TI: Zach: The Next Step

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

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

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


Zach: The Next Step

Dash & AJ – 5/14/02

 

"We have six bedrooms," Rob said as they entered the cottage, "but we rarely have four Brats, so we've been using one of them as a workroom for Gabe. He’s on a leave of absence from his advertising agency but is doing some contract work with them while Sam is in class. I've arranged for that to be your practice time as well."

 

"Where am I going to practice?" Zach asked, looking around appraisingly at his new home. The living room was bright and sunny with big casement windows open to the breeze. The walls were plastered in a rich cream color that complemented the blonde wood floor and increased the feeling of light airiness. There was an entertainment center against one wall, with a blue sofa, love seat and several comfortable looking chairs clustered around it. On the other side of the room, there were two computer stations with a printer between them. An open door on the left revealed an office with two desks and more computers. It all looked casual and uncluttered, a place where five men could live comfortably.

 

"I've arranged for you to practice in the music room in the education building," Rob replied as he led Zach into a short hallway on the right. "It isn't used in the morning and I can walk you over when I take Sam to class. Mike will pick you up when you're through." The hall ended in a T and he gestured to the right. "This is our side of the hall. Your room is here on the left side, Gabe's workroom is just beyond it, and I'm right across from you. Sam is on the other side of you, Gabe is in the far corner, with Mike across from them."

 

He smiled as Zach blinked, obviously trying to memorize the rapid-fire information. "Just remember where your room and my room are for now. You can figure out the rest later."

 

Zach's room had the same blonde wood and cream walls that the living room had. A twin bed covered by a gold, navy, and burgundy plaid comforter was placed against one wall, a dark blue rug next to it. A dark blue thickly-cushioned chair sat in the opposite corner, a lightweight throw tossed over it, protection against the cool night air. The only other furniture was a simple wooden dresser and a nightstand with a bedside lamp and clock on it. His suitcases had been brought from storage and were sitting next to the bed.

 

"The rooms aren't big," Rob said with a smile, "but they're comfortable. There's a daily schedule and list of cottage rules on your dresser. Why don't you unpack and then look them over? We'll have lunch as soon as Mike and Sam get home, which should be soon, and we'll spend some time going over your paperwork together this evening."

 

As Zach put his duffle bag and violin on the bed he could hear Rob at the door of the workroom. "Time, Gabe. Put your work away."

 

"In a minute," an unknown voice replied absently. "I'm almost done."

 

"*Now*, Gabriel." A steely note entered Rob's tone.

 

"But I'm almost finished with this," Gabe whined plaintively. "Come on, Rob! Five minutes?"

 

Zach almost smiled at the familiar tone, remembering the times he'd pulled the same thing with Lane.

 

"All right, you can have as much time as you want," Rob replied, and Zach looked up in dismay. Where was the firm control that he'd heard so much about? His new TT was caving without even putting up a fight!

 

"And?" Gabe asked suspiciously.

 

"And you do five minutes of corner time for every minute you take."

 

"That's not fair!" the Brat yelped indignantly.

 

"That's the deal. Take it or leave it."

 

"All right, I'm cleaning up," Gabe gave in sulkily.

 

"Good boy," Rob praised him. "When you're done, go introduce yourself to Zach."

 

Zach realized suddenly that he was listening to a more or less private conversation and quickly turned to his unpacking. A few minutes later, a dark-haired young man in his mid-twenties entered the room. "Hi, I'm Gabe," he said, holding out his hand. "Welcome to The Island."

 

"Zach," he replied, taking the offered hand. "Nice to meet you." He paused, shutting the drawer and then idly picking up the papers on the desk and glancing at them. "So ... have you been here long?"

 

"About four months."

 

There was an awkward pause as each tried to think of something to say, then Gabe continued. "So how did you like the Infirmary? Was Ralph your TTT, or Adolph?"

 

"TTT, that's Temp Temp Top, right?" Zach asked, pleased that he remembered some of the terminology. "Ralph was. I don't think he liked me though."

"I thought that, too, but Mike swears it’s nothing personal. That's just the way he is with new Brats." He frowned momentarily and then his eye caught the instrument case lying on the bed. "You play the violin?"

 

Zach smiled for the first time. "Yeah, I do. It's what I do for a living. Or what I did for a living, I guess. I don't know anymore. I had to take a leave of absence to come here."

"I know how that goes," Gabe agreed. "I had to take a leave of absence, too, but I'm still working on a couple of special accounts."

 

"Oh, yeah, that's right. Rob said you're in advertising, right? They let you work while you're here?"


"Barely, it’s not even part-time, despite what Rob and Mike think. I work while Sam is in class. That's when you're going to practice or whatever, right? Have you looked at your schedule?"

Zach looked at the stack of papers he was still holding. "Not yet. I think it's in this stack." He leafed through the papers. "This one says schedule. But this one says schedule too, and it's different. How many schedules do I have?" He tossed the papers on the bed and then collapsed next to them, draping his forearm over his eyes. "This is too much. I don’t know if I can do this."


Gabe picked the papers up and glanced at them. "Sure you can. This one is the TI schedule and rules and the other one is the Cottage schedule and rules. It seems like a lot, but believe me, you'll get used to it." He smiled encouragingly. "Rob will go over everything with you and they give you warnings and reminders at first."


Zach uncovered his eyes, trying to smile. "I feel like asking you what you're in for."

 

"Getting so focused on what I'm doing that I don't eat or sleep," Gabe laughed.

 

"Really? I do that, too," Zach said, sitting up again. "I get busy and forget about it. What's the longest you've gone without eating?"

 

"Ummm... do chocolate and caffeine count?"


"No," Zach laughed. "Like real food. I think my record is 5 days."


"I've lived on vending machine food for that long when I've been pushing a deadline." Gabe laughed again. "If you include fast food I've gone for a month without a decent meal."


"Oh, yeah, me too. I guess there's not a McDonald's on The Island, is there?" he asked wistfully.

Gabe made a face. "Not a chance. And chocolate and caffeine are strictly rationed."

