TI: Zach: The First Step

 

Pairings: None

Categories: Contemporary

Implements Used: None

Type: Pre-slash

Series: The Island Series

 

"A journey of a 1000 miles begins with the first step." 

 

Thanks to Melanie for her usual excellent job.  Sorry about the ok's (AJ's fault) and the commas (Dash's fault), Ms. M. 

 

Dedicated, as always, for R, T and M.

 

 

Zach: The First Step

 

The front door of the house opened slowly and Zach, weighed down with his instrument case, duffel bag, and briefcase entered the living room, swearing softly as he tried to maneuver everything through the doorway. The flight had been long and crowded, with an unhappy baby screaming most of the last leg, and a late winter storm had snarled traffic and made the trip home from the airport a nightmare. He was beyond tired and wanted only to be held and petted for a while, assured that the joy he found in his career was worth the days like this. "Lane, I'm home," he called, wondering where his partner was. Surely he hadn't gone out in this weather? Dropping everything by the door except the violin case, which he laid gently on the sofa, he stripped off his coat and draped it over a chair before continuing further into the house. "Lane? Where are you?" In the kitchen, lying on the stove where he wouldn't miss it, lay a note pad. Walking over to it, he picked it up and read the few short lines.

 

'I told you that if you left, I wouldn't be here when you got home. I'm sorry it's ended this way but I can't do this relationship anymore. We've moved apart and you have no interest in getting back in step. My love, Lane.'

 

Reading the note again, he sank slowly down the side of the cabinet to the floor replaying that last scene in his mind. He had known that Lane wasn't happy with him going to London at the last minute, but Lane was never happy with him anymore. And when the older man had quietly announced that if he got on the plane their relationship was over, he thought it was yet another bluff. Lane wouldn't - couldn't - leave him like that. But he had. He was gone, and Zach was alone. As the shadows deepened and the cold sleet hissed against the window, Zach wept, long, lonely, silent tears.

 

~~~~~~

 

"All right, everyone, let's break for lunch. Be back here in about ninety minutes," the chamber group's conductor said, tapping his small baton on the music stand.

 

Glancing at Zach out of the corners of their eyes, the group quickly and silently left the room.

 

"Zach, can I talk to you for a minute?" Simon, Zach's agent asked from where he had been listening off-stage.

 

Zach slowly put his violin away into its case, allowing everyone else to file out before looking up and meeting the man's eyes.

 

After making sure they were alone, the agent walked over, turning a chair around so that he could rest his arms on the back, then sat down. "I know you're a perfectionist, Zach," he began, "It's what makes you good, and normally what keeps you in demand. But you're a little out of line here, don't you think?"

 

"They just aren't getting it," Zach protested bitterly, his voice rising in frustration. "How long have they been practicing this piece, and they *still* couldn't get it right!"

 

"I'd say that's the conductor's call, not yours, Zach," Simon admonished. "And it's his place to stop them and tell them to do it over, not yours."

 

"But he isn't doing it, is he? God, I don't know why I put up with this sometimes!"

 

"And they're beginning to wonder why they put up with you," Simon told him bluntly. Taking a deep breath, he continued, "It's not just today, Zach. You've been getting steadily more irritable and more unreasonable for the last four months. What's going on?"

 

"I don't know," he replied shortly, attempting a careless shrug. "Things are just off. I just don't have the patience to deal with this anymore."

 

"Still missing Lane?"

 

"I don't know."

 

"When do you think you might get your patience back?"

 

"I don't know."

 

Simon angrily kicked Zach's chair leg. "Stop saying 'I don't know'! It's been four months since Lane left. Get over him already!"

 

"Don't you think I'm trying?" Zach spat back in anger.

 

"Well, try something else! Find someone else. You get your act together and stop with the attitude or, I promise you, I'll drop you, and you better believe that this group will be looking for a new violinist."

 

"I've been doing a lot of thinking," Zach began reluctantly, and then stopped again, his natural reserve making it difficult to speak of his private life.

 

"And...."

 

"I think I want … I think I need to go to that place Martin told us about, The Island. I need to find someone to take care of things for me. What Lane and I had was good - at least at first - and what I need to be at my best, to handle all this. I'm totally off, I don't know how to fix things by myself, and I don't think I can find anyone here to help me. And I can't keep going on the way I am." Bowing his head, shoulders slumped, he leaned in and rested his arms on his knees, seeming to turn inward as he admitted softly, "I'm no good on my own."

 

"I don't know, Zach," Simon said skeptically. "I've never put much store in dating services, and anyway, you aren't really into the bdsm scene. You really think they can help you find someone?"

 

"It isn't bdsm, it's discipline. Martin says they can, and at this point I'm ready to try anything."

 

"Bdsm, discipline, whatever. And don't," he held up a hand, "explain the difference to me. How does it work? How long will you need to be gone?" he continued practically. "You've got commitments here, you know."

 

"I don't know. I can't see it taking more than a week or so. I'll call and make an appointment so they can start finding a good match for me. That way I won't have to be gone too long."

 

"Let me know when you talk to them so I can work it into your schedule. And please, make it soon. If your attitude doesn't improve soon, you won't have a schedule to worry about."

 

 

Zach looked down at the small, yellow post-it note in his hand. The innocent toll-free number written on it could be for anything- clothes, flowers, food. But it wasn't. He had known about The Island for well over two years, long before he and Lane had gotten together, back when he was still active in the slave/Master Community. One of the Masters he had approached had tried to steer him toward them, sensing that the s/M relationship wasn't really what he was looking for. Balking at the idea of going off to some tropical isle to find a partner, he had continued to look in Atlanta, finally finding someone that he thought would last. But it hadn't and he was back to square one. Glancing at the clock, he picked up the phone and dialed. He knew they were off the East Coast somewhere and figured that at 2 pm on a Tuesday someone would be around to talk to him and answer his questions.

 

"Good afternoon and thank you for calling The Island. This is Micah, how may I direct your call?" a pleasant voice asked after the third ring.

 

Calming himself and adopting his 'I'm in complete control' voice, Zach replied, "Hello, Micah. My name is Zach Taylor. I'm interested in coming to The Island, and would like to talk to someone about making the arrangements."

 

"I'd be happy to handle that for you, Mr. Taylor. I'll need a bit of information from you in order to direct your call to the right department. Are you committed or single?"

 

"Single."

 

"And would you be interested in coming in as a Top or a Brat?"

 

Zach hesitated. "I guess the second one. I'm not a Top. I was in a discipline relationship up until about four months ago and it didn't work out. I'm interested in trying again."

 

"I'm sorry to hear that," Micah said, "but glad you're willing to give it another try. I'm going to transfer you to our Director of Recruitment for Brats. His name is Asher Roberts and I'm sure he'll be able to help you."

 

"Thanks," Zach said, and the line clicked several times as the transfer was made.

 

In a second floor office in the Admin Building, Roberts sat at his desk reading over some proposed new materials while he ate lunch. Tossing the file on his desk, he closed his eyes for a moment and laid his head back against the chair's headrest. He'd been back on The Island for five days this time but he was still tired from all the traveling over the last month or so. The fall months were always the busiest time for recruitment, but late spring ran a close second. The phone on his desk gave two short rings, indicating an outside call coming in. Taking a deep breath, he answered the phone. "This is Asher Roberts, how can I help you?"

"Mr. Roberts? My name is Zachary Taylor," a male voice said after a moment of silence.
 
Immediately dropping the volume and tone of his voice, Roberts worked on projecting reassurance. After years of doing this, he knew how important it was to make would-be-Orphans comfortable. "Hello, Mr. Taylor. What can I do for you?


"I'm interesting in The Island," Zach said. Then after a short pause, he added, "In your services on The Island."
 
"I see," Roberts replied calmly, reaching across his desk for a pen and pad to take notes and write down his impressions. "Can you tell me a little about what you know about our organization and where you heard about us?" he asked, labeling the top of the page with his caller's name.

 
"Ummm..." Zach stammered before beginning. "I've lived in Atlanta for about 5 years now, although I travel a lot with my job. I've been involved or," he paused again, almost audibly searching for the words, "or was involved in the past in the Scene here. I've never really been comfortable with bdsm though and Martin Atwater told me about The Island--" He paused as if embarrassed. "He told me all about The Island and said it's a good place to go if you want... if you need.... if you're interested in a discipline relationship," he finished in a rush.

 

Roberts smiled to himself. “All right. Thank you. And I assume that you're a Brat looking for a Top?” Then, not getting an immediate response, he added, “The reason I ask is that the application process varies a little.”


“My partner was a Top. I don't know if I'd call myself a Brat though. I'm not bratty,” Zach said, trying not to sound defensive. “I have a job and I'm responsible and it’s not like I want to be some boy toy or something. I’m an adult and I can act ---”

 

“No, no, Zach, that’s not what I meant. ” the other man broke in, his voice low and soothing, “I'm sure you're a capable adult. Here on The Island, we don’t make those sort of assumptions about Brats. It's merely the term we use. We don't care for the term submissive, since most of our Brats are anything but."

 

"I'm sorry if I was getting defensive. I'm just not used to discussing such personal matters with a complete stranger.”

 

Typical Brat, Roberts thought dryly. They'd physically expose themselves to complete strangers and never think twice about it, but even the mention of emotional exposure sent them into a tailspin.

 

“I know,” Roberts said softly. “And it isn't easy. It takes a commitment on your part and a willingness to live full time, 24/7, in a relationship that at times isn't pleasant. The fantasy is a pleasant one, but the reality of the hard work, the sacrifice, the compromise and the simple reality of giving control of your life and body to another person, is hard.” Roberts paused, giving all that he’d said a chance to sink in before continuing, “Do you think that you are truly interested in making this kind of commitment, Zach?”

 

“My relationship with Lane was one of the best things in my life. I don’t think we were right for each other, but the situation was right for me.” Zach took a deep breath. “I need this kind of relationship to really be at my best.”

 

"Okay, Zach. Let’s get this process going then, all right?” Looking at the large wall calendar in front of him, he continued, “I can be in Atlanta in three weeks to meet you, give you some information and to talk further. From then, it can take up to a month to make the arrangements for you to come to The Island. You said that you travel with your career. Will you be able to arrange for at least 6 months leave of absence with only 6-8 weeks notice?”


“I'm sorry - what? A 6 months leave of absence for what?” Zach asked in surprise. “6 days, you mean?” he clarified, trying to remain calm. “Yeah, I can swing a week here and there, no problem. That’s no problem.”

 

"No, 6 months, to come to The Island. I'm sorry, I thought you said you knew about our requirements." It was Roberts' turn to be surprised. "I thought, you said Atwater told you all about it. I know Mr. Atwater professionally…" Roberts said, giving his caller an out if he had told a lie.

 

"He did. I mean, he told me about his experiences, but I didn't realize there was a residency requirement for everyone. I assumed that was optional."

 

Taking another deep breath, Roberts sighed. "Okay. Let's backtrack a bit. I did mean 6 months, not 6 days, Zach. The Island requires you to reside on the island for a period of at least 6 months."

 

"6 months?? All at ONE TIME?!?!" Zach asked, his voice rising in dismay. "I can't leave my career for 6 months! I won't have one when I get back!"

 

"6 months at one time, Zach," Roberts repeated calmly. "Please lower your voice, and let me explain. You told me 5 minutes ago how much you wanted this. Don't use the flimsy excuse of the time frame as your excuse to back out. We've been doing this for 50 years and we do know what we're doing. Trust me."


"I don't understand!" Zach cried out in frustration. "I'm gay, I'm single, I want to be in a discipline relationship. I'm HIV negative, I can pay the fee. What else is there? I just need a partner!"
 
"If you just need a partner, I'm sure you can find one in Atlanta. If you truly want to be in a long-term discipline *lifestyle*, set up by The Island, we require you to go through our set process," he said firmly. "That includes a standard three month orientation period followed by another three months of mandatory residency. During that time you'll live in a cottage with other Brats, supervised by a Temporary Top, while you learn about the discipline lifestyle and decide whether it's what you truly want. After you've gone through that process, we'll begin the process of finding a Top who complements your needs."

 
"I *know* what a discipline relationship is! I've lived in one!" Zach took several deep breaths, willing himself to calm down. "I just wanted to fill out some forms," he finally continued softly. "I can't get away for 6 months. I have a life here. Why can't you just give me some forms to fill out and then send me a list of guys in my area who are available and looking for someone like me? Then I can contact them and see if we click or something…" he finished lamely.

 
"Because that isn't the way we work, Zach," the recruiter explained patiently. "We aren't a dating service for discipline relationships. What we do here is teach you to incorporate discipline into your lifestyle, to teach both the Tops and Brats what to expect from each other and how to work with each other. Only after that has been accomplished do we start matching the right Top with the right Brat."

 
"That's great, that's a great policy and I fully support that idea," Zach said, willing to be accommodating. "But, I've been in a discipline relationship. Lane and I did this for 7 months before we broke up. I know all I need to know about them and how they work. I just need a partner. And if you and The Island were interesting in helping with that, you'd work with me. I'll pay the same amount, whatever you're charging for the six month course, that's not a problem. Just let me know how much and I'll write a check and you can send me the forms."
 
The young man definitely had the persistence of a Brat, Roberts thought wearily. "This isn't about the money, Zach. And, while I don't know the circumstances, you did this for seven months and then broke up. Might I suggest that if you knew all about them and how they work it would have lasted longer? Very few of our matches last less than 10 years, and our record is 60 years."
 
"He left me. He left me a note and walked out of our home while I was out of town," Zach said flatly. "What does that matter?"

 

"I'm sorry to hear that. You say you need help now, and I understand that, but you need the right kind of help. It won't help you if you find a Top and he walks out on you just as you're getting accustomed to him. I know that six months seems like a long period now, but isn't it worth it if it means you'll never be alone and struggling again?"
 
"And my only option is to live on The Island? What about work? Can I come and go as I need to? For rehearsals and concerts?"

Realizing that the young man was beginning to accept the idea, Roberts chose his words carefully. "No, that isn't a good idea. Unless it's an emergency, you need to stay on The Island the entire time. It's an unsettling period of time and having to switch back and forth between The Island and your normal life would be too disruptive. While you're on The Island you'll be supervised by a Temporary Top - Temp Top, or TT, for short. They usually work with between two and four Brats at a time. You'll live in his cottage and he'll function as your Top until you're matched with a permanent one. "

 
"Can't you just have him come with me if I have a concert during the six months? I really don't know if I can get my schedule that clear. It's pretty booked," Zach said petulantly. "I don't know when I can get away for such a long period of time."

"No, I'm sorry, but that wouldn't work either. Would it be possible for you to clear your calendar and come at a later date? Perhaps in two to four months?" Roberts asked, ignoring the tone of voice. "You've taken the first and hardest step by calling. I can stay in touch with you, help you work on your calendar and arrange for you to come here when you're free. How does that sound, Zach?"

"I don't know. I can't just take off for six months. But I can't do this anymore, either." Zach wavered indecisively. "I just don't understand why you won't work with me."

Roberts could hear the young man's desperation and sympathized. " I know it's hard," he said softly. "But it isn't how we work. You need someone who is going to be there for you long-term. If you only want someone for a month or two, I'm sure you can find someone in Atlanta. The reason you're calling us is because that isn't enough for you anymore. And if you want someone to make a commitment to you, you have to make one to yourself first."
 

"I'll think about it," Zach said. "And call you back."
 

