"Vala, you're so slow it's a wonder you even manifested," Cale said, rubbing his forehead in irritation, as I failed once again to consciously corrode the pine needles we were working on.

"It's not like this is easy you know," I replied, forcibly trying to maintain control of my temper. The last time I'd lost control around Cale after one of the weekly sorcery competitions, I'd accidentally rotted all his clothes off.

Seeing as I was being generous and trying to avoid accidental outbursts, I would even neglect to remind him that I'd only just turned thirteen with my first manifestation being last summer. Since he's fifteen and still hasn't been invited to participate in the formal graduation ceremonies under the oak, he doesn't take being reminded of that fact very well. With him already angry at me for failing to complete the Focusing exercise during class, giving him that little reminder was just asking for an accidental manifestation, either his or mine, and I really didn't want to get stuck copying musty records with him again. One sunny afternoon trapped sorting dusty records and listening to his whining was more than enough punishment for me.

"It is that easy," Cale said harshly, clearly not intending to acknowledge or share my restraint, "Everybody else here can do it, except you."

"Then shut up and help me figure this out," I said, turning back to the pine branch sitting on the desk in front of me.

I picked up the branch and run it through my hands as I started the earliest exercises I'd been shown. Focusing through my hands, I concentrated on the feel of the needles, from all the tiny flaws and variations to the small bit of pitch on the end where it had been snapped from the tree. I could almost feel the sap left in the branch, flowing sluggishly out to the needles. Slowly I worked through the needles until I found one with a notch right near the tip that should be easy to distinguish from the rest. I focused on that needle alone, my eyes going nearly cross-eyed from the effort of seeing every little detail I could about that single needle.

When I felt I had the pine needle firmly fixed in my mind, I reached for the well of green energy within me. Letting it rise up in me, lapping through my hands and into the branch, slowly seeking the one needle I was focusing on. I could feel my energy wrapping around the needle, along with seven or eight others as well. I struggled to release the extra needles from the corrosion, but it was like doing fine embroidery with winter gloves on. I could already feel the energy leeching back into me from the branch. With a rush of energy that made me briefly lightheaded, the branch in my hand withered away, leaving me holding a dry stick, with a scant handful of brown needles still clinging stubbornly to the branch.

"You're not even trying are you?" Cale snapped, scowling at the ruined branch in my hand.

He snatched a fresh branch from the pile on the table beside him, inspected it for a moment and then held it up in front of me. I could feel a faint trace of his power, hanging in the air between us for just a moment, like lightning about to strike, before a single needle turned brown and crumbled to dust. I couldn't help scowling at him for showing off like that. He'd only recently learned to completely disintegrate what he corroded with his sorcery, but he showed that ability off every chance he got. And right now the combination of him showing off and being annoyed with me for not even being able to do the exercise I was set, was really not sitting well, especially since he was actually supposed to be helping me.

Nominally the weekly competitions were supposed to be a bit of peer tutoring and friendly competition all rolled into one. At the end of the week, all the students were divided into random pairs and given a set of tasks to complete using our sorcery. The first pair to complete the exercise was given the rest of the afternoon off, while the rest remained behind to work on any problem areas with the aid of their partner. Usually the peer tutoring took only an hour or two out of the afternoon so it wasn't very much of a punishment for those of us who lost the competition and most of the time the rivalries from the competitions remained good natured.

I could understand the idea behind the competition and the peer tutoring, since everybody hears and understands a lesson in a different fashion and the more exposure a student gets to the same material in different ways, the more likely the student is to find the way that works best for them. With control being a bit of an individual effort, it makes a lot of sense to do things that way since the instructors can be certain we all found the right way to control our sorcery. Unfortunately, it seemed to be failing miserably with me because no matter how many times I'd had this explained or shown to me, it just didn't seem to make sense.

I'd been stuck after class let out with my unfortunate partner of the week for the better part of two months trying to figure out how to corrode only part of the object. For most of the class, it had become a standing joke that whoever got stuck with me was being punished for some slight to the instructors, since they invariably ended up still working with me, long after everybody else had gone home. I could see the humor of their ribbing, but that didn't mean it hurt any less, especially since I'd been trying really hard to master the skills that they had already moved beyond. I even asked Giselle to help me in the evenings until she found out she was pregnant again and couldn't risk the sorcery.