"I'm glad to see you two are getting along so well." Rob stuck his head in the door. "But I need Gabe to come set the table. Zach, if you're through unpacking, why don't you go ahead and wash up for lunch. Afterwards, I'll take you on a tour of The Island."
 

~~~~

 

Zach trailed along behind Mike, Rob and his fellow Brats as they headed back to the cottage after dinner, half following their conversation, half lost in his own thoughts.

 

The afternoon had been a busy one, including lunch, a quick tour of The Island, and a stop at the TI store to get his clothing. He'd been surprised to see how big and... normal the store looked. Somehow, he'd pictured something more like a storeroom where he'd be asked his size and handed a stack of clothing. He had spent some time browsing before making his final choices, and they'd gotten back to the cottage just in time to lie down for quiet time.

 

He wasn't sure what to make of quiet time. On the one hand, he was a responsible adult, not a toddler, and he didn't need to take time out of his schedule for a nap every afternoon. On the other hand, it was nice to take a break during the heat of the day and it wasn't like he had to sleep during that time. Rob had pointed out the library and told him there was a wide selection of material available, and he was kind of looking forward to a chance to catch up on his reading. If only it was because he wanted to, not because he was ordered to! /I'm in control,/ he had silently chanted. /I'm doing this because I want to. That makes me the one in control./

After quiet time, he put his new clothes away, then looked over the paperwork Rob had given him until it was time for dinner.

 

The dining hall was very similar to the one at college. They had their ID scanned, picked up a tray and loaded it with food from the serving line. He had expected to sit with his TT's but Sam and Gabe had led him to a table and started introducing him to the Brats sitting there while Mike and Rob had joined some other TTs across the room. Listening to the friendly banter between the Brats he had finally started to relax, feeling almost like he was at college again.

 

He was startled out of his musings as Mike stopped abruptly in front of him and snapped his fingers. "Darn, I saw Hobbes twice today and I forgot to get the new files from him both times. I'll have to go get them and meet you back at the Cottage," he told the others.

 

"I can go if you want," Gabe volunteered. "I'm not ready to go inside yet."

 

"You sure?" the TT asked.

 

"Sure," Gabe replied. "We can't watch tv until Sam is done with his homework, anyway. Can Zach go with me?"

 

Mike looked at Rob, who nodded. "Go ahead, then, but be back at the cottage by 8:00."

 

Zach and Gabe didn't talk much on their way to the staff compound. Gabe led the way, pointing out things that Zach might have missed on his earlier tour, but otherwise quietly allowing him to absorb the atmosphere of The Island.

 

"This one," Gabe directed, leading the way up a short path to a small neat bungalow. The door was open and they could see Cal sitting on the couch inside, folding laundry. Gabe rapped on the screen door. "Cal?"

 

"Hi, come on in," Cal called.

 

"Mike sent us to pick up some files from Hobbes," Gabe explained as they entered the cottage.

 

"He's on the phone," Cal said with a frown, "and I don't know which ones they are. Do you have to get right back?"

 

"Not until 8," the Brat replied.

 

Cal glanced at the clock. "Sit down while I finish matching these socks and then if he isn't through I'll interrupt him, all right? How are you settling in, Zach?"

 

"Fine," Zach answered absently, his eyes on the laundry basket as he sat in a chair across from the couch.

 

"That's a lot of socks," Gabe commented cheerfully on what Zach was too polite to mention as he sat down next to Cal.

 

 "Sure is," Cal replied equally cheerfully. "Want to help match and fold them?"

 

"Calvin!" a warning voice came from the other room.

 

"Never mind," Cal said with a wink and a grin. "I'm in a little bit of trouble here."

 

"What happened?" Gabe asked.

 

"He doesn't like to match socks," Hobbes replied, coming into the room. "So he's been tossing them in a basket in the closet after he does laundry and picking up a new package from the store whenever we run low."

 

"And *someone* found the basket today," Cal added with a rueful grin. "So I'm matching almost two months worth of socks. Don, have you met Zach yet?"

 

"No, I haven't had the pleasure. Nice to meet you, Zach," Hobbes said, nodding at the young man.

 

"Mike sent us to get some files from you," Gabe explained as Zach nodded in return.

 

"Right, I'll get them for you." Hobbes left the room for a moment and came back with a small stack of file folders banded together. "Here you go. Tell him we can go over them tomorrow afternoon if he wants.

 

"I'm going over to Ryan's for a while, babe," he continued to Cal. "I expect all of those socks to be folded when I get back. *Without* help," he added sternly, then dropped a light, affectionate kiss on the top of Cal's head as he left.

 

"How many pair have you done so far?" Gabe asked, trying not to laugh.

 

"43," Cal replied gloomily, looking at the basket that was still nearly half-full. "It seemed like such a good idea at the time."

 

"We'll let you get back to it then," Gabe said with a grin. "Talk to you later."

 

"Later," Cal replied. "Have a good night."

 

Zach and Gabe strolled back to the cottage, in no hurry to go inside. The Island was settling down for the night, and occasionally they heard a TT calling to his Brats or a Brat running by on his way home, but for the most part it was quiet and peaceful. As they passed a bench overlooking the water, Zach asked, "Can we sit down and watch the sun set?"

 

"Sure," Gabe said willingly, glancing at his watch. "I'm sorry, I should have thought about you having a long day and not asked for you to come along."

 

"It's all right, I'm glad you did. I'm just feeling a little overwhelmed by everything right now. I think I need a few minutes to regroup."

 

"I know what you mean. I was so lost the first couple of weeks. But you settle into the routine pretty fast and then it's a lot easier. And Rob and Mike are great, plus Sam and I will help you get through it."

 

They sat quietly, relaxing and watching the sun sink slowly into the water.

 

"Hi, Gabe," a cheerful voice said, and they both looked up. "Out a little late, aren't you?"

 

"Hi, Tim," Gabe greeted the security guard. "This is Zach, our new cottagemate. Mike sent me to collect some papers from Hobbes," he waved the folder, "and we were just enjoying the sunset before we go back home."

 

Tim nodded and smiled at Zach, then continued speaking to Gabe. "That's fine, but you probably should be getting back. It's going to be dark soon and you don't have a flashlight with you."

 

"Shit," Gabe said, glancing at his watch as Tim moved on. "We're supposed to be back at 8 and it's 5 till now." Making a face, he glanced at Zach. "Come on, let's run. We might be able to make it." He got up and hurried down the path, breaking into a quick jog as he went.

 

Hurrying to catch up, Zach asked worriedly, "What happens if we're late?"

 

Gabe flashed him a quick smile. "They beat us and then lock us in our rooms." He laughed at the look on Zach's face and continued, "I'm kidding, don't worry about it. I'll get in trouble but you're new so you'll just get a warning."

 

Suddenly veering off the paved path, he jogged across the grass, heading toward a brightly lit cottage. They were cutting across its back yard when a voice hailed them.

 

"Stop right there."

 

"Shit," Gabe muttered, coming to a stop immediately.

 

"Don't swear," the voice said automatically. "Come here, please."

 

The two Brats trudged over to the two figures sitting on the swing, half-hidden in the dusk.

 

"Scott, come on," Gabe whined. "Give us a break, we're late enough already. Hi, Dylan."

 

Taking his arm from around Dylan, Scott held his hand out to Zach. "Hi, I'm Scott, and this is my backyard you're trespassing in. You must be Rob's new Orphan."

 

Gabe sighed and glanced at his watch. "Zach, this is Scott and Dylan. Scott, Dylan, this is Zach. He's new."

 

"Hi" Zach said quietly, shaking both of their hands.

 

Scott stood up, then leaned over and ruffled Dylan's hair. "Stay here, little one, I'll be back in just a minute and we'll finish our conversation. All right, boys, let's go."

 

Gabe groaned. "Scott, come on! We know the way. We don't need an escort." He stopped whining as Scott gave him a Look.

 

"You know you're not allowed to cut through the yards, especially at night, so I'm going to walk you home," Scott told him, taking them by the arms and directing them back toward the front of the cottage and the pathway. A few minutes later, they were on the porch of Cottage 8B. Knocking on the doorframe, Scott called through the screen door, "Delivery!"

 

Gabe groaned. "Scott, come on. It wasn't that big a deal. Let it go."

 

"What wasn't a big deal?" Rob asked appearing from the kitchen. "I was wondering where you two had gotten to. I thought we agreed that you'd be back at 8:00." The Top glanced at the living room clock that plainly said 8:07.

 

Scott smiled and released them. "Just some lost Orphans stumbling around in the dark in our backyard. I figured I should walk them over personally, to make sure they didn't get lost again." He winked at Rob, who shook his head.

 

"We would have been home on time, but Scott stopped us," Gabe complained bitterly

 

Rob held up a hand. "Stop right there, Gabriel. Scott acted appropriately and I don't want to hear any more complaining about it. Now, say thank you to him for bringing you home and then you both can go to your rooms and wait for me."

 

Zach mumbled "thank you" before ducking his head, slipping past Rob, and entering the cottage, his face red with embarrassment.

 

Gabe crossed his arms and glared at Rob, who waited patiently. "It isn't fair! We would have been on time if it hadn't been for Scott!"

 

"Gabriel," Rob said warningly. After another moment, the TT ended the standoff by reaching out and, taking Gabe by the arm, quickly swatting him hard across the seat of his shorts. "You heard me."

 

The Brat yelped and then yelled, "Fine! Thank you for doing something that I was perfectly capable of doing myself!" before jerking free and hurrying into the cottage.

 

Turning, Rob watched him disappear into the hall and a moment later the sound of a slamming door echoed through the house.

 

Scott smiled at him and shook his head. "Sounds like you guys are going to have a fun night."

 

Rob gave a quick laugh. "Oh, yeah. Sam's already doing lines in the kitchen and now we have those two to deal with." He peered up at the sky. "Is it a full moon or something?"

 

Scott smiled broadly. "Must be. We're going through the same thing. I need to get back and finish dealing with Dylan. Say hi to Mike for me." He turned and jogged down the steps and back to the main path.

 

Rob closed the screen door again and headed back into the kitchen. He checked on Sam, still writing mutinously, before going into the office off of the living room. Pushing the door almost closed, he sat on the edge of the desk where Mike was working.

 

Eyes still on the computer screen, Mike asked, "What's up? Did I hear Scott?"

 

"Yeah," Rob said simply.

 

Looking up, Mike raised an eyebrow. "So why did Scott come over?"

 

"He brought Gabe and Zach home. They were running late and Gabe had the great idea that they could save some time by cutting through Scott and Andre's backyard."

 

"Did they remember to get my files?"

 

"Michael!"

 

"Sorry," the other Top grinned. "So it's Zach's first night in the cottage and Gabe has him in trouble already. Look at it this way, Rob. We were hoping that Zach might be able to pull him out of his shell a little, and they do seem to be getting along well."

 

"They could get along well without getting in trouble," Rob grumbled. "They're in their rooms. Can you check Sam's lines and take care of Gabe? I need to spend some time with Zach."

 

"Corner time?" Mike asked simply.

 

"14 minutes for being late, but he also cut through their yard when Scott was having private time with Dylan, had a tantrum and refused to apologize to Scott, and then slammed his door."

 

Mike sighed, then saved his work and stood up. "Okay, let's go deal with them."

 

Rob followed Mike out of the office, waiting in the living room as the other TT went into the kitchen. Laying a hand on Sam's shoulder, Mike glanced at the notebook pages with the sentence "Some lemmings stay behind" scrawled over and over in Sam's untidy handwriting. "Okay, that looks good. Put it on my desk in the office, then go ahead and finish your homework. I need to take care of some business with Gabe."

 

Sam nodded as he stood up and leaned into the TT for a hug. "Sorry. I'll try to do better next time."

 

"I know," Mike replied easily, hugging him back before rejoining Rob in the living room.

 

They continued into the hall together and Rob knocked gently on Zach's closed door before opening it and going in, as Mike repeated the process down the hall. Shutting the door behind him, he stood there for a moment and looked at the dark-haired young man lying on his bed, arm thrown over his eyes. "Zach, get up and come with me, please."

 

"I'm sorry, I should have been watching the time. I'm not usually this irresponsible. I promise you that I'm not--", Zach began, lying motionless on the bed.

 

"I know that, Zach, and I'm not mad," Rob interrupted him. "But I do want to talk to you. So," he said, snapping his fingers together with a smile, "let's go. Get your papers and let's go talk in my room for a while."

 

Slowly, refusing to meet Rob's eyes, the Brat stood up. Grabbing the pile of papers off the desk, he followed Rob out of the room and across the hall.

 

Rob flipped on the lights as he entered his sitting area and motioned toward the couch. "Have a seat, Zach. Do you want something to drink?" he asked.

 

"Water, please," Zach told him, more because he wanted something to do with his hands than because he was thirsty.

 

Rob got two bottles out of the small refrigerator in the corner, removed both caps, and handed one to Zach.

 

Zach nervously took a gulp, wondering what Rob was going to do to him. /God, how could he have managed to get in trouble already?/ he wondered in frustration.

 

"It's okay, Zach, you aren't in trouble," Rob told the anxious Brat. "I know that it takes time to settle in and I don't expect you to know all the rules the first night. I just want to spend some quiet time with you, go over your schedule and the rules, and make sure you're doing okay."

 

"I'm good," Zach replied, forcing himself to smile.

 

Rob nodded, sitting down on the couch next to Zach. "Good, then let's look at your schedule. As you probably have figured out from your time in the Infirmary, The Island sticks to a fairly consistent schedule, like a college does." Picking up the first sheet of paper, he held it so they could both read it. "This is the cottage schedule. You're in Cottage 8B," he said pointing to the top of the sheet. "Each cottage uses the same general schedule, modified by the TT's to suit their specific needs. This is what Mike and I have set up and it seems to work well. As you can see, we get up at 6:00 every morning. That gives everyone time to shower, dress, and have breakfast and still make it to class by 8:00.”

 

"That's when I'm going to practice, right?" Zach questioned. "Because I'm not taking any classes."

 

"On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, you'll practice," Rob corrected. "On Tuesday and Thursday, you have Brat classes and possibly Group during that time. I'll have to check with Cal about that."

 

"Group what?" Zach asked in confusion.

 

"Sorry," the TT said with a smile. "Once a week you'll meet with a small group of Brats. It's like a support group. You can talk about things that are bothering you or that you have questions about. There are also set topics that the Group leader brings up and everyone discusses them."

 

“Oh, okay,” Zach replied, not sure he liked the idea but trying not to let his wariness show.

 

"We usually have lunch in the dining hall on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and here on Tuesday and Thursday. After lunch you have free time followed by clubs and hobbies. There’s a list of the clubs and hobbies we offer on one of these sheets and I can tell you which ones Gabe and Sam are in, if you’d feel more comfortable going with them at first.

 

"What if I don't want to join a club?" Zach objected. "I'm not a really social person. Can't I just have more free time?"

 

"That's not an option," Rob told him firmly. "You need to make friends with other Brats who have common interests, not become a hermit." He hesitated for a moment, then asked, "How do you feel about working with beginning music students?"

 

"It's all right. I've taught several master classes, but it isn't really my forte," Zach replied slowly, trying to figure out where this was going.

 

"The reason I'm asking is that we have a small strings group, or at least we're trying to; they're terrible. If you're interested in making that one of your clubs, I'm sure they'd value any help you could give them."

 

"It sounds interesting," Zach admitted. "Can I think about it?"

 

"Of course," Rob replied. "And if you don't want to do it, that's fine. I'm only mentioning it as a possible option for you. Now," he returned to the schedule, "we have quiet time from 3-4--"

 

Zach made a face, but didn't argue.

 

"--then we have cottage time for an hour or so before dinner," the TT continued, ignoring the frown. "We eat dinner here part of the time and in the dining room part of the time, depending on the day and how busy Mike and I are. When we eat here, everyone helps with either the cooking or clean up and then everyone does their homework. After that, we watch tv or play games or have free time until we go to bed at 10."

 

"But I won't have homework. So I can do whatever I want then, right?"

 

"No," Rob replied patiently. "One thing that you'll find, Zach, is that here on The Island you're not going to have a lot of time to do whatever you want. While there is plenty of leisure time, it's structured. Each cottage is a little different, but basically the higher rated the cottage, the more structured it is. We 8s are much more structured than the 5s or 6s, or even the 7s. Plus, starting on Tuesday, you'll have homework for your Brat classes."

 

"They include homework? I thought they were just lectures," Zach asked in surprise.

 

"Let's take a look at that now," the Top said, flipping through the sheets of paper until he found the one he wanted. Holding it so that Zach could read along, he continued, "This is the syllabus for Introduction to Discipline Relationships: The Brat’s Role. They're the first of the core classes that all Brats are required to take as part of their orientation. And, just like the title says, they explain the basics of a discipline partnership and the role the Brat plays in it. They're offered in a continuous cycle and you start wherever they're at when you arrive and move on when you reach that point again. From there you go to the second set of classes, the 'Life Skills' which teach you basic living skills, such as budgeting, simple cooking, laundry, first aid--"

 

"I already know all of that," Zach said. "I've been living on my own for almost seven years."

 

"Then that should be an easy review for you," Rob replied. "But since a surprising number of Brats don't have those skills and we don't want to single them out, all Brats take the classes. Again, you'll jump into those wherever they happen to be at when you're ready to join them and finish when you come around to your first class again. Finally, you'll have 'Relationship' classes. Those are to help you prepare for a long-term relationship with your Top and give you a more in-depth understanding of your role and what’s expected from you in that relationship. Some of those classes will be taken with your Top and some alone."

 

"Do the Tops have to take these classes, too?" Zach asked.

 

"Not these classes specifically, but they do have a similar series of classes and seminars that they have to complete before they're eligible for a partner."

 

"So Lane couldn't just come here and find a partner right away either?" Somehow the process seemed fairer if the Tops had to go through the same thing.

 

"No, he'd have to complete a minimum of 200 hours of classes first, and then go through the matching process just like you will. Then, after you’re committed, there are follow-up seminars that we encourage everyone to take. You’ll find that most of our matched couples routinely return to The Island once or twice a year for different seminars and workshops.

 

"So I'll have homework two nights a week and free time the other nights?" Zach went back to the original conversation.

 

"No," Rob replied. "You'll have reading to do each night, and on Wednesday evenings you and I will spend about an hour together, talking about what you're learning, going over questions or concerns You'll have an essay on your Group session due by noon on Friday and you're also required to keep a personal journal while you're here. Remind me to get a blank journal and your lines notebook when we finish here."

 

"A lines notebook?" Zach asked, starting to feel overwhelmed. There was so much he had to learn. How was he going to keep track of everything? And they hadn't even gotten to the rules yet!

 

"When you write lines for punishment they're chosen to make you think about what you did, and you write them in a personal notebook. Periodically we'll go over the notebook together and see where you're making progress and what we have to work on more." Smiling, Rob put an arm around his shoulders, pulling him into a light hug. "I know it's a lot to learn, but you'll be surprised at how fast you become accustomed to it. Why don't we call it a night? It's been a long day for you and we can go over the rest of it in the morning while Sam's in class and Gabe is working."

 

"All right," Zach agreed, pulling away uncomfortably and attempting to gather his papers together.

 

"No, just be close for a few minutes. I'm not going to hurt you," Rob told him gently, pulling him back. "We think physical contact is important and you'll see a lot of it here. Most Brats and Tops are very tactile and enjoy touching, and being close is an essential part of being in a discipline relationship. If you can’t trust someone enough to relax and be held by them, how can you trust them enough to discipline you?” When Zach didn’t answer, Rod continued, slowly rubbing the younger man's back. “Most of us didn't get enough of it in the outside world, where it's all right for a man to hug his wife or girlfriend in public, but not for us to hug the people we love. Touching and being close doesn’t have to be sexual, it’s simply a way to connect and to feel loved and accepted. So, just relax and sit quietly with me for a few minutes.”

 

Zach thought about that as he tried to relax. It was true that he hadn't had much physical contact from other people lately, but he'd never considered it important. He jumped as a sharp cry came from Mike's room down the hall. He swallowed hard, pulling away again, looking at Rob in dismay.

 

"Is that Gabe?" he asked accusingly. "I thought you said we weren't in trouble!"

 

"No, I said *you* aren't in trouble," Rob replied, pulling him back yet again and holding him close. "I don't expect you to know the rules yet and I won't punish you until you do. Gabe knows the rules, though, and he knows the consequences for losing his temper and slamming doors. Relax, Zach, and trust us on this. Just allow yourself to go with the system and things will work out, I promise."

 