~~~~~~~~

 

Zach paced around his living room, a classical CD playing softly to break the silence and soothe his nerves. Pausing to straighten a pillow on the loveseat, he glanced out the window and then again at the clock. Roberts should be arriving any minute.

 

He had changed his mind about this meeting a dozen times in the past two weeks. It had been strange talking to a total stranger about the part of his life and personality that had always been kept secret. Still thinking back to the conversation, he touched the folder sitting on the coffee table. At Robert's request - order - he had contacted his regular GP and had a copy of his last physical, along with a negative HIV and drug report, and his references - three letters in sealed envelopes, the signatures of prominent members of the BDSM community written boldly across the flaps. There was also the completed copy of the questionnaire that had been emailed to him. It was almost fifteen pages and the requested essays filled another ten. These people were going to know more about him than his own parents did. A LOT more, he thought with a wry smile.

 

The sound of a car pulling into the driveway startled him out of his musing. He quickly ducked into the kitchen, hidden from view of the living room windows, and forced himself to take deep breaths, trying to calm the butterflies in his stomach. Even so, he jumped when the doorbell rang.

 

Roberts smiled to himself as Zach casually opened the door, silently wondering if all the Brats in the world put on the same show.  They all seemed to greet him with the same nonchalant air when he arrived on their doorstep, as if they had all but forgotten he was coming. He made a mental note to ask Jeff if the Tops pulled a similar act. Then, taking a deep breath and pushing those thoughts aside, he concentrated on the young man in front of him. He smiled and held out his hand, saying, "You must be Zach. I'm Asher Roberts from The Island."

 

"Hi, it's nice to meet you," the younger man said, shaking hands. Then stepping back, he motioned Roberts inside. "Please, come in and make yourself comfortable. Can I get you something to drink? Coffee, iced tea, Coke?"

 

"Coffee would be nice, Zach, thank you."

 

"Sure, please have a seat while I get it." As he walked toward the kitchen, he stopped at the coffee table and picked up the folder. He paused for a moment, suddenly embarrassed, and then handed it to his visitor. "Here's the information you asked for," he muttered, and then quickly disappeared into the other room.

 

Roberts smiled as he watched him round the corner.  Zach was a handsome young man, he thought to himself.  The combination of dark hair, brown eyes and olive completion reminded him of a wonderful long weekend spend on a Greek island when he was 25.  Shaking his head, he forced himself back into his calm work mode.  The men that came to The Island as Orphans usually fell into two categories, he thought, as he picked up the folder and began to skim over the questionnaire summing up the life, wants and needs of this 26 year old. There were the ones who were so desperate for approval and admittance that getting them to sit still long enough and calmly enough for a discussion was almost impossible. Then there were the ones who were reserved and cautious, embarrassed by their own admission of the need to be in a discipline relationship. Zach obviously belonged to the second group, he thought, adjusting his recruitment lecture accordingly. He looked up from the paperwork as the younger man carried in a tray of drinks and finger foods.

 

Handing him a drink, Zach indicated the food on the tray. "Please, help yourself. I thought you might be hungry after your trip and I didn't have time for lunch today," he admitted as he filled a small plate and sat down on a chair facing the couch.

 

"Your paperwork looks complete, thank you," Roberts said, closing the folder and putting it in his briefcase. "Why don't we begin with you telling me a little more about yourself?" Smiling, he filled his own plate and then leaned back, the picture of a friend settling in for a long chat.

 

Zach began hesitantly, then warmed up, talking about growing up overseas, the only child of a career army man, and of his parents who, after his father's retirement, had moved back to Europe. He talked about being introduced to music at school and falling in love with the idea that he could create something so beautiful from a simple wooden box and strings. "I had lessons for years, but my parents, especially my dad, thought it was a hopeless dream when I announced that I was going to move to New York and become a famous musician."

 

"How old were you?"

 

Zach smiled. "15. We were in New York, visiting my grandparents, and I decided that I was staying and trying out for Julliard. I was going to get my GED and get on with my life."

 

Roberts smiled. "And they let you?"

 

He laughed and shook his head. "Hell, no. My father threatened to send me to military school if I even tried it."

 

"But you're a professional violist now, right?"

 

"Yes, I graduated from high school and then was accepted at Julliard. I've been a guest artist for several different symphonies and chamber groups, and I usually teach master classes wherever I perform. I've also contributed to two classical CDs. That's why it's difficult for me to get away for several weeks at a time."