"Are you even paying attention, Vala?" Cale demanded, plopping himself on the desk in front of me, putting him closer than I would have preferred, and shoving a prickly branch into my hand.

The rough treatment broke my moment of feeling sorry for myself, but the anger and irritation with Cale wasn't helping my control any.

"Yes, Cale," I said, gritting my teeth and praying I could get through this without an accidental manifestation.

"Then could you please actually try for a change?" Cale suggested. "Even if you are one of my matches, I don't want to be stuck here all night and miss super again for your stupid sorcery. Much less the celebration for the graduation exercises tomorrow, since my brother is participating this month."

"You think I don't try at this?" I snarled, standing up suddenly and dumping over the desk Cale had been sitting on sending him tumbling to the floor. I stomped over to where he had fallen and glared down at him. "You think this isn't frustrating for me, watching all of you master so easily what I have to struggle to manage?"

"Could have fooled me," Cale said lunging to his feet and drawing himself up so he could use his greater height against me. "How many branches have you corroded without making any progress?"

"If you want me to have a chance at this," I said coldly, refusing to back down despite the fact that he was nearly six inches taller than me and muscled enough that he could probably snap me in half if he felt like it, "then maybe you should take the time to explain it to me."

"What, now you're too stupid to pay attention in your lessons?" Cale sneered as his temper flared to match mine. "Or is it perhaps that you're just too weak to actually manage this. Maybe you should just quit and go home to your sister. It's not like you'll ever amount to anything in this class and you're just holding the rest of us back."

Before I could think, I hauled off and slapped Cale across the cheek as hard as I could. I think it stung my hand more than it did him and it certainly didn't stop the angry tears that welled up in my eyes. I glared at him for a moment, too upset to say anything about his cruel words, before turning around and storming out. As I stretched my hand toward the doorknob, the wood of the door gave an ear rending creak as it started to warp out of the frame. A moment later, the door exploded into powdery splinters that showed into the dirt outside, startling several bystanders in the process.

"Go home, Cale," I said, without looking back as I stepped through the ruined door, "I don't need your help."

Knowing it would be a while before I stopped leaking sorcery, I headed for the lake. At least with that much water around, I couldn't do too much damage before I calmed down. By the time I'd made it up to the lake, I'd lost the battle to keep my tears from falling. Fortunately there was nobody around to see me or my tears. I wasn't sure I could actually explain why I was so upset over Cale's words anyway. I knew he was just lashing out over being stuck after class, something he detested with a passion, but the idea that I wasn't strong enough to be worth training just wouldn't go away. I'd wondered before if the reason I was having trouble learning to control my magic was because I just didn't have much magic to begin with.

Trying to banish the self-pitying thoughts from my mind, I reached for the nearest rock and hurled it out into the lake. The splash of the rock hitting the water wasn't as satisfying as I'd hoped. Feeling the need to pound on something, I'd turned to nearest tree. There was a slight chance my sorcery might harm the tree, since I still hadn't quite managed to get that under control yet, but I was fairly certain the enclave could use the kindling or firewood if it came to that.

My fist connected with the tree in a satisfying thump that was followed by a flare of pain as the impact jarred me all the way up to my shoulder. I had a brief moment of thinking perhaps I should have taken some of those combat lessons after all, just so I could be sure I'd win in a fight against a tree. I clenched my teeth and lashed out at the tree again, not caring that the skin across my knuckles tore open, leaving a bloody smear on the bark. No stupid tree was going to be able to beat me. I swung at the tree again, only to have my hand smack into something a good bit fleshier than tree bark.

I blinked at the mud splattered and travel stained tunic that was suddenly between me and the tree. For a moment I couldn't figure out why I recognized the pattern of the tunic or the poorly done embroidery attempt along the hems, until I realized the bad needle work was mine and I'd inflicted it on Archer for his last birthday. Why he insisted on wearing the damn thing I'll never know, since the end result was pretty awful and the only reason the tunic itself didn't completely fall apart was because Giselle hadn't let me try more than the decorative work.

Looking up from the tunic, I felt the last of my anger and frustration drain away as I met Archer's green eyes. He was taller than the last time I'd seen him, and I could feel some new calluses in his palm where he still held my fist, but the smile was still the same, warm and comforting. It was tinged with a touch of concern today, but I wasn't terribly surprised at that since he had caught me trying to beat up a tree and judging by the stinging in my fists, I'd been loosing too.

