed by his passion. "So, anyway, that's what I read at bedtime. The rest of the time I read more exciting stuff," he said with a careless shrug.

 

When Cole left the library he was carrying a small volume of early 20th century poetry along with his other choices. The only copy of "The Spoon River Anthology" was already checked out, but Carlos had offered to let Cole borrow his copy. "As long as I get it back before you leave," he added with a smile.

 

 ~~~

 

Cole blinked in the bright sunlight as he stepped out of the admin building. It only took a minute to decide not to go back to the hotel to do his reading for class. Instead he headed down the path that would eventually lead to the beach. He'd find a place to sit and enjoy the sight and sound of the ocean while he read. He wouldn't have many more opportunities; he'd be leaving for home in a couple of days.

 

And he was ready, he thought. As much as he was enjoying his classes and The Island as a whole, he was ready to get back home. He missed his friends and his practice and sleeping in his own bed. As he reached the edge of the beach, he removed his shoes and socks and smiled in pleasure as his feet sank into the warm sand. If there was only some way to do this in Alaska in January... He found a concrete bench set back a little ways from the water and sat down, watching the waves and enjoying the warm breeze on his face. Then, with a sigh, he opened his binder and was soon engrossed in the assigned reading about sexual positions and their hidden meanings.

 

"God, it's a beautiful day!" someone shouted nearby and he was jolted back to reality by a group of young men laughing and shouting to each other, tugging their shirts over their heads as they thudded down the wooden stairs nearby.

 

 "Race ya!" one of them shouted, and they all dashed past him toward the water, leaving a pile of shirts and towels lying on the sand nearby.

 

Not again, he thought wearily, recognizing Travis in the center of the bunch. Why did this keep happening to him? He was watching them charge into the waves, wondering if he should do something or just ignore them, when he realized that the man leading the pack was one of the Temp Tops he'd seen around The Island.


"AAAHHHH!" he yelled as he dove headfirst into the water. "It's COLD!"

"Don't be such a wimp, Scott!" one of the Brats yelled back, diving in behind him. "AAHHHH! It's COLD!"


"Wimp?" the older man questioned in a stunned voice. "Are you calling me a *wimp*, Patrick?"

"Yeah, I am," the Brat laughed, quickly lunging out of the way as the TT attempted to tackle him and plunge him under the water.


Travis and another Brat had carried small boogie boards into the water and were quickly swimming out through the waves, headed past the break point to ride them back in. Cole watched them hanging onto their boards, treading water before quickly flipping over onto their stomachs as a wave started rolling beneath them.

Spying him on the beach, Travis waved and called out but the words were lost as he was quickly knocked off the board and pushed under the water by the breaking wave. He bobbed up a moment later, grinning as his board washed ashore. Trudging through the surf, he kicked it higher up onto the sand and then walked toward Cole with a grin. "Hey, I wasn't expecting to see you here."

Cole smiled back. "I wasn't expecting to see you, either. I didn't think Brats came down here much, except on the weekends."

"We don't, usually. They worry about having people in the water without lifeguards on duty," he replied. "But we were all out in the Brat compound, bitching that there was nothing to do and Scott," he gestured toward the TT, who was now wrestling in the water with two of the Brats, "came by and said it was a shame to waste such a great day on dry land. And he's right, it is."

"So you like the ocean?"

"I love it. I grew up in Wyoming, and I didn't see the ocean until I came to The Island. It was amazing. The first time I saw all the starfish and crabs and sea urchins that I'd only seen on TV before, I was so excited. And the rest of the Brats were like 'so what'?" He laughed at his former naiveté.


Cole laughed. "How many of them would be the same way if they saw a cow up close?" he asked. "I know what you mean about the ocean, though. I'm going to miss it when I go home."

Travis frowned. "That's right, you're leaving Monday, right?"

"Yeah, but I was hoping we could keep in touch with email and IM."

"That would be great, Cole," the Orphan replied shyly. "I'd really like that."

"Good. I'll make sure you have my email address before I leave, then."

 
Travis shivered and rubbed his arms. "I need to get my towel. It's nice in the water, but I'm getting cold now."

"Why don't you jump back in the water instead? I was enjoying watching you."

The Brat laughed. "OK. Talk to you later?"

"Yes, without a doubt."

Travis ran back to his board, then looked over his shoulder and smiled at Cole, giving a small wave before plunging back into the surf.

Cole attempted to read for a few minutes, then gave up, watching Travis have fun with his friends instead.

 

After a few minutes, Scott broke free of the group. Grabbing a towel from the pile on the beach, he joined Cole, drying off his chest and arms as he walked. "Hi," he said. "Cole, right? I'm Scott."

 

"Right," he replied, shaking hands. "You're one of Carlos' TT's, right? I thought I recognized you earlier."

 

"Yeah, he's my cottage partner Andre's Brat. Mind if I sit down for a few minutes?"

 

"Not at all." Cole made room on the bench and Scott sat down, draping his towel over his shoulders.

 

"How are classes going? What are you taking?"

 

"A nutrition class and Sex Ed. They never showed us movies like that in jr. high," Cole laughed.

 

"They make sure they cover everything, don't they?" Scott asked. "I never knew there were so many possible positions." 

 

"I'm still not sure some of them are possible," Cole said with a grin.

 

Scott laughed. "The Brats take the same class, and every time they offer it someone volunteers to find out."

 

They watched the Brats playing in the waves for a few minutes, then Cole commented, "It looks like Travis is having a good time. He seems so serious most of the time; I'm glad to see him having a little fun."

 

"He is pretty serious," Scott replied. "Most of the FP's are. He's a pretty special Brat, though. You couldn't do much better than him." He stared out at the water for a few moments, then shook his head, glanced at his watch and stood up. "Speaking of serious, I need to get these guys back or I'm going to have some other TTs seriously unhappy at me," he laughed.

 

The Top watched as he rounded up the others, coaxing here, laughingly threatening there, until he had them all out, dried off, and headed back up the beach. He was going to miss this place, he thought as he returned to his reading.

 

