"Vala," a soft voice whispered as a gentle hand touched my shoulder, shaking me gently. "Come on little sister, time to get up."

I managed to crack an eye open to peer at my sister through the tangle of hair that seemed to have ended up everywhere but the back of my head where it belonged. I knew I should have asked Giselle to braid it for me before I went to sleep, but she'd been so busy putting Jonas and Derrik to bed while Daddy sat with Mommy through the false labor pangs, that I'd fallen asleep before I could.

"Don't wanna get up," I protested, flopping back against my pillow.

It was far too early to be up on a day that I wasn't going to be helping Giselle teach the younger kids in the enclave. Especially since Jonas and Derrik had been crying off and on most of the night and I'd heard the healers come and go a couple times to check on Mommy since she was supposed to have the new baby any day now.

"Come on sleepy head," Giselle said with a soft smile as she helped me untangle myself from the snarl that was supposed to be my hair. "Or did you plan to be late for the start of the Spring Festival?"

I had nearly forgotten today was the start of the festival, even after Deirdre and Hannah had asked me to come spend the morning with them. Normally I would have gone on a family picnic in the morning, but with Mommy sick, Daddy doesn't like to go far from her and Giselle's twin brother left to be with his chosen in one of the other enclaves. With just me and Giselle to look after Jonas and Derrik, we'd decided to skip the picnic this year.

"You forgot didn't you?" Giselle teased as she ruffled my hair. "I suppose I shall just have to keep the present I got you for myself then, since you forgot."

"Then I'll just keep yours," I replied with a grin, "And it's a really nice one too."

"How cruel my little sister is," Giselle said with a smile. "Whatever shall I do with you now? Perhaps some tickle torture will get it out of you."

Before I could untangle myself from the blankets, Giselle pounced on me and ran her fingers over my ribs. I tried to squirm out of her hands but she pinned me to the bed and wouldn't stop tickling until I was breathless from laughing and agreed I wouldn't keep her present after all.

"Now that that's settled," Giselle said as she finally released me from her torture, "Get your brush and come downstairs please. I need your help with the boys for a bit before you go off to the festival with Deirdre and Hannah."

I nodded quickly, already scrambling for my clothes before Giselle had even walked out of the room. I always enjoyed festivals. With all the people from the other enclaves that turned up there was always something interesting going on. Plus there were all the yummy sweets that weren't made at any other time and usually music and dancing too, though I'm actually pretty awful at the dancing part. I hadn't been able to stay up for the dancing before, but now that I'm nine, Giselle promised I could stay up for it especially since I've been helping her so much with her teaching duties.

Once I was dressed, I slithered under my bed to retrieve the box I'd put under there last week. My friend Deirdre had shown me how to make bracelets using patterns of knotted embroidery thread last week and I wanted to give the first one I'd made to my big sister so she could wear it to the festival. I'd even picked out the colors to match her favorite skirt. Tucking the bracelet into a pocket, I grabbed my brush before bounding down the stairs.

Giselle was in the kitchen making some mush for the twins' breakfast while the two boys kicked their chubby feet in their high chairs and tried to look cute to make up for the wailing last night. I wasn't buying it. Well maybe they were a little cute sometimes, but they're my brothers and spending time helping Giselle look after them isn't really the same as when Giselle has time to spend with just me. Lately I think the only time it's just me and Giselle is in the mornings or evenings when she helps me brush the tangles out of my hair. Those times make me glad my hair is as long as it is, nearly all the way to my feet now, because it means we have longer to spend together.

"There you are," Giselle said as she dished up some toast and eggs for me. "You took so long I was starting to wonder if you had gone back to sleep on me."

"Just had to get your festival present," I said as I sat down, being careful to make sure my hair wasn't where it could be sat on before starting in on my breakfast.

"The food's not going any where, Vala," Giselle said with a laugh as she tucked bibs around the twins' necks. "And you know I'll make more if you're still hungry when you finish that."

I grinned up at her over the old joke. Giselle seems to think I must eat something like twice my body weight in food every day. I don't think it's that much, but my sister's a good cook and I kinda am hungry a lot, so I don't mind the teasing so much, at least not from her. By the time I finished my second helping, the twins' breakfast had cooled enough to start feeding them.

