Author's Note: Another long one, and not told from Gau's POV. Instead, I've told the story of the Veldt from the perspective of a created character who lives in a new town on the border of the Veldt. You could say she's a botanist. A teen. The main plot of the story would be the fact that the main character - Alice - seems to always run away from her life there at Border rather than facing it and making it better. It's all about school and grades and getting ahead so that she can leave her home and get to the Academy so that she can return to Border and cure the Veldt. She wants to be more than what she is. She doesn't want the simple life. Gau, on the other hand, has had his excitement and adventure and relishes the simple life. Because he sees her as a friend, he's trying to make sure that she's propelling herself forward for the right reasons. He learns a lot about himself and Alice learns just as much about what she really wants and what she's afraid of.
"Carol. Stop." Alice halted her progress through the little town on the outskirts of the Veldt to turn toward her red-haired, wide-eyed, and overly excited friend. "Don’t get me wrong. I think it's great you actually saw him, but it has nothing to do with me."
Carol flushed attractively as her large hazel eyes lowered to the bright red boots she wore. "I just thought you'd want to know. You always go onto the Veldt."
Alice sighed and placed her hands on her slim hips as she rolled her brown eyes. "You know I go to the Veldt because I'm doing research for my class paper. I'm not going because of some 'romantic fantasy' of meeting the 'legendary' Gau from the Kefka War. Give it a rest."
"But you have so much in common--"
The pair continued walking, passing the small private school the students fondly called The Veldt Youth Academy. It was the only school on the continent and served kids ranging in ages from 6 to 17 with two teachers that took shifts.
Carol continued to send Alice sidelong glances. "You going to the Veldt today?"
"Of course. The paper's due next month."
Carol nodded as she looked back to the greenish-brown ground at her feet. "I know, but I just figured you already had enough for an 'A' paper."
Alice shrugged and tucked some of her thick black hair behind an ear. "I guess I do. I just want to make sure."
"You always make sure of everything," Carol sighed.
"That's because I want to go to a good higher-level Academy."
"There's only one, Alice."
"Yes, but I still want everything to be perfect."
Carol shook her head. "Fine. I'm going to the pub to hang out with the girls. I'll talk to you later."
Alice nodded absently as she adjusted the pack on her shoulders. Carol and 'the girls' were always hanging out at the pub instead of putting their full effort into their schoolwork. Don't they want to be more than their parents? They can play later. At least, that's what Alice believed. There'd be plenty of time afterward for playing and fooling around.
Alice waved to the Innkeeper on her way out of town. Her parents had tried to get her to work there after school, but with all her extra research on the Veldt she didn't have the time. I don't want a job in this town anyway. I want to help the planet heal. The only way she could do that would be if she did as much research possible for her entry-essay into the Figaro Academy for Higher Studies.
"Hey, Alice. How's it going?"
Alice smirked as she sent the son of the armory owner a wave. According to Carol and 'the girls', Eric was the best looking guy in town. He was tall for 17 and a little on the lanky side, but his smile could melt butter. His green eyes could also set any girl's heart aflutter when they twinkled with mischief, and he had a natural ability to charm the scales off a dragon.
"Hey, Eric. Same old same old."
He fell into step beside her as she made her way toward the outskirts of the Veldt. "Doing more research for this paper everyone's talking about?"
Eric scratched at his sandy brown hair as his green eyes focused on the ground at his feet. "Are you ever going to be done?"
He looked at her. "Eventually? What kind of screwy answer is that?"
"The only one I can give you." She stopped and gestured back to the little town. "Eric, go home. I know all this stuff about the environment drives you nuts. Give yourself a break and go hang out with the others. Carol and the girls are at the pub."
"You're never around the pub."
"Because I'm busy."
Alice’s lips quirked into a smile. "Go on, Eric. I'll be in class tomorrow. Tell the girls 'hi' for me."
Eric looked up from his feet and gave a sigh. "Fine. Catch you later."
Alice watched him go. Then she shook her head as she turned back for the Veldt. She'd had a thing for Eric once upon a time, but he hadn't even realized she was on the planet. It had all been about Terra Branford. Of course, when she'd married King Edgar of Figaro the crush had ended with a week of moaning about how King Edgar didn't appreciate her.
"Oh well. No one's perfect."
Alice found the spot she wanted and knelt down. She took the pack from her back and set it on the ground in front of her. As she rummaged through the contents, she heard a slight sound behind her. A quick glance revealed nothing, so she shrugged and went back to pulling out the small containers reserved for the samples taken from different locations on the Veldt. Another sound was heard, but Alice ignored it. The girls in class thought she was crazy for going out on the Veldt without protection, but the animals never bothered her. I'm sure they've got better things to worry about than little old me.
Alice’s hands tightened on her pack. Uh-oh.
She swallowed hard and ever so slowly looked over her shoulder. Her face paled. She spun the rest of the way around, falling on her backside as she did so. She pushed and scurried backward. It was a Baskervor.
"N-Nice, kitty… doggy…" Alice swallowed hard. "W-Whatever you are."
It lowered its green-scaled head and opened its mouth for another more forceful growl as it took another step toward her.
Alice scrambled backward yet again. "Can you please not eat me? I've got a paper to--"
It crouched, its hind legs tensing a fraction of a moment before it sprung. Alice screamed and closed her eyes as she brought her hands up to cover her head.
Whoosh…. rrRRROWRrrr…. Hisss
Alice slowly lowered her arms and then opened first one eye and then the other. The Baskervor lay dead at her feet. Alice sat up. What? She looked around, giving a startled shriek when her eyes focused on a young man about her age. He was dressed in hides and had long, wild golden hair and yellowish, animal-like eyes.
Alice brought a hand up to her forehead and released a slow breath. "Geez. Don't sneak up on people like that."
He crouched and crossed his arms across his knees as he looked at her. "Why you here? This place no safe."
"Gee. You think?" Alice brushed the grass and dust from her palms. "I hadn't had a problem before. I guess I pressed my luck."
The young man tilted his head. "Locke have luck. You no Locke."
Alice began gathering her scattered containers, only half-heartedly listening to what he said. "What on earth are you talking about?" She noticed he held a container out for her. She took it with a quick glance toward his face. "Thank you."
"You welcome." He remained silent for several moments as he continued to watch her pick up the toppled contents of her pack. "You on Veldt much time. Why?"
Alice buckled her pack closed and stood to her feet. He followed suit. "You wouldn't understand."
He stepped in front of her when she attempted to pass him. "For school?"
Alice released a breath, adjusting the pack on her shoulders. "Yes. Now can I go home?"
He didn't move. "You no friendly. Me no help." He turned to go.
She watched him as he passed her toward the deeper Veldt. "What do you mean? Help with what?"
He halted and faced her. "School. It be lots work. Me could help with show of Veldt. Me could help… tell why things are."
Alice stepped up beside him. "You'd do that?"
He crossed his arms with a somewhat annoyed expression. "Why care? You no need help. You think me dumb."
"I…" Alice flushed as she lowered her gaze to the ground. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean for it to sound like that. I've been under a lot of stress lately."
Alice sent him a glance. His brow was wrinkled. "Well… yes and no."
He shook his head. "You say strange thing."
She reluctantly laughed as she met his eyes. "Yes, I guess I do." The smile lingered, adjusting her pack as she watched his open expression of curiosity. "My name's Alice."
"Alice." He intensely examined her face for several moments. Then he smiled. "Me Gau."
Alice blinked. Then she produced her hand. He took it in a firm and careful grasp to give it a slight shake. "Nice to meet you." Alice cleared her throat and released his hand to tighten her grip on the pack. "Could you… could you show me your Veldt? Please?"
He held her gaze a moment before scratching his head. "No. You show school first. Me learn. You learn. We trade."
Alice's eyes widened. "You want to go to school with me?" He nodded as his teeth flashed in a full smile. Alice chewed her lower lip. "Well… I guess I could bring you a couple of days--"
He stepped closer. She backed up. "No 'couple'. All time. Me learn. You learn."
"But-- But you've never been to school before."
He shrugged. "No care. Terra teach little. Edgar teach little. All friends teach what can. You teach now."
Alice took in a slow breath and finally nodded. "Okay then. I'll take you to school."
He grinned. "We go now."
She laughed. "You're eager, aren't you? But school's out for today. You'll have to wait until tomorrow."
Gau gave a sheepish smile. "Me forget." He looked briefly toward the Veldt before again looking to Alice. "Fine. You go now."
Alice turned to go. "Oh. Wait." She faced him again. "Well… how am I supposed to find you?"
His gaze twinkled with a smile. "You no find. Me come. Me know when start. Me watch long time."
"Really? Well then why didn't you come to class?"
The smile retreated to leave an almost troubled expression. "Me not welcome."
"Teacher say me no come. So, me stay away."
"Then…" Alice shook her head. "Never mind. Okay then. I'll see you in class."
She gnawed her lower lip as she took in his hides and scrubby face.
He watched her expression and smiled again. "You no worry. Me no wear skin. Me wear clothes Celes pick. Me look boy, not beast." Alice chuckled. Gau gestured toward. "Me watch for danger. You go."
"Oh." She offered her hand again. He stared at it a moment before accepting it. Alice gave his hand a squeeze and shake. "Thank you for saving my ungrateful butt, Gau."
Gau grinned. "You welcome."
Alice screeched and turned.
Eric took a step backward with a shocked expression. "What's with you?"
"Geez," she hissed. "Don't do that!"
"Do what? I said 'hi'."
She shook her head, turning back to the Veldt. "Oh never mind. Shouldn't you go to class? It'll be starting soon."
"Shouldn't you? You're always 20 minutes early." He stood beside her to stare out onto the Veldt too, trying to follow her gaze. "What's with you? You've been staring out there for 10 minutes already. What're you looking for?"
Alice turned with a scowl. "Now you're spying on me?"
He raised his hands in defense. "Cool off, Alice. I didn't mean anything by it."
Alice took in a deep breath as the frown slowly disappeared. She wiped at her forehead. "Sorry, Eric. Nerves."
"For what? You'd think there was a test or something."
You have no idea, she thought to herself. She took in another breath. I guess he's not coming. Oh well. She turned, taking hold of Eric's arm. "Come on. Let's get to class."
Eric smiled. "Good idea." He looked over his shoulder toward the Veldt as they headed toward the school. "So, what were you looking for?"
"Nothing. Don't worry about it."
"The way you're acting… What did you do?"
"I told you. Don't worry about it."
Eric stopped. So did Alice. He crossed his arms. "You might as well tell me."
She faced him. "Tell you what?"
"The joke. Who's the victim? What should I expect?"
Alice's face showed disbelief. "A joke? You think I'm planning a joke?"
"Why else would you be jumpier than a--"
"Gau!" Alice exclaimed as she took a startled step backward.
Eric's face twisted with confusion before absently glancing over his shoulder. He gave a strangled shout and turned, tripping over his own feet to fall onto his backside.
Gau had dressed in a charcoal suit and tie and wore scuffed black shoes. His golden hair had been carefully pulled back out of his face and tied with a new piece of leather string, his face washed, and his hands and nails spotless.
He tugged at the dark gray jacket as he smiled at Alice. "See? No skin. Look good."
Alice hid a smile behind her hand. He looked better than the suit, which had definitely seen better years. It had multitudes of wrinkles and streaks of dirt where he hadn’t given it enough of a rinse. But even though the cuffs of his pale shirt and the hem on his dark trousers were tattered, Alice could tell it had been a real nice suit once. It's probably just the only one he has.
"Me ready. We go school and learn," Gau told her. His gaze sparkled with excitement.
"We?" Eric struggled to his feet and brushed the dirt off his trousers. "We?" he asked between glances. "What's it talking about, Alice?"
The feral-like smiling gaze changed from Alice to Eric. "Me learn with them. With you. Alice and me trade knowledge. Veldt for school. Good trade."
Eric pointed at Gau as he changed his incredulous gaze to Alice. "It thinks it's going to school with us? Are you nuts?"
Alice frowned at Eric. "Don't be a jerk. He's just as old as you and me, and he has as much right to be in school as we do."
Eric's mouth dropped open as he continued to ignore Gau's smiling face. "What? There's a reason the teachers don't let it come to class. It's too stupid--"
Alice punched Eric in the arm.
"Ow!" he yelped. He brought a hand up to his arm as he glared at her. "What’d you do that for?"
Alice stuck a finger in his face so fast he leaned back from her. "If you say 'it' or 'stupid' one more time, Eric…"
Eric pressed his lips together. "Alice, I know your paper is really important, but this? Come on."
Alice continued to glare at him. "Since you still haven't given me a good reason why Gau shouldn't be enrolled in class…." She turned to Gau to give him a sweet smile. She took hold of his hand to lead him toward the brick building. "Come on, Gau. I'll introduce you to everyone."
"Wait." Gau pulled his hand from her grasp to turn toward Eric. "Me Gau. What you called?"
Eric took in a deep breath as he adjusted his crossed arms. "Eric."
"Eric." Gau performed the same intensive study of Eric's features that he'd done to Alice the day before. Then he smiled. "We be good friend. We do lots. Fish. Hunt. Me teach you Veldt. You teach me town. Good trade."
Alice gave Eric a meaningful look. "Eric…" she warned.
Gau changed his innocent smile to Alice. "We be friend. You see. We go class now."
"Yes." Alice gave a firm tug on his arm to lead him toward the building. "Don't mind Eric, Gau. He takes a little getting used to."
Gau's smile remained firm. "Eric much like Rhinox. Grumpy when first meet, then become more happy. Take time."
Alice chuckled. "You can say that again."
"Why? You no hear?"
She laughed outright. "No. It's a figure of speech. It means that what you said is so true it's worth saying again."
Gau's face twisted in concentration before he smiled. "Understand."
They paused on the top step of the landing to the Academy. Alice took in a deep breath and turned toward Gau. She absently straightened his poorly knotted tie as he looked down at her with a quirky smile. "Okay. Now. It's going to be rough in there, Gau. Just be patient and take what they say with a grain of salt."
Gau's smile disappeared. "Salt? Me not know bring. Me bad?"
Alice caught his gaze. "What? Oh." She reluctantly smiled. "No. It's another figure of speech. It means to… well… You know that a grain of salt is small. Right?" Gau nodded. "Okay, well, that's all the attention you should give what they say."
"What if what them say be good for me learn?"
Alice opened her mouth for a reply, but then she shook her head. "I've no idea. I guess you take it as it comes."
Gau's smile returned full-force. He nodded. "That Gau life."
"Alright." She gave the lapels of his suit a tug to straighten them as she sent him a quick peek. "You ready?" Gau vigorously nodded. Her lips quirked in a smile as she turned to open the door. "Here we go," she breathed.
The door creaked open, giving a slow and deep whine that made every pair of eyes and every child's head turn. That turn of heads seemed a wave of motion, giving Alice the distinct impression that everything was being performed super slow. She cleared her throat and lowered her gaze to the floor, hurrying toward her normal wooden desk with the right-handed table positioned at the head of the classroom.
Gau followed, smiling and nodding to each wide-eyed, slack-jawed gaze as he introduced himself as "Me Gau. What you called?" Then he would take in their descriptions with the same photographic gaze of earlier before moving to the next person. Pretty, smart, tall, short, it didn't matter to Gau. Each person got the same amount of attention.
The wave of faces followed Gau as if they were one being, focusing on him as he stood in the center of the classroom. He looked from where Alice sat, to the full seats that surrounded her, and then crouched on the floor beside her desk with his arms folded across his knees. His eyes focused on the teacher's empty desk; the smile never left his face. Alice watched his expression. Talk about expectation and excitement. He's so ready for learning that he's liable to terrify the teacher. Alice smirked.
The door on the front right of the classroom opened. The teacher entered. Alice straightened, sending a quick glance toward Gau as his picture-catching gaze zoomed in. Mr. Schultz was in his late 40s with a rounding belly that got harder to fit into his dark brown pants. He had a quick mind under his mop of peppered black hair, and a quicker wit behind the green eyes and leathery face. His white shirt had several stains on the front, but everyone knew he didn't have the money to buy new ones. They didn't really care, either. The kids liked him and his stories of life before Kefka. He made learning fun. I wonder what Gau will think of him. After all, he's lived what Mr. Schultz only talks about.
"Good morning, people."
The expected chorus of voices wasn't there, so Mr. Schultz didn't take the time to set his tattered brown briefcase onto the table. He looked up, immediately noticing the dozens of pairs of eyes focused on one point in the room. Mr. Schultz stood on tiptoes to peer over the desk. His jaw dropped.
Gau straightened within his crouch. His mouth opened in a grin. "Morning, teacher. Me Gau. What you called?"
Mr. Schultz did more stuttering than speaking, so Alice leaned over toward Gau. "Mr. Schultz," she whispered.
Gau's eyes zeroed in on hers with a speed that startled her back in her seat. "Mr. Shulz?"
Alice glanced around the room as she cleared her throat. "Almost. Schultz. There's a 't' before the 'z'."
Gau nodded brusquely and faced the teacher again. "Hello, Mr. Shultz. Me called Gau."
Mr. Schultz composed himself with a fidgeting hand to his faded tie and a quick swipe of his full head of hair. "Good morning, Gau, but the proper way of introducing oneself is 'my name is Gau.' We'll be working on pronouns today with the younger set, in fact." He gestured toward the younger members of the class. "Perhaps you should take your seat over there?"
Gau changed his sharp gaze to the variety of bright faces, standing in the same moment. "Okay."
A flutter of chatter broke out as the pairs of eyes turned in amongst friends and study-partners. When Gau moved to the group of middle graders, a large portion of the chatter faded as the eyes once again focused on the walking legend. He grinned as he sat in the absolute center of the kids. They continued to stare.
"Now." Mr. Schultz set his briefcase onto the table to begin pulling out reams of paper, tattered textbooks, and readers. None of the faces focused on him, so he cleared his throat and tapped on the desk with a corner of one of the books. A gasp echoed around the room, immediately followed by the creaks and groans of the desks as the kids turned to face the teacher. "It seems we have a new student--" The door opened and Eric trudged in. "Nice of you to decide to join us, Eric. Take your seat."
Eric grumbled something unintelligible as he made his way to sit in the desk behind Carol, who happened to be sitting beside Alice, who happened to be sitting in front of two of 'the girls' from the pub, who all happened to be staring at Gau. Eric slumped into the chair and crossed his arms.
Mr. Schultz turned to the chipped chalkboard. "Alright, class. Let's get started."
Gau's eyes twinkled.
Mr. Schultz shook his head now with a smile. "You've exhausted my resources, young man. Come back tomorrow. I’m sure Ms. Aimes can help you."
Gau lowered his hand. "Okay. You teach many things, Mr. Shultz. Me--" Gau's gaze registered concentration. "I thank you. Maybe I teach you?"
Mr. Schultz nodded. "Yes, you definitely have. I'll see you day after tomorrow."
Gau grinned as he watched Mr. Schultz leave the building. Then, he stood from where he'd crouched on the floor nearly all day and gathered his newly acquired school supplies. Almost everyone had shared something with him.
Alice shook her head before moving to stand beside him. 'The girls', Carol, and Eric hovered near the back exit. Alice desperately tried to figure out some excuse to have him go out after Mr. Schultz. Unfortunately, each idea sounded pretty lame. I guess we face the mob and hope to live through it. There was always a chance. Of course, Eric would present a problem. She hadn't seen him so passive-aggressive since King Edgar had stopped by with a donation of supplies soon after his marriage to Terra Branford nearly two years previous. Now that was pathetic.
"So? What'd you think?" she asked Gau.
Gau thought intensely of his answer before speaking. "I think school have little time to teach much."
Alice smiled. "Bingo."
Gau looked down at his armload of things before catching her gaze. "I have much here. Need bag like you to carry."
Alice motioned to the side exit. "We can stop at the store to get something."
He fell into step beside her. "When you ready for show of Veldt? I be having much work this night. Maybe tomorrow or next day?"
Alice cleared her throat. "Well, it's only that the paper is due pretty quick…"
Gau nodded. "Okay. Tell what time. I come."
Alice cleared her throat again. "I could go now. I mean, after you get your bag."
"Okay. Now good. Many hours before dark."
Carol left her group to rush upon the pair with a twinkling gaze and wide smile. "Hi."
Gau returned her smile. "Hi, Carol. Alice and I go--"
"Carol," Alice interrupted quickly, "we're going to the store to get him a bag. Did you want to come?" Gau turned his quick eyes on her. They mirrored a question. She tried to ignore him. I won't get any work done with her tagging along.
Carol's eyes widened. "Really? Sure!"
Alice focused on Eric, who was still lurking in the background. "Eric, why don't you come too?"
Eric gave a snort, of sorts, and a crooked smirk. "Sure. I love spending time at the store shopping. Maybe I'll get a new scarf?"
Alice sent him a glare, but he ignored her. She followed Gau and Carol from the building as Eric moped along beside her. "Eric, geez, you'd think he'd stolen your toy or something."
Eric submerged his hands deeper into his pockets. "Oh be quiet."
She held him back from Gau's progress to the store. "Eric, what's your problem?"
"Then why are you acting like some master pug who's had his lair stolen from under his nose?"
Eric stalked off toward his house/armory in the east part of town. Alice shook her head before continuing her march toward the store.
On the furthest section north of town, rumor had it that Eric's father and the Item Shop owner had a falling out over something stupid when they'd first moved to town. So Eric's father had built his shop on one end of town while Dane, the Item Shop owner, had built his on the other. They'd long since mended their friendship, but their shops remained where they were.
Alice opened the door of the shop, but she could barely hear the ring of the bell over the chatter from 'the girls' surrounding Gau. They supposedly attempted to help make the right fashion-conscious choice for a pack. But all they succeeded in doing was confusing him. Before Alice had a chance to step up and stop the mayhem and brainless banter, Gau had backed against the cashier counter with an armful of 'necessities' that he didn't need and probably didn't even know how to use.
Alice reached Ann first. She was blonde and perky. A little on the short side, but when you had perfect teeth, perfect bone structure, and skin as smooth as a baby's butt one didn't worry about height. Alice gave Ann a meaningful look. She immediately disappeared to a far corner of the shop in search of scarves or something.
Raquel was next. A dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty like Alice, but where Alice had cultivated her mind, Raquel hadn't. Her gaze glittered with nothing but useless trivia about 'who's who' in school or on the Figaro home nation. She was nice to look at according to Eric, but a little empty upstairs according to Alice. Raquel faded from the store without argument.
Paytha and Lena wouldn't be so easy. Of the four, they were the most vain and the surest of their own importance within the Academy's supposed social structure. Paytha was tall and slim with violet eyes and pastel blue hair that was, of course, a perfect compliment to her cream-like skin. Her good looks made Alice nauseous because Paytha never missed an opportunity to rub it in. Lena wasn't as tall, but her thick curls of green hair and pale silver eyes always caught the attention of even the most monogamous boyfriend. In fact, it was Lena's tendency toward boyfriend-stealing that had put her on Alice's 'ignore at all cost' list. Alice didn't know what Carol saw in her, and she wasn't willing to find out.
Alice came to stand beside Gau with a no-nonsense expression. "Girls."
Paytha and Lena raised eyebrows as they delicately crossed their arms. Paytha looked positively disgusted. Gau, who seemed to always want to make the best out of a bad situation, showed Alice the miscellaneous gobbledygook in his arms. He smiled, a little uncertain Alice noted, but said nothing. After all, what could he have said?
"Alice," Lena intoned with a bored expression. "Haven't you come a little late for your new school wardrobe?"
Alice focused on keeping her tone civil. "Is that what you're calling it nowadays? I thought a wardrobe was actually supposed to match."
Paytha looked Alice up and down with an arched eyebrow, sending Lena a 'she's just jealous' look. Alice rolled her eyes and faced Gau, purposefully dumping all the contents from his arms to the counter. Then she took his hand to lead him to the display of bags similar to her own. He chose one - dark brown and forest green compared to her pale yellow and beige - under the close scrutiny of the two remaining fashion divas. Then Gau and Alice proceeded from the store after Alice told Dane to add Gau’s bag to her account.
Alice didn't speak again until they headed down the east path toward her home. "Those carnivores didn't hurt you, did they?"
Gau's expression danced between amusement and confusion. "They harmless. Not too much smart."
Alice halted, staring up at Gau with a slack-jawed expression. Then she laughed and pulled him forward again. "I am so glad you said that. I hoped I rescued you before they'd poisoned your mind, but you can never be too sure with those two."
The confusion returned. "Poison mind? You talk in figures again?"
"Well… yes and no." Alice waved any questions aside. "You've got better things in life to worry about than those two-- Hey. Where was Carol during all that anyway?"
"I not know. She not go into store. I no have time to ask."
"Ah yes. The mob." Gau grinned and Alice continued. "Well, anyway, now that we've got you a bag… Say, where’s your stuff?"
"Carol put in her bag on way to shop. Said would need all hands to look."
Alice's brow lowered. "And she didn't say anything before taking off?"
"Taking off?" Gau's face twisted up with concentration as he looked within for the possible meaning.
Alice smiled. "Leaving. Before leaving." Gau shook his head. Alice's brow lowered. "Hmm."
"You want me find?"
Alice raised an eyebrow. "You could do that?"
Gau made a face as if to say 'Of course.' before stopping his progress toward Alice's house. He tilted his chin up to test the air a moment before crouching to examine the different marks on the ground. Alice watched the entire ritual with awed interest. Finally, he smiled and gestured toward the school.
"Carol and Eric go toward school together. They walk slow, like talking of something that take much thought."
Alice looked toward the school with a wrinkled nose. "I wonder if it has anything to do with--" She looked over at Gau before self-consciously changing her gaze to the ground. "Never mind."
Gau's smile didn't change as he straightened. "You think they talk of me?"
Alice met his gaze. "What makes you say that?"
"I hear his words when he talk to you before school."
She flushed, lowering her gaze again. "Oh. Yeah. Sorry about that."
"No need for sorry. I prolly feel same if he come Veldt without me okay. This town his 'Veldt'. He protect. He good to do."
Alice shrugged. "I guess. He could try doing it without being such a jerk, though."
Gau chuckled. "He act on instinct. He no mean to be what you say. It happen. I not hurt or mad."
Alice glanced up at Gau with a hesitant smile. "You're amazing, Gau. Do you have any enemies?"
Gau's smile disappeared. His gaze drifted toward the school. "He dead now. No worry of him."
Gau's gaze grabbed hers. "No speak of evil. Dead. Gone. No remember bad. Only see and hear good."
Alice examined his serious expression. "Alright. I'm sorry."
Gau shrugged, then he pointed toward the Academy. Carol and Eric made their way down the front steps, laughing. Alice watched them and pressed her lips together. When they made it to where Gau and her stood, Gau greeted them each with a smile. Carol returned it with her most beguiling twinkle.
She presented her bag. "Shall we separate your books and things from mine now?"
Gau looked down at his saggy, empty, and brand new pack with a laugh. "Yes. This bag too small and empty. It no look like I go school."
