Code of Silence

by Leah Adezio


Chapter One - Reunion

"Well, they put the cold dirt over [her], left me on my own. When at last I looked up, I saw I was not alone."

-Harry Chapin

A young woman strolled in the flower garden behind her small home, her figure flitting between the lengthening shadows that were spreading over the wall. Night was quickly approaching.

I should leave before it gets too late, she thought. With a practiced hand, she picked a vibrant bloom. I think blue for you, Father. You always liked me in blue.

A bright yellow flower surrounded by a solid expanse of red ones caught her eye. You're not supposed to be here. I thought I only planted red flowers here. She picked it, and the picking brought back a memory.

This is more than appropriate for you, dear friend. You always were yellow surrounded by red.

She left the garden and followed the deepening shadows across the city. She followed this routine every evening, without fail. She came home from work, picked flowers, and carried them along this very route. She never paused to chat with acquaintances or glance in the merchants' windows. Day's end was a relief to most - a time to join with family and share in conversation and togetherness - but it held no happy anticipation for the auburn-haired young woman.

She rounded a corner and saw the monuments. As she came closer, she stopped short. One had greenery at its base, planted by her mother, she knew. A large spray of flowers encircled the other.

Looks like I'm not the only one who's been here today, she mused. Who could have left all these flowers? The Queen? No...she's gone. The King? Maybe.... The young woman clutched her flowers and walked around the monument.

There, she found an old friend. She stood silently and watched him. He was on his knees, bowing his head deeply. His long, tapered fingers rested lightly on his heavily muscled thighs. A barely perceptible shudder rippled across his broad shoulders. Why, he's crying, she thought to herself. It's about time he was able to really cry for you, my friend. He's missed you so much. He feels so responsible for what happened to you.

She looked at the yellow flower in her hand. Yellow surrounded by red. Not wishing to disturb the kneeling man, she crept softly behind him and bowed her own head, offering prayers to the souls of the dead.

One year, Tula. One year since you died. Do you know how much you are missed? She grasped the yellow bloom tightly. Gods, it's passed by so quickly, yet it seems like it's been forever. I wish I had died instead of you. You didn't deserve this. She gazed at the young man. He didn't deserve this. He loved you so much, my friend.

Tentatively, she extended her hand and placed it on the young man's shoulder. The touch was electric. His head snapped up and he swirled around. His deep violet eyes registered surprise.

"Alianne?"

The woman dropped to her knees beside him. "Garth. Hi."

"You startled me."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to. I didn't expect anybody to be around. Usually, I'm the only one here." She sat back on her heels and studied him closely, noticing the weariness in his face. So tired.

"I could say the same thing. About not expecting anyone, I mean."

Alianne smiled softly. "You haven't heard then? I'm the crazy person who spends her evenings talking to the dead. Every evening, like clockwork. Or at least that's what my mother tells me -- but I stopped listening to my mother a long time ago, you know."

"You haven't changed a bit, have you?" Garth asked. "Not in all the years I've known you. It's nice to know that some things haven't changed."

"Yeah," Alianne replied. "Same old me." Hesitantly, she met his gaze, searching for clues as to his state of well-being. Few answers were forthcoming and that disturbed her. She used to be able to read him so well. "I haven't seen you for the longest time. How are you?"

"Fine." He hesitated. Fine was what he'd been telling anyone else if they'd asked how he was. Alianne, however, deserved a truthful response, if for no other reason than that she would easily determine that fine was a lie. He decided to offer a bit of the truth before she demanded it. "Better. Not great, but better...you know?"

"I do, indeed. She was my best girlfriend. I miss her." She blinked back tears and forced a smile, convinced that if she gave in to emotion, it would shatter him and she was not about to upset what sense of internal balance he had. It had taken him a year to achieve that much. "I've missed you, too," she said simply. "Are you going to stay or will you be leaving again?"

Garth rose to his feet, shaking his head. "You know why I had to go away, Ali. I couldn't deal with it here -- but I can't run away forever. I've got to put it all behind me. Yeah, I'm sticking around."

Alianne looked up at her friend. Gods! It seems like the last time we hung out together, we stood eye to eye! When did you grow? Where did the years go?

Suddenly, she remembered the flowers in her grasp. She sat the pretty yellow flower next to Garth's spray and held the solitary blue one. "Will you stay a moment? I want to say hello to my father."

"I'm not going anywhere," he said.

Alianne walked to a nearby memorial and stood silently before her father's grave. She placed the vivid blue bloom in front of Lord Gavor's bust. Its stone eyes stared coldly at her, but she liked to believe that they could actually see her. She often pretended that they could, although at twenty, she would never admit to pretending.

Papa, I wish you were here. I love you. I'll be back to see you tomorrow, just like I always do.

Garth stood a short distance away. He looked at Alianne and thought back to their childhood days. You've really grown up, he mused, taking in the hint of angles in her face, the maturity in her bearing. He couldn't remember when she had acquired them. He couldn't even remember when the straight sturdiness had left her body, to be replaced by softer, woman's curves. I don't think I ever told you I was sorry about your father. Some friend I am.

Alianne came to stand before Garth. "I have an idea," she said. "Let me buy you dinner tonight. I haven't eaten yet, have you?" He shook his head, reluctance in his posture. She picked up on it immediately. That, at least, wasn't difficult to read at all. "We used to be best buddies, Garth. You're still one of the best friends I've got. It's the least I can do. How about it?"

"I don't know, Ali..." If I start talking to you, I'm going to end up telling you how I really feel. You've always done that to me...

"Oh, come on," she wheedled. "It's not like we have anything better to do. We can talk. You do remember how to talk, don't you?" She caught the look he gave her. "Okay," she amended, "we don't have to talk...not if you don't want to...please, buddy?" - she emphasized buddy - "I'll treat. And you can pick the place. I'd really enjoy spending time with someone outside of work." Her green eyes gave him an imploring look. "Please?"

The look did him in. "Alright, already!" Garth surrendered. "I give up! You always did know how to get your own way." And for the first time in what seemed like an eternity, he began to smile. "I get to pick the place? Buddy, you may regret saying that."

"Hey, it's one way to spend my inheritance," she replied, smiling back.

They strolled back into the heart of the city, darkened now, the great biolights atop the dome of Poseidonis having dimmed to simulate night.

Garth chuckled suddenly.

Alianne placed her hands on her hips. "What's so funny?" she demanded.

"You are. I'd forgotten how much of a free spirit you are. Nothing bothers you, does it?"

"Nope." For a brief moment, there was a look on her face that Garth had no idea how to read. Then, as quickly as it came, it vanished from her face and the smile returned. "I'm still a fun person. Let's have some fun tonight. We deserve it. Okay?"

She held out her hand. Garth took it in his own.

"Okay."

vvvvv

Chapter Two - In the Beginning, an interlude

"First time that someone looked behind the rumors and the lies; saw the man inside..." -R. Marx

A familiar sight greeted Lord Gavor as he returned home after an exceptionally long day. As he climbed the steps and crossed the threshold of his large, ornate house, his young consort descended upon him like a shark upon a guppy. Oh, here it comes. Let's see if the topic's different today.

Lady Sailyn's skirts swirled behind her. "Gavor, you must have words with your daughter -- tonight!"

Same old topic. Gavor set his document case down and planted a token kiss on his consort's cheek. "What did she do today, Sailyn?"

"Go to her room and ask her," Sailyn replied, her cheeks blazing. "And when you do, look at her arms and legs. She is bruised and scraped from head to toe!"

Lord Gavor grimaced inwardly. Orin's beard, now she'll never stop.

"And she knew your fellow council members were coming for dinner tonight. She knew I expected her home right after school so she would have time to make herself presentable. She knew we were short-staffed today! Do I ask too much of that child, Gavor? Is it too much to expect that she behave like a young lady instead of a -- a ruffian?" Sailyn swept her arm dramatically toward the staircase. "Speak with her, Sai'a'thé. I've talked. I've begged. I've pleaded with her until I'm blue in the face. She doesn't listen to me -- she'd better listen to you."

With a resigned expression, Gavor climbed the stairs to the sleeping chambers above. I should have been a kelp farmer, he thought. The door to his daughter's room was closed, and he rapped on it lightly. "May I come in?" A moment passed, and the door opened.

