We have to admit, we didn't think we'd get this pulled together in time for Halloween. Trying to deal with this many Brats was a little like herding hamsters We didn't think we were ever going to get them all moving in the same direction.

 

Thanks to BCW and Melanie for their excellent beta jobs and quick turn-arounds.

Thanks to A and Jake for providing the inspiration for the breakfast scene.

 

And, as always, this is dedicated to our Tops, men of incredible patience and courage,

men who often feel like they're herding hamsters. :-) We love you, guys.

 

TI: A Ghost Story

October 31, 2001

 

"Man, it's really coming down out there," Taylor exclaimed, leaning close to the window as he tried to see through the sheets of rain driven agains it. "I can barely see 5A and it's right across the path." He flinched back as a jagged streak of lightning flashed through the trees, then looked around sheepishly, hoping no one had noticed.

 

"I hope Mark and Andrew are ok," Brent said anxiously, jumping at the peal of thunder that followed. "They won't try to come back in this, will they?"

 

"No, they're Tops," Jason assured him blithely, "and Tops have no sense of adventure. They'll sit in the admin building with all the other Tops and play cards while they wait for it to stop."

 

"Except when they're calling home to make sure their Brats had the brains to stay inside," Chris said with a grin.

 

Right on cue, the phone rang and they all laughed. Will, who was closest, answered it. "Yes, Mark. Yes, Mark. We will, Mark. You too. Bye." He turned to the others and repeated, "Stay inside and away from the windows. There's a flashlight on the coffee table in case the power goes off. Make sure everyone gets their homework done before you play games or watch TV."

 

"Did he say when they're going to be back?" John asked, shuffling a deck of cards. "Anyone want to play Hearts?"

 

"Didn't you listen to the orders we got?" Chris asked, bopping him on the head. "Homework first!"

 

"Yeah, but they aren't here!" John whined. "How are they going to know which we did first?"

 

Chris' answer was lost as a bolt of lightning struck in the jungle close by and the immediate crack of thunder almost drowned out the sound of a tree limb crashing down nearby.

 

The lights browned out for a second, flared briefly and then went out completely.

 

"Shit," a voice in the darkness said. "Where's the flashlight again?"

 

"I've got it," another voice replied, and a moment later, the round beam of a flashlight appeared. "Everyone all right?" Jason asked, shining the light around.

 

The Brats all nodded.

 

"Looks like all the lights are out," Taylor observed from his post by the window. 

 

"Get away from the window, Taylor," Will ordered calmly. "Why don't you light some candles, Jason? I bet that crashing we heard took out some lines or something."

 

“Couldn’t have,” Taylor commented, not moving away from the window, “all the lines are buried.”

 

"Why me?" Jason asked. "Why do I always get stuck with everything?"

 

"Because you have the flashlight, dork," Chris told him amiably. "You're the only one who can see to find the matches."

 

"Somebody turn everything off, too," Will suggested. "In case there's a power surge when the electricity comes back on."

 

Sighing, Taylor left the window to flip the light switches while Jason lit a couple of candles and set them on the table. "So what do we want to do while we wait for the lights to come back on? It's too dark to do homework."

 

"How about telling ghost stories?" John asked mischievously. "It's the perfect time for it."

 

"Hey, did you guys know that this cottage has a ghost?" Chris said with a sparkle in his eyes.

 

Jason laughed. "It does not." He couldn't resist rolling his eyes at the other Orphan; he liked Chris most of the time, but knew that he got great pleasure out of teasing some of the more gullible Brats. 

 

"It does too," Chris insisted. "Doesn't it, Will?" he appealed to their cottagemate.

 

"I've heard the story," Will said, looking up from the book he was reading with the aid of a small disposable flashlight. "I don't know whether it's true or not, though."

 

Another flash of lightning illuminated the room and as the thunder boomed, everyone jumped and Brent let out an involuntary yelp.

 

"So Chris, who is this so called ghost?" Jason asked, diverting their attention from Brent. "And why is he haunting *our* cottage?"

 

"He's a Top named Jim Thompson. He was a British sailor in World War II and after the war he drifted around the world for about ten years before he came to The Island. He started out maintaining The Island's fleet of boats and teaching Brats how to sail while he looked for a Brat of his own.

 

"This was back when The Island was first starting out," Will said. "It was a lot smaller then and not as organized as it is now. Everyone who came helped out in some way and people were mainly coming to meet each other. Nothing like we have now."

 

"Anyway,” Chris said, breaking in, “he met this Brat, Noel, and it was love at first sight. Everyone said that they were soulmates and recognized each other with that first look."

 

"I don't believe in soulmates," John began the ever-recurring debate. "I think--"

 

A barrage of flying pillows immediately hit him. "We're not starting that again," Taylor told him impatiently. "Just listen to the story. What happened next, Chris?"

 

"They were almost inseparable from the very beginning. Jim taught Noel to sail and they decided to sail around the world together. They bought an old boat and fixed it up and stocked it. They had a commitment ceremony combined with a big going away party, and then they set sail. A few days later a huge tropical storm came out of nowhere. Kind of like the one tonight," Chris said softly and they all instinctively looked toward the windows.

 

"Ahhh!" Brent cried, pointing at the window, and they all jumped and turned to look, hearts racing.

 

"What is it? What'd you see??" John demanded, staring hard into the blackness outside.

 

"Nothing," Brent said sheepishly. "It was just a reflection. Hey! Knock it off!" He ducked as the pillows all flew his way.

 

"So then what happened?" Taylor persisted.

 

"When the storm passed, they tried to contact them by radio and when there was no answer they sent out search boats." He lowered his voice dramatically. "They searched for days-"

 

"But they were never heard from again, right?" Jason said skeptically. "So nobody really knows what happened to them. They probably didn't drown at all. They're probably sitting on an island somewhere drinking pina coladas right now."

 

"No, they found Noel." Chris glared at Jason as he continued. "He was unconscious, lashed to a piece of wood. He was badly injured and it was a miracle that he'd survived. When he finally regained consciousness he told them that he and Jim had both been washed overboard. He and Jim had floated together for a time and Jim had tied him to the wood because of his head injury. He drifted in and out of consciousness and the last time he woke up, Jim was gone."

 

There was a long pause and a distinct sniffle from one of the other Brats.

 

"Live for me, Rose!" Jason exclaimed dramatically in a high voice, reaching out to Chris. "Promise me you'll live enough for both of us!"

 

There was another, longer pause as the other Brats wrestled Jason to the floor and pinned him down.

 

"So what happened next?" Brent asked from his seat on Jason's stomach. "Did they ever find Jim?"

 

"No, never. They finally listed him as drowned and set up a gravestone for him in the cemetery, but Noel never got over it."

 

"I don't think I could stand it if my partner were to die on me, especially with so little time together," Taylor commented sadly.

 

"Noel stayed on The Island. He couldn't bear to go back to the mainland alone. He wanted to stay where he'd had his last months of happiness. But, like you said, Taylor, he couldn't stand it."

 

"I would rather die than be without my partner," Brent said quietly.

 

Chris continued quietly, "Apparently Noel felt that way too. They're not sure exactly what happened. He spent a lot of time alone on the beach, looking out to sea as if he was watching for Jim, and one day he never came back. They don't know whether he swam out and just let himself sink down and drown, or if he went swimming and accidentally got caught in a rip tide or something and got pulled out."

 

“End result is the same. No more Noel,” Jason commented dryly.

 

"Poor Noel," Brent said softly.

 

"Noel lived in this cottage when he was an Orphan, so ever since, whenever there's a big storm, Jim comes back here, searching for his lost Brat. And they say that Noel walks the beaches, still watching for Jim."

 

Jason laughed. "Oh, yeah, right!"

 

"What?" Chris shot back. "It's the truth. You can go to the graveyard yourself and look. "There's a stone for them and everything!"

 

"I'm not denying they existed, or even that they died. But I don't believe in ghosts. And even if there were such things as ghosts, why is one wandering on the beach while the other roams around the cottages? Why don't they just walk down the path and meet each other?"

 

Maybe they can't," Taylor murmured sentimentally. "They died separately. Maybe they can't find each other."

 

"So they've remained on The Island, waiting for each other for all this time," Brent said softly.

 

Chris nodded. "Yeah, I can see that. Especially if Noel really killed himself. He could be stuck."

 

"And Jim wouldn't go on without him, would he?" John asked with a sentimental sigh. "All this time. I can't imagine."

 

The room grew silent for a minute, all lost in their thoughts. Suddenly, there was a slight breeze through the living room and somewhere in the cottage a floorboard creaked.

 

"What was that?" Brent asked nervously.

 

"Nothing, I'm sure," Jason said sharply, looking at Chris.

 

"I don't know, I've heard that you can tell when there is a ghost around by a drop in temperature," Chris said, locking eyes with Jason.

 

"It has gotten cold in here," John observed with glee, rubbing his arms a few times. "It shouldn't be cold, even with all this rain."

 

"So poor Jim is walking around The Island, searching for Noel," Chris said softly. "Coming back to this cottage during every storm, hoping against hope that he'll find his Brat this time and that they can move on together." He paused, letting his words sink in. A floorboard creaked again in the darkness.

 

"God, that is *so* pathetic," Jason jeered. "You've been watching way too many chick flicks, Chris. There are no such things as ghosts and everyone knows it."

 

"How do you know?" John asked hotly. "You think you're so smart just because you've been here the longest."

 

"He does not," Brent jumped to defend his friend and soon everyone was shouting, until they were interrupted by a series of thuds, then a long creeeeak. As they stood watching, paralyzed, the front door slowly swung open..

 

They all screamed and John threw a pillow at the door before diving to the floor.

 

"I have *got* to remember to oil that hinge; it sounds so bad when it gets wet," a familiar voice said. "Why are you all sitting here in the dark?" Mark flipped the switch next to the door and the Brats all blinked in the sudden light.

 

"The power was off," Jason protested.