~~~~~~~~

 

Gabe was lying on his stomach on the bed when Mike walked in, face turned toward the wall.

 

"Gabriel," Mike said, not unkindly, "let's go talk in my sitting room, shall we?"

 

Gabe slowly rose and followed Mike across the hall, his stomach clenching nervously. He hated this part. The actual punishment was a lot easier to take than the intimate talk beforehand, going over exactly what he'd done and why it was wrong. Why couldn't Mike just be angry at him, instead of being so patient and loving and *talking* so much about it?

 

"You want to tell me what happened tonight?" Mike asked him as they sat down..

 

"Why? You've already decided I'm guilty. Why don't you just punish me and get it over with?" Gabe asked sullenly, slouching to get away from Mike's arm around his shoulder.

 

"Because that isn't the way we work, and you know that, Gabe," Mike replied patiently, transferring his hand to the Brat's thigh. "Talk to me, please. Start with when you left to go get the papers from Hobbes."

 

Sighing, Gabe sat up straight again. Slowly, miserably, feeling as if Mike was pulling teeth, he stumbled through an account of what had happened that evening.

 

"All right, let's take this one thing at a time," Mike suggested when he'd finished his recitation. "You were doing all right up until you decided to take a shortcut through Scott's yard. Why don't we cut through the yards, Gabe, especially at night? Gabriel?" he repeated when the young man didn't answer. "Is it because we're all anal and want to make your lives miserable with petty rules?"

 

"No," the Brat replied in a low voice.

 

"Then why?"

 

"Because," Gabe mumbled, staring at the floor, "sometimes the TTs sit outside to talk to their Brats, to give them more privacy. And if you cut through their yard you can hear stuff you shouldn't or interrupt them at an important time." He flushed guiltily, remembering that Scott and Dylan had been having a quiet conversation, and that Scott had left it to walk them home. Obviously they had interrupted something, and Scott had been unhappy enough about it to tell Rob right away instead of just mentioning it later. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "I wasn't thinking. I hope Dylan is okay."

 

"Next?" Mike asked, satisfied that Gabe understood what he'd done. "You were rude to Scott and you were defiant to Rob. Why isn't that acceptable? After all, Scott isn't your TT; he has no authority over you."

 

"Because-- I don't know, Mike! Can't you just hand out the punishment and get it over with?" he asked desperately.

 

"No, because you need to think about this, Gabe. You need to understand why we have these rules, not just blindly follow - or not follow - them. Why is being rude to Scott and defiant to Rob wrong?"

 

"Because-- because rudeness is never an acceptable way to deal with conflict, and being defiant questions Rob's authority and makes him look bad and is disrespectful?" Gabe looked at Mike hopefully.

 

"That's one way to put it," Mike agreed. It wasn't quite what he'd wanted to hear and he debated exploring the matter a little further, but Gabe was clearly stressing and they still had one more thing to discuss. "All right. The last thing is losing your temper and slamming your door. Why did you lose your temper, Gabe? You've been chastised in front of other TTs before."

 

"I don't know." Gabe slouched again, moving away from Mike, clearly signaling that the walls were going up.

 

"Gabriel," the TT said warningly. "Do we need to finish this with you looking at the floor?"

 

"No!" More than anything, Gabe hated the vulnerability of that position, lying across Mike's lap, one of the firm, strong hands warm against his bare butt, ready to punctuate the discussion if the TT didn't feel he was being open enough. He struggled to put his feelings into words. "I-- I was embarrassed," he finally admitted miserably, refusing to meet Mike's eyes. "I wanted- I wanted to impress Zach, I wanted him to like me. Instead I got in trouble and I got him in trouble, too. And Scott and Rob were making a big deal about it and I just wanted them to let it go."

 

"But who decides what's a big deal and what isn't, Gabe?" Mike asked softly.

 

"You do. Or Rob," the Brat replied so quietly that Mike had to strain to hear him.

 

"And isn't that one of the reasons you're here? Because you have trouble setting priorities and telling what should be a big deal? And because you lose your temper instead of working with other people when they try to set those priorities for you?"

 

"Yes," came a barely audible whisper.

 

"What happens when you lose your temper here, Gabriel?"

 

"I get spanked," he whispered.

 

"You get spanked," Mike confirmed, standing up. "I think we've covered everything now. Why don't you get your shorts off and find yourself a corner? You have 14 minutes of corner time for being late and tomorrow you can write a short essay on why it's important to respect people's privacy."

 

"Please, Mike, do you have to spank me?" Gabe pleaded, even as he stood up and unbuttoned his shorts. "Couldn't you do something else, just this once?"

 

"Why should I change the rules 'just this once', Gabe?"

 

"Because he- because Zach- I don't want him to- Please, Mike?"

 

"He's going to hear you get spanked sooner or later, babe," Mike said, pulling the forlorn Brat into a tight hug. "Just like you'll hear him get spanked sooner or later. It's a fact of life here, and we aren't going to change the rules or the consequences to avoid you being embarrassed."

 

"Yes, Mike," Gabe, replied miserably, briefly returning the hug before pulling away and kicking his shorts off.

 

15 minutes later, Mike sat down on a straight-backed chair in the middle of the room. "Come here, Gabe."

 

"Mike, please, I'm sorry," the Brat was almost crying as he reluctantly approached the TT and allowed himself to be pulled down over Mike's lap. "Mike, please-" he tried pleading one more time, struggling a little as he felt his briefs pulled down and Mike's hand resting warmly against his butt.

 

Holding Gabe firmly around the waist, Mike didn't bother to answer. He simply adjusted his leg to raise the younger man's bottom slightly for easier access, then lifted his hand and brought it down sharply across the exposed cheeks.

 

As Gabe cried out and began struggling in earnest, Mike quickly delivered several more hard swats, turning the exposed flesh a warm, even pink. He didn't bother to lecture; they had covered everything in their discussion earlier. He simply delivered a rapid, but thorough, spanking.

 

At first, Gabe tried to stifle his cries, but as the spanking continued he no longer thought or cared about who might be listening. "Mike, stop! I'm sorry, please stop!" he begged through his sobs and, finally, a series of sharp swats signaled the end.

 

"All right, babe, we're through," the TT told him, releasing the tight grip around the Brat's waist and rubbing his back. "Come on, now, it's okay." He pulled the briefs back up and moved to the couch, settling Gabe on his lap and pulling a blanket over him. "Shh, it's all right now." He continued soothing the distraught Brat until he was calm and quiet, and then helped him lie  down on the couch, slipping a pillow under his head and covering him with the blanket again. Gabe protested drowsily at the move, but soon settled down again, almost asleep.

 

"Will you be all right alone for a few minutes, Gabe?" Mike asked softly a few minutes later. "Do you want me to get Rob to sit with you?"

 

"Where... you going?" Gabe asked, sniffling, as he twisted to look up at Mike, then winced and lay flat on his stomach again.

 

"What did I tell you was going to happen the next time you slammed your door?"

 

"No, Mike, don't!" The tears began to flow again. "I'm sorry. I promise I won't do it again."

 

"That's what you said last time," Mike pointed out, kneeling by him and beginning to stroke his back once more. "And I warned you what would happen if you did."

 

"No, please, Mike, don't," he sobbed. "I can't handle anymore. Haven't I been punished enough already?"

 

"Shh, it's all right, Gabe," Mike lifted the Brat and sat down, cradling him on his lap. "Shh, calm down, it's all right, babe." He soothed and stroked and comforted until he felt that the young man was calm enough to listen to him again. "Do you trust me, Gabriel?" he asked, turning the Brat to look into his eyes.

 

"Yeah... I guess," Gabe told him, gulping back a sob.

 

"Do you trust me enough to let me decide what you can handle and when it's too much?" the TT asked gently.

 

Gabe hesitated; wiping the tears from his eyes and blowing his nose on the tissue Mike handled him. "Yes," he agreed with a sniffle. "I trust you."

 

"That's my boy," Mike praised him lovingly.

 

"But I don't want you to take my door off!" he added despairingly.