The little girl's glum expression brightened. "Papa, you're home!" she cried, throwing her arms around his waist.

Gavor smoothed her unruly auburn curls. "How's my baby? Your mother tells me you haven't been very helpful today." He disengaged her embrace and steered her towards a window seat that looked out over the city. They sat down, father facing daughter. "I'm supposed to ask you what you did today, Alianne."

"We went out to the northern ridge and slid down the rocks, Papa."

"The northern ridge? That's three kilometers from the city! That's much too far for you, Alianne. And rock sliding?" He studied the bruises and scratches on her body. "Well, that explains how you got so banged up. I don't want you that far away from the dome."

"Oh, don't worry, Papa! A whole bunch of us went. We never go alone...we all know better than that. And I just had to rock slide, I had to! All my friends were sliding. How would it look if I didn't slide, too?"

Gavor stood and looked down at his daughter. Time to be paternally stern, I guess. "Alianne, listen to me." Her large green eyes gazed up at him with all the childish worship she could muster. "And don't give me that look. You're nearly thirteen years old and I do think that perhaps it's time you spent a little less time with those boys you run around with. Your mother needs you here at home, and there are things you need to learn from her."

"You mean, stupid stuff like how to order the help around?" Alianne stuck out her tongue. "Yuck." The gesture and the single syllable expressed her entire feelings about such `ladylike' pursuits.

Gavor frowned. "It is not, as you say, yuck, sheisha. As my daughter, you have a certain position in our society. There are certain behaviors expected of you. You know this."

Alianne knew. She heard variations on this particular lecture several times weekly. Still, she felt the need to protest. "Mother expects me to do silly girl things."

"Your mother happens to be right," Gavor replied, ruffling his hand through her curls. This time, at least. "Those boys won't be your playmates forever, my dear," he added, not unkindly. "You must learn how to be a young Lady."

"But, Papa --"

"But nothing. You don't have to give up your friends completely. But I must insist you start spending more time at home and listening to your mother. It will make all our lives easier." Especially mine. "Will you do that for me, baby?"

Alianne hung her head, admitting defeat -- or at least, that was how Gavor interpreted her stance. "Yes, Papa. I'll try."

Lord Gavor bent down and kissed his daughter's forehead. "That's my girl. Hurry up and finish dressing. Our guests will be arriving soon. Will you help me greet them?"

The girl's expression brightened considerably. "Yes, Papa," she replied. She loved being allowed to stand with her father and welcome important guests to their home. It made her feel grown up. That was the fun part of being heir to a noble House. The rest of it...well, the rest of it was more a burden to her than anything else.

Gavor turned toward the door of Alianne's room. Her voice caused him to pause. "Papa?"

"Yes, baby?"

"Sometimes I wish you weren't one of the king's advisors and that we weren't a noble House. Sometimes I wish we were just like everybody else."

Gavor smiled ruefully. "So do I, baby. So do I."

The next morning, Alianne dashed into the dining room where her parents sat eating breakfast. Grabbing a piece of fruit, she started to bolt for the front door. Her mother's voice stopped her. "Where do you think you're going in such a rush, young lady?"

Alianne slung her school tote over her shoulder with one hand and used the other to stuff a bite of the sweet fruit into her mouth. "We have a field trip today, Mother. Botany. We're being taken out to one of the farms to gather plant samples and then we have to write a report on them. We're getting paired up with a partner for the report," she added helpfully. Sailyn sniffed, a frown on her elegant features. "I do hope you get paired up with someone suitable."

"Oh, Mother! For Orin's sake, I go to the most exclusive school in Poseidonis! You always say that only the best of the best go there -- why should anyone not be suitable?" Alianne opened the front door. "Gotta go. `Bye!" And then she was gone.

vvv

In another part of Poseidonis, a very different scene was taking place. To any passer-by, the palace seemed a glistening model of serenity. The servants who worked behind its towering walls knew a different story entirely.

This particular morning, the royal household was in turmoil. Every steward in the private section cast their eyes upward, ears straining to hear the argument raging behind the closed doors of an upstairs bedroom.

A school tote slammed to the floor. "No!" a young tenor voice rang out. "I'm not going to that idiotic school and you can't make me!"

Mera stood patiently, her hands clasped behind her back. "Now Garth, be reasonable. You have to go to school."

Garth shook his head, sending a shock of dark curls tumbling over his forehead. "No, Mera, I have to learn, but I don't have to go to school for that! Why can't I have my tutor back?"

The young Queen of Poseidonis went to the boy and tried to smooth his hair back in place. "I thought you disliked the tutor," she commented.

"I do...I mean, I did," he replied, "but I hate the school more." Garth gave the hem of his school tunic a savage tug. "I hate the school and I hate these stupid uniforms! Please don't make me go, Mera. Please?"

Mera heard the change in Garth's voice and sensed deeper meanings behind the pleadings. She sat on the edge of the bed and patted the space behind her. Now then, let's try to find out what's really bothering you. "Garth, come sit by me." He sat sulkily. "You know, that gloomy face doesn't suit you at all. When you started school a few weeks ago, you were so excited about it and now you're not. Is there something happening at school that I should know about?"

He looked up at her hesitantly. "Uh, no...nothing's going on," he said. "I guess it's just not like what I thought it would be. And I don't understand why I still have to go if I don't like it. I could go back to my tutor."

"Garth, we've been over this before. Yes, you could receive an education here with a tutor, but Arthur and I feel that you should be with children your own age. It's important that you get to know them and make some friends. You spend too much time around adults as it is. It'll be good for you if you give it a chance."

"But what if no one wants to give me a chance?"

"Now, what is that supposed to mean?"

Suddenly, Garth's words came out in a rush. "They hate me, Mera! They look at me -- they look at my eyes and they think I'm some sort of -- of freak, or something! They talk to me only because Arthur adopted me, and even then, only because of who he is. Everyone at school knows I was an exile and they treat me like I should still be one!"

Anger flashed in Mera's deep blue eyes. Oh, those horrible, hateful children. They should be thrashed within inch of their miserable little lives. Schooling the anger out of her face, she placed a slender arm around the boy's shoulders. "So that's it," she commented softly. "No wonder you don't want to go to school." Garth leaned his head against Mera, trying to draw comfort from her. "Listen to me. Not having been raised in Poseidonis myself, I can't begin to understand their belief that purple eyes are a mark of inferiority. It's so silly to me. Eye color is just eye color! It doesn't mean anything."

Those same purple eyes were looking up at Mera trustingly. "Do you really think so?" Garth asked.

"I really do," she replied. "But it's more important that you think so. Don't let superstition affect how you feel about yourself, Garth. You're a fine young man. You're brave, smart, and" -- she smiled at him warmly -- "handsome."

A blush spread across his cheeks. "Awww, Mera." He drew his head back and offered a small, hopeful smile. "Can I have my tutor back, then?"

"No. No tutor."

Garth's face dropped in dejection. Mera put her hand under his chin and tilted his face up, forcing him to look at her. "I want you to pick up your tote and go to school with a smile. I want you to do your absolute best and prove to those -- those children that you are every bit as good as they are -- if not better! Will you do that for me, Garth?"

He thought about Mera's request for a long moment. It seemed so important to her that he at least try to enjoy school. But it was so hard with the whispers that floated just out of reach of his ears. And their minds -- that was worse; every so often their condemning thoughts would seep past shielding, both theirs and his and he knew what they were really thinking about him. But Mera -he wanted to please her. Ever since she had become Arthur's queen the year before, she had gone out of her way to become his friend and confidante. He liked that. It made him feel as if he almost had a mother again. She wanted him to try.

Finally, he nodded slowly. "I'll do my best, Mera. I promise."

"Good. Now, you'd better go before you're late." Her smile was warm and wonderful.

Garth picked up his tote. "Oh, Mera! We're going to one of the farms for botany class and I may be home late. Don't let Arthur go out on patrol until I get back, okay?"

Mera shooed the boy toward the door. "I'll make sure he waits for you."