I had Jonas duty today, thankfully. Derrik's such a messy eater I always seem to be picking his breakfast out of my hair hours later and that was not a happy thought on a festival day. Besides, Deidre and Hannah would likely be by soon so we could head down to the enclave commons together. I would have liked to go to the festival with Giselle but she'd be looking after Jonas and Derrik for Mommy this morning and I really hadn't spent much time with my friends lately since I'd been helping Giselle with her teaching and looking after our brothers.

Once the boys were fed and washed, Giselle gave them some cold rags to chew on for a while, which seemed to keep them quiet long enough for Giselle to help me with my hair. Despite the earlier attempt at strangling me in my sleep, the tangles came out pretty easily under Giselle's touch. When she finished, Giselle stood up and retrieved a small package from behind the flour and handed it to me.

"Here," she said leaning over my shoulder so she could watch me unwrap the package. "I thought you might like to wear them today."

I pulled open the package to find a pair of ribbons that were exactly my favorite shade of blue and looked like they would be long enough to braid through my hair.

"Thanks, Giselle!" I exclaimed, grinning happily as I held the ribbons against my hair for a second to see if they really would be long enough to braid all the way through. When I was sure they would be I carefully set the ribbons on the table and fished out the bracelet for Giselle. "Here, I made this special for you."

Giselle accepted the bracelet, inspecting it briefly before holding it against her wrist as she said, "its perfect, Vala, just what I needed to match my favorite skirt tonight."

I blushed a little at the praise since I knew some of the knots were a bit crooked and some of the pattern came out backwards.

"Help me tie the bracelet on will you Vala?" Giselle asked, smiling at me as she held out her wrist so I could reach it.

"Will you help me put the ribbons in?" I asked as I finished tying the bracelet for her.

"Of course," Giselle said with a smile as she picked the ribbons up off the table and started weaving them through my hair.

As long as my hair is, I was starting to get a little impatient by the time she got near the end, especially since I could hear Deidre and Hannah giggling on the walkway up to the house.

"Hold still Vala," my sister admonished gently, tugging lightly on the braid in her hand as she finished tying off the ribbons.

"But I can hear Deidre and Hannah on the walk outside," I protested with a pout.

"What good ears you have, little sister," Giselle said as she handed me the end of the braid. "Well then off you go. I'll see you at the dancing later alright?"

"Sure," I said bounding to my feet and tossing the braid over my shoulder where it thumped gently against the back of my knees. Giving my sister a teasing grin I added, "I'll even watch Derrik and Jonas for you this evening so you can have a dance or two with Alrich."

"Imp," Giselle said with a laugh as I hastily fled the room before she could smack me with the dish towel for teasing her about the boy courting her.

Deidre and Hannah, my two best friends after my sister, were just stepping up onto the porch when I barreled out the door. I snatched them both by the elbows as I ran by, dragging them back toward the enclave commons until we were all breathless from running and laughing, but far from any retribution by Giselle for teasing her about Alrich.

"Well Hannah," Deirdre said with a smirk as she brushed off her new skirt and blouse and made sure the lily in her hair hadn't fallen out. "It would seem Vala did decide to come spend the morning with us after all."

"I said I would, didn't I?" I asked, brushing at some of the dirt off my tunic, feeling a little out of place beside my friends in their nicer clothes, especially with Deirdre clearly set on twitting me about spending time with my family.

Deidre's skirt and blouse were clearly new for the festival and I could see some of her embroidery work along the hems. Hannah's outfit, while not new was a bit nicer than the trousers and tunic I was wearing. Giselle had done some fancy needle work on the tunic, but I was still kind of plain next to my friends. Not that I could really change that even if I wanted to since Giselle hadn't had time to let out any of my skirts for me and I'd grown a bit over the winter. I'd have let them out myself but I shredded my clothes the last time I tried and Giselle forbade me from going anywhere near her sewing kit without her after that.

"Bickering already?" Hannah asked, her blue eyes dancing with merriment as she set about her self-appointed task as peacemaker between Deirdre's bossiness and my stubbornness.

"Not on festival day," Deirdre replied with a wink as she tucked her arms through mine and Hannah's as we continued toward the commons at a much slower pace than we'd started out with.

We were just coming up on the lake when Deirdre asked me, "So are you staying for the dancing this year, Vala?"

"For a little while," I said, sticking my hands in my pockets. "I promised Giselle I'd help look after my brothers though, so I don't know how long I can stay."

Hannah huffed a little at that, "You're turning into such a stick in the mud, Vala," she declared, surprising me and Deirdre both since she almost never complains about anything.