"Hey, Archer," I said, giving him as much of a smile as I could manage while still feeling slightly out of sorts, since I really was glad to see him after his latest extended absence.

"Vala," Archer said gently as he brushed away the dried tears on my cheeks with his free hand. "What happened?"

"It's nothing," I muttered, feeling a bit embarrassed that it was Archer that had caught me being so childish, even if I knew he wouldn't be cruel with his teasing.

"So sparring with trees is a new hobby then," he teased lightly, holding up my bleeding knuckles so he could inspect the cuts.

"No, that was a dumb idea for relieving stress," I said a little more tartly than I'd intended.

Archer gave me a lopsided smile and a chuckle as he pulled a couple of bandages out of the pack at his feet and began wrapping my knuckles as he asked, "What caused my Vala to need such an extreme form of stress relief?"

I briefly wished Archer would drop his questioning, since I didn't really want to admit my most recent failure, but I knew from experience that getting Archer to drop anything once he'd decided he wanted to know was next to impossible. Getting him to quit fussing over my hands before he was certain my injuries weren't too severe would be just as difficult. Deciding it wasn't worth the effort to try and deflect Archer today, I sighed and leaned against the tree I'd been abusing.

"It's just this stupid sorcery," I said, trying to ignore the slightly ticklish sensation as he gently ran his hands over my scrapes and double checked his work on the bandages. "I got stuck staying after again because I still can't Focus right and Cale wasn't exactly happy about being stuck after as well since he was my partner this week. He said a few things I didn't want to hear, we quarreled over it, and I accidentally blew up the door to the classroom when I tried to storm off."

Archer's eyes darkened a little at the mention of Cale, but that wasn't terribly surprising. Those two had never gotten along particularly well. Usually they leave it at verbal barbs and the occasional supervised match in the ring when one of them is more aggravated than usual. Archer's dark mood was fleeting though, as he smirked at me and opted to tease me for my property destruction instead.

"So the entire door huh?" he asked, tucking the left over bandages back into his bag and nudging it out of the way with his foot.

"Yep," I agreed, glad he wasn't going to press the issue. "And I think I saw gray hairs actually appear on poor Winifred's head when the whole thing went up in a cloud of dust practically on top of her, poor old dear."

"She really can't catch a break, can she?" Archer said, shifting so he was leaning against the tree beside me.

"Apparently not," I replied. "She seems to have the absolute worst luck for being around manifesting sorcerers when they blow something up in the most spectacular fashion possible."

As amusing as Winifred's luck around manifesting sorcerers was, it did remind me of my own control issues. If I'd been just a little better student maybe I wouldn't have been one of the many young sorcerers who had given her a gray hair or two from fright. My introspection was broken briefly as Archer slid down the tree so he was sitting with his back against it instead of simply leaning against it.

"Come here," he said, tugging lightly on my wrist, making me realize he hadn't let go of my hands after he'd finished bandaging them.

Instead of pulling me to sit beside him like he usually does, Archer guided me to sit between his legs, with my back resting against his chest. Before I could protest, he had collected one of those hated pine branches from the tree, placed it in my hands, guided my elbows to rest on his knees, and wrapped his arms around me with his palms along the backs of my hands so that his finger tips just touched the branch beside mine.

"Now close your eyes and just feel," Archer whispered softly, his breath tickling my ear as he leaned forward to rest his chin on my shoulder.

I found myself closing my eyes and relaxing into the warmth of Archer's body without meaning to. Before I could think more about the strangeness of the situation, I felt a slight tingling against the skin of my arms where Archer's hands pressed against mine. It started at my shoulders and traced along my arms to my fingertips and into the branch in our hands. I realized it was Archer's sorcery I was feeling, he was showing me how he focused his magic and if I concentrated I could almost follow what he was doing.

I know I smiled then, but managed not to open my eyes. Instead I let my skin watch for me. I could feel Archer's strength reaching toward the branch in our hands, but before the power entered the branch it stopped, curling into the palms of his hands as only a bare thread continued into the branch. That one little tendril was so tiny I almost lost it among the gentle ripples of power I could feel against the back of my hands, throbbing in time with the beat of his heart. After a moment, I could feel the energy drawing back along Archer's arms until the tingle against my skin faded away to nothing.

"Now you try," Archer suggested as I opened my eyes to see a single brown needle among the green.

"Okay," I agreed, trying to squash the feeling of nervousness over the possibility of failing in front of Archer.