Trying not to look too resigned to his fate, Garth left for school. With his departure, the palace stewards breathed a collective sigh of relief. Quiet reigned over the palace grounds once again- -- for a few hours.

vvv

"Look here, class." The instructor pointed to one end of the rope of kelp that had been weighted down at both ends so it wouldn't drift away. The plant was so long that the entire class could stand shoulder to shoulder and still have room for more students. "The roots are long and strong so the plants will stay stable even when the seas are turbulent." He continued with his explanation.

As he talked, the entire class appeared to have their attention focused on what he was saying, but that wasn't quite the case. *Okay, who's gonna do it?*

*Not me,* said one boy. *My father said if I get in trouble again, he's gonna confine me to my room.*

*You're a jellyfish, Mupo,* the first boy replied, scorn in his thoughts.

*I don't care, Corin,* Mupo shot back. *I don't wanna be stuck there for a week.*

Alianne listened to their bickering, keeping her eyes on Master Bohn all the while. *You're both jellyfish,* she cut in. *Here, give it to me. I'll do it. `Sides, I'm closer anyway.* An object was passed behind the boys' backs and into Alianne's hands. She made sure the instructor's attention was still with the discussion of the root structure of kelp. A slender girl stood at her right, her dark hair twisted and looped in an elaborate arrangement that was rather out of place with their gray and blue school uniforms.

Okay, Mirrim's not paying any attention to me. Good. The object shifted to Alianne's right hand and slowly -- slowly -- she raised her hand to the back of the other girl's collar. Mupo and Corin are such shellheads. Mirrim's head was lowered, leaving a small gap in the back of her collar. Perfect. It'll slip right in...and...fire one! Alianne opened her fingers and the object fell...

...With the desired result. Mirrim immediately squealed and started jumping around as if someone were poking at her feet with needles, grabbing the hem of her tunic and shaking it violently. At the sound of her screeching, the entire class and the instructor's heads snapped up and looked in the girl's direction.

"Get it off me!" Mirrim was screaming as she jumped around, loosening her elaborate hairstyle in the process. "Master Bohn! Help! Help me!"

"Hold still," a voice said, sounding strangely assertive. "Hold still!"

Mirrim, trying to comply, looked towards the sound of the voice. Oh. Him.

Garth stood behind the girl, holding the back of her tunic out. Something fell to the silt. "Here you go," he said, picking the something up and holding it out to Mirrim. A small deep sea crab sat quietly in his hand. What Garth knew that the others did not was that in its own way, the crab was just as frightened as Mirrim had been.

Seeing the innocent attacker in Garth's palm, the entire class relaxed into nervous giggles. "It probably crawled up your back and down your tunic and you never noticed, Mirrim," Master Bohn said. But her eyes weren't on him, they were on Garth. Or, more accurately, the little crab in his hand. He was stroking its back with the tip of one finger. “Just what do you think you're doing?" she demanded. He seemed intent on the tiny creature.

"Trying to calm it down," he replied, still focused on the crab. "She was afraid you were going to hurt her."

"Her?" Mirrim squeaked indignantly. "What about me?"

"What about you?" Garth asked, never looking up at his classmate. "You're doing fine."

"It tried to attack me!" she declared, ignoring the heightened giggling from the class, especially from two boys and a girl to her left. "What do you know about it, anyway?" By her tone, Mirrim was quite surprised that the purple-eyed boy knew much of anything about anything.

"I know she's scared out of what little mind she's got," Garth snapped. The children might not want much to do with him, but the sea creatures had always been kind to him, kinder than the humans would ever know. They'd watched out for him when his mother disappeared. They had tried to protect him. And he'd defend them until he couldn't defend them anymore. Ignoring Mirrim, he sent waves of telepathic reassurance to the tiny creature in his hand. Finally, it stopped its agitated wiggling of its pincers and ceased its distressed mental cries. Garth gently set the crab on the ground and it immediately scuttled away from the humans.

Mirrim sniffed. "That's strange, you know," she sneered. "Talking to the fish." Several other classmates nodded in agreement.

Garth's anger flared. "They're nicer'n some people...than lots of people!" he blurted. He pivoted and swam away from the class, fleeing behind one of the farm's storage buildings. Mixed feelings flooded through him. He hated feeling different from the other children, but he couldn't not do what he'd done. The crab had been terrified and he had the ability to calm it. But at the same time, he wished he was just like everyone else. Blue eyes, brown eyes, or green -- any one of them would do -- and not to be able to hear the world around him in his mind. At that moment, as he sat alone, fighting angry tears, that was all that he wanted.

"Garth?"

He looked up into a pair of wide green eyes. A sturdily built girl stood before him, her hands behind her back. "I'm sorry," she said.

"For what?" he asked, trying to recall the girl's name. Alisann? No, that wasn't it...Alianne. That sounded right. He tried it out to make sure. "Why are you apologizing to me, Alianne?"

The corner of her mouth quirked. "Don't tell Master Bohn, but I dropped the crab down Mirrim's back." Well, she didn't correct him on her name. He must've been right. "I didn't know it would upset the crab. If I'd known, I'd never've done it." Then she grinned. "Just so's you know, I'm not sorry about Mirrim, though."

"Oh." Garth had no idea what to say to this girl. For the first time, someone from class was actually talking to him as if they expected a reply. No, that wasn't quite it. She was talking to him as if she believed he were capable of replying intelligently.

"Next time, I'll use something that's not alive," she amended, still smiling. "Don't tell on me, okay?"

Garth's head spun. Why was this girl being nice to him? Treating him like an...an equal, for Orin's sake! No, she must want something. Or she was going to do something to him, and if not now, then later. She had a reputation for sticking with the boys and getting in trouble. He didn't want to be the target of one of their practical jokes. He shut down the little spark of hope that had burst in his chest. "I won't tell on you," he said as coldly as he could manage. "Just go back to class and leave me alone."

Confusion flashed in her eyes. Then, Alianne shrugged. "Have it your way," she said before returning to the other students.

Alone again, Garth sat, sadness setting over him like silt. He drew his knees tight to his chest and wrapped his arms around himself, trying to make himself as small as possible. I want to fit in, but I don't know how. They won't talk to me. They're not nice at all. Mera, I'm really trying, but it's not working at all. I just don't know how to make them like me. You said if I tried, then school wouldn't be so bad. But it is. It's awful.

It's awful.

Bohn watched Garth flee the group, heading for a storage building. For a moment, he considered going after him in an attempt to console him. Then Alianne took off in pursuit and Bohn decided to leave things as they were. It was better if the children could work these things out for themselves with as little adult interference as possible. Gavor's girl certainly was different from the other girls and they never ignored an opportunity to tell her so, but she seemed not to care. Not care? Gods, she's proud that she's not like them, he thought. What a little nonconformist. I'll just bet she gives her parents headaches on a regular basis, but maybe...well, we'll see how right I am about things when we get back to school.

He was almost disappointed when Alianne returned to the group alone. Maybe. Maybe not. We'll just have to wait and see.

vvv

By day's end, Bohn was just a little more than frazzled as he herded the class back to school in one piece, plant specimens intact. As they returned to their seats, he moved to the front of the room and managed to get their attention.

Waving a small plastic wafer in his hand, he said, "All right, people. Here's the moment I know you've all been waiting for." He crossed to a wall terminal, inserted the wafer and activated the unit's screen. "As you leave for the day, check the list for your assigned partner." The class let out a collective groan, and the teacher tapped the screen for emphasis, bathing his hand in a faint green glow. "Now, people. You come up, get your pairing." He studied the sea of glum faces. "Your assignment is to take your plant samples home, meet with your partner tonight, and study your notes from our trip -- and I hope we all kept notes. I want a brief outline on your observations on leaf structure on my desk tomorrow morning. Any questions?"

One hand shot up. "Yes, Maia?"

"Master, what if we don't like our partner?"

"Grit your teeth and suffer." Bohn folded his arms across his chest. "I'll only say this once. I'm not changing any partner assignments, so don't bother asking." The class groaned again. "Any other questions? No? Good. Find your partner, go home, and get to work. You're dismissed. Enjoy your day."

The children rushed toward the viewscreen. The teacher hung back, observing the reactions as they found their partners. Some were pleased, others were not. With particular interest, he saw one girl approach Alianne, who was still at her desk packing her tote.

Alianne became aware of someone standing next to her. She looked up, wrinkling her nose in distaste. "Ryssa, what do you want?" Of all the girls in class, she disliked Ryssa, with her simpering ways, the most. Stuck up snob.