 

"Yeah, but it came back on about 10 minutes ago, about the same time the rain lightened up enough for us to walk home. You didn't notice?"

 

"You guys aren't telling ghost stories again, are you?" Andrew asked suspiciously, looking at all of them. "Uh huh." He shook his head at the chorus of denials. "Is everyone's homework done?"

 

~~~~~~~

 

“You’re such a jerk sometimes, Chris.”

 

Looking up into the mirror, Chris grinned widely, displaying a mouth full of toothpaste before leaning over the sink again and spitting it out.

 

“Why? Just because I'm good at telling ghost stories? Got you looking over your shoulder, didn't I?”

 

“That’s not true and you know it,” Jason said, leaning against the door frame of the bathroom, towel in hand. 

 

Chris shrugged. “I wasn't the one acting like a jerk, Jason. You’re the one who decided to get all hyper about it and tried to take the fun out of it.”

 

“It wasn’t fun,” Jason said interrupting. “You were deliberately trying to scare people, making them think there's a ghost running around here. Brent's probably going to have nightmares from it.”

 

“Get over it. I was not, and besides Brent wasn’t that scared, anyway. You’re just trying to act all high and mighty again, like you're assistant TT or something.” Capping his toothpaste and putting it and the brush back in the drawer, he continued, turning around to face him, “It was just a story, Jason, and you've done a lot worse.”

 

Glaring at Chris, Jason said, “That’s not true. I don't go around scaring people on purpose.”

 

“Only because you didn't think of it first! Not to be mean, but you have no problem playing practical jokes on people. We've done it together!” Chris shot back, his voice rising in annoyance.

 

“Those were different!” Jason shouted back. “Those were *funny*! Your little story tonight wasn’t!”

 

Chris laughed and then, grinning, said, “I know what this is really about! This is about *you* being scared!”

 

“I am not!”

 

“You are too!” Raising his voice, he said, still laughing, “Jason’s scared of a ghost!” 

 

“Am not!”

 

“Are too!”

 

“Jerk!”

 

"Freak!"

 

“Ass!”

 

“Hey!” a new voice interrupted. “What is going on in here?” Mark said, looking over Jason’s shoulder into the bathroom. 

 

“He started it!” Chris said, glaring at Jason.

 

“I did not! He did! He’s being an ass and-”

 

“Stop,” Mark interrupted again as he took hold of Jason’s arm and swatted him hard. “We do not use words like that in this cottage and we do not call each other names. Is that understood, young man?”

 

“But- OW!” he said, jumping slightly as another hard swat landed on his butt. “Fine. I understand. We don’t call people names!” 

 

“Thank you,” Mark said calmly, rubbing the Brat’s back to take some of the sting out of his harshness. “Christopher, if you are done, I think you can step aside and let Jason brush his teeth and take a shower. It’s getting late and you both should be in bed in a few minutes.”

 

“OK,” Chris said. “I was just finishing up anyway,” he couldn’t resist adding, smirking slightly at Jason.

 

“It’s about time,” Jason shot back, quickly moving from Mark’s reach into the bathroom, brushing past Chris.

 

“Watch it!”

 

“You watch it! I was coming in and you got in my way!”

 

“Stop! Both of you!” Mark said firmly. “Chris, come here. Jason, get in the shower. You have 5 minutes.”

 

“I didn’t do anything Mark!” Chris said, coming out of the bathroom. “He bumped into me!”

 

Reaching over, Mark shut the bathroom door, leaving them in the quiet hallway. “Chris, stop arguing. I saw what happened, you bumped into him as much as he bumped into you.”

 

“No! I didn’t! This isn’t fair! You always take his side!”

 

“Calm down and don’t shout at me.”

 

“You’re not listening to me!”

 

Turning him around slightly, Mark swatted his Brat twice. “Stop, Chris. I think you need go into your room and lay down before this escalates any further. It’s late, you’re tired, and I understand that, but you’re taking this too far.”

 

Chris opened his mouth to reply, but quickly changed his mind. “I’m sorry. You're right. I’m tired.”

 

“I know. Why don’t you get into bed? I’ll be there in a few minutes and we’ll talk, ok?”

 

Leaning into his Top, Chris sighed as the older man’s arms came up and hugged him hard. “OK.”

 

Releasing him a moment later with a gentle pat on the butt, Mark watched him go down the hall toward his room. Turning his attention back to the bathroom, he knocked sharply on the door and then opened it. “Jason, are you almost done?”

 

“Yeah, I’m done,” he said turning off the water in the sink and putting his toothbrush away. “I’m sorry about earlier. I didn’t mean to get into it with Chris.”

 

“I know. It’s all right. We’re all a little tired tonight and everyone seems a bit cranky. Andrew is in with Brent, who's having some sort of melt down about a grade,” Mark said tiredly. Motioning with his hand, he added, “Let’s go. Go get settled into bed and I’ll send Andrew in as soon as he’s done.”

 

Nodding, Jason headed back to his room. As he passed by Chris’s open door, he looked in, then glanced back toward Mark, still within ear-shot down the hall. “Chris,” he said, knocking on the door jam. “I’m sorry I was rude in the bathroom. It was uncalled for and I apologize.”

 

Rolling his eyes, the other Brat got off his bed and peered out the door. Seeing Mark in the hall, watching them, he smiled and said, “That’s okay, Jason. I’m sorry I was rude, too. I shouldn’t have been telling ghost stories and I shouldn’t make fun of you for being scared of them." Then, lowering his voice, he continued, " I know you’re not much more than a kid, and I should take that into account with the stories I tell. I’ll stick to Winnie the Pooh next time.”

 

Jason glared at him. “Jerk,” he said softly.

 

“Suck-up.”

 

“Break it up, you two,” Mark said, coming up behind Jason and putting a hand on his shoulder. “Jason, I told you to go your room. Don’t make me tell Andrew that you’re disobeying me.”

 

“No, sir,” Jason said quickly, ducking out from underneath the hand and hurrying down the hall.

 

“And,” the Top continued, walking into the bedroom, “I told you to get into bed.” Taking his Brat by the shoulders, he turned him around, and with a light swat, pushed him gently toward the bed. “Underneath the covers, young man, and roll over and I’ll rub your back. I want to talk to you anyway.”

 

Quickly getting into bed, Chris rolled over onto his stomach, sighing contentedly as Mark sat down and began to rub his shoulders. “I was just kidding with Jason. I didn’t mean to cause problems,” he said a minute later.

 

Working his way down his Brat’s back, Mark said softly, “I know. I know you think it’s funny and most of the time everyone else does too. I know you and Jason butt heads all the time and no one gets hurt. I’m sure that this will blow over after you both get a good night's sleep.”

 

“Yeah. He just gets me sometimes and I have to respond.”

 

“I’m more annoyed at you though for telling ghost stories this evening,” Mark said evenly, stopping the back rub for a minute.

 

Lifting his head slightly and peering over his shoulder, Chris made a face and sighed.

 

Mark laughed and shook his head. “Don’t make faces at me, and lay back down. We’ve talked about ghost stories before, haven’t we?” When Chris didn’t answer, he tapped the back of his head gently with one finger and repeated his question.

 

“Yes,” the Brat finally admitted.

 

“Then why were you telling them tonight?”

 

Shrugging, Chris didn’t answer.

 

“Okay. I think you can spend Saturday working with MacGregor and maybe you’ll have an answer for me then. You’ll have plenty of time to think about it.”

 

Flipping over on his back, Chris looked up at his Top. “I don’t want to play yard slave all day on Saturday! Jason was doing it too!”

 

“But, you started it and, from what I understand, Jason told you a couple of times to stop and you kept it up.”

 

“Mark! That’s not fair!” Chris cried out, frustrated at the sudden turn of events.

 

“Christopher, I think it’s very fair. We’ve talked about this before and I’ve made my decision. You’re spending Saturday working with MacGregor while you think about not telling ghost stories.”

 

Flipping back over on his stomach, Chris buried his head in his arms. “Fine. Whatever, but it’s not fair.”

 

“Fair or not, I’ve made my decision.” After giving him a minute to respond, Mark finally leaned over with a sigh and kissed him, ruffling the brown hair. “Sleep well, babe. Tomorrow will be better, I promise.”

 

Clamping his mouth shut, Chris refused to answer or acknowledge Mark leaving. As soon as the light was flipped off, he rolled over on his side and hugged his pillow close, blinking back tears. The closed door seemed to be huge barrier cutting him off from the warmth of the rest of the cottage. Feeling lonely and unloved, he burrowed deeper into his blankets. A cool breeze across his cheek brought to mind the story he had told about Noel. /How sad,/ he thought, allowing his mind to drift over the story, /to find someone you love and who loves you and to have it snatched away by the gods./ Rolling over on his back, he stared up at the ceiling, imagining the lonely Brat standing on the beach, looking out to sea day after day, losing hope little by little, until finally it was easier to die than go on. /Poor Noel, poor Jim, no wonder they haunt this place. How could either one move on without the other? It would be bad enough to be separated once, but to be separated again, even in death, would have to be unbearable./ A brief laugh jerked his thoughts back to the cottage. Next door, he could faintly hear Andrew hush Jason. Sticking his tongue out at their adjoining wall, Chris thought about what a jerk Jason had been to make fun of Noel to cover up his own fears. Noel's story deserved sympathy and understanding, not callous mockery.

 

 

Yawning deeply, Jason rolled over and closed his eyes. He was lying still, warm and snug under the blankets, allowing the gentle, soothing sound of the rain to lull him to sleep, when he heard a noise outside his door. Through half closed eyes, he saw the door slowly open and the night light in the hall backlit a figure draped in white standing poised in the doorway. His breath caught and he stifled a scream as the figure gave a small, low moan, and glided toward the bed.

 

The next moment, the spell was broken as the ghost cursed softly and jerked the end of his sheet loose from the door frame. Stifling his laughter, Jason forced himself to lay quiet, still pretending to be asleep.

 

The ghostly figure stopped a foot from the side of the bed and moaned again, this time louder and more drawn out.

 

Ignoring the 'ghost', as if still lost in sleep, Jason watched the figure squirm and heard it sigh in growing frustration. Finally, with another, louder, drawn-out moan, the ghost slowly reached a hand over and tapped the sleeping brat on the shoulder.

 

Jerking up, Jason yelled at the figure and gave him a hard push, sending him sprawling on the floor. Pouncing, the Brat began to pummel the ghost through the sheet.

 

Yelling and fighting, the ghost threw off his attacker. “God, Jason! You’re such a jerk!” Chris yelled, ripping off the sheet. "You can't even take a joke.”

 

Jason looked at him innocently and smiled. “Oh, but I was so scared because of your story that I thought you were a real ghost! Isn’t that what you said in the bathroom?”

 