 

"I know you don't, babe." The TT pushed his hair back from his forehead. "If you did, it wouldn't be a deterrent, would it? But it isn't too much and you can handle it for 24 hours, even if you don't like it very much, right?"

 

There was a long pause as the Brat warred with himself. "I guess," he finally admitted with a sigh.

 

"That's my boy," Mike told him again, hugging him tightly. He held Gabe close, rubbing his back and offering wordless comfort until the young man was drowsy and quiet, the tears down to an occasional whimper and sniff, then gently laid him back on the couch again. He waited to make sure the Brat was soundly asleep and then went to get a screwdriver and remove the offending door.

 

~~~~~~~

 

Rolling over onto his back, Zach sighed. His room was dark and silent, a far cry from home, where the street lights, passing cars, and general sound of the city provided a comforting background to sleep. Here the only light came from a dim nightlight in the hall, and the only sounds were from the crickets outside his window.

 

Flipping to his stomach, face turned away from the annoying half-opened door of his bedroom, Zach's bottom clenched, remembering Gabe's cries of pain and the rhythmic and painful sound of the spanking. About an hour afterward, the other Brat had come into the living room, red-eyed and still sniffling and quietly apologized to Rob for his earlier tantrum. Zach had watched out of the corner of his eye as Rob stood up and hugged the younger man, whispering softly to him and then patted his bottom before leading him back toward the bedroom where Mike was waiting. When Rob came back to the living room, he had stroked Sam's head as he passed before resuming his seat on the couch with Zach.

 

The gentleness of the scene had surprised Zach, as did the lack of tension in the air. Lane had rarely spanked him. He could only remember twice, but both times the house had almost bristled with anger. He tensed even now at the memory of Lane's anger and disappointment in him and the absolute humiliation he felt afterwards.

 

The painful memories were interrupted as door opened further and light spilled into the room.

 

"You're not dressed," Gabe said disapprovingly as he gingerly sat down on the side of the bed. "Are you packed?"

 

"Packed? No, I finished unpacking this afternoon," Zach said in confusion. "What's going on?"

 

"Oh, well." Gabe made himself more comfortable. "I guess you can go in your underwear. Nobody'll notice."

 

"Go where?" Zach asked, wondering if this was some bizarre hazing ritual or something.

 

"To meet the others. We're all totally fed up with this dictatorship and we're going to mutiny and take over The Island."

 

"We are?" Zach asked uncertainly.

 

"Yeah, we are. They have no right to treat us this way. We're men, damn it! We can make our own decisions and stay out as late as we want, and there shouldn't be any consequences for it! Or for slamming doors! And after that," he leaned closer and lowered his voice conspiratorially, "after that we're going to Disney World. But don't tell the Tops. They aren't invited. We're only taking *fun* people on this trip."

 

"Uh... Gabe? Do you know how far it is to Disney World?" There was definitely something wrong, Zach decided. Maybe he'd better go find Mike or Rob.

 

"1,872 miles. But it's okay, Sam stole a plane."

 

"Sam... stole a plane. Right." Zach began inching toward the foot of the bed.

 

"No, you have the wrong night, Gabe. Sam isn't stealing the plane until tomorrow night," Mike said soothingly, having entered the room unnoticed. "Why don't you go back to bed now and let Zach get some sleep."

 

"Okay," Gabe said obediently as he stood up. "You're sure it's tomorrow night?"

 

"I'm positive. Scoot now. I'll come tuck you in in a few minutes." He lightly swatted Gabe's bottom, sending him out of the room. "I'm sorry, Zach. I hope he didn't scare you. Usually I hear him before he gets this far."

 

"Is he okay?" Zach asked, relieved that Mike seemed to be in control. "He was acting pretty strange."

 

"He was asleep," the TT explained with a smile. "I'm sorry. We should have warned you about Gabe's sleepwalking, but he doesn't usually go into other people's rooms and start conversations with them. If he does it again, just tell him to go back to bed."

 

"Does he do it very often?" Zach asked uneasily, as he laid back down, still eyeing the Top.

 

"No, only when he's extra tired or stressed. Getting in trouble tonight probably triggered it. Don't worry, though. He rarely does it more than once a night." He pulled the sheet up over Zach and straightened the comforter and then, patting his shoulder gently, added, "Try to get some sleep, okay?"

 

"I'll try," Zach murmured as the TT turned off the light. He intended to lie awake and continue to go over the day, but instead fell asleep almost immediately.

 

~~~~~

 

When Zach walked into the kitchen the next morning, Mike, Rob, and Sam were already at the table.

 

"Where's Gabe?" he asked, as he sat down and poured himself a bowl of cereal. "Is he okay?"

 

"He's fine," Mike reassured him. "He won't even remember it this morning."

 

"Gabe sleepwalking last night?" Rob asked as he passed Zach the milk.

 

"Yeah, he went in and had a conversation with Zach," Mike replied with a laugh. "Which reminds me, Sam. I'd better not catch you hijacking a plane and taking the Brats to Disney World."

 

"The thought never crossed my mind," Sam swore, raising his right hand solemnly, and Gabe walked into the room during the outburst of laughter.

 

"What's up?" he asked. "What's so funny?"

 

"How many miles is it to Disney World?" Zach couldn't resist testing Mike's claim.

 

"I don't have a clue." Gabe looked at him in astonishment. "Why?"

 

He looked around as the others burst into laughter again. "I was walking in my sleep again last night, wasn't I?" he asked in chagrin.

 

"And talking," Mike confirmed. "You had a nice conversation with Zach about hijacking a plane and going to Disney World."

 

"Hey, it's all right, babe," he said, seeing the brief hurt look that Gabe tried to conceal when everyone laughed again. He placed a hand on Gabe's shoulder. "We're just teasing you a little. It isn't something to be ashamed of, anymore than Sam should be ashamed of being dyslexic."

 

"Sam can't help being dyslexic," Gabe said somewhat bitterly.

 

"And you can't help walking in your sleep," Mike told him firmly. "Now sit down and eat, please. I need to walk Sam to class."

 

"Isn't this when I practice?" Zach questioned Rob. "Should I go get my things?"

 

"Not today," Rob told him. "I want to spend some more time going over the material we didn't cover last night first, show you a bit more of The Island and introduce you to people you’ll need to know. Then this afternoon we'll get you set up with your clubs and activities and find out from Cal when you have Group, and tonight is movie night."

 

"What's the movie?" Gabe looked up from his bowl of cereal.

 

"Castaway," Mike replied.

 

"Oh, good, an island movie," Sam laughed. "We can all point out all the mistakes they made."

 

~~~~~

 

"Where do you want to sit?" Sam asked his cottage mates that evening as they entered the rapidly filling theater, carrying three cokes, 2 packages of red vines and a jumbo tub of popcorn.

 

"Not with Brandon and Jackson," Gabe replied firmly. "Last time we sat with them, you guys talked so much I couldn't hear the movie."

 

"But what's the point of choosing somebody to sit with if you're not going to talk to them?" Sam asked with a grin and wink. “You might as well be by yourself,” he muttered good-naturedly as he scanned the crowd for empty seats.

 

"Look, there's Dylan and Jamie, about eight rows down, toward the middle," Gabe pointed them out. "And there are three seats right next to them, on the other aisle. Let's go before someone else gets them."

 

"Jackson would be more fun," Sam mumbled under his breath even as he obediently trailed along behind Zach and Gabe. "Hey, those are our seats!" he yelled as he saw three other Brats headed toward the previously undesirable location. He thrust the popcorn at Zach and took off. "Excuse me, 'scuse me, sorry," he muttered as he trampled the feet of the Brats between him and his goal, beating the others to the seats by a hair. "You snooze, you lose," he announced, flashing them a triumphant grin.

 

"Zach, have you met everyone?" Gabe asked as they took a more conventional route to the seats that Sam was saving for them. He waited for Zach to enter the row ahead of him, and then sat down next to him as Sam took the seat on the end. "That's Dylan next to you, then his brother Jamie, Patrick, Tracy, Travis, Cody and Carlos. Travis and Cody are from Cottage 7B, everyone else is from 6A."

 

Zach put his drink in the cupholder as he looked down the line of Brats. All of them were in their early to mid-twenties, and bewilderingly alike despite the various builds and hair colors. He nodded at all of them impartially, frowning a little as he tried to remember the names in the order given.

 

"Don't worry about it," Dylan softly advised him. "You'll get to know everyone sooner or later."

 

"I'm bored," Jamie complained before Dylan could say any more. "When's the movie going to start?"

 

"7:00, same as last time you asked," Dylan replied, turning his attention to the Brat on the other side of him.

 

"What time is it now?"

 

"Two minutes later than last time you asked!" the rest of the row chorused.

 

"Why don't we play The Game?" Sam suggested.

 

"What game?" Zach asked as the others all nodded and agreed.

 

"The Game," Sam told him. "It doesn't have any other name."

 

"It's kind of like everything else around here," Gabe laughed. "Our founding fathers weren't too creative about naming stuff. We have The Island, The Creek, The Other Creek..."

 

"The Beach, The Overlook, The Brat Compound..." Tracy contributed.

 

"And now The Game," Sam finished with a grin.

 

"We usually play it whenever we have to wait for something," Dylan explained with a smile.

 

"You pick a category - best, worst, most, least, something like that," Jamie took up the explanation. "Then the first person gives a topic or event, like movie or date or actor, and you go down the line with each person answering. The person who picked the topic goes last, and then the next person picks one. Does that make any sense?"

 

"I think so," Zach said with a frown.

 

"Why don't you go last?" Sam suggested. "That way you can see how we do it before it's your turn. Favorite," he told the others. "You start, Dylan."

 

"Um... candy bar. Jamie?"

 

"Snickers," Jamie replied promptly. "Patrick?"

 

"Three Musketeers. Tracy?"

 

"Hershey's milk chocolate. With nuts," he grinned.

 

They went down the line until they came to Zach, who obligingly replied "Milky Way" when it was his turn. "Now what?" he asked.

 

"Butterfinger," Dylan replied. "Now Jamie picks one."

 

"Actor," Jamie chose. "Patrick?"

 

"Tom Cruise. Tracy?"

 

"Ewan McGregor."

 

"David Duchovny."

 

"Cary Grant."

 

"Adrian Paul."

 

"Boris Karloff."

 

"Carlos!" they all shouted, pelting him with popcorn.

 

"What?" Carlos asked with a grin. "You said favorite, not cutest!"

 

"They aren't the same?" Sam asked in astonishment, widening his eyes comically, and they all laughed again.

 

"The movie's about to start," Gabe pointed out as the lights dimmed. He settled the popcorn on his lap where both Sam and Zach could reach it and opened the first package of red vines. "We'll have to finish later."

 

"Did you have a good day?" Rob asked later, sitting on the edge of Zach's bed and smiling at him. "Did you enjoy the movie?"

 

"Yeah, I did," Zach admitted. He laid his book on the night stand and thumped his pillow a couple of times, then shifted around until he was lying comfortably on his side. "I think I'm going to like working with the strings."

 

"I think they'll like working with you even more," Rob said with a laugh. "They're pretty bad."

 

"So we'll make them pretty good," Zach said confidently. "Did you ask Mike about running with him and Gabe instead of doing an organized sport?"

 

"Yes, I did. He said that's fine. He'll talk to you about it tomorrow. Which is going to be here all too soon," he added, standing up. "Get some sleep now, okay?" He briefly squeezed the Brat's shoulder. "Good night. Sleep well. I'll see you in the morning."

 

"'Night, Rob," Zach replied as the TT crossed to the door and turned off the light. "See you in the morning."

 