Carol adjusted the bag within his hands so that the mouth was open enough for her to deposit his things. "Don't worry. We'll fix that in a hurry."
She began separating his goodies from hers with an occasional laugh and smile when she nearly gave him something of hers. He would catch the mistake before the item could be deposited, however, and laugh along with her. Alice watched the one-sided flirtation with an amused expression as she hid a smile behind her hand. She shook her head. Even Eric gave the two a smirk as he stuffed his hands into the back pockets of his brown trousers. Carol's got her work cut out for her if she wants this one to notice her. He's nice to everyone. Alice couldn't help but feel sorry for her friend. What did a boy from the Veldt know about relationships?
Finally, the things were sorted and Carol was attractively devoted to what Gau said about the Veldt. Alice decided to stop the conversation before Gau unknowingly revealed her planned escape from town.
"Carol, Paytha and the others are waiting for you in the store. They said something about a new wardrobe."
"Really? I don't remember anything about a new fashion release." Carol looked over at Eric. "Hey, Eric. Want to come?"
He sighed before giving a shrug. "Sure. Why not."
Once they'd started heading toward the store, Alice released a sigh of relief and changed her focus to Gau. "Well? Shall we go?"
He examined her face. "Why you no want Carol and Eric come?"
She flushed and cleared the guilt from her throat before turning to make her way out of town. "Well... I, uh..." She sighed. "Because they'd just be in the way." Alice quickly met his eyes once he'd fallen into step beside her. "I know it sounds horrible, but... it's just that I have so many questions for you about the Veldt." She looked away. "I didn't want any distractions."
His gaze continued to intensely scrutinize her face. "Questions for school?"
Alice nodded with a sigh. "Yes. School."
She nodded again.
"Why go if hard?"
"I like learning. I like…" Alice sighed. "I don't want to just exist. I want to live life. I want to help."
"Help?" Gau examined her face for a long moment before gesturing toward the Veldt. "That why you here much? You help Veldt?"
Alice smiled slightly. "I'd like to. I noticed it wasn't recovering as fast as everywhere else. I’m trying to figure out why."
Gau's eyes switched from her face to the Veldt. "Many times ask self same question. Feel pain of home." He shook his head, lowering his sad expression to the browned grass at his feet. He stopped and crouched, picking up a loose bit of soil in a tender grip. Alice squatted down beside him as he continued. "I try much things to help. I bring fresh water. I bring new seed from forest. I bring plants from Terra's garden and try here." He shook his head, changing his eyes to her. He handed her the dried clump of soil and grass when she reached her hand out for it. "No help. Stay same."
"Hm." She brought the soil to her nose. It smells wrong. She wrinkled her nose as she brought her pack around and off her shoulders. She pulled out a container and put the soil sample into it, labeling it accordingly before putting it into the pack. Alice met his gaze. "Could you take me to one of these places?"
"Where I try help?"
Alice nodded. "I want to see it."
Gau moved his gaze to the Veldt. Then he looked up at the sun as he adjusted his pack on his shoulders. "Not much time for travel, Alice." He looked back over at her. "You okay to jog?"
She slung her pack onto her shoulders again while giving him a nod and a smile. "Lead the way."
The Veldt was unlike any terrain Alice had ever seen. It didn't matter that she'd lived on the extreme outskirts of the Veldt for almost 3 years. Even the Veldt on the very boundary of her town was different than what she jogged through now. It was rough and wild. It was smooth and endless in its serenity. It was adventure waiting to happen. It was the Veldt: Gau's home.
Alice's dark brown eyes took in the expanse of the Veldt. "It's… it's gorgeous." She met Gau's proud gaze and smiled. "I've never been out this far before. It's so different."
Gau changed his gaze toward the horizon. "Yes. It different on inside, like me."
Alice watched his expression for a long moment before turning to look at the opposite horizon. "So, where's this help you did?"
Gau motioned for her to follow him two paces to the north. There he pointed at a wilted seedling with pale leaves and a hardened stem. Alice's heart fell at the sight of the poor thing. She knelt and gingerly touched a petal. It broke off with a horribly dry sound. She winced.
"Like Veldt steal life from thing."
That was the best description someone could have given. "Yes, it does look like that, doesn't it?" Alice sent him a sidelong glance as he knelt beside her. His expression was pure and simple helplessness. Poor guy. He wants to help and doesn't know what else to do. She sighed, changing her expression back to the plant. "Well, I better take it up."
She nodded as she pulled off her bag to set it in front of her. She unbuckled the flap and pulled out a little trowel and a large container. She showed them to Gau. "Yeah. I want as much of the root system as possible, so that I can see if I can find out what it pulled out of the soil that killed it." His gaze moved back to the plant. After a moment, she offered him the trowel. "You want to do it?"
Gau changed his eyes to hers. "Okay to do?"
She pushed the trowel toward him again. "Sure. Go ahead. I'll hold the container."
He took the trowel from her to carefully dig around as well as under the plant, being very careful not to hit a single root. When he pulled it out of the ground, he used gentle movements and didn't break a single root. It was almost as if the plant were a child. Alice was amazed at the tenderness and concern he showed for the plant, even though it was more than likely beyond saving. He turned to her, gently holding out the plant as he waited for her to open the container. When she did, he carefully set it inside, making sure it was properly balanced and centered. Alice put a little water from her canteen into the container before screwing on the lid.
Gau's eyes met hers, as if to thank her for understanding.
She smiled as she stood. "Well, I guess that's all the time we have. Right?"
He looked up at the sky, the sun's position, and a myriad of other things before meeting her eyes again. "We make good time here, so no have to jog back. Give time to answer questions."
"I appreciate it." They headed back the way they'd come once she'd carefully placed the pack on her back. "Is it like this everywhere?"
He gave a slow nod. "Different in Deep Veldt, but only little. Mostly same. No grow. Only slow death." Gau changed his gaze to the far horizon. "Slow death."
Her throat tightened. "I'm sure it's not that bad, Gau." She gave him a reassuring smile when he looked over at her. "Come on. Try and keep your hopes up."
He reluctantly returned her smile. "Me be grumpy like Rhinox."
"Just don't be like a Baskervor," she said with a laugh. "I've had enough of those to last a lifetime."
He chuckled. It was almost like the purr of a large cat. "You only person from town to go so deep on Veldt. Why no feared of what be here?"
She gave a shrug. "I don't know. I've never been scared of the Veldt. It's been more like a place to have adventures. I never thought of it as someplace where scary things happened."
"Baskervor very dangerous. Could hurt you much. You still think Veldt not full of much danger?"
"I never said it wasn't dangerous. I'm just not scared of it. I guess I figured that if I left them alone, or didn't threaten their home, they'd let me be about my business." She sent Gau a smirk. "I must have stumbled into that particular Baskervor's territory. What do you think?"
Gau examined her face and eyes for a long moment. He finally looked away. "Baskervor mad. Instincts twisted and dark."
"How do you know that?"
"I be tracking Baskervor for long time."
Alice smiled. "Lucky for me."
He also smiled, but he didn't look over at her.
"So, are you up to coming to school tomorrow?" she asked.
This time his gaze met hers. "School no done. Right?"
"Okay, okay. Just asking."
"Why? You think I feared of school?"
Alice laughed. "No, I thought the teachers might be scared of you."
"Why? Me ugly?"
Alice's smile vanished, and she stopped. So did he. "Oh my gosh, Gau. I didn't mean it like that. I was talking about all the questions you'd asked Mr. Schultz, or tried to anyway. That's all." His bright eyes released the confusion and twinkled. "Have people called you ugly?" she asked.
He gave a one-shouldered shrug as he started toward town again. Alice fell into step beside him. "They say many thing, but me think is cuz feared of what don't understand."
"You're a teen who lives on the Veldt. What's to understand?"
Gau sent her a sidelong glance. "That no sound strange, Alice?"
"What? That you live on the Veldt? Should it?" He shrugged. Alice examined his profile, looking down at her foot when something touched it. A field serpent slithered by. She stopped to stare after it. "Oops. I think I scared it. Sorry, little fella." Gau hunkered down to look at her foot. Alice noticed, so she changed her gaze to him. "What?"
He tapped the toe of her shoe. "Lift foot."
Alice gave a shrug as she did what he'd told her, resting a hand on his shoulder for balance. He took her foot and rested it on his knee. Then he untied her hiking boot and slipped it off. Alice watched in amazement. "What in the world are you doing? Wouldn't I have felt it if it bit me?"
Gau didn't say anything. All he did was closely examine her shoe, touching it here and there for something. She could only guess that he looked for bite marks. Next, he took off her sock and examined her foot.
"I'm glad my feet don't stink."
Alice thought she heard a slight purr of a chuckle, but he didn't move his gaze to hers. Finally, he slipped her sock back onto her foot, put her shoe on, and tied it just as comfortably as it had been tied before. He set her foot on the ground and straightened, setting out for her home as if nothing had happened. Alice stared after him a moment before hurrying to catch up.
"What was that all about?"
"No feel bite of that snake."
He shrugged. "Just don't."
She examined his profile. "How would you know that… unless you'd been bitten by it before."
He nodded. "Was much sick for days."
"Oh," she said in a quiet voice. Alice sent him a glance, but he still stared straight ahead. "Thanks."
Alice had a sudden idea. "Hey, Gau." She stopped. So did he. "Do you think you could take me out a little deeper tomorrow?" His gaze showed reluctance, so she changed her request. "Even if you just show me the other place where you've tried to help the Veldt."
Gau lowered his gaze to the ground at his feet as he mulled the idea over. "Bring others?"
Alice hesitated this time. "Um... well..."
Gau raised his gaze. "Better if go on Veldt with more than two. Safety in numbers. Always so."
"Not yet. After we get some more samples cataloguing the stuff that you've done. Okay?" He gave a nod. Alice only just kept herself from releasing a relieved sigh.
"What you smell, Alice?"
Alice moved her gaze to meet his. "What?"
"The Veldt. Before. You make strange face when smell. Why?"
She stopped, slipping her pack off to unbuckle it and take out the small container. She set her pack on the ground and unscrewed the lid so that he could smell. His nostrils flared very slightly, and then he raised those inquisitive gaze to hers.
"Smells kind of stale, doesn't it? Almost has a bit of an acidic burn, huh?" He gave a brief and slow nod as she sealed the dirt back up again. "Healthy soil should have a definite smell of damp. Right? There should probably be somewhat of a moldy smell, too, because of the bacteria and nutrients that feed the plants."
Alice picked up her pack, putting the container back inside before slinging it back over her shoulders. When her eyes went to his face, she noticed he intensely examined her. She smiled. "Come on. I bet you'd already figured that out."
"Yes, but I no meet one other who do. You explain well what wrong."
She chuckled as she started again toward town. "Thanks. I try." Her stomach chose that time to growl. "Oh boy. I'm afraid that was me."
Gau grinned. "You make sound big enough to scare Doom Gaze away. Why you no bring food to eat?"
Alice laughed. "I forgot. All I could think about was getting out here."
Gau shook his head. "We be hour from town. Wait that long? Or begin eating samples we take?" Her stomach grumbled again, so Gau didn't give her a chance to answer. "I get something. You wait here."
Alice sat, making herself comfortable as he loped off. She pulled out a little memo pad and a pencil to start making a few notes. I can hardly wait until tomorrow! I hope he takes me to where he took the water. I'd love to see the reaction. If there is a higher level of acid then there should be... I wonder what I'll find? She chewed the tip of her pencil. But what in the world would be causing a high acid content? Hm.
Gau suddenly squatted beside her, presenting her with a handful of jerked meat. She stared down at them in surprise before meeting his eyes. "How in the world could you have gotten these already?"
He sat, crossing his legs as he popped a smaller piece of jerky into his mouth. "I travel all over Veldt. Never know when or where be. So put food in places all over."
"Oh. That makes sense." She tugged apart a piece with her molars and immediately sent him a wide-eyed look. "This is really good. You should sell it at the Item Shop." He shrugged with a twinkle as he looked off at the distant horizon. She pressed her point. "I'm serious, Gau. This is great stuff. I'd buy it."
He looked over at her. "No need buy. I give when want."
She swallowed her mouthful of the luscious jerky. "But it must have taken you a long time to do. I can't just take it!"
"Why not? Have plenty. Make much all time. You need, you take."
He stood with a slight smile. "We go. Time go fast, and me still have much work do before sleep."
"Alice." Gau met her eyes, offering a hand to help her stand. She took it, and he pulled her to her feet. "Alice, giving food is least can do for pay of help with Veldt. You take. Okay?"
She nodded, releasing his hand before lowering her gaze to their feet as they began toward town again.
Alice looked over at Carol as she and Eric watched Alice with crossed arms. "Huh? Yesterday? I was on the Veldt." Alice changed her focus back to the task of loading her things into her pack, once in a while sending Gau a glance as he spoke with the kids around him. "I always go to the Veldt after school. You know that."
"Yes, but this time you went with Gau and didn't invite me." Carol sounded absolutely insulted.
Alice sighed as she buckled her pack closed. "Nothing exciting happened, Carol. Geez. He's just answering some questions about the Veldt and showing me around a bit. Nothing major."
Carol's arms went to her sides, and her face showed disbelief. "Nothing major? You're on the Veldt for who-knows-how-many hours with a hero who happens to be drop-dead gorgeous and that's ‘nothing major’?"
Alice rolled her eyes while slipping her pack onto her back. She'd brought dinner this time. "Look," she began as she turned toward Carol, "I'm sorry you're insulted, but we're just doing boring research."
Carol was about to speak again when Ms. Aimes called her over. She was a pleasant enough sort. A little on the strict side, but it wasn't too bad. Carol sent Alice a look of death and daggers before making her way to the teacher's desk. Alice sighed and moved her eyes to Eric. He didn't say anything. He only turned to leave the building. Alice sighed again. She hadn't meant to hurt their feelings.
"Alice?" Gau came to stand beside her. "You okay?"
She faced him with a forced smile. "Yep. Ready to go?"
He nodded and followed her from the building to the main 'street' out of town. "Carol and Eric no look happy, Alice."
"I know. They must think we're just playing around. I tried to tell them we're doing work." Alice shrugged. "They'll get over it."
"You sure we no bring with us?"
Alice looked over at him. "Tomorrow. Please? You don't know them like I do. I won't get a lick of work done if they're here."
"That should no matter, Alice. They friend. You should want spend time with them."
She gripped the straps of her pack. Her mom had said the same thing. "Tomorrow, Gau. If you can show me the places where you took the seeds and the water today, we can bring them tomorrow. Okay?"
"Tomorrow last day of school for week. Right?"
"Yeah." Alice looked over at him as they exited town. "Why?"
"No school next day."
"Yeah," she agreed again slowly.
"Have camp out."
Gau met her gaze. "Be much fun. Hike all round Veldt. Tell stories. Laugh. See sunset. Sunset best part of Veldt color. Look like Relm's paintbrush fall against sky."
"Sure. That sounds like fun."
"Eric and me fish and hunt. Become friends."
Alice chuckled. "Well, don't hold your breath."
Gau sent her a confused look but didn't ask. He looked away again. "Alice, was plant too sick?"
"Plant? Oh. Plant." She gnawed her lower lip as she kicked at a pebble. "It's too soon to tell, Gau. My mom and I repotted it after I got a sample, so we'll have to wait and see."
"If get better... do you think Veldt get better, too?"
Her throat tightened. "I certainly hope so. And I plan to do my best to make it happen."
"Good." She looked over at him with a smile. "I could use the help--"
Her foot plunged into a hole. She fell forward with a frightened squeak, scuffing her palms and knees on a few pebbles before Gau could catch her under the arm. She turned to sit on her butt and looked at her palms. There were a few scratches, but nothing bloody. She slapped her hands together a few times as Gau went to her right foot.
She looked up from her hands to catch his concerned gaze. "Well now I feel about as graceful as an I-don't-know-what," she told him with a reluctant smile.
Gau changed his focus to her foot and carefully felt her ankle, occasionally glancing to her face to watch her reaction. Then he picked up her foot and slowly rotated it.
Alice smiled. "It feels fine. Doesn’t hurt at all."
Gau’s expression relaxed, and he set her foot down before he stood and helped her to her feet. She tested her right foot before completely standing on her own power.
Alice released a relieved breath and sent him a smile as he stepped away from her. "Thank goodness. It was such a tumble that I felt sure I'd twisted something."
"Your boots do good in keeping foot way should be. No let get twisted."
Alice looked down at her boots. "Thank you, gents," she told them. "I knew there was a good reason I saved for three months to buy you guys."
Gau chuckled. "You much funny. Talk to shoes. Talk to Baskervor." He gave a slight shake of his head as he led the way onto the Veldt.
"I'm sorry. You thought I was normal?" Alice teased. "Poor thing. I had you completely taken in." Alice noticed his odd glance. "I'm giving you a hard time, Gau. Just joking. Okay?"
She arched an eyebrow. "Then what's with the funny face?"
He shrugged and looked away. "Not know."
Alice decided to change the subject. "You're taking me to the water or the seeds today?"
"Place with water be too close to Deep Veldt. Not go. We go where me plant seeds."
"Okay. When did you plant them?"
"Many months ago."
"And you've kept them watered and protected?"
Gau nodded. "Protect with leaves and things from Veldt."
"How often did you water them?"
"When soil too dry. I keep damp."
"Hm. Sounds like everything should be perfect." She sent him a glance. "But no sprouts came up?"
Gau shook his head, moving his gaze to the ground at their feet. "No life come."
Alice rested a hand on his arm. "Gau, I'm sure we'll find something to help."
"Me afraid may take too long."
"The Veldt's lasted this long. I'm sure it'll hold on a little longer."
He smiled briefly before stopping in front of a patch of mulch. Alice looked down, lowering her hand from his arm as she knelt and took off her pack. She set it aside before gently exploring the seeds' protective shield from heat and cold alike. That's weird. It doesn't even seem like the stuff is decomposing. Gau knelt beside her, intensely watching what she did.
"Do you remember where you planted them?"
He nodded and reached out to brush away the debris. Alice rifled through her pack and handed him the trowel. "Can you get me the seeds and the mulch that's on them?"
He nodded again, turning to perform the retraction with as much care as a surgeon. Then she carefully sealed the container. "Don't worry, little ones," she whispered to the seeds as she stood, "we'll get you grown. You just wait."
Gau watched her without a word.
"Okay." She bent to grab her pack, set the seeds inside, and slung it onto her back as she straightened. She caught his gaze and sent him a reassuring smile. "Don't you worry either. We'll figure it out."
He stood with a nod and a smile, and then he escorted her back to town.
Gau came up beside her. "How much time need to get ready?"
Alice felt Carol's icy glare. "I haven't asked them yet. A couple hours, maybe? Is that too late?"
Gau leaned to the side to catch Carol's gaze. "Hi, Carol. Alice and me go Veldt for camp. You come?"
Carol's gaze brightened as she leapt to her feet. "Really? Sure!"
Eric sauntered over. "What's all the commotion?"
Gau smiled. "We go to Veldt for camp out. Have much fun. You come?"
Alice sent Eric a sidelong glance from under her lashes. He looked less than thrilled.
"Sure. Why not."
"We still have to ask our parents," Alice said with a meaningful look toward Carol.
Carol waved Alice's reminder aside when Gau sent her a concerned glance. "Oh, you don't need to worry about that. Alice and my parents are so used to us asking to go to the Veldt that they don't even know why we ask anymore."
Gau's gaze twinkled with relief. He looked back over at Alice and Eric. "Good. I meet at entrance to town. You go for change of clothes and bag to keep warm."
"What about food?" Alice asked.
Gau looked amused. "I get food for all. I and Eric. We fish. We hunt. No worry for what eat."
Carol clapped her hands. "Sounds fun!"
Alice shook her head before grabbing Carol's arm to pull her out of the school and toward her home. "Carol, geez, throw yourself a little harder at him and he'll fall over."
Carol looked at Alice, innocent. "What 'throw myself at him'? I'm just being myself."
"That's the problem." Carol protested, but Alice ignored her. "Let's just get our stuff and get out there before Eric and Gau kill each other."
Carol scoffed. "Oh, Eric's just having a little attitude problem. Gau can handle it. Besides, he's so sweet that Eric won't be able to hate him for long."
Alice examined her friend's profile. "Who's sweet? Gau or Eric?"
Carol's smile tweaked slightly. "Both."
Alice arched an eyebrow.
Needless to say, Carol was enraptured by the Veldt. She "ooh"ed and "ahh"ed at the appropriate times, caressing Gau's ego - if he had one - with melodious laughs or twinkling glances at all his anecdotes. Now, much to Alice's surprise, Carol had encircled Gau's arm with both of hers as she followed his gaze to the horizon of the Veldt, beautiful in her awed wonder.
"Thank you for bringing me, Gau," she cooed. "I wish I could see the sunset here."
Gau's ears tinged slightly pink, but his smile remained easy and proud. Alice cleared her throat as she sent Eric a quick glance. He watched Carol with a smirk. Alice frowned and looked away again.
"So, are we almost to the center of the Veldt?" she asked.
Gau zeroed in on her face. His serious expression returned. "No go Deep Veldt. Much dangerous for you--"
"But I need to go for my paper," Alice pressed.
Gau turned his entire body toward her, as if the action would impress upon her the importance of what he was about to say. "You need do as I say, Alice. Many monsters in center of Veldt. Many monsters I no can protect all from. I no bring you in danger. We be friends."
Alice stretched her hands out in front of her. "But, Gau, I need to go to the deepest part of the Veldt or my research is only half done."
Gau set his jaw and shook his head. "This as far as I take. Research in center of Veldt too much dangerous to be worth trouble. This Veldt be good for what need."
Alice released a deep breath. “Alright.”
Eric shook his head. “Geez, Alice. Not getting to the absolute center of the Veldt isn't going to keep that from happening. You've got a damn good paper written."
Alice looked over at him in surprise.
Eric ran a hand through his hair. When his eyes met hers, his expression was honest and open. "Geez, Alice. This is your last year here. The last year you'll see all of us before moving to Figaro. Hell! The year's almost over and I've barely seen you outside the classroom. Don't you want to have any fun?"
She looked away. "There'll be time for that later."
"Oh yeah? When? Over the summer you'll probably be moving. And then you'll want to be settled before school starts up again--" Eric sighed. "Fine. Do whatever you want."
Alice sent Eric a frown. Then she looked over at Gau. He stared off into the distance, distracted. Carol and Alice exchanged a glance.
"Gau?" Carol asked hesitantly.
Silence. They looked toward each other again, this time Eric coming to join them with a ‘what’s wrong with him?’ expression.
He gestured for quiet.
Alice felt a knot of fear as she looked toward Eric. He clenched his jaw and stepped closer to her and Carol. When Gau took a cautious step backward, the trio did too.
"We no camp now. I take home." He turned, urging them back toward town. "Now."
"Gau, what's the matter?" Alice whispered.
"No questions. Just go." He hurried them along while giving occasional backward glances to an unknown danger.
"I'm scared." Carol's voice cracked.
Gau rested a hand briefly on her shoulder. "No be scared. I here to protect. You be safe. I promise."
But the fact that he seemed even a little worried made Alice more than uneasy. She was scared too. Eric held back a bit. Then Alice could hear him speaking to Gau in a low voice. When Eric hurried to walk beside the two girls again, his face looked a little pale but more determined than anything. Alice didn't know whether to take it as a bad sign or a good one.
Suddenly, Gau urged them to the south. "We no make town. We go some place safe." He pointed far in the distance. "See black thing? Caves there. More safer."
The trio said nothing. They only quickened their step to a jog, all the while wishing the cave would get closer faster. Alice believed she heard an unfamiliar animal-like sound behind her as the cave began to look more life-scale. When she would have turned to look, Gau gave her a sharp reprimand and urged them forward faster. Then they plunged into the dark depths of the cave and crouched together in the corner.
"Where's Gau?" Alice asked in a hushed whisper.
"Damn! He's still out there!" Eric moved to stand, but Carol grabbed his arm. He glared at her. "Carol, I can't just leave him out there by himself."
Carol shook her head. Her hazel eyes were wide with terror. "If you go out there you'll die! Don't you leave us alone in here!"
Eric sent another look toward the dim entrance of the cave before huddling between the girls again. He wrapped his arms around them and drew them close. "Fine. We wait."
The ear-shattering wail sounded again. Alice had never heard it before. She turned into Eric's shoulder to clutch his shirt, squeezing her eyes closed so tight that tears escaped the corners. Alice even felt Eric flinch.
The shriek suddenly sounded again. She flinched. I hope he's okay. Please let him be okay.
Eric rested his chin against the top of her head. Alice heard Carol begin to softly cry.
Alice didn't know she'd fallen asleep until she woke up with her head on an unfamiliar shoulder. She sat up, and her eyes focused on the welcome sight of Gau.
She threw her arms around his neck with an exclamation of “You’re okay!”
"What?" Gau asked when she pulled back again. "You think me die? Me not done with school."
Alice flushed, lowering her gaze to the duty of straightening her wrinkled shirt. "Sorry… I… I just…" She cleared her throat and sent a glance toward Carol at her left. Carol shook her head, chuckling the entire time. "Oh, be quiet."
Gau stood. He'd changed from his school suit to a pair of simple hide trousers. He was bare-chested and barefoot. "Almost mid-night. We stay here, or I take home. You choose. Beast no more bother, but I understand if you no want camp."
Alice changed her gaze to Eric. He intensely focused on stoking the fire. "Eric? What do you think?"
He didn't look up. "It's up to you."
She looked over at Carol, who examined her nails. "Carol?"
"Whatever you want to do."
Alice refocused her gaze on Gau. "If you don't mind staying here, I could ask some questions about the deeper Veldt."
Gau nodded. "Okay. We stay." He gestured toward the front portion of the cave. "I take first watch. Carol and Eric, you eat and sleep while I talk with Alice."
They nodded, and Carol gathered herself beside Eric by the fire. Alice followed Gau from the main cavern to the front that led onto the Veldt. The night sounds grew in volume until they were a chorus of animals she'd always heard and never seen. Gau copied several of the calls, speaking some form of answer to their inquiry, and then he moved those yellow cat-like eyes to her.
She looked away. "So, what was it?"
"You no worry of that. Speak questions of Veldt." He sat on a large boulder, or rather he crouched, and rested his arms across his knees. "I tell you all I know. More. You ask."
Alice cleared her throat. "Okay." She looked around for a similar boulder. There wasn't one. Gau moved and offered her his spot. She flushed slightly and quickly moved to sit down. "Exactly where on the Veldt do you live? Do you have a house somewhere? A tent? Anything like that?"
"This important for paper?"
Alice shook her head while staring down at her nails. "No. Just curious."
Gau looked out onto the Veldt. "When rain or cold I seek shelter same as you or animals on Veldt. When sun shine, or if cold not so bad, I sleep under stars with no fear. Some time friend keep company and we share warmth."