He was one of only a handful of my classmates that hadn't commented on how slowly I was learning to control my sorcery. I really didn't want that to change because it was nice to have at least a few people who weren't throwing jibes in my direction for being slow and stupid, especially since he'd had more luck than most in helping me figure things out when I got stuck on something.

"Eyes closed, Vala," Archer said, putting one hand over my eyes when I started to lean forward to better see the branch in my hands.

"But how will I identify the one needle I want to use my sorcery on if I can't see it?" I protested, reaching up to try and pull his hand away. Of course his hand wouldn't budge.

"Let your hands be your eyes on this one," he replied, keeping his hand over my eyes until I sighed and closed my eyes on my own.

Focusing on my breathing for a moment, I listened to Archer's voice in my ear, gently whispering one of the concentration mantras. I lost the sound of the words fairly quickly as I reached for my sorcery, feeling only the vibrations of his voice against my back as I drew the power up and guided it to my hands. Remembering the feel of Archer's power pooling in his palms, I let my power rest in my hands instead of sending it into the branch like I had been doing. It took me a moment to figure out how to separate just a single thread of power from the pool in my hands, but I did manage it.

I could feel that one thread, weaving among the sap in the branch until it touched one needle. Just a single needle and I could feel the faintest trace of energy leaving the branch and flowing through my finger tips as I drew my sorcery back within myself. For a moment, I just sat there, feeling the branch, still whole and green in my hand and the slow steady beat of Archer's heartbeat against my back.

"Open your eyes, Vala," Archer whispered to me. I could tell he was grinning with pride even without seeing his face.

When I opened my eyes, there was a second dried up brown needle next to the one Archer had corroded. I stared at them for a moment, hardly daring to breathe, much less believe that after months of trying I had finally managed to Focus the effects of my sorcery. Hesitantly I shifted my hand on the branch until I could feel the dried needles against my finger tips.

"I did it," I said softly, when the needles broke against my touch.

"Yes, you did," Archer agreed, his arms tightening briefly about my shoulders as he shared in my pleasure.

"Thank you, Archer," I said, grinning widely as I set the branch aside and twisted around in his arms so I could hug him properly.

"Always a pleasure to be of service," Archer replied with a smile of his own.

"I have to go show my sister," I said eagerly, she'd be so pleased to see me finally making progress after all those frustrating evenings trying to help me get control. I scrambled quickly to my feet, picking up the branch in the process as I asked, "You'll be at the celebration for this month's graduates right?"

"Of course," Archer said as he plucked a couple of stray needles out of my hair. "You still owe me a dance for the last time you dunked me in the lake."

Really, after four years of friendship, Archer should have known I would push him in the lake for saying it was beginners luck after I managed to hit that pinecone target with my stone on the first try, especially when he knew I'd been working on my throwing range with Little Marcus for the last month.

"Even if you well and truly earned that dunking?" I asked him pointedly. I would have tried to pout at him over it, but that never seems to work the way I plan around him.

"How could I have possibly earned that?" Archer asked, giving me his best 'I'm innocent' look, though the smile and the wink sort of ruined the effect.

"Oh please," I said pushing his shoulder lightly. "You knew I'd been training with Little Marcus and you still called it beginner's luck. How could that not be asking for a dunking?"

"But if you knew I was teasing you, then surely my lady didn't need to push me in the lakeā€¦ again," Archer suggested with a teasing grin.

"Says you," I retorted with a laugh. "I felt I was perfectly justified in that instance. But since I did agree that you could have a dance or two to make up for the soaking and to prove that we're still friends, I will keep my word to you."

Archer's smile widened a bit as he said, "I'll hold you to that then."

"Sure, Archer," I replied, giving him a smile and a wave as I headed off to find my sister. "See you later then."

"Until then, Vala," Archer returned. I could feel him watching me until I was out of sight as I hurried home to show my sister my progress.

As I had expected, Giselle was pleased that I had finally made some progress with my sorcery, though not quite pleased enough for her to reward me with the next morning off from cleaning the classrooms. Not that I had expected her to do so, considering she was far enough along in her pregnancy that getting around was a challenge and the morning of the graduation ceremonies really was the best day to clean and restock everything since the students weren't underfoot. So cleaning the classrooms was what I was doing when Deirdre and Hannah found me the next morning.

