Author Note: In regards to the fact that I haven't updated in forever, there's not a whole lot I can say except, Ooops! Please forgive me?
I won't keep you from reading, as there's a possibly you've been waiting for this for a while, so if you're an old reader, welcome back. If you're new, welcome. I hope you enjoy.

True to the words that Corin spoke, the next week did bring with it the little examinations, much to the displeasure of all the pages: the first through third years, because they would be participating in the tests; the fourth years, because it meant that the big examinations were only a week away. In addition to the examinations however, the following week brought about something none of the pages had the knowledge to predict: a torrential downpour.

The night before the little examinations were to take place, Lord Padraig had stopped the pages from leaving the hall after supper with an announcement. Due to the fact that the rain had not ceased for more than a week, the practice fields were entirely unusable for testing purposes. Granted, there had been several knights who insisted that rain would not stop a war, and therefore why shouldn't the future knights in training be prepared to test even under the most horrid weather circumstances. Logic won out that it would be unfair to test the current pages in the rain and under conditions that their predecessors would not have had to face. As a result, the combat portion of the pages little examinations would be held in the indoor practice courts, instead of outdoors.

Had other things not been pressing on her mind, Inara would have been much more concerned, and relieved, to know that the examinations would not be held in the rain, nor postponed, as had been the rumor among many of her fellow pages. Even the squires who were around, gathering with their Knight masters to take place in King Jonathan's latest Progress, had insisted on tormenting the already nervous pages. Still, none of it seemed to have influenced Inara's train of thought. In fact, over the last week, the page had not even thought about the fact that she was facing the little examinations for what would hopefully be the last time.

Instead, Inara's focus had been on one thing only. Her touch. One year of her two years of training with the strange magic was up, and although she could practically heal on command any time she wished, Inara was still far from being able to control it. Just three days prior, she'd ended up unconscious due to an unstoppable healing. She wasted no time once she was awake in berating Gavin for not warning her he had incurred a broken wrist. He still refused to tell her how he had acquired said broken wrist, but that was beside the point.

Inara was at a loss of what to do about her power. Nothing she tried showed any signs of actually helping. Her brothers and father all suggested meditation, but no matter how much she meditated, her grip on her power didn't improve. At that point, Inara had to face the fact that she either had to figure out something new, or resign herself to the fact that she would never be able to stop herself from healing. And if that were truly the case, than it really didn't matter if she passed the little examinations or not. Uncontrollable healing meant that no one would choose her has a squire as it could mean death for everyone involved if she healed an enemy during battle. She could squire to a desk knight, or enter palace service, if that truly was the case, but Inara doubted she'd make it through her Ordeal if that happened. And if she did make it to her shield, what good would she truly be as a knight?

The answer was clear as day. If she couldn't get control over her Touch, then there was no point in continuing pursuit of her shield. And all the little examinations meant was that she was running out of time.

Those thoughts occupied Inara's mind when she woke up to yet another grey, cold, and very wet day. Normally, she would have woken up just before dawn by herself. However, instead of her internal clock summoning her from her latest Touch induced nightmare, Inara found herself startled into wakefulness by drastic pounding against her door.

Groaning, the thirteen year old extracted herself from her blankets, and made her way to answer the door. What she found on the opposite side of it didn't entirely surprise her. She was used to visitors on the day of the little examinations, although the group of individuals wanting her words of comfort had never not included Sam before. Seemingly her year mate was either still in bed, or had actually managed to calm his own nerves. Inara was leaning to the former option rather than the latter. As it was, the group in front of her door was large enough even without Sam as an addition. Three very scared looking first years stared at her as if she had sprouted four more heads.

"How can you still be in bed!" Thom practically shouted. Inara was actually a bit surprised. The three first years that her friends and she had taken on had never been quite that outspoken before. Not even when they were panicking over Midwinter service.

"She's insane," Matthew responded to his twin brother. The third member of their group, Aislinn, looked as if she would toss the contents of her stomach if she tried to speak.

Inara just shook her head at the three of them, and moved aside to let them in. "I take it none of you could sleep, so you found it necessary to interrupt my slumber?" she asked as she followed them inside, leaving the door open as was required when there were boys in a girls room, as well as to let her maid know she was already awake. Lidia was very good at estimating Inara's wake up time.

"I'll ask again, how can you be asleep? The little examinations are in like three hours!"

Inara sighed and placed both of her hands on Thom's shoulders. Even after the year, the tiny first years were still slightly shorter than she was. Aislinn was even their equivalent in height. "That's precisely why I was still asleep. If there was ever a day that you should get as much sleep as possible, it's today."

"I told you she'd say that," Aislinn muttered. Inara was glad she did, else she'd truly be afraid that the younger female page was going to be sick. Granted, Sam had used her privy the year before, maybe there was something in tradition.

"But you still agreed to come."

Aislinn just stuck her tongue out at her year mate in response. Inara ignored all three of them, and sat down on the foot of her bed, disrupting the slumber of the small cat that lay curled up beside her. He mewed pitifully, rose, stretched, and relocated to a less disturbed area of the page's bed, where he proceeded to go right back to sleep. "Is there something I can do for the three of you? Or did you just come to annoy me?" she asked the first years, glaring at them from under her eyelashes. Inara had never been a morning person. Couple that with the fact that she'd been woken up, and the fact that her constant worries prevented her from getting even a little sleep, made her probably the worst person that Thom, Matthew, and Aislinn could have gone to.

And yet, the three of them were not to be deterred, or so it seemed. Thom, who seemed to have been silently elected the leader for that morning, squared his shoulders and took a step towards his older friend. Inara wasn't sure what followed was even in Common.

Inara blinked several times in response to the flurry of words that shot out of the first years mouth. "What?" No other statement would have done justice. The boy had spoken so quickly, and jumbled so many words together, that even his two year mates, who did know why they were there, seemed to have entirely lost the purpose of his statement. Thom had gone bright red, and had resumed his normal demeanor of quietness. "One of you please tell me why exactly you're here before dawn, or leave. Now that you've woken me up, I'd like to get ready for the examinations in peace, or have you forgotten that I have tests too?"

The three first years looked down at their feet at the rebuke from Inara. The older girl just sighed and slapped her forehead. She hated dealing with these three alone when she wasn't exhausted and in the middle of the day. Still, they were her friends and they'd come to her for something. "Listen, I'm sorry ok. You all know I'm not good in the morning. Now tell me, what is it you need?"

Her words, spoken much kinder than the last ones caused Matthew to finally look up. "We were hoping you'd go over exam stuff with us. You know, so we can make sure we didn't forget anything."

Of course that's what they would want. Inara stood up from her seat on the bed and stretched, letting out a yawn. "Ok, fine. But just for a little," she told her younger friends. "If you still don't feel prepared, you can go bother Sam and Benton. They're you're sponsors too you know," she added. "Better yet, go bother Asten and Corin. They at least have nothing important to accomplish today."