A million different possible pictures flared in Alice's mind. She flushed, frowning at her nails. "A friend? Like Lena or Carol?" Gau laughed. Alice looked over at him. "What?"
"You say very funny thing."
"No human from town be friend 'til you. I talk of Lobo or other with thick fur that give warmth."
"Oh. Yeah. I guess that's right." Alice cleared her throat and carefully tucked her knees up to her chin. She wrapped her arms around her legs, tilting her head back to stare up at the night sky. The stars twinkled and laughed at their myriad of secrets. Alice sighed and closed her eyes.
"What be big trouble, Alice?"
Alice sighed again. "Oh, nothing. Your Veldt just makes me think of stuff other than school."
There was a faint rustle as he moved closer. "You no like think of these things?"
Alice's lips quirked in a smile, and she opened her eyes to look over at him. His eyes were wide, twinkling with curiosity and mild confusion. "Not particularly. My life's complicated enough as it is."
"Maybe your life be more easy if you think of these things. Then no can build and be like wildfire."
Her smile broadened. She chuckled as she looked away. "Yeah. Wouldn't that be nice."
Gau remained silent for a long time before leaping up onto the boulder beside Alice. She gave a start and looked over at him. He grinned and made himself comfortable. Alice examined his face after he'd changed his gaze to the stars above. She smiled, her eyes crinkling at the corners.
She followed his gaze. "I'm glad I met you, Gau."
"I glad I meet you, Alice. I be curious of life in town long time, but not know how ask. When you start come to Veldt I think maybe I come ask you help. I think long time."
"Then I needed your help and you couldn't wait any longer."
Gau nodded. "At least you no think I beast like others."
Alice chuckled. "Don't give me too much credit. I was a snot when we first met, remember?"
Alice shook her head. "Never mind." Gau continued to examine her, and she turned her face to catch his gaze. "What?"
"Why you no with Eric?"
Alice flushed deep and looked away. "What are you talking about?"
"Eric like you much. Want protect and angry when no can. Angry, too, that I--"
"Don't be silly," Alice interrupted. She cleared her throat. "Eric just wants to be the only big shot in town. You're instantly popular because of who you are. He doesn't like that."
Gau watched her face. "Maybe is what you say, but not all."
"He likes Carol."
Gau nodded. "I see this. But different."
Alice looked over at him. "Different? What do you mean? What's different?"
"He different when with Carol. No try… no act big or strong."
Gau smiled and seemed to laugh at her. "You like Terra and Edgar. No see what plain." He leaped off the boulder. "I go out a way and make safe. You go inside cave to sleep."
Alice watched his lithe form as he faded into the shadows. Then, when all she could see was a hint of the Veldt beyond, she lowered her focus to her knees. He certainly has strange ideas about things, doesn't he? Eric and I are just friends. Sure, Carol thinks the same way, but… if he liked me he'd say something. Besides, I'm moving to Figaro, and the last thing I need is a long-distance relationship.
"Get any work done?"
Alice gasped. She looked over her shoulder to see Eric leaning against the wall of the cave entrance. "Eric, geez! Find another hobby besides scaring me to death." He came to stand beside the boulder, staring out onto the blackened Veldt. "What's the matter?" she asked.
"Needed a break from Carol?"
He crossed his arms and leaned a shoulder against the boulder. "She's asleep again." Eric cleared his throat as he stared down at the ground at his feet. "Poor girl. She's not used to this kind of excitement."
Alice nodded. She leaned back onto her elbows and stared up at the stars. "Yeah. She only wanted to impress Gau. She doesn't get it that he's clueless."
"He's not so clueless," Eric mumbled.
Alice turned her head. "What?"
She looked back to the stars. "It's beautiful out here. I can see why he'd rather sleep in the open than in a tent or hut. I'd stay here too if I'd grown up on the Veldt."
"Maybe now you will."
She changed her gaze to Eric. "Why do you say that?"
He stared off into the night a moment, but then he just shook his head. "Never mind." He straightened and turned to go back inside. "You should think about coming in and getting some sleep."
"I think I'll sleep out here. Thanks anyway."
Eric examined her before making his way toward the cave. "Fine," he muttered.
Alice wondered about his attitude, but it was forgotten when the night sounds of the Veldt began their soft chorus. She closed her eyes, absorbing the peaceful music with an exhalation of breath.
"Why you no inside with others?"
"Hmm?" Alice sat up slowly. Her mind ever so gradually returned from the dream of riding a white dragon across the Veldt. She looked down at Gau with a sleepy expression. He looked a little annoyed. "Oh. I must've fallen asleep."
"No safe here by self. You should be in with others."
Alice opened her mouth to defend herself.
"It's not so bad," Eric told Gau as he emerged from the shadows. "I kept my eye on her."
Gau's annoyed expression remained. "It good you watch, but I tell her thing to do for own good." He changed his stern gaze to her. "If you no follow order, then I no take to Veldt. Too dangerous. You decide. One more chance."
Gau stepped past into the caves. Alice carefully dropped from the boulder. "Thanks for covering for me."
Eric watched her as she dusted little bits of boulder dust from her trousers. "Who said I was?"
Alice looked up. "What?"
"I heard what you said." Alice frowned, and her hands went to her hips. "What's going on, Eric?"
He sent her a glance. “Nothing.”
"Whatever, Eric. We’ve been friends too long for me to believe that." She examined his face. "Did I do something to piss you off? Did I not do something that I said I would? What? What do you want from me?"
Eric faced her and stepped closer. "Some attention would be great."
Alice's jaw gaped and her arms dropped to her sides. "What?"
"First, it was the Veldt and your paper. Then it was the Veldt and your entry-essay into Figaro Academy. Now it’s the Veldt, Gau, and your entry-essay into the Figaro Academy." He moved closer. A frown tightened his face. "I hoped to have a shot at you before you left. Now…" Eric looked away with a shrug. "Oh well. I guess I can't fight the Veldt. It's not human. Neither is he. Not really. He's more legend than anything."
"What are you talking about?" Alice insisted. Eric’s green eyes met her brown ones. "We're friends, Eric. You don't have to fight Gau or the Veldt for anything, especially not my attention."
He snorted, or very nearly. "Yeah. Right."
"Don't you 'Yeah. Right' me Eric Trugate."
"Then what am I supposed to do, Alice?" Eric turned his entire body toward her. "Strip and live on the Veldt like him for 15 years?"
"Of course not! What are you talking about?"
"I care about you, Alice, but all you ever think about are the damn plants and wildlife on the Veldt!" Alice's jaw dropped. Eric examined her reaction. He threw his hands up into the air. "Oh this is great. You didn't even notice."
Alice's jaw silently worked.
Eric turned away. "Forget it. Move to Figaro and have a great life. I hope you finally find what you want."
Alice stared after him as she again attempted to speak. Eric had already disappeared into the dark recesses of the cave. Alice cleared her throat and turned from the entrance of the cave to stare out at the dark and silent Veldt.
Alice sat up. There was another melodious bout of laughter coming from beyond the cave. Alice recognized the purr of Gau's chuckle. Alice wrinkled her nose and gave a stretch before looking around the cave. Eric leaned against the cave entrance staring out at something on the Veldt. Alice felt bad. Eric was a great guy and a real kick to be around. The last thing she'd wanted to do was hurt his feelings. I just haven't thought much about him and me. It never really came up again. There was always something or someone else needing my attention. Alice sighed heavily.
Eric looked over at her. "We were wondering when you were going to wake up. Gau wants to take us swimming. Hurry up."
And then he left the cave. Guilt accosted Alice, making her bite her lower lip. I’m sorry, Eric. I didn’t mean to be dense. Alice sighed again and pulled herself from her sleeping bag. Then she reached over for her pack and stood.
Alice winced when she heard another laugh from Carol. Then she rolled her eyes, slung the pack over her shoulder, and headed out into the morning sunshine. Gau and Carol were perched on the same boulder Alice had been on last night. Eric leaned against it.
"What in the world is so funny?"
Gau looked over his shoulder toward her and promptly leaped down from the boulder. He wore another pair of hide trousers but still no shirt. He came over to her. "Morning, Alice. Why you sleep so long?
"Oh, I don't know. Because I was tired? What with getting chased by man-eating monsters and things like that. It has a tendency of wearing a person out." And Eric’s not really talking to me, and I’ll never be able to laugh like Carol…
Gau's expression drifted from confusion to amusement and back again. "You joke with Gau? Or you angry?"
Alice's guilt bit her in the butt even harder than earlier. "Sorry. I'm not a morning person. A swim would probably perk me right up."
Gau gave a brief nod. Then he turned to gesture to Carol and Eric. "Come. Let's go swim. Eat fish and eggs for breakfast."
Carol squealed with delight and waved her hands for help down from the boulder. Gau and Eric were quick to oblige. Alice raised an eyebrow. I never understood that whole helpless-female routine. She's got it down pat, though.
So the group headed to the west. Alice instantly noticed that Eric and Carol quickened their step to the front. Alice submerged her hands deep into the pockets of her jeans. He's not even giving me a chance to say I'm sorry. The guilt for being dense quickly made way for irritation as she grumbled under her breath about stubborn boys and their infantile behaviors.
"Alice, why you grumble like grumpy Rhinox?"
Alice looked over at Gau and sheepishly smiled. "Sorry. I've got a lot on my mind."
"I see this. Tell so I help."
She flushed. "It's nothing. Forget it."
Gau chuckled. "I no can forget when plain on both faces."
Her gaze met his. "What?"
Gau shook his head. "I no tell. You know."
Alice moved her gaze to Eric and Carol. "I really hurt his feelings last night, Gau."
Gau nodded. "I see truth in face when he come back. Why you do this thing, Alice?"
Alice felt lower than forest slime. "I didn't mean to."
"How you make better?"
She adjusted her fists in her pockets. Alice sighed. "I've no idea."
"If heart sorry, you tell him this thing. No think too long of what to say. Too many words make more trouble. Speak clear and little, but from heart."
Something told her Eric wasn't ready to hear anything from her.
"Why so glum?"
Alice raised her eyes to Carol's. She looked around for Gau only to find him walking beside Eric. Alice changed her gaze back to the ground moving under her feet. "Nothing."
"Have anything to do with Eric?"
Alice shrugged again.
"Didn't I tell you he liked you? Maybe next time you'll believe me."
Alice grimaced. "Maybe."
Carol chuckled and gave her a little shove. "Don’t worry about it, Alice. Eric will be fine. He’s just got a case of hurt pride. Don’t you remember what you felt when all he could see was Terra Branford?"
Alice remembered the misery all too well. "Yeah."
"Give him a couple hours and then try talking to him," Carol suggested. Then she gave Alice another friendly nudge and hurried to walk beside Gau.
Alice sighed deep. Man. I hate it when she’s right-- There was a sudden squeal. Alice looked up to see Carol and Gau standing together on a slight rise. Carol looked absolutely beside herself with joy. I wonder what it is this time?
It was the most beautiful beach Alice had seen.
"Oh, Gau," Carol crooned, "it's absolutely dreamy!"
Alice rolled her eyes. Eric snickered behind a quickly raised hand.
"Come here all time with friends before evil gone."
Alice noticed he didn't say 'Kefka'.
Gau looked over Carol’s head to Alice and Eric. "Have many good memory here. Of friends. Make more, so have much more memory to make here."
Carol sniffled. Alice moved her focus to the rocky beach. Eric dropped his pack and started stripping out of his shoes and down to his swimming trunks.
"Eric, you no swim."
Eric sent Gau a wide-eyed stare. "What? How come?"
Gau smirked. "We go for breakfast. Swim when they cook."
Eric glowered as he put his shoes and trousers back on. "Man, this bites." He followed after Gau.
Carol and Alice headed down to the beach.
"Can you believe this? We're stepping on the same beach as Cyan of Doma. King Edgar of Figaro and his brother Sabin. Terra Branford. Locke Cole. General Celes Chere." Carol released a melodramatic sigh. "I think I've died and gone to heaven."
"Geez, Carol." Alice handed her a towel to hold up while she changed into her one-piece black swimsuit. "You've been reading those short story romances again, haven't you?"
Carol blushed and changed her gaze from Alice's accusing face to the water as it beat on the shore. "I can't help it if I love happy endings and marriages between damsels and the heroes that rescue them."
Alice adjusted the straps of her swimsuit before holding the towel so Carol could change. "But you're setting yourself up for a fall, Carol. Girls like us never get the knight on the white horse. We get the Eric's and Dane's, and we live in small towns running Inns and Item Shops."
"What's wrong with that? Eric's a hero, of sorts. He just hasn't had an opportunity to show it."
Alice reluctantly conceded the point. "And he won't, either. Not in our town."
Carol took the towel down to reveal her somewhat modest but all-revealing two-piece emerald green swimsuit. Alice wrinkled her nose as she looked away. Nobody else fills out a swimsuit like Carol.
"Alice, don't be such a stick in the mud. There's plenty of opportunities for heroic deeds in our home town. Just not on a grand scale like in the books."
"Fine. Fine. Whatever. Let's set up the blanket and take a dip before the boys get back and demand we cook and clean."
Carol's expression showed concern as they cleared a beach section of driftwood and pointy pebbles. Once they finished, her expression had changed to near panic. "They won't really make us cook breakfast, will they?"
Alice groaned while handing Carol half the blanket. "Let me guess: you can't boil water."
"Oh, I can boil water and make toast, or simple things like that, but..." Carol's expression looked positively morose. "I don't want to make a fool of myself, Alice."
Alice sent her a reassuring smile, draping an arm around her shoulders as she led her toward the water's edge. "Don't worry, Carol. I'll do the difficult stuff. I've been on a million camp-outs with my folks. I'll have you do the easy stuff. Okay?"
Carol beamed and her hazel eyes twinkled. "Oh, Alice, thank you."
"Sure, sure. Now let's get soaked."
They ran for the water with squeals and laughter.
Carol looked toward the shore. "They're back!" She grabbed Alice's hand and dragged her toward the beach. "Come on. Come on."
Alice's face flamed as she watched Eric and Gau make their way down the hill to where the girls had set up the blanket. They waved. Carol waved back with a chorus of laughter.
"How's the water?" Eric called as he set down what they'd rustled for breakfast. He made his way to the water's edge as Carol and Alice emerged. "Cold?"
Carol shook her head as she dragged Alice all the way up to Eric, not even giving Alice the chance to take up her towel to cover herself. "No," Carol said with a gleaming smile, "it's perfect. Go on. We'll get started on breakfast."
Carol started dragging Alice toward Gau before Eric and her could even exchange greetings.
"Nice suit," Eric called after her quickly retreating form.
Alice flushed a deeper shade of crimson. Eric laughed and turned away, stripping down to his trunks before jogging toward the water.
"Hello, Gau," Carol purred as the two finally came to a stop in front of him.
Alice sent him a glance, noticing he kept his eyes carefully averted from the two. His ears were slightly pink. Carol finally released Alice's hand, who quickly retreated back to the shore to retrieve their towels. Has she no modesty at all? Alice asked as she wrapped one of the towels around her waist. Alice gave a shake of her head and made her way back to Carol and Gau. He stammered out an answer to a purely 'Carol' question.
"Here." Alice shoved the towel into Carol's hand. Carol didn't seem to notice. "Carol. Wrap up."
Carol did so without changing her gaze from Gau's face or even stopping her conversation with him. Alice shook her head and focused her attention on Gau.
"So, what'd you fellas bring?" she interrupted.
Gau's face returned to its natural color. "Eggs. Jerky. Some vegetables to cook with eggs."
Alice smiled as she moved her eyes to the bag of goodies in the center of their blanket. "Okay. Well, we'll get started while you take a swim." She looked back up. "Have fun. We'll let you know when it's done."
Gau nodded and hurried to the water, stripping down to a loincloth before Alice and Carol could look away. Alice cleared her throat and turned, giving Carol an elbow in the ribs when she gave a silly laugh.
Breakfast was a hit. Of course, Alice supposed anything dealing with a boy's stomach would go over well. But she had to admit she'd done a darn good job. Now Gau and Alice were tidying their picnic area - fully clothed, thank goodness - while Eric and Carol splashed each other to their heart's content. Finally, all refuse was buried and Gau and Alice were laying back on the blanket staring up at the bright blue sky with their hands behind their head.
"So, what's on the agenda for tomorrow?"
Gau chuckled. "Today not done, Alice. Still much hours before dark."
"You mean we're not going to lounge around here all day?" Alice feigned horror and dismay.
Alice sat up, pointing to a collection of rocks and caves on the beach to the north. "Then can we go there?"
"For school?" Gau asked with a smile as he looked over at her.
She gave a one-shoulder shrug. "Yes and no."
"You bring hat?"
"Huh?" Alice sent him a puzzled look. "Hat? What for?"
"Much bats and things. Never know when…” he pointed to his head and made a ‘splut’ sound.
Alice wrinkled her nose. "Eww," she whined. "Gross."
Gau laughed, and then he suddenly sat up. "Alice. Me remember."
He looked over at her. "Saw flower."
Her eyes widened. "Really?" She scrambled to her feet, and so did he. "Where? Where?"
He gestured the way he and Eric had gone before. "That way. Little walk."
"Take me, take me!" She hurried after him. "Did’ja do anything there?"
They scrambled up a slight incline. Alice gasped. It wasn't just one solitary flower. There was a patch of them easily as large as her room. She moved her wide eyed gaze to Gau. "When was the last time you came here?"
Gau's eyes and face registered concentration. "Many, many months." He met her gaze. "Year maybe?"
Alice looked back at the flowers, and then she started down the other side of the hill. Gau followed along behind her. "A year," she mumbled as she examined the browned grass that preceded the flowers. "What happened this year? Any weird seasonal things? No, I don't think so."
She came to the edge of the flowers and knelt. The blossom was white, looking as if a ribbon had been wrapped carefully around the stem. She leaned forward and breathed in, closing her eyes when the delicate scent soothed her spirit.
"Oh my goodness," she sighed. Alice looked up at Gau with a wide smile. Her eyes twinkled. "You've got to smell these! It's divine!"
He crouched, reaching out to carefully touch the blossom and its healthy green leaves. "Much pretty," he said softly.
"Most definitely." She looked back to the small field of flowers, reaching her hands into the grass and soil beneath the flowers' base of leaves. This soil is damp. Alice pulled her hands back, bringing the dirty tips of her fingers up to her nose. It smelled gloriously dirty. She sent Gau a delighted grin. "You've got to smell this."
He took hold of her hand to bring it close to his nose. He returned her wide smile. "What fix, Alice? What fix?"
"I don't know." Alice took back her hand and gestured toward the flowers. "Can we come back when I have my stuff? I want to get some samples."
Gau nodded as he stood. "Come, Alice. We be away too long."
"Okay," she sighed. She accepted his help to stand and followed as he slowly made his way back. She fell into step beside him. "Can we stay here a little bit longer?"
"Can if others want. Plenty fun here. Lots of food close." Gau sent her an intense look. "Alice, you want stay?"
"Actually, yeah. I want to explore the beach. Do some boulder jumping and stuff." She intercepted his gaze. "You don't think the others would mind, do you?"
Gau smiled as he shook his head. "Eric and Carol be much happy here. Didn't you see?"
Alice laughed. "A couple of regular beach bunnies, huh?"
Gau's smile blossomed to a laugh as they made their way down to the blanket. Eric came toward the two, completely dried - except for his hair - and fully dressed. Carol however, was by the water's edge gesturing for Gau. Gau sent Alice another slight smile, which she returned, and then headed over. She took hold of his hand, and with a very animated expression, started leading him up the north beach. Alice watched them a moment before focusing on Eric with a slight sigh.
"Hey, you. Want to do some boulder jumping?"
Alice smiled and followed him toward the south beach.
"It's okay, you know."
Alice followed Eric up onto one of the first boulders. "What is?"
"You not liking me that way. I had my chance and blew it. No problem."
Alice gave him a sidelong glance. He seemed sincere enough. "You're awfully calm and understanding, especially considering it was just yesterday."
"I know." He gave a shrug and hopped to the next boulder. "What can I say? I'm easy."
She followed. "Uh-huh."
He looked over at her with a serious expression. "Really, Alice. It's okay. I know that if I make a big deal about it I'll probably lose your friendship. I don't want that to happen. You've got your priorities, and I'm fine with that. Honest."
Alice was still suspicious, but decided not to say anything. Instead, she looked away. "It'd take a lot more than that to wreck our friendship, I guess."
He smiled. "Hey. If it can withstand my moaning over Terra Branford and Gau, it can survive a couple years of you at that Academy."
He leaped to another boulder, got his balance, and turned to make sure she made it safely. She did.
Alice adjusted her footing. "There's no guarantee I'll get in."
He nudged her shoulder. "You'll get in. I know it."
She smiled up at him. "Thanks, Eric. I appreciate it."
He winked at her, and then he turned for the next boulder. "No problem."
Alice followed after him. She didn't know, but she was pretty sure the jury was still out on whether the decision to not have a kissy-feely-touchy relationship with him was okay.
Alice pushed herself to her feet. "Maybe I’ll have a little bit of time to explore on my own," she said absently as she grabbed her shoes and socks.
She hated to go behind Gau’s back, especially with what had happened that first day of their long weekend, but she wanted some really good samples. Of course, she could always go back to the beach with her stuff to get those samples she’d wanted. Alice smiled when she remembered the look on Gau’s face at the discovery. He deserved hope for his home, and that had definitely given it to him. If I could just figure out what had done it, I’d be able to do that for his entire Veldt.
Alice padded a little groggily toward the mouth of the cave. The brightness of the late morning sun made her squint her eyes and raise her sock-burdened arm up to shield her eyes as she left the cave. She smiled and leaned against the outside wall near the cave mouth in order to put on her socks and shoes. It was going to be another lovely day. Too bad they had to go home.
She gave an absent shrug as she struggled with first one sock and the other, occasionally having to brush a bit of fallen dirt from the cave wall off her shoulder. First boot. Second boot. Laces all the way up. Pant legs adjusted… Ahhh… Alice straightened with another stretch and moved away from the cave wall.
Normally, Alice wasn’t a morning person, but since spending the weekend on the Veldt she’d found out she wasn’t a city person. Too much noise and civilization made her cranky. Alice halted, submerging her hands deep in her pockets as she took in a deep breath of air. When she stayed alone in her room or in her backyard she usually felt better after a while. Pretty soon, she’d be accused of being unsociable. Yeah, like that’ll be a loss. Alice sniggered and moved forward-
Her feet wouldn’t move, causing her to topple forward. She caught herself with her hands and knees. "Ack!" Alice rotated to sit on her butt and stared in consternation at her laces. They were tied together! "What in the world?"
She leaned forward to untie them. There was no way she could have accidentally tied them together… Alice hesitated, gnawing her lower lip before quickly shaking her head with a muttered "nah" to tie them again. She even caught herself double checking to make sure they were very much separate. That done, Alice pushed herself to her feet, dusted off her butt and hands, and then turned toward-
"Ack!" she yelped as she stepped back.
Gau grinned at her, wearing nothing but his hide trousers. "Morning." His tone reeked of mischief.
Alice put her hands on her hips. "Were you the one that tied my laces together?"
Gau’s grin melted into a reproachful scowl. He crossed his arms. "Alice say going on Veldt by self. Not do without me."
Alice opened her mouth for a retort, thought better of it, and lowered her hands to her sides. "Who says I was going to do that?"
She flushed with a clearing of her throat as she lowered her gaze to the browned grass at her feet. "Oh. Yeah. I guess I did. Whoops."
"What I say?" Alice didn’t answer Gau’s question, so he took a step closer. "Alice, what I say?"
"You said I shouldn’t go on the Veldt by myself because it was too dangerous," she repeated dutifully.
Gau gave a curt nod. "Good."
Alice heaved a deep sigh as she crossed her arms. "So where’s Carol and Eric?" she asked as she kicked at a rock.
"Gone to beach for swimming and hiking. I took."
Alice looked up with a slack-jawed expression. "What about me? Didn’t you think I’d want to go?"
Gau’s face looked abashed. "Sorry, Alice. I thought you want see Veldt."
Alice mouthed an ‘oh’ as she knee-kicked her sensitivity into action. "I didn’t mean to bite your head off. Of course I want to see the Veldt."
His expression still showed hesitance. "No angry me?"
Alice emphatically shook her head. "No angry," she said with a smile.
Gau’s face lightened. He gestured over his shoulder. "Little walk do morning grump good," he teased.
"Hey," she said as she fell into step beside him, "if you think this is grumpy, you should see me on the first day of a school week."
Gau gave a shiver. "Too scary think of. Me stay home tomorrow."
Alice laughed. "And have Ms. Aimes classify you as a slacker? Better not. It’s always best to be on her good side."
Gau nodded. "I try to do this thing with all."
"Yeah, well, don’t try so hard with Paytha and the others. They’ll eat you alive." She sent him a glance. "Figuratively speaking, of course. Although I have wondered…"
Gau’s chuckle purred in his throat as they began to make their way to the west. A cool breeze whipped along the ground. Alice noticed it smelled of the ocean. It smelled fresher than the air had over the dryer part of the Veldt. Her brow furrowed in concentration as she clenched her hands behind her back. Hmm. When she heard another chuckle, she changed her gaze to him. He smiled while his eyes looked a far distance ahead of him. In fact, they almost seemed to be looking into the past.
"What’s so funny?" she asked, smiling.
Gau briefly met her eyes before gesturing ahead of them. "This place. It remind me of day first see friends."
Alice moved her gaze to the flat expanse ahead. "Wow."
"Very scared first time see. Never seen big people like him in all 13 years of life on Veldt."
She looked back over at him. "What did you do?"
"I run very fast," he told her with a smile that laughed in his eyes.
Alice’s smile widened. "I’m not the least bit surprised. In fact, I’m reminded of the very first time I saw my grandparents. I ran very fast myself." Gau laughed. Alice looked back to the Veldt. "You met up with him again though, right?"
"Yes. Meet Sabin and Cyan outside home of Mobliz before… before Veldt get hurt."
Alice’s throat tightened. "What made you decide to go with them?"
Gau rubbed his bare stomach as he sent her a flash of white teeth. "When boy very hungry and people feed, boy get very nice."
Alice laughed. "I guess you would, wouldn’t you?"
"Then I help Sabin and Cyan get from Veldt to… N…Nikeah," Gau struggled out. "With help of my shiny."
Gau halted and crouched, drawing a picture on the ground of something that looked like an upside down fishbowl. Then he made a motion like he placed it over his head and held his breath. Alice opened her mouth, tilting her head back with an "Ah. Shiny" before they walked toward the fresh air of the ocean again.
"We went under water for long time," he continued. "Never see before. Lots fun. Lots monsters. Get strong."
"Not that you weren’t strong before though, right? I mean, living on the Veldt for 13 years by yourself takes some kind of talent, Gau."
His ears flushed pink, and he cleared his throat as his gaze examined the grass at his feet. "Do best."
Alice smirked, clenching her hands behind her back. "So, what was it like to travel with Sabin and Cyan? Must have been an adventure every second."