~~~~~~~

 

Zach paused outside the door of the classroom and took a deep breath.

 

"You'll be fine," Rob said reassuringly, patting him on the back. "Mike will be back for you at 10."

 

"I can find my own way back," Zach protested. "It's not like my first day of kindergarten."

 

"Mike will pick you up at 10," Rob repeated patiently. "Go on in now, before you're late."

 

Zach silently repeated his mantra as he opened the door and entered the room, feeling more nervous than if he was walking onto a stage before hundreds of people. It felt as if hundreds of people were staring at him at first, but after a moment he realized there were only nine. Ten, counting the instructor at the front of the room.

 

"Welcome, Zach," the man told him. "My name is Brothers and I'll be teaching this segment of the class. I assume that Rob gave you the syllabus and explained how the class works?"

 

Zach nodded shyly.

 

"Excellent. Why don't you take a seat next to Cody while I pass out these handouts? Then we'll all introduce ourselves before we get started."

 

A young blond man of about 24 identified himself to Zach with a friendly smile, gesturing to the empty seat next to him. "Hi," he whispered. "I'm Cody, we met at the movie the other night, but you probably don't remember me. Welcome to The Island."

 

“All right guys, thank you,” Brothers said when they had gone down the line introducing themselves. He sat down on the desk to begin his lecture. "This week we’re going to explore the myths and realities of a DP. Many people, even those who feel they understand these relationships, come to The Island or enter into the relationship with the myths in their mind. One of the goals of The Island, as you probably all know, is to educate both you and your partners. The quickest and most effective way is to paint a true picture of what being in a DP is all about.” Walking over to the chalkboard, he picked up a piece and wrote in large letters MYTH and then next to it, REALITY and then NOT SURE. There was a rustle around the room as notebooks were opened and the men got more comfortable in their seats. “Who would like to start? What myths did you come to The Island with? What have you heard that you're not sure about? What are some common myths that you don’t believe?”

 

The room fell silent as everyone glanced at each other out of the corners of their eyes, not wanting to speak.

 

Glancing around the room, Brothers smiled, “Okay, so … Casey,” he said, “what’s one myth or statement that you’ve heard about DPs?”

 

“Umm, that they are abusive?” he said uncertainly.

 

“Case, is that a statement or a question?” the teacher asked gently.

 

The younger man blushed slightly and then said more confidently, “Some people feel that any relationship that involves discipline is abusive.”

 

“Perfect. Thank you,” turning around, the older man wrote “abusive” under the Myth column. “What else?”

 

“They make your life easier,” Paul said.

 

“But that’s true,” Cody argued. “That’s not a myth.”

 

“Okay, why don’t I put that under the Not Sure category and we’ll come back and talk about it,” Brothers said, writing the word down on the board.

 

“I sort of always thought,” Sean said quietly, glancing around the room, “that there were a lot of negotiations back and forth with your Top about rules and punishments and stuff like that. But I don’t know if that’s always true or not.”

 

Brothers nodded and smiled. “That’s a great point, Sean.” Adding it to the list, he looked around. “Zach, how about you? What would you like to add to the list?”

 

Hesitating for moment, he finally said, “I guess I’d like to know for sure that once you get into a relationship, it lasts. That when a Top commits to you, it’s forever.”

 

“Which do you think it is, Zach?” Brothers asked, “Is the commitment a myth, a reality, or maybe something in between?”

 

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

 

“Okay, fair enough. Let’s put it under the Not Sure column, then, and we’ll talk about it. Who else has something to add?”

 

Copying down the words from the board and diligently taking notes on the discussion, Zach allowed the conversation to wash over him. The patient but firm way that Brothers led the class amazed him. The Top never raised his voice, but he could be heard easily over the Brats' animated, and, sometimes noisy, discussion. And he never told anyone they were wrong, instead urging them to think and discuss what they felt, using their own experiences with past lovers and now with their TTs.

 

"Great discussions guys. That's all for today," he finally announced with a smile. "Please read Chapters 13 and 14 tonight. For your journals, I'd like you to take 2 myths, 2 realities and 2 not sures and discuss them." After glancing around to see if there were questions, he smiled and tapped the desk with his notebook. "Okay, gentlemen, thank you. Good job today. Zach, may I speak with you for a minute, please?"

 

Slowly gathering his notebook and pens, Zach made his way up to the front of the classroom, "I tried to participate, I just wasn't really sure …." he started.

 

Reaching out and patting his shoulder, Brothers smiled. "No, you did great. I know it's hard and it'll take you a week or two to adjust. You participated in class and added to the discussion. That's all I'm asking from you."

 

"Oh, okay, thanks," Zach said uncertainly.

 

"I just wanted to tell you that if you have any questions about your journal, I'd be happy to meet with you any afternoon or go over it with you after class on Thursday."

 

"No, I think I understand. Rob kind of explained it to me and I enjoy writing."

 

"All right, but if you change your mind, just drop me an email and we'll set something up," Brothers said, patting his arm again. "You did good today, Zach. You really contributed and added to the class. I was happy to have you."

 

Trying not to blush under the simple praise, Zach smiled. "Thanks."

 

"All right, get going then. Mike's probably waiting for you. I'll see you around, and don't forget, if you change your mind, just drop me an email. That's what I'm here for."

 

The next couple of weeks passed quickly for Zach. He soon grew used to his schedule and fell into the structured routine easily, although there were times when he felt like standing up and shouting "I'm a capable adult! I can make my own decisions!" At those times, he simply chanted his mantra. He was in control. As long as he chose to let them make the decisions, he was still in control.

 

He was gradually getting to know some of the other Brats and making a few friends, including Gabe. He didn't know whether it was because they were older than many of the Brats or because they both had professional careers or just because their personalities were so alike, but he found himself drawn to the other Brat and he felt like the feeling was mutual.

 

"I feel like I escaped from my mother," he told Gabe one day as they walked back from lunch together, knowing that Gabe would understand what he meant.

 

"Because they're letting us walk back to the cottage by ourselves?" Gabe asked. "I know what you mean. I have the same breathless thrill that I did when I walked to the park alone for the first time," he laughed.

 

"Exactly." Zach laughed along and then turned serious again. "I know that they're big on close supervision," he grumbled, "but isn't picking us up from class going a little far. I feel like I'm in kindergarten again."

 

"I asked Mike about that once. Turn left here," Gabe directed. "It's longer."

 

"Longer?" Zach looked puzzled. "You mean shorter? What did Mike say?"

 

"No, longer. More time on our own," Gabe replied with a grin. "He asked if I remembered the feeling I got when I came out of kindergarten and my mother was there waiting for me, like there was nothing more important to her than seeing me and hearing about my day."

 

"Oh." Zach digested that thought. "So it's more of that bonding stuff, not that they don't think we can find our way home by ourselves."

 

"Right. Although I'm sure they wonder about that too, sometimes," Gabe replied with a laugh.

 

"Gabe, can I ask you a kind of personal question?" Zach asked hesitantly after a few moments.

 

"Sure," the other Brat replied easily. "Ask away."

 

"You don't have to answer if you don't want to," Zach hastened to add. "It's just something that I've been kind of wondering about."

 

"What?" Gabe asked, pausing to look at him.

 

"You know that first night in the cottage, when you were sleepwalking? Did you mean what you said?" Zach asked in a rush. He'd been wanting to ask Gabe that question since the second day but had never quite had the courage. Now it was out, but he still a little self-conscious about discussing something so personal.

 

"I don't know. What'd I say?" Gabe asked, leading the way over to a bench in the shade. "I never remember."

 

"You said they have no right to treat us this way. That we're men and should be able to make our own decisions and not have consequences for our actions."

 

"That's a hard one to answer," Gabe replied. "Let me think about it for a minute, okay?"

 

"Okay." Zach leaned back on the bench and thrust his legs out in front of him, waiting for Gabe to collect his thoughts.

 

"I probably meant it at the time," Gabe said finally. "Because I was angry and frustrated and I'd just been spanked over something that I didn't think should have been a big deal. But overall, no, I don't mean it. I wouldn't be here if I did."

 

"It's something I'm struggling with," Zach admitted. "Because part of me says that I need this kind of relationship and I do better with it, but part of me says that I'm an adult and I should be treated like one."

 

"Yeah, I know. I think that's something all Brats struggle with. Or at least a lot of us do. Logically you know that it's what you want and need, but mentally and emotionally it's hard to give up control, especially in the areas where you need to the most. And the feeling that we're men and should be able to handle our own problems, that a real man wouldn't give up control to someone else, makes it even harder."

 

"I know. It's amazing how scornful people can get if you 'let someone boss you around' or make decisions for you," Zach mused.

 

"Yeah," Gabe agreed. "They think it's better for me to get so stressed that I give myself an ulcer and so out of control that I'm afraid to go to bed because I don't know where I'll wake up."

 

"Because of the sleepwalking?" Zach asked him. "Have you always done it or is it something recent?"

 

"I've always done it, but it gets worse when I'm stressed or overtired. I had a bad patch at work a while back; too many projects, too many deadlines, not enough hours in the day. I was getting burned out and working twice as hard to make up for it. The night I woke up in my car with my keys in my hand and no idea how I got there scared the hell out of me. Even being spanked isn't as bad as the feelings I had at that point. What if I hadn't woken up right then? What if I'd actually tried to drive somewhere?"

 

"And I bet someone told you that you just needed to slow down and take care of yourself, to get over things, right?" Zach asked shrewdly.

 

"Right," Gabe confirmed. "Only it isn't that easy. I need a discipline partnership. I need someone to not only tell me it's all right to slow down and take care of myself, but to make me do it. To enforce it even when I don't want him to."

 

"I sort of had that with Lane," Zach said slowly. "But I didn't realize how much I needed it until I lost it."

 

"Heads up!" someone yelled and they both ducked as a football flew between their heads and bounced on the lawn behind them.

 

"Sorry about that," Brent said as he ran up to them. "Bad throw. You want to play?"

 

"No, we need to get back to the cottage and check in," Gabe said, looking at his watch. "Thanks anyway."

 

"Gabe?" Zach said as they headed down the path again. He paused self-consciously. "Thanks. It helps to be able to talk to someone sometimes."

 

"No problem," Gabe replied easily. "I'm glad I can help."

 

~~~~~~~

 

"What did Brothers want last night?" Rob asked at breakfast one morning, pouring a glass of juice for Gabe.

 

"There's a group of Brats going on a field trip to The Tide Pools next week. He knows that I run in that area once in a while, and he asked if the trail is clear or if he should send someone out to work on it before they go."

 

"You haven't been running out that way lately, though, have you?" Rob set a platter of bacon on the table. "Samuel, don't reach across the table like that. Wait for it to be passed to you."

 

"No, not since Zach got here." Mike reached for a piece of bacon, then, at Rob's warning glare, waited for it to be passed. "We've been taking the beach trails most of the time. I told Brothers I'll check it out this afternoon and get back to him."

 

"Can we go with you?" Gabe asked. "We don't have group this afternoon and I don't mind missing debate."

 

Mike hesitated before answering. "I don't know, Gabe. It's a pretty rough trail and Zach isn't totally adjusted to the heat and humidity yet."

 

"I can handle it. It isn't much worse than Atlanta in July," Zach asserted, knowing nothing about the terrain, but wanting to go anywhere Gabe did. "And I'd like to see the tide pools."

 

"Please, Mike?" Gabe asked eagerly. "We'll keep up."

 

Mike looked at Rob, who offered a suggestion. "Why don't you take a picnic supper with you?" he added. "It gets dark late enough that you can eat and then explore the tide pools for a while before you come back. That will be cooler and break up the run for Zach."

 

"That's a good idea," Mike replied. "Do you want to go, Sam?"

 

"*Running*? Are you kidding?" Sam asked in disbelief, and everyone laughed. "Can I eat with Jackson and Brandon, then? We need to work on a class project together this evening anyway."

 

"That's all right with me if it's all right with Brad," Mike told him. "Looks like you're on your own for the evening, Rob. Think you can handle it?"

 

"I'll do my best," Rob replied dryly.

 