Yelling, Chris lunged at his attacker, sending them both sprawling onto the floor again. "Admit it! You knew it was me and you're just being a jerk!"

 

"*Never*!" Jason yelled back, pushing the other Brat off of him and grabbing hold of an arm to twist it back. "*You* said I was scared! Take it back first!"

 

Suddenly the overhead light switched on. "Stop it right now. Both of you!" Andrew ordered, his voice harsh. Stalking over, with Mark close behind, he took hold of Jason and yanked him off the other Brat. "You," he said, pointing at the bed, "have a seat and keep your mouth closed."

 

"And you, over there" Mark said, pulling his own Brat up, swatting him hard and sending him in the direction of the dresser. "No!" he snapped, holding up his hand at Chris' initial protest. "I don't want to hear it right now, Christopher."

 

"Jason, care to explain what is going on?" Andrew asked, arms folded, looking intently at the younger man.

 

"Why does he get to go first?" Chris shouted angrily.

 

Walking over to him, Mark, reached out, turned him around and quickly swatted him twice. "Not another word from you," he said quietly. "Do you understand? You'll get your chance in just a minute."

 

Chris nodded, blinking back tears.

 

Settling against the dresser, Mark pulled him in so that he was resting with his back against the Top's chest, arms holding him snugly.

 

Chris gave a small sigh and relaxed into the comforting embrace.

 

"I had just fallen asleep when all of a sudden something tapped on my shoulder, so I jerked awake and tackled it. I didn't know who it was! I was asleep and woke up suddenly to find someone touching me!" Jason said, finishing his statement with a brief glare at Chris before turning pitiful eyes toward his Top.

 

"So the concept that it could have been Mark or I never crossed your mind? I've woken you up plenty of times, Jason, and you've never jerked awake swinging," the Top said, leveling a hard look at his Brat.

 

"I knew it wasn't you. It was someone in white."

 

"Okay."

 

"He was awake!" Chris said, jumping and ignoring Mark's tightening arms. "He was awake, because the second I touched him he was up and on me. There's no way he was asleep!"

 

"Was too!" Jason said angrily from the bed.

 

"You were not!"

 

"Prove it!"

 

"Enough!" Mark's voice overrode the din before dropping to its normal, controlled level. Releasing his Brat and turning him around so they faced each other, he continued, "It doesn't matter whether Jason was awake or not. Whose room is this?"

 

Chris didn't answer for a moment, then quietly said, "Jason's."

 

"Whose white sheet is on the floor?"

 

"Mine."

 

"Who wore it into Jason's room even after he was told to stay in bed and not cause any more problems tonight?"

 

"This isn't fair, Mark!" Chris cried, tears starting to well up in his eyes, face twisting in frustration. "He was awake! He knew it was me! He didn't have to start hitting me! It was just a joke!"

 

"Christopher," Mark repeated patiently. "Who?"

 

"Me," he softly admitted, eyes on the floor.

 

"I think that's all I need to know," Mark said softly. "Let's go back to your room and we'll talk about this more." Pulling Chris into a tight hug, the Top held him for a minute before saying quietly to him, "Go on. I'll be in your room in a minute."

 

Chris nodded and then, not meeting eyes with anyone else in the room, quickly ducked his head and fled to the privacy of his own room.

 

Bending down and picking up the sheet from the middle of the floor, Mark's eyes met Andrew's. "I trust you've got things settled in here?" he asked. The unspoken comments of 'I'll punish mine, but you have to do something with yours too' and 'Of course, mine isn't the innocent he's pretending to be' were exchanged between the Tops with a quick raised eyebrow and almost undetectable nod. Nodding again, briefly, Mark said, "Good night, Jason. I hope you have a more peaceful night. Andrew, when you're done, why don't we meet back in my room?"

 

Andrew nodded and said, "Sure. Give me about 10," as Mark left the room. Turning back to his Brat still sitting on the bed, he gave him a hard look. "Do not smirk at this situation, young man. I'm not buying the 'I was startled out of a sound sleep' excuse for one minute."

 

"I was!" Jason protested and then, seeing the look on Andrew's face, gave a half shrug. "I don't know, maybe it wasn't a sound sleep. I might have been awake when I saw a figure dressed in white come into my room. I don't remember, it all happened too quickly."

 

"All right. Maybe if you have some time to quietly think about it and reflect on what happened tonight, the next time you are startled from a sound sleep, you'll react differently. Tomorrow is Thursday and you don't have group, so you can spend your free times tomorrow, before and after quiet time in the afternoon, sitting in the office with me. I have paperwork to do and I'll find something quiet for you to occupy yourself with."

 

"But that's not fair! That's two hours, Why should I be punished for two hours just for defending myself against an intruder?" the Brat whined indignantly.

 

"Fine. Let's make it Thursday and Friday then. That's four hours. Would six, if we tack on Monday too, make it more fair?"

 

"No sir," Jason said sullenly.

 

"OK. Now," he said, holding out his hand and pulling Jason to his feet, "let's get to bed. It's almost midnight and I know you're tired." Straightening the sheets and blanket, he motioned his brat in. After Jason settled in, lying on his back, Andrew sat down on the edge, looking at him. "You OK?" he asked gently, smoothing back the dark brown hair and letting his hand rest briefly on the younger man's check.

 

Turning into the caress, Jason closed his eyes and nodded. "I'm sorry. It just happened and it just got out of control."

 

Stroking the head again, the Top smiled and kissed him on the forehead. "I know and we'll deal with it tomorrow. You'll have plenty of time to think about what else you could have done so it didn't get out of control. Yes?"

 

Jason nodded and then, meeting his Top's eyes, he smiled briefly. "Thanks."

 

"You're a great person, Jase, you just need a little of bit of help making sure things don't just get out of control."

 

The Brat nodded, chewing his bottom lip and looking dejected.

 

"But, we're working on it." Andrew kissed him again, patted his hip and then left the room, turning the overhead light off as he went. 

 

 Knocking briefly on Chris's door, Mark went in and saw his Brat sitting on the edge of his bed, almost in tears.

 

"It was a joke, Mark, I swear. And he was awake!"

 

"Christopher, come here, little one," Mark said as he walked into the room, holding out his arms.

 

Chris dove into the waiting arms, sniffling, tears starting to flow.

 

"I know you thought of it as a joke. And I know that you and Jason have been going at it all night. You teasing him-"

 

"But it was just a story, he-"

 

"Shhhh, "Mark whispered, interrupting his Brat in turn. "Quiet," he said in a half whisper, hands rubbing the younger man's back. "You've been teasing him all night, and he's been going after you, too, I know. But, Chris, you're the one who took it a step further this time. You got out of bed after I told you not to, you dressed up in a sheet and you went into his room."

 

"I was just trying to get him back."

 

"I know, but there are consequences for trying to get back at someone, not to mention getting out of bed after I told you not to. So, come on." Mark said calmly, leading him over to the bed, "let's get this over with and get you settled back into bed. It's late."

 

Pulling back, and trying to resist, Chris began to cry harder. "Nooo, please, Mark. Don't. I swear I'll stop now."

 

"Come on, Christopher, you're not making this any easier on yourself by resisting and getting yourself worked up," the Top said, sitting down on the bed as he turned the still crying younger man sideways. Tugging down the boxer shorts Chris slept in, Mark gently pulled him over one knee. The other knee quickly closed, trapping his legs while Chris buried his face into the covers.

 

Sobbing, Chris struggled briefly and tried to pull out of Mark's grasp. "Please, Mark, don't. I'm sorry. I swear I'm sorry."

 

Laying a hand on his Brat's bare bottom, Mark paused for a moment before raising it and then bringing it down with a sharp crack. 

 

Chris cried out at the first swat, more from tiredness and stress than real pain, then began to sob in earnest, twisting under his Top's grip.

 

"We do not sneak into other people's rooms, at night," Mark lectured as his hand rose and fell in a series of sharp, but not overly hard, swats, "and we definitely do not wear sheets into other people's rooms after being told to stay in bed and to drop the subject of ghosts." Resting his hand on Chris's warmed flesh, he paused. "Is that understood, Christopher?"

 

Nodding, Chris cried out between the sobs and gulps of air. "Yes! I'm sorry!"

 

Mark nodded. "Good. And if we have a repeat performance of tonight, I promise, young man, the next discussion will be much longer and with a paddle. Is that understood?"

 

"Yes, sir."

 

Raising his hand again, the Top delivered four more hard swats in quick succession to the middle of Chris's bottom, causing a fresh flow of tears and sobs. Letting him rest for a minute, Mark gently rubbed the sobbing young man's back, left hand resting proprietarily on his bottom. As the sobs slacked off to more sniffles and catches in breath, he gently lifted the Brat and resettled him on his lap. 

 

Chris immediately wrapped his arms around Mark's chest, burying his face into the TT's neck, and began to cry again.

 

Five minutes later, the Top eased himself out from under the now quiet Brat and helped him settle down comfortably on his side. Pulling up the covers, he knelt down by the bed. "Better?" he asked softly.

 

Chris sniffled and nodded. "I'm sorry."

 

"I know, and it's OK. It's over and done with and it won't happen again, will it?" he asked, stroking the sweaty hair away from the wet face.

 

Shaking his head, Chris took a deep, shaky breath. "No."

 

"Good." Leaning over, Mark kissed him gently and patted his hip. "Now, close your eyes and let's get some sleep. It's late." As he stood up, Mark looked at him one last time. "Are you going to be all right sleeping by yourself tonight?"

 

"Yeah, I'm OK."

 

"If you need me, just come in and get me. I'm here for you."

 

Chris smiled as he closed his eyes. “I know," he said between yawns.

 

"Good night, little one," Mark said. "I'll see you in the morning." Glancing back at his Brat one last time before flipping off the light, he was pleased to see that Chris looked almost asleep already.

 

 

A steady rain fell over The Island all morning and by lunchtime everyone, despite ponchos, was damp and chilled. Wet ponchos and umbrellas were draped or leaning against the entire front wall of the cafeteria, creating large puddles of water and several cases of frayed nerves as people tried to locate the correct item.

 

"I heard that one of the 7s slipped on some wet leaves and broke his arm!" a Brat said excitedly.

 

"Did you know that lightning struck something on the cell tower and we don't have any phone or Internet access? We're cut off, totally isolated!" another Brat replied with great relish.

 