Delighted that she was willing to help them and wasn't going to throw them out of her room single handedly, the three first years, began asking Inara every question they could think of. For the next bell, Inara, Aislinn, Thom, and Matthew reviewed everything the older page thought was likely to come up on the first years' little examinations, as well as practice a few hand-to-hand combat techniques. Only when Lidia came by with a steaming buckets of water for Inara's morning bath, did the older page kick the younger three out, reminding them that there were other friends who could use a wakeup call. She promised to meet them and the rest of their group outside the hall where the little examinations would be held, and then a little unceremoniously shut the door in their faces.

"It's adorable how they look up to you," the maid remarked to the page, as Inara did a few more stretches of her own. She could have done without the full body work out the twins and Aislinn had put her through, but at least she was limbered up for the day.

"Adorable would have been if they hadn't come by at 5 in the morning," Inara responded as Lidia disappeared into the wash room, laughing.

Inara kept her promise to the first years and met up with the rest of her friends outside the examination hall. Like the rest of them, she was clothed in her best dress uniform, with not a single wrinkle to be seen. No matter what any of the adults might say, she was still positive they all looked like bunch of giant walking fruitcakes in the red and gold colored tunic and hose, but she was a page, and it was not her place to argue.

Inara nodded to Matthew, Thom, and Aislinn as she passed by the first years who would take their little examinations first. Nick waved to her from the group of second years he was talking to, as Inara finally reached the stretch of wall where her three year mates were clustered. As always, Hakim ignored her arrival, much as he ignored the other two boys who stood near him. Inara ignored him right back. His attitude wasn't worth her time or attention. Instead, she folded her hands behind her back and leaned against the wall between her two friends.

"I missed you this year," she told Sam with a slight smile. "You didn't come by all panicky, asking me to calm you down.

"Awww, I didn't know you expected it."

"You know I'm a stickler for tradition," she laughed. "My chamber pot didn't get christened this year."

"Oh well. You had your hands full," Sam replied, jerking his head back down the line of pages toward where the first years waited nervously.

"You heard about that?"

"Inara, they came to us after you kicked them out. You couldn't have kept them busy just a bit longer?" Benton asked her. "I needed my beauty rest if I want to look my best for the ladies."

"Benton, no amount of beauty rest is going to get you a girl," Sam told him, laughing. Benton just pretended to look wounded. "Anyone seen Corin or Asten this morning?"

"Probably still in bed," Inara replied, "It's the only morning they have for it. Lord Padraig is too busy putting us through torture to worry about the fourth years," she added, fighting back a yawn.

"How come you're so tired, pup?" Benton asked her. Yes, she was normally cranky in the mornings, but even losing one hour of sleep to the whims of the sponsees shouldn't have tired her out so much.

"Haven't been able to sleep," was her simple response.

"She's been fretting about her touch," Sam elaborated, slinging his arm around her shoulder and giving her a tight one armed hug. "Still not going so well?" Inara just shook her head in response. As much as it was all she could think about, Inara wasn't really in the mood to discuss it. At that point, the healing power she'd received, that she'd begged for, was the biggest nuisance in her life.

"Well, I hope you were able to take a little time to study," Benton told her.

"Why? If I fail the little examinations, it'll just give me more time to get the stupid thing under control."

"Don't call it stupid," Sam told her. "If it weren't for your touch, I wouldn't be here," he reminded her. Inara nodded.

"Besides, if you fail, that's more time you've got to spend with the twins and Aislinn," Benton laughed. "Not to mention Nick."

"Good point," Inara admitted, smiling. Her two year mates really were helpful. Even when a situation seemed so desperate that it threatened to destroy her mental stability, they were able to calm her by making her think about the not so serious side of life. "Oh goodie, we're starting," she added as an afterthought nodding down the line towards the front where a door had just opened and Aislinn was shuffled inside.

"Goodie?" Both Sam and Benton asked, rolling their eyes and groaning. It was going to be one very long day.

The classroom part of the little examinations was over before Inara even registered that they had begun. When she'd entered the hall for her part in the examination she'd taken a moment to scan the audience. It was larger than it had been the previous year, being that so many knights were about the palace, awaiting the start of the progress; but not nearly as large as they had been her first year, when Prince Jasson had been ready to take his big examinations.

No one in particular had stood out to her. As his letter had stated, Jasson wasn't there. Part of her had hoped he would be, although her gut told her he wouldn't. The roads just weren't good enough for him to get through injured as he was. She had quickly brushed away her disappointment. In addition to the absence of her, could she really call him love, another absence peaked her curiosity. The strange knight, Sir Lee, was missing. She was sure that after he was on the board of examiners last year, and in the meeting with King Jonathan about the hurrok, that he would be there yet again. But even stranger than he was, Sir Lee was missing.

Inara hadn't let the puzzle bother her too much. Instead, she let her eyes settle on one individual who was there. Gavin sat just behind and to the left of the examiners, Sarra beside him. Inara could see their fingers intertwined, just barely, as two rows behind them, Master Numair sat with his arms crossed over his chest. Gavin caught Inara's eye and winked at her before the start of the questioning. It had given her confidence, knowing that Gavin supported her in all aspects of her training, and not just her touch.

As usual, Inara and the other pages all passed the question portion. She followed her year mates down the hall towards lunch, contemplating everything she knew she would need to prove during the physical portion that would come in only a couple of hours.

"Hey pup, you've got guests," Inara heard Nick say as they neared the entrance to the page's dining hall. She looked up to see who he was indicating. Inara knew her father wasn't going to be there. He was up at Ft. New Hope again with her aunt and uncle. Her mother was minding Dominic, although at ten, the boy had insisted he would have been fine alone with the stewards.

Surprise and delight lit her face when she saw who it was waiting for her outside the hall. Her grandfather stood conversing with four boys of varying heights. Inara's friends knew three of the youths as her older brother's Emry, Kennith, and Donalin. The fourth was unknown to them, but definitely not to Inara. She broke away from her group of friends in a run and thrust her arms around the stranger's waist.

He wasn't a boy like Emry or Kennith, or even like Donalin. There was something much more grown up about the nineteen year old who wore a heavy black robe over his shoulders. Like Inara, his hair was nearly black, and he wore it in a horse tail like the twins. However, unlike Inara, his eyes were a deep brown color. Only the fact that his nose matched that of the Duke, and the four other Queenscove children, told Inara's friends that the black robed mage must indeed be her eldest brother Baird.

"You made it!" Inara squealed in delight. In the last few months, battling so much with her power, Inara hadn't been quite that happy. She had last seen Baird the summer before she had started her page training. Just a few months after her tenth birthday, making it almost three years before. Since then, the eldest Queenscove had dove deep into his studies, striving to obtain his mastery. "You grew," she added.

Baird laughed, and ruffled her hair, prying the girl off him. "So have you. We just got here. Grandfather said we just missed the morning half of your exams."

"That's alright," she told him. "I'm just glad you're here at all. And a Master too," she added, whistling. She beamed up at him with pride.

"It's no big deal," Baird replied.

"Our brother, ever so humble," Emry quipped. Kennith laughed, while Donalin rolled his eyes.