"Have you seen your assignment yet, Ali?" Ryssa cooed.

"No. Not yet. Why?"

Ryssa patted one of the braids coiled neatly around her head. "Oh, no reason," she giggled. "But don't worry about it. I'm sure you'll end up having to write your report yourself."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Alianne noticed two other girls standing behind Ryssa. Mirrim was one of them, no longer looking quite so ridiculous now that her hair had been pulled back at the nape of her neck after the incident with the crab. The trio giggled in unison.

"You'll see," Ryssa said, snickering. "You'll see." The girls departed, giving Alianne a backwards glance and laughing even louder.

Confused, she glanced over to the computer terminal, still displaying the names of the partners. That's funny. I could've sworn someone was standing there. But now... Except for Master Bohn, she was the only one in the room.

"Your partner just left, Alianne. You should catch up with him."

She stopped by the screen, searched the list and saw the name displayed next to hers. "Master, why didn't he wait for me? We're supposed to work together.

"Why don't you ask him?" Alianne turned to comply with his request. "Alianne, wait." She stopped and turned around. "Before you go, I just wanted to tell you...don't believe everything you hear. Especially when it comes to legends. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir," Alianne replied, not understanding at all.

Alianne left the room and hurried to catch up with the retreating form of her partner. "Hey...hey!" she called out. "Wait up, will you?" The boy stopped and waited. She skidded to a stop beside him. "Hey, Garth, didn't you check the screen?"

"Uh-huh."

"Don't you know that you and I are supposed to work together?"

"Uh-huh." I'm not stupid.

Alianne placed her hands on her hips. "Can't you say anything else besides uh-huh?"

"Uh-huh," Garth repeated, this time with the faintest hint of a smile.

Alianne looked at Garth; noticed his eyes. Suddenly, she understood what her instructor was trying to tell her. This is what the fuss is all about? This is the big deal? "So, when do you want to work on this?"

He shrugged. "I dunno. After dinner, I guess. I've got stuff to do now." He resumed his hurried pace.

"But we've got to turn something in tomorrow," she protested, matching him stride for stride. "Waiting `till after dinner won't give us enough time!" She glared at him. "What's so important that you can't work on this now?"

Garth's earlier anger flared again. "Do it yourself if you can't wait!" he snapped. "You don't really want me as your partner anyhow!" He drew himself up in the attempt to appear taller. It didn't quite work, though. They were still almost the same height. "Besides, I can't do this now because I have to go on patrol."

"Really?" He nodded. "With Avigaal?" He nodded again. "Wow," she breathed, "that must be so exciting! You're soooo lucky!"

Garth looked at the girl and was surprised to see admiration shining in her green eyes. He felt a flush spread across his face. This was not the reaction he expected. Not even close.

She's really trying to be nice to me. "You really think so?"

Alianne nodded animatedly, her long, curly ponytail bobbing behind her. "Oh, yeah!" she enthused. "My father says you've been all over -- the outer seas, even to the surface! I mean, Papa got mad `cause I was only three kliks from the dome yesterday, but you...I wish I could see some of the places you've seen!" Her smile was open and bright...and genuine.

Garth grinned back at her. "Yeah...well, it is kinda exciting, sometimes." He paused. "Alianne...you really want me to work on this project with you?"

"Yeah. Why not? It's not like you're stupid, or something. You don't have a problem with me, do you? It's too bad if you do. You heard what Master Bohn said about changing partners."

"No! I don't have a problem with that. I just thought that maybe you --"

The hands flew to her hips again. "Maybe I what?"

"Oh, nothing. Nothing at all." His grin grew into a full-blown smile.

"Good," Alianne said. "I thought maybe you were still mad at me about the crab."

"Nah. I think I made her understand that you weren't trying to hurt her."

"You think? You don't know for sure?"

"I dunno," Garth shrugged. "Crabs aren't very smart that way." Alianne watched him with an open, eager expression, like she was actually...interested in what he had to say. "Y'know, I still can't work on this until I return from patrol, though."

"Well," she grinned, "we'll just have to work fast. You wanna come over to my house after dinner?"

"Ummmm...why don't you come over to mine?"

Alianne's eyes widened. "To the palace?" He nodded in reply. "Wow, I've never been to the palace! Papa's there all the time, but he's always said that I was too young to tag along. This is gonna be great! Sure, okay -- I'd love to! Call me when you're ready and I'll come over."

"Okay."

"Look, Garth. I gotta go. I'll get the rest of my homework done so I won't have to worry `bout it later." Launching herself upward, she began to slowly swim away from Garth. "Don't forget...call me!"

Garth started swimming in the opposite direction. "Alianne!" he called suddenly, pausing to turn toward her. She stopped, her body bobbing leisurely in the water. "What's your home comm-code?"

"The King knows it. Ask him for Lord Gavor's code."

Garth recognized the name. "You're Lord Gavor's daughter?" So, that was why she commented that her father was often at the palace. On the few occasions when Arthur allowed him to sit in on a Council meeting, he'd heard Gavor relate the latest escapades of his young daughter. He'd never heard her referred to by name before, so he'd never made the connection with the hellion Gavor despaired of and the rambunctious girl before him now.

She grinned. "The one and only!" She tossed a merry wave at him. "See ya' later. Bye!"

Garth began his own swim home. He hadn't gotten far when he was aware of someone coming up along side him. It was Alianne.

"One other thing," she said with a smile. "It's Ali. You call me Alianne again and I'm gonna have to hurt you. Don't forget, okay?"

He couldn't help but smile. You couldn't hurt me if you tried, but if it makes you happy to think so.... "Okay."

Alianne flipped over backwards and darted off back the way she had started to go, leaving Garth to resume his short swim to the palace. Well, whaddya know. I guess Mera was right after all. He found himself thinking about the red-haired girl. She was...interesting...outspoken, mischievous, definitely not shy by any means...as completely opposite from him as a person could be.

He decided right then and there that he liked that.

Maybe school won't be so bad after all.

vvvvvv

Chapter Three - Darkness on the Edge

"And you still have a rage inside you...in the only part of a broken heart that you could ever save...." - B. Joel/C. Lauper

Three kilometers from the domed city of Poseidonis, the northern ridge rises from the ocean floor, its height dwarfing countless generations of children who slid down its steep slopes. Singly and in pairs, they would lie on thin sheets of plastic and launch themselves over the edge. The ride was wild and bumpy, and despite admonitions from their parents (who were once young once but now thought they knew better), the children would ride and slide and return home scraped, bruised, breathless and thrilled with the experience.

It was here that Garth and Alianne stood, plastic sliders in hand. Tall and broad, the young man peered over the edge of the ridge. Why does it seem steeper than I remember? He turned to his companion. "Are you sure you want to do this, Ali? This is a game for kids." And gods know we're not kids anymore, he added privately.

Alianne's laugh rang out over the ridge. "What's the matter? Afraid to regress a bit?" She pushed her long hair back from her face. "Oh, c'mon, Garth, it'll be fun!" She set her slider on the slope's edge and sat down on it, tucking her legs beneath her. "We used to do this all the time."

"Don't remind me." Garth sat on his slider next to her. He had a harder time getting situated than Alianne did; the last time they had gone sliding, she had been close to her adult height. He, on the other hand, had grown considerably over the years and had to hunch his body in order to fit on the slider. "We also used to be shorter. I look ridiculous," he complained, "and I feel a little...uh, silly."

She grinned over at him. "So? Be silly. There's nothing wrong with being silly sometimes." She laughed again at the expression he wore. "At least there's no little kids around to see us make fools of ourselves."

"Thank the gods for small favors," Garth said dryly.

Alianne gave him a playful whack on the arm. "Let's race!"

"I'll win. In case you haven't noticed, I'm bigger than you."

"Then, I get a head start!" Without warning, Alianne pushed herself over the edge of the slope and let out a whoop as she began her slide.

Garth shrugged and launched his powerful body down the steep ridge. As he picked up speed, he got caught up in the excitement of the wild ride. His greater mass allowed him to quickly pass the streaking form of his friend and he passed her, laughing.