"Really," Deidre agreed, just a touch too gleefully for my taste, "You're always helping your sister with the little ones or looking after your brothers. You never have time to come have any fun with us any more."

"Giselle needs my help," I said, frowning at them. I really did come play with them as much as I could, but helping my sister was important too.

"See, stick in the mud," Deirdre declared, followed by a hesitant nod of agreement from Hannah.

"I am not!" I snapped back, glaring at both girls, but more Deirdre than Hannah since Deirdre had probably put Hannah up to this in the first place.

"Prove it then," Deidre said, nudging me in the ribs with her elbow.

"Fine," I said, crossing my arms over my chest. "What do I have to do?"

Deidre and Hannah glanced back and forth for a second, before Deidre grinned at me. And it wasn't her usual friendly grin either. It was the 'I know something you don't know' sort of look, which meant I was probably going to end up in big trouble again and probably wouldn't get to watch the dancing after all, but I just couldn't back down. Not when that's what they wanted, because I'm not a stick in the mud.

"I dare you to push one of them into the lake," Deidre said, pointing to the group of boys a couple of years older than us that had gathered beside the lake to skip stones.

"How does that prove I'm not a stick in the mud?" I asked, even as I looked over the group.

There were five boys in the group. Cale and Varrick I knew from classes and had played with for years even though they were both older than me. Harper I hadn't interacted with much, but he was Hannah's brother so he had cooties or something according to her and shouldn't be approached if at all possible. The other two boys I had never spoken to before, though I'd seen them both around the enclaves from time to time.

"Because it shows you still have a sense of adventure," Deirdre answered, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, "A stick in the mud would whine about getting in trouble, or that the boys were bigger or older than her, to try and get out of doing it."

"Well I'm not whining about any of that and I said I'd do it," I replied.

At least Cale was in the group. He tends to tease me at school and it's not always nice so we end up fighting a bit. I could probably deal with him tormenting me more than normal for the next couple of months since nobody was likely to think this was anything but a continuation of one of our old arguments.

Deirdre must have been thinking the same thing though because she said, "Not Cale of course. Everybody knows you two fight a lot so it's hardly proof you're not a stick in the mud if you push him into the lake."

"Varrick then," I said. I haven't ever fought with him before, but at least I knew him and the worst he'd probably do was stop speaking to me for a while and try to dump a bucket of soapy water on me later or something.

"Vala," Deirdre protested, "I thought you were trying to show us you were adventurous and not a stick in the mud. You know Varrick won't do anything really bad to you so how is that going to prove anything?"

"Unless you're trying to back out and admit you're a stick in the mud," Hannah added, after a quick nudge from Deirdre.

"I'm not backing out," I hissed stubbornly, barely managing not to shout and draw the attention of the boys over to us.

I looked over the boys again trying to figure out which of the two I didn't know would be the better choice, since Harper was probably out as well since he was Hannah's brother. The sandy haired boy with freckles seemed like the sort who could take a joke fairly well and since Seifer lived in another enclave I wouldn't have to see him a lot if it turned out he couldn't.

For some reason, though, my eyes kept going back to the blond on the end with the brilliant green eyes and the warm smile. I'd seen him once before, up in the meadow a couple weeks ago. Jonas and Derrik had been really fussy that day and it had been driving me crazy so Giselle had sent me to pick some wildflowers for Mommy's room. I'd played longer in the meadow than I was probably supposed to, but it was the first time I'd really been able to get out since the snows melted and Giselle always liked daisy chains made with snowdrops so I'd decided to make her a wreath too. I'm not sure how long I'd been sitting in the meadow making the wreath for Giselle, but when I looked up he was standing at the edge of the meadow, watching me.

It was almost like looking at a painting seeing him standing there between the trees at the edge of the meadow. I could see the sunlight making his hair shine golden among the shadows from the tree branches around him, but all I really noticed were those green eyes looking back at me. I'd never seen anything like them before. It was like he could see right through me and he knew me better than any one possibly could. Even now there was a part of me that wanted him to turn around and look at me again. But there was just no way I could actually want that. It was just too weird and boys have cooties anyway. He would definitely have to go in the lake for his weird staring thing.

"Him then," I said to Hannah and Deidre, nodding toward the boy.

"I heard he manifested early and that he's going to be starting training right after the festival," Hannah said a little nervously. "Are you sure picking a new sorcerer is really a wise idea? That Seifer boy might be safer."