"That happens almost every time we have a major storm," an older Brat retorted scornfully. "But I heard that a huge limb broke off that big live oak tree by the admin building and crashed through a window, destroying a desk and just missing Davis.

 

"I hope it was the desk with my discipline report on it," someone responded gloomily.

 

Chris sat down and toyed with his soup, his grilled cheese forgotten on his plate, letting the conversation wash over him. He was tired. He hadn't slept well the night before and what sleep he'd had was filled with fragments of half-remembered dreams about walking along the beach with the surf and waves constantly trying to pull him into the water. The shifting sands and high winds kept pushing him into the waves but he knew he couldn’t go there until he found what he was looking for.

 

He was jolted out of his thoughts by a hand gripping his shoulder. "Chris, you OK? Are you getting sick?" Mark looked down at him in concern.

 

"Yeah, I'm fine. Just thinking. Why?"

 

"I said your name three times and you didn't answer me,” the Top said, laying a hand on his forehead, checking for a fever. “Do you know where the rest of the cottage is sitting?"

 

"Jason and Brent are with some guys over there." He pointed at a noisy table near the door. "John was here just a minute ago. I think he went to get another sandwich. I don't know where Will and Taylor are."

 

"I saw Will already and he's running an errand for me. Can you tell the others to finish up and get back to the cottage?"

 

"Yeah, sure. What's wrong?"

 

"Nothing is wrong, exactly, but the storm is stalled off the coast and they are predicting more bands of wind and rain coming through until it moves on. With the damage last night and the threat of more, they've decided to cancel classes and activities and send everyone back to their cottages. Andrew and I are going to get some groceries and emergency supplies and we'll meet you back there."

 

"All right." He got up and put his tray away, then spoke to John, who immediately ordered his sandwich to go and volunteered to find Taylor. That left Brent and Jason. They were still at the table by the door, engaged in what was apparently a hysterical conversation, judging by the amount of laughter going on.

 

"You should have seen him!" Jason was telling the other Brats at the table as Chris walked up behind him. "Getting so pissed because I wouldn't 'wake up' and then so tangled up in his sheet that he couldn't--" he stopped, realized that his audience had fallen silent and Brent was making shushing gestures at him. "What? Come on, it's funny!"

 

"I'm glad I'm so amusing," Chris told him coldly. "Mark and Andrew want us all back at the cottage as soon as possible." He turned and walked away, pausing only to grab his poncho before heading out into the storm.

 

"Chris! Wait!" Jason called. "Come on! I didn't mean anything by it. It was just a joke. Wait up!" He jumped up and grabbed his own poncho, only to be stopped by the TT in Training at the door.

 

"Your tray needs to be put up," the TTT said firmly.

 

"I don't have time, I need to catch up with my friend. It's important," Jason replied, attempting to push by him.

 

"Not until your tray is taken care of, young man." The TT blocked the door, arms folded across his chest.

 

Glaring at him for a brief minute, Jason muttered an obscenity under his breath and trudged back to his table and offending tray.

 

Meanwhile, Chris trudged across the compound, alternating between white-hot anger and bewildered tears. How could Jason do that to him? Sure, they had their differences from time to time, but he'd always thought they were friends. How could a friend humiliate him in front of others like that?

 

He entered the cottage and, pausing only to drop his poncho and kick off his wet shoes, went into his room and threw himself on his bed. He was still lying there when Jason came in.

 

"Chris? I'm sorry I-"

 

"Get out," Chris told him dully.

 

"Come on, Chris! I just wanted to tell you-"

 

"And I'm just telling you to get out of my room! NOW!"

 

"Fine, then!" Jason snapped. "Forget the apology. Forget I came in here at all!"

 

"Believe me, I'm trying!" Chris told him. "Close the door on your way out." He waited until the door closed, and then quietly put his head back down on his damp pillow.

 

“Jason,” Andrew said calmly a short while later. He motioned at the Brat who was sitting at the table, playing Scrabble with Taylor and John. “Let’s go, please.”

 

Jason put his letter tile down and stood up, following Andrew to the other side of the room. “What?” he asked with a smile. “Go where?”

 

“The office. It’s 1:30. I have some reports to do and I’ll find something quiet for you to do while you think about what happened last night.”

 

Jason looked at him in disbelief. “What? That’s not fair! It’s a free day! Everyone else is off! Why do I have to be punished?”

 

Taylor and John glanced up at the yelling and then, seeing the look on Andrew’s face, quickly glanced back down, engrossing themselves in the game. John reached over and picked up Jason’s tile holder and dumped them back into the pile of unclaimed tiles.

 

“Lower your voice, and don’t take that attitude with me. I told you last night that you were spending your free times in the afternoon today and tomorrow in the office with me thinking. The fact that outside activities have been canceled doesn’t get you out of your punishment.”

 

“That’s not fair!”

 

Taking Jason’s arm, Andrew looked at him and said softly, “Jason.”

 

Locking eyes with his Top for a brief moment, the Brat swallowed hard, then nodded and allowed himself to be led into the office. 

 

Shutting the door behind him, Andrew nodded in the direction of the room's two empty corners. "Pick one and have a seat. I’ll be with you in a few minutes.”

 

Jason made a face but quickly went over to the far corner, pulled out the stool placed there and had a seat, knees touching the wall.

 

“Hands at your side, young man, feet on the floor, and sit up straight,” Andrew said calmly as he sat down at one of the two computer terminals.

 

“This is so unfair.”

 

“Stop muttering or you can sit there for the whole time today.”

 

“Oh, you mean I won’t get the fun job of dusting books?” Jason shot back.

 

“OK. You can sit there the whole time. Another word from you and I’ll get the soap. I’ve had enough of your attitude lately.” Andrew answered calmly, opening a folder and beginning to type.

 

Twenty minutes later, Andrew left and returned a short time later carrying two bottles of water. Walking over to his Brat, he held one out. "Thirsty?"

 

Jason hesitated for a moment, then reached out and accepted it. "Thanks."

 

"Do you think you can hold your tongue while you work on the bookshelves?

Just then, a loud burst of laughter came through from the living room, followed by the sound of Brats wrestling and more laughter.

 

"So I get stuck in here, while Chris gets off? That's real fair, Andrew," Jason retorted, annoyed and upset again.

 

"All right, have it your way." Andrew said evenly, tapping him on the shoulder and pointing to the corner. "Turn around then." After watching the younger man turn back toward the wall, Andrew returned to his desk and continued the reports.

 

As the clock in the living room struck 2:30, Andrew saved his file and then turned around again. “All right, Jason, come here, please.”

 

Getting up slowly, the Brat trudged over to his TT and allowed himself to be pulled down onto the other man’s lap, relaxing against his chest and sighing as the Top’s arms came up and held him close. “It’s been a crappy day so far,” he said softly

 

“I’m sorry. If you can manage not to mutter, you can dust the bookshelves at 4, instead of sitting in the corner. You think you can do that?”

 

Jason nodded, but made no move to get off his TT’s lap.

 

In no rush to break the contact his Brat seemed to need, Andrew sat there and slowly stroked his hair and held him tight.

 

 

"Where's Chris?" Mark asked, looking around the living room after dinner that evening.

 

"In his room. He said he didn't want to watch a movie," John replied.

 

"He was quiet all afternoon," Andrew commented with a frown. "Is he coming down with something, Mark?"

 

"I don't think so, but I'd better go check on him. Save the love seat for us, ok?"

 

He left the others claiming their seats and cheerfully fighting over the popcorn and went down the hall to Chris' room. Rapping once on the door, he opened it and looked in on the Brat laying face down on the bed.

 

"Hey, Chris," he said gently, sitting down and laying his hand on the Brat's back. "What's wrong?"

 

"Nothing," Chris mumbled. "I'm just tired."

 

"It's too early to go to bed, though. Why don't you come out and watch the movie with us?"

 

Chris sighed, not wanting to move, not wanting to be near Jason, but knowing that the TT would persist until he agreed. "What movie?"

 

"Titanic," Mark said with a smile.

 

"Titanic? Who picked that?" Chris asked, immediately on the defensive as he remembered Jason's comments from the night before.

 

"Will. It's one of his favorite movies," the TT replied. "Why?"

 

"No reason," Chris mumbled, relaxing a little. Will hated arguments and rarely took sides in the other Brats' squabbles . If he picked the movie it was because he liked it, not because of any ulterior motives. "I guess I can come out for a while."

 

"That's my babe," Mark approved. "Let's go, before they eat - or spill - all the popcorn."

 

 

Jason yawned as he flipped off his bedside lamp, plunging the room into darkness. The rain was still coming down but the thunder and lightening had passed over them, at least for the time being. Rolling over onto his stomach, he yawned again, closing his eyes. It had been a long, tense evening. He'd tried several times to make it up to Chris, offering to share his popcorn, trying to draw him into a discussion of the movie, making small jokes in the hopes that Chris would laugh, but the other Brat had either ignored him or looked away. Why did he have to take everything so seriously anyway? It was just a joke! He sat up, punched his pillow two or three times, and lay down again. There was no point in thinking any more about it right now. He'd just have to try again in the morning.

 

He was almost asleep when a strange noise at the window startled him awake. /It's just a branch or something scraping the glass,/ he told himself reassuringly. /Except that there isn't anything close enough to the window to scrape on it./ As he stared at the window, the noise repeated itself, a tapping noise, as if the someone were trying to get his attention. Eyes wide open, he stared at the window, Noel’s story running through his mind. /This is ridiculous,/ he lectured himself sternly. /There isn't anything out there./ "Give it up, Chris, or I'm calling Andrew!" he called out, trying to keep his voice from quavering. A few minutes later, he yawned again, eyes growing heavy. Whatever it was hadn't repeated itself again. It was probably just something blown against the window. Or more likely Chris, trying to get back at him. He allowed his eyes to close again, rolling back over to his stomach. /I'm going to kill him in the morning,/ he thought to himself, pulling the pillow in closer and forcing himself to relax.

 

