Thanks to our betas for helping to get this story in shape so quickly. Thanks also to KY and UK for chatting and confirming that tops and brats are similar all over the world. And as always, to our partners just for being themselves.


Island Story: Ryan and Ben

"Inside, Ben." Garrett, the older guard took his arm and helped him out of the golf cart.

"I still don't understand why we have to do this," Benjamin argued, stopping dead in the middle of the path to the Detention Center. "Why can't you just take me home? You know who I am, you know where I live, it's not like I can leave the fucking Island."

"You know the rules," Martin said as he came around the cart, tucking in his green uniform shirt. "And they apply to you, same as all the rest of the brats. You're not exempt just because you're a Director's Brat."

'Not much longer,' Benjamin thought with an inward sigh. 'Not much longer at all.'

He dragged his feet as much as he could, but the guards were used to recalcitrant brats and he was soon standing inside the Detention Center.

The Center was composed of a large main room with two administrative offices and an 'isolation' room off to one side. The main room had a series of 7 foot partitions, jutting out at 45-degree angles from the back wall and forming a row of individual corners, painted a dull gray. Brats standing in these corners were completely isolated from each other but in plain view of the guard sitting at the desk near the door.

Ben stopped automatically at the guard's desk, scanning the room to see who else was there.

'Oh, shit,' he thought as his eyes fell on the only occupied corner. 'Just what he needed, Jackson observing his humiliation. Could this day possibly get any worse?'

"ID?" The guard sitting at the desk held out his hand without looking up as he expertly scrolled through the computer program, getting back to the main check in screen.

"Um..." Ben shuffled his feet, turning his attention back to the desk.

"No ID?" The guard looked up at the angry young man. "Oh. Hello, Benjamin. No ID again?"

"No, I don't have my fuckin' ID again." God! Wasn't it obvious?

"Watch your language, Benjamin," the man reproved him as he clicked the mouse on another screen. "And didn't Ryan warn you about losing your ID?"

"I didn't LOSE it. It's at home."

"So you deliberately left it? Even though you know you're supposed to wear it whenever you leave the house?"

"Yes, I deliberately LEFT it. I didn't think I'd need it on the mainland!"

"All right. Corner 4. You know the drill," the guard said evenly, making a note in the file. He had been dealing with these brats for almost 3 years and was well aware that calm was the best way to handle their flares of temper. Losing his cool and getting angry or frustrated only made things worse.

"Do you need an escort, Benjamin?" he asked as Ben didn't move.

He looked past Ben to the young man already in the corner, obviously straining to see and hear what was going on. "Jackson, eyes toward the corner. You don't need to know what's going on over here," he said sternly as he saw what had distracted Ben.

"Yeah, Jackson, mind your own fucking business," Ben snarled as he stomped over to his assigned corner.

"We don't need your help, Benjamin, and we are not going to warn you again about your language. One more time and we'll make a note in your pick-up file." The guard picked up the phone and dialed the Director's extension.

~~~~~

A dark-haired man in his late thirties stood on the redwood deck, looking out across the lawn as he absently rubbed the back of his neck, stretching slightly. He had been busy lately and his normal workouts were being shortened or ignored more and more lately. At 6'2 and well muscled, he enjoyed the regular pick up games of basketball or the more solitary pursuit of running; just one more sacrifice that he was being forced to make as work got busier and more hectic. Ryan hated attending these Saturday afternoon gatherings, even though he knew how necessary they were. He'd much rather be at home relaxing with Benjamin, but his job required him to be here, keeping an eye on the 'orphans' as they mingled with the new guests.

Where was Benjamin anyway? He had ordered him to be here at 2 sharp and it was almost 3. He didn't see the beloved dark head anywhere, although he spotted John, Benjamin's closest friend, in the group playing Frisbee on the lawn. If he was here, Ben couldn't be in too much mischief; he was probably at home sulking.

Ryan didn't know what had gotten into Benjamin. It seemed like life was a constant battle lately. Things had been busier than ever the last few weeks; he hadn't had as much time as usual to spend with Ben, and his partner was often distant and moody. They needed some time alone, a vacation away from work and the Island, so he could get to the bottom of the problem, but they were booked solid for the upcoming months, and short-staffed, as well. There was no way he could get away right now. He sipped his iced tea, wondering how long it would be before he could slip away from the party, head back home and maybe salvage what was left of their Saturday.

His experienced eye caught the subtle undercurrent of a fight between two brats brewing near the grill. He started in that direction, but two of the more experienced visiting Tops moved in and it was defused and over before it began. He made a mental note of the pairings and how well they responded to each other. He would see that they were put together in the coming week, and maybe they would have a match.

"Excuse me, sir," Davis, his administrative assistant and most trusted confidant, spoke quietly in his ear. "You have a message. They need you at the Detention Center."

"They need me here, too," Ryan told him, a tired edge slipping into his voice. "Can't you handle it?"

"I'm afraid not, Ryan," Davis replied with a sigh, unhappy at bearing bad news. "Only Tops are allowed to pick up their brats," he said, placing a slight emphasis on the word 'their brats'.

"Benjamin?" Ryan asked as he picked up the emphasis. "Damn it," he swore softly, straightening up and handing his glass over to his assistant. "Inform Emerson, please. And ask Hayes to keep an eye on the orphans until I get back."

"Why don't you plan on not coming back?" Davis suggested, following Ryan off the patio and through the building. "Hayes and I can keep an eye on things here and fill you in tomorrow."

"I'll be back in about 30 minutes." Ryan said stiffly, getting into his cart and heading off.

~~~~~

Benjamin stood silently in his corner, his misery growing more pronounced with each passing moment.

Ryan hadn't answered the phone at home or at the office. Any hope that it was because his partner was out looking for him was dashed when he didn't answer the radio call either. 'Damn it, didn't the man even care that he was missing?' he thought angrily, striking the wall with his fist.

"Benjamin! Hands down!" the guard ordered.

Ben's only consolation was that Jackson had already been picked up by his temporary Top. At least he no longer had that witness to his humiliation.

The door opened and, as he heard Ryan's voice, relief was mingled with apprehension. He was so glad his partner had finally come for him, but things were so rapidly going down hill, with Ryan planning on replacing him, that he wasn't sure if Ryan was coming because he wanted to or because he had to. He resisted the urge to look over his shoulder, knowing that Ryan wouldn't hesitate to reprimand him before the guards, and be angry about the need to do so.

Ryan's soft conversation with the guard seemed to go on forever and he knew that his partner was getting a detailed explanation of where they had found him, hiding behind a stack of crates being loaded onto the supply boat, slinking away before he was thrown away.

He leaned his head against the wall despairingly, knowing how it sounded, knowing how disappointed Ryan was going to be. Why hadn't they just let him go? He fought back tears, desperate to hide the fact that he was upset. He wouldn't give them that satisfaction.

"Stand up straight, Benjamin." Ryan's voice cut through his misery.