I didn't really care about the manifesting part, I'd already known anyway since the flowers around him had looked a bit wilted before he disappeared back into the trees without so much as a word about his staring problem. And I'd had to listen to the odd snapping of branches following me all the way back to the enclave though I never saw any signs of him. Getting dumped in the lake would definitely serve him right. Not only did he stare at me but he followed me home too, well at least as far as the enclave anyway.

"No, it's got to be him," I said stubbornly. "Besides, dumping a newly manifested sorcerer into the lake is more adventurous than anything else right? So this will really prove I'm not a stick in the mud."

Deirdre and Hannah looked at each other for a moment before shrugging and waiting to see what I would do. I barely noticed, since I was busy trying to figure out how to get close enough to the boys without being spotted.

"Do you know his name?" Deidre whispered to Hannah as I moved away from them a bit to get a better look at the trees near where the boys were.

"His name's Archer," Hannah answered just loud enough for me to hear as I slipped among the trees, trying to keep my footsteps light.

I'm usually pretty good at hide and seek when we play around the enclaves, so getting close to the boys while they were distracted wasn't too hard. Just as I got close enough to really make out their words, I heard Cale and Varrick ask Archer to demonstrate some trick with the skipping stones. Archer resisted their pleas just long enough for me to get as close as I could without being noticed, before he stepped up to the edge of the lake and drew back his arm. Knowing I wouldn't get a better opportunity, I darted forward just as Archer loosed the stone.

Archer started to turn around at the shouts of surprise from the other boys, so I ended up planting my hands on his chest instead of his back when I pushed. I couldn't look away from the surprised green eyes as he over balanced and toppled backward into the lake. For one brief moment I felt a little guilty for pushing him into the lake, but then he stood up, shaking the water out of his hair and looked at me.

"You know," Archer said with a grin, "A rope swing is a much better way to end up in the lake."

"Well I don't see one around here and you're already in the lake," I said before I could stop myself. Talking to the boy with the staring problem had not been in the plan at all.

"You're hair looks long enough to make a good rope swing," Archer commented as he waded closer to me.

"My hair is not a rope," I said darkly, trying to scowl at him.

"Looks quite sturdy to me," Archer said, grinning up at me.

Before I could move, he had reached out and snagged the end of my braid and pulled. If I had been expecting it, I might have been able to keep from tumbling in the lake myself, but really, nobody's pulled my hair except Giselle, since I was six and broke Cale's nose for trying it. I was so shocked that I didn't even register my shoulder striking Archer's chest and knocking him over again, much less manage to draw a breath before the water closed over my head.

The water rushing into my nose and mouth, choking off my breath, snapped me out of my shock as I struggled to find purchase on the slippery lake bottom. Every time I seemed close to gaining my footing, another wave of water washed into my mouth, knocking me over and choking me all over again. Desperately I tried again to regain my feet, but it wasn't until a pair of arms wrapped themselves around my waist and kept me steady that I actually managed it.

When I could breathe again and my throat finally stopped stinging from coughing up what felt like half the lake, I realized I was standing waist deep in the water with Archer's arms around me and he was looking at me with… concern. How dare he be concerned when he was the one that pulled me in the lake and nearly drowned me! I pushed back from Archer and glared at him as much as I could with lake water dripping into my eyes and my cheeks burning over the embarrassment of needing to be rescued from water I could stand up in.

"Are you okay?" he asked softly.

"What do you care?" I snapped back, "You're the one that pulled me in."

"I didn't mean too," Archer started, taking half a step closer to me.

"Nobody pulls my hair except my sister," I shouted, trying to keep back the burning sting of tears in my eyes. "And it's not a rope. It's just not."

I sloshed angrily out of the lake, ignoring the squishing mud that had somehow gotten inside my boots as I stomped back up to where Deirdre and Hannah were watching. Neither one tired to speak to me or stop me as I continued back toward my home, still fuming at the boy who had dared to intrude on something that had always been just between me and Giselle. But I wasn't going to let him touch that, not after he'd called the hair I'd work so hard to keep nice a rope.

Still fuming over Archer's words, I banged open the door to the house and stomped into the kitchen, determined to make sure he could never intrude on something that was for just me and Giselle again. I couldn't spot Giselle's scissors anywhere, but there was a knife sitting on the counter. I snatched it up and pulled it across the top of my braid as hard as I could. If I didn't have the braid, he couldn't call it a rope and he wouldn't be able to interfere.