A little later, he jerked awake again, unsure for a moment what had awakened him. He glanced at the clock on his dresser. The illuminated numbers glowed brightly in the otherwise dark room, telling him that he'd only been asleep for about 15 minutes. As he stared at it, he froze, forcing himself to breath deeply as if still asleep. There was someone in his room, he was sure of it, and, unlike last night, it was no campy sheet-shrouded impatient figure. A cold chill came over his body as he lay there, forcing himself to close his eyes almost all the way, so that he was peering into the darkness through his lashes. A minute passed and he could feel his body start to relax from the initial burst of adrenaline. /Get a grip,/ he told himself, inhaling and exhaling deeply, forcing his frozen muscles to relax. Taking another deep breath, he was stretching, trying to relieve the slight cramps in his muscles when something suddenly swept past the clock, briefly blocking out the illuminated numbers as it passed. His hand shot out toward the light on his nightstand, knocking over a water bottle and his book. Ignoring the sound of them falling to the floor, he grasped the pull cord, yanking it hard. The soft white light illuminated the small room as Jason looked frantically around, his heart racing.

 

“Hello?” he said softly, eyes fixed on the closet door, which stood open just a crack. He was almost positive it had been closed when he went to bed. Hadn't it? "Is anyone there?" There was no sound but the rain sheeting against the window. He sat straight up in bed, frozen, eyes fixed on the closet door, ears straining to hear the slightest sound. Somewhere nearby, a board creaked and he gave a startled, half strangled yelp. Tossing back the covers, he dove for the safety of the hall and Andrew's room.

 

Throwing open the door to the TT’s room, he stumbled inside. “Andrew!” he half yelled, hurrying through the sitting room into his TT’s small bedroom. “Andrew! There’s someone in my room!”

 

The pile of blankets stirred and a hand emerged from the covers and flipped on the light. Rising up on one elbow, Andrew peered at him. “What’s going on, Jason? What did you say?”

 

“There’s someone in my room,” he repeated excitedly. "In the closet, I think."

 

“I swear,” Mark said, sitting up behind Andrew. “Christopher is not going to sit for a week when I'm done with him.”

 

"No!" Jason protested breathlessly. "I don't think it was Chris. I flipped on the light and there wasn't anyone there! But they didn't have time to leave, so they must be in the closet."

 

“OK, let’s go see.” Andrew got up, unconcerned about his lack of clothing. “Why do you think there’s someone in your room?” he asked as reached for his robe on the nearby chair.

 

“I heard a noise by the window and then a few minutes later, I saw someone.”

 

Exchanging looks, Mark got out of bed too. “You saw someone?” he asked, slipping on a pair of boxers. He frowned at the Brat's vehement nod. “All right, I'm going to go check on our resident ghost while you look in his room, Andrew.”

 

“Stay here, Jason,” Andrew ordered, pointing to the bed.

 

“No! I don’t want to stay here alone!”

 

“I didn’t ask if you wanted to or not. I’m telling you to,” Andrew said sternly, pointing to the bed. “Let Mark and I check this out.”

 

Crawling into the empty bed, Jason leaned against the headboard and drew his knees up to his chest, laying his head on them. “Be careful.”

 

Smiling at him, Andrew leaned over, smoothed his hair a bit and kissed him on top of the head. “I’m sure there's nothing there. Don’t worry. Ready?” he asked the other Top.

 

Mark nodded. “I'll check Chris and then start on the rest of the house, if you want to check out Jason's room and then the rest of our little monsters.”

 

“Sounds good to me,” he answered as they went into the sitting room, flipping on the light as they went through, and then shutting the door from the hall.

 

Turning to the left, Mark flipped on the hall light and slowly opened Chris's door. Creeping in quietly, he peered down at his sleeping Brat. He was fast asleep, Mark determined easily, having seen Chris both asleep and pretending to be asleep many times in the past 6 months.

 

Flipping on the main bedroom light, Andrew looked around Jason's room. He opened the closet, feeling foolish, and checked inside. There was nothing but clothing and shoes. And an empty one pound M&M bag. He rolled his eyes. They were going to have a little talk about that in the morning. Going over to the window, he ran a finger across the sill and was pleased to see it was bone dry and the window itself was locked. Still feeling a little foolish, he went back into the hall and slowly crept into John's room. Leaving the door open so the light from the hall spilled into the room, he quickly checked the window and closet there as well.

 

"Andrew?" the Brat murmured sleepily. "What's wrong?"

 

Bending over the bed and brushing back the Brat's dark hair, he kissed him on the forehead. "Nothing's wrong, babe. Go back to sleep."

 

After repeating the process three more times, each time finding nothing out of place, he went back to his room. Jason was laying on his stomach, with Mark rubbing his back and speaking softly to him. All the lights except the small bedside one had been turned off, giving the room a warm and cozy look.

 

Looking up, Mark smiled. “Everything seems locked up to me. No water by any of the doors or windows I checked, and in this rain there's no way anyone could have gotten in without leaving some behind."

 

"I swear I saw something," the Brat protested wearily.

 

Andrew ruffled his hair. "It's OK. We need a little excitement in the middle of the night from time to time." Winking at Mark, he continued, "Keeps us on our toes."

 

Jason smiled and laughed. "I'm sorry to wake you guys up."

 

"Don't worry about it, babe," Andrew repeated.

 

"I think I'm going to check on my guys, and then head back to my bed. It's going to be morning soon enough," Mark said with a final pat to Jason's back. Getting up, he smiled, then yawned. "Sleep well, and if you hear anything else go bump in the night, remind it that we have a curfew in this cottage and it needs to come back after 7."

 

Andrew laughed. "Night." Then turning his attention back to Jason, he asked, "So, you want to go back to your bed or stay here with me?"

 

Jason hesitated. "Can I stay here with you? I swear I saw something tonight, Andrew. I swear it."

 

"Ok, just for tonight, though." Motioning for him to move over, the Top slid into bed and then reached up and flipped off the light.

 

Taking a deep breath and letting it out in a small sigh, Jason rolled over onto his stomach, facing the wall.

 

Andrew curled up over him, drawing him in close. "It's OK, I believe you saw something." He kissed the back of his Brat's hair as he wiggled in closer. "Just go to sleep and don't worry about it. Anything will have to get through me before it can get close to you. And that's not going to happen, I promise." He felt Jason nod against his chest, then take a deep breath and relax into sleep.

 

 

The morning was dark and gray with strong gusts of winds. Clapping his hands in the middle of the hall, Mark called loudly, "Let's go guys. It's 7:45 and I haven't seen any of you yet this fine Friday morning."

 

"What's so fine about it?" a voice demanded from a half open door.

 

Smiling, Mark pushed it the rest of the way open. "Well, for one thing, Taylor, I get to see your bright happy face and hear your cheerful voice." 

 

"But we're off today, Mark!" came another voice further down the hall.

 

"Off?" Mark laughed as he walked down the hall, pushing doors open as he went. “I don’t think so. Just because you don’t have classes, it doesn’t mean you get to loaf around in bed all morning. We have a schedule, gentlemen, and I expect to see you all at the breakfast table in 5 minutes.”

 

Stumbling out of his room with a yawn, Will rolled his eyes at the comments. “I don’t think 7:45 would be considered 'all morning'.”

 

John laughed and shook his head as he came out of his room. “You know how they are. ‘We have a schedule gentlemen’,” he mimicked Mark. “God forbid we don’t keep to the schedule.”

 

“No, I don’t think God minds,” Mark said from behind them, “but Andrew and I do. Now,” he continued, clapping them each on the back, “get your robes on and go get breakfast. Andy’s cooking and I’m sure he’ll be annoyed if the French toast gets cold.”

 

“There’s French toast?” someone shouted from one of the still occupied bedrooms.

 

“Go on,” Mark told the two Brats before turning back to the bedrooms to herd the rest of the Orphans into the kitchen.

 

"Pass the syrup, please?" Chris requested, forking another piece of French toast onto his plate. "Jason, pass the syrup. Jason. Earth to Jason!" he called, as Jason continued to start into space.

 

"What?? Why are you yelling at me?" Jason demanded irritably.

 

"I've asked you for the syrup twice," Chris glowered. "So don't get all nasty and defensive with me."

 

Jason picked up the bottle of syrup and contemplated it for a moment, then squeezed it over his French toast.

 

"Hey! I asked for it first!" Chris cried indignantly, lunging for the bottle.

 

"Well, I'm using it first!" Jason retorted, holding the bottle out of his reach.

 

"Come on, knock it off," Mark said easily. "Use this bottle, Chris."

 

"Ass," Chris muttered under his breath as he took the syrup that Mark held out.

 

"Jerk," Jason muttered back. "And the next time you come in my room in the middle of the night I'm going to do more than knock you down and punch you a couple times."

 

"What?" Chris asked in bewilderment.

 

"You heard me! I know it was you in my room last night."

 

"I wasn't in your room last night!"

 

"You were too!"

 

"Was not!"

 

"Enough!" Mark ordered. "He wasn't in your room last night, Jason. He was asleep when I checked on him."

 

"Probably faking it," Jason muttered under his breath.

 

"I believe Mark said 'enough', Jason," Andrew informed him. "You're already spending the afternoon in the office with me. Would you like to spend the morning as well?"

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Time to eat, guys! Let's get washed up," Andrew called early that evening. "Where's Jason?" he added, looking over the Brats sprawled comfortably around the living room.

 

"He's in his room," Brent replied. "He said to leave him alone."

 

Sighing, Andrew went down the hall and found the young man lying on his bed, reading. "How are you doing, Jason?"

 

"Fine," the young man replied. "I think I just needed some time alone for a while."

 

"Good. Why don't you join us now, though? Dinner's ready and Mark made his special chili."

 

Marking his place in his book, the young man stretched and looked at his watch. "I didn't realize it was that late already. I'm starving." He followed Andrew toward the kitchen, almost running into him when the TT stopped abruptly in the living room.

 

"Jason. What are those doing there?" the TT asked with a frown.

 

"What?" he asked, looking around. "What are what doing where?"

 

"Your shoes. I thought I told you earlier to get them out of the living room?"

 

"I did!" Jason protested angrily

 

Arching an eyebrow, the Top nodded his head toward the shoes sitting side by side near the couch. "Then what are those?"

 

Jason frowned. "Those aren't my shoes! I picked mine up! I swear!"

 

"They are your shoes, Jason. You're the only one who wears that style."

 

"But I put mine away!" Jason almost wailed, glaring at the offending footwear.

 