As he sped by, Alianne bent forward to cut down on her body's resistance through the water. Although the tight tuck allowed for some additional speed, it wasn't enough to catch up. Oh, well. You knew you were going to lose, she thought, her body rattling with every bump and turn.

Their two speeding forms hit the bottom lip of the ridge, sailing through the water before bumping to a stop on the soft, sandy ocean floor. Alianne flopped back on the sand, flushed and breathless. "That was great," she laughed.

Garth lowered his lithe frame to sit beside her. "I'd forgotten how much fun that is," he told her.

"Still feeling silly?"

"Yeah, but I can live with it." He leaned back on his muscular arms. "I'm glad you talked me into this."

Alianne studied him. His posture was relaxed and his smile was broad and genuine. I wonder how long it's been since you've been this loose? She mentally answered her own question. Too long, I'll bet.

How easy it had seemed. Recent years had seen Garth and Alianne follow separate paths in recent years; they had still been close emotionally, but the demands made by growing up -- schooling, love, other interests -- had produced some physical distance between the two friends. But the bonds of the friendship rooted deeply in childhood had never been broken. Garth had been away for nearly a year, and Alianne had feared that the chasm created by time and distance could never be crossed. To her delight, they had managed to easily rediscovered common ground and the years fell away, leaving loneliness behind and she had her buddy back. And because neither of them truly had anyone else, they fell into old, familiar patterns and became inseparable.

As the weeks passed, Alianne became aware of small changes in Garth's manner. The lines in his face that had made him look older and wearier than his twenty years softened and his posture became less tense. He no longer looked as if he were ready to attack on the slightest provocation. Despite this, she knew him well enough to know that all was not well. There was a haunted sort of look in his violet eyes. It went unnoticed by most everyone else, but Alianne saw it and wanted desperately to take it away. Talk to me, she'd wish to herself. I know you're still hurting...still grieving. Maybe if you'd let your sorrow out, you could let her go. You keep telling me you want to get on with your life, but you can't unless you stop thinking about the past...about the pain. The next thought came unbidden into her mind.

And wouldn't it be great if I could listen to my own advice...

Now they sat in silence. Alianne lay on the ocean floor, her deep red hair fanning out beneath her in the grass. Her eyes were closed, the long dark lashes brushing against her cheeks. She folded her hands behind her head.

Garth reclined next to her and gazed into the murky waters above. "You're awfully quiet all of a sudden," he commented. "What're you thinking about?"

She blinked. "Oh, nothing much," she lied. She sat up and drew her knees to her chest. "I was just...wondering...about something..."

"Go on," he prompted.

"You really want to know?"

Garth nodded.

Alianne swallowed hard. "I was thinking about...how we talk, but we don't talk."

Garth's dark brows knit together. "We talk. Gods, I've said more things to you than I've said to anyone in a long time."

"But that's just it. It's just...things." Alianne paused, groping for the right words. "It's like, oh, `how are you, fine, good, let's go do something.' I don't have a clue as to what you're thinking, what you're feeling, and you're always shielding so damn tight that there's no way for me to even try to figure it out!" She looked into his eyes and gestured helplessly. "There's so much I want to say to you, but I don't know if you're ready to listen -- or if you even care to. And you know what, Garth? That really scares me. I used to be able to tell you anything and everything...now, I wonder if I even know you anymore."

Puzzlement flashed across his features. "Ali, you can still tell me anything. You're my `bestest buddy', remember? What's bothering you?"

Alianne exhaled sharply. "Okay....Why can't we talk about what hurts us?"

"Meaning...?"

"Meaning...oh, gods. Meaning, I want...no, I need to talk about Loren and what he did to me. I need to talk about Tula. I need to scream. I need to really cry. Damn it, I need to do something!"

Garth immediately tensed when he heard Tula's name. "And just what do you need to say?" he demanded harshly.

"Garth, I loved Loren. And...he hurt me, more than I ever thought possible. More than anyone could possibly know. He took...." Alianne broke off the statement. The words wouldn't come. "I loved Tula. She helped me when everyone else thought I was beyond help. She helped me when I was hurting. Why can't I do that for you?"

"Why would you possibly think you can?" Garth demanded. "Who do you think you are? My psychiatrist?"

"Of course not. I'm your friend!" Alianne replied, shuddering. His voice had never sounded so cold before.

Garth shot to his feet. "Being my friend doesn't mean you understand!"

"Understand what, Garth? Understand what it feels like to be alone? Understand the loneliness? The pain? The grief? Understand being together and having that ripped away?" Then she, too, was standing to face him. "Understand what it feels like when someone you love isn't there anymore? Just what part don't you think I understand?!" she shouted, angry and hurt.

"You think that because Loren hurt you and left you that you understand how I feel!" Garth raged. "Well, you don't! You can't! It's not the same! Loren dumped you by forcing you to dissolve your bond with him. Tula died. At least Loren's alive -- somewhere. Maybe you'd like it better if he were dead, too. Then you could understand!"

Hot, angry tears filled her eyes. "That's the cruelest thing I've ever heard you say." She began to cry, her whole body stinging from his harsh words. "I can't believe you said that!"

He turned his back on her. "What's wrong?" he spat. "Can't handle the truth, little girl?"

"You...you bastard!"

The curse froze Garth in his tracks. Alianne's harsh, ragged sobs finally penetrated his consciousness. Dear gods, what am I saying? He placed a hand on her arm. "Ali, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that. I didn't mean any of it. I'm sorry," he implored. At his touch, she pulled her arm away savagely. "Please, you've got to believe me. I'm really sorry." He reached for her again.

"Don't you dare touch me!" Alianne turned and retreated from him.

"Ali, wait!" he begged. "Please, you've got to listen to me!"

"Why? I think you've said quite enough." She never stopped.

Garth swam to her, grabbed her shoulders and spun her around. "Listen to me! I'm sorry. I know you're just trying to help. Maybe...maybe I said those things to hurt you."

"Why, Garth? Why would you want to hurt me?" she asked in a small voice.

"I don't know. I guess it...hurt too much...to hear what you were saying and I guess I wanted to give some of that back to you. You're absolutely right. It was cruel.

"Of all the people in the world, you're the last one I'd want to hurt. I wouldn't blame you if you never forgave me." He hesitated for a moment and closed his eyes against the tears. "It's just so...so hard. Sometimes, when I go to sleep, Tula comes to me in my dreams, and it's always good. She's so real, so warm. I can almost touch her. And I try -- oh, gods, how I try. I reach out to hold her, to tell her how much I love her. And as soon as I do, she's gone and I'm alone in the dark.

"And you know what the worst part is? She never knew how much I loved her. And I couldn't save her to tell her so.” He sat down heavily, sobbing openly.

Alianne knelt in front of him and drew him into her arms. She held him tightly. "Shhh," she soothed. "That's it. Let it out. You don't need to hold it inside anymore. Shhh...."

He buried his face in her shoulder. "I wish I could have her back for just one day so she would know how much I love her."

"Oh, Garth," she said softly, tears beginning anew. "Don't you think for a moment that Tula never knew. Believe me, she knew...oh, how she knew."

"But...I never told her. Not really. Not in words."

"She didn't need words to know how you felt. It's not the sort of thing you needed to say to have it be known. When the two of you were together, it was so obvious. She and I used to talk about it a lot." Alianne continued to hold Garth as his sobs shook her body. "You know that she loved you, don't you?" She felt his barely perceptible nod against her shoulder. "Well, she knew you loved her just as much...and I don't think she'd want to see you so sad after all this time. I think that she'd want you to think about the happiness and how much joy you brought her while she lived."

"But how do I do that?" Garth's words were choked, muffled. "Ali, help me...I don't want to feel this way anymore!"

She stroked his hair gently, soothing him. "I know. Believe me, I know. I miss her, too." And I know what it's like to hurt so badly that you want to die. "Just go ahead and cry. Let it out and let it go."

"I've been so alone," Garth whispered.

"No. You're not alone. You may have been lonely, but you've never been alone." Alianne drew her arms tighter around him, rocking him in her arms.

Their tears mingled together, becoming one with the seas that surrounded the mountain ridge where they had played as the children they had once been. And in the place that still seemed to echo with childish laughter, the adults that they had become huddled together in grief and sorrow.