~~~

 

Cole stood on the covered porch of the dining hall, tapping a paperback book against his palm, staring at the rain. It had rained steadily for the past two days, forcing the Saturday beach activities to be canceled and the Sunday Social to be moved indoors. He had forgotten to take Carlos' book to the social with him and he had gotten up early and slogged through the rain to the dining hall, hoping to see him there. Apparently they ate breakfast in their cottage, though, because he hadn't seen Carlos or any of his cottagemates

.

Now what? VT's weren't allowed in the Brat Compound, so he couldn't take it to the cottage. He supposed he could leave it in Andre's box with a note, but that seemed so impersonal somehow. Still, it seemed like his only option. He was opening his umbrella when he saw Carlos running through the rain toward him.

 

"Carlos! I was just looking for you," he said as the Brat ran up the steps and into the shelter of the porch. "Don't you have an umbrella? You're soaked."

 

"No, and I couldn't find my poncho and I don't have much time before class and I was afraid I'd miss you," Carlos panted, shaking his head and wiping his face on his wet sleeve. "I have something for you." He pulled his sweatshirt up, took a slim, much-read volume of poetry from under his waistband, and handed it to the Top. "It's my copy of Robert Frost. I hope it didn't get too wet. I thought you might like to read it on the plane or something."

 

"Thank you, Carlos," Cole replied sincerely. "I'll take good care of it, and bring it back when I come next month. I was looking for you, too. I wanted to return your other book before I leave."

 

"Did you like it?" the Brat asked shyly.

 

"Yes, I did. A lot." He reached out and brushed a stray raindrop from the Brat's cheek. "I thought--" He paused as Carlos' hand came up to cover his. "I thought--" He leaned closer and Carlos closed his eyes in anticipation.

 

"Hey, CARLOS! Come on, we're going to be late for class!"

 

Cole jerked back as Jamie came bounding through the rain, followed more slowly by Dylan and Patrick. "Why'd you leave without us?" Jamie complained as he jumped the steps onto the porch. "I found your poncho. It was under my bed for some reason. What's up? Am I interrupting something?" he asked, looking for one to the other.

 

"Not any more," Carlos told him with a grimace. "Bye, Cole." He held out his hand.

 

"Bye, Carlos," Cole replied, taking his hand and squeezing it for a moment. "I'll see you next month."