 

"It sounds like it takes a lot of time and dedication," Roberts agreed. "You said in one of our conversations that you can't go on the way you are. What do you see as your problem areas? Where did Lane help most?"

 

Zach stared down at the carpet for a minute and then shrugged. "I don't know."

 

"Just off the top of your head, it doesn't have to really make sense. What's the first thing that comes to mind?"

 

"I get too intense about stuff. It used to drive Lane crazy. He didn't understand how I could sit and practice for hours upon hours and not notice the time," he said softly and then gave Roberts a small smile. "I remember one time he got pissed at me because I practiced so long that afterwards I couldn't cook dinner. My neck and fingers were cramping and spasming too bad."

 

The Top nodded. "So you get so caught up in what you're doing that you lose track of time?"

 

"Yes, but mainly it's just during practice. I can't stop until I get it right and then I can't stop until I get it perfect five times in a row. Sometimes," he said with a shrug, "if it's a hard piece, it takes a while to learn it."

 

"Is your music the only thing you get intense about?"

 

"Yes- No- I don't know. I get kind of worked up about stupid stuff, especially before a concert or when I'm learning a new piece. Little stuff bothers me and I," he paused, picking at the corner of a pillow, "I tend to take it out on the people around me. I get snappy and act like an ass and pick fights."

 

"Fights?" Roberts asked. "What kind of fights?"

 

"Over stupid stuff. Nothing physical," he said with a laugh and then held up his hands. "Can't risk hurting these, but just like verbal fights. I'd stand there and rage at Lane about not being able to find my keys or something. Or just disagree with him about stuff. There were times, I swear, that if he had said the sky was blue, I would have fought tooth and nail that it was orange."

 

Roberts nodded, understanding the emotion and used to seeing it in other Brats. "Did you do this with just your lover or with other people?"

 

"With everyone, especially if Lane, my boyfriend, either wasn't home or had blown off the fight. I couldn't help myself, it just seemed to come out. People usually shrugged it off; artists and musicians are allowed to be temperamental …" his voice trailed off for a minute. "I …" again, his voice trailing off as he struggled to find the words.

 

"Go on Zach, it's okay. Nothing you can say will shock me."

 

He nodded but didn't look up, again picking at the corner of the pillow. "I just thought Lane was different; that he wouldn't put up with it and he'd make me stop and he did for a while and then I just got to be too much for him. I was able to drive him away like everyone else," he finished in a rush.