Sighing and rubbing his temples, trying to get rid of his growing headache, Andrew asked, "Then how do you explain them being back in the living room?"

 

"I don't know! Someone must have moved them, Andrew! Someone went into my room and brought them out just to get me in trouble!"

 

The Top looked at him for a minute and then sighed. "Why would anyone-? Never mind. Just put them away. Again," he hastily added, cutting off Jason's angry protest. "I'll talk to Mark and we'll discuss it at dinner. OK?"

 

"I put them away," Jason said sullenly, bending down and scooping up the offending shoes. "I did."

 

Reaching out, Andrew pulled him close into a hug. "I believe you. It's OK." He held him tight for a minute, then patted his butt. "Go on now, before the chili gets cold." 

 

"Ok."

 

Going ahead into the kitchen, Andrew found the other TT stirring the pot of chili. "Hey, Mark, slight problem for you," Andrew said quietly as he leaned against the counter.

 

Mark gave one last stir, then put the spoon down and looked at him. "What's up? What did one of our little monsters do now?"

 

Andrew laughed, then shook his head. "I told Jason to put his shoes away earlier and he swears he did, but they were back in the living room a few minutes ago."

 

"What do you mean they were back in the living room?" Mark asked. "They might be shoes, Andrew, but they don't walk around on their own."

 

"I know that," Andrew said in exasperation. "But he swears he put them away, and insists that someone went into his room and brought them back out to get him in trouble."

 

"Christopher."

 

"Or John. I can't see Will, Taylor or Brent doing it."

 

"No, I can't, either," Mark agreed. "OK, we'll mention it at dinner tonight. But we can't actually accuse one of them without more proof than Jason saying he put them away."

 

"Right."

 

"I'm starving. Let's eat," Taylor said coming into the kitchen, followed closely by Brent, John and Will.

 

A minute later, Jason and Chris came in, glaring at each other.

 

Andrew looked back and forth between them. "Problems, dears?" he asked casually.

 

Chris shot a look in Jason's direction before turning away. "No, we're fine."

 

"We're fine," Jason echoed grimly.

 

"All right then, have a seat and let's eat."

 

As the Brats all sat down, Chris, John and Will on one side of the table and Jason, Brent and Taylor on the other, Andrew and Mark filled the bowls and passed them out. Cheese, onions and peppers were passed around, along with the cornbread, and everyone dug in hungrily. At first the conversation was limited to "Pass the cornbread" and "More onions, please", but gradually it became more general as their appetites were appeased.

 

"Have you heard anything more about the storm system?" Mark asked Andrew as he got up to refill his bowl.

 

"Hayes said that it's still stalled," Andrew replied with a grimace. "Looks like we're stuck inside again tomorrow."

 

"Wonderful," Taylor sighed. "Does anyone remember getting instructions to build an ark?"

 

"You know, that's a great idea," John said. "We should have an ark-building competition,

with a prize for the cottage with the best one."

 

"Yeah, right," Jason told him sarcastically. "What are we supposed to build it out of, popsicle sticks?"

 

"There's a big box of them in the laundry room," Will volunteered. "I wouldn't use the Elmer's glue, though. It's water-based."

 

"Maybe we could use duct tape," Brent suggested. "Hey, why is duct tape like the Force?"

 

"Because it has a light and dark side and holds the universe together," the other Brats chanted in unison, pelting him with bits of onion and cornbread.

 

"Don't throw food," the TTs responded automatically, then Andrew continued, "Before we leave the table, I want to remind all of you that bedrooms are private and considered off-limits without an invitation to be there."

 

"That means no going in to borrow stuff or to take stuff out and leave it laying around. Are we all clear on that?" Mark continued, looking around as they all murmured their understanding.

 

"Yeah," Jason added, looking directly at Chris, "especially when you leave it laying around to get people in trouble."

 

"What are you talking about? I didn't do anything!"

 

Snapping his fingers sharply in Jason's direction, Andrew said, "Stop. Now."

 

"No one is pointing any fingers at anyone right now. Andrew and I are just reminding you of the rules." 

 

"Is that all you're going to do?" Jason asked angrily. "He can walk into my room, steal my shoes and leave them out to get me in trouble, and all you say is remember not to do it anymore? That sucks!"

 

"I didn't do it!" Chris yelled back. "God, I am not to blame every time you screw up!"

"I didn't screw up! You set me up!"

 

"Did not!"

 

"Did too!"

 

"Jerk!"

 

"Freak!"

 

"Ass!"

 

"ENOUGH!" Mark's voice easily overrode theirs. "Jason, did you see him take your shoes?"

 

"No, but-"

 

"Did anyone else see him take your shoes, or see him in or near your room?"

 

The other Brats shook their heads.

 

"Then I am not going to punish him. Not without proof that he did something wrong."

 

"Jason, if you're done eating, start clearing the table," Andrew said quietly. "And I don't want to hear any more about this."

 

"Fine. You won't hear any more about it." /I'll take care of it myself,/ he added silently.

 

Chris hummed softly to himself as he showered, basking in the hot water. The evening had gone pretty well, amazingly enough. Mark and Andrew had vetoed their suggestion to put on rain gear and go visit the Brats in 5A, but Andrew had brought out a new jigsaw puzzle and they'd all had a good time putting it together. Even Jason had settled down and acted semi-normal for a change. He was pouring shampoo into his hand, still humming contentedly, when he heard the bathroom door open. "Who's there?" he asked suspiciously.

 

No answer.

 

"John? Taylor?" He tried to peer through the translucent shower door. "Come on, guys, answer me!"

 

Silence.

 

He was reaching for the door when the light went out, plunging the bathroom into inky blackness. Simultaneously, the toilet flushed and he was drenched in scalding water.

 

"JASON! You FREAK!" he shrieked, leaping out of the shower. He grabbed for his towel, but his fingers closed on an empty towel bar. "Damn it!" he yelled, then "OUCH!" as he ran into the sink and stubbed his toe before he finally made it out the door. "I'm going to kill you, Jason!"

 

"Christopher, what on earth is going on?" Mark asked in astonishment as he came out of his sitting room. "Who are you shouting at and why are you running naked down the hall?"

 

"Jason!" Chris spluttered, hopping on one foot as he tried to rub his sore toe.

 

The other Brats all erupted from their rooms, clamoring to know what was going on.

 

"It was Jason! He turned off the light, flushed the toilet and stole my towel!"

 

"Jason!" Andrew called. "Come here, please."

 

"Did you see me, Chris?" Jason asked insolently, coming forward. "Did anyone see me? Where's your proof? We can't punish anyone around here without rock-solid evidence, you know."

 

"That's enough, Jason," Andrew told him firmly. "Go back to your room. I'll be in to deal with you in a few minutes."

 

"Go finish your shower and then get to bed, Chris," Mark said quietly, then raised his voice a little. "Everyone get to bed. And I don't want to see *anyone* back out of their room before 7 in the morning. Is that clear?"

 

"Yes, Mark," they all murmured, heading back into their rooms.

 

"I have a headache," Andrew told Mark plaintively once all the doors had closed. "What are we going to do with those two?"

 

"Pray for sunshine before they kill each other?" Mark suggested.

 

"Or kill them ourselves," Andrew replied darkly.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Taylor, stop kicking the furniture," Andrew ordered.

 

"But I'm bored," the Brat whined.

 

"It's only 10 am. How can you be bored already?"

 

"There's nothing to do."

 

"How about doing your homework," the TT suggested.

 

"I finished it."

 

"Watch TV."

 

"There's nothing on."

 

"Play a game."

 

"I'm tired of games. Besides, John always wins."

 

"Would you like me to find something for you to do?" Andrew asked ominously, tiring of the discussion.

 

"Why don't we bake something?" Will suggested hurriedly. When Andrew found them something to do it always seemed to include hard, boring manual labor, and involve all the Brats, not just the one who'd been complaining.

 

"Cookies?" Taylor asked hopefully.

 

"Oatmeal!" Brent exclaimed.

 

"No, peanut butter," John chimed in.

 

"I was thinking brownies," Will said mildly.

 

"Why don't we do all three?" Taylor suggested. "Jason and Brent can make oatmeal-raisin cookies, John and Chris can do peanut butter, and Will and I will make the brownies. Is that ok, Andrew?"

 

Andrew looked over at Mark. "What do you think?"

 

"I think we're going to have one hell of a mess in the kitchen," Mark said cynically.

 

"Good. They can clean it afterward. It will give them something else to do." 

 

"We need some sugar for these," John said a short while later. He and Chris were sitting at the table, rolling their dough into small balls while Will and Taylor used the mixer for their brownies.

 

"It's in the pantry," Jason told him. "Does anyone know where the other cookie sheets are?"

 

"In the lower cupboard under the silverware drawer, all the way at the back," Chris replied on his way into the pantry. When he went back into the kitchen, Jason was crouched on the floor, searching through the cupboard for the elusive cookie sheets. An almost full bag of flour was sitting on the counter directly over his head, and Chris gazed at it longingly as he found a bowl for his sugar. No, he'd better not, he decided reluctantly. On the other hand... if he accidentally bumped it on his way by... Accidents did happen, after all.

 

He managed to clip the bag with his elbow as he pushed his way past Jason and it wobbled promisingly, then settled back on its bottom, closer to the edge of the counter, but still upright. /Damn,/ he thought. /Any other time it would have gone over./ And he couldn't try again, Brent was watching him.

 

He was standing at the other counter, pouring sugar into a small bowl when there was a bellow of rage behind him.

 

"CHRISTOPHER!"

 

He whirled around and saw Jason still kneeling on the floor, almost hidden in a cloud of flour dust. As it settled, he could see that the other Brat was covered head to toe with the thick white powder.

 

"What?" he asked, trying not to double over with laughter. "I didn't do anything!"

 

"Yeah, right!" Jason shouted. "You walk by, I get coated in flour, and you expect me to believe you had absolutely nothing to do with it? I'm not that stupid, Chris!"

 

"But I didn't have anything to do with it! I was over here!"

 

"I saw you hit it with your elbow, Chris!" Brent jumped into the argument.

 

"Yeah, but it didn't fall over!"

 

"No, it didn't!" John responded loyally. "And he was over here when Jason yelled. There's no way he could have done it."

 

"Well, it didn't just fall off the counter by itself!" Jason yelled.

 

"No, it didn't," Chris' eyes narrowed. "I think you did it yourself, so you could blame me and get me in trouble again."

 

"I did not!"

 

"Did too!"

 

"Did not!"

 

"Jerk!"

 

"Freak!"

 

"Ass!"

 

"Here we go again," Mark said with a sigh as he and Andrew entered the room.

 