"My brothers, the clowns," he remarked. Inara quickly realized she'd yet to greet them in her excitement at seeing Baird, and gave each of them a quick hug, and then proceeded to introduce her friends. She didn't spare her grandfather a hug either.

"We want to take you to dinner to celebrate," Donalin told her, as her friends began tugging on her sleeve. They'd spotted Lord Padraig approaching, and brothers or not, Inara was not allowed to be late for a meal, especially not on exam day.

"Celebrate? I haven't passed yet," Inara told him. Donalin rolled his eyes.

"We want to take you no matter what," Kennith corrected for his brother.

"Get permission," Emry told her, giving her shoulder a shove so she moved closer to her friends who were now desperate.

"I'll ask," Inara promised them.

"I will as well," Duke Baird told the girl. Inara beamed. Lord Padraig would be less inclined to deny her if the request came from the duke. Inara gave them all one last wave before allowing her friends to drag her into the hall, just a second before Lord Padraig entered. He gave the pages a look, but otherwise didn't say anything. Technically they were on time.

The indoor practice courts that afternoon were more crowded than Inara had ever seen them. Granted, she had only seen them full of pages and their teachers. Now spectators packed into the room, as well as the examiners. Ropes had been set up to designate the practice area where the pages were to demonstrate that they had indeed learned something over the course of the year. At one end of the practice space, a table had been placed with chairs for the examiners. Just behind it were seats for the pages instructors. Behind the ropes, the spectators stood in groups, hoping to get the best views possible. One set of doors on the left side of the room remained open. They lead to the indoor jousting arena. The room hadn't been used ever in Inara's memory of the three years at the palace. As far as she was knew, the room was never used. That day, it would be used for the pages to demonstrate their abilities with their mounts. Since their horses would have to be brought up from the stables, the examiners would test all the pages on that part of the exam at once. It wasn't ideal, but it was the best course of action.

Inara had followed her friends into that very room directly after they were excused for lunch. Dressed in their practice clothes, each of the pages sought out the hostler who was caring for their mount until they arrived. Inara found Hikari quickly in the care of the one palace hostler she knew well, Tobeis Boon. He had been a servant of her aunt Kel when he was younger, until he'd been ready to leave her and take a job that suited him much better. He'd already climbed the ranks, and although not chief hostler, he was getting close. Inara knew that with Tobe around, Hikari was in good hands. She thanked him as he handed the mare's reins over to Inara.

Inara and the rest of the pages had to wait until the examiners entered the room before they could remove the tact that had been placed on their mounts incorrectly, and then replace it in the correct manner. Only once that was complete did the examiners put the pages and their horses through their paces. At the far end of the field was a quintain dummy. The pages took it in turns to choose a lance, and strike the shield. The examiners scored them on how close they were to the center of the circle, scoring the pages harder as they got older. Inara had never been an amazing jouster, and she sent a silent prayer to the Goddess, hoping that she wouldn't score too low in the examiners eyes. As she made her pass at the quintain, Inara struck the shield just barely in the center, allowing her to ride through unharmed, unlike Nick, who had nearly been unhorsed when his lance barely brushed the edge of the quintain's shield. Inara made a mental note to visit the Goddess's temple later with an offering of thanks.

Hormanship done, the mounts were returned to the palace stables for a good rub down by the palace hostlers, while the pages took seats in what were normally the arena's audience space. They would be called one by one into the practice court to demonstrate their skills in hand to hand combat, staff work, sword skills, and archery. Inara was debating what her brother's would have in store for her that evening with Sam when she heard the applause that signaled the end of Hakim's examination.

"Your turn pup," Sam told her. For the first time all day, Inara looked genuinely nervous. She had never had her brothers at her little examinations before. Her father was one thing. He knew what she would be going through, and while she wanted to make him proud, something about her brothers being present influenced her more. More than anything, she wanted to make the four of them proud of her. She knew they were, but part of her worried if they wouldn't be more proud if she was at the convent learning to be a proper wife for one of her current friends.

Inara nodded, squared her shoulders and walked towards the entrance to the practice court, leaving Sam alone. Alphabetically, now that they were the third years, Sam was the last to be tested. Inara turned and gave him a weak smile, just as the herald came and let her into the court, shutting the door behind her.

She let her eyes focus for a moment before she made her way over to the table where the examiners were seated. As much as she wanted to locate her family, a larger part of her felt it might be best if she didn't know where they were. Inara bowed to the four men at the table, and then to her training master, who nodded to her in return. She was the second female page that these gentlemen would see that day, but the surprise that she was there showed on their faces. They were definitely conservative, meaning Inara would need to be at her very best if she wanted to pass.

The examiners started Inara in her archery demo. She was given five arrows, and asked to hit five different targets. The first three were stationary, each mounted 100 feet further than the one before it. Inara hit the first two dead center, and the third, just to the right of the bullseye. Had the target been an enemy, her shot still would have killed him. The last two targets were moving, once again positioned 100 feet apart. Her fourth shot was another good kill shot, but the fifth just grazed the target and would have caused a slight injury at best. Inara knew she lost points for it, and could have sworn she saw Sir Zahir grinning to himself in the corner of her eye. She knew others would be too, but the knowledge that one of her instructors wanted her to fail hurt just as much on the exam day of her third year as it had on her first day of training.

The examiners took her through hand to hand combat and staff work next. She executed each movement they asked of her to the best of her ability. It wasn't perfect, but she was sure she would have done equally well to Hakim, Benton, and Sam. She hoped it would be enough to offset her lousy archery shot.

Finally the examiners moved on to her sword skills. Here at least Inara knew she would be fine. The examiners would take her through the basics that the pages were taught during their normal sword lessons. Inara never missed a beat during that class, and could execute much more difficult maneuvers than she was expected to know. Still, she knew it was best not to get cocky, and maintained her concentration throughout. When she finished the exercises that they asked of her Inara noticed that the examiners looked startled. Probably surprised that she could accomplish what they asked flawlessly. She wasn't surprised that most of the practice court had gone quiet. After what seemed like an eternity due to the silence, although in reality was probably no more than a few seconds, the head examiner finally composed himself.

"That will do, Inara of Queenscove," he told her formally, moving his hand in a shooing motion. Inara bowed once again, showing her respect, and turned to go.

"Wait a moment," a voice interrupted her. Inara froze and turned back. The second examiner was studying her. "Come back for a second," he said, looking down at the notes on the table in front of him.

"Yes sir?" Inara asked, bowing yet again. Master Oakbridge would have been proud. She was definitely putting his teaching through its paces.

"You are one of Lord Padraig advanced sword students, are you not?" the old knight asked her. Inara began to nod, surprised by the question, before she realized her rudeness.

"Yes sir," she uttered.

"Show us something," the knight commanded simply, placing his elbows on the table in front of him, and placing his palms together. He studied her through pale blue eyes set under delicate brows that had probably been blonde before they turned silver like the rest of his hair.