 

~~~~~~~~~

 

Scott and Andre walked into the meeting room, laughing. "I swear, the look on his face when he stepped out onto the porch and I was sitting there waiting for him was priceless!" Scott finished with a laugh and looked around the room before heading toward two empty seats.

 

"Hi, Mark, how's it going? Is Will doing any better?" Andre asked as two other TTs sat down across from them.

 

"Much better, thanks. We had a good weekend."

 

"Good, glad to hear it. Have you--" he was cut off as Hayes entered the room.

 

"All right, gentleman, let's get started. Roberts is with us this morning and we're going to hear his report first, before our usual round robin," he said, making his way to his chair at the head of the table and sitting down.

 

Roberts smiled at them. "Thanks." Standing up, he split a pile of stapled papers into two stacks and handed them to the first Temp Top on each side of the table. "Pass these down, please," he said and then paused until each TT had one. "We have a new Orphan coming in, probably in about three weeks. He's trying to get his schedule straight and I'm keeping in touch with him and keeping him on track."

 

"He's a violinist?" Andrew asked, looking up from the bio. "What kind of profession is that? My fathers almost killed me over my major in French Literature. I can't imagine announcing I was going to be a violinist."

 

They all laughed, then Andre commented, "I've heard of this guy, and he really is a professional violinist. He played on a Christmas CD that I got for my parents last year. He's good."

 

Roberts nodded. "Right, but remember, he's not the first celebrity we've had here and we treat them the same as any other Brat."

 

"I can't imagine any of my Orphans recognizing him, anyway," Brad replied. "We don't have any classical music fans in our cottage."

 

"Good. The less he's recognized, the better. I don't think he'll take advantage of being well-known, but we don't need any further complications to the situation."

 

"Further complications are a bane to all of us," someone chimed in and they all laughed again.

 

"Based on his questionnaire and my interviews with him, I think he's going to come out between a 7 and 9, leaning toward a high 7 or a low 8," Roberts said.

 

"And since Roberts is rarely wrong," Hayes interjected, "that means he'll probably go in with either Logan and Morgan or Mike and Rob."

 

The four TTs in question looked up from their reading, Morgan querying his twin with a raised eyebrow.

 

"We can handle another one without any problem," Logan confirmed.

 

Mike glanced at his partner and Rob nodded and spoke. "We can take him, too. I don't have anyone right now. I'm just working with Mike on his transition to admin, and it sounds like he'll fit in with Gabe and Sam."

 

"How are they doing? Gabe is still pretty new, isn't he?" Hayes asked.

 

Mike spoke up. "He's finished his orientation and after an initial period of rebellion--" he paused as the other TTs laughed at his phrasing, "he's settled down. He's responding to the strict schedule of work and play and, except for the sleepwalking, he's doing pretty well. Sam is …" he paused, looking for the word, "…Sam."

 

Everyone around the table laughed again, used to the intelligent Orphan who was rumored to be one of the masterminds behind some of the more notorious pranks on The Island.

 

"How's Gabe doing with the sleepwalking?" Brad asked. "Can you handle another Brat before you get it under control?"

 

Mike shrugged. "I think it's as under control as it's going to get. The episodes seem to be getting further apart, and before Jake left he came up with an alarm that lets me know if Gabe leaves the Cottage. That's been a big help. We don't have to worry about him taking off in the middle of the night anymore."

 

"Thank God," Rob added. "You haven't lived till you've wandered the jungle looking for a Brat at 3 am."

 

"This guy's been in a discipline relationship before?" Mike asked in surprise as he read a little farther.

 

"Yes, until approximately six months ago. It lasted for seven months and Zach has been pretty reluctant to talk about it. I'm thinking about contacting the guy, but I need to talk to the Board about it first. Zach is reluctant to talk about it and I'm not sure if we should invade his privacy or not. I don’t think there is anything about the Top we need to be concerned about. It seems like he got in over his head, didn't have the support he needed, and bailed." He rifled through some papers before finding the sheet he was looking for and pulling it out. "According to the questionnaire, Zach has been spanked before, but he said it happened less than five times in their relationship. I think, just based on the questionnaire and my conversations with him, he needs …" Roberts paused again, "not just strict boundaries but very clear rules with very clear consequences. That's not something he and his previous partner had. He's going to balk, I think, at the tight rein you have on your cottage. It's going to take him a bit of time to settle in. He's a perfectionist, and he wants to please people, though, so if the rules and consequences are clear, I think he'll eventually settle into them and find some peace. He admits he does better in this type of relationships and wants to be in one again."

 

Logan broke in. "I'm not second-guessing you, Roberts, at all. God knows you nail the incoming Orphans wonderfully. But if he's going to balk so much, would he be better with our 7s? Our cottage has pretty tight reins, but there's more freedom than the 8s have."

 

Roberts nodded. "I've thought about it and, once he's here and is tested, he might well be a 7, not an 8. Right now, I'm just giving you my impression of him. He's smart and very talented. He had a huge need to be 'in control' of his environment and has, per his references and my interviews, a tendency to focus on one thing and cut himself off from anything else that's going on."

 

"If he comes in with us," Mike said, "'control of his environment' isn't going to happen and he's not going to be able to cut himself off."

 

"The 7s do have a little more control. We let them close their doors," Morgan laughed.

 

Rob laughed too. "Hey, we let them close their doors. Sometimes."

 

Roberts interrupted. "The degree of control he can handle and how much he needs to give up to be balanced is one of the things we won't know until he gets here and Cal does the complete work-up." He glanced at his watch and then started gathering up his papers. "I need to run, but I'll be in touch when I've got a firm arrival date from Zach." He stood up and, amid a chorus of good-byes, left the conference room.

 

Ian, a new TTT working with the 4s, turned to Mike. "Are they really not allowed to close their doors?"

 

Mike smiled at him, "No, not usually. They leave them open most of the time, even sleep with them open, at least part way, and so do Rob and I. A tightly closed door means Do Not Enter, usually because someone's in trouble and is being punished."

 

"The higher ranking cottages are more like family units than ours, Ian," Lee, one of the TTs for the 4's explained. "You know how we have pretty clear divisions of which Orphan is assigned to either Dennis or myself?"

 

Ian nodded.

 

"We don't really have that clear division," Rob said, finishing Lee's thought. "I wouldn't go as far as actually spanking one of the Brats assigned to Mike, but I would swat him or punish him with mine."

 

Mike joined the conversation. "And my Brats feel comfortable going to Rob if they have a problem and I'm not available. We work more as a unit than the lower-rated cottages, and we do more cottage dinners and group activities."

 

"But I thought lower numbers were supposed to be more social than the higher numbers," Ian said in confusion.

 

"I don't think I'd call it more social," Rob said, looking to his partner for help.

 

Mike continued. "I'd say that, on average, your higher-rated Brats are more wary of strangers and they usually don't like crowds. Given a choice, they tend to either be loners or have only casual acquaintances. By patterning our cottages after a family, we give them the small group feeling and friendships that the lower-rated Brats find on their own."

 

"And our Brats usually do develop good social relationships on their own," Lee explained. "We have the rare one who's a loner, but usually we need to work more on the one-to-one bonding, developing a serious relationship with one person in preparation for their relationship with their Top. That's where their weakness usually is."

 

"All right," Hayes interrupted their discussion, "let's get back to work." He looked down at the agenda. "I have a note from the kitchen. They've been getting too many requests for supplies to be delivered the same day. Remember gentlemen; turn your requests in by noon the day before you need it delivered. If you do need something that day, you're still welcome to call with a list of 15 items or less, but you'll need to send someone to pick it up."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Zach stepped out of the plane into the warm tropical air of The Island. Pausing at the top of the stairs, he shielded his eyes against the bright sun.

 

Behind him Roberts placed a hand on his shoulder and gave a comforting squeeze. "Go on Zach, it'll be okay."

 

Nodding silently, he made his way down the stairs, violin case carefully carried in his hand. At the bottom of the stairs a tall, blond man, dressed in navy Dockers and a yellow polo shirt was waiting. He had a broad welcoming smile on his face as he watched Roberts come down, and took Roberts' backpack, slinging it over his left shoulder.

 

"Ralph, good to see you," Roberts said, shaking hands with his blond assistant. "I thought Adolph was going to be doing the Orientation on Zach?"

 

Ralph shook his head. "He ate something last night that didn't agree with him. He's not in the Infirmary, but he's laid up and not getting too far from the bathroom."

 

The older Top frowned. "I hope he's okay."

 

"Yeah, Herm's not too worried. And no one else is sick, so it's probably not a big deal."

 

"Good, I'm glad to hear that. Let me introduce Zach Taylor then, our newest Orphan." Turning to Zach, he smiled. "Zach, this is Ralph McGill. He'll be supervising you while you are in the Infirmary, until you're assigned to a Cottage and a Temp Top. If you need anything or have any questions, he's the one you go to."

 

Ralph held out his hand. "It's nice to meet you, Zach. I've read your file and I think we'll get along just fine."

 

"It's nice to meet you," the nervous Brat said softly, trying not to be intimidated by the confident young man.

 

"All right," the Temp Top said, "let's get going then. I'm sure you're tired and we need to get you settled." Smiling again, he gestured to a waiting golf cart. "I've got our ride and I see that the baggage guys have already loaded your luggage."

 

Roberts turned to Zach and gave him a quick hug. "Okay, off you go then. Behave yourself and things will work out."

 

Suddenly panicked at the idea of losing the one person he knew, Zach reached out, grabbing Robert's arm. "You're leaving? You're not coming with us?"

 

"No," Roberts replied calmly. "I'm going home and you're going to go to the Infirmary for a few days. Remember, we talked about this."

 

Zach nodded, knowing he was being stupid but at the same time, suddenly feeling very alone and as if the world was slipping out of his control. "Okay. I'm sorry," he said quickly. "I know we talked about this. I'm okay."

 

Smiling, Roberts put an arm around his shoulders. "I know, and you're right, you're okay. Everyone here is here to help you and make this transition as smooth as possible. Just remember what we talked about and try not to fight the system. Go with it and trust that, while you might not understand something, the people around you do understand and they know what they're doing."

 

Closing his eyes briefly and trying to center himself, Zach nodded. "Okay. It'll be okay." He didn't think he had been this nervous on his first day of boarding school or even college.

 

Patting the Brat on the back, Ralph nodded. "It will be, Zach. Don't worry." Then, after waiting a moment for Zach to move, he placed his hand on the Brat's back. "Let's go. It's past lunchtime so I'm sure you're hungry and we've got a lot of territory to cover today. And," he said, smiling at his boss, "I'm sure Roberts wants to get home, too."

 

The older Top gave a laugh and nodded. "A nap sounds good about now. Go on, Zach. I'll stop by and check on you tonight, but I'm sure you'll be fine." With that, he walked across the tarmac toward another waiting cart.

 

Zach nodded and then looked up and smiled at Ralph. "Go, lead the way; I long to see my prison."

 

The other top looked at him for a minute and then burst out laughing. "Henry VI," he said with a grin.

 

Zach laughed and nodded. "Sorry, my mother was a Shakespeare freak and we used to get gold stars for every quote we could rattle off or if we could name the play she was quoting from. Sometimes they still just pop out, especially when I don't really know what else to say."

 

"Ready for your full time of imprisonment and your deliverance?" Ralph asked solemnly and then gave a small laugh as they got into the other cart and pulled away from the airport. "Is your mother a teacher?"

 