He straightened and waited silently while Ryan thanked the guards for taking care of him. /Like he needed them to take care of him,/ he thought. He had managed fine without Ryan for 23 years and he would do it again. If he was going to be tossed aside, then he at least owed it to himself to go away with his head held high. He didn't hear the older man approach until his arm was taken in a firm grip.

"Let's go, little boy," Ryan said. His usually warm brown eyes were cold and clear with disappointment and anger.

Benjamin started to speak as they got into the cart, wanting more than anything to remove that look of disappointment and annoyance from Ryan's eyes, but he was quickly hushed.

"No. Don't say anything," Ryan said, holding up a hand to silence his partner. "Please Ben - not a word until we get home."

"Fine." Benjamin folded his arms across his chest and stared straight ahead until the cart crunched over the gravel of their drive. He started to get out, then looked back at Ryan, who hadn't moved.

"Get undressed and get in your corner. Stay there until I get back," Ryan told him in the same cold voice.

"Aren't you coming in with me?" Benjamin asked in surprise, the hurt evident in his voice.

"No. I have a job to do and responsibilities to take care of. I'll deal with you when I get back."

"It figures," Benjamin said bitterly. "The fucking job always comes first. Your damn responsibilities to this place come before your responsibilities to me - ALWAYS." His voice broke at the end and he quickly swallowed it back, determined to control himself.

"Watch your language."

"Fuck off."

"Go inside, Benjamin," Ryan said wearily. "Don't make things any worse than they are."

"Like that's even remotely possible." Throwing himself out of vehicle, he ran into house, slamming the door behind him

Ryan turned the cart and, in a daze, drove back to party, wondering to himself where it had all gone wrong. He had known Benjamin was unhappy, but enough to run away? To stow away on the supply boat, rather than face Ryan and simply say he wanted to leave? How could he possibly have missed the signs of such desperation? How people could possibly trust him with the orphan brats when he did such a disastrous job of handling his own?

~~~~

Once in the house, Ben slumped against the closed door, praying that Ryan would come inside. That hope was dashed when he heard the gravel crunch again and the sound of the cart disappearing down the road. Anger flared through him and he kicked off one shoe, not caring where it went. The loafer slammed into the wall, leaving a dark smudge. Toeing off the other one, he picked it up and looked at the mark on the wall. Bouncing it lightly in his hand, he brought back his arm and hurled the shoe at the wall. He eyed the result with pride; his second mark was less then an inch away from the other one. Two black marks against the light cream of the hall, perfectly visible, would be sure to attract some attention, Ben thought with satisfaction. His momentary bravado quickly left him and he continued down the hall toward the study. Slipping out of his khakis and polo and laying them over the back of the chair, he stared at the corner of the far wall. It represented so much for him - for both of them - and now it looked like it was all crashing down... and he was powerless to stop it. >P> ~~~~

Ryan stopped in front of the two-story main building. He could hear the music and laughter from the party still going strong. Glancing at his watch, he noted with a grim smile that he had been gone less then 25 minutes. Steeling himself, pasting on his 'professional/calm/in control/no, my life is not falling apart around me' face, he walked through the doors, through the building and back out to his earlier vantage point on the deck. From there he could overlook the entiregarden area, the grill area with its table and drink stands, as well as the area to the left that had been set aside for lawn games. He waved at Davis and Emerson to indicate that he was back before snagging a drink from one of the passing waiters. Settling back in a chair, he began to calm down.

"Hey, man, what the hell are you doing here?"

Ryan looked up into the smiling black face of Barton Hayes, the Director of Temp Tops. "Watch your language, we don't allow that kind of talk around here."

"Oh, yes, sir, Mr. Director, terrible sorry," Hayes said, making a face at his old friend before stealing his drink and taking a long gulp. "Remind me again of why we picked a tropic isle for the place. It's ungodly hot." He paused for a minute and then plunged ahead as only old friends are allowed to do. "I heard the Ben got picked up by the boat patrol. And I repeat - what the hell are you doing here?"

Ryan didn't answer for a long minute. "We need to make sure that Alex, that new brat in Tom's group, gets together with that new guy, ummm, Joseph I think. The one that came in a couple of days ago from Dallas. They've been getting along great and Joe's definitely got the protective thing going on already."

Hayes nodded and handed back the nearly empty glass back to Ryan. "I noticed that already and made a note to fill Tom in about it at Monday's meeting. Now, old man, answer my question."

Ryan smiled into what was left of his drink. This was why Hayes was in charge of the visiting tops. He was a master at getting information out of people who didn't want to talk, without making them feel threatened or defensive, and he taught that very necessary skill to his new tops.

"I had to get away and calm down. I brought him home, told him to plant himself in the corner, and I left."

"Okay."

"So that's what I'm doing here."

"You're just calming down. You're not looking over our shoulders and making sure that we're handling everything exactly the way you would?"

Ryan flushed, the remark uncomfortably close to the truth.

"Go home, Ryan," Hayes said firmly. "Taking care of Ben is your first priority. We may not work the same way as you, but we'll get the job done."

Ryan sighed and reluctantly admitted that Hayes was right. He was calm enough now. He needed to go home and face Ben, find out where he had gone wrong.

~~~~

Back at home, Ryan walked into the office and studied the figure in the corner. Ben was standing at rigid attention, defiance radiating from every pore.

Determined to remain calm, Ryan walked over and leaned against the desk. "Benjamin, come here please. We need to talk."

Ben turned from the corner slowly, giving himself time to school his face into an almost unreadable mask that he prayed would hold up under whatever Ryan had to tell him.

Ryan sighed at the resentful expression; so much for getting this over quickly and painlessly. "Okay, why don't you explain why two of the dock workers found you hiding behind a stack of crates heading for the mainland?"

"I wanted to get away by myself for a while. I wanted to get out here!" Ben snapped angrily.

Ryan shook his head slowly. "Sorry Benjamin,, that doesn't cut it with me. Want to try that again?"

"No! I wanted to get away! I wanted to go to the mainland and away from here!" Ben snapped again, his voice rising in frustration.

Ryan simply sat on the desk, looking at Ben, waiting patiently.

It was that Look that set the younger man off. He hated that look! That calm expression that so clearly stated that Ryan didn't believe anything he was saying and was just waiting until he had enough rope to hang himself.

"You NEVER believe me! You never let me do anything that I want!"

"Excuse me?" Ryan asked calmly.

"Last month! Last month I wanted to go to the mainland and you said no! For no good reason! You just--"

"Benjamin, you wanted to go to a rave," Ryan replied wearily, interrupting his brat's rant. "You KNOW I'm not going to let you attend something like that, especially without supervision."

"SEE! It would have been the same this time! I just wanted to get away by myself, and I knew you would say no." The defiance and stubborn set of the jaw was back and Ben seemed ready for any fight, any argument that Ryan threw at him.

"Ben, love, what is really going on here? I can't believe that this is just about needing to go off alone."