Inara blinked. As far as she knew none of the other students had been asked to demonstrate anything different, but then again, Martin and Asten were both fourth years, meaning that they hadn't had exams yet, and Sam hadn't taken his either. Still, she wondered if any of Lord Padraig new additions to their group had been called to demonstrate what they learned. Casting her gaze to her training master, Inara instantly realized that they hadn't, as Lord Padraig looked just as surprised as she did. Still, he met her gaze squarely and nodded, mouthing something towards her: The Flower Opens.

The routine he spoke of was not the first one that popped into her head. It was much slower moving than most of the routine's she'd been taught, but it did have several more complex moves. She made a tiny nod toward Lord Padraig to tell him she understood and bowed to her examiners once more.

"Yes sir," she replied and stepped back into the center of the practice area. She faced an open space and imagined her opponent, which was much more difficult than if one had actually been there. She drew her sword from its scabbard and bowed to her invisible partner as she would were she in class, and began the first of the complex movements that the routine required.

The routine started with several moves where her sword barely left the surface of her body. Slowly, through the course of the routine, her blade moved further and further away. Several moves required Inara to swing the blade behind her back, or toss it from one hand to the other. The final move of her demonstration ended with Inara sweeping the blade around in a full three hundred and sixty degree turn, and land in a crouch position.

Slowly, Inara stood up and faced the judges. Her eyes fell on Lord Padraig for a moment and she thought she may have seen him smile. That was the first time Inara had executed the routine perfectly, granted, she hadn't had an actual partner to spar against. She placed her sword back in its scabbard at her side and bowed once more to the examiners, all of whom appeared stunned.

"That was… interesting," the examiner who'd requested the demonstration from her spoke. He seemed to be fighting with the words. Inara couldn't tell if he was pleased or not. "You learn well," he added. "But they say you can't control your magic."

The words left his mouth loud enough for the entire practice room to hear. Inara blushed a deep shade of red, and opened her mouth to respond.

"Dorvian of Groten, I do not believe this is the time or place to question Inara's control." Lord Padraig had stepped out on the practice courts. "Has she not already demonstrated proficiency in all areas of standard page examination?" The training master stood just in front and to the side of Inara, effectively shielding her from the conservative knight who was questioning her.

"She has, Lord Padraig," the knight replied. "But, she had not demonstrated that she can control her power. You cannot deny it would cause undo danger to her and those around her, should she win her shield, or even be taken on as a squire."

The hall had gone silent yet again, although murmurs had begun the moment Sir Dorvian called her touch into question. In the silence, Inara heard hushed whispering. She cast her gaze in the direction of the sound and her eyes fell on Gavin and Sarra. Gavin appeared to be fighting Sarra's grip on his arm, and had made a motion towards her and Lord Padraig. Only Sarra's quick whispers seemed to hold him in place. Just behind him, Duke Baird had his hands slapped over the mouths of both Donalin and Emry. Kennith and Baird, while silent, looked ready to kill the knight. Everyone else seemed to be waiting for Lord Padraig response.

"No I cannot," he agreed, and Inara's heart fell. "But it is not the job of the board of examiners to decide whether a page should continue training or not, just whether or not she had passed her examinations. It is at the discretion of myself and her other instructors that she continue or not continue. Or his majesty, of course."

"And do you and her other instructors believe Page Inara should continue?" One of the other examiners asked. He peered at Lord Padraig over half moon glasses.

"We do," Lord Padraig assured them. "Or Page Inara would not have been here to stand for her examinations. I believe I can speak for her instructor in magical control when I say that he believes she should continue on as well. As such, you do not make the decision today about her right to continue training."

"But we are able to voice our opinions," Sir Dorvian said. His palms were still together. The only aspect of his demeanor that showed he was not relaxed was the fact that he leaned forward in his seat, looking at both Inara and her training master as a predator would prey it wished to kill.

"You are," a new voice broke through. "And I shall hear your opinions in private."

Inara followed the sound of the voice to the very rear of the practice court. Dressed as plainly as Inara had seen lesser knights who sparred on the practice courts, King Jonathan had managed to blend in. However, when he wanted attention drawn to himself, he didn't hesitate to do so. "I believe Lord Padraig advised you that now is not the time or place for this discussion. Has Page Inara passed her examination?"

The examiners all scrambled to their feet, making attempts at bowing. Conservative they may have been, but willing to disrespect their king to his face, they were not. Inara and Lord Padraig bowed as well, Inara a step behind her training master.

"She has, your majesty," one of the examiners who hadn't said anything thus far told the king, who nodded.

"Then she is free to go. And we can continue the examinations. I believe there is still one page yet untested, Lord Padraig?"

Inara knew a dismissal when she heard one. Without even waiting to hear Lord Padraig's response, Inara left the room at the fastest pace that would not be deemed rude. She was truly mortified beyond belief, and wanted nothing more than to sink into the corner of her room and disappear. Unfortunately her friends had other ideas.

The moment she stepped out of the practice court, she was surrounded.

"What took so long?" Benton asked her. "You were in there twice as long as Hakim and I."

"They wanted me to demonstrate some of what we learn during advance sword lessons," Inara half lied.

"Then why did we hear Lord Padraig's voice?" Nick asked her. Inara finally looked up from her feet. Not only were Benton, Nick, Aislinn, Thom, and Matthew waiting on her, but Asten and Corin were there as well.

"And the king?" Asten put in, concern showing on his face. "Inara what happened?"

"They brought up my touch," she stated.

"That doesn't sound so bad," Corin told his cousin, slinging his arm over her shoulder.

"It wouldn't have been if they hadn't questioned my ability to control it. They tried to use it as grounds to dismiss me from training."

"No way!"

"That's incredibly unfair!"

"They can't do that!"

All three shouts came from the three first years. Had she not been so upset, Inara would have been heartened to hear them defend her. Corin just pulled his cousin into a hug. Inara rested her face against his tunic, letting silent tears finally fall. She hadn't wanted to cry in front of her friends, but at least she knew they wouldn't judge her as weak because of it.

"They weren't able to, were they?" Benton finally asked the question that was on of their minds after a couple of minutes of standing there in silence. Before Inara could answer the door to the practice courts opened slightly and seven people filed out.

"No they weren't," Duke Baird told the pages. "They tried though. And might have succeeded, had Lord Padraig and King Jonathan not stepped in. Inara, don't let them influence you. I've got to address some things. I'll meet you and your brothers in the guest quarters at the dinner bell tonight," he added before kissing Inara on the forehead, and leaving her with her friends, brothers, Gavin and Sarra.

"Your grandfather is right, Inara," Gavin told her, placing his hand on her shoulder. "You will get control. I stake my mastery on it," he added. Inara looked up at him.

"You think."

"I will do whatever I can to help you get control of your touch. If only to show those stuck up, loud mouth, spawn of stormwings!"

"Gavin!" Sarra scolded.

"They are," Emry told the older girl.

"That's no reason for Gavin to sink to their level. And Inara doesn't need you to degrade those who are in the profession she's pursuing. Just your support. Remember that, boys," Sarra told them. She smiled down at Inara. "Don't let what they said get you down Inara. They're just scared of what they don't understand."

"Thanks Sarra," Inara muttered. The female mage smiled and nodded, before heading down the hall.