He nodded. "Feel good to not be by self. We talk. We laugh. We share many thing and become friends." He gestured to the two of them. "Like us."
Alice’s eyes smiled. "Like us," she agreed.
"Sabin almost not like me," he confessed.
Gau looked embarrassed. "When try show where shiny, Sabin go too close to edge and… I want be funny. So scare."
"Uh-oh." Alice snickered. "He got you back, didn’t he?"
Gau shook his head. "I made Sabin lose all money. Dropped pouch when I scare."
Gau nodded. "He also not like I call Mr. Thou." Gau shrugged. "I knew Cyan only one say, but liked Sabin’s red face when call him Mr. Thou. He very funny."
Alice laughed. "I’m sure he got over it."
Gau nodded again with a sidelong glance and smile at Alice. "I still call Mr. Thou."
"Inside joke between friends? Those are always good to have. Makes the friendship special."
Gau’s eyes brightened with a question as he raised an eyebrow. He examined her face. "Special? How inside joke make friendship more special?"
Alice noticed his intense facial expression as he watched her speak. "Well." She cleared her throat. "Anything that only two or three friends share makes their friendship special because of the fact they’re they only ones that know about it. It… I don’t know, it’s almost like sharing a secret. You know?"
He thought about it long and hard, changing his eyes back to the Veldt ahead of them as he did. Finally, he nodded. "I understand how this work. Make sense."
"Whew," Alice teased. "I wouldn’t want you to think I didn’t know how to explain the deeper things of life."
He sent her a smile. "You do good in all explainings, Alice," he told her simply.
She was about to thank him when he put an arm out to keep her back. "What?"
She arched an eyebrow but did what he asked, changing her eyes to the bare beach. The cool breeze felt great, and the ocean was a somewhat normal shade of blue. Alice smiled. "This is awesome. Much nicer than the other one."
Gau smiled. "Come, Alice. Let’s walk and see if can find crab or shellfish."
Alice fell into step beside him. "That’s right, we didn’t find any on the other beach, did we? Hm. It’s amazing what a couple miles will do to the ecosystem."
They traversed their way down the slight incline to the beach below. Alice sat on a rock to take off her shoes and socks and discovered that the sand was warm and soft. She grinned, wriggling her toes into the sand. Gau smiled wide back while immediately doing the same thing with his own toes. Then he grabbed her hand and pulled her to her feet to lead her to an outcropping of rocks to the south.
Alice eagerly followed, hoping she’d find something unusual for her collection. She did, but it looked more like a fossil than a rock, so she carefully put it in her pocket and followed after Gau. He hopped from boulder to boulder like the native he was.
"Hey. Look at this." Alice steadied her footing before carefully kneeling. There was a bit of green deep within a crevice of the cracked boulder she’d jumped onto. "There’s a plant growing out of this."
Gau leaped back onto the boulder to crouch. "This good, right?"
Alice nodded. "Very good. It takes a hearty little thing to grow out of a rock. But it also means that it found the nutrients it needed to get started. That and it somehow got dropped here in the first place. It could have been dropped by a bird, or even been blown into the crevice from the wind. I’ve noticed that the wind here seems to smell better than further inland."
Gau rested an arm on his leg as he stared up at her. "Could more seeds be growing on these rocks?"
"Sure. If one can do it, others can."
Gau changed his intense eyes to the little puff of greenery to give it an encouraging touch. "Grow strong," he said softly.
Alice smiled. Now that is adorable. When he looked up, she gestured up ahead. "You want to go some more, or did you want to start back?"
"More. Have plenty time to explore," he said as he straightened.
Gau led the way, occasionally looking over his shoulder to make sure she was just behind. "You do good," he commented.
Alice smirked and leaped to the boulder directly behind him. "Thanks. It’s been a little while since I did things like this, but it’s nice to know it hasn’t been forgotten. I’ve already tripped and stumbled around Mr. Graceful enough in my life."
Gau leaped from one boulder to another, and to another. "Mr. Graceful? Who this man?"
Alice laughed, nearly toppling over. She grimaced and concentrated on her footing. "You, you knucklehead," she teased.
He laughed with a slight shake of his head. He hopped to another boulder. "You be graceful too if practice."
"While it’s tempting, Gau," she said as she hopped to the next boulder, "I’m going to have to pass. Studying always takes first place with me."
He faced her, carefully watching as she moved to yet another boulder. "You already much smart, Alice. I know from how you talk of Veldt. What else you need to study?"
"Lots of things," she said absently. The rock was a little wobbly. "If I’m going to fix the Veldt I need to understand a lot of things about a lot of different things. It’s always been that way." She pressed her lips together and jumped. She landed and sent him a smile. His expression was thoughtful. "What?"
He shook his head and then turned away to leap onto another boulder. "Almost there."
Alice arched an eyebrow. "Almost there? Almost where? I didn’t know we were going someplace specific." Gau didn’t respond, but the next time he leaped he disappeared. Alice took in a gasp, hopping as fast as she dared without risking breaking her skull open. "Gau! Gau, are you okay?" With her last hop she nearly went straight into a split in the rock into the cavern inside. "Omigosh! Gau? Are you down there?"
His smiling face appeared then. He held out his arms. "Jump, Alice. I catch."
Alice released a deep breath as she sat on the edge of the boulder to dangle her feet into the crevice. "You nearly scared me to an early death!" she scolded.
He wiggled his fingers at her. "Jump, Alice. Must see."
She sighed again. "Oh, alright. Keep your britches on." She adjusted her position, held her breath, and leaped down.
True to his word, Gau caught her and set her on her feet. He gestured around her. "See?"
Alice’s eyes widened as she looked around her. The walls of the cave were a translucent blue and white that glittered with the little bit of sun from the outside. Alice released a slow whistle. "Now this is gorgeous."
"Find very soon after breaking of world."
"Wow. That means this must have been underwater before. Awesome." She made her way to the wall to touch it. It was cold and smooth. "What do you call it?"
Alice looked over her shoulder at him. He still stood in the middle of the cave with a puzzled expression. "Yeah. What do you call these stones? You found it. That means you get to call it whatever you want."
Gau looked around him before focusing those eyes back on her. "I… I don’t know."
"That’s alright," she said with a reassuring smile. "You don’t have to call it anything. I’m just glad you showed it to me. I’d love to come back once I graduate from the Academy. Maybe you’ll have a name for it then?"
Gau turned away to scramble back up through the crevice. "Maybe," he said.
Alice looked back to the gem-like walls and slowly lowered her hand to her side. Then she turned and made her way back to the crevice. She took careful hand and foot holds to propel herself up, accepting Gau’s help the last couple feet. Once satisfied with her footing, she brushed some gemdust from her pants and then met his eyes.
"Where to now?"
He gestured to the beach. "Not yet find shellfish."
"Ah. Right. Well? Last one to the beach is a yellow flan!" And she passed by him with a hop and a "whoop!"
Gau was nice enough to let her stay ahead for most of the way, but then he kept even with her clear to the beach. Alice laughed all the way down to the shore, squealing when it looked as if he’d pass by, then laughing harder when he didn’t. When they made it to the shore, she splashed up to her knees into the ocean.
Soaked to the bone from the waist down, Alice sat on a flat stone several feet from the water and released a deep breath. Gau sat beside her, resting his arms and elbows onto the knees of his bent legs. She sent him a wide smile.
"That was fun," she confessed. "If Eric had seen me he’d have blackmailed me for years." She wriggled her toes into the sand and looked out toward the calming activity of the ocean. "But I don’t care. It’s good to get out and do stupid stuff every once and awhile. I guess life’s too nuts to take serious all the time."
Gau didn’t say anything.
She sent him a glance, noticing he stared down at the sand between his bent legs. "You alright?"
He nodded again.
She reached out to rest a hand on his shoulder. "Gau? What’s the matter?"
He shrugged and picked at a little piece of shell. "Thinking of what you say before. About needing to study more to help Veldt."
"Yeah?" She crossed her arms around her knees. "Are you thinking about going to the Academy, too?"
Gau raised his eyes to meet hers. "You think I should? No one knows Veldt more than me. ‘Cept you. Veldt be more helped if we both learn. Right?"
"Well, sure, but are you sure it’s such a great idea for you to be away from your home for so long? Wouldn’t city life get on your nerves?"
He lowered his gaze again. "You leave home. You no think I can do?"
"I didn’t mean that," she said carefully, "I just know that you’ve been living here a lot longer than I have. You’ve got more of a connection with it. I wouldn’t want you to get homesick."
"I sick for home whether leave or stay," he said quietly. Gau lifted his eyes to the ocean. He sighed. "Don’t know what best. Better to think and stay home."
Alice nodded before changing her focus back to the scenery. "Yeah. That’s always a good idea." She felt his eyes on her. "What?" she asked without looking.
"Where you live before here?"
Alice moved her gaze to the sand being squished beneath her heel. "A little place that doesn’t exist anymore. Over by Doma castle."
"What life like?"
Alice shrugged. "It wasn’t anything special. We had a farm. We raised animals. Sold them, too. My mom made clothes for the store near Doma. My dad built things with wood."
He was quiet for a moment. "Had to leave when poison come?"
Alice nodded her head and then picked up a little red pebble. She rubbed it until it shone. "Seems like a thousand years ago," she said quietly.
"That why you want fix Veldt? So poison don’t kill new home?"
She nodded again, sending him a sidelong glance. He held her gaze. "You’re pretty smart for a country boy," she said with a slight smile.
Gau’s smile blossomed like a flower would, and then he looked away. "You smart for city girl."
Alice laughed. "Hey, sticks and stones may break my bones," she intoned, "but if you ever call me a city girl again, I’ll tickle you to death."
Gau’s face puckered in a confused frown as he looked over at her again. "Tickle? What this thing ‘tickle’?"
Alice’s expression showed shock. "You’ve got to be kidding."
He shook his head. "Never heard this word. What tickle?"
Alice smacked her forehead as she shook her head. "I can’t do that to you, Gau. It would be cruel."
"Tickle be bad thing?"
"No," Alice said, laughing, "nothing bad… just cruel if you happen to be very ticklish."
Gau wouldn’t accept the answer, and his expression seemed to say that he felt she intentionally kept a secret. "What tickle? Show."
"Oh man," Alice groaned, "why can’t I keep my big mouth quiet?" She sent him a sidelong glance, noticed his expectant look, and raised her arms and shoulders in a shrug. "Oh, why not. I’ll never live it down, but who cares."
She stood, motioning for him to do the same. "Come on, Mr. I’ve-Got-To-Know-Everything. On your feet."
He stood and faced her. "What do I do?"
Alice restrained a smile. "Nothing. Just stand there." She put a hand on her hip as the other rubbed the back of her neck. She thought she spied a likely weakness and gave another shake of her head as she met his eyes again. "Now whatever I do, please don’t hurt me."
Gau raised an eyebrow.
Alice took a slight step forward. Gau didn’t move. "It’s nothing painful," she told him, still trying to figure out how to do it.
Finally, she threw caution to the wind and pounced. Her fingers made contact with the sides of his chest, beginning their instinctive ‘tickle’ movements. She felt his muscles twitch and then, as she knew he would, he bent his shoulders inward and his stomach away while giving a true Gau laugh. His hands went in search of her wrists, but when a person is raised around multitudes of children who played tickle-wars on each other, a person got good at keep-away. He tried to step back, but she moved forward with what must have sounded a maniacal laugh as she felt the twitching and convulsing of his muscles pick up pace.
"Stop," he howled. "Stop, stop, stop."
"See?" Alice said in a laughing tone of voice as she kept on, "it’s more of an obnoxious kind of touch that makes someone laugh their butt off!"
Gau’s face reddened as he laughed so hard tears gathered in the corners of his eyes. He backed up a few more paces, Alice tenaciously following after him, and tripped on his own feet. He went down, finally grabbing hold of Alice’s wrists to accidentally pull her down too. She squawked and just barely missed landing on him.
Alice sat up with a grin on her face as she stared down at him. He still laughed, his arms wrapped around his middle to try to protect himself. "That, Gau, is a tickle."
Gau shook his head from side to side with an ear-to-ear grin. "N-No more, Alice," he gasped. "No more t-tickle."
Alice laughed. "Alright. I’ll have pity on you and leave you alone. Just don’t ever ask me to show you something again when I tell you that you’d be better not to know."
He nodded and took in a deep breath, releasing it slowly. Finally, he pushed himself up to his elbows to pinpoint her with his intense eyes. "You ticklish?"
The grin vanished. "Well, now, that’s usually not a very nice question to ask someone," she said with a clearing of her throat.
"B-Because… because being ticklish is… well, it’s a vulnerable spot that people could take advantage of," she said as she pushed back a little ways from him.
He nodded slowly as he continued to watch her, and he seemed to be thinking on and processing what she’d said. "I see why that be truth."
Alice wasn’t sure if she should relax or run away.
Gau lay back again, positioning his hands behind his head as he stared up at the sky. "Good thing we friends."
Alice released a breath and rolled her eyes before moving very carefully to lay on the soft sand beside him. "Yep." Then she promised herself to never tickle him again.
Awkwardness descended like a swarm of locusts, devouring the peace and pleasantness the two had shared the entire morning. Alice cleared her throat and watched a great winged something-or-other glide by, turned turning onto its back to tease the clouds with its feet. Alice gnawed her lip, absently scratching her scalp. Boundaries of things to be taught or not taught flitted in and out of her mind like those same previously mentioned locusts. Alice didn’t much like the guilt that came with them. He hadn’t really been around people his own age, so he didn’t know anything about teasing and flirting and tickling and wrestling for the fun of it. That was why Alice worried about his reaction to Carol’s attention. Now she’d done basically the same thing to him by-
"Alice? You okay? Much quiet."
She twitched and looked over at him. "Huh?"
"You look…" He pushed himself up onto his left elbow as he searched for the right word. "Troubled."
Alice flushed and looked away. "Oh, well, um… don’t worry about it."
Alice cleared her throat. "What."
"You feel bad because tickle? You think you take… advantage?"
Alice released a deep breath as she brought her hands out from behind her to look at them. "Look. You caught me red handed."
Gau reached out, taking hold of one of her hands to bring it toward his face for an intense scrutiny. Then he released it with a shake of his head. "These… similes…" He shook his head again.
Alice slightly smiled, looking back to the sky. "I guess I’m too eager to protect you from the not-so-nice things that can happen to us kids."
"Alice, I not need you do this. I want to do life with friends. How I do this if you not be self?"
"I know, I know." Alice sighed and sent him a glance. "Sorry."
He smiled. "Thank you, Alice, for thought of keeping me safe. But life is an adventure I want to live."
"You certainly have had that, haven’t you?" she asked him with a smile.
Gau laid back again, putting his hands behind his back as he watched the same bird-like thing dance across the sky. "Some times wish life not so busy all time. Those days I come here and watch ocean, listen to breeze, feel sand on toes…" He gave a slight shrug.
"Helps you think?"
Gau nodded. "Helps do many things. Keeps mind at peace."
Alice stared up at the sky. "I wish I had a place to do that."
He changed his gaze to an examination of her profile. "You have no place to be away from thoughts and people?"
Alice gave a shrug. "I’ve got my backyard, which is nearly on the Veldt, and I’ve got my room. I just shut the door and pull out a book or something. It usually does the trick good enough."
"That why you go so much onto Veldt?"
She smiled. "Caught in the act."
He chuckled and looked away, adjusting his hands behind his head. "Veldt good at bringing peace to worried soul. You good to come for that. Keep coming, Alice."
Alice’s smile remained. "Thanks. I will."
Eric shrugged. "So what? We went camping on the Veldt over the weekend. Big deal."
Alice took in a deep breath before opening the door to the Academy. I could have really gone for an extra day... Ms. Aimes and the entire class looked up when the quartet slowly filed into the room. Ms. Aimes was taking roll, so they weren't late. At least, not technically.
"Hey, Ms. Aimes. We made it."
Alice could have clobbered Eric. Instead, she sent him a 'what do you think you're doing' look. To which his expression responded, 'what?' with a slight outstretch of his arms.
Alice turned her focus back to Ms. Aimes.
Ms. Aimes lowered her roll sheet to slip the delicate glasses from her face. "Eric. Gau. Carol. Alice. Take a seat."
The group moved to their assigned places, Gau returning to his seat with the younger students, and Ms. Aimes resumed roll.
Carol leaned over and whispered in Alice's ear, "I didn't have a chance to ask before. Is everything okay between you and Eric now?"
Alice nodded. "Yes. We're still friends."
"Friends?" Carol received a warning glance from Ms. Aimes and apologized. She promptly pulled a small tablet of paper from her pack. 'Friends?' she wrote.
Alice took the paper and pencil. 'What did you expect? We've always been friends.'
Carol pulled the tablet into the center of Alice's tilted wooden desk and took out a second pencil. 'Yeah, but you didn’t always want to be friends. Remember?'
Alice frowned and crossed her arms. Carol slammed down her pencil, again apologizing when Ms. Aimes pinned her with a second warning. Alice glanced over her left shoulder toward Gau. He sent her a smile, which she returned, and then refocused his attention on Ms. Aimes. After awhile, so did Alice.
"Now." Ms. Aimes placed the roll sheet on her desk to again slip the glasses from her face. "I know that several of you older students are planning on sending entry essays to Figaro's Academy next month."
Alice's attention perked.
"There's a chance the king and queen of Figaro may be making an appearance here in the next few days." A cascade of murmurs and conversations crashed through the classroom. "I thought you should be warned ahead of time so that you could make preparations."
"Omigosh," raved Lena. "King Edgar? Here? I've got to go shopping!"
Alice rolled her eyes. Carol gave a shrug before leaning back to look over at Gau. He grinned.
Eric leaned forward to place a hand on both Carol and Alice's shoulders. "You don't suppose he had anything to do with that, do you?"
Alice turned her eyes toward Gau before catching Eric's gaze. "I don't know and I don't care. All I do know is I'm going to the library to finish that essay tonight."
Eric looked over at Carol. "What about you? Up to a jaunt around town after class?"
"Sure. Sounds like fun. Do you think we could bring Gau?"
Eric glanced over at him before giving a one-sided shrug. "Sure. Why not?"
Alice frowned as she picked up her pencil to tap it on the desk.
"Aright then," Ms. Aimes continued. "Those of you whom are submitting an essay to the Figaro Academy are excused. All others, today we'll be working on fractions and common denominators."
Three quarters of the class groaned while digging out textbooks and paper. Alice, however, bid Carol farewell before gathering her things and hurrying down the aisle to the back exit. She sent Gau a smile before running outside to hurry home and take a shower.
Alice glanced up, giving a grimace before strategically placing her hand on her forehead in such a way that blocked the trio from her view. Carol, Eric, and Gau had just entered the library. Much to her displeasure, they looked happy and content. She on the other hand was frustrated and grumpy because the thesis and closing argument weren't flowing. If I have to listen to her melodious laugh… I will kill her.
Eric placed a hand on the table on either side of her as he leaned in to rest his chin on her shoulder. "So, how's it going?"
Alice turned the page. "Fine."
He sniffed, sniffed again, and then straightened. "Nice. You took a shower."
Alice tried to ignore him. To her credit, Carol took hold of his arm to lead him toward a table on the opposite side of the small library. Gau continued to stand at the end of the table, ignoring Carol's attempts to get him to follow.
Alice held her place in the encyclopedia with a finger before looking up. "What’s the matter, Gau?"
He crouched beside her as his eyes studied the grain of the floorboards. "Why you want this thing so bad?"
Gau raised his eyes to hold her gaze. "Why you want go from home and friends? You say it for help of Veldt, but is really?"
"Yes, Gau, it is."
He looked away. "You help just as good here as away. Better if you study Veldt like you say you want. You go? Then you forget what learn here. You forget friends left behind. You forget the 'why'. Why you study." Gau shook his head. "This not good."
Alice blinked. "Are you asking me to stay?"
He didn't look up. "No. I want only make you look inside. To see if what you do is best. To see if you be honest with self."
"Gau, I've wanted to study at the Figaro Academy ever since it was established two years ago." She laid a hand on his shoulder. He looked up, and she smiled. "I want to do this. Really."
Gau examined her expression before standing to move toward Eric and Carol without a word. Alice watched him go, pressing her lips together when Carol greeted him with her infamous siren smile. Alice gave an inward groan before rolling her eyes and focusing back on the encyclopedia. Carol laughed. Alice cringed.
Alice dutifully attempted to write another closing statement. The only problem being her eyes kept drifting toward the table across the room where Carol, Gau, and Eric gathered over a tattered art history book. Both Gau and Eric smiled as Carol explained her take on art's evolution and how it affected mankind. All was done with a serious expression and anecdotes that only a fellow fashion-conscious young woman would understand. Then why do they look genuinely interested? They never look like that when I explain about the Veldt. Of course, she didn't talk to many others about the Veldt.
Alice lowered her gaze back to the encyclopedia when Carol smiled up at Gau. Apparently he'd made a fascinating point. A fascinating point? Gau is a fascinating point. She glanced toward him out of the corner of her eye. He's sweet, intelligent, and he understands a whole lot that no one gave him credit for. If it wasn't for his wild tendency to do crazy things, no one would know he'd been raised on the Veldt. By himself. Alice looked away. I guess Carol and he make a great couple-- Oh, shut up and work on your paper!
She risked one more glance toward the table, looking down as Eric peeked over at her. She sighed while shading her eyes with her hand. Carol giggled and Alice sighed again. 1... 2... 3...
Alice closed the encyclopedia and the multitude of reference manuals and stretched. Her back popped and she smiled with an "ahhh". She stood and began gathering her things, stuffing papers and whatnot into her bag.
All she had to do now was plan what she would say when she met with them. She pulled out a report cover, carefully placed her typed report into it, and then delicately slid it between two of her textbooks so it wouldn't get wrinkled. Then she slung the bag over her shoulder and made sure she'd cleaned up her mess by the typewriter. She sent a smile and a wave to the librarian as she made her way outside.
"Well it's about time."
Alice stopped outside the doors and looked to her right. "What are you doing here, Eric?"
He approached with hands in pockets. "It was getting late, so I thought I'd walk you home."
Alice arched an eyebrow. "Thanks."
They made their way down the front steps.
"It’ll be weird without you around," he said as he kicked a rock.
"Yeah. I know." Alice adjusted her grip on the strap of her bag. "You can visit, you know."
Eric sent her a glance. "And make you think I’m stuck on you?" He shook his head with a slight chuckle. "Nah."
Alice reluctantly smiled. "You would say that."
"Hey, it’s all about me."
Alice shook her head, catching herself scanning the little town with a tightening throat. Home had always been where her family and friends were. Now she was trying to leave it as fast as she could.
"What if I don’t come back, Eric?" she asked quietly. "Gau says I might forget this place. But…" Alice tucked some hair behind her ear and tightened her grip on the strap of her bag. She sent him a glance. "Will I forget the Veldt and what I wanted to do?"
"You have to try, Alice." He sent her an understanding look. "You can’t be spooked of what might happen. You know you’ll always regret it if you don’t do this. You’ll be miserable."
She nodded slightly as they arrived at her family's home. She looked up at Eric. "Thanks, Eric. A lot. I'll see you in class tomorrow. Okay?"
"Okay." He stepped forward and gave her a hug. When he pulled back, he gave her a quirky smile and a wink. "Good night."
She blinked up at him. "Good night."
He turned and walked away. Alice stared after him for a bit before releasing a deep breath and turning for her house. She took her bag off her shoulder and set it on the front porch. Then she made her way toward her family's back yard: the Veldt. She sat on the hard ground and stared out at the dark earthy tones of the twilight sky as she tucked her knees to her chin. She wrapped her arms around her legs. It was beautiful. She'd fallen in love with it the first time she'd seen it. I won’t be able to forget it. It had become a part of her a long time ago.
Alice changed her gaze to the ground near her and picked up a pebble. Just then a stealthy figure sat down beside her. She glanced over with a start. She smiled. "Hey, Gau. Couldn't sleep?"
He shook his head. "Thoughts out heavy this night. More strong than Gau. Sleep run far."
Alice noticed his grammar wasn't as good as it usually was and sent him a concerned expression. He stared at the ground at his feet. "What's wrong?"
He opened his mouth to say something, but then he shut it again with a click and frowned. Alice had never seen him like that before.
"Is it school?" she pressed.
He shook his head again, more violently this time, and his frown deepened. He changed his eyes to the Veldt with a deep breath, and then the anger and frown slowly faded.
Alice's expression lightened as she watched his profile in the moonlight. "You really love it here, don't you?"
Gau nodded and glanced toward her. "Been here all life."
Alice looked away. She cleared her throat and lowered her gaze to the ground. "Do you mind me asking why?"
"Yeah. Why’d your father… you know. Why’d he make you grow up on the Veldt?"
Gau took the pebble from her fingers and rubbed at it. "Don’t know. Sabin say ‘cuz mother die when I come. ‘Cuz pain too big for father when see baby."
Alice looked over at him and her throat tightened. "Your dad blamed you for her death, didn’t he? He thought you… Oh, Gau. I’m sorry." And she finished the tear-filled comment with an arm around his bare shoulders and a friendly squeeze. "It looks like both of us have painful histories, huh? You and your father and me and not having a home. Well, not until I came here."
Gau didn't say anything, and there seemed to be a type of confusion in his eyes.
Alice gave his shoulders another squeeze. "You want to go for a walk?" she asked. "Out there?" She gestured to the Veldt with her other hand. "Just a short one? Maybe it'll help."
He stood and helped her to her feet before walking silently beside her.
"I really appreciate all the help you've given me, Gau. You've really brought my paper to life. And it's been fun, too." Her shoulder bumped against his arm as they walked. "The camp out, the swimming, the exploring of the cave, the stories... I'm glad you suggested it. It'd been a while since Eric, Carol, and me did something like that."
"Me glad could help."
Alice kicked a pebble. There were so many things she wanted to say that she didn't even know where to go next.
"Alice sure go is right?"
Alice changed her gaze to his profile. "For right now? Yes. I've always wanted to make something of myself, and now I have the chance. I'm going to miss this place, sure, but I have to try. I don't want to regret anything."
"Not be same when go."
She sighed with a nod. "I know. Eric said the same thing. But you can visit. You know where it is probably better than Eric does."
"Veldt Gau home. Leave Veldt, no breathe. No live." He shook his head and pressed his lips together. "Veldt teach life. Teach Alice if stay."
Alice sighed and lowered her eyes to the ground. "I know it can teach me a lot. It already has. So have you. But if anything, you've taught me to tough this out. To not let anything change me or change my mind. Gau…" She faced him and her eyes widened. "Gau, look out!"
A black shadow leaped from a pile of boulders, charging into Gau with a roar and a hiss. Gau and the thing hit the ground with a loud thud, knocking Alice off her feet as they tumbled past. Alice's eyes zoomed in on Gau's fallen form. She couldn't tell if he moved or not because the evening clouds blocked any moonlight. When the creature changed its focus to Alice, she was all-too-certain Gau wasn’t moving. She swallowed hard as her eyes flickered from the thing’s eyes, to Gau's still form under its massive paws, and back to the beast.