~~~~~~~

 

Glancing around, Chris grabbed a handful of cheese crackers and shoved them into a plastic bag. After quickly repeating the process twice more, he closed the box and put it back in the cupboard. Putting the bag under his shirt, he quietly made his way back to the bedroom. 

 

"What are you doing, Christopher?" Mark asked sharply sticking his head out of his sitting room and glaring at his Brat.

 

"I was thirsty and wanted some juice," he replied, holding up the glass he had wisely grabbed on the way out of the kitchen.

 

"You were told not to leave your room. Do you need to spend more time in the corner to remember that?"

 

Biting his lip and doing his best impression of trying not to cry, Chris looked up at Mark and said softly, "I'm sorry, I just wanted some juice." And then, after a moment added quietly, "I can still taste soap."

 

Mark glared at him for another moment before nodding. "Go on, but I don't want to see or hear you out of your room again before Andrew or I call you for lunch. Is that understood?"

 

"Yes sir," Chris said softly before giving his Top a small smile and quickly hurrying back to his room.

 

After watching to ensure the Brat did in fact go back to his room, Mark shut his own door and returned to his book. Sitting down in the comfortable chair, he laid his head back and closed his eyes, allowing the soft music from his CD to gradually ease away his tension headache.

 

Andrew knocked on Chris's door forty-five minutes later. "Chris, come on. Lunch is ready."

 

Looking up from the book he was reading, Chris said, "Ok. I'll be right there." He heard Andrew repeat his summons down the hall, including Jason's room. Getting off the bed and creeping silently to their shared wall, he pressed his ear to it. He held his breath until heheard the other brat's bed creak slightly and then footsteps leave the room. Opening the door, he looked up and down the hall before easing out of his room, bag tucked back under his shirt, and into Jason's room. Kneeling down by the bed, he opened the bag and, taking a few crackers from it, scattered them on the floor and then put the open bag partially under the bed. Going over to the window, he opened it a couple of inches, dropped a cracker on the ground beneath the window and then placed another one on the sill. Finally, he opened the door a crack, peered out into the hall and then, seeing no one, darted out and went into the kitchen, smiling.

 

"All right," Andrew said as the movie ended later that afternoon, "quiet time."

 

"God, Andrew," Taylor whined, "we've been quiet all day."

 

"Yeah," John echoed softly. "I'm sick of being stuck inside."

 

Reaching down and ruffling his hair, Mark said, "I know, John. But I just talked to Security and they are saying that the storm is finally moving again. They're thinking we'll be out of this weather by tonight or tomorrow."

 

"Thank God!" Brent said, quickly echoed by Will.

 

"So, since you can see the end of this ---"

 

"Prison sentence?" Jason interrupted helpfully.

 

"Time in hell?" Chris said at the same time.

 

Mark glared at them both and replied, "I was going to say mini-vacation."

 

Clapping his hands, Andrew said, "Come on, Let's go, guys."

 

Reluctantly following his cottagemates to their bedrooms, Jason went into his, flipping on the light.  The damp breeze from the open window hit his face immediately and he frowned. He didn't remember opening the window.  After going over and glancing around to make sure that nothing was wet, he muttered, "Chris," as he slipped off his jeans and draped them over the chair in the corner. As he sat on the bed, he reached over and yanked on the bedside light, accidentally knocking off his book. Reaching down, under the bed, his hand groped for it and hit the plastic bag. "What the- AAAHHHHHH!" he screamed, yanking his hand back, as he felt an intense, razor sharp pain across his fingers. Jerking up his feet, clutching his bleeding hand, Jason screamed, "ANDREW!"

 

Andrew ran into the room. "What happened?" he asked, rushing to the bed.

 

"Don't!" Jason yelled. "There's something under the bed and it bit me!"

 

"Mark!" Andrew yelled, not going any closer to the bed. "Bring me the broom, please!"

 

A moment later the other Top appeared with the dust ban and broom. "What broke?" he asked, looking around and seeing Jason' bleeding hand.

 

"Nothing, but we have a visitor under the bed."

 

"Be careful, Andrew," Jason cried out as the older man advanced toward the bed.

 

"What's going on?" Will asked, trying to peer over Mark's shoulder.

 

Squatting down about a foot from the bed, Andrew swept the broom underneath it. The sound of sharp toenails could be heard on the hardwood floor and then a foot-long lizard slid out, hissing and twitching its tail.

 

"Cool!" Taylor said from the doorway, looking over Will's shoulder.

 

"THIS is why we tell you NOT to keep food in your room," Andrew said, glaring at Jason.

 

"I didn't!"

 

Arching an eyebrow at the almost empty bag of crackers, the Top looked at him.

 

"They're not mine!"

 

"Here, Andy," Mark said, pushing past the Orphans crowded in the doorway, a paper bag in his hand. Holding it open, they worked together to quickly sweep the lizard into the bag and then dumped it out the window.

 

"What happened to your screen, young man?" Andrew said as he closed the window.

 

"Ummm…" Jason stammered.

 

Holding up his hand Andrew stopped him. "Never mind. We're getting you a new one as soon as possible."   

 

“Those aren’t my crackers, I swear!  I hate those fake cheese things,” Jason protested.

 

“A lizard?  Cool!  How big? I didn’t think they’d get this close to the cottages,” Chris said, looking into the room and laughing.

 

“He did it!” Jason yelled, jumping off the bed and stalking toward the laughing Brat.

 

“Prove it!” Chris shot back, not bothering to deny the trick.  “You didn’t see me! It’s no worse than trying to scald me to death in the shower!”

 

“Whoa!” Andrew said, catching Jason around the waist as he jumped toward Chris.

 

“Christopher, go into the office, right now,” Mark ordered coolly, glaring at him.

 

“Why?”

 

“Because I said so.”

 

Locking eyes with his Top for a second, Chris muttered, “Fine” and, turning around, stomped toward the office.

 

“He did it!” Jason cried. “Look at my finger! Look at what he did to me!”

 

“Hush, Jason,” Andrew said, clutching the hand and examining the puncture wounds. “I think you’ll live. Let’s get it washed off and then I want to speak to you also. You’re as much as at fault here as Chris is.”

 

“ME?? I’m the injured party here! He lured an animal into my room to attack me!”

 

Mark clapped his hands together. “Okay, everyone, back to your rooms, please. And remember, this is why we tell you not to keep food in your bedrooms.”

 

Stealing glances at Jason and each other, the rest of the Brats quickly retreated to their bedrooms while Andrew escorted the still protesting Orphan into the bathroom to attend to his wound.

 

When Mark entered the office, Chris was sitting on the sofa, glaring at him. Snapping his fingers, Mark pointed to a corner. “Now. I don’t want to hear it, Christopher. I told you to stop, you were warned to knock it off, you got in trouble yesterday for fighting, and you didn’t pay attention. No." He held up his hand, cutting off the Brat’s protests. “I said I don’t want to hear it. You can plead your case when Andrew and Jason get in here. Until then, I want to see you facing the corner with your mouth closed.”

 

“You can’t prove I did anything!”

 

Mark raised one eyebrow and Looked at him.  “One ….. two …..”

 

“Fine! This is so unfair!” he said, standing up and sighing dramatically, then marched over to the corner and stood there, arms crossed.

 

“Put your hands down.”

 

Sighing again, he let his hands drop down.

 

Mark leaned against the desk, arms folded, and watched him.

 

Five minutes later Andrew escorted Jason into the room and pointed to the couch.  “Have a seat.” 