"Nothing! God - you always are second guessing me! I can't do anything without you looking for the ulterior motive!"

"Okay. Fine. You tried to leave The Island without permission. If you had just disappeared, people would have been looking for you - frantically. We wouldn't have known where you were or if you were all right. Do you have any idea how worried I would have been? Or John? Or Philip? You tried to leave, not caring about how that would hurt me or our relationship, and you are not offering a reasonable explanation for your behavior. If you don't have anything further to add..."

Leaning over and opening one of the bottom drawers, Ryan pulled out a rounded wooden paddle. Carrying the paddle over to the straight back chair that sat against the wall, he pulled the chair more toward the center of the room. He sat down and silently motioned for Ben to come to him.

Ben stood there, arms at his side,looking at Ryan for several seconds before slowly making his way to his lover.

"I'm sorry. I didn't try to leave to hurt you. I just needed to get away for awhile," he whispered, coming to stand in front of him.

"I know that, Benjamin, and you aren't being punished for hurting me. If you decide you want to tell me what's really gone on, I'll always be here to listen. But, now, you are going to be punished for attempting to leave The Island for no better reason than because you wanted to."

Ben glanced away, seeming torn and already on the verge of tears.

"Benjamin - now."

He took a deep breath, took his lover's hand and allowed himself to be guided over the older man's knees. Squirming nervously, Ben tried to look back to see what Ryan was doing. A small whimper escaped as his boxers were quickly lowered, leaving him bare. "Ryan, I'm sorry. Please don't."

"I know, Benjamin, and I'm sorry too. This is not how I enjoy spending my Sundays," he said calmly. He laid a heavy hand across Ben's back, stilling the squirming figure. With his other hand, he picked up the paddle and gently touched Ben's butt.

"Ryan! Please! I'm sorry!" Ben cried out.

Ryan's only answer was to bring the paddle back and then crack it down sharply across both exposed checks. The action was repeated twice more before Ben found his voice and cried out again.

"Nooooo! STOP!"

"Benjamin, you know you are not allowed to leave The Island without permission," Ryan lectured calmly, emphasizing his words with hard strokes from the paddle.

"I'm sorry!" Ben cried. "I had to leave! I HAD to!" He began to twist, trying to get out of the way of descending paddle.

"Why?"

"I can't tell you!" he wailed.

Ryan simply tightened his hold on the figure and continued to paddle.

It was that tightening grip that finally broke Ben. Feeling the arm holding him firmly in place, he became resigned to the fact that he was there until Ryan said he could get up. The pleas stopped, and Ben concentrated on the twin tasks of breathing and not throwing up.

Feeling the change in attitude, Ryan delivered five more hard swats to the already hot, red bottom before laying the paddle down on the couch. The once restraining arm went up to Ben's head and gently began to stroke down his back, calming him. His other hand rested gently on the abused bottom. "Shhhhh Ben, it's all right. It's over. Let it out. You're okay." He continued the calming mantra for several minutes while his young lover continued to cry.

It took longer than usual before Ben finally calmed down enough to slide off of Ryan's lap onto his knees. He buried his head into Ryan's leg, then began to cry again, "Please, don't stop loving me. I don't think I could do anything without you here for me. Please."

Ryan quickly bent down and touched Ben's face, turning it up to look at him. "What, little one? I'm not going anywhere. I'll always be here." Ben tried to turn away but Ryan held tight. "No, come here, babe." He made the younger man stand up and then resettled him on his lap on the couch.

Ben immediately turned around and plastered himself to Ryan, wrapping his arms tight around the other man's chest and resting his head just below Ryan's chin.

Ryan leaned down and rested his cheek on Ben's head, listening to him cry. As he was starting to get concerned, Ben began to quiet down. He felt the younger man give a big sigh and lessen his death grip. Rubbing his back, he said softly, "Benjamin, come on, let's go up stairs and you can lie down for a while."

Ben nodded and allowed himself to be stood up and guided upstairs to their bedroom. Not bothering to turn on the lights, not wanting to disturb the cool darkness of the room, Ryan led him over to the bed and allowed him to flop face down, curling up automatically with a pillow.

"You aren't leaving, are you?" Ben asked, his voice still rough with tears.

Bending down and gently pushing back the damp hair, Ryan smiled. "No, let me just get out of these clothes and I'll lie down with you. We've both had a hard day."

Ben nodded and took another deep breath before giving Ryan a smallsmile. "All right."

A few minutes later he laid down behind his partner, spooning up gently behind him. Wrapping an arm around Ben's middle, with the other hand softly stroking his hair, he quietly asked, "How are you doing?"

"Ok."

"All right, why don't you close your eyes and see if you can't fall asleep for a few minutes."

Ben nodded and held on tightly to the hand on his stomach. "You aren't going anywhere, are you?"

"No, little one, I'm not going anywhere, I'm not going to leave you."

Ben stiffened with those words and Ryan immediately regretted what his partner had read into his words.

"Ben, I didn't mean anything with that, other then I'm not going anywhere."

Ben nodded but didn't say anything, not trusting his voice against the fresh waves of tears that seemed to spring up.

"Oh, babe, I swear, we'll work through this. I'm not going anywhere, and we'll talk about it later, when we're both more able to deal with it. Okay? You all right?" Rubbing small circles on Ben's stomach, he continued to murmur small comforting words, feeling the small body under his shake slightly with continuing tears.

"I'm so sorry Rye. I really am. I didn't mean to hurt you. I would never... I'm so sorry." Ben's voice broke off and he gripped the hand on his stomach.

"I know Ben. It's all right."

"You aren't going anywhere, are you?"

"No."

Ben nodded, allowing himself to find comfort in that one simple word said in the tone of voice he recognized so well. It was the one that said that the matter was no longer open for discussion. The answer was 'no' and it was written in stone, whether that was 'no, you can't do that' or 'no, I'm not going anywhere'. He soon fell asleep, holding tightly to Ryan's hand, keeping himself anchored and also insuring that the other man wasn't going to leave

A few hours later, they were back in bed for the night. Ben had napped for about an hour and then they had gotten up, eaten dinner and spent a quiet evening. Ben shadowed Ryan as he made a simple meal of soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, then they ate curled together on the couch, the TV droning on in the background.

"Why do we have to go to bed so early? I'm not sleepy," Ben whined, twisting and turning as he tried to find a comfortable position.

"You're overtired," Ryan explained soothingly. "Lay still and go to sleep, love."

Ryan was slowly relaxing, and was on the verge of sleep when he felt the small movements that meant his partner was crying into his pillow.

"Hey, what's wrong?" he asked gently, pulling the trembling young man onto his chest. "Why the tears?"

"I'm sorry," Ben gulped. "I was just thinking. I didn't mean to wake you up."

"It's all right," Ryan soothed. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"No. I'm sorry. I'll go to sleep now."

"That's a good idea." He pushed the damp hair away from the young man's face. "Things will look better in the morning."