Both girls were nearly breathless and slightly flushed as they darted into the classroom, which probably meant Deirdre had discovered some new bit of gossip that she was just dying to share. Her desire to know everything that was going on with everybody in the enclave would make her a great Keeper of the Blood one day, but sometimes it was just annoying to have her constantly meddling. Even Hannah's more soothing presence didn't always keep Deirdre's meddlesome tendencies in check and today was looking like one of those days where Hannah got caught in the madness that is Deirdre and could only hold on for the ride.

"Have you heard yet?" Deirdre asked me breathlessly, dropping herself in the nearest chair and fussing with her skirts to get them settled properly.

"Heard what?" I asked, not letting up in the sweeping. I'd never finish the cleaning if I let Deirdre's prattling distract me.

"Archer's back in the enclave," Deirdre offered.

"I know, I ran into him yesterday afternoon," I replied, wondering why she insisted on keeping me apprised of Archer's comings and goings.

"And he didn't end up in the lake?" Deirdre asked, one eyebrow arched in surprise.

"Oh honestly," I said in exasperation. "I don't push him in every time I see him, only when he deserves it."

"But you have to admit you do end up pushing him in the lake a lot," Hannah put in, her tone lacking the acerbic bite Deirdre was so fond of.

"So what? He deserved it," I muttered, trying not to let their teasing get to me. "I don't usually see you until after the graduation exercises, what brings you by so early today?"

"Well," Deirdre drawled, clearly trying to draw out the time she could drive me crazy with curiosity.

"Just ask her already," Hannah said, nudging Deirdre in the shoulder.

"Oh fine," Deirdre said, giving Hannah a small pout before turning to me. "Do you know what happened between Archer and Cale?"

"What do you mean?" I asked curiously, as far as I knew both boys were fine. At least they had been when I'd seen them the previous afternoon.

"Only that I saw them getting chewed out by Elders Elysia and Geneva, both of them with black eyes, split lips and chicken feathers in their hair," Deirdre replied with a slight frown over her lack of knowledge on the subject.

"Neither elder could get a word out of them over what happened or why the chicken coop ended up being destroyed," Hannah added. "So they're stuck fixing the chicken coop with their hands tied together this morning."

"Do you know how that could have happened?" Deirdre asked, her eyes narrowing as she looked at me. "And don't try to avoid the question, Vala. We all know you saw them both yesterday since Cale had to help you with your sorcery after class and you said you ran into Archer."

"Just because I saw them both, doesn't mean I know what they fought over," I pointed out, putting the broom away and showing the other girls out of the room.

"Don't avoid the question, Vala," Deirdre commented, taking my elbow. "You know or suspect what happened at least."

"I really don't," I replied. Cale and Archer had ended up fighting so often despite the restrictions against brawling between manifesting sorcerers that I'd long since lost count of the reasons they gave for the fights. After a moment I suggested, "If you really want to know what happened, why don't you ask the boys?"

"I tried," Deirdre huffed in annoyance. "They wouldn't tell me anything but what they told the Elders. Archer insists he ran into a door and Cale says he fell down some stairs and some how both of them fell into the chicken coop at the same time."

"Really, Deirdre," Hannah commented, "You don't have to know every little thing that goes on the village."

"Yes I do," Deirdre insisted. "I'm the one everybody comes to when they want to know anything, and people are going to want to know why two manifesting sorcerers were brawling even if they claim they weren't."

Hannah looked over at me and shrugged, as if to say she was sorry for not being able to stop Deirdre in her quest for gossip.

"Which is where you come in, Vala" Deirdre continued, without noticing the silent exchange. "Since they'll talk to you, will you please ask them what happened to cause the fight when you go take them lunch?"

"What makes you think I'll be taking them lunch?" I asked trying to ignore the pleadingly hopeful eyes Deirdre had turned on me.

"Because you always take everybody lunch when you find out they're in trouble," Deirdre pointed out.

I couldn't really ignore the fact that she was right. Anytime one of my friends ended up in trouble, I tended to take them lunch and keep them company for a while. I'd always liked it when Giselle stopped by if I was in trouble since it reminded me that not everything was as awful as it might seem at the moment. Granted, all my friends were old enough to understand the consequences of their own actions, but bringing lunch by when I found out they were in trouble had sort of become a habit for me.

"Oh fine," I said. "I'll ask them if I have a chance."

"You're the best, Vala!" Deirdre crowed, kissing me on the cheek. "We'll see you after the graduation exercises then and you can tell us all about it."

