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Acqua had always liked the pre-dawn hours. When she was younger, it had been one of the best times for picking pockets – when purses were still full and their owners still half asleep. Now she liked them because they were quiet, with the children still asleep, and she and Mat could sit, talk and take care of household chores.

This morning Acqua was putting the final stitches into a rag doll of Letha's that had been in desperate need of repair. Though Acqua would never be a fan of sewing, the sheer amount of clothes five children could manage to tear meant she'd had to become at least competent at the chore.

“Letha will be happy,” Mat remarked, glancing up from the guild reports he'd been reading. “You'd have thought her best friend had died when that thing's head came off.”

Acqua giggled and flashed her husband a warm smile. “There's nothing wrong with a little girl being attached to her toys,” she pointed out.

“Until she leaves them where the puppy can eat them,” Mat commented dryly.

For awhile the couple sat in silence, but Mat was eyeing the doll so thoughtfully Acqua finally had to ask, “What is it, Mat? Don't tell me I missed a hole somewhere?”

“No, you've got them all,” Mat replied. “I was just thinking about how glad I am that our children are free to fuss over toys rather then worry about where the next meal, is going to come from, or where they'll sleep or who's going to hurt them next.”

Acqua nodded in agreement, resting her head on Mat's shoulder. “I'm glad of that too,” she murmured. “We may not be perfect parents, but if the test of a good parent is being able to give your child a better life then you had, well, we're not doing too badly.”

Mat nodded and the couple fell back into a relaxed and easy silence, enjoying the only hours of the day they'd have to themselves.


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Artica closed her eyes as she lay back on her bed. In the dark of the pre-dawn she could hear her daughter and niece's slow, relaxed breathing. It had been two weeks since she'd adopted Amneris and she'd found she could no longer imagine life without the toddler. She hadn't realised just how lonely the empty house had been until there was someone else around to bring life and make it a home.

The only regret Artica had was what it had done to her standing in the community. She could stand the lack of respect she was now facing. But the discovery of how weak her friendships here had been, that she could find herself so utterly alone for simply taking in a Clear child, that cut deeply. Artica had thought she'd made a home for herself in Ronduin, a place where she was welcomed rather then merely tolerated, and now she found herself facing a new version of Sparkstrike.

Rising from the bed, Artica pulled on her robe and padded barefoot over to the window to watch the fiery sunrise. The colours sent her mind off in the direction of Tres, and the misery of their own childhood. Being an outsider and an outcast in her own community was nothing new to Artica, but the memory of what Tres had been put through chilled her heart with an entirely new force. The thought that Amneris, her sweet, innocent daughter, might suffer the same fate her sister had made Artica feel violently ill.

But what could she do? Moving was an option, but a dangerous one. Even if she could find and a afford a home somewhere Amneris was accepted, what work would she be able to find to support them? She was a soldier, a warrior. Outside of the military, the only job she was fit for was mercenary or guard – neither job exactly suited for a single mother with a toddler to care for. She had limited healer training, but not even close to enough to set herself up as a healer. Tavia and Tavin would allow them to stay, but it would be uncomfortably cramped and finding a home of their own was highly unlikely.

No, it seemed that staying in Ronduin was the best of a bad situation. And she had breakfast to make, before the girls woke up, so there wasn't time to be sitting here and pondering what she couldn't change. Gemma's arrival had been a life-saver, she could leave Amneris home safely and not have to worry about someone attacking the child. But that didn't help raise her spirits when she looked through the cupboards and realised they were once again nearly out of food. Even though she could have once afforded to keep her cupboards well stocked, it was now all Artica could do to perchance a day or two's worth of food at a time and keep them feed from pay to pay.

Her pride would not allow her to test Cascata's offer of assistance, not after the somewhat cold shoulder the Leader had shown her over the last two weeks and she knew turning to her family for aid would probably lead to Tres or Zap doing something stupid.

But the empty cupboards told her they wouldn't be able to survive this outsider status too long and Artica once again found herself closing her eyes and uttering a desperate prayer to Efil that something would present its self to solve her problems.

She just never dreamed that solution would be her sister and the clan that had accepted her as one of their own.

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Mat leaned back against the wall of his cell, not bothering to get up from the floor. It wasn't as though the hard wooden bench that served as both seat and bed was going to be any gentler on his aches and pains then the stone floor was and not moving took less effort then getting to his feet and crossing the cell. Forces, the guards had been particularly careful in their beating – there wasn't a single part of him that wasn't turning slowly purple. “You holding up all right, Kit?” he called.