"Suppose she's right," Gavin told Inara. "She usually is."

"Go with her. I'm ok Gavin," Inara told her instructor, knowing Gavin didn't like to be away from Sarra very long.

"You're sure?"

"I've got plenty of people around who won't let me wallow in self pity."

"You've got that right," Nick spoke, making everyone laugh a little, despite the sour feeling that seemed to hang in the air. Gavin nodded headed down the hall following Sarra. Inara watched him go until someone grabbed her shoulder and forced her attention back to her friends. She looked up into Baird's eyes, and then blushed and looked down. The fact that her brother's had witnessed her disgrace made everything much worse.

"We are proud of you, Inara," Baird told her. "Father and Mother would be too."

"And so is Grandfather," Kennith added.

"And every other Queenscove knight who ever existed," Donalin added. "Now stop taking what those disgraces to nobles said to heart."

"Easier said then done, Don," Inara told him. "But I'll try," she added, knowing no one would leave her be if she didn't.

"Good," Asten told her, as applause sounded from the room inside. A moment later Sam emerged from the room.

"What in the name of Mithros happened while you were in there pup?" he practically shouted. Inara groaned and started walking back towards the pages wing.

"You all tell him. I don't have the energy," she told her friends, as they began following, trying to keep up with her. Inara just wanted to get away from the practice court before more people came out and wanted to talk to her.

Inara had finally managed to get her friends to leave her alone less than a bell before dinner. It didn't leave her much time to get ready to meet with her brothers, and as a result she rushed. Already distracted by the day's events, Inara slammed her wardrobe door shut on her finger. The old metal lock on the doors, worn in some areas from years of use, sliced her finger from her middle joint to her knuckle. Cursing her luck, and placing the injured digit against her lips in order to sooth the pain for a moment, Inara sought a comfortable place to sit and heal her finger. Just as she was about to sit on her bed and start breathing, as Gavin had taught her, Inara immediately changed her mind. She was angry at her Touch. Why should she use it. She changed her course and went to her desk instead, withdrawing a small bandage and wrapping her finger. She smirked, when she noticed that it was instantly stained red.

You're hurting no one but yourself came the scolding remark from the small black cat, Inara had up until that point thought to be asleep. Boots was perched on her pillow, staring intently at her. The page just rolled her eyes.

"What do you know? You're a cat."

I know that normally you'd have healed yourself in an instant. You can you know. Healing on purpose won't decrease your ability to not heal on purpose. Boots began to wash himself, feigning boredom at his owner's antics.

Inara glared at him. Of course he was right. She sighed and removed the bandaged, resuming her path towards the bed to apply a proper healing to her finger. Unfortunately, when she looked down at her finger, the fact that the wound had already closed, made her even more angry than she had been a moment before. She couldn't even stop her touch from healing her own body, and worse, she didn't even notice it happening. Inara screamed in frustration.

It doesn't do any good to throw a tantrum was the only response that Boots gave her. Inara just glared at him again, grabbed her belt purse as she swept out of the room, slamming the door shut behind her.

She was of course still fuming when she reached the guest wing where her four brothers had taken up residence. She knocked sternly against a door with one of the numbers they had given her, unsure which brother it was that was occupying the room. The door swung open to reveal Donalin, and behind him, Kennith perched on the sofa. Inara just brushed past the seventeen year old, her long hair flying like a cape behind her.

"Good to see you too," Donalin muttered, closing the door behind her. "I thought your friends were going to make it better, not worse," he added.

Inara spun on her heel, stood on her tippy toes, and held her once injured finger a mere centimeter from the end of her elder brother's nose. "Do you see this?" she demanded, pointing to a spot on her finger with the other hand that looked exactly like the rest of her finger.

For once, Donalin was at a loss for a catchy response. "Yes, you have a very nice finger?" he asked, edging backwards. Inara sighed and dropped her arm, hanging her head in the process.

"What happened Inara?" Kennith asked her, as the irate thirteen year old sank onto the sofa beside him.

"Nothing. It doesn't matter," she lied, smoothing her tunic with her hands. She hadn't had enough time to done a dress, and had settled instead of a more ornate tunic and hose than most male pages wore. "When are we leaving for dinner? I'm starved?"

Following her cue to drop the subject, Kennith and Donalin shifted the conversation. They'd leave when Emry finally dragged himself from the privy, and Baird returned from fetching the Duke in his office. And they'd be going to an eating house that had just opened north of the University that Donalin insisted they all would enjoy. Inara listened to the chatter as her two missing brothers and grandfather joined them, and let them drag her along for the evening. Occassionally throughout the evening she'd put in a word or two, but for the most part she was content to just listen to them talk, especially because they were kind enough not to bring up her touch or anything that had occurred during the little examinations.

Instead, conversation focused on how Baird's mastery test had gone, which both Emry and Kennith had been able to witness. Inara was happy Baird had had their support for what would be the equivalent to her Ordeal, if she made it that far. Their mother and father had been in attendance too, just as Inara knew they'd be there for her. Donalin talked about entering his final year at the university, which sparked a conversation about what the young nobleman would do once he had graduated. Apparently, it was his hope to continue on at the university doing more researching, and perhaps teaching the younger students. Emry and Kennith weren't sure teaching was what their older brother was cut out for. However, when Duke Baird asked them what their ambitions for the future where, both twins just shrugged, stating that still had yet another three years of study ahead of them, and they weren't ready to stop goofing off and thinking about the next phase of their lives. Quite simply, as Emry stated, they were "happy being children."

The evening with her family slowly drew to a close, and when they reached the palace and said their goodbyes, Inara found herself being walked back to her room by Baird. The young man was quiet the entire way, which was something Inara loved about him. Donalin talked too much, Emry liked being loud, and Kennith could be rather silly, but Baird always seemed to be at peace, and just as content as she was to be silent. She allowed her brother to follow her into her room. Baird left the door cracked, as was custom and took a seat on her bed. He eyed Boots for a moment, raising an eyebrow at his sister. Inara knew Baird would know the rules of the palace. They were probably similar to the ones he'd had to follow himself. In response, she just shrugged and sat down beside him, near enough to the small cat that she could stroke his fur.

"You didn't have to walk all the way back here with me. It's much farther than the guest wing," she told her brother, looking up when she realized he was watching her.

"I didn't, but I wanted to talk to you."

Inara frowned. "About the touch?"

"No," he told her simply. Baird startled her by reaching forward, and pulling the chain that hung around her neck into full view. He fingered the sapphire ring for a moment. "About Prince Jasson." He paused. "Inara, you're too young for boys."

"I am not," she protested.

"You're Thirteen!" Baird insisted, letting the ring fall. It thudded against her chest for a moment, before Inara hid it under her shirt.

"At the convent they'd have me attending parties to meet suitors last year!"

"That's besides the point," Baird told her. "Besides, he's the prince."


"Inara, he needs a queen."

"I know that," she replied.