Zach chewed on his bottom lip. "Don't tell me. It sounds familiar." Then looking around at the jungle going past, he added, "It's really green here."

 

Glancing over at him, the Top smiled and laughed a bit. "Yeah, it's jungle. We've tried to keep the island as natural as possible."

 

"No, my mom didn't teach, but she loved to read," Zach said in answer to Ralph's earlier question. "She followed my father from post to post, and she found that throughout the world, no matter where they went, no matter what language people spoke, they had read Shakespeare. I think it was a connection she could always find, even in countries where there was nothing else."

 

"Connections, that feeling of belonging, is important." Then, looking at the younger man, he asked, "Did you have your own connection that you carried with you, to make sure you belonged?"

 

"I guess my music," Zach said softly with a half shrug. "Measure for Measure," he added with a smile, finally remembering the source of Ralph's quote.

 

Ralph laughed. "Very good, I'm impressed. I put myself through college working at the Shakespeare Theater Company and have probably performed in every play the bard wrote."

 

"You were an actor?" Zach asked as they went over a bridge spanning a quickly moving creek, the sound of a waterfall coming from somewhere deep in the foliage.

 

"Not much of one, just good enough to play the minor roles and earn extra money for college." They suddenly broke out of  the jungle and into a sunny clearing. Spread out in front of them was the main quad of The Island, its paths and buildings dotting the landscape. "After you're done with your physical and testing, you'll move into one of the cottages. Until then, you'll be staying in the Infirmary Building. Roberts explained about the ratings testing, right?"

 

Zach nodded, trying to quell the rising butterflies in his stomach. "Yeah," he said softly before falling silent.

 

Not wanting to press, having helped countless soon-to-be Orphans go through these difficult first steps, Ralph simply drove toward the two-story white building set back from the main quad on the edge of the jungle. Pulling into a parking space, he reached over and squeezed Zach's hand briefly, smiled and said, "It'll be all right," before getting out of the cart and unloading the luggage.

 

Getting out of the cart, Zach mumbled to himself, "What, ho, I say! Peace in this prison!"

 

Following Ralph through the front door, carrying his violin case and book bag while the Top rolled a larger suitcase, Zach looked around in interest. They passed through the waiting area with French doors on either side and continued down the hall past several closed doors. Ralph turned a corner and stopped in front of the elevator, motioning the younger man inside. "I'll give you a quick tour of the Infirmary this evening but you really won't be going too many places without me."

 

"Okay," Zach replied simply.

 

They exited the elevator and went a short ways down the hall before stopping at a door marked 2B. Ralph opened it with a key card and walked in. The room was well lit by two big windows and, through another door Zach could see more windows.

 

It was a comfortable room, he thought, almost like a hotel suite. There was a living room with a sofa and TV and on the other side, a small under-the-counter frig and a table with two chairs. A microwave sat on the counter, along with a toaster oven.

 

"Why don't you go ahead and unpack your book bag and open your suitcase while I get the other one from the cart," Ralph said with a smile. "I'll be right back." He stepped out of the room, leaving the door open.

 

Zach heard him go down the hall and then a minute later, the elevator starting its downward trip. Laying his violin case down and walking over to the window in the living room, he looked out across the front of the building and across the treetops, he could see the dark bluish green of the ocean. Opening the window, he smiled at the breeze coming through, along with the smells and sounds of the ocean and jungle.

 

"It's a great view, isn't it?"

 

Zach jerked around and smiled. "Sorry, I couldn't resist," he said to Ralph who had appeared with Zach's last suitcase.

 

"Not a problem. But, we need to get to work. I've ordered lunch for you and it should be here shortly." He glanced at his watch and frowned. "We're a bit behind schedule already." Setting the suitcase on the floor next to the other one, he said, "Go ahead and unlock them for me. Then," he continued, ticking the items off on his fingers, "get out your shaving kit, 6 pairs of underwear, a couple pair of jeans or shorts, a couple of T-shirts, and a book if you want, and go ahead and put them in the drawers in your bedroom."

 

"Why? Can't I just live out of my suitcase until I'm assigned to a Cottage? And I'm going to need more clothes than that. Roberts said I'm going to be here all week." Zach said with a frown, not moving from his spot by the window.

 

“No, you can’t live out of your suitcase for a week. I need to go through what you brought and then we lock it up until you’re transferred to whatever Cottage you’re going to be assigned to. You have shorts and a polo laid out on your bed and during the day you’ll wear that. You can wear your own clothes in the evening.” Seeing the look on Zach’s face, Ralph continued, his voice making it clear that there was no discussion on this, “It’s what everyone does, Zach. We all wear uniform clothing during the day and change into casual clothes at night. It’s part of the job, and right now your job is to attend classes and learn about discipline relationships and how to live in one.”

 

Zach didn’t move, but continued to look at Ralph with a frown. “So you’re just taking all my stuff?”

 

“Just until you’re assigned to a cottage. You have no need for it here.” Walking over to where Zach stood by the window, Ralph laid a hand on his shoulder and looked down at him. “Zach, trust me, okay? Just go with what I’m telling you now. It will be much easier. I do know what I’m talking about and one of the things you’ll learn in a discipline relationship is that sometimes you follow the rules whether you agree with them or not, whether your Top gives you a satisfactory explanation or not. You are still expected to follow his orders,” Ralph said firmly, “or deal with the consequences.”

 

“Lane always explained things to me and we got to talk about it,” Zach muttered as he stalked over to his suitcase.

 

Ralph frowned at him briefly. “That’s fine, but this is going to be different than your relationship with Lane. If you can’t accept that, then you’re in the wrong place.”

 

Staring back at the Top for a long minute, Zach finally dropped his eyes and busied himself taking the key from his wallet and unlocking the suitcases.

 

Ralph watched him for a minute, trying not to smile. “I’ll get it,” he said as someone knocked on the suite door. As he passed by Zach, he paused for a moment and patted Zach on the back, “Good boy, thank you,” before continuing to the door and opening it.

 

“Hi,” a young man said with a smile. “The kitchen told me to bring this over.”

 

“Come on in, Brandon,” the Top said with a smile, gesturing in, “Do you have KP duty again?”

 

Glancing at Zach with open curiosity, he carried the tray in and set it down before pulling his attention back to Ralph, “Yeah,” he said with a dazzling smile. “But it wasn’t my fault. I swear, it just happened.” Unable to keep a straight face at the excuse, he burst out laughing as he put down the tray on the table.

 

Ralph joined in, shaking his head. “I’m sure it just happened. You're always innocent.”

 

“Always!” the Brat replied with another laugh, and then, scooting around the Top, he smiled and held out a hand to Zach. “Hi. Brandon McDonald, delivery boy extraordinaire, Orphan in Cottage 7A, and permanent kitchen slave.”

 

Zach laughed and shook the other man’s hand. “Hi, Zach Taylor. Violinist, and I guess soon-to-be Orphan somewhere. It’s nice to meet you.”

 

Ralph snapped his fingers. “All right, Brandon, you need to get going. Zach needs to eat and finish unpacking and,” he added, glancing at his watch. “You’ve got about ten minutes before quiet time.”

 

The Orphan laughed again and held up his hands in surrender. “I’m going, I’m going.” Smiling again at Zach, he winked. "See you around," he said and then quickly hurried through the door and disappeared from sight.

 

Shaking his head again, Ralph smiled and shut the door to the suite. “All right, Zach, why don’t you sit at the table and eat while we get your luggage straightened out?”

 

Still thinking of his earlier conversation, Zach nodded and flipped open his last suitcase, dropping the key and locks on the coffee table in front of the couch. “Okay. I am hungry.” Standing up stiffly, he stretched and groaned softly.

 

“Everything all right?” the TT asked, walking behind him and laying hands on his shoulders. He began to rub the shoulders and neck gently. “Traveling, airplane seats, and hauling luggage around always makes me tired and stiff. After lunch, you’ll need to lie down for a while and I’ll rub your back for you some more then. How does that sound?”

 

Zach nodded, eyes closed, swaying slightly under the firm hands.

 

“Good. Now,” he said, pulling his hands away, “go sit down and eat lunch while I do this.”

 

Zach nodded again, walking over to the table, his stomach rumbling in response to the aromas coming from underneath the plate cover. “I am hungry.” Lifting the cover, he smiled, glad to see the familiar cheeseburger and fries. A small salad and dish of fresh fruit rounded out the meal. Sitting down, he busily placed condiments on his burger and took a big bite. “This is really good,” he said around a mouthful of food.

 

Ralph smiled. “I'm glad you like it. We do have good food here and if there’s anything special you want or anything that you can’t eat, just let either me or your Temp Top know, and the kitchen will take care of it.” He sat on the floor, pulled one suitcase toward him and began to systematically go through the clothes and items, pulling out the things that Zach would be allowed to keep with him in the Infirmary and setting them to one side.

 

The Brat watched, fighting down the wave of defensiveness at seeing the other man go through his stuff like he was a criminal. “I followed the list about what I could bring and what I couldn’t,” he said sharply, unable to hold his tongue any longer.

 

Ralph barely looked up as he continued to go through the suitcase. “I know. I can tell, and you did a good job. But, I still need to check, and,” looking up and fixing Zach for a long moment, “you would rather have something confiscated now than get in trouble in a week because you have something that’s not allowed. Wouldn’t you?”

 

“Yes, but it’s my stuff that you’re going though,” he protested.

 

“I’m not hurting it, Zach. I’m not going to throw anything out and we go through everyone’s things. I’m not singling you out or treating you any differently.”

 

Zach bit his lip and looked away. Pushing back his plate, still half filled with food; he got up from the table, muttering, “I’ll be right back,” before going into the bathroom.

 

Watching him with a practiced eye, used to dealing with new, incoming Brats, Ralph nodded at the disappearing back. "All right, but you need to come back and finish your lunch when you're done. It's getting late."

 

Zach didn't answer but hurried through the door and closed it firmly, making a face as he realized there wasn't a lock on the door. Flipping down the toilet seat, he sat heavily on it and wrapped his arms around his stomach, leaning forward into himself. "Calm down," he ordered himself softly. "They're just playing head games; showing you who is boss. That's all. You can do this." He sat up and took several deep breaths, letting them out slowly. "You're still in control. They might think they are, but you've got their game figured out, so you're in control. Just go along, smile, don't cause problems, get through it. Then, you can work on convincing them that you don't need to be here for six fucking months," he softly assured himself, eyes closed, focusing on the problem at hand and his solution to solve it. A sharp knock on the door startled him. "I'll be out in a minute!" he said sharply.

 

"Are you okay?" Ralph asked through the closed door.

 

Standing up, Zach opened the door and smiled. "Yeah, fine. Just .." he paused, "just needed to use the room for a minute." He slipped past Ralph and sat back at the table, pulling his plate toward him. Picking up his hamburger, he took another bite and smiled again.

 

Ralph nodded. "Okay, but let me know if you want to talk. That's what I'm here for and there's nothing that you can say that would shock me or surprise me." When the younger man didn't answer, he continued, pointing to two different piles. "When you get done with lunch, please take this pile and put it away in your room."

 

Zach nodded. "So that's all I get to keep with me for the week?"

 

"It's all you'll need. Pick out a book or two if you want something to read, and everything else will be supplied for you."

 

"My violin stays with me, too," Zach insisted, ready to fight for it, if necessary. "It's too valuable to go into storage somewhere and I need to practice every day."

 

"That's fine," Ralph replied easily. "You won't have much time to practice, I'm afraid, but you can keep it here with you. The rest of this needs to go into storage, though."

 