~~~~~~

 

"Okay, this looks like a good place for a break," Mike said late that afternoon. A huge tree had fallen across the trail and they leaned wearily against it as they pulled out their water bottles and drank thirstily. "How are you two doing?"

 

"I'm all right," Gabe replied gamely. In reality, he was hot, tired, sweaty, being eaten alive by a variety of voracious insects and starting to wonder why he'd ever wanted to come on this trip, but he wasn't going to tell Mike that.

 

The trail was indeed overgrown, and their easy run had soon turned into a strenuous hike as they had to continually clamber over roots and push their way through the branches and vines that encroached on the trail. The jungle here was so thick and lush that very little air stirred and the insects found their damp, exposed skin a veritable feasting ground. "How are you doing, Zach?" Gabe asked in turn, sharply swatting another bug as it landed on him.

 

"I'm okay," Zach said, placing his hands on his thighs and breathing heavily. "But I guess I'm not as used to the humidity as I thought."

 

"I didn't realize it would be this bad," Mike admitted. "But it's not much farther. There'll be a breeze on the beach and you can cool off in the water before we eat. Ready to go?"

 

They each took one last gulp of water, then capped the bottles before clambering over the fallen trunk and following him down the trail, both determined not to show the other how tired he was. Mike was right, though, and it wasn't much longer before they broke out of the jungle and found themselves standing on a narrow ribbon of sand. They stood still for a long moment, breathing deeply and enjoying the cool breeze against their skin before moving farther out onto the beach.

 

"Leave your fanny packs and water bottles here," Mike told them, shouldering out of the day pack he carried. "I think you need to cool off a little more before you eat, so why don't you go ahead and look at the tidepools? Then we'll eat and rest for a while before we start back."

 

Gabe automatically made a face at the word 'rest', but needed no further urging to explore, and soon they were balancing on the rocks that jutted up through the water off-shore, jumping from one to another as they examined the pools between them, searching out the abundant sealife that made its home there.

 

"Zach, Mike, come look at these starfish!" Gabe called from the rock he knelt on.

 

"Mike, Gabe, I found sea urchins!" Zach called at the same time.

 

"Hang on," Mike laughed. "I can't look at both at once."

 

They shouted excitedly at each new discovery, calling to each other to come look, working their way further out onto the rugged line of rocks.

 

"Zach, look," Gabe shouted, standing on a tall, narrow rock at the edge of the water, gazing out at the ocean. "I think I see a dolphin!"

 

"Watch it, Gabe," Mike called as Zach scrambled out to join him. "That point is too narrow for you to stand on."

 

"I'm fine," Gabe shouted, turning to look at Mike. While his back was turned, a heavy wave dashed against the rock he stood on, throwing up a spray that soaked him from head to toe, and he jumped reflexively.

 

"Watch it!" the TT shouted again as Gabe teetered back and forth, trying vainly to regain his footing.

 

"Gabe!" Zach shouted frantically as the other Brat over-balanced and fell, disappearing into the pool of water below. "Gabe, are you okay?" He ran forward, leaping recklessly from rock to rock, trying to spot his friend.

 

"Careful," Mike cautioned as they both reached the outcrop Gabe had fallen from. "I don't need two of you hurt." He climbed down into the shallow tidepool in front of him, where Gabe lay as he had landed, spread-eagled across a rough spar barnacle-covered rock, an ominous red cloud spreading through the water about his legs.

 

"Easy, babe. Let's see what you did, then we'll get you out of here." Mike knelt beside him, quickly examining the dazed Brat.

 

"Is he all right?" Zach called anxiously from his place on the rock above.

 

"Give me your shirt," Mike ordered, easing Gabe over into a sitting position.

 

"God," Zach breathed, staring at the bloody rivulets of water streaming from Gabe's right shin.

 

"Your shirt, Zach," Mike repeated as Gabe moaned piteously. "Move!"

 

Zach hurriedly peeled off his t-shirt and handed it to Mike, who wrapped it tightly around the Brat's lower leg, staunching the flow of blood. When he was satisfied it was going to hold, he stood up and gently lifted Gabe from the water.

 

"Hurts," Gabe mumbled, tears running down his face. He wrapped his arms tightly around Mike's neck and buried his face in the TT's shoulder. "Bad."

 

"I know," Mike said soothingly. "Hang on for a few more minutes, okay? I'm going to carry you back to the beach and take another look. Then we'll radio for some help to get you back home."

 

With Zach following anxiously, he climbed from the pool and carefully made his way back up to the beach. "There's a beach towel in my day pack. Spread it out on the sand for me and then get the first aid kit, please."

 

Zach hurriedly complied and Mike put Gabe down, using the towel to keep his leg from contact with the loose sand. As Zach stood by, watching helplessly, the TT carefully unwrapped the shirt, exposing the sluggishly bleeding wound again.

 

"Don't. It hurts," Gabe whimpered, trying to push Mike's hands away.

 

"I know, babe, but I need to see," the older man replied calmly. "Lie still now."

 

He examined the long, jagged slash again and quickly decided that it was beyond his minor capabilities. "Open two of those gauze pads, Zach," he directed. "Then hand me the roll of gauze when I'm ready for it, and cut a couple strips of tape."

 

"Is that white stuff bone?" Zach asked in shock, frozen in place.

 

"Mike? Is it that deep?" Gabe whimpered, strangling back a sob, and Mike glared at the other young man.

 

"The pads, Zach!" he ordered, holding out a hand. "Now."

 

"Right." Zach hurriedly opened them and handed them to Mike.

 

"You're going to be fine, Gabe," Mike said reassuringly as he laid the pads over the laceration and used the long strip of gauze to hold them in place. "You have a long gash on your shin. It isn't that bad, but I think you're going to need a few stitches to close it." He finished wrapping and taping the gauze, then sat back on his heels. "Does anything else hurt?"

 

"My ankle," Gabe whispered plaintively. "And my hands. And knees."

 

Mike examined the rapidly swelling ankle, running his hands over it and gently manipulating it, using the Brat's whimpers and faint cries as a guide. "I don't think it's broken, but we'll have Herm x-ray it just to be sure. Your hands and knees are scraped up but I think they're okay. Zach, there's an instant ice pak in the first aid kit. Would you get that and some Tylenol for me? Then why don't you rinse your shirt and wring it out as well as you can. We'll lay it across his forehead and maybe it will help him feel a little better."

 

The young man handed him the first aid kit and then ran off to the edge of the water, happy to be doing something useful. Mike applied the ice pak and helped Gabe sit up enough to take the Tylenol. "I need to radio Herm and get him to send someone with a cart to take you back to the cottage, babe. Then I'll hold you until they get here, all right?"

 

"All right." He reluctantly loosened his grip on the older man. "But hurry?"

 

"I will," Mike said reassuringly, brushing the damp hair away from the Brat's forehead. "You're doing great, Gabe. I'm proud of you."

 

Mike stepped away to use the radio, then came back a few moments later and knelt down beside him again. "I'm sorry, babe. Herm is sending help, but they won't be able to get past that downed tree. I need to go meet them there. You stay here with Zach and I'll be back as soon as I can."

 

"Can't Zach go?" Gabe asked, reaching out to Mike anxiously. "Or you carry me?"

 

"No, Zach doesn't know the way." Mike pulled him into a tight, reassuring hug. "And I can't carry you down that path; it's too overgrown. You stay here with Zach, babe, and I'll be back before you know it."

 

He gently laid Gabe back down and pillowed his own shirt under the Brat's head, then laid Zach's cool damp shirt across his forehead. "Stay with him, Zach. I'll be back as soon as I can."

 

Zach sat down uneasily as Mike jogged back into the jungle. He didn't know much about dealing with sick or injured people. "Is there anything I can do, Gabe?" he asked helplessly.

 

"Is there anything left to drink?" Gabe asked shakily. "I'm really thirsty."

 

Zach found his water bottle and tried to help Gabe lift his head enough to drink without jarring him. "I'm sorry, Gabe," he apologized profusely as he tipped the bottle too far and water gushed out, almost choking the other Brat.

 

"S'all right," Gabe murmured when he'd finished coughing, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth. "How much longer do you think they'll be?"

 

"I don't know," Zach replied honestly. "I think at least another half hour. It'll take Mike about 15 minutes to get back to that log and then they have to come back again and they'll be carrying a stretcher and first aid equipment. How are you feeling? Is there anything I can do?" he asked again.

 

"Talk to me?" Gabe requested as he laid back down and pulled the wet shirt over his eyes. "Help me think about something else while we wait?"

 

Zach thought frantically, trying to come up with a topic that would distract him. Nothing came to mind. "Um... how about The Game?" he asked doubtfully, seizing on the usual TI standby.

 

"Okay. How about Worst?" Gabe managed a faint smile. "It seems appropriate right now."

 

"All right." Zach thought for a minute. "Worst meal."

 

"Aunt Mildred's split pea soup. She never cooks it long enough and it's like eating mushy gravel. And she serves it with homemade bread that has the taste and texture of cobblestones."

 

"The beefaroni at boarding school. They used leftover beef and dumped tons of cheese on the top before they baked it, and you could see the grease pooling on the top."

 

"Yuck," Gabe said before continuing with, "Worst teacher."

 

"4th grade, Mrs. Cochran."

 

"1st grade, Ms. Heffenfeff. I accidentally called her Ms. Huffinstuff the first day and she hated me for the rest of the year."

 

"Huffinstuff? That sounds like something out of Harry Potter," Zach laughed.

 

"H.R. Puffinstuff," Gabe corrected with a slightly bigger smile. "I froze and couldn't remember her name, but I knew it had a lot of f's in it. That's what came out."

 

"We called Miss Cochran Miss Cockroach when she wasn't around. She was about eighty and she wore her hair in a tight bun spiked with two steel knitting needles. She was a real terror."

 

They were on worst ice cream flavor when Mike returned with Garrett and Norton following close behind.

 

"There's no such thing as garlic ice cream," Gabe was protesting weakly.

 

"Yes, there is," Zach insisted. "I had it in San Francisco once."

 

"That explains it," Mike said, coming up behind them. "They'll eat anything in San Francisco."

 

"Hey, Gabe, let's see what you did to yourself," Norton said, kneeling beside him and removing the ice pak from his ankle. "Easy now. I'll be as gentle as I can."

 

After a short but painful examination, Norton sat back. "I don't think the ankle is broken, but we'll have to x-ray it to be certain. I'm going to wrap it and then we'll elevate and ice it again. I'm not going to do anything with that gash. Herm's going to have to clean it up and stitch it." Gabe moaned and the nurse patted his shoulder reassuringly "It's all right, Gabe. We'll knock you out first. Garrett, Mike, why don't you get the stretcher over here and lined up while I wrap his ankle and give him something for the pain?"

 

"Why don't you pack our stuff up while we do that, Zach," Mike suggested.

 

"Are you feeling all right?" Norton asked, taking a good look at the Brat. "You look kind of warm and flushed."

 

"I'm fine." Zach brushed off his concern. "I've just been sitting in the sun too long."