"Are you sure of that? Do you think you could be that girl? The one who's supposed to run this country? They'll lock you up in these walls. You won't be able to do what you're working so hard for." Baird paused and sighed, looking back at his little sister. He was no longer sitting, but standing in front of her. Inara was glaring at him. He hadn't wanted to say those things, but he didn't want to see her get hurt worse. Inara didn't say anything. "Narie," he began, using the nickname their father used for her. "I didn't mean to hurt you," he added, stooping and kneeling infront of her. "Listen, I have no doubts that you will be able to control your Touch, that you will get that shield, or even that you could be Prince Jasson's queen, if that's what you want. But you have to want it. Men don't always have pure thoughts about women. I know you trust him, and I know you think you're in love, but you need to be sure he's what you want. And you're only thirteen. Can you really say that you're willing to be queen?"

"No," Inara replied. Baird was right. She was in love with Jasson. At least she was pretty sure she was, but could she be queen? She was only thirteen. What thirteen year old girl could know they wanted to be queen, other than probably about half the thirteen year old girls at the convent?

"Have you talked to him about it?" Baird asked his sister. Inara shook her head. "Well, you should." She nodded. Baird slung his arm over her shoulder and pulled her close to him. "No matter what you do, I'll support you," he told her, and then pushed her back so he could see his face. "But if he hurts you, please let him know that there will be a master mage hunting him down and making his life a living nightmare for the rest of his life."

"Baird! You can't threaten a prince!"

"I can if he hurts my little sister."

"I'm not just your little sister, you know," Inara told him, although she couldn't help let a small smile come on her lips.

"I know," he told her, giving her a hug again. "By the way, I'm not going to be leaving the palace anytime soon," he added, giving her a wink as he walked toward the door. Inara just watched him.

"Wait," she called once he'd rounded the corner and was in the hall. She ran towards the door and looked for him. "How did you know?" she called, seeing that he had waited, stopped about halfway down the hall.

"Oh, I have my ways," he told her, laughing. He just smirked and turned, and continued to walk away, leaving Inara to figure out how Baird would have found out about her relationship with Jason. Something told her she might need to pay Corin a visit in the next few days.

One week later, Inara's dinner table was rather noisier than normal. In fact the entire page's hall was extremely loud, as the pages celebrated the fourth years passing their big examinations. Both Asten and Corin, baring a new bruise courtesy of Inara when she found out that he was the leak amongst her friends, were very vocally describing their tests to their friends, insisting that it had been even more horrifying than they thought it would be, but that they bravely faced the evils of the examination board. Their dramatics were quite entertaining, almost enough to keep Inara smiling as Lord Padraig announced that the time of tradition had come yet again, and the two new squires left their table, and took their new places with their other year mates. Inara clapped with the rest of her friends, and then looked around the table. She, Sam, and Benton were now the oldest of their group. But even more profound to her was the fact that she felt that they were kind of on their own now, feeling that the initial group had ended when they began their first year, and then Nick, Aislinn, and the twins were in essence their own group. It was a bit scary to think about, especially with the touch looming in her mind.

During the next few days, the pages down time was mostly spent with their friends. Inara rarely found herself not in the company of Corin or Asten. She wanted as much time with the both of them now that she knew they'd be leaving. The day after the big examinations, Esmond of Nicoline had asked Asten to be his squire, stating that he'd been impressed by the new squires sword skills. Less than a day after that, Corin accepted a position squiring to Thomsen of Trebond who was traveling with the Kings Own. Asten was headed for patrol along the Tortall-Tyra boarder, and Corin was packing to follow along with the Royal Progress, although he wouldn't leave fully until late summer. Instead, Thomsen wanted to pay a visit to his family in Trebond before the progress started.
It was during one of her afternoons with her cousin while he was packing that Matthew brought her a note, summoning her to Lord Padraig's office. She excused herself from Corin's rooms, and headed down the hallways until she reached the training master's office and knocked on the wooden door. She was immediately granted entrance and taken before the knight. Inara bowed, and Lord Padraig nodded, indicating that she should take a seat.

"Queenscove, as you know, we leave in three days time for the pages training trip. We'll be gone approximately two weeks. I believe that time would be best used by you to focus on improving your touch."

"My Lord?"

"I cannot pretend that the concerns voiced during your little examinations this year are unfounded."

"I understand," Inara squeaked out.

"Listen to me, Queenscove. We work on the same tactics that you've been learning all year on this trip. You are already doing well in page training, so it would be of only a little benefit for you to waste the time on the trip that you could spend refining your control on the Healer's Touch," Lord Padraig was leaning forward, concern in his eyes when he addressed her. Inara frowned and moved toward the edge of her chair.

"Are you forbidding me from attending the trip, My Lord?" she asked, not wanting to accept what he was telling her, despite the truth in it. Inara knew that although he was conservative, Lord Padraig was a fair man.

"Not forbidding it, just recommending it," he told her, sitting back in his chair. "I do believe it would be best for you to continue training uninterrupted with Master Gavin."

"What if he agreed to accompany us, My Lord? Could I attend then? I could still train with him every day?" Inara asked hopefully. She didn't want the Touch to get in the way of yet another aspect of her life. She was a page. Pages went on the training trip, and she wanted to go.

"I suppose that would be acceptable," Lord Padraig replied. "You're free to go. Have Master Gavin send a messanger to me if he agrees to come." Inara smiled her thanks and bowed, walking calmly out of the training master's office and dashing down the hallways, dodging the nobles that littered the halls. It really was getting too crowded around there. Inara hoped that King Jonathan and his progress would leave soon. She didn't like having tons of people around.

Normally Inara tried not to pester Gavin when he wasn't expecting her. Over the year she'd grown to respect him more, and as a result she tried to give him a little more space. Afterall, it wasn't his fault she couldn't control the Touch, and it was all thanks to him that she had even a little control over the magic.

Inara skidded to a halt when she reached the door that lead to Gavin's study and was surprised to find it slightly ajar. Frowning, Inara knocked, and waited for a response. When none came, she pushed the door open slightly and peaked in. Gavin was nowhere to be seen. Inara took a few steps inside, and was about to call for the mage when she noticed that the door leading to his private chambers was cracked as well, and there were voices, indicating people were inside. Inara walked towards the door intent on announcing her presence to her master.

"Still Gavin, you never should have snuck across the border," Sarra's voice stopped Inara where she was. Gavin had snuck into Tortall? "That's not the way things are done here."

"I don't care how things are done here, Sarra. They were more than willing to welcome me when I didn't have my mastery."

"You scare them is all. As a kid, completely alone, and not quite as powerful, they were willing to let you take shelter here."

"So you're defending the fact that they kicked me out of the school? The city? The country? The moment I got my robes? You don't think it's a little stupid? Train a master mage and then send him packing to the country that birthed him?"

"Of course I'm not defending them, Gavin. It's just that," Sarra was cut off by Gavin almost as soon as she started talking.

"Just that your father is one of the ones who kicked me out?"

"An neither of you will tell me why," Sarra argued sternly.

"It doesn't matter," came the reply. Gavin sounded like he was pacing back and forth. "I came here to do something, and I'm not being allowed to do it. You don't understand how frustrating it is. I know they're here. Somewhere."

