She ran.

Onward, with the raindrops splashing over her little socks and shoes, chubby legs stomping their frantic way through the puddles, the salty, hot tears upon her cheeks mingling with the cold, dreadful feeling of the spring rain. They'd called her names again; they'd teased her with their acid-sharp tongues, self-sure playground bullies, till at last there remained nothing more to be done than to run, through the pelting storm, run towards the only place she knew would be safe.

Home.

With a couple of streets left to her refuge, she stumbled, letting out a whimper of pain as her little knees skimmed across the slippery pavement, leaving small streaks of red in their wake. Face screwed up in an effort to keep from crying out loud - for silent sobs had already been humiliating enough - she scrambled, trying to stand, the slippery water sloshing around her ankles-

"Here."

A familiar voice, a smooth male one, light, and yet strangely dignified; she felt familiar arms gather her up, her trembling, soaked body against his dark leather jacket, the rain making his blonde locks plaster down over his forehead. Behind him, blurry in her tear-filled vision, she saw an older image of herself, running towards her, reaching out to gently caress her forehead, even as her little fists clung to that saviour's jacket sleeve. Her sister's eyes were pained, her voice hushed, as her hand slowly stroked her wet hair, concern radiating in those sea-green eyes. "Oh, Raela. Haven't I told you, so many times, not to play with those children? Come, Zeph, let's take her home."

The man holding her started to walk, and she reached out, instinctively, towards the long blonde braid that hung over his shoulder, clinging onto it as though it were a braided lifeline. Next to him, her sister walked, smiling comfortingly up at her, everything about her demeanour suggesting soft, gentle sweetness.

They were not home yet. Home was still a quarter of a mile away.

But for that moment, she felt as though she'd already come home.

The dim light sifted in through the misty, gauze-patterned curtains, as Raela opened her eyes, staring, for a moment, up at the ceiling with that familiar sense of having only partly awoken. Not enough to want to swing herself out of bed yet. Had she really dreamt of the past again? The dream was infrequent, sometimes absent for months, but always, with surprising sureness, like an errant lover, it came back, often when she least expected it. On the day of her eighteenth birthday, for example.

Today.

She sighed softly, running a hand through sleep-tangled brown locks, and scrunching up her brow as she fought to embrace the already-fading vestiges of her dream. Her sister. Her sister's Protector, the tall, elegant man who had effortlessly picked her up, whom she had always heard her sister address as "Zeph". Had that been his real name, if he had one at all? Some of the Protectors she knew had no names. Their Masters - or Protecteds, as they were sometimes called - had not thought it necessary. It had been almost three decades since the implementation of the Created. Strong, magical beings, artificially borne from genetic material, infused with special powers. Most importantly, made to obey. She did not know anyone in her father's immediate circle who did not possess one of these Created as their Protectors.

At first she had known very little about them. In all appearance they resembled fair, often tall and willowy, figures, young men and women who never seemed to age, who were always a couple of steps behind their Protected, whether the President, or a high-ranking military general. Their hair was light, their eyes sky-blue; the only thing that perhaps bound them most tightly to their Masters was the Code.

The Code, which only Zeph, her sister's Protector, had disobeyed.

It had been almost four years ago; it had been a generally sunny day, and the night had dawned with little indication of the cruelty that would soon befall the city. Skirmishes between Raela's father's Organization and the rebels of the city had always been common, but the battle that had ensued that very night had been frighteningly ferocious. She had not seen it, of course; she had been too young to be in the thick of the action.

But her sister had gone. Raene, the fairest warrior of the Organization, had charged her way into battle quite fearlessly, with her Protector Zeph directly behind her, ever willing, ever ready. He had to obey, like the rest of them. The Code decreed it, hammered it into the hearts of all Protectors. The Masters had to be obeyed. Free will, for a Protector, was tantamount to treason. She had never heard Zeph complain of it; indeed, none of the Protectors ever did. In fact, Zeph had always seemed extremely eager to protect both Raene and Raela, taking them both into his sphere of duty. In the years of her adolescence, he had always been there, a blonde, silent shadow, behind her sister and her, never disobeying. Always... there.

Till that day.

She did not know, of course, how it had happened. All that had transpired was that her sister had died. Died, somewhere in the burning inferno of the city's town hall, which, by the next day, had been reduced to naught but smouldering, sinister ashes. And Zeph had fled, disappeared without a trace. At first it was thought that he had died as well. But no signature of Created power remained in the ruins of the building, and finally even Raela's father was forced to admit that Zeph had failed. For a time there had been search parties, made up more of curious people eager to see a Protector who had defied the code, rather than actual antagonists poised to imprison the rebellious Protector.

Then it had all trailed away, and the flow of news lightened to a mere trickle. Eventually, it had been all but forgotten.

Almost.

She could still see her sister's face in her mind, too clearly for it to have been just a dream. But it had always been only that. She was not idealistic enough to imagine it otherwise. Raene had gone, far too soon, and Raela had had to grow up almost too quickly, shelving her dolls and playgrounds for the mundane routine of school, and helping out in the Organization. She did not fight, of course - she was fairly sure that her father didn't want to lose her as well.

And, truth be told, she was not at all regretful for the peace she had.

"Miss Raela?" A small, cheerful face poked its way about the door, and one of the young maids smiled sweetly towards her, duster still clutched in her hand. "If you'd please get dressed, I do believe your Father awaits you downstairs." She nodded, her two little plaits bobbing in her hair. "He did look quite in a hurry, I should hate to have Miss Raela scolded on her birthday-"

Raela nodded, the rest of the maid's excited flutterings flew right over her head, even as she pulled herself out of the comforting bed, pushing aside the heavy feather-downed blankets. The realization of it, however, was sobering. She'd turned eighteen at last, the maximum age at which a high-ranking person's child was allowed to reach before they had to engage a Protector. There were, of course, variations in this age - the current President's son, whom she had never met, was but a tot of two, and had already two Protectors assigned to him. She had evaded the subject of choosing a Protector for as long as she could. In her earlier years, Zeph had done the job fairly well, and after his disappearance, she had led a suitably sheltered life, rarely out of sight of the maids, or some of her father's researchers. But today was the biting point, the final chance, so to speak.

I suppose the decision will have to be made. Shaking her head inwardly, she grabbed at her jacket, and searched for a pair of jeans. But as she pulled on a pastel-colored blouse, her thoughts were nowhere near her clothing. Could she really find a Protector who would not fail her, as Zeph had with her sister? It seemed like a matter which could not be resolved with any definite truth. Zeph had been bound by the Code. The Code, which stated that a Protector, if need be, must sacrifice his or her life, for the Protected.

But Zeph had broken that Code. Disobeyed, disappeared.

If he had done so, what were the chances that others could as well?