He waited until Ben's breathing evened out and he was sure the young man was asleep before drifting off himself.

Once again, that faint awareness that kept watch over Ben awakened him. "Where are you going, Ben?" he asked the young man slipping out of bed.

"Um... just the bathroom," Ben stammered.

"Come straight back when you're done."

"You don't trust me!" the young man accused tearfully.

"Of course not. I know you," Ryan replied calmly. "And you need to sleep, not watch TV all night."

He waited until Ben was back in bed, curled up snuggly against him, before settling back into sleep.

"All right, that's it," he announced the third time he was awakened.

Going into the bathroom and returning a moment later with a small bottle of pills and a glass of water, Ryan sat down on the edge of the bed. "Ben, here. Let's take some Tylenol, It'll help with the pain a little and relax you enough to get some sleep."

The young man shook his head. "No, I don't want to. You know how they make me feel in the morning. I'll be fine. I'm sorry I'm keeping you awake. I'll do better. I'm sorry." Ben's voice inched higher and seemed closer to tears.

"Shhhhhh, Ben, it's all right, love. That's not what I'm saying, little one. It's just late, you'll feel better if you get some sleep, and this will help."

"No, I'm sorry. I'll just lay here and won't bother you again. I promise."

"Benjamin," Ryan said sharply, "You are not bothering me, but I don't want you making yourself sick. Now - open your mouth and take this."

Taking the pill and downing it with a small sip of water, Ben tried to hand the glass back to his lover.

"No, drink it all, please," Ryan said, wiping a stray tear away from Ben's cheek. "You've been crying all evening. You need to replace some of the fluid you've been losing or you'll be dehydrated."

Twenty minutes later, listening to his lover's deep, quiet breathing, Ryan finally allowed himself to settle into a deep sleep as well.

Ryan signed the last of the papers and looked at his watch. Leaving Ben soundly asleep at home, he had slipped out of bed and come into the office, hoping to get some of this paperwork out of the way.

"What are you doing here?" Hayes asked, looking in the door. "Why aren't you home with Ben?"

"I was just finishing up this paperwork." Ryan was annoyed to hear a defensive tone in his voice. "I have responsibilities here that can't just be ignored and forgotten."

Hayes looked at him for a long minute, "You have responsibilities here that can't be ignored? Is that what you said? Is that what you just told me?"

Ryan glared at him - a look that had been known to stop some of strongest tops. "Yes. Is there a problem with your hearing? If so, you really should head to the mainland and have that looked at."

Hayes continued, totally unaffected by the glare or the icy voice. "When we bring in new tops to The Island, we tell them one thing, that if they choose to accept this lifestyle, their brat must take precedence over everything else in their lives from now on. Not that they can't have other responsibilities, not that they won't have problems or friends or other family that needs their attention sometimes. But - their brat, their *lifepartner*, must always - always - come before all others, above any other problems. And now, when your brat is obviously hurting so badly that he tried to run from his home and from you, you give me the excuse that your other responsibilities are more important than him."

"I don't know what to do with him!" Ryan said in a rare flash of anger, "Instead of talking to me, instead of trying to work out our problems, he ran from me. He was going to leave me - abandon us - without a hint that something was wrong."

"Ryan, don't give me that. I'm not taking his side. I'm not taking yours. But even I've seen that something's been going on with you two for the last month. You've been off, out of sync with each other. You've been too busy with work. Ben's been distant and anxious, unsettled. You both need to stop and think about each other and get back on track. And, I'm sorry to tell you this, Rye, but it's your responsibility to make sure that happens. You need to get you two back on track."

Ryan crossed to the window looking out across the lawn. Breakfast was
over. Temp tops were rounding up their brats and heading them off to their scheduled classes and activities. The visiting tops were wandering around with small maps in their hands, trying to find their classes or seminars.

"I wouldn't put up with this from any of them," he said softly. "I can't believe I let us get so far off track. I'm not better then these new ones coming in. I'm worse, in fact." He sighed and turned away from the window.

"Worse because I've committed to Ben. I've agreed to be responsible for him and I've let him down."

"Ryan, that doesn't make you worse. That makes you human. You're leagues above these guys. You knew that you were having problems. You know what you have to do to fix it and you're strong enough to do exactly that. You just needed a kick in the butt to get you going."

Ryan laughed ruefully. "Consider my butt kicked. I'm going home to talk to Ben." He hesitated. "I hate to put more work on your shoulders when we're already short-staffed, but I think I need to take a few days off."

You don't need to apologize about it," Hayes told him. "Let's schedule a director's meeting to fill everyone in on the schedule. Then you can take all the time you need."

~~~~

Ben stirred and opened his eyes, groggily aware of Ryan moving around the room.

"Morning, sleepyhead," Ryan teased gently, coming to sit on the edge of the bed. "You hungry?"

"No." Ben snuggled into the hand that was caressing him. "What'cha doin'?"

"Packing. We're going away for a while."

"I'm going away??" Ben sat upright, heedless of the pain it caused. "Don't send me away, Rye! Please? I'm sorry I tried to leave without talking to you! Please don't send me away!"

"Whoa!" Ryan sat on the bed and pulled the young man onto his lap. "We're going away, not just you. We are. Together."

"We are?" Ben smiled tentatively. "Just the two of us? When are we going? Where?"

"This afternoon. I have a board meeting to go to, then we'll leave."

Ben's hazel eyes darkened and he pushed himself off Ryan's lap. "That means we aren't going then. They'll have some kind of emergency only you can take care of, and I'll get shoved in the background again."

"Oh, babe." Ryan pulled him back onto his lap. "Is that the way it seems to you?"

Ben nodded mutely, his head on Ryan's shoulder, his arms around his back.

"I'm so sorry. I promise that we'll be out of here no later than 4." Ryan solemnly raised his hand as if swearing an oath.

Ben smiled. "Where are we going? To the mainland?"

"No, I thought we'd take one of the boats over to Coconut Island. We can anchor in the cove there and be away from everyone. You like that beach, don't you?"

"Uh-huh," Ben agreed. "How long will we be gone?"

"At least a few days. Maybe a week," Ryan promised. "Now why don't you get a shower while I make you some breakfast? Then you can help me finish packing."

"I'm not hungry. I'll start packing while you eat."

"I've already eaten," Ryan said patiently, "and if you don't eat, you're not going to have any energy. If you don't have any energy to help, we won't be able to leave on time."

"All *right*!" Ben groused. Why did the man have to be so logical all the time?

He got out of bed and started to follow Ryan into the kitchen, clad only in his boxers.

"Put a robe on, Ben," Ryan directed, ignoring the exaggerated sigh as the young man complied.

"Oops, sorry," Ben apologized as he hurried back into the room and bumped into the refrigerator door Ryan had open. "I was tying my robe and didn't see you."

"It's all right, Ben," Ryan said soothingly, "I only dropped four eggs.

There are still enough for breakfast."

"Oops, sorry," the young man repeated a moment later as he pulled his chair out into Ryan's path.

"It's all right, Ben," Ryan repeated as the young man looked ready to burst into tears, "there's more orange juice in the freezer. Just sit at the counter and stay out of my way, all right?" he ordered, pushing his partner in the direction of one of the chairs and dropping a kiss on his forehead to take the sting from his words.

He mopped up the puddle of orange juice and got the bacon out of the refrigerator.

"Don't we have any sausage?" Ben asked plaintively. "And I don't want scrambled eggs, I want poached."

"This was the last of the eggs," Ryan said, as he looked at the golden mass he had just started beating.

"I'm sorry! I didn't mean to make you drop them! Just forget it, I'm not hungry anyway."

He slid blindly off the stool and started toward the door.

"It's all right, Ben." Ryan held onto his patience by a thread. He knew that many brats became extremely emotional and sensitive after discipline, and that it wasn't personal, but it still wasn't easy to deal with. /Hmmmm/ he thought to himself, /that might be a good seminar for the fall./ Then out loud, he said, "Why don't you go take a shower, all right?" He gently took his younger partner by the shoulders and steered him into the small bathroom off the kitchen. "Making breakfast will go a lot faster if you stop trying to help, and it will be one less thing to take care of after breakfast."

Ben pouted a moment, then complied.

"Leave the door open?" Ben asked as he slipped off his clothes and stepped under the warm spray that Ryan started for him. "And talk to me?"

Ryan rolled his eyes. "Yes, I'll leave the door open, and I'll talk to you."

Walking back into the kitchen to quickly prepare breakfast, or actually

brunch, he thought, noticing how late in the morning it was, he filled the silence with an inane story about a prank he and Hayes had played on their parents when they were kids. He knew it didn't really matter what he talked about, Ben just needed to hear his voice and know he was

nearby.