It licked the blood from its jaws and moved toward her.
The thing rumbled and hissed, exposing jagged teeth as it cautiously moved toward her. The moon escaped from behind the clouds and shined on the creature, glistening off the purple scales of its neck and head and the massive lion-like body. Alice paled. An Adamant! Her eyes darted back to Gau as she shuffled herself backward. One of his shoulders had a nasty bite, but he’d managed to push himself up onto one elbow.
The moonlight faded again as the Adamant gave another warning growl. Alice saw the silhouette of Gau's head rise. His eyes met hers.
"Gau?" Her voice cracked.
The Adamant crouched, shuffling its shoulders and settling into its back legs for the spring.
Gau’s eyes sparked with alarm. "No! Not Alice!"
It pounced. Alice threw her hands out and screamed. There was a shooting pain in her wrist and shoulders as all the air left her lungs. She heard a heavy chink and then the weight was off. A small rock dropped beside her and the Adamant's focus changed to Gau.
Alice scurried backwards, crying and wincing in pain as she did so. Her eyes moved to Gau. He shook his head to clear it, and then his focus was solely on the Adamant. He glowered at it, but the Adamant only hissed and hunkered down, again adjusting its back haunches.
"Gau, be careful," she choked out as she held her wrist.
The Adamant sprang. Gau caught it in the stomach with a fist, knocking it away. It landed on its feet with a wheeze and a growl before beginning to circle him. Gau followed its movements with those see-everything eyes. Alice bit her lip. Be careful. Be careful. Please. Be careful. It leaped again and Alice screamed, covering her face when it bit into his arm. She heard one of his hits make contact with it, thought she heard a crack and liquid-filled growl, and lowered her hands to reveal Gau leaning over the Adamant's still body.
The moon peeked through some thinning clouds.
A red tinge to his skin slowly faded as he straightened. When he turned to move toward her, she noticed a few remaining bubbles popping over his head. They'd stopped appearing altogether by the time he knelt beside her.
His eyes were big and his touch gentle as he examined the bite on her wrist and the claw marks on her shoulders. Alice pushed his hands away and pulled him into a tight hug.
His arms encircled her. "Gau sorry. Thoughts make blind. Make Alice hurt." His arms tightened their hold. "Gau sorry."
Alice sniffled, and her voice died in-between sobs. Her tears mixed with his sweat and blood. She'd never been that close to death, and she'd never been that scared in her entire life.
"Alice, we go. Blood bring more." Gau tried to push back, but her arms resisted. "Alice. Danger. Go." He tried again, but she still didn't let go. Finally, he adjusted his hold and scooped her up into his arms as he stood. "We go," he told her again. "Take Alice to be safe." He ran toward town.
Alice looked up from her book and gave Eric a smile. "Hey yourself." She carefully adjusted her position. "School out?"
He came to stand beside her bed. Alice shook her head. "Eric, you should be in class."
Eric sat down beside her and pulled a bunch of wildflowers out from behind his back. He handed them to her. "I'm on an errand for the class."
Alice took them with a disinterested look. "They're nice. Thanks."
Eric raised an eyebrow as he watched her set them beside her on the bed. "No problem." He looked down at her bandaged wrist and gestured to it. "How's it feel?"
"It throbs sometimes, but I'll live." Alice cleared her throat and stared at the flowers. "How’s Gau?"
Eric shrugged. "Don't know. Haven't seen him since he brought you here."
Alice looked up. "What? He wasn't in class?"
Eric shook his head. "Nope."
She changed her gaze to the flowers again. "I hope he's okay."
"No kidding. What happened?"
Alice felt tears and embarrassment rush to the surface. "We went for a walk. I guess we had so much on our minds we didn't notice the Adamant following us."
"Gau? Gau didn't notice an Adamant?" Eric shook his head. "Man. He's got it worse than I thought."
Alice raised her eyes. "What?"
Eric shook his head. "Don't worry about it. You just get better. The Figaros are coming tomorrow."
Alice gave him a half-smile. "Thanks, Eric. I'll sneak out and be in class before it starts. Okay?"
He grinned at her and stood, giving her knee a pat. "Yeah. Right. I won't hold my breath."
He left the room and Alice’s smile faded. She gnawed her lower lip and lowered her eyes. Then she smacked the bed with the flowers before tossing them away. She covered her face with her hands and cried.
Alice rolled over. "What, mom?"
"Gau's here to see you," she said through the door.
Alice sat up and brushed the hair out of her face and the tears off her cheeks as she tried to straighten the wrinkles in her heavyweight flannel nightgown.
"Okay, mom. Come ahead." Alice cleared her throat and pulled the covers up to her waist as the door opened and Gau walked in. He wore his usual leather-like trousers and an animal skin shirt. One arm was in a sling. Her heart fell to her ankles and she lowered her eyes to gnaw on her lip. "Hi."
Gau ducked his head in way of a greeting and moved to stand beside her bed. "You better? No hurt?"
"I'm fine." She glanced up. "You?"
"Look worse than feel. Get better all time."
She nodded and changed her gaze back to her bandaged wrist. "Good. Good."
"Alice, you angry... me?"
She met his eyes. They were filled with concern and a little fear. She looked back down. "No." She sniffled and the intensity of his eyes drew hers again. "I'm just tired. Can we talk later?"
His eyes changed as he nodded, backing away like a whipped dog. Alice lowered her eyes again, giving a wince and a sniff when she heard the door close after him. She rolled back onto her side, ignoring her tears.
The door opened and Alice quickly sat up. Eric entered the room with a smile. "Hey, you."
Alice laid back into the pillows. "Hey yourself."
He raised an eyebrow and closed the door after him. "You sound miserable."
She looked up, frowning. "Do you blame me? Gau's arm is in a sling and I put it there with my idiotic notion for a midnight walk on the Veldt!"
Eric sat on the side of her bed. "He could have said no, Alice. He's a big boy."
Alice's frown didn't lighten. "Well despite what he looks like, that 'boy' is a 'gentleman'. He could see that I was upset and needed to talk… Or maybe it was the other way around. Geez! It doesn't matter. I asked for a walk and he gave me one. Sure, he should've known better, but so should I!"
Eric shook his head as he crossed his arms. "Cut yourself some slack, will you?"
"Cut myself some slack?" Alice's jaw dropped. "You've got to be joking. You want me to give myself a break when I nearly got him killed!"
"Alice, give it a rest. I know for a fact that he's come to visit you. Would he have done that if he blamed you?" Alice looked away. He smirked. "See? You just want to feel sorry for yourself."
"Yeah. I'm really accomplishing a lot by doing that," she retorted.
"Hey, everyone's got to be good at something." Alice grumbled and Eric shook his head again as he stood and made his way to the door of her room. He opened it. "I only stopped by to let you know the Figaros are here a little early. They're getting checked into the inn as we speak. Thought you'd want to know."
The door clicked shut and Alice sat up. She pursed her lips a moment… and then slid out of bed and slipped into her jeans and a shirt. She winced and turned for her window, grabbing her essay as she went. She struggled with the lock, pushed open the window, and then carefully exited her room.
There was no one in sight on the way to the inn, much to her surprise, but what shocked her even more was that no one was in the lobby of the inn trying to strong-arm their way to the Figaros' room. There wasn't anyone. Not even the innkeeper. Alice made her way up the stairs to the best room at the inn. She got to the door, took in a deep breath for courage, and then froze.
"Gau not know what feel. Not breathe when see smile. Not talk, too. What Gau feel, Terra? Gau sick? Gau dying?"
Alice heard the rustle of skirts.
"Oh, Gau, you're not dying," Queen Terra Figaro said. There was a smile in her voice. "It sounds like you’ve got a crush on someone."
"Crush? No! Gau not want hurt."
The Queen laughed and a male voice spoke. "No, no, Gau. She means that you care for a very lucky young lady. Deeply, it would seem."
Care? Alice blinked in shock. For Carol? Already?
"Same as you for other?" Gau asked slowly.
"Maybe," Queen Terra said.
"Quite possibly," the King offered.
"How I tell other?"
Alice's mouth went dry. ...Other?
"Does another girl like you?" the Queen asked.
"She no say, but I think is true. We have much fun. Talk long, but different than other."
Different. Alice felt sick. Different.
"That's a tough one, Gau," King Edgar said. "You should tell her as delicately as possible, of course, but you must remember that no matter how tender you are in your choice of words you will most likely hurt her feelings. Situations such as this always do."
Alice leaned against the wall outside the door and closed her eyes, balling her hands into fists. Different.
"She a nice person, Edgar. I no want to hurt. No other way?"
"I'm afraid not, Gau. Unfortunately, life and love have their conspiracies of agony."
"Alice? What are you doing here?"
Alice pushed from the wall without a word, looking into Carol's eyes with a blank stare. Then she moved past her with a barely audible, "Leaving," and went back down the stairs, absently placing her essay on the innkeeper's counter before heading toward the door. She stepped out into the afternoon air and silently made her way home.
Alice blinked. "Yeah?"
Her mom opened the door to her room, entered, and closed it again. "Alice, Gau's here again. He's brought you some samples from the Deep Veldt as well as something he said you’d wanted. Something about flowers?" Alice cringed and tucked her knees to her chin. "Are you sure you don't want to see him?"
Alice's eyes clouded with tears. She gripped the corner of her pillow, but didn't roll over. "Yes." Her tone was almost dead.
"Alice, what's wrong?"
"But this is the third time he's tried to see you." Alice didn't say a word, so her mom sighed. "I'll tell him you're sleeping, but next time I'm sending him in."
The door clicked shut and a tear fell onto her pillow. Alice rolled onto her back. What's so great about Carol? She's a fluffy make-up head who doesn't do anything but hang out with giggling nothings with less on their minds than a Flan. Alice felt a pang of guilt and threw the blankets off to sit up. She dangled her feet over the side of the bed. Hey, I can do a Paytha! I can giggle like some well-trained monkey and flutter my eyelashes! I can doll myself up and look at math problems with an empty stare!
Alice made a face and slipped out of bed, kicking at her slippers before leaning against the wall by her window to stare outside. She saw Carol and Gau gathered underneath the tree ten yards outside her window. She grimaced and turned away, stubbing her toe on the leg of her rocking chair.
"Do you eat with that mouth?"
Alice sent Eric a glower. "Not today, Eric," she growled. "Believe me, you don't want any of this."
Eric examined her expression as she limped to the bed and sat down. "Whoa."
"Considering the piss-factor in this room," she said as she glowered at the window, "I would suggest you leave. Fast."
Eric actually took a step backward. "Alice..." He cleared his throat and tugged at the belt of his trousers. He stepped forward again. "Alice, I might be taking my life into my hands, but… what's wrong?"
Her frown deepened. "Look out the window. If you can take the sugar-shock."
He raised an eyebrow and made his way to the window, looking out with a shrug. "Carol's sitting under the tree with Ga-- Ohhh." He looked over at her and stepped away from the window. "Got it."
"It's hard to miss She's been throwing herself at him from the day he got here You'd think she didn't already have nearly all the guys drooling their lives away No, she's got to have him too, just to prove she can do it!"
"Geez, Alice. Carol's not that bad."
Alice's eyes pinned him. "Not that bad? One more melodious laugh and I will rip out her vocal chords!" Eric's eyes widened as he stared at her, speechless. There was the faint sound of laughter and Alice bolted to her feet. "Right. She's mine."
Eric straightened sharply, dashing after her to grab her arm. "I don't think that's a very good idea."
Alice slapped Eric's hand off her arm. "Back off, Trugate." She strode to her window and glared outside.
"Or what? You'll scratch my eyes out?"
Alice clenched her jaw.
Eric stared at her a moment longer before turning to leave. A few moments later he strode up to Carol and grabbed her by the arm, lifting her to her feet as he pointed at Gau and then at Alice's window, his mouth moving quickly. Gau stood and turned, looking toward her window for a long moment before turning and following after Eric and Carol. Alice turned away, slipping back into bed and rolling over onto her side. Different? I'm not that different. I'm just… I'm just Alice.
The door opened slowly and a young woman with long green hair peeked her head around the door. Alice straightened sharply as Queen Terra Branford Figaro entered the room. She was dressed in a simple pair of burgundy leggings and matching top. Her hair was pulled back from her face.
The Queen smiled. "Hello, Alice. I hope I haven't come at a bad time."
Alice gulped. "N-no, your highness."
The young queen came further into the room. She brought a report out from behind her back and gestured to Alice's hand. "How's your wrist? I know the doctor was worried about it."
Alice smiled. "It's fine. Thank you, your majesty- Oh! Let me get you a chair!" She hurried to her desk to pull out a chair. Queen Terra accepted the seat with a smile. Alice sat on the very edge of the side of her bed.
The Queen offered up the report. "It's very good. Edgar and I got a lot of ideas from it."
Alice flushed and picked at her robe. Alice peeked up at the Queen's kind face. "Really?"
The Queen studied Alice's face. "How long have you been doing research on the Veldt?"
"About a year, I guess."
"What made you start?"
"Don't know exactly," Alice admitted. "I hadn't had a home for so long that when we moved here I guess…" Alice shrugged and looked up. "It wasn't right that the Veldt wasn't as green as it used to be. I just wanted to understand why every place else was getting greener."
Queen Terra examined Alice a moment before looking down at the paper. "I know you're submitting it as an entry-essay into the Academy, but I wondered if you wouldn't rather stay here and keep doing research on the Veldt."
Alice's heart fell. "It's not good enough for the Academy, is it?"
Queen Terra reached out and took Alice's hand. "Oh, Alice, it's not that at all. It's wonderful. You'd fit right in… academically. It's just that I'm afraid your heart would be left here. The essay is well written and passionate because it's something you believe in. It's only that I think studying at the Academy isn't as important to you as fixing your home."
Alice looked up. "But I can't fix it until I know what the problem is. And I can't do that until I learn more. And I can't do that without going to the Academy."
The Queen examined her face again with honest and open eyes. "That's true."
"I appreciate your concern, your majesty, but I need to do this."
Queen Terra's eyes twinkled with her smile. "I know. That’s why Edgar is enrolling you for the first year with a full scholarship."
Alice's expression was shocked. "What? Really?" She enveloped the Queen in a hug. "Oh thank you, thank you!"
Queen Terra chuckled as she returned her embrace. When she pulled back, her expression was serious. "Be sure to tell your family and friends exactly how you feel about them. The Academy is different than the school here. It's tough. You'll need their support."
Alice nodded. "Okay, your highness. I will."
Queen Terra made her way to the door. "It was really nice to meet you, Alice, and you're welcome to visit us any time you like."
Alice nodded again, leaning against the door with a deep breath once it had clicked shut. I'm going to the Academy! I made it!
Alice heard the footsteps approach her door and tucked the blankets tighter over her lap. She sat in her favorite rocking chair staring out the window of her room. Staring at the tree outside her window. Staring at the main road that led to her house. She cleared her throat and rocked once. Her chair creaked just as the door did. She heard two steps, and then they stopped.
Alice blinked and she heard him clear his throat. There were a couple more steps and another clearing of the throat. She turned her head to face him. Gau had dressed in a different suit than before. This one Alice remembered seeing in the window of Dane's shop. It was charcoal gray, like his other one, but looked even better on him. His arm wasn't in the sling anymore, either - apparently he healed fast - and he held a bouquet of wildflowers from the Veldt. When he saw the wilted ones on the floor that Eric had brought her the day before, his face got a little yellow and he seemed to look around for a place to hide them.
Alice looked down to her hands. "Hi."
Gau stared at the flowers, adjusting them within his fingers before saying, "Gau know Alice angry me. Eric say when take Carol." Gau finally lowered the flowers and looked up, moving to stand in front of her chair to catch her gaze. He held it. "Why? What Gau do make angry? Alice no like Gau? Because Adamant? Because hurt? Why?"
Alice looked down at the blanket across her lap and concentrated on adjusting its symmetry. "I’m not mad at you, Gau. I've just not been feeling good."
"Then why see Eric and no Gau? Why see Terra and no Gau?" Gau crouched in front of Alice and looked her full in the face. "Why Alice do this thing? If no want be with Gau, say plain."
Alice’s throat tightened with guilt. "I never said I didn't want to be with you. I just thought…" Alice’s mouth went dry and her stomach crawled. "I just thought you’d want some more time with C-Carol."
Gau's eyes clearly showed confusion. "I no want what say. I come and you say no want see. Why think I want be with Carol?"
Alice clasped her hands together. "Don’t worry about it, Gau."
Gau released a deep breath, confusion and frustration darkening his eyes. "Alice, I try understand why you angry, but what Carol say and what you say much different."
Alice's temper redlined without warning. "Of course I'm different," she snapped. Gau pulled back with a blink. "I'm Alice and not Carol, the featherweight limpbrain who can't recognize long division from fractions. Giggleguss with her blasted melodious laugh that makes me cringe!" She glared into Gau's face. "Well I hope you'll be happy with her - Miss Open Flirtation who's never happy without a guy as a bracelet! I better be different because I'm going to the Academy! I'm going to make something of myself!"
Gau's eyes sparked and his brows lowered.
Alice blinked. She lowered her eyes and cleared her throat. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to yell."
"You say 'cuz you think I no make big thing happen? I no good 'cuz live on Veldt like animal and not go school 'til now?"
Alice looked up. "I didn't say that!"
Gau straightened from his crouch with a sharp motion, arms outstretched. "Then what you say? Carol say you like. Eric say you like. You say Carol like. You no ask who I like; you say I like and be good with Carol." Gau straightened, releasing her arms to scoop the flowers up from the floor and drop them in her lap. "Flowers from Veldt. From heart of both. You go, you lose heart. You lose self. Make sure do thing for Veldt and not for fear of life."
He turned and strode from the room like a dragon, not even shutting the door behind him. She stared down at the carefully picked flowers now battered and wilted. She submerged her face into the flowers and sniffled.
Alice sighed deep as she stowed the last of the things she'd need for her stay at the dormitories of the Academy. Gau hadn't visited the entire week. It was as if he'd written the little town out of his life. Alice had gotten into the habit of walking around town on the extreme outer edges of the Veldt hoping he'd show himself, but everything had stayed calm and quiet. Not even a peep had been heard from the animals of the Veldt. It was as if they accused her of something she hadn't meant to do.
Hurt Gau’s feelings.
She kept replaying the scenario in her head, but it just made her feel even worse. And her guilt wouldn't let her give up the instant replay. She knew she had to sacrifice her pride to save their friendship.
There was a knock on her door. "Come ahead."
There was a creak as the door opened and a male voice spoke. "There's some Setzer guy at the inn asking for you. I told him I’d get you."
"Thanks, Eric. Tell him I'm just about ready."
He didn't move and Alice clenched her jaw as she buckled closed the straps of her side bag. You know he's going to open his big mouth and ask about Gau. And if it's not him, it'll be Carol. The two were like an interrogation squad of the Empire the way they kept asking her what happened at Gau and her last meeting.
"So, like, why don't you finish out the year at least?"
"I told you. I need to get settled before the new year starts."
"I know, but… Geez, Alice, you're going to be gone for two years at least. You just got better from the Adamant mauling and you're leaving. It's not fair."
Alice slung the bag over her shoulder and faced Eric. Gau stood just behind him. Alice looked away, self-consciously grabbing her large duffel bag to sling it over her other shoulder. "Sorry, guys, but life's never fair. I've got this chance, so I'm running with it."
She came up to them and met Eric's gaze. "See you around, Eric."
He gave her a careful hug, pulling away with a lopsided grin. "Not if I see you first." He touched her nose. "Keep it clean, Alice. We don't want no rebel coming from our town."
Alice smiled. "Thanks." She cleared her throat as she moved on to Gau. Same gray suit as a week before. Just as good in it. And just as welcome a sight as ever. "Thanks for everything, Gau. I'll never forget you or your Veldt."
His face was tight and dark, and though his eyes looked like he wanted to say a million things, his lips were pressed in a thin line.
Alice cleared her throat again and lowered her eyes. "I'll write and keep you up on all that's happening. I'll try and come home whenever I can, too. Alright?"
"Sure, Alice," Eric said.
Alice nodded, glanced toward Gau, and then moved ahead to her mom and dad. After the tearful good-byes and promises to visit, Alice made her way out onto the front porch. Carol sat on the front step.
Carol turned and stood. "I knew you'd make it."
Every snotty, snappy, backstabbing word Alice had ever said hit her smack between the eyes, with Carol's innocent smile being the best voiced accusation of all. Alice's mouth went dry with her guilt and she lowered her eyes to the floorboards of her porch as she stepped forward.
"I know. Thanks for the vote of confidence." She cleared her throat. "Good luck with school. I'll try and come back for graduation."
Carol nodded with glimmering eyes, and then she pulled Alice into a hug. "It's not going to be the same without you looking down your nose at us girls and the pub."
Alice flushed and pulled back. "Hey, I never--"
Carol smiled wider. "Oh yes you did, Alice Camf. We all knew that. Why do you think Paytha and Lena hate you so much?"
"Because I've got class?"
Carol giggled. "Sure, Alice, sure." She stepped back. "Don't forget about us when you start making history. Okay? You're the one who got us together in the first place, what with all the emotional support I had to offer." Carol winked. "I'll let you know how it works out."
"Gee. Thanks." Alice gestured toward the exit of town. "I better scoot. Before he leaves me behind."
"Okay." Carol pulled her into another hug. "Bye."
Alice stepped back and turned to make her way down the porch steps, adjusting her grip on the bags as she saw the massive airship loom on the edge of town. Her throat tightened and she blinked as she swallowed hard. Cut the apron strings, Alice. She cleared her throat and swallowed again. You're about to realize your dream, girl. Don't get weepy now. Suck it up.
She approached the inn, the last building in town before the exit, and gave the innkeeper a nod and a smile. He waved back and Alice's eyes misted as she looked away. Don't do this, Alice. You're not leaving forever. She jerked her head to toss some hair over her shoulder and cleared her throat yet again.
Alice gave a start and halted, turning to face Gau. He'd come to walk beside her without a sound. She swallowed hard. "Yeah?"
He opened his mouth, but then clicked it shut to press his lips in a thin line. He changed his gaze to the airship and then back to her. "Too many things to say. Not know where start."
She lowered her gaze.
Gau breathed deep. "I miss you when you go. No one see Veldt like you. No one understand me like you." He pressed his lips together again. "I no happy you go, but I try understand."
She looked up with a tremulous smile and cleared her throat again. "Thanks. I appreciate that."
Gau stepped forward to embrace her. Alice closed her eyes and sniffed, reliving all the fun times they’d shared and the things she’d learned. Then Gau pulled back and stared down at her, examining each and every part of her face.
Alice flushed and lowered her eyes again, raising them quickly when one of his hands reached out to touch a lock of her hair. He rolled it between thumb and forefinger. "I 'member you, Alice,’ he said softly. "Always. If you no come back, Veldt and Gau heart be much sad." A tear escaped her eyes and he touched it away. "Gau heart be much sad."
She swallowed again, sniffling several times before giving him another quivering smile and saying a choked "bye" while turning toward the airship.
"No bye, Alice. No bye," he said after her.
She gnawed her lower lip and hurried into the airship. Don't look back, Alice. It'll be easier if you don't look back. But was leaving home ever easy?
A man with pale hair and a scar across his left eye greeted her at the entry to the airship. His eyes twinkled with his smile and his manner was charm itself. He gave her a nod and a wink as a greeting and eased her large duffel off her shoulder with an easy motion.
"Setzer Gabbiani. I'll be your pilot," he told her with a voice as smooth as velvet. He turned and preceded her up the plank and into the airship. "Ask me for anything you need, and I'll do my best."
Alice bit her lip and turned to look over her shoulder. Gau still stood at the entrance to the town staring after her. Carol approached from behind. When she got to him, she placed a hand on his arm and looked up into his face when he turned. After a moment of quiet conversation, the pair turned and began a circumference of the town on his Veldt.
Alice's throat tightened. She turned to enter the airship. Bye, Gau.
Alice glanced to her right as she adjusted her arms leaning against the railing on deck. A cute and petite blonde with green eyes and a bright face stood beside her. She had an ink smudge on her forehead above her right eyebrow and ink stains on the scarf that covered most of the unruly curls of her hair.
Alice changed her focus back to the horizon, as did the girl beside her. "Yeah."
"I always have Setzer take me out so I can paint it. I usually don't do landscapes, but there's just something about the view from the airship. It inspires me."
Alice absently nodded.
"So, you're going to the Academy, huh? Excited?"
Alice turned with a sigh and leaned her back against the railing. "Yeah."
"Oh yeah. You really sound excited, too." The girl wrinkled her nose at Alice. "You know, not just anybody gets into the Academy. You should be a little more enthused, don't you think?"
Alice narrowed her eyes as she looked up at the blue sky. "I am. It's just... It's just the first time I've been away from home." Alice changed her gaze to the girl beside her. "What about you?"
"I've been at and away from home since I was 10. Not a new thing for me." The girl examined Alice's face. "I think I get it, though."
Alice looked away. "Great. I'm surpassed in worldly experience by a kid all of 14. Thrill of thrills."
The girl laughed. "Nah. 'Worldly experience' is over rated. And I'm 13."
"Hey, I know a kid about your age who's had less ‘worldly experience’ than you, believe it or not. He was raised by animals on the Veldt. In fact, he's--"
Alice turned sharply. "You know Gau?"
The girl stopped mid-sentence, jaw still hanging. After a blink or two, she closed her mouth and examined Alice from head to toe. "Yep, but the question is how do you know Gau? I don't think he's been off the Veldt since Terra, Edgar, Locke, and Celes' wedding."
Alice smacked her forehead. "You must be Relm Arrowny."
"Yep. How'd you know that?"
Alice smiled. "The fact that you know the saviors of our world by name maybe?"
Relm pointed a finger at Alice with a smirk. "Good point. I guess that's a 'duh'."
"I'm Alice. Alice Camf." They shook hands. "Nice to meet you."
"Do you have a problem with me arranging the dorms with Edgar so that we can share a room?"
"Rad." Relm tugged at Alice's arm. "So, tell me about yourself. Where're you from?"
They walked the deck and exchanged stories.
"Ladies?" Setzer opened the door to the cabin and entered with a smooth smile. "We're approaching the Academy, if you'd like to have an aerial view."
Relm squealed. "Darn right! I need to grab my palette and brushes."
Alice chuckled and stood as Relm rushed from the room.
"How was the trip, Miss Alice? Not too bumpy, I hope."
Alice smiled as she made her way for the door. "No. It was wonderful. Thank you."
He sent her a charming smile before she passed and made her way on deck. Relm scurried on deck a moment or two later and set up her easel and canvas. Alice made her way to the railing and gasped.
Relm looked over at Alice's large sparkling eyes and shocked face with a knowing look. "If you think that's big, you should see Figaro castle. Doma castle's even bigger. I think."