Before I could say anything else, she'd bounded off with Hannah in tow, already in pursuit of some other tidbit of gossip. Shaking my head, I wandered back to Giselle's house to check on her and fix some sandwiches. A few minutes later I had a basket tucked under one arm as I headed for the sounds of hammering near the communal chicken coops.

When I came around the last building and finally saw the wreckage in the yard, I found myself mildly surprised by the amount of debris. Most of the broken boards and bits of wire had been stacked to one side, but there was enough still scattered around to leave an impressive swath of destruction that couldn't have come solely from an accidental manifestation. I was pretty sure a body about the size of a teenage boy might have been able to account for the damage done to the chicken coop. Once I realized that, I decided Deirdre could ask her own damn questions. I didn't actually want to know what would cause Cale and Archer to throw each other into a chicken coop hard enough to break it.

Having surveyed the wreckage, I looked for the boys to see what they were up to. Archer was currently holding a board to the back wall of the half finished chicken coop as Cale sullenly hammered in the nails to hold it in place. Both boys had abandoned their shirts, leaving the mess of cuts and scrapes across their backs exposed to the warm sun as they worked. Confirming my earlier thoughts about how the chicken coop had been destroyed.

"Hey, guys," I called, drawing their attention away from their work. Holding up the basket I added, "I brought you some lunch."

Archer grinned at me and started to stand up, only to stop when Cale made no move to do likewise. Cale glanced at me briefly before sniffing and turning back to his work. Archer frowned at the other boy for a moment before nudging him with a foot and nodding in my direction.

"I shouldn't have to," Cale hissed at Archer. "She's just as much to blame as I am."

After that comment, my plan to try to avoid finding out why the boys had quarreled was pretty much a lost cause. I wasn't sure how I should feel about the fact that Archer had apparently taken Cale to task for his words to me yesterday. Sure, Cale and I had said some rather harsh things, but he'd been my friend forever and I was probably just as cruel to him as he was to me. It's not like we wouldn't have worked things out on our own eventually anyway; we always had before. I didn't need Archer to come to my rescue and save me from the spiteful words, but a small part of me couldn't help but feel pleased he had made the effort.

Figuring I could at least make things a bit easier on everybody and keep the boys from ending up in more trouble, I said, "Cale, I'm sorry for being so sharp with you yesterday."

Archer toed Cale a bit harder this time when he didn't speak up or acknowledge me right away.

"I'm sorry for what I said too, Vala," Cale grumbled though he didn't exactly sound sincere about the apology.

I didn't much care any more. It wasn't like I'd have to partner Cale for the weekly sorcery competitions for a while so he'd have more time to cool off enough to not be sullen and moody about it. Apparently Archer wasn't as accepting of Cale's half-hearted apology as I was though, since he elbowed Cale rather firmly in the gash along his ribs.

"I apologized, what more do you want, bastard?" Cale asked sharply, glaring at Archer, his knuckles whitening as if he might want to take a swing as well.

"Say it and mean it," Archer ordered, returning Cale's glare.

"Really, its fine," I said, interrupting the glaring match before it got out of hand. Boys could be so troublesome when they started looking for any excuse to start a fight with each other.

"See," Cale said, giving Archer a gloating look. "She says she doesn't mind."

Archer opened his mouth to protest, but closed it again without saying a word. Great, now Cale was looking cheerful, but Archer was looking more like a storm cloud. I just couldn't win with these two.

"So, Vala," Cale said before I could decide how to try and smooth things over between the boys. "Did you make any improvement on Focusing your sorcery after you left yesterday?"

"Oh, yes, I did!" I smiled brightly at him. "I shouldn't have any trouble with that set of exercises any more, since Archer showed me how. Watch."

I picked up a stray bit of wood, holding it up so Cale could see the end that had split a bit where a nail had pulled loose. Concentrating for a moment, I tapped into my power, letting it pool in my hands like Archer had showed me and sending the one tiny tendril to corrode part of the wood. The part of the wood I had been targeting cracked and visibly withered as I exerted my power on it. After withdrawing my power, I smiled at Cale, knowing he should be pleased he wouldn't have to stay after class to help me catch up in my lessons for at least a little while.

"See, I can do it now," I said, expecting to get him to smile as well.

"That's great, Vala," he said, though for some reason he wasn't as enthusiastic about my progress as I'd thought he'd be and his earlier bad mood seemed to have returned.