The knife was sharp and my hair parted easily under it. As the suddenly short hairs fell across the back of my neck, I froze in shock. My anger suddenly drained out of me as I looked at the loop of hair in my hand that was very clearly not still attached to my head. I couldn't believe I had just cut off the hair I had worked so hard to grow out, just because some stupid boy had pulled it.

"Vala, sweetie, is that you?" Giselle asked her footsteps coming toward the kitchen. "I thought you were going to the festival with the girls."

I must have been a sight, dripping muddy lake water with my hair cut raggedly short and probably sticking up in odd places. Giselle stopped cold and looked at me in surprise for a moment before coming over to me and brushing a wet strand of hair off my cheek and tucking it behind my ear. As short as my hair was now, it didn't stay.

"Oh, Vala," Giselle said, concern in her eyes. "What happened?"

I couldn't help it, I threw myself into her arms and sobbed out the whole story. Giselle just listened, picking mud and water weeds out of the remains of my hair as she ran her hands through it. When I was finished, Giselle hugged me and set me back on my feet.

"What's done is done," she said, smiling at me to take the sting out of her words. "And perhaps that should be a lesson to you about being too stubborn for your own good."

I looked down at the floor trying not to blush, "But brushing my hair in the evenings was always our time, and now I've ruined it."

"Don't be silly, Vala," Giselle said lightly. "There will always be time for just the two of us. We'll just have to be a little more creative. In the meantime, perhaps you'll let me straighten this up for you?"

I found myself nodding to her words as she pulled me toward the window where she had better light. Giselle was quick about straightening up the mess I'd made, and before I knew it, she was stepping back to look at her work.

"There, that should do it," she said gently as she set her scissors on the counter.

Before she could say anything else, we were interrupted by a knock on the door. Not wanting to face anybody at the moment, I waited in the kitchen as Giselle went to answer the door. Looking down at the loop of braid in my hands, I slowly knotted the ribbons at both ends so the braid wouldn't come loose. Maybe Giselle was right about this being a lesson not to let stubborn boys with their stupid staring problems get to me.

"Vala, there's someone here to see you," Giselle said from the hallway.

It was probably Deirdre or Hannah, coming to see if I would still come to the festival with them later. It wasn't either of my friends that followed Giselle back into the kitchen though. It was a muddy and bedraggled looking Archer instead. My hand tightened around the braid when he looked at me and hesitated for a moment.

"You cut your hair," he said, sounding almost surprised.

I glared at him for a moment. He's not even here five minutes and he's already tormenting me about my hair again. This time I wasn't going to let him get to me though.

"Here," I said, shoving the braid into his hands. "Now maybe you can go play with your stupid rope swing and leave me out of it."

Before he could say anything else, I walked past him and out of the kitchen. Maybe he'd take a hint and go away now. Not having anywhere else to go and knowing Giselle would get upset with me for dripping mud all over the floor, I sat down on the steps of the porch and stared at the dirt.

"I think it suits you," a gentle voice said as a pair of boots shuffled to a stop beside me on the porch.

"Can't you just leave me alone?" I asked, glaring at Archer as he sat down on the steps next to me.

"Vala I'm sorry for pulling your hair earlier and for what I said," Archer said quietly. "I didn't mean to offend you and I really didn't mean to upset you either."

I sighed. Of course he'd have to go and apologize and make me feel even stupider for letting him get me so upset. Why couldn't he just let me hold a proper grudge over this?

"Its fine," I said, "I probably deserved it anyway for pushing you into the lake in the first place."

He smiled then, his eyes half hidden by the hair falling in front of his face, "Then perhaps you'll let me accompany you to the festival and allow me a dance or two. Just so we can be sure we've put this behind us?"

"You're not going to leave me alone until I agree, are you?" I asked warily, trying not to glance over at him. I just knew I'd end up completely forgiving him if I did and I wasn't quite sure I was ready for that.

"Probably not," Archer agreed cheerfully.

"Even if I'm covered in lake muck and can't dance?" I asked, accidentally looking at him anyway.

He grinned and stood up, holding out his arms so he could better inspect the mud and water weeds decorating his own tunic, "Personally I think the water weeds are a nice touch and I'd be perfectly willing to teach you to dance.

I hesitated to answer and he moved to stand in front of me, holding out his hand still smiling at me. "Come with me and say we're friends at least."

"Alright, we're friends then," I agreed, taking his hand and letting him pull me to my feet. "But you'd better not pull my hair again."

Archer just smiled at me and led me down the path toward the commons, both of us still squelching a bit from the lake.