"And I want to help you find your sisters Gavin. If you had just requested sanctuary in Tortall instead of illegally crossing the border, you might not be stuck here."

"What do you think I was trying to do, Sarra!"

"There's a proper way of doing things, Gavin."

"You mean a letter? Wait several months for the letter to reach Corus, and then several more months for a response, that if your father had any input on, would have been a big fat 'NO'," Gavin was practically demanding Sarra answer him.

"You don't know that."

"Of course I do, Sarra. He hates me. And we're not doing that any favors."

"I don't care about that," Sarra told him. There was a moment of silence, during which, Inara assumed the two young adults were kissing. "None of this matters though. You'll be free to start your search in a few days, and I'll be right there with you," she insisted. Inara heard Gavin sigh.

"I suppose," he replied, pulling open the door and stepping out into the study to find Inara standing there startled. "Inara!"

"I'm sorry, I just came by to ask you for a favor. I didn't mean to overhear," she quickly explained.

"How much did you hear," he asked, glowering at her. Inara was pretty sure Gavin didn't want her to know any of what he'd said. He'd been keeping every aspect of himself a secret from her since they met. That he'd trained in the city of the gods, gotten kicked out of Tortall for something, was indeed disliked by Master Numair, and had snuck back into Tortall to look for his sisters who he assumed were somewhere in the country, was definitely not on the list of things Inara should know.

"Just something about a letter to Corus," Inara lied quickly, clinging to the very last thing she overheard. Gavin frowned, and Inara wasn't entirely sure he believed her, but Inara just turned away. "I'm really sorry."

"It's fine Inara, isn't it Gavin?" Sarra said sweetly, placing her hands on Gavin's shoulders. She moved around him and went to the desk and began rummaging through it as if that was her plan all along.

"Yeah, whatever," Gavin muttered darkly, sighing and then shaking his head. He fell into one of the large arm chairs that occupied his study. "You wanted to ask me for a favor? Need a place to mediate or something?" He addressed the page, acting a little more like his normal self. Inara looked back up from the rug she was studying, glad that Sarra happened to be present. The older woman appeared to have a very calming effect on the mage.

"Or something," Inara told him, walking over to the window seat where Boots normally sat when he came with her. Now that she thought about it, bringing Boots along might have been a good idea. He could have warned her that Gavin was about to discover her easedropping. As it was, Inara no longer believed Gavin would happily grant her a favor. "It's a bit bigger than meditation."

"Out with it Queenscove," Gavin told her, shaking his head and giving her a tiny smile of encouragement, clearly trying to tell her that he was back to normal. "I don't bite."

"Well, the page's summer trip is coming up, and Lord Padraig has basically said that I shouldn't go and that I should spend the two weeks here practicing my Touch," she told him.

"And I agree," Gavin informed her. "You could stand to practice a bit more without the interruption of smacking swords together." Inara rolled her eyes. She knew Gavin felt her Touch was more important that her knight training, despite the nearly one year of her insisting that they were equal.

"But he said I could go, if you were willing to come, only as my teacher of course. So that I could practice the Touch when I'm not page training," Inara finished, looking at Gavin hopefully. The minute she did, her helps fell. Gavin was glaring at her so fiercely, she was sure his head might explode. "Gavin?"

"NO!" he shouted, and took off out of the room. Inara stood there, stunned, blinking several times, trying to figure out what had just happened.

"Oh dear," Sarra stated, snapping the page out of her stupor. Inara turned to gaze at her and the woman smiled faintly.

"What was that about?" Inara asked. She'd really hoped Gavin would have said yes. He always seemed to want to help her.

"Your request kind of threw him through a loop. I think Gavin had other plans for the next couple of weeks."

"Oh," was all Inara could bring herself to say. She looked away from Sarra and back down at her hands which were fiddling with the hem of her sleeves. "I didn't know. I guess it'll be alright then. I'll practice my Touch here on my own. They're all probably right," she stated, more to herself, than to Sarra. For the first time since Lord Padraig had told her, Inara was actually accepting that she wouldn't get to go on the page's summer trip.

"Don't worry," Sarra told her, although Inara wasn't really listening. The page just nodded and walked toward the door. "Seriously, I'll talk to him," she heard the woman tell her as she slipped out in the hall and walked back towards her room. She was not looking forward to telling her friends why she wouldn't be coming with them, but the sooner they knew, the sooner they'd stop trying to make her feel better about the Touch ruining yet another thing.

The days until the pages were to leave on their trip flew by for Inara. At first she had attempted to keep her friends company while they packed, but the fact that she was not going with them, and that they kept up the steady stream of positive comments about how two quiet weeks alone would help her master the Touch was not something that she could endure. Eventually, Inara had retreated to her own room when not required to be anywhere specific. She didn't even go to Gavin's for their normal lesson time, choosing to avoid him all together. For a couple of days, Inara's only company was Boots.

The small cat tried his best to cheer her up, often acting like a fool, just for her amusement. Sometimes it worked, and Inara would smile a little, but most of the time, the page couldn't bring herself out of the depression she'd fallen into. She even tried to do as everyone suggested and spent more time attempting to control her healing power, but she failed try after try, which served only to further her disappointment.

The evening before the trip, Inara found herself laying on her stomach on her bed with her eyes closed, and Boots purring beside her head. She was visualizing her Touch yet again, trying to learn something new about it that she didn't already know. Perhaps she didn't understand the power as well as she could, and maybe that was the key to controlling it. She was so deep in her power that she didn't hear the knock at her door, which was locked. A touch on her shoulder finally brought her out of her trance. Inara cracked one eye open, expecting to see her maid. Instead, Gavin stood beside her. Inara opened the other eye to properly glare at him. She hadn't set eyes on him since he'd screamed at her and stormed out like a child.

"How did you get in? The door was locked!" she demanded. "You didn't magic it open did you?" she added, accusingly.

Before the mage could answer, Boots wound himself in and out of her legs. I let him in. He has something to tell you. I thought you should listen, the cat yowled, before leaping onto the bed and washing himself as was typical when he was listening but didn't want anyone to think he was.

Clearly Gavin had heard the cat speak as well as he didn't bother to answer Inara's question. Inara would have thought he'd have been surprised, but obviously, Boots had been conversing with him for a while.

"Start packing," the mage told her, meeting her glare with one of his own.

"For what?"

Gavin sighed, realizing his student wasn't just going to accept an order. She never made it easy on him. "We're going with the pages."

"We are?" Inara let her glare drop and looked at her teacher hopefully.

"There will be rules," he stated simply. "First of all, your Touch comes first. Second, you are to be at all of our lessons, on time, the whole time, and working harder than you have before. I will have other things to attend to, and won't move them around to fit your schedule. Is that understood?"

Inara nodded her head enthusiastically.

"Fine," Gavin stated and turned on his heel, walking towards the door. Inara was already packing her saddle bags. She didn't have much time, as lights out was only an hour away. "Inara?" She looked up. Gavin had paused in her doorway, leaning on the frame. "I'm sorry, ok?"