And the healing began.

vvvvvv

Chapter Four - Dreamtime

"...in spite of your rules, you've got a memory..." - B. Joel/C. Lauper

Dark. It's still dark.

Garth's deep violet eyes blinked heavily with sleep. Groaning, he rolled onto his side and glanced at the bedside timepiece. Well, at least it's not the middle of the night...like it usually is. He disengaged his legs from the linens tangled around them and sat upright in his bed, running his fingers through rumpled dark curls. That was so real...so vivid, he thought. But...not so bad. Not like usual.

The dream began just as it had on so many previous nights. He would be swimming free out in the open seas, far from the sensation of enclosure he often felt within the Poseidonian dome. As the ocean currents caressed his face, he would sense that he was not alone. He would turn, and his heart would rejoice, for Tula was at his side. Her short brown hair would swirl around her face and her clear blue eyes would sparkle as laughter escaped from her lips. Come, catch me if you can, my love, she would challenge, gracefully cutting through the waters.

Garth could feel the laughter rise in his throat and the chase would be on. Their lithe figures dashed and darted about, and her laughter echoed in his mind. He could have easily overtaken her, but he would hang back, making it at least appear to be a chase. Then as always, the yearning would begin and his mind would reach out to hers. *The chase is over,* he told her. *You are mine.*

*Forever?* she would ask.

*Forever,* he affirmed. And as always, he would reach for her to draw her into his embrace. He could almost touch her; feel the softness of her skin, taste the sweetness of her waiting mouth....And as always, she would dissolve within his embrace, drifting away in the current...and Garth would scream in solitude.

Tonight was different. Tonight, Tula stayed, wrapping her arms around his neck. He drew her into his kiss, murmuring her name over and over as he devoured her. She returned his kisses eagerly and they floated together, bodies and thoughts entwined.

Once more, her voice sang in his mind. *Garth, I will always love you. You're the best part of me.*

*Oh, gods, Tula. I love you. I --*

*Don't grieve for me anymore, my love.* And it was then that her body began to lose substance.

*No!* he cried. *Don't leave me! Don't leave me alone!* He tried to hold on to her, but she spread herself out over the waters, until only he remained --alone and adrift.

He screamed out her name in a plaintive wail. *Come back! I need you! I love you!*

*I know. I always have known and I always will know. Be at peace with yourself and remember me as I lived. No more sorrow, my precious, precious love.* Her voice began to grow distant in his mind. *I can't stay. I must go now.*

Garth searched for Tula frantically. *Where are you? I can't see you! Tell me where you are!*

*Don't you know? I'm in a corner of your heart. I will always be there. I will always live within you as long as you think well of me. But love, you're not as alone as you think, and it's no longer my place to fill your heart. Goodbye, my love.*

And then Garth was alone.

Alone...and awake.

As he sat in his bed, he pondered this different ending to his recurring dream and realized that he no longer felt the profound sadness that had been the only constant in his life for well over a year. I told her! I told her I loved her...and she knew! Ali, you were right. Tula knew -- she knew all along!

Lightrise had not yet come to Poseidonis, but Garth found sleep would no longer come. He swung his heavily muscled legs over the side of the bed, reached for his robe and drew it tightly around himself.

For the first time in more months than he cared to count, he felt a sense of peace flooding though him. He allowed his mind to draw images of Tula, and the sadness did not come. There was a wistfulness there, one for things that might have been, but the deep ache no longer gripped his soul.

Remember me as I lived. Wasn't that what Tula had said to him? I'll try, Tula. I'll try to remember the happiness...remembering you as you died was wrong. It dishonors everything you lived for. I'll try never to make that mistake again....And I'll try not to lash out at my friends for trying to help me, either...

...or, at least to remember to say I'm sorry to them when I do.

A decision made, Garth dressed quickly, exchanging the robe and sleep pants for a tunic, leggings and soft boots. He left his apartment on the palace grounds and headed toward one of the residential areas of the city. The streets were dim and quiet at this early hour. Moments later, he arrived at his destination, activated the door chime and waited.

A small smile spread across his face when the door opened. The young woman standing there looked just as he expected. Her slender frame was wrapped in a long, full robe and her hair was tousled around her face. She rubbed her eyes sleepily and yawned. "Garth? Do you know what time it is?"

He nodded, the smile growing a bit.

Alianne looked at him, confused and uncertain. "Is there something wrong?"

"No," he replied, leaning casually against the threshold of her house. "Actually, everything's kind of right. May I come in? I really need to talk to you."

"At this hour? It's terribly early...or late, depending on your point of view."

"I know, but it's important, Ali. I wouldn't have disturbed you if it weren't."

"Come on in," Alianne sighed, standing aside and allowing him to enter. As she saw his smile, she could only wonder what had happened to him since their confrontation on the northern ridge. He looked...almost...happy! And she had been nothing short of miserable, herself. She understood why he had said those things about Loren; there was so much that no one knew, not even Garth. Especially not Garth. He never would have thrown that in her face if he had known, so Alianne understood the whys and found that his pain made it easy to forgive his words...but the words brought back memories...and the memories brought back terrors of her own. Ones that she thought had been dealt with and put aside years ago.

But they weren't quite done with her yet. And she couldn't deny that Garth's words had stung her heart, either. As a result, Alianne had made it a point of studiously avoiding him for several seemingly endless days until she could find her sense of internal balance again. Now he was here, and wanting to talk...and at an hour when no sane person was awake.

"This had better be good," she warned gently, closing the door behind her.

"It is," he told her. "Believe me, it is."

vvvvvv

Chapter Five - Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude (an interlude)

"When a girl changes from bobby socks to stockings, she's old enough to give her heart away." -unknown

Alianne stood before a full length mirror in her bedroom. An entire closetful of clothing lay scattered at her feet. Slipping into yet another dress, her pout turned into a full-blown frown.

She grabbed the fabric roughly, tugging, twisting and turning. Then she inhaled sharply, holding her breath. There. That's better. That looks -- oops! Her breath came out in a rush. Well, that won't work. I certainly can't hold my breath all day! The frustration that had been building for the past hour or so exploded.

"Mother! Mo-therrrrr!"

Lady Sailyn burst through the door, a bundle in her arms. "What is it now, Alianne?"

The girl turned distressed green eyes toward her mother. "Do something!" she wailed. "Nothing fits anymore!" She turned back to face the mirror and gave a final tug to the bodice of her outfit. The fasteners down the front pulled and gaped across her chest.

The older woman smiled. "Dear child, there's nothing to do except buy you new clothes. You're growing, lovey. You're becoming a woman."

I don't want to become a woman. Well, if I could be one like the Queen, that might be all right, but I don't want to be like you.

Sailyn laid the bundle on her daughter's bed. "Look here: New school uniforms and some other things to tide you over until we can go shopping after school."

Alianne's expression turned to dismay. "Today, Mother? I can't go today! I have to study for a history test tomorrow!"

"Study after dinner," Sailyn replied.

"But I promised Garth I'd --"

"That boy again!" Sailyn snapped. "Honestly, Alianne! All you do is run around with that boy. Now, you listen to me, young lady. Your father may think it advantageous for you to associate with him. I'll concede his point, to an extent. But this has gone on much too far! You should hear the talk amongst my friends. They say you're being dragged down by that boy!"

Alianne's eyes blazed. "I know how your stupid friends talk, and that boy has a name, Mother!" she seethed.

"Hold your tongue until I'm finished!" Sailyn snapped again. "We have our standing in the community to consider. It doesn't help if you continue to associate with him. He's obviously not suitable for you!"

Alianne glared hotly at her mother. "You've got to be kidding. Garth's my best friend in all the world. The way you're talking, you'd think I was being fitted for my Sai'a'thash robes or something!"

Sailyn shuddered. The very thought of her daughter being bound for life to that boy made her queasy. "He isn't good enough for you. All Poseidonis knows it, and probably Tritonis, too. If the king hadn't adopted him, he'd be exiled again so quickly, your head would spin."

"How can you say that? You haven't even taken the time to get to know him! You never have! I hate you for saying such terrible things about him!"

Sailyn looked at her daughter and decided to change tactics. "Now, lovey, maybe I am being a little -- strict -- but really, you should have other friends, too. What about the girls in your class? You had a few of them over the other night. Wasn't that fun?"