 

~~~~

 

"Take those pills twice a day and I'll see you next week, Henry," Cole said as he stepped out of the warm house. His breath appeared in the air in front of him as he hurried to his pickup truck. It was only a little after 5:00 but already pitch black outside. Starting the car and turning on the lights, he did a quick turn-around in the plowed area of his patient's driveway and pulled back onto the main road into town.

 

Thirty minutes later, he pulled up in front of the town's small pizza parlor. The brightly lit neon signs were already on, reflecting on the snow piled along the curbs, and making the drifts appear green, yellow or red. Glancing around the parking lot, he didn't see Mac's Isuzu anywhere, so he grabbed a bulging folder off the seat next to him when he got out. Maybe he could get a little paperwork done while he waited for his friend. He stepped carefully; the previous night's mixture of snow and sleet had made the sidewalks slick and he had already treated two sprained wrists and a concussion today.

 

The spicy aroma of fresh pizza greeted him as he opened the glass door and he smiled. It had been two weeks since he'd returned from The Island and he had been craving Mickey's deep-dish pizza the whole time. Tonight was the first time that his schedule had allowed him and Mac to meet and share a pie.

 

Waving to the restaurant's co-owner and only waitress, he found a booth near the window and sat down. Putting his folder on the table in front of him, he closed his eyes for a moment, savoring the aroma as he slowly relaxed.

 

"Hey, Doc," Jody said as she arrived at the table, "it's good to see you. Mickey and I were starting to think that you got spoiled by all that rich island food and were suddenly too good for our pizza." She smiled and gently bumped him on the arm to make sure he knew she was kidding.

 

"Never, Jody. Your pizza is the best anywhere."

 

"Glad to hear it." She smiled again at the compliment. "You eating alone or waiting for someone?"

 

"I'm waiting for Mac. I'm a bit early," he explained. "But I have some reading to keep me company."

 

Jodi nodded. "OK. Why don't I bring you some breadsticks to munch on while you wait?"

 

"That sounds great, thanks."

 

As soon as she headed back to the kitchen, Cole opened the folder in front of him, intending to write up his notes on his patients for the day. He'd gotten into the habit of making quick reminder notes while he was with the patient and then filling out the official charts in more detail whenever he had a little spare time. Several sheets of printer paper were also tucked into the folder and he smiled at the sight of them.

 

"I sure wish my paperwork gave me that much happiness," Jody said as she returned to the table carrying a basket of warm garlicky breadsticks..

 

Cole chuckled, a little embarrassed. "Well, it's actually notes from some guys I met at the resort I went to. We're getting to know each other better by email."

 

"That's great!" she said enthusiastically. "Mickey and I were hoping you'd meet someone nice! So when is he coming up here? You're going to bring him around to meet us, right?"

 

He held up his hand. "Whoa, not quite that fast. I'm just talking to a couple of guys right now. Nothing serious - just a getting to know you kind of thing. But I am going back there in another couple of weeks and I'm going to meet them again and hopefully get serious with one of them."

 

"Doc, I never would have suspected you of 'getting to know' two guys at one time," Jody frowned.

 

"It's the only way that makes sense!" he protested, laughing with her. "But I give you my word, once I settle down, it will be with only one guy."

 

"Good, I'm glad to hear my opinion of you hasn't been totally off all these years. Well, I'll just leave you with your notes"until Mac shows up. Have fun," she said with a wink.

 

"Thanks, Jody," Cole said. He picked up a breadstick and bit into it. "And for these, too. They're as excellent as I remembered them." Pulling the emails from his folder, he took another bite of bread as he put them in order. Printing out and rereading the emails had become a slightly embarrassing habit since he left The Island. It had started out innocently enough; he didn't have time to read them one morning, so he had printed them out to read when he had a spare minute. It had been a wonderful way to spend lunch that day, reading and rereading the two emails and composing his answers in his head.

 

Even now, as he read Carlos's latest note, he could see the younger man and hear his voice in his head. The email sounded just like him; it jumped from topic to topic and gave lively, vivid descriptions of what he was doing and what was going on in the cottage and on TI in general. He rarely answered any of Cole's questions directly and often skipped a couple of notes before he addressed something the Top brought up earlier.

 

Hey Cole! How's Alaska? I have to tell you, every time I think of even the name; I get a chill lol It just sounds cold. Maine to me never sounds cold, but Alaska, Montana, Siberia, they all do. I like cold though so it's OK. I'm kind of missing snow right now. It isn't supposed to be 70 in February. That's just wrong somehow.

 