 

Jason glanced at Chris, still in the corner, and then sat down.

 

“All right, Christopher, have a seat on the couch, please,” Mark said, moving over so the other Top could lean against the desk too.

 

After Chris sat down, as far away from Jason as possible on the small couch, the two Tops exchanged looks. “Personally, I don’t care who did what exactly,” Mark began.

 

“No. That’s not important right now,” Andrew agreed, looking between the two younger men.

 

“I don’t care who moved the shoes or who-”

 

“I didn’t do it!” Chris protested.

 

“I didn’t!” Jason said at the same time.

 

“I said,” Mark said, raising his voice slightly to be heard over their protests, “I don’t care, and neither does Andrew.”

 

“No, I don’t.” Picking up Mark’s lecture, he continued, “What we do care about is the fact that you two have been going at it, despite numerous orders to stop, for three days. You’ve been punished repeatedly and it hasn’t seemed to make you even think twice before pulling another stunt on each other.”

 

“I didn’t do anything!” Jason protested.

 

Holding up his hand, Andrew said calmly, “Jason, that’s not true.  And if you had stopped when we asked you to, then Chris wouldn’t have been reacting.”

 

“And, Chris,” Mark continued, “if you had stopped when we asked you to, then Jason wouldn’t have been reacting.”

 

“He hurt me! I never hurt him!” Jason protested holding up his bandaged fingers.

 

“What about the 3rd degree burns and the broken toe when you almost killed me in the bathroom!” Chris shot back. “What do you call those!”

 

“Broken? You’re not even going to lose the nail!”

 

“Enough!” Andrew told them firmly. “Jason, we’re going back to my sitting room to deal with this.”

 

“If, after we’ve dealt with these latest incidents,” Mark said, “we hear one more exchange between you two, or any more tricks happen, you’re both going to be paddled. Is that understood?  We’re sick of it. You have a problem with each other, you bite your tongue and you come to Andrew or me. Is that understood?”

 

“Yes,” Chris said simply.

 

Looking at his Brat, Andrew repeated, “Is that understood, Jason?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Good. Then let’s go,” Andrew replied calmly, holding out his hand.

 

Slowly standing up, Jason glanced at Chris and opened his mouth as if to say something, then quickly shut it and walked out of the room.

 

“Christopher, let’s go.  We’ll handle this in my sitting room,” Mark said, getting up from the desk.

 

Chris didn’t move as he asked, “Are you going to spank me?”

 

“Yes.”

 

~~~~~~~

 

Chris sobbed as he lay over Mark's knees, trying to get away from the punishing swats the Top laid on his bottom. "Please, Mark. I'm sorry.  I'll never do it again," he cried out, gulping for air between words.

 

"I've heard that song before, young man, haven't I?"

 

"Yes!  But I'm sorry!"

 

Mark stilled his hand, rubbing the younger man's bare back."I've heard that, too, Christopher. We were in this same situation three days ago and I let you off. I'm not going to make that mistake again."

 

Sobbing harder, Chris tried to pull away as Mark laid his hand back on the burning flesh of his bottom.

 

"Do we call people names, Christopher?" Mark asked, raising his hand and delivering three hard swats.

 

"No!  Never!"

 

"Do we bring things out of other people's rooms to get them in trouble or to annoy them?" 

 

"I didn't!" Chris said, crying as more hard swats landed. "I swear!  I didn't touch his shoes or pour the flour on him!"

 

Mark paused, then decided not to press the subject, and continued on to the next crime.  Continuing the spanking, he asked, "Do we plant food in other people's rooms hoping to attract animals?"

 

"Ants!" Chris finally stilled his struggles and simply lay there, sobbing.  "'Ants, that's all that was supposed to come in."

 

Mark swatted three times hard in the center of his bottom. "Does that make a difference, Christopher?"

 

"No," Chris managed to sob out.

 

Raising his hand again, Mark laid another half dozen stinging swats on the already burning flesh and then began the slow and gentle process of calming the younger man down and reconnecting.

 

Chris entered the living room hesitantly, embarrassed, as always, about his first appearance after a spanking. He needn't have worried, though. The other Brats were engrossed in Buffy and barely looked up as he came in. Jason was already laying on his stomach on the floor, eyes on the tv, and Chris hesitantly stretched out beside him, hissing a little at the pain it caused.

 

Without looking away from the screen, Jason nudged his bowl of popcorn over between them.

 

"Thanks," Chris murmured, taking a handful.

 

Mark watched their Brats settle down, then caught Andrew's eye and gestured toward the door. Together they walked out onto the porch, closing the door against the sound of mayhem as Buffy fought yet another vampire. The rain had died down to a light drizzle and even that would be gone by morning.

 

"Thank God," Mark said fervently. "I don't think I could take another day of peaceful cottage time."

 

"You think we finally got through to them?" Andrew asked, leaning against the rail.

 

"I think so.  They seem to be OK with each other now."

~~~~~~~

 

"All right, Chris," Mark said as they arrived at the admin building Sunday afternoon. "You're going to be working for MacGregor, cleaning up from the storm. Do whatever he tells you to do and do it cheerfully, with no backtalk, understand? I'll be back for you at 5:00."

 

"Yes, sir," Chris replied miserably, eyes on the ground. He *hated* doing slave labor. It wasn't so bad in the privacy of the cottage, but out here, where everyone could see him and know that he'd gotten in trouble...

 

"You can do it," Mark said encouragingly, sensing that his Brat was near tears. He lifted Chris's chin, making the young man meet his eyes. " It's all right, babe. I know you feel like you're on display, but no one is going to make any comments or think anything bad, and you're hardly the only Brat out here today. In fact," he continued, gesturing at the other Brats being dropped off, "after three days cooped up in their cottages, I'm surprised every Brat on The Island isn't out here. Now smile for me, ok?"

 

Chris gave a small smile. Mark was right. Looking around, he could see several other reluctant Brats standing with their TTs, and probably getting the same lecture that he was.

 

"You can do it," Mark repeated.

 

"Yeah, I'll be ok," Chris agreed. "You'll be back at 5, though, right?"

 

"On the dot," the TT assured him. "That'll give you time to take a quick shower and change before the movie tonight."

 

Chris watched him walk away and then joined the group of Orphans surrounding the gray-haired gardener, getting their first assignments. Over the course of the afternoon he helped move fallen saplings and broken tree limbs, raked up smaller branches and leaves, and bagged debris. The humidity was still high and by the time he finished the task of cleaning up the mess caused by a kitchen dumpster blowing over in the storm, he was hot, tired, sticky, and thoroughly miserable. Fortunately, his last job was a little easier, removing the flattened ginger flowers from the flowerbed by the main entrance and replacing them with new ones from the greenhouse.

 

"It's not fair!" he muttered resentfully, looking at the long row of plants to be replaced. "Jason was just as much to blame as I am and he's lounging around the cottage while I'm out scorching in the sun. It just isn't fair!"

 

"It never is," another Brat said sympathetically, squatting down beside him.

 

"Oh!" Chris jumped. "I didn't know anyone was close by."

 

"I'm supposed to help you with the flowers," the Brat told him. "But I think we're supposed to be replacing the flattened ones, not mashing more."

 

Chris looked down at the plant he had unwittingly clenched in his fist. "Oh, yeah," he said self-consciously. "Didn't mean to do that."

 

"Tell you what. You take out the old ones and I'll put in the new ones. That'll be faster than both of us taking out and putting in and getting in each other's way."

 

"Ok," Chris agreed. They worked together for a few minutes in companionable silence, then Chris commented, "I haven't seen you around before. Are you a new Orphan?"

 

"No, I'm committed," the other Brat replied. "I'm here with my Top. So what was the heinous crime that got you this job?”

 

"I was telling ghost stories the first night of the storm," Chris said glumly. "What about you?"

 

"I played some practical jokes on another Brat. He was being an ass and I couldn't resist."

 

"I know what you mean. Jason-"

 

"More working, less dawdling and playing around. You only have 20 minutes to finish this row," MacGregor sharply admonished as he came up behind them.

 

"Yes, sir," they chorused, ducking their heads and working industriously until he'd moved on.

 

"Okay, he's gone," Chris reported at last, chancing a quick look over his shoulder. "Where were we?"

 

"Are you the Brat who told the ghost story about Noel the other night?"

 

"Yeah. How'd you know about that?" Chris asked in surprise.

 

"I heard it. Heard about it, I mean. You know how gossip travels around The Island."

 

"Yeah," Chris laughed. "Jason told some friends at lunch and I’m sure the whole Island was laughing about it by dinnertime. I guess I overreacted, though. He just made me so mad."

 

"I don't think so," the other Brat disagreed. "You were trying to share an island legend with him and he was making fun of it and acting like a jerk. He deserved to have a few tricks played on him."

 

"You think so?" Chris asked cautiously, torn between loyalty toward his cottage mate and happiness that someone was finally taking his side.

 

"Yeah, I do. He-"

 

"Chris!" They were interrupted by Mark's call as he crossed the lawn toward them. "It's 5:00. Are you ready to go? We need to get ready for the movie."

 

"Just about," Chris called back, then turned to the other Brat. "I have to go. Thanks for talking while we worked."

 

"Thanks for talking to me, too. I don't get to talk to other Brats that often anymore." He patted the soil carefully around the last plant, then stood and wiped the dirt from his hands. "I'm done, too. My Top should be here any minute."

 

"Ok. I hope I see you around again before you leave."

 

"You probably will," the other Brat assured him. "We're going to be around for a while. We like it here."

 

"Wait!" Chris said as the other man started to walk away. "I don't know your name."

 

"Oh. I thought I said. I'm-"

 

"Noel! It's 5:00. Are you ready to go? We need to get ready for the movie," a tall, dark-haired man called from across the lawn.

 

"Coming, Jim!" Noel called back. He looked back at Chris with a mischievous smile. "See you around, Chris."

 

The End

 

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