Alice stared in stupefied wonder at the sprawling mansion-turned-educational-facility. Located northwest of Figaro near Kohlingen, its three-story mass was a collection of architectural beauty and organizational genius. The third story was dedicated solely to the students' dorms. The second story held the library and research facility. The ground floor held multiple classrooms where the select few accepted students would have the benefit of specialized professors teaching what they loved. The professors' bungalows were behind, giving the teachers and students an opportunity to develop a bond.
"Another pass, Relm, and then I'll need to go in," Setzer told them from the helm.
"Okay. I've almost got it."
Alice couldn't help but feel she'd get lost in the sheer mass of the building. You're definitely not on the Veldt anymore. Welcome to city life.
"You better hold on," Relm said with a laugh. "Setzer can get a little exuberant with his landings."
Alice moved away from the railing and gripped a safety post. Relm did the same. Alice didn't know what Relm had been worried about, though. The landing was as smooth as the ride had been.
"I guess Terra and Edgar are going to give us a tour of the place, and then we'll head on over to the office to fill out paperwork and sign up for classes."
"Already? I thought the term didn't start until after the summer."
Relm waved the comment aside as she stowed her easel and paints in a safe place. "Oh that. There aren't very many students here, so the teachers can work on almost a one-to-one basis. Groups of three to five, most of the time. You can start whenever you feel like it, basically."
Good. Maybe I can get home sooner. "Sounds great." Geez, Alice. Pull your head out and quit feeling sorry for yourself.
Relm made a motion with her head to the exit. "Come on. Let's go find Terra and Edgar. The chance to look around without them is going to give me hives."
Alice sent the girl a slight smile as she followed her. "I take it you like being on your own?"
Relm waited at the end of the ramp with a smirk. "Darn right. Most of the time it's more fun."
Alice sent the girl a sidelong glance as they headed for the Academy. "So then what are you doing here?"
"You mean what am I going to be studying?"
"Yeah. It seems to me that helping save our world would've made it easy for you to be a world-class whatever."
Relm made a face. "What's the fun in that? I like adventure as much as the next teenager. Besides, if I took the easy road I think I'd disappoint my dad and myself."
"Don't want to waste life on an easy ride, huh?"
"Nope. You never learn anything that way."
Alice absently nodded as she stowed her hands deep into the pockets of her denim shorts. "Yeah, well, sometimes adventure sucks," she mumbled. She felt Relm's eyes on her and shook her head. "Don't ask."
"Too bad. I am." Alice didn't answer and Relm pressed on. "I know adventure can suck the crap right out of a chocobo, believe me. I almost got myself, my grandpa, and my friends and father killed because of it. But, that experience is part of my life now and I wouldn't trade it for anything." Relm changed her eyes to the Academy. "Of course, I haven't had nearly the adventure as Gau."
Alice looked over at her. "Why's that?"
"Didn't you know he was left on the Veldt by his dad - crazy bastard - when he was a baby?"
"He was left to die and turned out to be a really nice guy," Relm continued. "A little dense sometimes, but a nice guy just the same." Relm glanced toward Alice. "You said that you've actually met him, right?"
"You could say that."
"I did. What'd you think?"
"I think he's as dense as a guy can get, but I like him anyway. He understands me like my best friend Eric does." She gave a shrug. "He's okay, as guys go."
Relm examined Alice's expression, then she looked away. "Geez. And I thought Edgar was blind," she muttered.
Alice looked over at her sharply. "Wh--?"
"Relm! Alice! Welcome to the Figaro Academy for Higher Studies!"
King and Queen Figaro approached them with smiles and laughter, and all Alice could do was set aside the question for later.
The Academy's size and potential blew Alice away. State-of-the-art everything at their disposal, including books and research texts that had been saved from the Empire. In fact, when they'd made a 'quick' stop at the library, Alice had been awed by the amount of research listed for the Veldt taking place both before and after the change to the environment. And if it hadn't been for Relm tugging on her arm, Alice would've stayed behind to get her feet wet in the volumes of newly discovered knowledge.
Hours later, Alice was exhausted and massaging her sore feet as Relm laid back on the bed in their newly reassigned room. It was twice the size of her room back home and felt homey and inviting, but Alice knew it'd take a little getting used to just the same. Yeah. No Eric barging in without knocking. No Carol bringing over the latest rage in scarves or boots. Alice sighed and moved to lie back on her bed, same as Relm. No Gau bringing me flowers, or samples, or anything. No Gau asking ridiculously bright questions in class. No Gau and his great sense of humor. Alice covered her eyes with her arm. Could I sound any more homesick and pathetic?
Alice turned her face toward Relm. She stood by the window unwrapping a bit of paper she'd pulled from a little tube. A carrier pigeon perched on the windowsill. "You got a letter? Here?"
"Yeah. Each room has its own pigeon. We have to send notes from the depot, but when they receive one, they find out who it’s from, what room they’re in, and then poof! Delivery.” Relm unrolled her note and brightened. "It's from Dad!"
"Geez. A little tight on the reins, isn't he?"
Relm read the letter and her eyes glistened. "I don't mind. I just found him about a year ago."
Alice spat the shoe out of her mouth and sat up. "Sorry."
Relm shrugged and rolled the bit of paper up again. "Don't sweat it." She peeked at Alice, and her eyes twinkled with mischief. "He's Shadow, you know. So don't mess with me. He'll kill you."
Alice stared at Relm for a full minute before giving a shake of her head and laughing softly. "Hey, you won't have to worry about that. I'm weird, not insane."
Relm tossed a bit of paper at Alice with a grin. "We'll see. Anyway, why don't you let the fam know you got here safe. I'll jot a little ditty for my dad, and then we'll go find the pigeon depot. They're bound to have one for your town."
Alice shifted her gaze to the paper. "Don't bet on it."
"I don't think a lot of people even know it's there."
"Whatever. You have a school, don't you? You get supplies from Edgar, don't you?" Alice nodded to each statement and Relm grabbed a shawl from the back of a chair. "There. Don't you worry about fame and fortune with Edgar around. He'll make sure that the right people know about the right town. Come on, Alice. I'm bored."
Alice reached across her bed for the pencil on the desk between their beds and scribbled a brief note, then rolled it up and tucked it into the offered carrier. "There."
"Rad. Let's go."
Alice sighed, pushing herself to her feet and into her sandals before following after the girl. She gave a slight shake of her head. "Can't we take a break? My feet are killing me."
"Oh 'waa'," Relm told her. "You'll have time enough to give them a rest when you're sleeping."
Alice tucked her hands into her pockets and followed to the pigeon depot behind the Academy. Okay. I can handle this. If she keeps me this busy I won't have time to think about... home. It never hurt to hope.
She descended onto the lush green loveliness of the Veldt like a great bird, soaring inches above the ground with a laugh as the wind caressed her face. A mountain of rocks with a cave within the deeper part of it appeared, so Alice made her way toward it. Warmth and happiness seemed to pull at her as she descended and touched ground with bare feet. She looked down at herself, noticing for the first time she was dressed in comfortable hand-stitched leather pants and a soft leather shirt. She stroked the pants and shirt with a lingering smile, looking up sharply when she heard her name.
She began walking toward the sound, slowly approaching a silhouette several yards from the cave. She narrowed her eyes but couldn't tell who or what it was.
"Alice! Come see!"
Alice hurried her step a little bit until she found herself jogging toward the figure with a catch of expectancy in her throat. The silhouette sharpened and cleared-- Alice stopped. Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped. Gau held a 5 year-old-boy on his shoulders. The boy glanced over at her and immediately squealed, giving a wide smile as he reached his hands out toward her. Gau lowered the boy from his shoulders with a grin, laughing when the blonde beauty launched himself into Alice's arms with so much force that she tumbled backwards--
Alice sat up with a gasp and then covered her eyes with a hand as she took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. She lay back, moving her arm up to cover her eyes. 'You're the one who got us together in the first place, what with all the emotional support I had to offer. I'll let you know how it works out.' Alice cringed again at Carol's words. She rolled onto her side and squeezed her eyes shut tight. There'll be plenty of time for looking for heroes after school's over and done with. She'd waited this long. What were a couple more years?
And hadn’t Eric seemed eager enough to wait?
Alice chuckled. "Basically."
"Geez. I didn't think anyone but Gau was interested in stuff like that."
Alice's smile disappeared as she lowered her head closer to the paper. "What classes did you sign up for?"
"Art history. Anatomy. Oils. Landscapes. And... uhh... Literary Analysis? Hey. I didn't sign up for that." Relm looked up from her schedule with a frown. "I'm going to the office to get this straightened out."
"Okay. See you later." Relm hurried from the room with a barely perceptible wave. Alice stared after her with a slight smile and then went back to the supplies list. "There. I think that about covers it." She heard a peck at the window and glanced over her shoulder. There was a pigeon. "Uh-oh. You missed Relm," she told the white bird as she stood and made her way to the window. "She's gone to hash out details with the office ladies." Alice opened the window and carefully placed her hand around the pigeon to pick it up. "But I guess I could take a message." She took the little tube off the pigeon's foot and then set it back down again. She pulled the bit of paper from the tube and carefully unrolled it. "Oh. It's for me."
‘Alice, so glad you made it. Hope you're having fun. Eric.’
"Not one for newsy notes, is he?" Alice smirked and turned for the desk to write a reply.
‘Eric, classes chosen. Books to be purchased soon. Roommate's a blast. How's life with Carol and Gau sucking face? Alice.’
Alice made a face as she rolled up the note and carefully placed it back into the tube. She sighed and turned away, grabbing her purse and her shopping list on her way out the door. She'd stop by the pigeon depot on her way to the bookstore.
Alice hadn't noticed it in the small print of the scholarship papers signed in the superintendent's office, but all her books and supplies were part and parcel to her stay there at the Academy. In other words: she didn't have to pay. So, she put her money back in her purse and set up a budget for her newfound wealth. If I'm really going to help the Veldt, I'm going to need supplies. And those don't grow on trees. Well, not usually.
She smiled slightly and started wandering through the store looking for the supplies she'd classified as 'superfluous'; such as extra notebooks, extra notepaper, and extra pens and pencils. Won't Gau be surprised when I show up with about a ton of seeds and fertilizer? Carol wouldn't want to help. Too afraid to break a nail. It'd just be me, Gau, and Eric more than likely. Although she wondered if King Edgar wouldn't be willing to lend her a newfangled piece of machinery to help out. The Veldt was a big place for three people to replant.
Alice set a box of pens into her basket, ignoring a tall gentleman in a nice suit watching her shop. Geez, mister. You ever hear of manners? She moved on to the row for notepaper. A few moments later, he was there too. Alice glanced over at him, and he smiled. His blue eyes were kind, his hair was a pretty color of red, and his face was alright to look at, but he just didn't tweak her interest. She looked away.
He moved; right toward her. "Hey there."
She didn't look up. Where's that darn narrow ruled paper? "Hi."
"Yeah." Yeah. This looks about right. She picked up a package of 200 pages and put it in her basket. She gave him a very slight smile and then moved a little ways down the aisle to the notebooks. He followed. Great. Second day at school and I've got a stalker. Thrill.
"So, what classes you taking?"
"This and that. Nothing exciting." One inch. I need one inch notebooks-- Ah. Here they are. She picked up a different colored notebook for each class.
"I'm a writing major. What about you?"
Alice cleared her throat. "Veldt."
She looked over at him. "I'm an environmental major. I'm studying the Veldt."
"Why? There's nothing there."
Alice frowned. "Yeah, like there's nothing up there," she countered, pointing at his head. "Later." She turned and stalked toward the front. The first time I'm hit on and it's by an idiot. She placed the rest of her things on the counter and waited for the clerk to tally the cost.
"I didn't mean to tick you off."
Alice clenched her jaw. "Fine."
He touched her shoulder to get her to face him. She stepped away from him instead. "Come on. I'm sorry."
Alice shrugged and accepted the bags from the clerk. "It's okay." She headed out the door. He was fast on her heels. "If you'll excuse me, I've got to meet a friend at the office."
"I'll walk you there."
"That's alright." She glanced over at him. His expression was fiercely determined. "I'll be fine."
"I'm sure you would, but I'd like to do it just the same." He met her eyes and gave her a slight smile. "The name's Riley."
She looked away. "Alice."
"Nice to meet you, Alice."
"Charmed." She halted suddenly and turned to face him. "Look. I'm not interested in getting into any kind of kissy-touchy-feely relationship right now. Okay? I've got two years of heavy classes, and then I'm off to the Veldt to put it into action."
Riley stared down at her with a slack jaw, and then he collected himself off the sidewalk enough to rub the back of his neck and close his mouth. His ears went a bit pink. "Uh... yeah, sure. Okay."
Alice turned and headed for the dorms again.
"How about dinner? Tonight," he called after her.
Alice kept walking. “Smart-ass,” she muttered.
"You actually said that to him?" Alice nodded and Relm roared with laughter. "Omigosh! I wish I could've been there to see it."
"The jerk kept on and asked me out to dinner. Tonight." Alice crossed her arms. "In his dreams."
"It's a harmless dinner, Alice. It might do you some good. You're pretty uptight, you know."
Alice threw herself onto her bed and covered her eyes with her arm. "Gee. You think?"
"Well it is kind of a 'duh'."
"My entire life is a 'duh'."
Relm came and sat on the bed next to Alice. "Tell me about it."
Alice peeked at her from under her arm. "Huh?"
Alice sat up. "What in the world are you talking about?"
Relm actually paused before talking. "Now I'm not so sure. What were you talking about?"
Alice shook her head. "No way. You go first."
Relm looked away. "Oh look. A pigeon." She stood and made her way to the window to carefully take the tube from the pigeon's foot. "It's for you. Cool."
Alice caught the tube that Relm tossed at her and carefully pulled the paper from it. She unrolled it and raised an eyebrow. ‘Alice, we haven't seen Gau since you left. Carol's worried, thinking she said something bad. I'm sure he's fine. Keep your chin up. Eric.’ "Hmm."
"What? Bad news?" Relm came to sit on the bed beside her. "Tell me, tell me."
Alice lowered the paper. "Gau's not been around for a while."
"You've only been gone about two days. He disappears that long while holding his breath. Don't sweat it." There was a knock and Relm waved at Alice. "I'll get it." She opened the door and looked the person up and down. "Riley, I presume."
Alice moaned and fell back onto the bed.
Relm opened the door wider and gave the guy a smile. "Come on in."
"Thanks." Riley stepped into the room like he owned it. "So, you ready for that dinner?"
"What part of ‘no relationship’ confused you?"
Riley came to stand beside her bed. "Look, I didn't mean to be a jerk, okay? I'm trying to make it up to you, if you'll give me the chance."
"I've got a headache."
Relm sniggered into her hand and moved to the far side of the room with a slight shake of her head.
"Yeah," Riley said. "Sure."
The pounding behind her eyes became a sharp pain and she winced as she brought a hand up. "No. I really do. You're making it worse. Go away."
"Only if you promise to have dinner with me tomorrow."
"Okay. Great." He gave a brief wave to Relm. "Later, cutie."
Relm leaned against the windowsill. "Bye, Riley," she purred as she crossed her arms.
He shut the door behind him. Alice rolled over onto her side. "You have any Remedy?"
"Sure." She chucked a bottle to Alice. "He's kind of cute, in a twisted way I guess."
Alice took the Remedy dry. "Yeah, but he's as dense as a guy ever is."
"Hey, they aren't that bad. Gau's actually pretty sharp."
A knife seemed to go through Alice's brain. "Yeah."
Relm came to sit on Alice's bed. "I'm curious. How'd you meet him anyway? He steers clear of towns sually. People have a tendency of throwing rocks at him and screaming before running away."
Alice rolled onto her other side. "It was an accident."
"That's the best way to meet someone. Didn't you know that?" Relm nudged Alice in the back with an elbow. "Come on. Spill."
Alice sighed and closed her eyes. She could still see the whole humiliating thing. "I got caught unawares by a Baskervor as I tried to get samples from the Veldt. He saved my butt."
"Cool." Relm laid down on her back beside Alice. "What happened after that?"
Alice opened her eyes. "We did a trade, kind of. I wanted to learn more about the Veldt for my paper, and he wanted to go to school. I made it possible."
"Rad. I know he'd been wanting to go to school for a while. Terra and Celes taught him how to read and write, and a little about history and math, but he wanted to be taught like other kids his age." Relm nudged Alice again. "That was really nice, Alice. I bet he loved it."
Alice remembered his smile after the first day of class and adjusted her shoulders. The Remedy was starting to work. "He did." Her throat tightened. And now he's missing out. But why? Alice clenched her jaw. Carol, if you said anything to hurt his feelings, I'll pound you.
"Makes me wonder why he's vanished. Hm. Oh well. He's a big boy."
Why does everyone keep saying that? He still needs help with things! Alice cleared her throat. "Yeah. I know."
"Alice. There's a pigeon pecking at the window," Relm snuffled into her pillow. She rolled over with a sleepy sigh. "Can you get it please?"
Alice yawned wide and stumbled out of bed, stubbing her toe on her desk's chair as she groped in the dark for the clearest way to the window. She opened it and groped for the pigeon, relieving it of its cargo and unrolling it as she sunk to the floor with another yawn.
‘Alice. Found Gau's books at the entrance to town. Note saying not coming back to school. Carol's going ballistic. Determined to find him. Don't worry. Eric.’
Alice was wide awake. "Don't worry?" she mumbled. She crumpled up the paper and threw it across the room. The pigeon squawked and flew out the window and back toward home. Not coming back to school? Why not? What in blazes did Carol say?
"Well if it isn't the best looking lady on campus."
Alice hunkered down in her seat at the library with a cringe and moved her eyes to his face. "Hi, Riley."
He leaned against the table and crossed his arms. "Cutie said you were here. I thought I'd drop by and say 'hello' and see if I could persuade you to come out for some food."
Alice knew that he wouldn’t leave her alone until she actually went through with it. Alice sat up and grabbed her purse and jacket. "Fine. Let's go," she sighed. Alice made a face as he hurried to fall into step beside her. "So, where to?"
"I've got a table set up in the cafeteria."
Riley chuckled and ran a hand through his hair. "Yep. Yep. Yep. I know. Girls go wild for it."
Alice rolled her eyes. "I hope you're joking."
"You know, you need to relax a little. I'm glad I came along when I did."
"Oh, yes. Will miracles never cease."
Riley shook his head. "Oh, I love those woman with blatant hostility towards men."
She sent him a dark glare. "I don't have hostility towards men."
"Oh. Then it's just me."
Alice looked away with a brief shrug. "Hey, if the shoe fits."
Riley laughed. "You know what, this is kind of fun."
"Yeah. A riot."
He opened the door for her that led from the stairwell into the second story hall and then motioned her to the left toward the cafeteria. "So, where're you from."
"A town called Border, believe it or not."
"It's on the border of the Veldt, so that's what they called it."
"So that's why you're studying Environment."
Alice shrugged as he opened the doors into the cafeteria for her. A corner table had a vase with a single flower and an unlit candle in the center. Her stomach fluttered and then dropped to her heels.
"I don't suppose you're taking any writing classes?"
"Nope. Well, there's the research paper class I'm taking."
"Bummer. I already took that class. Last semester." Riley snapped his fingers. "Oh well. I'll just have to keep popping in and kidnapping you to dinner."
"Oh, could you? Thank you ever so much." She made her voice drip with sickening sweet damsel-in-distress-ism.
"For this witty repartee? Any day of the week."
Alice grumbled under her breath as he pulled the chair out for her. Why am I being so hostile? You'd think he really had kidnapped me.
Riley rang a little bell on his side of the table. Cafeteria workers instantly appeared bearing covered silver trays. "Ah. Dinner is served." One tray was set down in front of her and another in front of him. She stared down at it but didn't move. "Go ahead. Uncover it."
Alice took in a slow breath and reached out for the tray cover. When she pulled it away, there was a beautifully cooked slice of meat and a tantalizing array of vegetables and potatoes. Alice set the cover aside and stared at the steak.
When she didn't look up, Riley came to stand beside her. "What's the matter? You don't like Adamant steak?"
Alice stood, covering her mouth with her hand as she rushed from the room. Tears streamed down her face. Blood. Growls. Gau's still body. The images pelted her as she hurried back to her room. The dread she'd felt that he might be hurt. The guilt at realizing it'd been her fault... Alice slammed into her room and collapsed against the door, sliding to the floor with a sob.
"Geez, Alice, what happened?" Relm hurried to her side. "What'd he do? I'll kill him!" Alice covered her face with her hands and gave a shake of her head. "Then what's wrong?"
"I miss home," she sobbed.
Relm wrapped her arms around Alice and gave her a squeeze. "Among other things," she mumbled.
"Sending another letter home?"
Relm rolled up the bit of paper and sat beside Alice. "Yeah. Asking advice."
Alice flipped a few more pages of her geology book. "About what?"
"Love. Denial. Things like that."
Alice looked over at her with a blink of surprise. "That's pretty deep, Relm. Aren't you a little young for that?"
Relm gave a snort and looked away. "Apparently not." She changed her gaze back to Alice. "Are you ever going to tell me what happened last night?"
Alice glanced back to the book. "I lost my appetite."
"And that's why you were bawling your eyes out? Right."
Alice gripped the page and turned it. It ripped slightly. "Hey, I can't help it if you don't believe me."
"Sheesh. I can't believe you believe yourself." There was a knock and Relm stood. "I mean, have you ever heard of ignoring the obvious? You've got a classic--" She pasted on a perfect plastic smile. "Hi, Riley."
Alice winced, but she didn't move or change her gaze from the book in her hands.
"Hey there, cutie. Where's Alice?"
"She's busy being in denial." She stepped back. "Come on in. Misery loves company."
He stepped in, after several odd looks at Relm, and then came to stand by Alice. "Hey there. Can we go for a walk?"
"No meat. I promise."
Alice shook her head. "Really. I'm busy. Maybe later."
He took the book out of her hands. She glared at him. "Come on. A short little walk. I won't hurt you. I swear I don't bite."
Alice took the book back. "But I do." She turned through the pages. "Go away."
"I mess up once and that's it? No more Riley? No second chance?"
"You barely had a first one. I'm not interested."
Riley's face showed shock. "But--"
Relm came over and wrapped her arms around Riley's right one. He looked down at her in surprise as she fluttered her eyelashes at him. "I'm interested."
Relm sidled closer, lowering her eyes to her finger as it ran up and down his bare arm to his shirt sleeve. "You don't just have eyes for Alice, do you? What about me?" She lifted her eyes to him.
"Uh... well... I, uh..." He cleared his throat. "S-Sure, cutie. What'd you have in mind?" He sent Alice a 'see what you're missing' look, but she wasn't paying attention. He frowned and moved his eyes back to Relm. "You up for a walk?"
"A walk? Oh no. I had something different in mind." She took hold of his hand and led him over to her side of the room where her paints and brushes were. She picked up a brush and touched her chin with it as she gave him a coquettish smile. "How about I paint you?"
"Paint? Well, sure, I guess." He looked around for a stool as Relm dipped the brush in a bit of yellow paint. "Where'd you want me to sit?"
Relm approached with just enough sway to her walk to grasp Riley's attention. "Oh no, Riley. I wasn't talking about painting on canvas."
She touched his arm with the brush. He leaped back from her, nearly stumbling into her bed. She took a step toward him with a meaningful expression.
"Uh, I just remembered... I have an appointment." He cleared his throat and continued to step back toward the door. Relm beat him to it and leaned against the door with her hands in the small of her back. Her young curves were positioned in just the right way to make him swallow hard, fighting to keep his eyes from sinking from hers. "Come on, cutie. Let's keep it civil."
"What's the fun in that?" she purred. She stepped forward and he stiffened, swallowing hard when she leaned into his chest. "RRowrr." She bit at his chin and he yelped, diving for the door and slamming it closed behind him. Relm straightened and sent Alice a 'you owe me big' look.
"That's disgusting," Alice mumbled.
Relm shrugged and came to sit on Alice's bed. "Hey, I do what I can to further our purpose."
"He definitely won't be back here anytime soon."
"Don't count on it. He's denser than any guy I've met."
Alice nodded with a reluctant smile as she looked over at Relm. "So I'd noticed."
Relm gestured to the bit of rolled up paper that was on Alice's desk. "You gonna write back and tell them you're sure he's fine?" Relm glanced over at the paper. "I know. You could write a note for Gau letting him know that you're okay and that everything's great. You could even let him know that you're planning on visiting home before classes get started."
Relm looked over at Alice with an innocent expression. "Oh. You weren't? Sorry. I thought you'd want one last night with the fam before the heavy stuff started."
Alice set the book aside. "Relm, what did you do?"
"Nothing. Honest." Relm smirked slightly. "Okay. I sent Setzer a note to have him come next weekend and take us back to Border for a day. I want to check it out and meet this Eric guy. Besides, I haven't seen Gau for a while and it'd be nice to say hi."
"Relm," Alice complained.
"I know, but it's already done. You'll have to deal with it."
Alice sighed. "Fine. Whatever." Alice tossed aside the book and rolled over onto her side. "I'm going to take a nap."
"I'm ignoring you," she said with a yawn. Alice heard Relm snigger as she drifted off to sleep...
Alice sat up with a yawn and a stretch, slowly opening her eyes as her mind worked through the morning fuzzies. The darkness of the cave made her tilt her head and frown in confusion. Cave? She pushed herself to her feet, dusting the leaves and dirt from her hand-woven leather pants. She stared at them. Okay, Alice. What's going on? What's the matter with your memory? Are you going nuts?
A ferocious growl came from outside the cave, and her head shot up as her eyes pinpointed the entry. There was a smaller, human shaped shadow grappling with a winged form. Alice's heart went to the soles of her feet as she hurried to the opening.
"Gau?" She stumbled on a rock and nearly fell to her knees, barely recovering in time as her hands met the cold and hard surface of the opening to the cave. Gau fought a dragon. "Gau!"
Her call distracted him, making it possible for the dragon to slice him across the chest. The blow sent him flying backward like a rag doll.
Alice screeched and ran forward, sliding to a halt beside him and gathering his bloody form into her arms. "Gau?" She shook him, but he didn't move.
The ground around her trembled as the dragon approached her, but she just continued to stare down at his limp body. Blood oozed from fresh cuts.
Her voice broke, and she lowered her head as the tears fell.
There was a hiss just behind her. Alice clenched her jaw and snapped her head around. The dragon had a siren smile and hazel eyes-- Rage blinded Alice's mind and her face and body went red. Her mind popped, and she let out a furious scream and dove at the dragon, claws extended--
Alice sat up with a screech.
So did Relm. "What?" she asked, magazine dropping to the floor.
Alice puffed and the dream slowly faded. Finally, she shook her head and laid back. "Nothing. Just a bad dream."
"Really? Gee. I would never have known."
Alice turned over onto her side. "Give me a break, will ya? I’ve had a bad couple of days."