 

"Sit down in the shade and drink this bottle of water before you pack up," Norton directed. "You have time. It's going to take a few minutes to get Gabe ready to go."

 

By the time Zach had packed up the first aid kit and other belongings lying around, Gabe was on the stretcher, drowsy and lethargic as the pain medication took effect.

 

The trip back to the fallen tree didn't take as long as Zach had feared it would. Garrett and Norton carried the stretcher while Mike and Zach pushed back the undergrowth and cleared the path ahead of them. Soon they were back at the cart and placing the stretcher across the back of it. "You sit in the front seat with Garrett," Mike instructed the Brat. "Norton and I will ride in the back so we can stabilize him over the bumps."

 

Rob was waiting when they got to the infirmary. "Come on, Zach," he said as the nursing staff swarmed around Gabe and whisked him back to an examining room. "Why don't we sit in here out of the way?" He led the Brat into a small waiting room."How do you feel? You look kind of flushed."

 

"I'm fine." Zach irritably brushed away his concern and began pacing back and forth in the small room. "I just have a headache. When do you think they'll let us know about Gabe? Can't you go check on him?"

 

"It's going to take a while, babe," Rob told him. "Mike's with him and there are already enough people in the room. They don't need me in there, too. I'm going to get you some Tylenol, though." He left the room and returned a few minutes later carrying a small paper cup with two Tylenol in it and a bottle of cold water. "Sit down and take these, please, and drink the water. You look hot and tired."

 

"I'm all right," Zach told him again. He drained the water bottle and tossed it in the trash, then paced back and forth across the small room. "Can't you please go check on him?"

 

"Not yet," Rob replied, glancing at his watch. "Come sit by me, all right?" He drew the Brat down next to him. "Can you tell me what happened?"

 

"... and then we got back here," Zach was finishing up his story when Norton appeared in the doorway. "What's happening? Is he all right?" the Brat exclaimed, jumping up from his seat.

 

"He's going to be fine," the nurse told them reassuringly. "His ankle is sprained, but not broken. They stitched up the gash on his shin, gave him a shot of antibiotics and a painkiller, and he's almost asleep. Mike wants to talk to you for a minute, Rob," he added to the TT.

 

Zach waited impatiently for Rob to get back. "What did he say? Is everything all right?" he demanded when the TT returned. "Is everything okay?"

 

"Everything is fine," Rob reassured him. "Herm wants to keep an eye on Gabe for a while, though, and Mike is going to stay with him. They'll be back to the cottage by bedtime."

 

Leaving the infirmary a few minutes later, Zach sighed in frustration at the slow pace Rob was setting.

 

"You might as well accept it, Zach, this is as fast as we're walking," Rob told him with a smile as he reached out and pulled the Brat in closer to him. "You've had a hard day and we're not in a race, and so we're going to walk back to the cottage slowly, enjoy the evening and start to relax a bit."

 

Ten minutes later, Rob opened the door to the cottage, ushering Zach inside. "Why don't you go take a shower and change into something more comfortable? I'll heat up some soup and make a grilled cheese sandwich for you. How does that sound?"

 

"I'm not hungry, Rob. I really don't want to eat," Zach replied, trying desperately not to whine.

 

"I know, but you'll feel better after you go take a shower," Rob said evenly.

 

"Fine," Zach told him, deciding it was easier to do it than argue. Fifteen minutes later, he came back into the kitchen, dressed in lose shorts and a t-shirt. "That smells good," he admitted softly.

 

"Good," Rob replied with a smile, placing the plates and bowls on the table. "Sit down and eat. Mike and Gabe won't be home until late and Sam is going to be gone until bedtime."

 

"I'm still not that hungry." Zach sat down at the table and stared at the food in front of him.

 

Finishing his dinner, Rob frowned at the younger man. "Zach, you need to eat. You've been playing with it for ten minutes now. Is there something you want to talk about?"

 

"No. I told you I'm not hungry."

 

Rob studied him for a moment and then pulled his chair closer to his Brat and laid a hand on Zach's forehead. "Look at me for a minute, please." As Zach looked up, the TT studied his eyes. "You're still warm and flushed. I think you might have gotten too much sun today, little one," Rob said softly. "How are you feeling? Do you feel sick? You're being awfully quiet."

 

"No, I'm okay. I'm just thinking." Zach pulled away and dropped his eyes, picking at his abandoned dinner.

 

"About Gabe? Mike said you did a good job with him today," Rob probed delicately.

 

"I didn't do a good job," Zach denied vehemently, shoving his chair back from the table. "I didn't do anything right. I froze. I asked stupid questions, I didn't know what to do. Mike had to tell me stuff twice. I didn't have a clue how to help." The damning words came faster and faster. "He asked me to take care of Gabe while he was gone and the best I could come up with was a stupid word game. My friend is lying there bleeding and the only thing I could think of to do was play a stupid game!"

 

"Mike said that stupid game helped, though," Rob said mildly. "It kept Gabe from thinking about his leg or how much it hurt."

 

Zach ignored the interruption, the words continuing to flow, a battering of self-incrimination. "I'm so selfish, so self-centered and egotistical, always putting myself first, never thinking of other people and what they want and need. Then when I do care about what they need, I don't have a clue how to provide it for them. That's why I've always had such lousy relationships, because I'm so wrapped up in myself and my music that I never think about them or how they feel. And they get tired of it and I drive them away, just like I drove Lane away."

 

Rob listened quietly, making no attempt to interrupt or reassure the distraught Brat until he'd started to run down, gulping back sobs as he repeated his condemnation of himself.

 

Then he moved in, putting his arms around the Brat again, speaking softly and reassuringly. "Hey, it's not that bad, sweetheart. You're not a bad person and you're not a selfish one." Holding him tight, Rob repeating his soothing words until they penetrated Zach's tears. "You were great today, Zach," he said softly, "I was very proud to hear how much Mike thought of you and how helpful you were. It just confirmed the good opinion I've had of you since you've come to The Island." He moved around Zach and rubbed his back as he slowly relaxed.

 

"I'm sorry," Zach whispered softly, turning to bury his face in Rob's shoulder.

 

"It's okay babe, there's nothing to apologize for." A few minutes later when the crying had died down to an occasional sniffle, Rob kissed the top of Zach's head. "Come on, babe, let's get you to bed." One arm around Zach's shoulder, they slowly shuffled through the cottage toward the bedroom. Not bothering to turn on the light, Rob pulled back the blankets and eased the younger man down. "Roll over and I'll rub your back for you until you fall sleep. You did fine today, Zach. Trust me."

 

 

Early morning sunlight flooded the blue and white kitchen where Mike stood at the counter whisking eggs together. Sausage was browning in one skillet on the stove while butter melted in another.

 

Rob was leaning against the opposite counter, sipping a glass of juice and listening with a smile as Sam gave Mike detailed instructions on how he wanted his omelet made.

 

Totally ignoring him, the TT dumped the beaten egg mixture into the pan and began to scramble it.

 

“Hey! What are you doing? I wanted an omelet,” Sam complained bitterly.

 

Turning, Mike gave him a steely-eyed glare and said, “It’s a weekday, it’s already after 7, I didn't get much sleep last night, and I don’t want to hear any whining. I want to hear words of gratitude that I’m not making you eat in the dining hall.”

 

Rob choked on his juice, trying not to laugh. “I appreciate it, Michael,” he said, leaning over and kissing him on the cheek. "I think your scrambled eggs are wonderful."

 

“Thank you. The sentiment is touching and the sincerity overwhelming,” he replied with a grin. Continuing to stir the eggs, he added, “I’d be more touched, though, if you’d get your Brat out of bed. Otherwise, he's going to be eating cold eggs.”

 

“Zach’s not up?" Rob asked, setting his juice glass on the counter. "I’ve called him twice and I thought I heard the shower running about 15 minutes ago.”

 

The other Top shrugged. “I might be wrong, but I didn’t hear him moving around when I checked on Gabe a few minutes ago.”

 

“Okay, let me go fetch him. Want me to take anything to Gabe?”

 

Mike shook his head. “No, he’s still asleep. He woke up again around 4, in quite a bit of pain, so I gave him the Tylenol with codeine and it knocked him out. We can make something for him when he wakes up later on.”

 

"All right." Rob left the kitchen and made his way through the living room and down the short hall to Zach’s room

 

Zach was lying face-down on his bed, damp towel around his waist, when he heard Rob come down the hall and rap on his door. He'd slept well the first half of the night, mostly because of both physical and emotional exhaustion, but he'd tossed and turned the second half, regretting his emotional outburst with Rob. What must Rob think of him, wallowing in self-pity like that? For God's sake, how pathetic could he get? His face burned as he thought of it. How could he face the man after he'd poured out that long tale of woe and self-pity, had shown the TT just how little self-control he had. Rob had probably lost all respect for him now. Torn between anger at himself for being such a crybaby and humiliation for his weakness, he didn't want to see or deal with anyone. All he wanted was to be left alone.

 

"Zach? Get a move on or you're going to be late."

 

Zach remained motionless. Maybe if he didn't move, Rob would think he was asleep and leave. Or not. /Why didn't that surprise him?/ he wondered resentfully as Rob came in and crouched by the bed.

 

"Zach? What's wrong? Still not feeling well?"

 

Zach thought of several responses, all of which would get him swatted and a few of which would get him a mouthful of soap. Resisting temptation, he rolled over and shook his head. "I didn't sleep well last night. I took a quick shower, hoping it would wake me up, and then I laid back down for a few minutes. I guess I fell asleep again."

 

He felt Rob's appraising look, then the TT nodded. "All right, but you need to get up and get dressed now. Mike's making breakfast and he gets cranky when people let it get cold."

 

Even the thought of food made Zach feel nauseated. Why couldn't Rob just go away and leave him alone? All he wanted to do was crawl under a rock. Alone. Instead, he slowly pulled himself from the bed, hitching his towel into place as he rose, and stumbled over to the dresser for clean clothes.

 

"Come here, babe," Rob ordered as he rummaged through his drawer in search of clean underwear.

 

"You want me to come there or get dressed?" Zach snapped irritably. "I can't do both at once."

 

"Hey, come on now," Rob asked, pulling him into a hug, then brushed back the dark hair and laid a hand against his forehead. He frowned. "You still feel a bit warm. Why don't you go back to bed and I'll bring you some tylenol and juice?"

 

"I'm fine." Zach pulled away from him, perversely deciding that he didn't want to stay in bed after all. "I'll get dressed and be out for breakfast in a minute, all right?"

 

The Top hesitated for a moment and then replied, "Fine. Don't take too long."

 

"Good morning, Zach," Mike said cheerfully when Zach appeared a few minutes later.

 

"Hi," he replied listlessly, flopping down into his chair with a heavy sigh. "Just toast for me, please."

 

"No, not just toast for you," Rob contradicted as Mike put the platter of sausage on the table and went back for the eggs. "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and you need more than just toast."

 

"I'm not hungry!" Zach snapped.

 

"Then you're sick and you need to go back to bed," Rob replied evenly.

 

/Go with it,/ Zach reminded himself half-heartedly. /Let him think he's the one in control./ He put one sausage and a small spoonful of eggs on his plate, then pushed them around as he half-listened to the conversation going on around him.

 

Sam was arguing with Mike about the weekend's activities, swearing that Mike had promised to let him go diving with some of the other Brats on Saturday.

 

"I did *not* promise, Samuel. I told you that I want to see how you did on your English paper first. Ask Mac to email your score to me, please, and then we'll discuss it.”