Hey, you were asking me about my family and whether or not they knew I was gay and that whole issue. I forgot to answer you in the last note so I'm going to do it now :) My father passed away almost 4 years ago but my mom is still alive and we have a great relationship. My dad and I had a good relationship too, a bit strained for awhile when I came out but we were past it and I think he, for the first time in my life, respected me for having the courage to tell them. He was a good man and cared about all of us. I have an older brother and sister and they know too and are OK with it. They are the perfect ones in the family. My brother runs a B&B out on the coast and is happily married with two great kids. lol I swear, they send a picture with their Christmas card every year and you'd think you're looking at some magazine family. Everyone has matching sweaters on, they're all smiling, arms around each other. The kids have clean faces and Hershey, their chocolate lab, is sitting there with a bright red bow around him lol They don't know about the discipline, though, and I don't ever want them to. I think that's way too much information for them. They think I'm a waiter at the resort here. :)

 

Travis's email style was completely different. There wasn't the sense of babble that sometimes filled Carlos's emails. He picked up the other Brat's latest note and began to reread his favorite part. As usual, Travis quoted back Cole's question before answering it.

 

> When did you first find out about DP and figure out it was interesting and the right

> relationship for you?

 

In all honesty, Cole, I'm not really sure. I had always been attracted to stronger, more dominant partners in the past. It was something that seem to fit me naturally and I enjoyed being with someone I felt safe with. Safety and calm – those always seem to be key words for me when I'm looking at a relationship. Does this person make me feel safe? Does this person bring calm and order into my life and therefore our relationship? The more things got out of control at work, the more I felt out of control at work and in my personal life, the more I think I craved a relationship with that or being with someone who could help me get the control back. One evening, the middle of the night actually, I couldn't sleep. My mind was racing and I couldn't get the problems at work or the problems at home out of my head. So, I got up and turned on the computer and typed in something like self-discipline programs. I've always been a big believer that everything can be controlled if you just work hard enough at it. Logan and I are painfully working to get that notion out of my head but it's been a struggle and something that will always be a problem. So, that night--

 

 

"Cole! Good to see you. How was your trip?"

 

Cole looked up from his reading as a big brawny man with a bushy red beard slid into the booth across from him. "Hey, Mac. Good to you again. The trip was great. A big change from the weather here," he laughed

 

The other man smiled. "I've been looking forward to this all day. I can't wait to hear how it went. It seems like we've barely had time to wave as we pass on the road lately."

 

"It's been crazy," Cole agreed. "I'm going to be working non-stop for the next two weeks too, and then I'm going back down there for another week."

 

"I hope all this visiting doesn't mean that you're thinking of hanging up your shingle in a sunnier location. These are just visits, right?"

 

"Without a doubt. I put on my dating form that any B…" he caught himself just in time, "guy I date would have to be willing to relocate to Alaska. This is a permanent location for me."

 

"Good! Glad to here it! Wouldn't want to lose you," the other man said, missing the slight stumble. "So, did you bring back any pictures?"

 

Cole nodded and got out the small packet of pictures he had taken during his visit. It seemed like he'd shown them to every person he'd seen in the last two weeks. They were mostly scenery shots of the beach, the main compound and hotel. He had been careful not to get many of the Brats in the pictures and, as a result, most of them had been taken either early in the morning or later in the evening when the public areas were less crowded. Most of the town had accepted that he was gay when he had casually allowed it to come out 18 months ago and his friends knew that he had gone to a gay dating resort for his vacation. "It's a nice place," he said as Mac flipped through the pictures. "Lots to do and really nice people."

 

"What's this?" He showed Cole a picture of the team standing in front of the sand snake.

 

"Oh, that was great," Cole replied with a laugh. "One Saturday they had a sandcastle building contest. That's my group in front of our creation. We won second place. I was thinking we should incorporate something like that at our winter festival next year. Some sort of snow building competition."

 

"What's in its mouth?" Mac asked, peering hard at the picture as he tried to make it out.

 

"A rat."

 