Zach nodded again, surprised at his easy victory, but feeling a little better about the temporary loss of his other belongings. The little voice in his head chanted his new mantra. /Go with it. You're still in control. Just go along with it./

 

"Now, this pile," Ralph said, packing a small pile consisting of a pair of jeans, two shirts and a bright red thong, "are being packed up and will be returned to you if you leave The Island, or to your Top, if you become partnered. He can decide if he wants you to keep these items or not."

 

"What's wrong with them? Those are my clothes!" Zach was immediately on the defensive again.

 

"Yes," the Top said simply as he packed the offending items into a small box he had retrieved from the closet, "and they don't meet the dress code for Brats coming into The Island's program."

 

"What's wrong with them? I was told I could bring jeans and t-shirts and underwear. What's the big deal?" Zach all but shouted, his mantra quickly forgotten.

 

"Okay," Ralph said, pulling the items out. "Let's go over them. I'm sorry I didn't do that with you before I packed them. "

 

Zach nodded stiffly, accepting the man's apology.

 

"Shirts with vulgar sayings or gestures, advertising banned substances, or that are see-through or cropped are not allowed." Ralph held up a T-shirt proudly saying "Absolut Fun, Absolut Life", a series of happy faces forming the familiar bottle shape. With a raised eyebrow, he looked at Zach, waiting. After a moment of silence, he refolded the shirt and put it in the box. Raising a white mesh shirt, he again looked at the younger man and was again met by silence before repacking it.

 

Zach glared at him for a moment before dropping his eyes.

 

"Jeans must be the correct size without excessive rips or tears, and no rips or tears higher than the knees." He silently held up a worn pair of jeans, a 3 inch jagged tear easily visible below one of the back pockets, then turning them around so that another hole was visible in the front near the inseam "Any questions so far, Zach?"

 

He shook his head. "But they're comfortable," he added with a frown.

 

"Considering they look at least two sizes too small, I find that hard to believe. But, as I said, you'll get them back when you leave The Island, or you can discuss their comfort when you find a partner."

 

"So, if I find a partner here, he gets my clothes and gets to decide if I get to keep them, not me?" Zach asked, clearly looking for a fight.

 

"Yes," Ralph said simply, and then holding up a red thong, "All underwear must be boxers or briefs. No bikinis, no thongs, no pouches." Folding the small piece of material, he put it back in the box, on top of the other clothes. Leaning forward, he picked up the shipping tape and quickly sealed the box. With a black marker, he wrote Zach's name and the date across the top and on one of the sides. "If you're done with lunch, young man, please put your plate back on the tray and put the tray out in the hall. The kitchen staff will come by to collect it. Then carry your stuff into your room and put it away, get undressed and get into bed. I'm sure you're tired and it's past quiet time already."

 

Visibly fighting with himself, Zach sat at the table for a minute, watching Ralph calmly zip up his suitcases, securing each with the small lock. "Okay," he said quietly, his mantra firmly in place once more. "I'm going."

 

"Good, thank you. I'll be in to see you in just a minute."

 

Walking over to the remaining pile of clothes, books and shaving kit, Zach picked them up and carried them into the bedroom. "I'll put these away."

 

Ralph nodded and smiled. Then, softly, but loud enough for the disappearing figure to hear him, he said, "Trust me, Zach, it will all work out." Picking up the phone, he dialed a four digit internal number. After a moment, he said, "Hi, it's Ralph. I'm in 2B and I have luggage ready to be picked up, along with a box for long-term storage." He paused another minute, smiling as he listened to the man on the end of the line before continuing, "No, not much at all; just your typical odds and ends. " The conversation ended a minute later and Ralph headed into the bedroom.

 

Zach was sitting on the edge of the bed, looking down at the khaki shorts and white polo he'd found waiting for him.

 

Sitting down on the bed next to the Brat, Ralph patted his shoulder. "Come on, why don't you get undressed and take a nap. I'm sure you're tired and feeling a bit overwhelmed right now."

 

Zach nodded, but continued to look down at the new clothes. "Is this what I'm supposed to wear?" he asked softly.

 

"Yes, polos and khaki or navy shorts or slacks is what everyone wears while they're working. Right now, since you're assigned to the Infirmary, you'll wear a white shirt. Once you're assigned to a cottage, you can pick out almost any color you want." He gestured to his own navy slacks and yellow shirt. "Once your formal work is over for the day, you can change into your own clothes."

 

"It just hit me, I think," Zach said pensively. "These aren't my clothes but they are the only ones you'll let me wear. This isn't my job, but you keep talking about how it is. Yesterday, I was in my own house, the one I bought with my own money three years ago, sleeping in my own bed, with a closet full of clothes, and no one cared what kind of logo they had or if they were torn or too short or see-through or anything else. My entire world has changed in less then 24 hours and I don't know if I'll ever get it back." A few tears slipped down his cheeks and he angrily brushed them away. "It's just a bit much right now. I need to be alone right now, please."

 

Picking up the clothes, Ralph tossed them on a chair near the bed and pulled Zach into a hug, squeezing him tight. "It's okay, Zach. What you're feeling is perfectly normal. And you're right, it is overwhelming and it's going to continue to be overwhelming for the next couple of weeks. Part of my job is to help lessen that as much as I can. One thing that I know is affecting you is that you're tired."

 

Zach nodded but didn't say anything.

 

"So, stand up and let's get you more comfortable and see if you can't take a nap. Then I have some materials for you to read and a video to watch, and after that we'll have dinner and watch something on TV or get a movie. And," he said, releasing Zach from the hug and nudging him gently, "trust me when I say that if you stick with this and with us, The Island will feel more like home than the house you left ever did."

 

The younger man nodded again and kicked off his shoes, then undid his jeans and quickly slipped them off, dropping them on the chair with the other clothes. "I'm sorry for crying earlier," he said as he pulled off his shirt, embarrassed by the emotional display in front of an almost complete stranger.

 

Pulling back the blanket and sheet and motioning the boxer-clad Brat into bed, Ralph laughed. "Zach, you have no idea how many tears are shed in a day here. It's nothing to be embarrassed about and certainly nothing to apologize for. Now, let's get you settled and I'll rub your back for you and see if we can't get some of the stress worked out."

 

Quickly laying down and turning over on his stomach, Zach relaxed as the TT pulled the sheet up to his waist. Closing his eyes, he took long deep breaths and tried to concentrate on relaxing. As Ralph's warm, firm fingers worked their way through his stiff muscles, he quickly drifted asleep.

 

Sensing when the younger man fell asleep, Ralph slowly stilled his fingers. He waited a moment to see if Zach would reawaken but when he didn't, smiled and pulled the sheet all the way to the shoulders. Patting the upturned bottom, he whispered, "Sleep well," before quietly stealing out of the room. When he got into the hall, he made a mental note that the suitcases and box, along with the lunch tray had already been picked up. Not wanting to leave Zach alone too long, Ralph bypassed the elevator and took the stairs down to the first floor office assigned to Recruitment. He gathered up the small stack of reading materials and videotape that he had previously laid out for Zach and also the paperback book he was reading. He could catch up on some of his reading while his newest charge slept, he thought to himself. Just as he was about to head back upstairs, his phone rang. Picking it up he answered, "This is Ralph,"

 

"Ralph, glad I caught you," Roberts said cheerfully, "I was just calling to check on Mr. Zachary. See how he's settling in."

 

The younger Top laughed and sat down in his chair. "Good," he said. "We've had four battles of will, he's stomped off once, and there were a few tears, but he's fast asleep now."

 

"Sounds about what I was expecting. But, it also sounds like you've done well with him, if he's asleep. He must have settled down."

 

"He has, overwhelmed at first, scared, nervous, upset, defensive, but they all go through the whole myriad of emotions while they're here. Nothing out of the ordinary."

 

"So what's on your schedule for the rest of the day?"

 

Ralph smiled. His boss, even when he was at home and supposedly off duty, still liked to keep tabs on everyone and everything. At first, it had bothered him, as he'd taken it as a sign of distrust, but now, after three years, he saw it for what it was, genuine concern for the incoming Brats and a need to know that they were being taken care of. "I'm going to wake him in an hour and then I'm thinking a nice walk along the beach. The fresh air should be good for him. We'll head to the resort side so we won't be running into any Orphans and almost everyone will be at the cookout. Then, I was going to show him the video and give him the reading materials to keep himself occupied until dinner."

 

"Well, I'll let you go then, it sounds like you've got things well under control," Roberts said with a laugh. "Good job."

 

"Thanks," he replied and then disconnected the call. Picking up his materials, he stopped by the kitchen and grabbed a couple of Cokes and several bottles of water. Juggling them all, he hurried back upstairs and into Zach's room. He placed the Cokes and water in the refrigerator and then sat down to relax with his book until Zach awakened.

 

"Okay, Zach, have a seat on the couch," Ralph said two hours later as they returned from their walk.

 

"Let me go to the bathroom and wash my hands first, please," Zach requested. "I've got salt all over them from handling those shells."

 

The Top nodded and smiled. After his nap, the younger man was in a much better mood. He seemed more upbeat and less stressed and overwhelmed than before, actually smiling and laughing easily. Popping in the video, he waited for Zach to return. "All right," he said when the bathroom door opened, "this is a video about The Island, its history, and the different programs that we deal with here. Afterwards, I've got some reading materials for you."

 

"May I have some water, please?" Zach asked, sitting down on the couch and picking up the remote.

 

Ralph went to the small refrigerator. "After the video, we'll sit down and talk about it if you want, but feel free to pause it and ask questions if you see something you don't understand."

 

"Okay," he replied, hitting the play button on the remote and accepting the bottle of water. The opening strains of music filled the small room and a calm, objective narrator said, 'Welcome to The Island'.

 

The Top sat at the dining room table and pulled out his book, blocking out the sound of the video, focusing more on any sound coming from Zach. He knew the small snide comments and snickers currently coming from the Brat would stop in just a minute as he became absorbed in the video.

 

"Do they really do that?" Zach asked in a small voice, fifteen minutes into the video. "After every time?"

 

Ralph glanced up and at the video. On the screen, a sobbing Brat was cradled on his Top's lap, clinging tightly while the Top comforted him. He nodded. "Yes, comfort after you've been disciplined is a huge part of our program here. It happens every time, and for as long as you need it. No one is allowed to go off alone afterwards and no one is sent off to be alone, either."

 

Zach nodded and turned back to the screen, "That's a good thing; it's really hard to be by yourself afterwards," he said softly.

 

"That doesn't happen here. Ever." When Zach didn't answer, he made a mental note to add the conversation to his file and went back to his book.

 

Thirty minutes later, the closing music began and Zach flipped the video off. Standing up, he stretched and went over to the window, looking out over the landscape. The faint sounds of music drifted up from somewhere on The Island and he assumed it was the weekly Sunday Social that Ralph had mentioned.

 

Ralph watched him for a minute, then got up and went over behind him. He put his hands on the Brat's shoulders and rubbed them. "Anything you want to talk about?"

 

Zach sniffled but shook his head. "Is it really like that?" he asked quietly in a rough voice a few moments later.

 

"Yes, it is," he answered. "But remember, this isn't a fantasy or a role play game. If you decide to stay here with us, if you decide to make this commitment, it's hard work and it requires some sacrifice on your part. You're going to be giving up a lot your personal freedom and committing to a relationship where you agree you won't be a full equal in the partnership."

 