“All right is a little much,” Acqua replied from the other side of the wall, her tone dark. “I'm going to have to take an extra dose of babybane when we get back to the guild.”

Mat winced slightly, but couldn't bring himself to be surprised. Storm guards, Maelstrom and a pretty young girl like Acqua always added up to the same thing. “I'll remind you if you don't,” he promised. “Need my tunic? On you it's enough to pass as a short dress.”

“Yeah,” Acqua replied. “But not until we're out. No sense giving them something else to rip up. How are you?”

“Hurting,” Mat replied honestly. “I'm going to be darker-skinned then Echo for awhile. But nothing is broken, I don't think.”

“Small mercies,” Acqua replied. “Don't suppose you have a lock-pick still hidden away? I have nothing on me, unfortunately. Gonna have to replace all my gear.”

“Same, aside from my clothing,” Mat replied, feeling himself over carefully. “Looks like we're gonna be waiting on the Guild, Kit. Still, at least they didn't get Echo as well.”

“Yeah,” Acqua agreed, sounding tired. For a moment Mat half wished that it had been Echo who'd been captured, she was more numb to the violation of her body then Acqua, who'd only lost her virginity a year ago.

It was one of the few things that Mat thanked Daniel for any more. At least he'd been pretending to love Acqua when he took her to bed. At least fake love was a better way to experience that for the first time then the brutality of the guards. “We'll be home soon, Kit,” he promised, shifting position so he could reach around the wall and take her hand. “First drink is on me tonight, all right?”

“That sounds good to me,” Acqua replied, squeezing his hand. “I'm okay, really, but it wouldn't hurt not to think for awhile.” She squeezed his hand. “Sorry about this, Mat.”

He didn't need to ask what she was sorry about. “It was a good opportunity,” he replied. “If you hadn't gone for it, I would have. It was simple bad luck that you were seen and worse luck that we took that wrong turn. It could have happened to anyone.”

“Anyone ever tell you it's rude to stop a girl feeling sorry for herself?” Acqua asked, laughing slightly. Mat simply squeezed her hand and the pair sat back to back in companionable silence, awaiting their rescue.

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Some people would describe my father as arrogant. Others would claim he was never able to know when to mind his own business. And a select few would describe him as a fiercely loyal friend who would never rest if he thought they needed help.

My brother and I? Well, to us Father was just that. Our father. He was the man who read us stories at night, took us for walks and rides, rewarded us for good behaviour and punished us when we were bad. He was the man who took our orphaned cousin under his wing and helped her correct her early mistakes as a Leader.

My father taught me to ride when I was five years old. I remember him lifting me onto the back of that pony. “Don't be afraid,” he told me. “You're going to do just fine.”

You won't let me fall will you?” I'd asked, glancing down. It certainly looked like I was a long way off the ground from my perspective. My head was about equal in height to my father's shoulder! But my fears subsided when my father put his hand on the back of the saddle.

I'll be right here with you,” he promised. And he was. My father must have given me candlemarks of his time that day, walking in circles around the Manor grounds and then more running beside the pony when I became confident enough to trot.

You can let go now, Daddy!” I'd called at last, laughing as I bounced in the saddle. “It's all right! I think I can do this on my own.”

Are you sure?” my father had asked, smiling at me with pride – and a hint of tears. “You don't have to if you're still worried.”

No, it's all right,” I'd assured him. “I mean, it's still a little bit scary, but I'm ready, Daddy. You can let go, I can do this.”

That's my brave little girl,” he'd told me, releasing the saddle and stopping. For the rest of the afternoon he'd just watched me ride, smiling and sharing my childish joy at this first taste of freedom.

The memory makes me smile as I strode quietly through the equally silent halls. It should have felt oppressive, but it didn't. There was a feeling of peace in the air that made the silence comforting even as it brought a tear to my eye. Without any conscious decision, I made my way into my father's study and found, as usual, my eye was drawn to the family portrait hanging over the fireplace.

I'd hated the long hours of sitting for these as a little girl, and resented every change that had prompted my father to commission a new one – except for this last one. This portrait always brought a smile to my face, even if it was out of date now. It was the only painting that showed the entire family. My father had his arm around my mother, my brother and second-cousin sitting at their feet, my cousin standing between my father and I as I rested my head on my husband's shoulder while his sister stood beside him. We all looked so happy then. All of us together, for what proved to be the last time.

Father said my mother had all ways been affected by the stress of the early days of their marriage and it had drained some of her strength. Certainly she hadn't had the strength to fight the illness that took her life, but I preferred to remember her as the woman she was in this picture. Strong, proud and full of love for her family.