~~~~~

At 4:15 that afternoon, they stepped onto the Minnow, the fully provisioned 25-foot sailboat owned by the Island. This boat was used almost exclusively by the staff wanting a small vacation or time away. If a larger group was going, there was a 45-foot sailboat, but it required a two-person crew.

Not bad, Ryan thought as he tossed their small bag onto a deck chair, considering his partner's state of mind all day. Packing had been relatively simple, mainly because he had laid almost everything out before Ben had awakened. Ben's help had mainly consisted of following him around, stepping on his heels and arguing about everything he had packed.

"*Don't* sing," he ordered as he rapidly went through the pre-sail checklist in his mind, making sure the sails were unwrapped properly and the ropes were coiled and not knotted anywhere, along with running through a supply list.

"Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale-" Ben stopped singing and pouted instead. "You don't want me to sing?"

"No," Ryan said firmly. "I don't know why we ever let you brats name this boat the Minnow. I don't even know why you wanted to."

"It's the only song, er, name we could agree on," Ben said mischievously. He sat down, then rose abruptly to pace the deck "Where are we going?"

"Over to Coconut Island, but you have to cast off the lines first," Ryan said, indicating the line still firmly wrapped around the dock.

"Oh!" Ben said, hurrying over to untie the line and cast it off.

"Thank you," Ryan laughed as he cranked the motor, using it to pull out of the small harbor. "I thought we'd anchor in the cove there and set
up camp on the beach. How does that sound to you?"

"Cool." He wandered over to the rail, and leaned against the side, enjoying the feel of the salt spray on his face.

As soon as they were clear of the bay, Ryan cut the motor and unfurrowed the sails, smiling with satisfaction as they caught and filled with wind. /The motor might be faster sometimes, but there was nothing like the sound and movement,/ he thought. He looked up at the bow of the boat and smiled as he looked at Ben. The younger man had his head back with a small smile on his face, the sun on his skin making him almost glow.

Coming up behind him and kissing the back of his neck, "Sunscreen," he ordered gently, wrapping his arms around the smaller man, kissing him again, this time on the shoulder.

"It's late afternoon," Ben protested, turning his head and kissing the strong arms now wrapped around him. "The sun isn't high enough to burn."

"We're on the water. Use sunscreen," Ryan growled lovingly, releasing his partner.

"All right," Ben agreed, suddenly docile.

Ryan looked at him suspiciously, wondering what his brat was up to.

"Oh no," he said as Ben stripped off his shirt, then unbuttoned his shorts.

"Come on," Ben coaxed. "Nobody's going to see us. And if you're worriedabout me burning, you can come rub lotion on my butt."

"Tomorrow," Ryan promised. "But I'm not falling for that trick today. I didn't go to all that trouble making your butt sore to soothe it with lotion now."

"Damn," Ben said ruefully as he rebuttoned his shorts. "You could let me win once in awhile.

"Don't swear and don't pout, little one." Ryan said with a smile.

In one of his mercurial mood changes, Ben suddenly turned serious. "Ryan,
I'm sorry I-"

"No," Ryan held up his hand. "I don't want to get into it right now, babe." He put his arm around the younger man's shoulders. "We'll talk about it. We're going to have a *long* talk about it. But not tonight. Tonight I want you to relax and enjoy the trip. We are fine. I love you, you love me and that's all we need to know right now."

When Ben didn't say anything, Ryan continued softly, "Trust me love, let me take care of you, love you, and we'll be fine.okay?"

Ben took a deep breath and then relaxed into his lover's arms, hugging him back, "Ok. I trust you."

They stayed locked in a tight embrace for several minutes before Ryan reluctantly released him. "Charlie made soup and sandwiches for us. Why

don't you go heat the soup while I make sure we are still on course and

heading in the right direction. The good thing about this trip is that the winds go in the right direction and there's nothing to hit."

"I'm not--"