Mac looked at him for a second and then shook his head. "A rat. Of course. Sounds like you had a great time."

 

"I did." Then, more casually and cautiously, he asked, "You want to see one of the guys I met?" Cole knew Mac accepted that he was gay, but up until now it had been more of an abstract concept. Pointing out another man and indicating that he was attracted to him would bring that abstraction firmly into the realm of reality. How Mac reacted would give him a pretty good idea of what the rest of the town would think. And maybe it was better to do this in small doses and let them get used to the idea instead of just showing up with another man.

 

"Of course!" Mac replied. "Which one is he?"

 

Cole tapped the image of Carlos standing in front of the snake. "This one. His name is Carlos Hamilton and he's from Maine."

 

Mac studied the picture for a moment before looking up and nodding. "He looks like a great guy, Cole. I'm happy for you."

 

"Thanks, Mac."

 

Jody came out with their usual order just then and they settled down to eat and catch up on the gossip around town.

 

Thirty minutes later, with half of the pizza gone, Mac said, "So, tell me about Carlos. You think it might be serious?"

 

"He's really nice, he's 25, and like I said, from Maine, and he likes cold weather."

 

"Sounds perfect!" Mac interrupted. "Gotta love cold up here."

 

Cole laughed. "Yeah, that was a big factor. It's not something you can really ignore. I don't know if it's serious yet, though. I met another man I like, too."

 

"Two?" the other man asked. "What a dog you are. I didn't think you had it in you."

 

"See, this is why it's easier to be gay sometimes. You think it's great I'm interested in two guys and Jody was horrified. It's like that book - what was it called? Mars and Venus?"

 

Mac laughed. "Yeah, no kidding. Sally and I get into the worst arguments sometimes because neither one of us understands where the other one is coming from." He gave a small shrug. "Oh well, I still love her, and as long as I just accept that I'm wrong and she's right, things go smoother." He winked at Cole and took a sip of his beer. "So tell me about the other one. Do you have a picture of him, too?"

 

"No, I didn't get one," Cole said regretfully. "But he's got brown hair and eyes, and he's a bit shorter than me and in good shape. He plays basketball and loves to swim, and the ocean, even though he's from Wyoming. His name is Travis Murphy and I really like him, too."

 

"What do they do for a living?"

 

"Carlos is a bit of jack of all trades. He's not really settled down on a career yet and isn't sure what he's interested in. He's taking some general college classes but he hasn't really settled on anything. He's done a lot of odd jobs, including working on the lobster boats and in hotels and restaurants."

 

"Sounds like he'd fit in here easily enough."

 

"Yeah, he would, I think. Travis is a nurse."

 

Mac smiled. "That's perfect for you. You can always use extra help in the office, and Bill probably can, too."

 

"Yeah, I thought about that. And, we've got a lot in common. He's been an ER nurse in Cheyenne, but he's tired of the pace there and I think is getting burned out. He's easy to talk to and nice and calm. He has good sense of humor, and so does Carlos. They're both easy to talk with."

 

"So which one are you leaning toward?"

 

Cole took a bite of pizza and thought about it. "Hell if I know."

 

The other man burst out laughing and slapped the table. "Sounds familiar, man. I was exactly the same way when I was dating."

 

They ate quietly for a minute as Cole mulled over the younger men. He finally said, "You know, it's like trying to pick which you like better, night or day. They each have their good points and bad points, but they're so different, it doesn't seem like you can pick."

 

"So which one's night and which one's is day?"

 

"Travis is night and Carlos is day," Cole replied quickly, without thinking about it. Then he smiled, thinking how right that spontaneous comment was. "Carlos is day - light and airy and fairly open about what's going on with him. He's got some shadows, of course, but he doesn't hide and protect himself. He seems to want to embrace the whole world and experience everything. He just seems to really love life." Cole blushed, thinking how stupid he sounded. Taking a sip of beer to cover it up, he waited for his friend to change the subject.

 

"So what about Travis?" Mac prodded.

 

"He's more serious. He seems to have more depth, more secrets and he's more layered. I think he keeps more to himself. I don't mean bad things, like he's got a criminal record or anything…"

 

"Of course not."

 

"But more like his feelings and his faults; what he's afraid of. I get the feeling he's more cautious about getting hurt. I think he's more ready and more eager to settle down with someone in a permanent relationship than Carlos. He's funny and fun to be with, too, but overall he's more serious."

 

"So Carlos isn't ready for a permanent relationship? Why are you thinking about him then?" Mac asked, puzzled.

 