"I know. That’s why I think we should go out-" Relm brought a hand up to her mouth. "Crap! I forgot to tell you Terra and Edgar want to have dinner with you tonight."
Alice sat up sharply. "Geez! Why didn't you tell me that earlier?"
"I didn't have the chance!"
"What do you mean you didn't have the chance? We've been here for hours!"
"No, you've either been on Self-Pity island or in Sleepsville. I've been here."
Alice frowned and stalked to her section of the closet. "Great. I don't have a blasted thing to wear."
"Just wear anything. They don't care."
"They're royalty, Relm."
Relm shook her head. "No, they're Terra and Edgar. Humans. Nice people. They don't care what you wear."
"Well I do."
"So I noticed." Relm stepped up to the closet and started pulling things out. "Let's see what we've got."
Alice straightened with a clearing of her throat and smoothed her silky, pastel lavender skirt and matching top. There was a floral scarf wrapped around her waist as a belt and for a splash of color, and her dark hair had been thoroughly curled and coiffed to hang in a mass of ringlets from the crown of her head.
The door slowly opened. Setzer Gabbiani stepped in. He surveyed her wardrobe and sent her a velvety smirk as he leaned against the door jam. "Well, well, well. Doesn't someone look ravishing tonight?"
Alice flushed and looked down at her leather, thong-like sandals. "I feel like a dress-up doll."
Relm crossed her arms with a slight scowl. "Well that’s gratitude for you."
Setzer chuckled and presented his arm and gave a motion of his head toward the door. "Come, my lady. Your chariot awaits to take you to the castle."
Alice glanced up shyly and wrapped her arm around his. He led her from the room and headed for the stairwell. "Is Relm really going to make you take me to Border next weekend?"
"She is." He sent her an easy smile. "And it will be my pleasure. No need to feel guilty."
Alice sighed, pausing as he opened the door to the stairwell for her. "I can't help it. If I wasn't such a baby about going away to this Academy, she wouldn't have thought she needed to arrange my escape."
Setzer chuckled. "Relm has an uncanny knack of seeing what is less than obvious. No matter how brave you're trying to be, she'd have seen straight through it."
Alice sighed again. "Maybe it's for the best. I have a tendency toward denial."
Setzer smirked and opened the bottom stairwell door for her. They stepped out onto the ground floor of the Academy. "Denial is a protection, Miss Alice. What do you feel you need protection from?"
"Myself." Alice looked over at him with a slight blush. "I can't believe I just said that."
Setzer patted her hand as they continued toward the airship parked outside the field of buildings. "Saying that proves you're beginning to see yourself for what you are."
"And what's that?"
Setzer shook his head. "You'll have to find that out for yourself."
Alice sighed. "I guess so."
He ushered her on board and then made his way to the helm. A few minutes later they were on their way to the castle. I can't believe this is happening. I'm studying at the school of my dreams. I've got access to almost all the Empire's scientific research on the Veldt. I've got enough money set aside to buy more than enough supplies for whatever I plan on doing. I'm about to have dinner with the King and Queen of Figaro on their invitation, and I'm still more on the miserable than happy side of life. She leaned against the railing with a slight sigh.
Setzer lowered the airship to the ground with hardly a jostle and came to escort her from the ship to the front doors of the castle. Much to Alice's surprise, King Edgar was there to meet them. He bowed in true royal fashion, to which she gave a surprisingly graceful curtsy, and then he presented her his arm. She switched from Setzer's right to Edgar's left with a shy smile, waving over her shoulder to Setzer as he watched them go into the castle.
"You are an entrancing vision of sophistication," King Edgar told her. "You remind me greatly of Terra."
Alice's face flamed red. "Thank you, your highness."
"I'm certain that the special one in your life would have a hard time recognizing you." Red reached her hairline. King Edgar chuckled and patted her hand. "I apologize, Alice."
"It's alright, your majesty. I need to loosen up anyway." She glanced toward the King and caught his gaze. "Everyone says I take life too seriously."
"At times this is a wise policy, but not when you are 17 years of age with your entire future ahead of you."
She looked away. "I know."
"I suppose I should wait until dinner for conversation, but I'd very much like to know what you have planned for your future."
Alice cleared her throat. "Well, I want to finish classes at the Academy and put what I learn to practice at the Veldt, and wherever else it's needed."
"A noble cause for a noble lady." King Edgar seemed to examine her expression. "But what of matters of the heart? Don't you wish to have a strong arm and shoulder to work alongside you?"
Alice cleared her throat again, fighting the queasy upset in her stomach. "I haven't really given it too much thought. Too much other stuff going on."
"I understand that well. I was nigh past the years of the marrying age before I opened my eyes and realized my lovelight had been there beside me for the greater part of two years." His lips raised in a slight smile. "That realization was pain and beauty in one. I cursed my stupidity for weeks, I believe. Denial had become a close companion and it was a difficult chore to banish it without sacrificing my pride." King Edgar glanced over at her. "Love won in the end, and denial and pride were vanquished. Now I am the happiest man to breathe air."
Alice's mouth went dry and the queasiness worsened. "I can tell," she said softly.
"But I believe that's enough of me. I am quite curious to know how these first few days have found you."
"Life here will definitely be... different." Her nose almost wrinkled at the use of the sadistic word. "Always something new to see and learn. Always an adventure." Kind of like Gau's Veldt. Sheesh. Kind of like Gau.
"Yes, but how are you? Acclimating can be difficult."
"It's not so bad. Relm helps."
King Edgar chuckled. "Acclimating to Relm can be a challenge as well."
"Actually," Alice began slowly, "I've liked having her around. She doesn't hold back in anything. She says what she feels and gets me to do the same." She glanced toward the King. "It's been nice."
His smile remained. "Yes, she and Gau were both vessels of surprising wisdom and innocence. Many a time I found myself taken aback at the pearls of guidance they had to offer." They halted outside a set of double doors leading into the deeper part of the castle. He turned and took both her hands in his. "If either Relm or Gau have bestowed upon you such a gift of knowledge, I would suggest you listen carefully. I believe you will be amazed at what you discover about yourself and others."
She lowered her eyes to the stone floor at her feet as each and every conversation she'd had with Gau sped through her mind. "I'll keep that in mind, your majesty."
"Well now." He gave her hands a squeeze. "Enough seriousness. Let us eat, drink, and be merry. For tomorrow you study."
She smiled and turned, moving past him into the throne room beyond. Three tables were arranged in a 'U' shape and stacked high with plates of meats, fruits, breads and biscuits, vegetables, and desserts. Queen Terra finished arranging the silverware when they entered.
She straightened with a smile and came toward them. She was dressed in a simple gown of pale mauve and her hair was swept up off her shoulders in a mass of curls much like Alice's.
Queen Terra took Alice's hands in hers. "You look lovely, Alice."
"Thank you, your highness," Alice said. She returned her smile. "So do you."
Queen Terra flushed. "Thank you, Alice." King Edgar came to stand beside his queen, wrapping his arm around her waist. She gestured to the plates and utensils at one end of the table. "I've set it up like a buffet, so you can help yourself to whatever you like. There are little tables by the walls where we can sit and talk. And don't worry about all the food. The children are having a party here later this evening. They'll finish what we can't."
Alice nodded and followed them to the plates and utensils. "It all looks wonderful. I don't know where to start."
Queen Terra smiled. "I don't know about you, but I'm planning on taking a little bit of everything."
True to her word, she placed a variety of meats, fruits, and vegetables on her tray. Alice's lips twitched in a smile as she placed a few of the lighter vegetables on her plate. She wasn't all that hungry, but she didn't want to offend them. Alice missed the simple meals her mom used to make. Camping trips and campfire roasted bits of meat floated in and out of her memory as she put a few slices of something brown and juicy on her plate. Just don't let it be Adamant.
"Is that all you're eating, Alice?" the Queen asked with a concerned expression. "Aren't you feeling well?"
Alice shook her head. "I'm just not very hungry. I think it's all the excitement with the Academy and all."
Queen Terra and King Edgar exchanged a glance and then urged Alice to follow them to a table on the left side of the room. Dread ate at the remainder of Alice's appetite, but she forced herself to nibble on a carrot or two once she'd sat down.
Queen Terra began arranging her napkin and utensils with deliberate movements. King Edgar stood and went back to the tables to get her and Alice some pudding. "Edgar and I were talking about your report while we waited for the airship to bring you. We wondered what Gau's reaction was."
Alice swallowed the last bit of carrot and nearly heaved it back up again.
Queen Terra noticed and raised a hand to her chest. "Oh no." The queen reached out to take Alice's hand. "You didn't ask him, did you?"
"I never even thought about letting him read it." Alice brought a hand up to her forehead. She felt horrible. "I'd have loved to know what he thought about my plan for the Veldt. After all, it's his home." She sighed and lowered her hand.
Queen Terra watched Alice's expression, giving her hand a brief squeeze. "I'm sure you'll have another chance, Alice," she said as King Edgar returned with the promised pudding. He set a bowl in front of the queen and Alice. "Do you know why you didn't have Gau read the paper before you turned it in?"
Alice cleared her throat as she took the offered bowl. Then she started adjusting her napkin on her lap. "... Well... I, uh.... I didn't really get the chance.... sort of." Alice took up a spoon and started swirling the whipped topping into the body of the pudding. "I got a little... distracted."
"Oh, yes. The Adamant," King Edgar commented.
Alice's grip on the spoon tightened. "Yeah." She took a small bite of pudding. Then she wrinkled her nose and set the spoon down to trace its handle's intricate design. "A lot of things changed that day."
"Brushes with death have a tendency of doing that." The Queen looked over at King Edgar and smiled as she reached across the table to take his hand. "Believe me. I know."
Alice's hand wrapped around the spoon as she kept her eyes averted. Her heart twisted. "I'll try and remember that when I go back to the Veldt," she mumbled. Alice immediately felt their gaze on her.
"You're going? When?" the queen asked.
"Next weekend. Relm thought it would be a good idea."
"Don't you?" Queen Terra asked in surprise. "It would give you a chance to show Gau your report."
Alice's throat tightened. "Yeah. I-I mean yes, your majesty." But will I be welcome on the Veldt again? And he's been gone, remember? Alice cleared her throat as her mind tried to understand what it meant. Sounds blurred to a fuzzy murmur. But why's he hiding in the first place? I thought things were going great between those two. Wasn't she all set and fired ready to set up curtains in his cave?
Alice's heart twisted, and her thoughts delved deeper inside as she tried to soothe and solve her confusion. Her expression melted to one of wistful agony when she remembered the dream. "A little cutie of a boy," she mumbled to herself. "I always wanted a blonde baby boy. But Carol has all the luck. In everything."
A voice tickled the edge of her pathetic misery. "Why?"
Alice moved a hand from a warm grasp to shade her eyes and she tightened her grip on something in her other. It gave a little. "Because she's been flirting all her life. Because she knows how to make guys feel about a thousand feet tall." There was a rhythmic stepping sound and then a creak and a click. "I've never been able to do that. Maybe that's what he meant by different?"
The voice was surprisingly kind. "How were you supposed to know what he meant?"
Alice's grip tightened even more, and she barely recognized the twisting shape of the spoon. She frowned. "I don't know. I didn't even think to ask until today, and now he's missing." She glowered and the spoon completely collapsed within her grip. "Of all the subjects to be slow in, did it have to be this one? Geez! Last year I at least tried to flirt with Eric. So he was lost on Terra Branford, at least I gave it a shot! Now I'm rolling over and dying like a leafer with barely a bite at her ankle as she runs after him! I'm not even trying to get him!"
"Trying to get who, Alice?" The voice paused. "Gau?"
The word faded in like a swallow of curdled milk, tracing its way out of the denial of her heart to the expectancy of her soul as her eyes glazed over. Her skin became a sickly shade of yellowish green.
"Alice?" the voice asked gentler still, "trying to get who?"
Alice faded back into reality with a blink as she stood. "Gau," she answered absently. She dropped the spoon. It clattered to the floor. "Gau."
The queen nodded and smiled, leaning back in her chair as she folded her hands in her lap.
Alice changed her eyes to the queen as if she just realized she was there. "Your majesty - I'm really sorry - but if you'll excuse me, there's something I need to do."
"Of course, Alice. Go right ahead."
She gave a curtsy and turned and ran for the door. She slammed out of the throne room and ran through the courtyard of the castle to burst into the enclosed hallway on the other end. She passed by King Edgar, barely noticing his knowing smirk as he waved and called out "Good luck and god speed". She just hurried across the flagstones and out the double doors of the exit, rushing down the steps to the desert outside Figaro. The airship was right where she'd left it. She clenched her hands into fists and ran, charging up the plank to the helm. She looked at the controls with a determined expression as she put her hands on the wheel. Carol. Gau. She clenched her jaw. Right. He's mine.
Alice pushed the throttle forward and turned the airship toward the Veldt.
"What in blazes--? Alice! What are you doing to my ship?" Setzer stumbled across the deck of the ship. "Keep it steady!" He tried to free her hands from the wheel.
She sent him a dark look, and he immediately backed off. "There is no way I'm going to let her have him without a fight. We're the ones that have so much in common! I'm the one who loves the Veldt as much as he does! Carol's more a groupie than a friend. Besides, what if she's the one that's different and not me? It could happen, couldn't it?"
Setzer examined her face. "Of course, Alice."
She turned back to stare at the quickly passing scenery. They were coming on the Veldt faster than she thought possible. "But what am I going to say? What if I botched up our friendship because I was so dense?" She stomped her foot and gave a little sob. "No wonder he was so frustrated. I was being dumber than a doornail and he didn't know how to explain everything. I wasn't exactly giving him a chance either. I had myself convinced that he was head over heels for Carol just because he was being so nice. I'm such an idiot!" A tear traced a cold trail down her cheek and she blinked. "Now he's disappeared without even finishing school, and all because of me!"
Setzer placed a hand on her shoulder. "Gau probably needed time to think. Men do that you know. Especially when they have a heart as big as Gau's."
Her throat tightened. "Yeah, and he might have thought himself straight into a relationship with Carol. Or Paytha. Or Raquel. Or any of the other hundreds of girls in town that I know would give their left eye for a night on the Veldt with him."
She blinked more tears out of her eyes. "Me and this blasted Academy! There's nothing wrong with living at Border with friends and family. There's nothing wrong with what my parents decided. But I was such a nincompoop, I didn't see it. Queen Terra was right, I'd have been happier just staying at home and helping her and the King with replanting the Veldt. But I thought I had to do it all myself."
Her shoulders started to tremble with her tears, and she blinked several times to try and clear her vision. Finally, she released her grip on the wheel and tried to wipe the tears away. "Me and my damn pride!"
Setzer stepped up to the wheel. "It's alright, Alice. I'll get you to the Veldt before it's too late. I know where his cave is."
"He won't be there. He goes to the south beach when something's bugging him."
Setzer looked over at her with a smile. "You know him really well, don't you?"
Alice lifted her arms in a helpless gesture. "I don't know. I thought I did..." She sunk to her knees and covered her face with her hands. "What am I going to say?"
'If your heart sorry, then you tell him this thing. No think too long of what to say. Too many words make more trouble. Speak clear and little, but from heart.' Alice's hands slowly lowered from her face.
"We're coming up on the southern beach. I'm going to get as close as I can to the Veldt floor. Get to the bow and keep your eyes out. There's a spyglass in a cabinet on the way."
Alice nodded and scrambled to her feet, hurrying toward the bow after she'd gotten hold of the spyglass. She extended it and started the search. 'You help just as good here as away. Better if you study Veldt like you say you want. You go? Then you forget what you learn here. You forget the friends you left behind.'
Alice blinked away some tears. 'Why Alice do this thing?... Why think I want be with Carol?… Flowers from Veldt. From heart of both. You go, you lose heart. You lose self. Make sure do thing for Veldt and not for fear of life.'
Alice wiped away her tears with the palm of her hand. I was afraid of life, Gau, but not anymore. I wanted control of what was happening, but I'm over it. Please. Tell me where you are.
"We're getting toward the Deep Veldt, Alice," Setzer called. "Are you sure you don't see him yet? He doesn't like going this far."
Alice squinted into the glass, finally realizing that it was getting close to twilight. If she didn't find him soon, she wouldn't find him at all. She put the glass down with a clatter and hurried back to the helm. "We need to land. Do you have any torches, so that we can see where we're going when we get off?"
"Alice, I'm not going to land this ship in the middle of the Deep Veldt when it's getting so dark. It'd be suicide without the others." He looked back to the horizon and changed their course back to the Academy. "I'm sorry, Alice, but the search will have to wait until tomorrow."
"We can't wait until tomorrow! It might be too late!"
"Alice," Setzer began as he changed his gaze to her, "it would only be too late if you were hurt or killed on the Veldt. Would that be any help to Gau? Or for yourself, for that matter? Trust me, Alice. Let's wait for tomorrow. Then we can have Terra and Edgar come with us."
Alice pressed her lips together and ran toward the bow of the ship, slipping out of her sandals before hurrying to the side of the ship and lowering the rope ladder. I'm going to find him.
"Alice! Alice, what are you doing?"
Alice heard Setzer run toward her as she scrambled over the edge of the ship, gripping the rope ladder as a gust of wind tried to loosen her hold. She clenched her jaw and lowered herself one careful step at a time, barely conscious of the squeal of the propellers as Setzer pulled down hard on the throttle to slow the ship's speed. Her foot slipped, and she gripped the rope until she was able to get both feet under her again. Then she began stepping down rung by rung again. When she reached the last one, she studied the speed of the ground, the height she was hanging, and then let go.
Alice rolled and then slid to a stop, spitting grass and dirt out of her mouth as she rubbed the grime off her hands onto her now stained and torn pastel skirt. Her eyes had already acclimated themselves to the thickening darkness and much to her surprise the Deep Veldt was surprisingly quiet. They're probably wondering what the devil I'm thinking, jumping out of a moving airship. Alice pushed herself to her feet and slapped her hands together to bust loose any stubborn bits of dirt. Then she started heading deeper into the Veldt.
"Gau!" Alice's voice sounded thin and choked. She cleared her throat. "Gau! It's Alice! I need to talk to you. Please!"
A rumble sounded in the distance, but Alice ignored it. Baskervors, Adamants, Dragons, and Doom Gaze himself could attack her and she'd still hoof it as far as she needed in order to track him down. Her hands began to sting and she looked down at them. Her palms were bleeding. She took the scarf from around her waist, tore it in two, and wrapped her palms with the material. Sorry, Relm. I'll buy you a new one.
"Gau! Gau, please! I'm sorry I was an idiot! Can we talk about it?"
The roars and growls that accompanied her shouts seemed to edge closer, but they also sounded like they were getting irritated and bothered by the urgency in her voice. She pressed her lips together. I don't care about them. I just want to find Gau-- A faint glimmer of a fire about 100 yards to the northeast caught her attention. Gau. Setzer had said Gau didn't usually come this far deep, but Alice could tell she was as near to the center of the Veldt as a person could get.
It was oppressive.
She cleared her throat and slowed to a walk. Okay, girl. Listen up. You say exactly what you think. Exactly what you feel. And exactly what you mean. No beating around the bush. No hedging. No vagueness. You speak from the heart and make sure he gets it. Alice balled her fists and cringed when they throbbed in pain. But what was a little blood when she'd put him through hell and back again?
As she got closer, she saw that he was crouched near the fire roasting some little thing on a bit of a piece of wood. It must have smelled delicious, but it only made her stomach turn and her mouth go dry. The last thing she could think of right then was foo--
A twig snapped under her bruised and bloody feet, making Gau twirl and crouch in one motion. A veil of red dropped over him just before he made a quick movement with his hand and launched a rock. It hit her in the shoulder with a sharp pain and instant numbness, sending her backward to lay flat on the ground. A moment later she heard a collection of soft thuds as Gau made three long jumps and crouched above her. His hands were around her throat--
Their eyes met and the red disappeared. He went white and then yellow. "Alice!" He tenderly gathered her into his arms and hurried to the fire. "Alice, why so quiet when com-" He broke off and examined her face. "Why you come to Deep Veldt? Danger here."
Gau set her down and pulled aside the collar of her blouse. He winced and his expression became sick with guilt. He saw the bits of scarf wrapped around her hands and met her eyes again.
"What you do, Alice? You fight Veldt to find Gau?"
Alice flushed but held his gaze. "I would have if it'd come to that, but I just dropped too far from the airship is all."
"Drop? Why you no wait 'til land? You crazed like--?" Gau shook his head and pulled the pits of scarf off her hands. "This no good. I go. Back soon. You stay."
He disappeared into the blackness, still shaking his head as he went. Alice sat up and looked down at herself. Her nice skirt was in tatters. Her blouse was bloodstained and torn. The scarf was in bloodied ribbons. Her curls were full of grass and were tumbling every-which-way. Her feet were a mess... She sighed and pushed the thought away. It doesn't matter. I found him.
Gau appeared beside her as quiet as ever. She smiled up at him. "I've missed that."
He didn't change his gaze from her hands as he chewed up bits of herbs and then applied it to her hands. "You miss what?"
"The silence. The simple words that mean a lot. The deep conversations that take place in just a few sentences." He glanced over at her with a gaze full of concentration. Her eyes were there to meet it. "I've missed you, Gau."
Gau's focus lowered back to her palms as he finished wrapping them up with the scarf pieces. "I miss you, too." He placed her hands out of the way and reached out to her shoulder. He carefully pulled her blouse away from the wound and started putting the same mixture on it. "You come to Veldt just to say this thing? You almost be killed to say you miss?"
Gau's hands stopped as he moved his gaze to hers. "Why?"
"Because it's the least I could do to make it up to you. I've been a blind idiot..." His eyes are the most glorious shade of gold... She flushed and lowered her eyes. "No. I've just been in denial. I may be smart enough to get into the Academy, but I'm not smart enough to find a red mark in a field of green."
"You say strange thing--"
Alice! She looked up. "I'm sorry." She swallowed hard. "What I'm not saying very good is that I like you, Gau."
He lowered his eyes back to his work on her shoulder. "I know this thing, Alice. Why you feel must say again?"
"Because I don't think you know how much I like you." She covered his hands with one of hers and met his eyes when he looked over at her. "I'm glad we met, sure, but only because I finally found someone who doesn't think I'm as odd as a melted button. I finally found someone interested in the same things I am. If you give me a chance, I think we could make it work."
He lowered his hands as he sat back on his heels, examining her face with a slightly confused expression. "What you say, Alice?"
"I want to get to know you better." She looked out at the Veldt and made a wide motion with her hand. "I know the Veldt pretty good," she changed her gaze back to him, "and I guess I know you pretty good. But I want to get to know you both a lot better. I..." She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I've never been in love, Gau, so I don't know if that's what this is. But I know I want to know everything about you. Maybe you want to learn more about me?"
His eyes twinkled with a slight smile as he gave a couple shakes of his head. "You take long to say what easy, Alice. Why so hard to talk from heart?"
She flushed and changed her eyes to her skirt. She picked at a bit of string sticking out from it. "Because I usually ignore it."
He moved with fluid grace until he was just a few inches from her face. He didn't speak until she raised her eyes to meet his. "Alice like Gau?"
"Very much." Her eyes misted. "Gau like Alice?"
The smile remained on his lips as he leaned in closer, gently rubbing the tip of her nose with his in the most wondrous caress she'd ever felt. Alice sniffed and reached out to carefully pull him into an embrace, snuggling her face into his soft shoulder as his arms went around her.
"Gau like Alice," he told her, and his voice was as soft as his touch had been.
"Oh - my - gosh." Carol's eyes were as wide open as her mouth when Alice stepped out from behind her privacy screen in the bedroom of her home in Border. "Could you be any more gorgeous?"
Alice smiled as she faced the full-length mirror. A woman in black slacks and a black velvet blouse with a scoop neckline and deep purple flowers stared back at her. Hair in a perfect mass of curls. A touch of makeup to smooth her complexion. Dark eyes sparkling with happiness.
Carol came to stand beside her. "Wow, Alice. I had no idea you were a winter."
Alice shook her head and turned to make her way to the door of her room. "I've no idea what you're talking about, Carol. Tell me later."
Carol hurried to fall into step beside Alice as she left her room and made her way through the living room of her parents' house. "So, where are you guys going?" Carol asked.
Alice shrugged and grabbed a fancy embroidered black shawl from the back of the couch. Relm had given it to her as a farewell gift when Alice had left the Academy to finish out the year at the school in Border. "I've no clue. Gau's going to meet me here."
"Your first date and you don't even know where he's taking you?"
Alice sent Carol a grin. "As long as he's taking me, I don't care."
Carol frowned and put her hands on her hips. "Well I like that. I help--"
Alice laughed and pulled Carol into a hug. "I know. I'm teasing." She pushed back and sent Carol a wink. "I'll be home later. Tell the fam not to worry."
She turned and exited the house, where she was promptly greeted by a whistle.
"Hubba-hubba, Alice." Eric straightened from where he'd been leaning against the railing of her front porch. "You look great. Heck. You look better than great. Maybe I'll take you out on a date myself and let Gau find another girl."
"Thanks but no thanks." She looked around. "Have you seen Gau?"
"Nature boy asked me to take you to the front entrance of town." He presented his arm. "Might as well do it in style, I guess."
Alice took his arm and fell into step beside him. "So, is it true what I hear from Carol that you guys are the latest item around here?"
"I guess," he said with a shrug. "We hang out and stuff, but she's too involved with fashion and art. I'm not into that. Bores me to death."
"That's too bad."
"Not really. I'd rather be her friend than have to put up with her ridiculous ideas of fashion just to get a kiss now and then."
Alice grimaced. "That was way too much information."
Eric laughed. "You're such a prude."
Dressed in the dark charcoal suit he'd worn before, Gau moved toward her with as much languid grace as the many different types of cats she'd seen on the Veldt. She smiled and hurried forward.
"Hey, handsome. You look great." She wrapped him up in a hug.
"Alice, you smell good. What you wear?"
Alice pulled back with a giggle. I just had a melodious laugh! Carol, eat your heart out! "I picked some of those flowers we found on the Veldt and made a perfume. Carol and my mom helped, so it didn't take that long. You like it?"
Gau nodded, and his smile twinkled in his eyes. "I like very much. You wear all time. Okay?"
She smiled and took hold of his arm. "For you? Anything." She looked out at the Veldt and finally noticed the airship as more than a passing detail. "Are we going for a trip or something?"
"It's a surprise. No ask questions."
Alice looked over at Gau. "A surprise?" She grinned. "I love surprises."
Setzer met them at the top of the gangplank with a bow and that same silky smile. "Miss Alice. You look as radiant as ever."
"Thanks, Setzer. And I promise I won't be stealing your ship anymore."
Setzer chuckled. "Hopefully you don't plan on jumping off rope ladders either."
Alice smirked and followed Gau on board. "Promise." They stepped on deck and Alice noticed a faint glimmer coming from the aft. "Ooo. I'm dying of curiosity."