"Hungry," Ryan finished the sentence. "But you're going to eat anyway. Now go get started on the soup."

~~~~

Ben woke slowly, feeling more relaxed than he had in days. With only the sunlight from the porthole illuminating the room, it was hard to judge the time, but he guessed that it must be mid-morning. He dimly remembered falling asleep wrapped in a blanket curled up with Ryan, and then being coaxed down to the small cabin and into the bunk. From the gentle rocking of the boat they must be anchored in the cove. He wondered why Ryan hadn't called him to get up yet. Usually the man had him moving at the crack of dawn.

"Ryan?" he called tentatively as he untangled himself from the sheets and rolled from the bunk, pulling on his shorts as he left the cabin. "Ryan?"

There was no answer and he hurried up the short staircase to the deck. "Ryan, where are you?"

It was immediately clear that Ryan was not on the deck, either, and panic welled as visions of the man falling overboard while he slept filled his mind. Nonsense, he told himself firmly. Probably Ryan had just gone for a swim, he rushed to the side of the boat, searching the water anxiously for the dark head.

"Ben?" Ryan spoke from behind him. "What's wrong, love?"

"Ryan," Ben gasped as he turned toward the older man climbing aboard the boat. "You're all right!"

"Of course I'm all right," Ryan said, puzzled. "Why wouldn't I be?"

"You weren't here when I woke up," Ben said sheepishly. "I didn't know where you went."

"I was setting things up on the beach. You were sleeping so soundly I didn't want to wake you." Ryan explained, drawing the younger man into his arms. "Come see."

He climbed back into the dinghy anchored alongside the boat, and Ben followed willingly.

"I always forget how beautiful it is here," he said sincerely as he caught his first glimpse of the beach.

Ryan had set up the bamboo framework they kept stored on the island and covered it with palm fronds, providing shelter from both the hot summer sun and the tropical showers that materialized with the heat of the afternoon. Under the lean-to, he had spread an inviting beach blanket with a wicker picnic basket and insulated cooler nearby. Two beach chairs sat near a partially completed fire ring.

"There are bagels and fresh fruit in the basket. Sit down and eat your breakfast, then you gather some driftwood while I finish the ring," Ryan directed as he beached the small dinghy.

"After that we'll go fishing for our dinner."

"Do you ever think about anything but food?" Ben grumbled playfully.

"Oh yeah," Ryan breathed, caressing his lover's back as he pulled him close for a deep, mind-numbing kiss. "That's what the blanket is for."

"OH, God, Ryan!" Ben moaned, his fingers digging into the blanket.

"You like this?" a voice asked mischievously.

The resulting laughter sent waves of pleasure and excitement through the younger man, causing him to groan again.

Ryan looked up from his task and smiled. Ben was bathed in a light sheen of sweat and his eyes were closed tightly. Lowering his head again, the older man started kissing his lover's inside thighs, ignoring the hard erection and balls that had already received so much attention from him.

"Rye, I swear," Ben gasped, "please, just finish me off now or kill me. I don't think I can take much more."

Laughing again, enjoying seeing his normally talkative lover reduced to such a mess, Ryan opened his mouth and took the majority of Ben into his mouth, humming softly and twirling his tongue around it slightly. He was rewarded by feeling Ben come in his mouth with a loud cry. Moments later, Ryan released his spent and sated lover and crawled up to lay next to him on the blanket.

"Mmmmm Rye," Ben murmured, his voice heavy, "that was unreal. Too wonderful to be real." He rolled over onto his side, and sighed as Ryan spooned up behind him.

"Trust me, love, it was very real, and very wonderful for me too." The other man said, absently running a hand down the bare hip in front of him. The only reply to his comment was a soft snore.

Twenty minutes later, Ben woke up, feeling very rested and very loved.

Ryan had rolled over and was laying on his back, very relaxed, very asleep, and very bare. Enjoying a sight that he wasn't blessed with often, Ben allowed himself to study his lover, unhurried. Ryan looked younger, and more vulnerable, when he was asleep. The Island had given him a healthy tan and the frequent jogs and swims that they all engaged in had toned and tightened his muscles. Only the gray at his temples and slight wrinkles around his eyes betrayed his age. /Did I cause that?/ Ben wondered repentently. /Do I worry him that much?/

"See something you like, love?" a voice asked, startling Ben out of his musing.

"Actually," Ben said with a smile, looking at Ryan's lax cock, "I see something that I really love, but it looks like it needs some attention." With that, he kissed Ryan quickly on the lips before moving and focusing his attentions further down his partner's body, returning the earlier favor in kind.

~~~~

"Benjamin, I think we've put this off long enough," Ryan said to the young man snuggled on his lap. "The surf is wonderful, the stars are amazing, the food was great. But, we need to talk about what happened on Saturday."

Ben tried to push himself free. "I'm tired. I think I want to go to bed now. Maybe we can talk tomorrow."

"No, I think we've put this off long enough." Ryan tightened his grip, refusing to let the young man go.

Ben quit struggling but refused to speak.

"Benjamin," Ryan repeated, with a slight squeeze, "talk to me, little one."

"What do you want me to say? I'm sorry. I was wrong. I won't do it again," he spoke quietly, his voice rough with tears. "Can't we just drop it? Enjoy the time we have left?"

"Ben, we have plenty of time left, I don't have to be back until next weekend, that gives us another five days here if we want it."

"And then what?" Ben's tone was bitter now. "You go back to work and your search for the perfect brat?"

Ryan was silent for a moment, out of pure astonishment. "Excuse me? When have I looked for the perfect brat? They don't have to be perfect, just a good match for the tops. You know that Ben. Where is this coming from?"

"Damn it, don't pretend with me! I'm not a child. I know what you're doing!" Once again he tried to twist away.

"Stop, Ben. I'm not letting you go. Now, tell me what I'm doing, little boy. I have no idea what you are talking about." As the younger man continued to twist, swearing as arms continued to hold him tight, Ryan kept up his monologue, "Calm down Benjamin and talk to me. You aren't going anywhere until you explain to me what you are talking about. And don't swear at me!" The stern voice was accompanied by an admonishing swat.

Finally, realizing he wasn't going to get away, Ben fell silent, relaxing back against his partner. "You know what I'm talking about." He stared out at the dark water. "I know why you spend so much time at work, why I'm always shut out of what you're doing. I know that I'm not perfect. I suck at relationships, and I disappoint you all the time. You need someone better, someone who sets a good example for the orphans. Why couldn't you have just let me go without all this pretending first?"

The words poured out now, as if a dam had broken. "I only have two friends, and they're busy most of the time. Philip loves being a househusband, and John would live in his glass studio if Hayes would let him. I HATE taking care of the house and I don't have a talented bone in my body. The only thing I know how to do is tend bar, and the Island has all the bartenders it needs already. All I manage to do is stir things up and get in trouble."

"Surely there is someone among the orphans that you could--" Ryan began softly.

"The orphans all hate me," Ben interrupted bitterly. "They watch me all the time, waiting for me to screw up, to prove that I'm no better than they are. Like I actually think that in the first place. You need someone better, someone who does something with his life, who sets a good example for the orphans. I know that you've been looking for him, and that when you find him, I'm gone. Why couldn't you have just let me go without all this pretending first? Without making me wait to see my replacement be picked by you?"

"Let you go?" Ryan was stunned. "I don't want to let you go, Ben. You don't disappoint me all the time. I love you. I love our relationship. I couldn't find someone better, I've never even thought about looking." He sat in silence for a moment, trying to think of the right words. "I am so sorry if you thought I've been spending time at working looking for your replacement. I had no idea."

"Yeah, right," Ben replied skeptically. "If I'm so important to you, then why don't you want to spend time with me anymore? The only time I ever see you anymore is when I'm in trouble. And even then I get dumped as soon as you get a call from another brat."

"We spend time together. We eat dinner together almost every night. We have the time in the evening too, before bed," Ryan said defensively.