"I know." Zach gave a short laugh. "All animals are equal, some more than others."

 

"Was your relationship with your past partner like this?"

 

"No, I don't think there was much sacrifice on either side. It just kind of happened. We talked about it a little but it just kind of happened. It wasn't hard. I don't even think there was much commitment to it. At least not looking back at it now."

 

"This will be different, Zach, I promise you. Once you sign up for The Island, The Island will always be there for you. But there is a high price to pay for that security and only you can decide if it's worth it to you or not. It's not too late to back out. It's never too late to back out." Ralph turned him around, so that the younger man was facing him. "All you have to do is say the word and we stop this process. All you have to do is tell me that this isn't for you. Do you understand?"

 

Zach sniffled again and nodded, not meeting Ralph's eye. Then, he turned back to window and continued to look out.

 

 Ralph patted his shoulders again after a minute. "Okay, when you're ready, come back to the sitting area. I've got some materials for you to read." Turning away, he went back to his seat at the table and sat down, watching Zach from the corner of his eye until he turned from the window and slowly made his way to the couch.

 

The Brat sat down and picked up the pamphlets. After a moment, he put his legs up and stretched out on the couch.

 

Picking up his book, Ralph made his way to the couch, where he picked up Zach's feet and sat down, putting them on his lap. Rubbing them with one hand, he didn't say a word, just continued to read his book.

 

Zach tensed, then slowly started to relax and enjoy the impromptu foot massage and, even more, the human contact and the calmness that seemed to surround The Island and most of its inhabitants.

 

Three hours later, Ralph opened the door to the suite and called out, "Come and get it, Zach." In one hand he carried a pizza box, and in the other, two videotape boxes. They had spent the rest of the afternoon with Zach reading and asking questions. The younger man had slowly warmed up and was becoming more and more talkative as the day wore on.

 

The sound of the toilet flushing was followed a minute later by Zach coming out of the bathroom. "Sorry, I'm here. Smells good," he said indicating the pizza box. "They have pizza and movies here?"

 

The Top laughed as he set the pizza on the table and tossed the videos on the couch. "Yes, it's a staple item here, and the library has a pretty good selection of movies. The theater here also has first-run movies a couple of Fridays a month. They're usually about a month or so behind the mainland, but," he said with a smile, "some things just need to be shown on a big screen."

 

"Can I tell you something stupid?" Zach asked, turning around suddenly.

 

"Of course, but I'm sure it's not stupid."

 

"When I first talked to Martin about this place and then, later, Roberts, I really thought they were making some stuff up. I didn't think a place like this could really exist. It's like Fantasy Island or something."

 

Ralph chuckled before growing serious. "It is an amazing place and an amazing community, but this isn't a TV show. This is your life and it's a life-time relationship you're training for and committing to."

 

Zach nodded. "I know, but it feels right." He gave a short laugh. "I can't promise that it's going to feel right if I get panicked about something, but right now, it feels good."

 

"And if you panic, we'll work through it if we can. Otherwise, you're free to leave. Now," he said, jerking his head toward the couch, "why don't you pick which movie you want to watch while I get the Cokes and plates?"

 

Five minutes later they were sitting together on the couch while Raiders of the Lost Ark played on the big-screen TV.

 

As the movie came to a close, Ralph patted the Brat's leg. "All right, young man, why don't you have a quick shower and get ready for bed?"

 

Uncurling and glancing at the clock, Zach frowned. "But it's only 9:00; it's too early to go to bed."

 

"No, it's not. You've had a busy and stressful day and you're going to have another one tomorrow. And, it's not that early. All the cottages follow a similar routine of bed by 10, with lights out at 10:30. The Infirmary bumps that time up a bit with in bed by 9:30 and lights out by 10."

 

"I'm not going to be able to get to sleep this early. I'm never in bed this early and I had a nap this afternoon," he complained, and was annoyed to find that his voice sounded cranky even to his own ears.

 

"I'll give you something to help you sleep if you want, but I bet once you get into the schedule, you'll find that you won't have any trouble falling asleep at night."

 

Zach stood up, trying again to relax and go with their system. "Okay, I'm going."

 

"Good," the Top said, patting him on the butt as he went by. "I appreciate you working with me on this."

 

Zach didn't answer, just glanced back and give Ralph a small smile. After his shower, he returned to the living room, towel wrapped around his waist. "Can I watch some TV after I'm ready for bed?"

 

The Top glanced at the clock. "If you hurry, you can watch TV until 10 and then it's straight to bed."

 

Zach hurried into the bedroom and returned a few minutes later, dressed in a t-shirt and boxers. Sitting down on the couch, he picked up the remote and turned it on, pleased at his minor victory.

 

Ralph flipped off the main lights, leaving only a small lamp on. "Lie down on the couch, please, Zach," he said as he sat down in one of the chairs.

 

With the lights out, the stress and activity of the day slowly caught up with Zach. When the program ended at 10, he was asleep. Bending over him, Ralph gently touched his shoulder, "Come on, Zach, let's get you to bed."

 

"I'm not tired," he mumbled, blinking sleepily, "it's too early."

 

Taking him by the elbow, the Top smiled. "I know. Come on, stand up for me." Gently pulling him up, he half helped, half carried the younger man into the bedroom. Tucking the Brat into bed, he pulled the blankets up over him. "Go back to sleep, little one," he whispered as Zach mumbled something that could have been a goodnight and burrowed under the covers.

 

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

 

A combination of tension and being in a strange place kept Zach from sleeping well, and he tossed and turned, waking several times in the night. Finally, when the early morning chatter of birds woke him, he gave up attempting to sleep. At home he'd be starting his day now, working out, then quickly showering and dressing, grabbing coffee and a bagel on his way out the door. He lay still for a while, wondering what he should do. He wasn't tired and he didn't want to stay in bed, but Ralph had told him that rising time was 6 and he'd already gotten the impression that Ralph's life was run on a strict schedule. He looked at the clock again. 5:30. He certainly wasn't going to lay here for another half hour, he thought rebelliously. He rose and pulled his robe on, then sat in the chair by the window, gazing out at the early morning beauty of the island. The sun was just rising, tinting the sky a delicate pink and small birds chirped busily to one another as if discussing their plans for the day. As the sun rose higher, they became more active, small bright spots of color that flitted through the lush greenery in search of breakfast.

 

This was such a beautiful place, he mused. Six months here wouldn't be so bad. He could see now how the constant stress and activity had been wearing on him. He would follow their rules and blend in for now, he decided, and enjoy the peace and tranquility of The Island. Once he'd found a new Top, he could return to Atlanta, pick up the threads of his life and start again, refreshed and energized by his time away.

 

He was still gazing out the window when Ralph knocked once and then opened the door. "Oh, you're already up," he said in surprise. "Didn't you sleep well?"

 

"I woke up about 45 minutes ago," Zach replied, avoiding the question, "and I've been sitting here admiring the view. Should I have gotten dressed and looked for you or something?"

 

"No, you did the right thing," Ralph assured him. "Why don't you pull on a pair of shorts now and come with me."

 

"Just shorts?" Zach asked in confusion. "Shouldn't I get dressed? What about breakfast?"

 

"Just shorts for now. We're only going downstairs for your physical and you can shower and breakfast after that."

 

Zach opened his mouth to point out that he had already given them up-to-date medical forms and didn't need another physical, then sighed, pulled on his shorts and meekly followed the other man down the hall. /Go with it. You're still in control. Just go along with it./

 

"Does seeing a doctor bother you?" Ralph asked as they entered the small examining room. "Or having blood drawn?"

 

"No, not at all," Zach replied. "Should it?"

 

"Not necessarily, but some Brats have a problem with it. I can stay with you if you'd like me to."

 

"No, that's all right," Zach assured him. "I'll be fine on my own."

 

"All right. Why don't you go ahead and put this gown on and the nurse will be in to see you in a few minutes. And remember, they can call me if you change your mind. I'll be just down the hall."

 

He left and Zach undressed and put on the flimsy paper gown. He was sitting on the end of the examining table, trying to keep the gown pulled together in the back, when the nurse came in. "Hi, Zach, I'm Norton," the big dark-haired man said with a smile. He looked well able to quell the most difficult patient, Zach thought warily. "I'm going to get your vitals now, then Walter will be in to draw blood." He popped a thermometer into Zach's mouth without waiting for a reply, then took his pulse and blood pressure and jotted down the results. "Walter will be in shortly," he said as he took the thermometer from Zach's mouth, "and then I'll be back with Herm - Dr. Marco - to finish your physical. Do you have any trouble giving blood?"

 

"No, not at all," Zach replied, wondering how many people were going to ask him that.

 

"Routine question," Norton said with a smile, reading his thoughts. "You'd be surprised at how many people do."

 

He left the room, placing the chart in a file holder next to the door as he did so, and Zach was alone again. He debated getting up and reading his records, and had actually risen when the door opened and he hastily sat back down again.

 

"Hi, Zach, I'm Walter," the lab tech said, holding out his hand.

 

"No," Zach replied as he shook it.

 

"No?" Walter looked puzzled.

 

"No, I don't have any trouble giving blood," Zach said with a tentative smile.

 

"Oh, good." Walter laughed. "I hate chasing my patients around the room and tying them down first."

 

"Does that ever happen?" Zach asked, uncertain if he was being teased or not.

 

"Not very often," the lab tech replied with a laugh. "But it has happened a couple of times. We always make sure their TT is with them after that, to calm them down. Sit here, rest your arm on the counter and make a fist, please." He snapped a piece of rubber tubing around Zach's arm, found the vein, and had several small vials filled almost before the Brat knew what was happening. Walter caught his surprised looked and smiled again. "You learn to be fast when you're working with Brats," he said as he removed the tubing, put a bandaid over the puncture mark, and picked up his small case of vials. "Back on the table, and Herm will be here soon."

 

Zach stood up, shivering a little in the cool air as he adjusted the paper gown around him again, wondering why they didn't make them big enough to cover everything.

 

"Good morning, Zach," Herm said cheerfully as he came in a few minutes later. "I know you're probably hungry, so let's get this over with and let you get on with your day."

 

He continued to chat easily as he checked Zach's eyes, ears, nose and throat, then listened to his lungs, punctuating the data he gave the nurse to record with easy, light conversation. "All done but the hearing test and eye exam," he said shortly after Zach had decided he was going to starve to death before the poking and prodding was done. "Do you wear glasses at all? Contacts?"

 

"Glasses, but just for reading or when my eyes are tired," Zach admitted.

 

"Do you have them with you? What about spares?"

 

"They're in my room. I didn't bring spares."

 

Herm tsk'd. "Make a note to get them from him and get a spare pair made right away, Norton. It's better to have them made in advance than trying to do it in a hurry if they get broken."

 

Zach opened his mouth to point out how long it had been since he'd actually broken a pair of glasses, and then closed it again. /Just go along,/ he reminded himself.

 

Finally the physical was over and Ralph appeared to escort him back to his room. "Go ahead and shower and dress," Ralph instructed him. "We're running a little late, so I'll bring a breakfast tray for you while you're doing that, then we'll get on with your testing."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Zach tapped his pencil on the table as he considered the next test question. 'I rely on others to make my decisions or solve my problems.' How was he supposed to answer that? Did they mean personally or professionally? Did they mean he did it or he wanted to do it? It was a little hard to rely on someone else to make his decisions when there wasn't anyone else. And he wasn't sure if he wanted someone to make *all* his decisions or just to help him with some of the harder ones. 'Sometimes' he finally decided. Too bad there wasn't a bubble for 'it depends'.

 