"Ok," Inara replied, giving him a small smile. She wasn't sure everything was fine between them, but she wanted nothing more than to go on the trip, so she wasn't about to push her luck with him. Gavin returned her smile and nodded, before leaving her alone.

You won't finish in time Boots told her, leaping onto her bed and curling up on the pillow.

"I will if I have help," Inara replied, before she disappeared down the hall to recruit some of her friends.

They'd better not disrupt my sleep! Boots called after her, although he was pretty sure she didn't hear him.

Inara found out exactly how Sarra had gotten Gavin to change him mind when the pages left for their trip. Since all of her instructors were male, Inara had assumed that Daine would be her and Aislinn's chaperone as she had been the last dreadful summer. However, instead of the wild mage, it was her daughter who accompanied the pages south. Inara figured that Sarra had decided to trade places with her mother, and Gavin, not wanting to be away from her for two weeks, and finally agreed to go. Obviously however, there was still something he would have rather been doing.

The ride to Fort Drell was uneventful. Inara rode at the back of the train each morning, tied to her saddle, while she practiced and experimented with her Touch under Gavin's instruction. Despite the fact that most of what they did was a repeat of everything they had tried before, Inara didn't complain. She was still convinced that Gavin would change his mind at any moment and head back to the palace, taking her with him. When the pages took lunch, Inara joined them, and then rode with her year mates until their procession stopped to make camp each evening. During that time, Sarra would take her place beside Gavin, and the two would work on something. Whatever it was, Gavin was usually in a bad mood afterwards when Inara met with him for lessons after evening meals, as long as it wasn't the new fourth years turn to clean up. Following lessons, Inara would sleep with Aislinn wherever Sarra choose to spread her bedroll for the night. One evening Inara worked up the courage to ask Gavin why he continued to do whatever it was with Sarra if it upset him so much.

"Because it's important," was the only response Gavin gave her, before insisting she describe to him once again what it felt like when her power broke loose of her control.

Once they reached Fort Drell, Inara's daily schedule shifted a little. Instead of camping in the wilderness, the fort provided the pages and their chaperones with shelter. In exchange, the pages took over many of the fort's chores, rotating on a schedule, based on their years. As the fort housed knights, soldiers, and Riders, there were both male and female barracks, allowing Inara and Aislinn to sleep in conditions similar to the boys while Sarra sought out the fort's mages. Following breakfast, Inara attending whatever page training Lord Padraig assigned for the day. The pages practiced scouting, hunting, and other activities that would take place during peace time at the fort. Additionally, there were days when the Riders and soldiers would act as enemy troops. The pages were expected to defend the fort and defeat the enemy. The fourth years rotated command. After lunch, Inara met with Gavin while the pages were allowed a few hours of "down time" where they would be paired with one of the fort's residents and learn what they could about their job at the fort. Inara would rejoin the pages once again at dinner until lights out when they would do the whole thing over again.

On the last evening of their stay at Fort Drell, Inara had sentry duty with Sam at two bells till midnight. The two pages took their places and bade goodnight to the two riders whom they replaced on the east facing wall of the fort. Here they had a perfect view of the river down below. Inara double checked that the horn and their weapons were accessible before they settled in for their shift. The two pages then sat in silence for most of their watch, just enjoying the quiet and each other's company. There weren't many pages whom Inara would rather have shared a watch.

"You know what yesterday was, right?" Sam asked Inara suddenly near two bells after midnight when they were to be relieved, without taking his eyes off the still expanse of land below. There wasn't any sign of human movement on the banks of the river. Just a few deer and birds that hadn't yet gone to sleep.

Inara shook her head, then realized he wouldn't have been looking at her. "No," she said simply. She knew she needn't ask. Sam would make his point in his own time.

"A year since, you know," he replied simply. Inara glanced sideways at him for a moment.

"Oh," she stated, turning her eyes back to her duty, a slight chill running through her. Of course Sam would remember it was exactly one year since they were kidnapped alongside their friends and forced to fight for their lives. He had almost died that day. Inara didn't like thinking about it, but she couldn't exactly blame Sam. That was the day she'd saved his life and the first time she'd had any type of control over her Touch. She had forced herself to heal her friend. A few days later, her life had been drastically changed.

"I keep thinking something should have happened today. Bad. Good. I don't know. Just something," her friend continued on. Inara just listened. He'd probably been needing to talk, and Inara didn't have the heart to tell him that she'd rather not think about it at all. "But it's been just another day. Nothing unusual happened at all."

"Unless you count Nick spilling tonight's soup in Lord Padraig's lap and getting punishment work for the ride home tomorrow," Inara told him.

"That's not unusual. Nick always has punishment work."

"True," Inara surrendered. "Still, it's not a bad thing that nothing happened today."

"I guess. Maybe I just feel it's a little anticlimactic," Sam stated, leaning forward and gazing out over the river into Tusaine. Inara shrugged. "You've come a long way this year," he told her after a few minutes pause.

"So have you," Inara replied. "We're fourth years now."

"I didn't mean in training, Inara," Sam stated. She knew that. Of course she knew that. Sam was her best friend. She always knew what he was talking about.

"I suppose."

"You have. You can heal on purpose now. You can heal properly too. I don't know any healer who can do as well as you can after only a year of training."

"But you don't know any other healer who can't stop themselves from healing either, do you?" Sam remained silent. "And I can't heal on purpose every time either. Sometimes I can't get it to work."

"Only when you're not paying attention," he argued.

"That you have a come back for? But you can't tell me why I can't stop a healing, can you," Inara spat at him. The two pages lapsed back into silence. Despite all the work she'd been putting in with Gavin, Inara felt she was in the exact same place she'd been with her Touch before they'd departed for Fort Drell. The silence was split by the sound of the bells announcing the time and the footsteps of the two soldiers set to take the pages' place. They walked instep together back to the barracks.

"Inara," Sam stopped her from going into the girl's barracks just before the door. Inara looked up at him. "For what it's worth. I have faith you'll get control."

"Thanks, Sam," Inara replied, feeling bad she'd snapped at him. "I'm sorry for before. I'm just frustrated."

"I know," Sam replied. "Besides, I can't be the traitor and the half breed without you."

"You may have suffered some brain damage last year, you know that?" Inara asked him, laughing a little.

"Probably," he agreed. "Night Inara."

"Night Sam," she answered, shaking her head and disappearing into the barracks. She had four hours to sleep before they were expected to be on the road again, and Inara needed every moment of it if she was going to be alert enough for lessons with Gavin in the saddle. It made her feel a little better knowing Sam had faith in her. But she didn't have much faith in herself. The next year would either make or break her dream. The thought terrified her.

Author Note: So, last time I disappeared for a long time I returned with a 10 page chapter. This chapter is more than double that length. I truly hope you have enjoyed. This time I swear there will not be a massive break in chapters as I have an entire outline put together for the rest of "The Magician's Apprentice" and I'm anxious to finish this portion of Inara's story. If you've got a spare moment, please leave me a review. I'm going to resume my tradition of responding to reviews from here on out.

Yours truly,

Fateless Wanderer