Before I could ask Cale about it, Archer interrupted, "What did you bring for lunch Vala?"

"Just some sandwiches and apples today," I replied, glad to see that at least Archer's good cheer seemed to have returned. "I didn't think you'd want to eat too much with the graduation celebrations later this evening."

"Good plan," Archer agreed. "There's always plenty of excellent food there."

"Let's find a spot to sit and eat then," I suggested looking around the yard. "I expect one of the Elders will be along shortly to chase me off."

"This seems sturdy enough now," Archer suggested, pointing to the roof of the chicken coop he and Cale had been working on.

"There should be enough room for all of us there," I agreed. "Don't you think Cale?"

"Whatever," Cale grumbled. "It's not like there's a lot of options considering I'm still tied to him."

"Then maybe Vala should sit on one end, just so we don't accidentally knock her off the roof?" Archer suggested, moving toward me, clearly intending to boost me up to the roof, though I could easily get up there myself since the roof wasn't that high.

"Do you guys really think you'd be so uncoordinated as to knock me off the roof without meaning to?" I asked curiously.

"Of course not," they both said, nearly in unison followed by glaring briefly at each other before quickly looking in other directions.

I only had to wait a moment before they both sighed and turned around to climb awkwardly onto the chicken coop roof. Once they were both settled and seemed to have at least momentarily sorted out the difficulties of having their hands tied together, I tucked my basket over my elbow and held out my hands. They each grabbed one and hauled me up onto the roof between them. It was a little awkward having them squashed up against either side, but definitely better than having to listen to them poking at each other if I hadn't sat between them.

Settling the basket on my lap, I quickly handed them their sandwiches. Both boys seemed to be rather hungry so I carried most of the conversation while they ate, telling them about the antics of some of my youngest students. The whole conversation was a little odd since periodically, Archer or Cale would shift suddenly, bumping me lightly with their bound hands or a shoulder. It was never enough to make me worried that I would end up tumbling off the roof and I couldn't get either one of them to tell me what was going on, so I ended up just ignoring the occasional bumps.

Just as we were finishing up lunch, Elder Elysia walked into the yard, clearly intending to check on Cale and Archer's progress. She paused at the entrance, leaning heavily on her cane and looked at the three of us sitting on the roof of the half finished chicken coop. For several long moments, she didn't say a word, making me shift uncomfortably because I had intended to leave before any of the Elders came to check on the boys. None of the elders had ever complained that I stopped by to have lunch with my friends when they were in trouble, but it was still better to be gone before they could scold me for it.

"Vala, dear," Elder Elysia said, her voice stern but not harsh enough for me to be in serious trouble at the moment. "You'd best leave these two to their punishment or they'll miss the celebrations this evening."

"Yes, ma'am" I said quickly, twisting around so I could put my hands on the roof and lower myself to the ground, before either of the boys had a chance to offer to help me.

When I turned, I caught a sudden movement from Archer and Cale's bound hands as they shifted position. Cale ended up pinning Archer's wrist to the top of the chicken coop at a rather odd angle for a moment before Archer shifted his hand to a more comfortable position. I realized that with their hands tied together like that, they must have both been uncomfortable sitting with me in the middle. No wonder they had been shifting their hands and arms around so much while we ate. Maybe I should have taken Archer's suggestion and sat on end of the chicken coop, leaving them more room to adjust their hands so they'd at least be comfortable. It was too late to change now, and surely if they'd been that uncomfortable, one of them would have said something about it.

"See you guys later," I said as I collected my basket and hurried out of the yard under the watchful eye of Elder Elysia.

"Bye, Vala," Cale returned, already picking up the hammer again.

"Don't forget your promise," Archer replied with a smirk for me.

"Yes I know," I called back with a laugh, "I owe you a dance to prove we're still friends. But that means you'll have to finish in time to claim it."

"As my lady commands," Archer said with a grin and a half bow as he turned back to his work.

I caught a brief look of annoyance on Cale's face as gave a rather violent tug on their bound wrists that made Archer stumble briefly, before returning to his own task. Shaking my head over the boys' strange mood swings, I headed for home to help Giselle with a few chores before joining in the celebrations. As much as Cale and Archer had already gotten on each other's nerves today, it was sure to be an interesting evening and I still had to come up with some way to distract Deirdre from her gossiping since there was no way I was ever going to admit that I knew why the boys had quarreled.