'When needed, I use objects for purposes other than those for which they were originally  designed.' Like using a table knife for a screwdriver? Or a shoe for a hammer? And was that a good thing or bad? 'Sometimes', he decided. After all, he didn't do it that often. He'd use the appropriate object if it was available.

 

'I am capable of developing a strategy that would get me where I want to be.' That was easy enough. 'Always.' After all he had developed the strategy that had made him a top-notch professional violinist, hadn't he? A professional violinist who was on a four month leave of absence because he was doing such a lousy job. He erased 'Always' and filled in the bubble for 'Never'. But that wasn't really fair. He had gotten to the top of his field by himself. It wasn't his fault that Lane had walked out and screwed everything up. Was it? Maybe it was. Sighing, he erased the bubble for 'Never' and filled in 'Sometimes'.

 

"Why don't you take a break?" Ralph asked, looking at his watch. "You look tired and we don't have time to finish another section before lunch anyway."

 

Zach stood and stretched, then began moving the papers to one side.

 

"Just leave them there," Ralph advised. "You aren't going to be using the table before we start testing again."

 

"What about lunch?"

 

"I thought we'd eat outside today," Ralph replied easily. "It's a nice day and you could use some fresh air."

 

"Outside? You're sure you trust me not to escape?" Zach asked half-jokingly.

 

"For thy escape would teach me tyranny," Ralph replied with a smile.

 

Zach made a face at the Top and then laughed. "I always liked Othello."

 

He paced the small walled garden behind the Infirmary while he waited for Ralph to return with their lunch. On the other side of the wall he could hear the shouts and laughter of Brats on their way to the dining hall. Snippets of intriguing conversation floated over the wall and he wondered what it would be like to join the happy throng. Would he ever sound like that? he wondered wistfully. Happy and carefree and not worried about anything but what his Top expected from him?

 

He heard the door open behind him and turned around. "Ralph, do you-- Oh," he stuttered on the half-completed sentence. The man holding what was obviously a lunch tray for two wasn't Ralph.

 

"Hi, I'm Cal. I'd shake your hand, but I'd drop our lunch," he said frankly.

 

"I thought I was eating lunch with Ralph," Zach said, then mentally slapped himself. God, two days on this island and he'd lost all semblance of mature conversation.

 

"Ralph had to run an errand for Roberts," Cal explained. "I had to see Herm," he set the tray down and held up a bandaged finger, "so I thought I'd share your lunch and get acquainted, if that's all right with you."

 

"Sure," Zach replied. "I was beginning to wonder if there's anybody on The Island but Ralph and the medical staff," he added with a smile.

 

"The isolation is tough," Cal sympathized as he placed the covered dishes on the table and set the tray to one side. "But there are days when I'd kill for some time alone."

 

"Are you in ... in a discipline partnership?" Zach asked curiously. "Is it okay to ask that?"

 

"Yes, it's fine. I'm a Brat and I'm also on staff. I'm the Psych Director for Brats."

 

"Oh," Zach said, almost visibly withdrawing. "So this is a working lunch?"

 

"Not at all," Cal replied easily. "This just seemed like a good way to hide out and get to know you at the same time. I have one of your CD's by the way."

 

In spite of himself, Zach smiled. "Which one?"

 

Lunch passed quickly, and if Cal was analyzing him as they talked, Zach didn't see any signs of it. The conversation ranged from music to movies to books to sports, and he found that he had many things in common with the other Brat. Almost too soon, Cal glanced at his watch and announced that he had to go.

 

"I have a group session waiting for me," he explained, "and Ralph is probably waiting impatiently to take you back to your testing. He hates it when people throw his schedule off."

 

Wednesday started like the previous mornings. Ralph came in with his breakfast, he showered and dressed and sat down at the table.

 

As Ralph set a plate in front of him, he closed his eyes and rubbed his temples.

 

"Are you feeling all right , Zach?" Ralph asked. "Do you have a headache?"

 

Zach shook his head. "No, my eyes are just tired, I think. Lots of reading lately and trying to stay inside the lines of those little bubbles." He smiled and gave a half shrug. "Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die, Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred."

 

Ralph shook his head. "Have we abandoned William for Alfred?"

 

"No, just-" Zach paused, looking down at the table. "I don't know. It seemed appropriate somehow."

 

"Do you feel like you can't ask questions or that things are happening beyond your control?" Ralph asked in concern.

 

Zach smiled. "No, just …" he paused again, searching for the right words. "I know this is right, I know this is what I need to do. I'm just scared and feel like I've put myself on a path and it's too late to wonder why. I just have to close my eyes and go forward."

 

"In a way you have. Part of being in a discipline relationship is sometimes simply accepting something because your Top told you. But, at the stage you're at right now, if you have any questions about whether this is right for you, we need to talk about it."

 

The younger man nodded. "Okay."

 

"Are you having questions about being in a discipline relationship or more about what next week or next month is going to be like?" Ralph asked kindly.

 

"No, this is right. I guess I'm just thinking about what it's really going to be like tomorrow. I've seen the video, we've talked but until I'm actually there and doing and experiencing …"He paused, allowing his voice to trail off with a shrug. "You know what I'm saying?"

 

Smiling again, Ralph nodded. "Yes, I do know what you're saying Zach and I think you'll get a lot of your answers today. You're having a interview with Cal this morning and then at lunch you're going to meet Ben, the Brat Rep on the Board of Directors. He'll talk to you about what it's really like to be an Orphan here." Ralph gave a short laugh and winked at Zach, "I guess they figure a Top doesn't really know what this place is like."

 

"So he's a Brat, too?"

 

"Yes, and he was an Orphan here up until he committed to Ryan, who is the Director of Brats. So you'll have lunch with him, and by the time you get back we should know who your Temp Top is going to be."

 

Zach smiled. "Great. I feel like maybe I'm making progress, then."

 

The conversation with Cal lasted most of the morning but, to Zach's relief, it didn't feel like an interview or inquisition or that he was being judged. Cal seemed to have a knack for setting him at ease and probing the most intimate parts of his life while making it seem like a casual conversation.

 

Lunch with Ben was something of a surprise. Zach met him out on the patio where he'd had lunch with Cal, and somehow he'd expected someone serious and dignified, and older, as befitted a board member. Instead he found someone his own age, maybe a little younger, who soon had him laughing at his stories about life on The Island.

 

"It sounds like you have a lot of fun here," Zach said as Ben finished telling him about the Minnow and one of their trips to Coconut Island.

 

"We do. On one hand, being an Orphan is almost like being in college. You're learning and meeting new people, preparing to go out in the Real World." Ben laughed and made quotation marks in the air as he said the last two words. "On the other hand, it's very serious. You're giving up a lot of control that you've probably always taken for granted and that's one of the hardest things you'll ever do."

 

"Yeah," Zach agreed whole-heartedly. "And honestly? It scares the hell out of me sometimes."

 

"That's normal, Zach," Ben replied. "And frankly, we'd be worried if it didn't. But anytime it gets overwhelming and you need someone to talk to, give me a call. That's what I'm here for. We'll talk about it and see if we can work through it together.

 

"I have a joke for you," he said suddenly, smiling, ready to break the serious tone. "A man walked into a bar, sat down and ordered a drink. The man sitting next to him, already drinking, started talking about how special this bar was. The first man said he didn't see what was so special and the second man said it was the wind currents around the building. The first man said he didn't understand, so they went to a window and the second man jumped out, did a somersault in mid-air, hovered for a second, and then jumped back in. The first man was obviously impressed, and after some egging on and a few more drinks, he decided to try the air currents himself. He took a deep breath and dove out the window. The bartender, who had been watching all of this, shook his head and said, 'Superman, you're really mean when you're drunk.'

 

Zach laughed, feeling strangely better and less alone than he had since he'd arrived.

 

"I have your TT assignment," Ralph told him when he returned to his room after lunch. "You're going to be in Cottage 8B and Rob will be your TT."

 

Once again Zach experienced the panic that he'd had when Roberts handed him over to Ralph. He was anxious to leave the Infirmary and get on with finding a Top, but at the same time, Ralph was a familiar person in a strange place.

 

"It's all right," Ralph said reassuringly as if he'd read Zach's mind. "I think you're going to like your Cottage. There are two TT's, Mike and Rob, and two Brats, Gabe and Sam. Gabe and Sam are Mike's Brats and you're going to be with Rob, but the lines are more blurred in the higher-rated cottages so you'll be spending quite a bit of time with Mike, as well."

 

"What are they like?" Zach asked curiously, intent on finding out all he could about them before he had to deal with them. "I can't believe I'm an 8. That seems so …." he paused, searching for the word. "High. Bad."

 

"Don't let the number throw you, Zach. It had nothing to do with how good or bad you are. It's just a ranking. We don't make judgments about good or bad, just what kind of relationship you'll do best in." He stopped, studying the younger man for a moment. "Okay?" When Zach nodded back, he patted the younger man on the back and continued. "Let's see... Mike's in his early 30s and Rob is a little younger. They've been together for about 3 years now. Mike has been on The Island longer than Rob and he's going to be moving into admin soon. Sam and Gabe will be his last Brats. Rob has been between Brats since his last one left about a month ago. I think you'll get along well with him."

 

"What are Sam and Gabe like?" Zach hadn't even considered the other Brats he'd been sharing a cottage with. His attention had been focused on his TT and finding a Top.

 

"It's almost quiet time," Ralph told him, ever mindful of their schedule. "Get undressed and lie down, then I'll tell you about them."

 

Zach made a face, but he'd already learned that there was no point in arguing with Ralph. He had his schedule set in stone and nothing would make him depart from it.

 

"Sam must be about 23," Ralph told him, once he was in bed. "He's taking college classes, but I'm not sure what his major is. Gabe is about 26 and he works in advertising."

 

"He gets to work, even though he's on The Island?" Zach asked indignantly. "They told me I had to take a leave of absence!"

 

"That's because you'd have to leave The Island to work. Gabe works during the time period when the other Brats are in class," Ralph replied calmly. "That's also the time when you're going to be practicing, by the way."

 

"Oh."

 

"You need to rest now," Ralph continued. "After quiet time, we can talk more about it if you want to."

 

 

Zach was pacing the floor, as nervous as if he were on a first date, when Rob knocked on the door the next morning.

 

"Hi, Rob. Come on in and meet Zach."

 

"Hi, Zach. I'm Rob, your Temp Top," Rob said as he entered the room, and held out his hand.

 

"Hi. I'm pleased to meet you," Zach replied, shaking hands and trying to assess his new TT without being too obvious about it. The man in front of him had a classic swimmer's build, tall and thin but nicely muscled without being too large.  The sandy blond hair and bright blue eyes with his golden tan made him look like he would be more at home on a surf board on the beach instead of ruling over a cottage full of Brats.  But, as Zach looked more closely at those eyes, the intelligence and quick wit convinced him that very little would slip past him.  And this was the man who would have total control over his life for the next six months.

 

"Are you ready to go?" Rob asked with a friendly smile.

 

/You can do this. You're still in control./ Zach took a deep breath and let it out again. /Just go along with it./ "Yes, sir. I'm ready."

 

 

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