"Yeah, right," Ben repeated. "Try two or three times a week. And the evenings, you always have your radio on, ready to respond to any little

emergency that comes up or just checking on your other brats, going over their files, double-checking everything, making sure everything is perfect and just right. You hate imperfections and mistakes and that's all I am. And look at Saturday! You couldn't even stay with me. You just picked me up and dumped me, so you could rush back to your party and your precious orphans."

Ryan hugged the younger man tightly. "I am so sorry, love. I had no idea. I had to get back to work on Saturday and I was only gone from you for 15 minutes. I have responsibilities, a lot of people are counting on me to help them."

"You didn't even miss me." Ben's voice was so quiet and sad that Ryan almost missed what he was saying. "If they hadn't found me, I would have been gone, and you wouldn't even have known I wasn't at the party."

"I noticed you weren't there. I did. I saw John, but I didn't know where you were. I was wishing that I was home with you right before I got the call." He softly kissed Ben's hair. "I miss you every time we are apart, love."

"It doesn't seem like it," Ben sniffled.

"I do, though, and I'm sorry if I haven't been doing a good job of letting you know that."

"And you don't want to replace me?" Ben sniffled again. "I know that I screw up all the time. I've never managed to stay in a relationship this long before. I always screw up and I always get dumped. I guess I just wanted to walk away first this time."

"If you walk away, you can count on me finding you and dealing with it," Ryan said in a mock stern voice, then turned serious. "Benjamin, I swear to you, I give you my word, I don't want to replace you. I can't imagine my life without you. And you don't screw up all the time." He stroked the younger man's arm, then kissed his head again. "Just enough to remind me you're a brat and keep life interesting," he added with a smile.

"I love you. More than I've ever loved anyone before. It's scary sometimes how much." Ben twisted around to kiss him. "And I want this to work. I really do."

"I love you too, and we'll make it work, my love. I promise you."

~~~~

Watching his lover dive headfirst into the small lake, ignoring his shout not to, Ryan couldn't help but smile They had been here three days and while they still had a few things to talk through, the early tension and sadness that he sensed around Ben was gone. "Be careful, Benjamin!" he called out again. "We only have a small first aid kit on the boat and I really don't want to put it to that much of a test."

Ben flashed a wide smile at the other man. "Come on in, old man! The water's great!" He gave a loud laugh and splashed a large arch of water in the direction of the rock where Ryan sat.

"Old man? Who are you calling 'old' brat?"

Ben laughed again and swam slightly closer. "I don't know but I only see one person around here who isn't having fun in the water. Growing up in Jersey, only the old people sat around in the sun. Something to do with it helping their bones or joints or something."

Ryan gave a loud snort. "Benjamin, young man, you grew up in Topeka, Kansas, and I know for a fact that the first time you saw the ocean was when you came here."

The other man stuck out his tongue and moved even closer, treading water lazily. "Yeah, but I remember seeing a movie about old people sitting on the shore--"

The rest of his story was cut off by a short yelp and a loud splash of water as Ryan seem to spring from a casual, relaxed position to a powerful dive in the blink of an eye.

In another blink, the younger man found himself captured by two strong arms that held him tight while a teasing mouth blew raspberries on his exposed neck.

The combination of stimuli on one of his main ticklish spots and the feel of Ryan pressed firmly behind him sent a powerful and exciting message straight to his cock.

Laughing, they both continued to struggle in the water; Ben trying to get free and splashing water at his lover at every opportunity and Ryan continuing to tickle and steal kisses anytime a body part came near enough to be captured.

Several minutes later, a truce of sorts was called as both warriors seemed more interested in making love instead of war.

Pulling away reluctantly, Ryan said softly, taking Ben by the hand, "Come on, I know the perfect place to continue this discussion of who is old."

Pulling his lover along, they turned into a small bend of the lake. A small series of waterfalls threw rainbows into the air above the slightly churning water. "Hayes was telling me about this spot," Ryan explained leading the way toward the far left waterfall, "he said was it was great."

Reaching the area, Ben could now see that this waterfall was gentler then the other and had formed out a perfectly smooth seat and sloping backrest that the water ran down.

"Come on, love, I want to be all the way inside you, as deep as possible. I want to see you enjoying me being as deep as possible in you," Ryan whispered, kissing Ben teasingly along his chest and nipples.

"Oh, God, Ryan," Ben groaned, "I want you inside of me, too." He reached down and lifted Ryan's head up from where the other man was kissing and lightly biting his nipples, and leaned in for a deep kiss.

When they broke apart, Ryan gave that wolfish smile that always sent waves of excitement through Ben's body. "You want to try this spot out?"

Ben nodded, too caught up in the moment to really form a coherent sentence.

Ryan slowly pushed them back until Ben bumped into the soft slope of the rock. "Lay back for me, love," Ryan softly ordered, kissing him again. "Hayes said they stashed a tin box with lube in these rocks last time they were here." Ryan reluctantly broke away and moved to a small pile of rocks, half submerged in the water.

While Ryan was off, slightly cursing as he looked for the promised box, Ben hopped up on the ledge. It was wider then it looked earlier, with the part closest to the open pond lower, then it rose up to a slight hill before dipping back down, then starting up a gentle slope to the top of the waterfall.

Lying back, his butt resting on the edge of small hill, he realized it was as if some water god had built in a stone pillow, putting him at the right angle to make love. Even laying flat, his head was out of the water, and the movement of the waterfall created a wonderful sensation along his skin and across his already sensitive genitals. Reaching down with a lazy hand, he slowly stroked himself hard again, enjoying the feel of the warm water and the different sensations it created.

"Hey," Ryan said with a smile, "don't go finishing anything without me, love." He held up the box containing a tube of waterproof lube. "I think this might make things go a little easier for us."

"Oh, God Rye, I don't think I'd care at this point," Ben said. "I just need you in me, on me, with me, whatever, NOW." Sitting up, he held out a hand to his lover. "Come on, old man, show me what you've got."

Ryan smiled, and, placing the tube on a small rock near them, he took the offered hand and was quickly pulled down on his smaller lover. Their hands roamed freely over each other's bodies, exploring territory that each knew so well but also never seemed to tire of, as they kissed deeply.

Ryan pulled back slightly and reached for the lube. "Ready, love?" he asked.

At Ben's nod, he squirted a generous amount onto this hand and then quickly applied it to himself, moving down slightly and positioning himself in front of his partner as Ben spread his legs apart, opening himself to his lover.

Raising his legs, Ben wrapped them around Ryan's waist as the other man bent down and positioned himself over the dark rosebud opening.

In one firm, steady push, the warmth and the texture that he knew so well, completely surrounded Ryan. Leaning in deeper for a kiss, he allowed Ben to adjust to the fullness and slight discomfort that always came in the first few moments after penetration . After a minute, Ben began to respond more passionately to the kiss and squeeze his internal muscles, signaling to Ryan that he was ready.

Pulling out several inches, Ryan began the steady and familiar rhythm that they both knew so well.

"Oh, God," Ben groaned as Ryan's mouth attached itself first to his left nipple, bringing it to a hard nub before turning his attention to the other one. The dual sensations of Ryan sliding in and out of him and his lover's mouth were quickly sending him over the edge. Reaching down, he grasped his own hard cock and quickly began to finish himself off. His other hand was gripping Ryan's arm, grounding himself to his lover. He felt Ryan's balls tighten moments before his lover came with a groan. Ben came seconds later, the evidence of their pleasure quickly disappearing in the swirling water.

"Ryan," Ben said several minutes later after they had both caught their breath, "tell Hayes he's right, this is a perfect spot."

A soft laugh bubbled out of the head that was resting on his chest. "Sure love, let me just come back to Earth first, okay?"