We'd both been amused by my father's actions on my wedding day. I would always remember that moment, standing between the two men I loved most in the world and the priest had asked who gave me away. My father had hesitated, just for a moment, as if that moment would mean I'd change my mind and run out of the temple. Instead I'd just smiled and whispered, “You can let go Daddy. It's all right, I'm ready to do this now. Your little girl is ready to move on on her own.”

“I know,” he'd whispered back, still holding onto my arm. “Doesn't mean your old father is ready to let you go.” But he'd looked at me, smiled and announced proudly, “Her father, the King, gives her away.”

“Lumi? Are you ready?” I turned to see my cousin in the doorway. There were tears on her cheeks. “You know it's time, Lumi,” Ann continued, looking up at the painting with a sad smile. “We have to let him go... You know he's only holding on for us.” I hesitated, then nodded and took Ann's hand.

Together we walked into my father's room, where the man who'd been the strongest force in my life was laying on his bed, nearly as pale as his sheets, bone thin and worn looking. My brother sat on the edge of the bed, clearing trying to be the strong man of the family and not cry. I didn't bother with the pretence, weeping openly, if silently, as I crawled up onto the bed next to my father. Ann sat on the end of the bed, sniffling.

“We're going to be all right, Daddy,” I whispered into my father's ear. “Your little girls and boy are going to be all right if you go to Mummy now. Yes, it's still a scary thought, but we're all ready to go on alone now, and we'll be just fine. You can let go now.”

As the sun rose on the new day, King Shadow Brightmore slipped into Taed's arms and I, Luminous Brightmore-Redway, greeted my first day as Queen.

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She could have had him. She had had him at one point or another. But she couldn't have her, so to take him would mean breaking her heart. And Echo could no more hurt Kit then she could cut out her own heart.

So she'd taken the middle ground. If she couldn't have Mat and Kit as lovers, Echo would accept love of the sibling sort. And some nights, when Kit woke up crying or Mat screaming or Echo had spent half the night vomiting her disgust at a job, or all three of them were frightened and hurting, she could snuggle between her loves and pretend that being their sister was enough for her.

Some nights, when her bed was empty and the nights long and filled with far too much thought, Echo hated them both for not seeing what it was she needed so badly. But love wouldn't allow her feel such a thing towards them for more then a moment or two. So she had been their friend, their sister and eventually, their savior.

Echo remembered the chill, and the peace, of death. For awhile the ache of being forever without what she desired seemed to fade. But it was then that she discovered how much deeper Loneliness cut compared to the sting of Loss. She had no one to laugh with, to cry with or to play with. There was no one to make her smile or to make smile. And the wait between emptiness and peace seemed endless.

But when they at last did arrive, the time seemed not to matter at all. The pain of Loss and Loneliness was finally forgotten as Echo took her place, safely in the middle once more.

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Why can't I be allowed to just forget? Tres asked the flames silently. Hadn't she done everything she could to put the past behind her? To start over anew? She wasn't that the six year old being screamed at for an accident. The eight year old bound to a chair until she wet herself. The ten year old whipped for just touching her sign. The child beaten and broken until the mere thought of her element made her flinch.

That child was dead and buried now, hidden under the shifting sands of time. Tres had put nearly forty years of effort into forgetting the girl she once was, the past that had all but broken her. She'd thrown herself head first into life at Fira, been adopted by a new family, grieved for their loss when they'd passed, befriended Leaders and gained status that broken little girl could never have even dreamed of having.

Tres reached out to let her finger tips hover as close to the flames as possible. She was a scout and a warrior, an Elder and a mother to her own beautiful little girl who would never know a reason to be truly afraid. She'd been and was loved by two of the best men she'd ever known. That was the woman Tres Firachild was, not that downtrodden child. So why was it that, whenever she dared believe she could feel safe, the past she'd abandoned crept back into her life?

Watching the flames leap and dance, Tres shook her head. “Not this time,” she whispered to the fire. “This time it won't come out. The past is forgotten and I won't let it be remembered.” It was too much of a weakness. It would change how her family looked at her. She wouldn't be the woman she was to them if her history came out, she'd just be the frightened little girl her brother and sister still saw.

That was not going to happen.

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This time I'm going to succeed.

031.Sunrise.032.Sunset.033.Too Much.034.Not Enough.035.Sixth Sense.
091.Birthday.092.Christmas.093.Dependance.094.Independence.095.New Year.


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Ann Rosa Starr

May 2012



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