Gau didn't say a word. He simply continued to lead her toward the aft. Once they cleared the central cabin she saw the exquisitely set dinner table. There was a silver candelabra on each side of the table, a crystal vase in the center with a single white rose, and two fine china place settings.
Alice's hands tightened around Gau's arm as she stared in teary wonder at it. "Oh, Gau. It's gorgeous." She looked over at him. "How... Who... What made you think of it?"
Gau's chest puffed up in pride. "I think of by myself. Learn enough of romance by Locke and Edgar to know what girls like."
The ship shifted slightly and Gau led her to her seat, pulling it out for her in true gentleman fashion. She looked around her. "Are we going someplace?"
Gau came to sit across from her. "We fly above Veldt while eat. Then-- I no tell. Surprise."
Alice wiped away a tear and spread the napkin across her lap. "Another one? If it's as wonderful as this one, I don't think I'll survive."
Gau laughed. "I want first date to be special. So, I want see surprise on your face. Make my heart happy when see."
Alice flushed. "I don't know what to say."
"Then say nothing. I see enough in eyes to know."
Alice looked up to catch his gaze. Her expression softened. Gau flushed and moved his focus to the trays on the table. Alice vaguely noticed the compelling sound of a beautiful mezzo-soprano voice coming from the bow of the ship. She leaned this way and that as she tried to see where it was coming from.
He looked up from the food trays on their left as he uncovered a couple of plates. "Hmm?"
"Who’s singing? She’s got a lovely voice."
Gau smiled wide. "That Maria. She and Setzer very much in love. Been together many year now. She sings at Opera House."
Alice’s eyes widened. "Maria from the Opera House is a friend of yours? Do you know everyone that’s worth knowing?"
Gau chuckled his infamous purr, which promptly tickled Alice’s spine and covered her skin with goosebumps. "Don’t know. You give list and I tell who I know."
Alice giggled and wrinkled her nose at him.
Gau motioned to the uncovered trays of food. "I hope Alice like... I mean, I hope you like fish. I fish for many hours trying to find perfect one for tonight."
"I don't think I've ever hated fish. Did you cook it?"
He reached his hand out for her plate and she handed it to him. "Yes. I cook good. Always been so."
She smiled. "Then I'm sure I'll love it."
"It okay if no like. I could go to Veldt and kill Adamant." He glanced toward her with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. "Only take moment to do."
She pulled her napkin off her lap with a laugh and smacked his shoulder with it. "Very funny."
He grinned and handed her back her plate. It was filled with fish, fresh vegetables she'd seen only on the Veldt, and some tubers that she'd never seen anywhere. He started serving up his own dinner as she continued to examine her plate.
"Did you get everything off the Veldt?" she asked him.
"Why go different place when home have everything I need?"
"That's true." She closed her eyes and took in a slow breath of the aroma of the dinner, filing the memory away. When she opened her eyes again, Gau watched her with an odd expression. "Don't worry, Gau. It smells absolutely glorious."
"I no worry of that."
Alice's smile faded. "Then what's the matter?"
He gave a slight shake of his head as he reached his hand across the table to take hers. "Nothing wrong. I... I feel strange. Excited but scared at same time for tonight to start. Thoughts much strong, like before."
Alice's smile returned as she gripped his hand. "It sounds like you're as nervous as I am. It's natural for a first date, Gau. Just try and ignore it. It's harder than it sounds, but that's all we can do."
He continued to hold her hand as his eyes focused on the plate in front of him. "I not hungry."
Alice giggled. "That's a common side-effect, unfortunately." She pulled her hand out of his and gave it a pat. "Try and take a few bites, at least, and then we can go and do your other surprise. Okay?"
Gau raised his eyes to hers and gave her a smile. "Okay."
But they both weren't very hungry. Excitement had filled their stomachs hours before with the jitters. So, they covered their plates with the extra tray covers and took each other’s hand as they walked around the deck, enjoying the mixture of coos and calls of the Veldt so few yards below them as well as the powerful and poignant voice of Maria. The twilight sky began to darken to black and the pair stopped at the railing and leaned against it, Alice standing so close to him that she felt his warmth through the velvet of her shirt. She gave a sigh and noticed he turned his face to watch her.
"Alice very pretty in star light."
Alice's cheeks flushed as she lowered her chin and eyes to stare at her fingers. "Thank you." She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. "You're not so bad yourself."
He smiled and gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "You ready for other surprise?"
Alice looked over at him with a self-conscious giggle. "I was having so much fun that I completely forgot about that."
"Then we go now to surprise. Okay?" She nodded, taking his offered hand as he whistled a unique call and then moved to the side of the ship near the entrance/exit. "Remember, Alice, no ask questions."
"It's going to drive me crazy, but I know."
"Just a little longer." He looked over at her. "Take off shoes, Alice. Much better that way."
She arched an eyebrow, but then released his hands to slip out of her black heels. He did the same with his black leather loafers. Then he took hold of her hand again. The ship seemed to pull toward the left, and Alice's hand tightened in Gau's. He smiled over at her and squeezed back. Then, when she thought she couldn't stand any more secrecy, the ship slowed and lowered to the ground. She sent Gau an uncertain look, but he gave her hand another squeeze before leading her toward the exit and down the plank to the beach below.
The moon reflected off the water like a fantasy spear of light, shimmering with each wave that pressed against the familiar velvety soft sands that seeped between Alice's toes.
"Oh my gosh…"
He pulled her forward with a gentle tug. "Come here much when you left to Academy. Sound of water helped me think better. Memories make me not so alone."
Alice changed her gaze from the ocean to Gau. "You mean...?"
Gau moved his eyes to hers. "So many thoughts of you be here. Where we laughed and talked. Had much fun." He looked back out at the water. "This our place. I wanted you to know, so you could have it too."
Alice's eyes glimmered, and she stepped forward to wrap him up in a tight embrace. "I love it."
He wrapped her up in his arms with a slight sigh. "No secrets here. Just your heart and mine. Okay?"
Alice nodded against him and hugged him tighter. She thought she felt him press his lips against her hair, and then he carefully pulled back.
He looked down into her face with a slight smile. "We go for walk. Listen to water. Listen to heart. Listen to Veldt. Okay?"
She nodded again, taking his offered hand to pad along beside him in the soft sands as the sound of the water fell in the happy silence between them.
Alice put a small white blossom into the center of the spiral of hair on the crown of her head. She smiled, smoothing the dark purple satin of her full-length evening gown before straightening the sleeves that came off her shoulders. The diploma framed and hanging on the wall opposite the mirror caught her attention. She'd graduated with high honors. So had Gau.
Alice blushed, lowering her eyes to the new shawl she'd received from Relm. The couple's best times together during the two months since their first date had been when they'd studied. Much as Alice had suspected, he had a quick mind and a quicker intelligence behind those catlike eyes. His math and writing skills had caught up to hers in barely three weeks time. So had his composition. Then, before she knew it, he led their study group in math while Alice led literature. They shared history and geography.
Studying him and schoolwork had been fun, only getting tense when they'd said goodnight outside her home. Gau had only kissed her on the forehead or cheek. Otherwise, he'd touched her nose with his.
She'd asked him once if he knew how to kiss. His ears had gone red and he'd told her "yes."
"Then why won't you kiss me goodnight?" she'd asked.
He'd cleared his throat and rubbed the back of his neck as they walked toward her home. "Kiss is a much feeling thing, Alice."
"Really personal, you mean?"
He had dipped his head and cleared his throat again. "I want to make sure... No, I know you are special, Alice. I just want to make sure we both ready for what it means to us."
Alice had never given kissing that much thought, but now she really understood what he'd meant. Holding back had made it a lot easier to get to know each other on a deeper level. If they'd started kissing already, they probably wouldn't have wanted to do anything else. Now Alice smiled and turned away from the mirror. Rubbing noses was pretty darn exciting sometimes. It was a different kind of intimacy.
She liked it. A lot.
"Alice?" Her mom opened the door to her room and stepped inside. She surveyed her only daughter with a teary smile. "You're growing up too fast."
She sniffed and came forward to turn Alice back to the mirror as she stood behind her. Mother and daughter stood in front of the mirror with teary smiles. They looked so much alike that they could've been sisters.
Alice's mom touched a loose ringlet on her daughter's neck. "Gau's here."
Alice took hold of both her mom’s hands to lead her over to the side of the bed. They sat down. "Mom, what do you and dad think about Gau?"
"I think he's a sweet young man with an incredibly big heart."
"Your dad appreciates Gau's determination and his willingness to help out. He's not afraid of a little hard work, and your dad respects that."
"So, you like him?" Alice pressed.
Alice's mom smiled. "Yes, dear. We like him."
Alice's face brightened with a smile and she gave her mom's hands a squeeze. "Okay. Good."
She stood and accepted her mom's help to wrap the fringed black shawl 'just so' about her shoulders. Then Alice gave herself one last survey before heading out of her room to the living room. Gau waited by the door while talking to her father about setting up crops on a portion of the Veldt close to their house.
He was dressed in a charcoal tuxedo - he looked better in charcoal than in black - with a vest and no tie. The shirt was collarless and buttoned all the way to the top. His hair was thoroughly combed and tied back with a dark piece of leather. In his hands he had a single white flower from the Veldt near their beach.
Alice's eyes twinkled. "Hey, handsome."
Gau sent his gaze in her direction and immediately stopped talking. His mouth seemed permanently fixed in the last stated syllable. Her dad coughed as he watched the reaction. Alice looked down at her dress, smoothing it here and there before adjusting her shawl and changing her eyes back to his. His mouth hadn't closed yet.
She giggled. "I think I'll take that as a compliment." She made her way over to him and stood on tiptoes to place a kiss on his cheek. "Thank you."
His ears flushed as he shut his mouth with a click. He wordlessly presented her the flower.
Alice took it and closed her eyes as she breathed in the delicate scent. It had become her all-time favorite. She looked over at her mom. "Do we have another vase to put this in?"
Her mom nodded and stepped forward to take the flower. "I'll put it in your room."
"Thanks, mom." She gave her a kiss on the cheek. "I won't be out too late, I hope."
"Have fun, you two."
Gau presented his arm, and she nestled her hand in the nook of his elbow. They headed out of her house and toward the airship on the outskirts of the town. The graduation party was going to be on the airship while it took them all around the Veldt. Alice and Gau had made the suggestion, and it had been received with wild enthusiasm.
"Are you excited about the party?"
Gau finally changed his gaze from her face. "Yes. I not go to a party since the wedding."
It still amazed Alice how smooth his speech had become over the past two months. To be honest, she missed his shorter sentences. "Queen Terra's?"
Gau nodded and looked back over at her. "Is it okay for me to give you a present?"
Alice smiled. "Of course. I love presents. You know that." She stopped and faced him. "I have one for you, too, but I'll have to give it to you later."
Gau shook his head. "No, Alice. Let's exchange gifts together."
"Well, it'll be kind of difficult, but... Okay." She gave his hand a tug and led him to the tree outside the window of her room. She pointed at some pastel blossoms surrounding the tree. "There."
Gau knelt, touching the flowers very gently. "From our beach?"
Alice shook her head as she moved to stand behind him. She leaned against him and placed a hand on each of his shoulders. "Nope. Remember the dying plant and the seeds?"
Gau looked over his shoulder at her. "They survived?"
Alice nodded with a sparkling smile. "They survived."
He stood and pulled her into a hug. "Thank you, Alice."
"I told you not to worry, didn't I?" She tightened her arms around him, and then she pushed back. "Now, where's my present?"
He grinned and began diligently searching his pockets. After a moment, his smile warped to a perplexed frown. "Now where I put?" he mumbled.
Alice hid a smile behind her hand.
He broke out into a sudden smile and pulled his hand from his vest pocket. Out came a tightly braided leather cord. A gleaming bit of ivory and some colored beads weighed it down in the center.
Alice gasped and reached her hands out to cup it in her palms. "Oh my... Did you make this?" She looked up and met his eyes. They twinkled with his smile. "It's gorgeous!"
He took it from her hands and went to stand behind her, draping it across her neck and sealing the handmade clasp. Alice looked down at the ivory and took it up in her fingers. The shape looked familiar. He came to stand in front of her again and gave a nod of approval.
Alice raised her eyes to meet his. "Gau, where did you get this?" She pointed at the ivory. "It looks like a tooth."
Gau's ears went pink as he lowered his eyes to the ground. "It is."
"It looks like a dragon tooth."
He kicked at a pebble but didn't say a word. Every once and a while he glanced toward her.
"Gau." She stepped closer and took his hands in hers. He met her eyes. "Gau, you know I love it, but please don't ever do that again. I care about you more. Okay?"
His eyes held hers as he squeezed her hands. "Okay, Alice. I'm sorry."
She shook her head and then embraced him. "Don't be. I know you can take care of yourself, but I don't want you putting yourself in danger like that just to make me jewelry. I'd much rather have you." She pulled back. "Please?"
Gau reached up and lightly touched her cheek. Then he leaned down to touch her nose with his. "Okay."
She giggled and fell into step beside him as he started toward the ship. "Do you still want to go to the beach this weekend with Carol, Eric, and Relm? She’s really excited about it."
Gau chuckled, and the purr made Alice glow. "A weekend camp out with friends will be fun. It will give us a chance to check up on that field of flowers."
Alice nodded as she adjusted her arms around Gau’s. "Didn’t you say it had gotten bigger?"
Gau nodded and sent her a happy smile. "At least three times bigger. Any ideas on why?"
Alice’s brow furrowed in concentration as she worried her lower lip. "I’m not really sure. I’ve thought that there might be an underground freshwater spring from our beach, or maybe from one of the mountain ranges from the north, but I won’t know anything for sure until King Edgar can bring the equipment."
"We could bring shovels and do some digging."
Alice giggled and met Gau’s serious gaze. "While it sounds fun, I think Relm and Carol would kill us."
Gau grinned. "Maybe. Maybe not. The Veldt is their home too."
"Yes, but Carol takes great care with her nails, you know."
Gau laughed just as the two boarded the airship to cheers and confetti.
"Congratulations on the high honors medal," Carol said as she wrapped both Alice and Gau in a hug. "What are you going to do with your newfound fame?"
"Fame? What are you talking about?" Alice looked over at Gau, but he only shrugged.
"You don't know?" Carol's mouth stood open. "Alice, the King and Queen are here to honor your achievement!"
"What?" Alice's eyes sparkled with excitement. Gau grinned at her. "Where are they?"
"I think they're with Captain Gabbiani; down below."
Gau took Alice's hand again. "Don't think about this big thing until it's time, Alice. You’re at the party now, so let's relax and have fun."
Alice took in a deep breath and released it slowly as she nodded her head. She sent him a smile. "Good idea."
He returned her smile before looking over at Carol. "We’re going to dance, Carol. You coming?"
She waved her hand at him. "No. I've been on the dance floor too much. My feet are killing me."
"Already?" Alice laughed with a shake of her head. "You're a lightweight, Carol."
"Oh yeah? Let's see how well you do in 3 inch heels."
Alice lifted her dress. She had on black leather moccasins. "Gau gave them to me on my 18th birthday."
"Wow. I bet they're comfortable."
Alice lowered her dress. "You got it. I'll be able to dance 'til dawn." She looked over at Gau. "If you don't mind."
He held her eyes with a slight smile and actually put his arm around her waist. "I don't."
Carol watched the two with a smile. "You two are soo cute."
Gau leaned down to caress Alice's nose a bit longer than he usually did, and Alice felt her cheeks blush. She smiled up at him anyway. When he pulled back, she held his eyes for a moment longer before turning to give Carol a friendly smile. "We'll be on the dance floor, Carol."
She giggled, and Alice didn't cringe.
Alice took hold of the hand that was still sitting on her hip and kept her eyes on the floor of the ship as she tried to scare the mammoth butterflies away.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
The sounds of music and laughter eased her heart a little. "Nothing's wrong, Gau." Alice gnawed her lower lip. "It's just... well..." She sent him a sidelong glance. "I'm not interested in seeing anyone else. If that's okay with you."
He intercepted one of her glances and stopped walking. He faced her. "You don't want to stay at the party?"
"No! I mean..." She flushed and cleared her throat. "That's not what I meant. I wanted to let you know that I'm not interested in being this close to anyone else." Alice lowered her gaze again. "I'm not saying 'marry me' or anything like that. I just wanted... well, I wanted to say that... Geez." Alice raised her eyes to his. His twinkled with his smile. "Don't laugh at me," she protested with a reluctant giggle.
"Alice, you're funny." He smoothed some hair off her cheek and then enfolded her hand in his. "I like what you're saying," he told her. "I want to keep seeing just you, too. I like our special feelings. And I want to make more."
Alice held his eyes, and then she headed again for the dance floor. "So, Gau, do you think we're getting a little closer than just… 'dating'?"
Gau nodded as his thumb caressed her hand. "We keep on like this. Okay?"
Alice moved her eyes to his, watching the emotions flicker in his gaze. "I told you before I hadn't been in love before, but I think I am now."
Alice's throat tightened. "Really?"
He nodded with a quick half smile that glowed in his eyes. "I like this feeling."
"So do I."
"Well if it isn't the couple of the hour."
Alice looked away. Her eyes immediately focused on Relm. She was wearing a rainbow of colors by way of the bold print scarf covering her blonde curls and a blood red skirt with matching shirt that had embroidery around the cuffs and waist. There were multicolored beads around her waist and her neck, and she had a splash of color in the shape of a flower painted on the front of her skirt.
Alice grinned. "Hey, Relm. You look as artistic as ever."
Relm smirked as she tugged a tall, good-looking, blonde, and muscular man in a gray suit behind her. "Hey, I do what I can for you poor deluded souls." She gestured to the man standing at ease beside her. "This is Sabin. Sabin, this is Alice."
"Mr. Thou," Gau said with a grin. He walked up and gave Sabin a tight bear hug.
"How many times do I have to tell you that Cyan is Mr. Thou." Sabin clapped him on the back and pushed away, grinning as widely as Gau was. "How've you been, Gau?"
"Good. I've finished school. With a medal."
"Congratulations. I knew you could do it." Sabin changed his intense eyes to Alice. "Alice, how are you?"
Alice smiled at the remembered stories from Gau and extended a hand. He clasped it gently. "I'm fine. It's nice to finally meet you."
Sabin raised an eyebrow. "Uh-oh. That makes me nervous." He raised his hands with an innocent expression. "Whatever Gau told you, I deny."
Gau grinned and Alice giggled. "We’ll save that debate for another time." Sabin’s smile was easygoing and sparkled in his crisp eyes. "Are you visiting your brother?" Alice asked.
"Later tonight. I needed a couple days off from school responsibilities. Running a training facility is harder than I though it’d be." He motioned toward Relm. "And she needed someone to bring her."
Relm made a face. "I didn't want Riley thinking I was sweet on him, the odd fish. Besides, Sabin and I've gotten pretty good at chucking rocks together." She looked over at him, missing the grimaces that Alice and Gau shared at the mention of rocks. "Maybe we can get a little practice in before you take me home?"
"Great." Relm turned her eyes back to Alice. "I met that Carol person you talked about. She's a little on the empty side, but she's not too bad. Nice girl, really."
Alice smiled. "I know."
"But I haven't spotted this Eric guy. What's he look like? I figure I should meet him since we’re going camping this weekend and all."
Alice looked around the sea of faces. "Gau, you're taller than me, do you see him?"
Gau sniffed as he looked. "He's by the railing."
"Really?" Relm stood on tiptoes and tried to peer above all the people that were taller than her, which encompassed pretty much the entire ship. "I'll head on over." She looked over at Sabin. "You be okay by yourself?"
Sabin gave a slight smile. "I'll manage. You go have fun."
"Ta-ta." Relm waved her fingers and made her way toward Eric.
Alice tugged on Gau's sleeve. "I've got to see this, Gau. Come on."
Gau chuckled and let himself be pulled along. "I'll talk to you later, Sabin?"
"Alright. I think I'll find Edgar and Terra and say 'hi'."
Gau nodded just before disappearing into the crowd after Alice. "Why do you need to see Relm and Eric so bad?"
"I've seen how Relm tries to get guys' attention, Gau. I want to see how Eric handles it. The other guy didn't do so hot."
Gau shook his head with another chuckle.
"Hey there," Relm greeted as she approached Eric at the railing.
Eric looked over at her, and it seemed to Alice that his green eyes perked with interest. Oh, this'll be good.
"Hey yourself," he said with a smile.
Eric straightened and leaned against the railing in his most cool posture possible. Alice nearly sniggered aloud.
Relm came to stand beside him and leaned her arms against the railing to look out and over the ship's side. "What were you looking at all by yourself?" She sent him a coquettish glance. "You drop something?"
"Nope. Just wondering if the girl of my dreams is on the Veldt. Lots of other things are." He changed his gaze from his brown loafers to her. "What's your name?"
Relm stared down at the Veldt for a moment or two before turning around and leaning against the railing like he was. "You can call me Em."
"Em? As in Emily?"
Relm wrinkled her nose. "You think a girl as high-class as me would have a name like that? No, as in Emerald."
Eric laughed. "Sorry, Em. Didn't mean to be dense."
"That's okay. It's been going around lately." She sent him a sidelong glance. "You know, you're quite a looker. Why don't you have a girl on your arm already?"
"They're not interested."
"Then they're brain-dead."
Eric laughed again. He changed his eyes to her again. "Why don't you have a guy following you around?"
Relm played innocent. "Why would I?"
"Blonde curls. Green eyes. Nice figure. Need you ask?"
Alice hid a laugh behind her hand. He's doing pretty good. Of course, Relm's taking it easy on him.
Relm smiled. "When you're right, you're right. But, if you must know, I'm too much for them to handle."
Eric raised an eyebrow. "You? You're joking."
Relm surveyed him for a moment or two, and then she lowered her eyes to his arm. Alice's lips twitched. Uh-oh. She's going to do it!
"Joking? No, I'm quite serious." Her finger traced circles up his jacket sleeve all the way to his shoulder, her eyes following it until they focused on his. She stood on tiptoes, leaning against him in just the right way as she whispered in his ear. "I bite."
He turned his head to look down in her eyes, half closed as they were, and gave a slight smirk. "Aren't you afraid they might bite back?"
She gave a very slight shrug, and her eyes held his. "Haven't met one yet who has the mettle."
His lips quivered with a laugh for a moment, and then he took hold of the hand that was on his shoulder and twirled her so that her back was against him, their arms crossing her chest. He lowered his mouth to her ear. "Rowr."
Relm twirled away with a laugh. "Hey, you're fun."
Alice straightened from their hiding place near the bow of the ship and felt Gau enfold her hand in his. "Wow. They actually clicked. What a shock." She looked over at Gau in time to catch the slight snicker and the brief shake of his head. "What's so funny?"
"Relm's too young for someone like Eric. They will be close, like friends, but no more. They're not right."
"Hey, you never know."
He only gave her a slight smile as he led her to the dance floor. "Nope. I thought you were in love with Eric, remember?"
She stepped into his arms and rested her cheek against his chest as they fell into step with the live orchestra. "Good thing I didn't listen to you, huh?"
He released a deep breath and rested his cheek on her hair. "Good thing we didn't listen to each other."
Alice closed her eyes with a slight smile and snuggled in closer. Now this is forever.
Alice took in a deep breath of the early morning autumn air on the Veldt as she walked, gathering samples for more of her research. The two-year scholarship to the Academy would have been great, and she'd been honored when they'd presented that to her at the graduation party almost three months before, but the opportunity of being close to the Veldt and doing even more studies on its ecosystem was her real dream. They'd understood that, too. So, King and Queen Figaro had agreed to fully fund her research into finding a cure for the Veldt's hesitant recovery.
Alice noticed a bright patch of grass and stopped. Well that's interesting. She knelt and lowered her face to the grass and ground, taking in a deep smell of the aromas of both. That fertilizer worked! She opened her pack and took out a small container, untwisting the cap and setting it aside as she pulled out a miniature trowel. She took a sample of the grass and the ground around it, placed it into the container, and then sealed it back up again before putting it back into her pack. She slung it over her shoulder and stood.
Alice's grip tightened on the strap of her pack. Oh geez. Not again. She cleared her throat and cautiously moved her free hand to the dagger at her belt. Gau had been giving her lessons.
Alice adjusted her grip on the dagger and slowly began pulling it out. Not this time, kitty kitty. She made a move to turn and was tackled from the side, limbs enfolding her as the thing knocked her off balance and made her tumble and roll against the ground. She skidded to a halt a good 20 feet from where she'd originally been and blinked up into the grinning face of Gau.
He lowered his face to hers and rubbed noses. "Hi, Alice. Sleep good?"
"Gau, you gave me the shock of my life!"
She tried to get up while using some of the wrestling moves he'd taught her, but she went tumbling again with a shriek and some laughter. When she stopped, he was still crouched on top of her wearing the same silly smile.
"Morning walk good?" he asked.
She noticed his lack of complex grammar and fought a smile as she sent him a shake of her head. "Gau, just let me up so I can talk to you like a normal human being." He readied his stance, adjusting his position when it seemed like she was going to try and get loose again. She gave up gracefully, letting her head full of hair decorated with bits of dirt and grass relax against the Veldt's hard soil. She smiled up at him, and then she giggled. "I slept wonderful and my morning walk was great. I found a bit of really green grass from the fertilizer I used last week and got a great sample. How are you?"
Gau changed his position so that she could sit up. "Gau much happy."
Alice brought a hand up to clear some of the debris from her hair, but she stopped when she saw her hand clutched a little wooden box. Her heart caught in her throat.
"Open, Alice. Open."
Alice moved her other hand to pull the lid off. Inside was an ancient golden band with a blue gem. A gem from the cave on their beach.
"Shiny, shiny, shiny," Gau told her in a happy voice barely above a whisper.
Alice dropped the lid and covered her mouth. Tears brimmed as she raised her eyes to his. "Oh my…"
He moved closer and took the ring from the box. "Give hand." She dropped the box with an absent movement and put her right hand in his. "Marry?"
All Alice could do was stare at him as the tears flowed. She gave a slight nod moments before she threw herself into his arms so hard he fell backwards with a laugh.
"This new Alice Rage? 'Gau ravage'?"
Alice giggled and pushed back so that she could see his face. His eyes sparked with laughter and happiness. She rested her arms on his chest. "I love you, Gau."
"I love you, too, Alice." He reached up and caressed her cheek, tucking some of her tousled hair behind her ear as he did so. "Veldt and Alice in heart so big it burst."
"And that's one of the things I love about you, Gau."
He cupped her chin in his hand as he examined her face. "Alice?" His eyes darkened a little with uncertainty.
She gave him a reassuring smile. "What, Gau?"
Gau rolled, taking her carefully along with him to a better position so that he could stand and help her to her feet. He held her gaze. "Kiss?"
Alice lifted a hand to caress his cheek. "Kiss."
The uncertainty melted with his smile, and Gau lowered his head. His lips gently met hers in a pure token of devotion and love.