"Well...I guess so," Alianne grudgingly admitted. "Some of 'em are okay." She sat on the edge of her bed and her mother joined her.

"Alianne, I know it isn't easy being fourteen. I was fourteen once, myself." Sailyn almost chuckled at the disbelieving look she got. "Really, I was. Everything is changing -- your body, your interests -- it's such a confusing time, but I do believe you're bearing up well. Why, you don't run around like a wild child anymore. Your father and I actually see you around the house from time to time and we appreciate that." She smiled gently at her daughter. "How about this: I'll take you shopping this afternoon and you can study for your test after dinner."

Alianne glanced sideways at her mother. "I'm studying with Garth," she declared in a challenging tone.

"Yes, of course," Sailyn replied through gritted teeth. Oh, that boy....

"And I get to stay out an extra hour," Alianne pronounced.

"Oh, I don't know about that --"

"No hour, no shopping," Alianne said, folding her arms across her budding chest.

"No shopping, no new clothes," Sailyn retorted. "And you need new clothes."

"Order them."

"Not without you there to try them on."

"I don't care, Mother. I'll go to school naked." Alianne's voice then took on a quality that combined innocence and sing-song rote lesson recitation. "Why, did you know that hundreds and hundreds of years ago, it was the norm for Poseidonians to wear practically nothing? Maybe some jewelry? Just think , Mother, I could start a whole new fashion trend." Her green eyes shone wickedly.

Sailyn sighed. And she'd do it, too. Just to spite me. "All right," she capitulated. "One hour -- but not a minute later." She waggled a finger at her daughter in warning.

Alianne smiled in triumph. The sturdy teenager had had her first real lesson in the fine art of compromise -- and she had won.

vvv

The teacher clapped her hands, and young eyes turned to face the front of the classroom. "Each of you have your geometry problems to do. When you're finished, you may use the remaining time to study. Are there any questions? No? You may begin."

As one, the students bent over their desks and set to work. Alianne glanced at her problems with distaste. I hate geometry.

An equally feminine voice spoke in her head. *So do I.*

Alianne glanced furtively at her deskmate and grinned knowingly. *We're not supposed to 'talk' while we're working,* she admonished gently.

*So? What can happen? We'll get in trouble--*

*-- and we're always in trouble!* Alianne concluded with a mental shrug. Being in trouble in class wasn't exactly a new concept for the two girls.

Her deskmate tossed a waist-length braid over her shoulder and Alianne grinned again. Many of the girls in her class were shallow; preoccupied with their looks and giggling over boys -- and not necessarily in that order -- but she liked this one. She had a mischievous streak a kilometer wide and the biggest blue eyes Alianne had ever seen. Bright, adventurous, and just emerging from a gawky pre-adolescent stage herself, she and Alianne discovered kindred spirits in each other and became good friends. Alianne's mother, who had begun to wonder if her daughter was actually a boy in disguise, was much relieved.

The teacher saw that the two girls were doing everything but their work. She cleared her throat. "Excuse me. Alianne, Tula." They looked up guiltily, just as the teacher knew they would. It was a look they had mastered, but guilt over situations like this was an emotion she knew the girls didn't feel. "Ladies, perhaps you'd like to let us all in on what you find so amusing?" I should keep them on opposite sides of the room -- no, it wouldn't help, and I'd have my attention split between them, she added privately.

Somehow, Tula managed to make her eyes appear bigger and bluer than they actually were. Alianne looked on, impressed as always. How does she do that? I'd give a year's allowance to know...

"Uhhhh, no, Mistress," Tula said, managing to look contrite.

"I didn't think so. Get back to your work, girls."

Once again, they hunched over their geometry. Tula chewed absently on the end of her stylus. *Hey, Ali.*

*Hey what?*

*Can I tell you something?*

*Sure.* Alianne glanced up from her work.

*No, don't. We'll get caught again.*

*Oh. Yeah. Right. So, what do you want to tell me?*

*Promise you won't laugh?*

*Promise.*

*Well...I like someone.*

"You're kidding! Really? Who?*

*You'll laugh. You'll think I'm stupid.*

*Oh, Tula. I will not. C'mon, tell me. Who is it?*

*Look to your left.* Alianne swung her head. *For Orin's sake, Ali! Don't be so obvious!*

*You're wasting your time.*

*How come?*

*'Cause he thinks girls are stupid.*

*He doesn't think you're stupid, Ali.*

*We're just friends. 'Sides, I'm different. I don't act like them.*

*Neither do I, * Tula pointed out. *You gotta help me.*

*Help you? How?*

*Look at the other girls, then look at me.*

*Yeah, so?*

*They're all so...pretty.*

*You're not ugly, you know. And you're much smarter than they are. Shellheads.*

*Maybe...but look at their faces. Look at their hair. I've still got these stupid braids. I still look like a little kid! If he doesn't notice them, what chance have I got? You know him better than anyone else. You gotta help me to get him to notice me!*

*But I don't know much about boys and stuff like that. You should ask Ryssa. Now, she knows all about -- *

*No! Not Ryssa -- you! You don't need to know all that stuff. You know him. You know what he likes and what he doesn't like.*

*Well...okay. But why don't you just go out and change your hair and whatever?*

*'Cause my brother Morrel's a jerk. Ever since Imi and Avi died four years ago, 'Rel's been so involved in his studies and taking care of me that I swear he thinks I'm still ten. To him, I'm still a little kid.*

*Oh.* Alianne felt a pang in her heart for her friend. As annoying as her own mother was, she couldn't imagine life without her...or without her beloved father. Tula had neither anymore. Just an older brother who, at twenty-two, was too preoccupied with his advanced studies at the Ministry of Science's university to devote much time to a growing adolescent female. She decided to change the subject. *I'll do it...but only if I can ask you one question.*

*Okay. Go 'head.*

*Why him?*

Tula smiled. *I don't know. I just think he's wonderful. 'Sides, even you have to admit that he's absolutely adorable!*

Alianne snorted softly. *Orin's beard, Tula. You're starting to sound like every other girl in class.*

*Yeah, but there's one big difference between me an' them. I'm gonna get him -- and you're gonna help me do it!*

An idea popped into Alianne's head. *Okay. Listen, I know what we're gonna do. Tell Morrel you're coming over to my house after school today. Mother's taking me clothes shopping and I know she'll help us.*

*That's great!*

*Just don't get your hopes up too high, Tula. Garth's just not interested in girls yet. Not like you want him to be.*

*Well, I'll never know until I try.*

*Okay, but it's your funeral.*

vvv

"First of all, I'd like to do something with my hair. These braids are stupid."

Sailyn studied Tula. Such a pretty girl, she thought as she picked up one of the girl's long braids. Help her look more her age and less like a little girl? Absolutely, my dears. In a voice that hid the sheer glee of her thoughts, she added, "Of course you're right, dear. The braids have got to go." She patted Tula's shoulder maternally. "Don't worry, child. Garth won't be able to keep his eyes off of you when we're done." And that's just fine by me, she added mentally. The more attention that outcast pays to you, the less he'll pay to my daughter. She'll have no choice but to associate with true Atlanteans. Then, she looked at Alianne. "And you want all this done to you, too, lovey?"

Alianne shrugged. "Why not?" She grinned at her friend. "Moral support and all that."

Sailyn smiled at the girls and herded them toward the entrance of her home. "Well then, girls, let's turn you both into Ladies."

To Alianne and Tula's delight, they were taken on a tour of more shops than they could count. Clothing, cosmetics, hair -- Sailyn overlooked nothing and spared no expense, refusing Tula's offer to pay for her own purchases. At their last stop, the stylists', Tula stood staring at her reflection in the mirror.

An attendant placed her newly cut braids, now bound at both ends, in the teenager's hands. Tula looked down at them. "Yes dear, you get to keep them," she was told. "A memento."

Tula nodded thoughtfully. "Of girlhood," she said softly. Then, she looked up at her reflection again. "Girlhood's for girls." She grinned. "I'm a woman."

From where she sat in the next chair over, Alianne, with her own hair now trimmed in face-framing layers, smiled. "Yeah. We're women."

Sailyn turned both girls' heads back towards the mirrors. "Now, you see?" she purred. "You're both beautiful. You'll have your pick of every young man in the city."