Cole shrugged. "Got me. He's just kind of grabbed hold and I can't shake the thought of him." He thought for a minute and then continued, "It's not that he's not ready for a relationship. He wouldn't be there if he weren't. I think he's just a bit worried and maybe having second thoughts about settling down permanently."

 

"Oh yeah," Mac said with an understanding nod. "I remember that too well with Sally. I loved her but the thought of making a life-long commitment scared the shit out of me. Do you think that's what your young man is thinking about?"

 

"That's the impression I get," Cole said, not mentioning the additional complication of the discipline aspect of any relationship.

 

"I suggested to Sally that we move in together for a while before we got married. I told her I thought it would be a good way to calm my nerves about the whole idea."

 

Cole chuckled. "And what did she say to that?"

 

"Three days later, when she started speaking to me again," Mac laughed, "she said No. I either had to make the commitment to her for good or forget about it."

 

"How is she doing?" Cole asked. "How's the baby?"

 

"They're fine. He's growing like a weed."

 

Family talk occupied the rest of the meal. As they bundled up, getting ready to brave the bitter cold again, Cole said, "Thanks for getting together with me, Mac. It was great to talk and catch up."

 

"I'm glad you're back. Sally said to make sure you're coming over for dinner on Sunday."

 

"I wouldn't miss it," he said easily. "Tell her I'm looking forward to it."

 

"You know how I figured out she was the right one?" Mac asked suddenly.

 

"No. How?"

 

Mac gave an embarrassed grin. "When I opened the door to my apartment, I imagined her there waiting for me and it gave me such a rush. It was so real I almost expected her to be there, even though I'd just left her at home with her parents. That's how right it seemed." He gave his friend another embarrassed grin and a half shrug. "Anyway, that's how I knew. You might want to try it when you get home tonight."

 

Driving carefully along the dark road, Cole allowed his thoughts to wander over the last month. The emails and almost daily chats had been a wonderful way to continue to get to know Travis and Carlos. They had also made the difference between the two men even more pronounced. Carlos was always eager to talk about his day, about what was happening on The Island and what was going to happen. When they chatted, Cole found himself automatically making calming sounds and wondering what it would be like to live with someone who seemed to be in constant motion. Travis was equally eager to talk, but it was in a more controlled manner. There was a soothing calmness around their chats. They followed a logical order and Cole always found himself more relaxed afterwards.

 

As he pulled into the driveway of his home, he decided to try Mac's suggestion. First he imagined himself entering the house to find Travis waiting for him. The young man greeted him with a warm hug and kiss and asked him how his day had been. Very good, he thought approvingly.

 

Then he imagined the same scene with Carlos. The young man greeted him with a warm hug and kiss and asked him how his day had been. The picture was equally appealing.

 

"Well, that sure helped a lot," he muttered with a disgusted sigh as he got out of the truck. All that did was emphasize that the only one actually waiting for him was Fred, who greeted him with a wild flurry of barking and a quick, enthusiastic lick before darting past him into the yard.

 

He put his leftover pizza in the frig, then booted up the computer and signed on to check his email. He had let both Brats know that he was going straight from work to dinner with a friend. The time difference made it necessary for Cole to chat with them in the middle of the afternoon but they could exchange emails at any time. He had four new messages and was happy to see that one was from Carlos.

 

Hi Cole!

How was the pizza?? I swear, I can't wait for good pizza! The stuff here isn't bad but I've had better, you know?

 

 I had sort of a bad day. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to tell you this or not but we're supposed to be getting to know each other, so why not? Right? Andre isn't too thrilled with me right now. We were talking about current events in class today and someone said something about the religious right trying to get some gay rights laws overturned.. Patrick said the Moral Majority sucks, and without thinking I said no they don't. If they did, they wouldn't be trying to get the laws overturned. The teacher said that kind of talk wasn't appropriate for the classroom and he told Andre I need to adjust my attitude. So Andre made me write lines until my hand almost fell off and I got my mouth washed out which is just vile. I bet as a doctor you understand the dangers of swallowing too much soap, right? I hope so :-) I need to go – it's late and Andre isn't in the mood for any more from me tonight so I'm not pushing my luck. Have a great night. Carlos

 

Later, as he drifted off to sleep, he wondered how he would have handled that situation and decided that with Carlos' mouth, soap would be in constant short supply in their house.

 