 

“But that's not fair,” Sam protested angrily. "Saturday is supposed to be a free day! Why should I have to slave away redoing a paper while everyone else gets to have fun?"

 

“Don’t take that attitude with me or the answer will be ‘No’ right now,” Mike told him sternly.

 

"I think you've diced that sausage into enough pieces, Zach," Rob interjected. "Why don't you try putting a piece into your mouth?"

 

"Because I'm not hungry!" Zach snarled. "I told you that already, remember? Why the hell do you insist on making me eat when I'm not hungry? Why can't you just leave me alone?"

 

"Because that isn't the way we do things here," Rob replied patiently. "Come on, let's get you back to bed."

 

"I don't have time to go back to bed!" Zach protested, determined to keep some kind of control here. "It's Wednesday. I need to go practice."

 

"No, you need to go back to bed. Come on." Rob put a hand under his arm and propelled him to his feet. Ignoring Zach's attempts to shake him off, he steered the Brat down the hall and into his room.

 

"But Mi-ike!" Zach could hear Sam begin again as Rob closed the door.

 

"Okay, I'm back in my room, you can let go now!" He attempted to shake the TT's hand off his arm.

 

"You feel warmer," Rob said with a frown. "I hope you're not coming down with something. Get in bed while I go get a thermometer."

 

For a long moment, Zach was tempted to give in, to accept the excuse for his poor behavior, do as Rob told him and go back to bed. With a supreme effort, however, he stiffened his pride and stubbornly announced, "No, I don't want to go back to bed. I want to go practice now."

 

"I didn't ask what you want to do. I told you what you're going to do," Rob replied firmly. "Now get undressed and get into bed." The TT waited until Zach had slowly and reluctantly unbuttoned his shorts, then left the room, half-closing the door behind him.

 

When he returned, Zach, clad only in a t-shirt and briefs, was standing next to the window, staring sightlessly at the edge of the jungle just outside.

 

"I thought I told you to get in bed." Rob put his supplies down on the nightstand and held out one hand. "Come on, now."

 

 “I’m feeling better," Zach replied, turning to face him confidently. "I'm sorry I was so out of sorts earlier. I'm ready to eat breakfast and go practice now."

 

Rob took a deep breath. “No, Zach. I don't think you're better and you're not going to practice. You're going to get into bed and I'm going to take your temp. Then you're going to take a nap. After that, we'll see how you're doing and decide about the rest of the day.”

 

"But I'm fine!" Zach protested vehemently. "There's no need for all this! Don't you think I know whether I feel well or not?"

 

"No, I don't," Rob told him bluntly. "Now lie down on your stomach, please."

 

"Why do I need to lay on my stomach to-- No!" Zach pulled back with horror as he realized the answer to his question. "You are NOT taking my temp rectally. I refuse!"

 

"You don't have the option of refusing," Rob told him matter of factly. "I make the decisions here, not you."

 

"Well, this is one decision you're going to have to unmake, because I'm not going along with it!"

 

Rob locked eyes with him. "Don't get into a pissing contest with me, Zachary David," he warned the distraught Brat, "because I'll win every time. And you *won't* like the consequences when you lose."

 

"I don't care! If you want me to act like an adult, you need to treat me like a-- aagh!" Faster than he would have thought possible, and with the ease of long practice, Rob grasped his wrist, sat down, and pulled him face down across the TT's thighs. "Stop it! Let me go!" He struggled fruitlessly against the strong arm around his waist.

 

"No. I won't let you go. I warned you not to get in a pissing contest, Zachary, and I told you that you wouldn't like the consequences." He sharply swatted the wriggling butt as Zach continued to struggle and lifted his knee, thwarting Zach's attempts to escape . "Now settle down and let me take your temp."

 

"NO! I don't want this!" Zach continued to struggle angrily. "Let me go!"

 

"No, I'm not going to let you go," Rob told him calmly, not fighting back, simply allowing Zach to batter himself against an implacable wall. "We can end this any time you want, babe. All you have to do is give in. Relax and accept that I'm in charge and make the decisions."

 

Zach stubbornly held on for a few more moments, yelling and kicking wildly before abruptly giving in and collapsing bonelessly across Rob's knees. "Leave me alone! Why can't you just leave me alone?" he sobbed.

 

"Because that isn't the way we do things here," Rob said tenderly, pulling down his briefs and reaching over to lube the thermometer. "And it isn't what you want. If you really wanted to be left alone, you wouldn't be here." He parted the sobbing Brat's cheeks and gently inserted the narrow glass rod, then stroked Zach's back gently. "It's all right, Zach. I know that it's hard for you to be so vulnerable. It's hard to break down those walls and let people get close to you. And it's natural to want to put them back up again, especially after the way they cracked last night. But I'm not going to let you do that, sweetheart. I'm not going to let you shut me out anymore." He removed the thermometer and read it. "101. I think you need to stay in bed and take it easy for the rest of the day."

 

Zach stirred and opened his eyes. He stretched lazily, then turned his head to look at the clock. 1:00! He hadn't slept this late in years. And he couldn't remember when he'd felt this good, so relaxed and tranquil. Normally his brain was busy as soon as he woke, planning, assessing, going over the prior day, and scheduling the new one. Now his mind felt empty, almost like it had been freshly washed, like he had a clean slate to work on. He laughed at his childish fancies, but all the same it felt good not to fret and worry, to give up and let someone else do the planning for a while.

 

His stomach rumbled and he decided to get up and go find Rob. Pulling on his shorts, he padded down the hall and through the living room, absently noticing that Gabe was lying back in the recliner watching tv. He found Rob in the office, doing paperwork, and rapped on the doorframe.

 

"Rob?" he asked hesitantly. "I slept. Can I come out now?" He searched Rob's face anxiously and was relieved to see no signs of anger or condescension, just loving concern. The TT was as open and easy as if the morning battle had never occurred.

 

"How are you feeling?" Rob asked him, standing and walking over to lay a hand on his forehead.

 

"Better."

 

"Good. It feels like your temp is down."

 

"You aren't going to take it again, are you?" Zach asked in dismay.

 

"And what happens if I say yes?" Rob asked sternly, pinning Zach with a steely gaze. "Are you going to fight me on it?"

 

Zach met the gaze for a moment, then lowered his eyes, staring at the floor. "No," he finally admitted in a low voice.

 

"Good boy," Rob praised him. "No, I'm not going to take it again right now; we'll see how you feel this afternoon. I think you need to stay quiet for the rest of the day, though. Gabe's in the living room. Why don't you go keep him company for a while? Get your pillow and lie down on the couch. I'll bring you something to eat in a few minutes."

 

"All right," Zach replied with a smile.

 

Zach obediently went and got his pillow and book, then went back and sat down on the couch. Gabe was lying back in the recliner, his foot propped up on a pillow, a ziploc bag of crushed ice resting on his ankle.

 

"Morning, Gabe. How are you feeling?" he asked.

 

"Not too bad," Gabe replied. "It aches, but not that bad right now. The stitches kind of burn but not horribly or anything. I appreciate you talking to me yesterday. It really helped. I'm such a wuss when it comes to blood and stuff." Smiling as he gave Zach a wink, he added, "Especially when it's mine."

 

"What are you watching?" Zach asked awkwardly, gesturing toward the tv, unsure how to respond to the praise.

 

"The end of Star Wars. It's one of my sick movies."

 

"I don't think it's sick," Zach said, sitting down to watch Luke blow up the Death Star. "I kinda like it."

 

"No, the movie isn't sick," Gabe laughed. "I watch it when I'm sick. Like comfort food, only you watch it instead of eating it. Don't you have something like that?

 

Zach grinned sheepishly. "I watch cartoons."

 

Gabe's eyes lit up. "Do you remember Roger Ramjet?"

 

"Roger Ramjet, he's our man. Hero of our nation..." Zach sang, then laughed. "I loved that show. It ranked right up there with Underdog and Mighty Mouse."

 

"Underdog, oooooo, Underdog. Underdog! Did you ever watch Tennessee Tuxedo? And... what was the walrus' name?"

 

"Chumly."

 

"Yeah, Chumly," Gabe laughed. "And Fractured Fairy Tales. I *loved* Fractured Fairy Tales. And Aesop's Fables."

 

"Mr. Peabody and his boy Sherman."

 

"Yeah. Mr. Peabody was great. I didn't like the Jetson's but they had a good theme song."

 

"I don't remember any of it except 'his boy Elroy'. Flintstones. Someday, maybe Fred will win the fight-"

 

"And that cat will stay out for the night--" Gabe sang along.

 

"Have a yabba dabbo doo time, a dabba doo time, you'll have a gay old time!"

 

"I always knew there was a reason I liked the Flintstones," Zach laughed, all constraint forgotten. "Did you watch Green Acres?"

 

"Hated the show, loved the theme song," Gabe replied promptly. "Green Acres is the place to be, Farm living is the life for me, land spreading out so far and wide, keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside."

 

"New York is where I'd rather stay," Zach took up the song. "I get allergic smelling hay, I just adore that penthouse view, darling I love you but give me Park Avenue."

 

"You are my wife, Goodbye city life..."

 

"You'd never get away with saying that now," Zach pointed out.

 

"Unless you're a Top. They get away with saying stuff like that all the time," Gabe laughed again. "Dukes of Hazard?"

 

"Great butts," Zach approved. "I loved watching them get in and out of that car."

 

When Rob came in carrying a tray, they had moved on to a discussion of which was better, the Addams Family or the Munsters.

 

"Thanks, Rob," Gabe said as he took a glass of milk from the tray. "Oreos!"

 

"I thought you deserved a treat," Rob told him. "How do you feel?"

 

"Good. Can I take the ice off yet?"

 

Rob set the tray down near Zach and glanced at his watch. "Yes, go ahead and take it off. We'll put it back on in about 30 minutes. Not on the floor, Gabriel!"

 

Gabe grinned unrepentantly as the ice bag hit the rug. "Sorry. It just slipped. Zach, do you twist your oreos when you eat them?"

 

"The first one. After that I just eat them."

 

"You need to eat your lunch before you start on dessert, Zach," Rob informed him. "And after you finish 'just eating' the oreos, I want both of you to close your eyes and take a nap." He picked up the remote and turned the tv off.

 

"Okay, Rob," Gabe replied.

 

"Sure, Rob. You're the boss," Zach told him cheerfully.

 

"You're the boss?" Mike raised an eyebrow as Rob returned to the kitchen. "That's sure a change from when I left this morning."

 

"We had a little talk," Rob said with a half smile and shrug.

 

"That must have been some talk," Mike said.

 

"Just a little confusion over who was making the decisions around here, and I had to get a little rough on him. Why does it always have to be so hard?" he asked plaintively, accepting the glass of milk that Mike held out. "Why can't they ever do this easily? Once, just once, I'd like someone to have an easy transition."

 

"Because if they did this easily they wouldn't be Brats," Mike told him philosophically. "Brats never take the easy way with anything." He sighed as they burst into song again.

 

"Then one day he was shootin' at some food and up from the ground came a bubblin' crude!"

 

"Oil, that is."

 

"Black gold."

 

"Texas tea."

 

"Why was he shooting at the ground anyway?" Gabe wanted to know.

 

"Maybe he was shooting carrots?" Zach suggested.

 

Mike shook his head. "It won't last, you know."

 

"Please, Michael, I'm not a total idiot." He paused to listen to the cheerful banter coming from the living room, then smiled. "I'm going to enjoy it while it does, though."

 

"That's the way we do it here," Mike agreed, thoughtfully twisting an oreo apart and licking the frosting off one half. "One day at a time."

 

The End

 

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