Tula blushed at that. "I don't care about every young man. Just one."

So, with parcels in hand and a tasteful amount of cosmetic on their faces, the transformed femme fatales headed home, several steps behind Lady Sailyn.

"Well, whatdya want me to do now?" Alianne whispered.

Tula touched her hair, still not used to its new length. "Do? You -- nothing. It's all up to me now."

They stopped in front of Alianne's house. "C'mon, Tula. I gotta know! Tell me -- what are you going to do?"

Tula's blue eyes sparkled. "Don't you worry 'bout that," she grinned. "Just don't be surprised if you go to school by yourself tomorrow."

"What?"

"I plan on taking a direct approach -- tonight!"

vvv

The next morning, Alianne arrived at school scant minutes before the arrival chime sounded. Despite Tula's warning of the day before, she had waited for her friend. Entering the building, she headed for her storage cube and stuffed her tote bag inside and tapped her lock. A tap on shoulder caused her to turn. Tula stood there, beaming. Alianne noted the bright smile. "Well, did you forget to pick me up this morning or what?" she asked.

"Sorry. I meant to call before I left the house, but Garth got there early and well, I kinda forgot. And I did give you warning, if you remember."

"So you did. Then your plan worked," Alianne cheered softly. "What'd you do?"

The girls started walking down the hall. "Not what I'd originally planned, that's for sure." Alianne gave Tula a puzzled look, and she continued, "I'd planned on just going over to the palace and simply asking him out on a date, right? Okay, but remember when Garth got called away during last class and left school? It turned out that he and the King got summoned to help rescue a surfie airplane that crashed not far from here -- and above, of course. So I waited until after dinner and went over to the palace--"

"Did you see the crowd?" Alianne asked. "Papa said there were lots of people to greet them when they got back. The late grid news said that they'd rescued over a hundred people. That’s important -- even if they were only surfies."

Tula nodded. "Yeah, but what you didn't hear was that Garth really did a lot in that rescue -- figured out a way to keep the surfies calm so they wouldn't drown until they could be picked up and taken home. He even helped some of them who were injured."

"So?"

"So, what happens when he and the King get back? The crowd was going wild with praise, the Queen was standing at the palace gates with the new Prince and everyone's hailing the King! Poor Garth gets totally ignored by everyone, like he had nothing to do with the rescue. I was standing on the edge of the crowd when all of a sudden, Garth just quietly left."

The girls had arrived at the door of their class. "The chime's gonna go off any second. Could you hurry this story up already?"

"Fine. Anyway, I found him in one of the palace's gardens and he was muttering to himself about being ignored and needing someone to belong to and just needing to be needed --"

"Sounds like he left himself wide open for someone, huh?" Alianne grinned.

"Who's telling this story, me or you? But yeah, it was the perfect opening and he didn't even know it. So, I hid behind a shrub, listening and planning on just coming out and asking him out, but then he was walking right in front of where I was hiding, and before I knew it, I reached out, grabbed him by the shoulders, spun him around and...."

"And what?"

Tula lowed her voice to a whisper. "I kissed him!"

"Just like that?" Alianne's eyes were wide. "You didn't!"

"On the lips," Tula nodded. "The makeover worked, too. He didn't even recognize me at first! And when he realized it was me, boy, was he impressed!"

"And next thing you knew, he was making plans to accompany you to school this morning."

"It was a little more involved than that, but basically, that's it."

Alianne threw her arm around Tula's shoulders as they entered the classroom. "You've got more guts than me. I'm so happy for you. You'll have to come over tonight and tell me all the details."

"Um, I'd love to, Ali, but I already promised Garth that I'd study with him tonight."

"Oh. Okay, I should've known."

"You're not mad or anything, are you?"

"Of course not," Alianne smiled. "It's your first whole day going out with him. I understand. How about at lunch?"

The corner of Tula's mouth quirked. "Well...I did tell Garth that I'd sit with him, but I'll convince him to sit with some of the other boys or something. I do want to tell you the entire story. We can catch up then, okay?"

They sat in their seats. "Okay," Alianne agreed. "Sounds good to me. You have to tell --" She was cut off by the teacher's voice as he began to make the morning announcements --me everything that happened.

vvv

Alianne sat curled up on a bench in a corner of the courtyard of her home. A forlorn, miserable expression sat heavily on her face. How long can this go on? Aren't they ever going to get tired of each other? She then felt guilty for the thought, but she thought it anyway. She had gone to school alone again. Just like the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that. And every school day in the past month. Alone. It was a turn of events Alianne, at fourteen, hadn't the maturity or experience to have been able to foresee. The two friends she had spent all her time with were now spending all their time in each other's company. She abruptly found herself left out, and had no one else to turn to.

But that hadn't been the worst part. Naturally, they told her everything -- because that's what friends do -- and that had been agony. From Tula, she got Garth said this and Garth did that. From Garth, she heard Tula did this and Tula said that. And they would both end with You should've been there, Ali. It was great! But she hadn't been there.

She traced a vein in the bench's marble top with a small, slender finger. I don't get it. I should be happy, right? I helped them get together, and they're certainly happy with each other.... She closed her eyes to hide her tears. So why do I feel so rotten?

At first, Alianne thought she knew why because she thought the answer was simple. She missed Garth. He didn't spend much time with his 'best buddy' anymore. In addition to his travels above and below the seas, he suddenly found himself navigating the uncharted waters of first romance. To his great surprise, girls weren't stupid after all! He certainly found Tula captivating, and she found him equally so. So off they went, with Alianne looking on.

In her loneliness, Alianne made a hesitant attempt to join the activities of the other girls at school, but she'd held them in contempt for so long, that they weren't exactly eager to embrace her with open arms. The boys she used to spend all her time with had gone on to manly pursuits of their own and were no longer available for sliding and practical jokes. Of course, Tula was still around, but her topics of conversation had become extremely limited lately. Alianne found that she could only take so much of hearing about how fun Garth was, especially when she wasn't used to hearing about it second-hand -- she had been the one having fun with him.

At school and elsewhere, her gaze frequently wandered to wherever her friends were. Wherever they went, Garth and Tula were now inseparable. Inseparable? They're practically joined at the hip! And as she looked, Alianne now began to see what Tula saw.

Garth had started to grow. Almost overnight, he had sprouted up -- and out. He was, by far, the biggest boy in class. His body was starting to show signs of its adult form. Others would eventually surpass him in height, but none would match his powerful physique. And boyishly cute was beginning to transform into mannishly handsome.

Tula wasn't the only girl to cast admiring glances his way, either. The very girls who had shunned him barely two years before had now decided that they liked the way nature had assembled him. They wanted to touch his thick, inky curls and gaze in his unique eyes. Inferior? they would think, shaking their heads in puzzlement. They'd heard the admonishments from their parents and had believed them, but now they had evidence that his actions did not equal their words. They looked at him and their faces softened. There is absolutely nothing inferior about him!

They dreamed teenaged dreams, but only Tula had taken action.

And if Garth could be considered a prize, then Tula had won first place.

So now, Alianne sat in the courtyard, feeling lonely, feeling alone; not yet knowing what she had lost. Her mind wandered as aimlessly as the vines that grew up the courtyard walls. Thoughts began to emerge. Each one began the same way.

What if....What if....What if....

Suddenly, the answer became crystal clear. Alianne's eyes widened in horror, and her hand flew to cover her open mouth. She realized --- she knew.

Oh no! Not -- not me, too? What am I going to do?

She toyed with several options. Let's see, I could...no, that won't work. Well, I could do...hmmm, no, that won't work, either. Okay, then maybe I could say...no, he'd never ever believe that. Ohhh...I just can't. I can't. It's too mean...too rotten...how can I even be thinking such horrid thoughts? I'm an awful, awful person. I am. I should be flogged. Some friend I am. No matter what she did, someone would get hurt. That knowledge, and the realization that she was even considering doing something devious to one or both of them, shook her to the core of her being. How could she? They were her closest friends!

Alianne made the only decision she could make.

She decided to do nothing.

I guess if anyone's going to be hurt, it'll have to be me. I can live with that....

I can't live with hurting either of them.

vvvvv

Chapter Six - Surprise, Surprise!

"The more we get together, the happier we'll be."

- children's traditional

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