~~~

 

Cole took a deep breath and let it out, then leaned his head back against the seat and closed his eyes.  Traveling from Alaska to The Island was always exhausting.  Now, half way across the country and with two layovers to go, he was tired and ready to be done with it. His mind was racing too much to sleep, though, and he reached into the pocket of the seat in front of him and pulled out a slim book of poetry that Carlos had given him.

 

Folded inside was the email from Travis that he had received right before leaving this morning:

 

"Hi Cole,

 

I hope this note gets to you in time. I just wanted to let you know that I hope you have a safe trip and I'm looking forward to seeing you tomorrow. I'm interested in that case you were talking about. We had a similar one at the hospital where I worked and they ended up going to court because the parents could not agree on which course of action to take for the child.  It  was highly emotional with the doctors and a parent on one side and the other parent on the opposite side.  Maybe we can talk about it at lunch tomorrow?  I'm curious to hear how you've handled things and if the family has reached an agreement.  It's always difficult when the family won't accept your professional opinion and insist on things you know won't help. Talk to you soon and have a safe flight. Travis."

It would be great to talk more about the case with another professional. Travis was right, it was so frustrating to have people refuse to accept what he, the professional, told them when it was bad news.  They would insist that he didn't know everything, and that professionals could be wrong. But he knew that usually wasn't the case. Professionals were usually less emotionally involved in the situation, and that gave them a clearer view of what was actually going on.

'Are you listening to the professionals on The Island?' a little voice in his head asked.

But that was different. Wasn't it?

 

He sighed and looked out the window into the clouds below, his mind still racing, trying to deal with the choice before him.  The Island said that Travis was a good match for him and he agreed with that. They had a lot in common and meshed well.  They could talk for hours, on almost any subject, and they got along well.  He had told Cole that he was ready for a relationship, that he was ready to move on with his life and get settled, go back to work at least part time and make a new life with his partner. 

 

As much as Cole liked Carlos, there were still lingering doubts in his mind about how ready the younger man was for a committed relationship.  They got along well, too, but he seemed to lack the seriousness of Travis.  'But is that a bad thing? he asked himself.  'Would he settle down with the right Top?'  There was a spark with Carlos that was lacking with his relationship with Travis.  'But is a spark enough for a relationship?'  The questions whirled around in his head and he decided to set them aside for a while. 

 

After refolding Travis' note and slipping it back into the book, he idly flipped through the pages.  The book opened naturally to one page, giving Cole the impression that the poem was a favorite of the book's owner.  Leaning back in his seat, he began to read. 'Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both...'

Several minutes later, he closed the book and tucked it back into the pocket of the seat. Running a hand across his face, he leaned back once more and closed his eyes, the words of the poem drowning out the questions.  

 

Yet knowing how way leads on to way, 
I doubted if I should ever come back. 
I shall be telling this with a sigh 
Somewhere ages and ages hence: 
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I- 
I took the one less traveled by, 
And that has made all the difference.

 

Cole pulled into the driveway and turned off the engine. Seeing the house brightly lit and faint wisps of smoke coming from the chimney,  a part of him realized that he was asleep and dreaming. Another part didn't care. It had been a long, hard day and it felt so good to come home to a warm house with the aroma of dinner waiting for him; dinner and someone special, a companion that he loved and who loved him.

 

 He entered the kitchen and the dark-haired man standing by the stove turned to him. "Hey, love," he said with a smile. "How was your day?"

 

Cole wrapped his arms around the young man, burrowing his face into his partner's neck. "Mmm... much better now."

 

~~~

 

Cole knocked on the open door of Pritchard's office. "Am I early?" he asked when the other man looked up from his work.

"No, not at all. Come in," the Match Coordinator said with a smile. "Have a seat. How are you doing?" 

 

"I'm fine, thanks. It's good to be back." 

 

"Good, good. So, are you ready to meet some new Brats at the Sunday Social?" He fussed with a pair of files on his desk. "We have a Fostered Orphan coming in this weekend that I think you might like. I have another VT in mind for him, as well, but I'd like for you to meet him and see what you think."

 

"Actually, I've already made my choice and I'd like to approach him about it. What do I need to do?" 

 

"I have the forms right here," Pritchard asked. "If you're sure this is what you want to do." 

 

"Yes," Cole replied confidently, thinking of his dream. "I'm sure."

 

****

 

 

islandgods@yahoo.com

 

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