David spent the morning sitting out while the squadron drilled, but he was in good company, because Kiyoshi and Elwin were still suspended. They told him stories, mostly of the humorous variety, and he tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to explain the concept of television. The end result was that they were all laughing hard enough to make his bruised ribs ache and Oonu snap off a sharp scolding in their direction.

Yelling aside, it was a nice break. He almost managed to forget that Romana was gone and the rest of the squadron was eyeing him with deep suspicion.

Almost. And even if he had managed to forget, it would have all come rushing back when Aolani and Bridget cornered him shortly before dinner.

"David," Aolani called out, flagging him down on the cliff path to the mess. "Wait!"

He stopped walking. "Hey. What's up?"

Bridget made a face, amused. "The sky, the clouds, the skybaxes, the blossoms of the century plant. Strange question."

"Not in the Outer World," he said, wondering at the slip. The Dinotopian greeting came easily to him, most of the time... maybe the earlier conversation regarding TV had stuck with him.

Neither of them looked as though they really cared. "Well, we just wanted to ask you whether Stratus was still here," Aolani said.

That was one of the few bits David actually knew, having checked around before the squadron met. He gave them a smile that felt fake even to him, and said, "No, she took him."

"Is Chaz sick?" Bridget asked, eyes wide in innocence. "I can't think of any other reason she would rush to Sauropolis."

"And she was so upset," Aolani added. David began to get the distinct impression that he was being tag-teamed. "As her partner, we thought you would know. Do you?"

"I - no."

Bridget said, "She's really such a nice person, but she's been so out of sorts lately."

"The accident the other day must have been too much, especially with what happened to-" Aolani broke off suddenly, flushing, and glanced at Bridget for help.

"-To other riders over the years," Bridget said, scrambling. "She's lived here most of her life, after all."

Another piece in the Denison tangled history clicked into place. One or both of them must have died in an accident, or been injured enough to make a strong impression on Romana. Somewhere in a corner of his mind, he noted with amazement that she'd never shown any sign of fear or stress on the mesa. She handled her phobias better than he did, apparently. "Oh, of course."

Aolani abruptly changed tactics. "You didn't try to pull something stupid like a one-night stand, did you?"

It was such an outrageous question, and one that came so completely out of left field, that all he could do was look utterly indignant and say, "No! Not - No. Never. I'd never do that. My brother, yeah, but not me."

Bridget and Aolani regarded him with twin frowns, which he met with more righteous indignance. After a moment, Aolani tilted her head and asked, "So you have no idea what's wrong?"

He hesitated for a moment, wondering how much he should tell them - how much he could tell them without breaking Romana's confidence, because she obviously didn't want it to be general news or she would've told them already. Finally, he said, "I know what she told me, but there's no way for me to fix it." Short of traveling back in time and letting the entire island die or drowning in a plane crash, that is.

Bridget said, "Oh," and that was apparently that, because they shrugged and went on their way, leaving one slightly confused and slightly angry dolphinback in their wake.

He did not understand women, and he understood Dinotopian women even less.


Barely after dawn on the second day, a messenger came into the city with the news that the expedition to the un-lost lost city of Ahmet-Padon had run into a roving band of dilophosaurs. The small carnosaurs were just as antisocial as their bigger cousins in the Rainy Basin, and even hungrier due to lack of traffic. The four torosaurs and the dromaeosaurs - of which there were two, it turned out, one extremely old and one barely out of the nest - were quickly overwhelmed, to say nothing of the humans.

The second-year squadron was called up to help the third-year cadets in defending the expedition. All bodies were needed, so David found himself and Freefall soaring along, and although their squadron wound up doing little more than simply flying above the action, it was the most real excitement he'd had since the night the sunstones had died.

But in the middle of it all, banking into a thermal while organized chaos swirled all around them, he'd looked over his shoulder and felt a deep sense of... wrongness. There was only empty air where Romana and Stratus should have been.

She'd burned her bridges, he kept telling himself all that morning as they returned to Canyon City, and he should just accept that and move on; get ready to get a new wingmate, which he would probably be doing whether she rejoined or not.

There was just one little problem. He didn't want a new wingmate.

To tell the truth, he liked Romana, as a person and a friend - had liked her ever since the first day of training, when her matter-of-fact calm had taken some of the fear away from living on the edge of a cliff. If he had to be stuck with someone for the rest of his career in the Corps, she would've have been at the top of his list; they were both serious, diligent people who preferred study to play. And where he fell short - the vertigo thing, for example - she excelled; likewise, he was more flexible in his strategies than she was.

They really were a good choice to partner. He didn't want to throw all that away. At the same time, she had a point: should they stay together, she would likely be in his shadow. And so much damage had been done - largely inadvertently, true, but there it was all the same.

It bothered him. It bothered him a lot. It bothered him so much, in fact, that he did something he never, never, never wanted or intended to do, even in the blackest depths of desperation.