~~~~

Ben looked at the clock for the third time in ten minutes, then sighed and turned the oven down. He stalked into the dining room and blew out the candles on the table. /DAMN IT!/

It had been one month since their talk on Coconut Island, a month in which both of them had tried and both of them had compromised. Ryan had made it home in time for dinner at least four nights every week, being true to his word and leaving the files in his briefcase and the radio turned off. They spent those evenings doing, as Ben called it, 'stupid couple stuff'. Usually watching TV, playing games, just sitting around reading and enjoying each other's company; nothing that exciting over all, but surprisingly good and comfortable feeling.

In return, Ben had made an attempt to get to know a few of the orphans better, eating in the dining room with them at least one of the other nights. That left only one or two nights that he ate alone in front of the TV.

Ryan was trying, Ben admitted to himself. He made that sure there was time alone with Ben every day, and that he took off at least one day a week-

a day that the Island was forced to survive without him. He was loving, reassuring, and sexually things had never been better. If only Ben didn't feel so awkward and useless the rest of the time.

Spending more time with the orphans helped; he didn't feel quite so much like they were just waiting for him to fail. Except for Jackson, of course. He was never going to get along with Jackson. The problem was, the orphans had a regimented schedule, and he couldn't spend all of his time with them. The other resident brats were busy, as well. It seemed like everyone had responsibilities but him. He still didn't fit in.

He tried half-heartedly to quell the rising pity, knowing that it didn't help, and wanting the approval Ryan would show if he came home to a calm adult instead of a spoiled child. He heard the crunch of gravel that meant Ryan was home and quickly relit the candles on the table, then hurried to meet his partner at the door.

"Hi, Honey! I'm home!" Ryan laughed as he came in and dropped his briefcase before kissing Ben on the cheek. "Am I in the doghouse for getting home so late?"

"Maybe a little," Ben admitted as he held his face up for a better kiss. "Bad day?"

"Long day, but not really bad." He kicked off his shoes and took off his jacket, hanging it over the back of the chair. "We got two more applications from Tops that needed to be looked at, and I had to stay late for a conference call. How was your day?"

"All right. I visited the orphans, cleaned the house, watched a talk show, went for a walk. John has a new project going," Ben replied, trying his best not to sound whiny.

"That's nice. Did you have a good time?" Ryan flipped through the mail. "What's for dinner? I forgot my lunch and didn't want to take time to come home. What's John up to?"

"I think I need some high heels and pearls for vacuuming," Ben tried to laugh. "Dinner is a casserole, which is probably still edible, and I know you forgot your lunch. I dropped it off. Didn't Davis tell you it was there?"

"No love, I'm sorry, he didn't. I wish you had stopped in and eaten with me." He pulled Ben into a hug. "What's wrong? What's with the crack about heels and pearls? You know I love you just as you are," he said with a smile.

"I'm sorry. I just feel like June Cleaver sometimes. Come on, let's eat." He led Ryan into the dining room.

"Wow, Ben." Ryan paused in the doorway. "Love, this is wonderful. What's the special occasion?"

"It's been a month since our talk," Ben said shyly. "I thought we ought to celebrate."

"Yeah, it has and I think it's going great," Ryan said with another quick kiss. "Don't you?"

"Yeah," Ben replied unenthusiastically. "So, why were you so late?

Ryan sighed, and, taking the spoon from Ben's hand, sat down on one
of the chairs and pulled the younger man down onto his lap. "What's wrong Ben? I thought we agreed to talk to each other and not just blow off what we are feeling. I was late because I got caught up talking to Bob in Chicago and left as soon as I saw the time. Now, your turn; tell me what's wrong."

"I feel useless," Ben reluctantly admitted. "I'm not a natural house husband, like Philip. I don't have a career, like John does. I guess I'm not much good for anything."

"You know what I was talking to Bob about? I had to talk to him because the Board met today and we needed his vote."

"What? Let me serve while you talk, Ryan. You're hungry," Ben said, trying to pull way, suddenly embarrassed by his openness.

"Stop. We are talking and I am not wasting away to nothing here. We're creating a new position on the staff for a liaison position. Someone that can meet with the brats, someone who can talk to the tops and keep the two groups informed on what's going on with the other." He motioned Ben off his lap and then stood up, walking into the hall, opening his briefcase, and pulling out an envelope. "Here, why don't you read the job description, see what you think, and tell me if you think we should change anything." Walking back into the dining room, he continued, "You read. I'll serve dinner."

"Works with the new brats at orientation, council brats if they're having trouble adjusting or fitting in, liaisons with the staff and temporary tops. Sits on the Board to serve as another representative for the brats," Ben read out loud. "This sounds good. I think it's something you really need now that you're getting bigger, somebody to represent the brats' interests. I could do this," he added under his breath.

"You think you could?"

"Yeah, I do. I'm getting to know the orphans better, and I'm a brat so they'll all talk to me and I can see their point of view. I was one of them a year ago," Ben said with a laugh, before continuing, "And since I'm a resident, I know all the temp tops and staff, and they'd listen to me if I told them there's a problem. And I know everyone on the Board. I could be like a bridge between the groups." He went from excited enthusiasm to dejection in the next breath. "But you probably want someone with a degree, don't you? An expert, not just a brat who thinks he might know what he's doing."

"I was hoping you would say that." Ryan smiled. "We want to offer you the position. We don't think a degree is necessary, but you'll have one in another year or so anyway."

"And by 'we' you really mean 'you' and you created this position just to give me something to do. You don't think I can find something to do on my own." His hurt and annoyance was clear in his voice.

"No, that's not what I mean. Yes, I threw your name in the ring, but we have been talking about creating this position for about 2 months now. The thought of doing a job search and the additional work that goes along with that made us keep putting it off. When it was brought up again at this morning's meeting, it just hit me. I threw it out and everyone jumped on it. They're all hoping you'll accept, or a least be interested."

"You mean it?" Ben asked excitedly. "They really like the idea of me doing this? You really think I could do it?"

"Does this mean you're interested?" Ryan laughed. "And yes, love, we all think you could do a wonderful job."

"YES!" Ben shouted, hugging him enthusiastically and plastering his face with kisses.

In the back of his mind, an impish voice was crowing, "Just wait until Jackson hears about THIS!"

1