He asked Karl for advice.

The letter was sent alongside a spoken message bound for Marion, and the replies came before sunset that same day. Marion gave him the same polite excuse that she had before. Karl, though, had something to say.

"Davey - I hate to say it, since you're finally groveling and begging for my advice, but I know less about this than you do. Since when have I been friends with a girl? Since when have I worked with one? And no, Samantha doesn't count because she's nine, for Christ's sake, and Marion doesn't count because... you know."

He did know, and having it thrown in his face stung. Not as much as it once had, though, which made him wonder; not like his life was hanging in the balance now, to lessen the pain in comparison.

"All I can tell you is something Brandi told me - or maybe it was Kelly, I don't know. They kind of blur together after a while. It was some stupid thing from a magazine about meeting people halfway on big issues. So compromise, Davey. Let what's-her-name think she's right, at least partially.

"PS - Dad is of the Land. He's going to Volcaneum. He says hey."

Amazing how Karl claimed he didn't know anything and managed to sound like an expert anyway. David folded the letter up again and tucked it away with his other bits of paper and correspondence, thinking about it. Compromise. Yeah, he could do that. He was ready to make whatever sacrifices he needed to. The real question was, would Romana even want to compromise?


Three days.

David spent the morning with the squadron again, but this time, he was by himself; Kiyoshi and Elwin had been allowed to return to flying.

He sat and watched them all, not saying anything, not really thinking anything - just watching. And he decided that watching was a lousy way to spend his life. If there was a way to get everything back to normal, he'd take it.

On the way back to his quarters, a skybax swooped overhead, keening. He followed it with his eyes and recognized it with a small start. Stratus. That meant-

"You know what Chaz told me," Romana's voice said suddenly, behind him, and he turned quickly. She was standing not far away, looking as composed as always, although her uniform was a bit smudged from travel.

"What?" David asked, because that seemed to be the only proper response.

"That only a human would throw away her life's dream over worries." She walked over to him, the composure not fading - in fact only appearing to increase with every step. She belonged here, he thought; she was as much a part of the rocks and cliffs as the skybaxes or the pteranodons.

So he asked the six-million-dollar-question with hope in his voice and heart: "And did you agree?"

She gave him a sad smile. "No."

Hope died a splintered death. His breath caught, and he fought to keep the disappointment from his face and come up with something comprehensible to say in return. But what could he say? "Hey, I was looking forward to working with you for the rest of my life, but yeah, see you around?"

"Not at first," she went on, and all of sudden his heart started working again. "I thought that he wasn't listening, that he didn't understand, but then I thought about it..."

She trailed off, frowning down at the cliff, and he waited, anxious.

"You've heard people talk about the great ambassador Bix?" she asked, lifting her head and staring at the horizon.

He blinked at the shift in subjects. "Uh... yes."

"Chaz is very fond of quoting her. He gave me a scroll of her writings to review yesterday, and there was one in particular that helped me make a decision."

"What was it?"

" 'If all else fails, adapt,' " she said, taking a deep breath. "I think... Chaz was right. I need to stop worrying so much about what might happen. It's not worth losing... this." She gestured at the cliffs and sky.

"You're right," he ventured.

"I'm sorry I put you through all of this," she said, darting a glance at him. "You were right when you said that it was my problem and not yours."

That made him feel a lot better. At the same time, it made him mad at himself. Two sentences erased everything - all the worry and confusion and trouble, all magically gone in the space of a breath? Jesus.

But what he said was, "I hope we can do a little better this time."

"I know we can," she said immediately. The old intensity burned in her words, along with a clear, shining conviction that erased any of his own doubts. "You're a good man, David, and a brave one. I am honored to be your partner, and your... your friend. You fly as well as..."

"Your parents," he finished for her, remembering not to say "your father" just in time, and was rewarded with a wide smile.

"Yes, my parents." She sighed, the smile fading, and rubbed her forehead. "I've been a fool."

He hesitated, then said, "You're right."

Romana gave him a dirty glare, then broke into laughter. "Well, thank you," she said between laughs, smacking his arm with no hint of ill-will.

"You're welcome," David said, grinning back at her with the sun shining down and the blue sky stretching away all around them, and for once it did not matter how far down the canyon went. He had a feeling he'd fallen already.

END


Thank-yous:

I would like to extend deep and heartfelt thanks to my bestest friend, Alhazred, who doesn't know Dinotopia from Adam but gave thoughtful feedback nonetheless; to my stepmom, for buying the DVD, which made a much better reference than the static-y VHS I had; and my Children's Lit class, which gave me an excuse to haunt the Junior Fiction section of the library without fear of discovery (you know, someone jumping out and saying, "You! Aren't you too old to be down here?"). I'd also like to thank those of my profs who cancelled class and gave me a few blissful days in which to finish this darn thing.