Been a long time since my last update, and I can't say I was expecting to give you another chapter any time soon, if I'm honest. Life ran away with me for a bit. You can thank a wonderful Stefan roleplayer that my Soren had the chance to thread with the other day for giving me a burst of inspiration, as well as the fact that I'm in France without much else to do (last year I wrote around 20,000 words during my week's stay here; this year will be less, but today's wordcount for Adjustment alone is 3,000).

I apologise, but I'm no longer entirely sure where I'm going with this fic. I had everything planned out, and then other characters came along and stole the show and I'm not quite sure what's happening. I have the next couple of chapters, but I probably won't post them until I have a better grip on something vaguely resembling a plot. Certain characters, such as Kaz, appear to have been sidelined.

The chapter POVs will probably be doing the rounds soon anyway, but it would be nice to have an idea of which characters are most popular. I'm aware not everybody has been introduced yet (I haven't even written anything with Arah so far, let alone posted it). Anyway.

Here is a Christmas update for you. Best wishes to any readers, wherever you are, and I hope you're all enjoying your holidays.

It was another day before Soren was rested enough to wander outside of his room, and Stefan only heard about it after the fact. He had expected Soren to stay put, relying too much on his previous knowledge of the mage's introverted personality. The Soren he had known went so far as to openly deny his heritage. He might have opened up a little, but Stefan hadn't expected it to go so far as seeking out others of their kind.

Ordinarily, he would have been pleased with Soren's progress. Given the circumstances, however, he was far more worried about whom he might end up talking to.

Stefan scouted along the main corridors, hoping that Soren would have stayed away from the more ramshackle ones in ignorance of which ones needed repair. Searching for one person amongst them, however, was very much akin to finding a needle in a haystack. It was Refka, satchel slung across his shoulders, that Stefan came across first.

The young Branded's hair was in less of a state than the day before, though it remained tousled and utterly defiant of any attempt to make it go in a single direction. His face had been washed recently as well; the usual desert dust was absent from it. Stefan would have liked to think he had cleaned up to give a positive impression of Grann when delivering the letter to Gallia. He could guess otherwise by Refka's accusatory stare.

"You didn't tell me that Fen was back."

"I wasn't aware of it until yesterday afternoon - after we'd already parted ways," Stefan told him, watching carefully for any telltale body language.

Refka shifted uncomfortably, one hand clutching the satchel a little closer to him than normal. Stefan smiled. He hadn't told. "I suppose you still want me to go."

"It's an important letter. If you want to stay, I can ask somebody else."

"It'd be quicker to send it with me, though," said Refka. "Especially if you'd have to find another runner. He was...supposed to be gone another week. So I can bear that, especially if I'm needed. I'll go."

"Thank you."

Refka shrugged off Stefan's gratitude. "I already promised to help out Grann however I could, Stefan. I stand by that."

Stefan didn't ask who he'd made the promise to - it hadn't been him, and he doubted it had been Fen. Given the remaining options, it was probably more likely that it had been a promise to himself. All the same, it was good to know that at least some of the youngsters were growing up with a sense of allegiance.

"Anyway." Refka fingered the strap of his satchel. "I'll be off. Should I wait for a reply before returning?"

Stefan nodded. "It shouldn't take too long. If it does, then just come back as you are."

Refka nodded in reply, but something lingered in the silence between them. Stefan waited patiently for him to voice it. "Glyph doesn't know about this, does he?" It wasn't so much a question as a polite request for the truth. Stefan trusted him enough.

"No, he doesn't."

"I thought not. I haven't told Fen."

Stefan had known that already, but he smiled nonetheless. "You have my thanks, Refka."

"I told you before. I promised to do what I could to help Grann." He paused to draw breath, as though psyching himself up to leave, but the gap wasn't long enough to allow Stefan to ask anything more. "I'll see you whenever, I guess."

They exchanged some wordless goodbye with expressions and hand gestures that didn't need physical contact before passing each other by once more. Stefan wondered if that would always be the norm for their society. Most other areas were showing improvement. Even the older Branded who had spent the majority of their lives outside the colony were opening up to each other, conversing and sharing experiences. The younger ones who had grown up in safety happily played rough and tumble with each other, acting like the kids they were. But physical contact with adults was off-limits by some unspoken rule. He'd noticed that the children stopped touching each other after a certain age, as well.

With Refka dealt with, Stefan continued searching the corridors for Soren. He eventually found the mage in conversation with a similarly dark-haired young man. Stefan caught up to the two of them fairly quickly, without making it obvious that he was attempting to salvage the situation. "Good morning, Fen. Soren." He nodded at both of them.

Fen smiled up at him, eyes half-closed in his usual way. Stefan had only seen them widen properly once, when he had been introduced to Refka. "Good morning, Stefan. Any word from Luca yet? Or Arah?"

"No, I suspect they've been delayed." He knew more than that, but he wouldn't tell Fen. Not because the young man wasn't trustworthy, but because he was too close to Glyph for Stefan's comfort. It was to be expected. Glyph and Arah had effectively set up the colony in order to protect Fen. He looked upon them both as parents. It was no wonder he looked so disappointed that Arah hadn't yet returned.

"Glyph said he wants to call a meeting when they're back. I don't know if he told you or not."

Stefan didn't bother to point out that it had been him to suggest the idea of a meeting. It would likely just be the four of them, getting matters settled amongst themselves. There was no need to get the other leaders involved. Possibly Fen would join them if Refka didn't return by then. Or possibly he wouldn't. He appeared just as fascinated with Soren. Stefan couldn't say that he was surprised.

"Tell him I'll attend so long as he tells me the time and place." Stefan smiled. Fen took the cue to leave.

"I'll do that." He returned Stefan's smile and offered one to Soren as well. "It was nice meeting you. Perhaps we can chat again later." His gaze lingered on Soren's Brand for another moment before he turned away down the corridor.

Soren was smiling when Stefan looked back over. "He's an interesting one."

"I'm sure he thinks the same of you. He'll be asking if he can sketch your Brand soon enough. All in the name of research, of course. You're likely to be the only dragon Branded he ever meets." Soren looked a little uncomfortable at that, and Stefan changed the subject. "How are you finding things here?"

"I'm...beginning to see what you meant about the tribes segregating. I can't always tell what laguz blood they have, but they seem to cluster. I'm not sure it's unnatural. They just seem to gravitate towards others of their kind."

"We're all of the same kind, Soren. The Branded are a race themselves."

"A race not created by the goddess," Soren pointed out. "So the boundaries of the definition are rather fluid. Besides, don't beorc do the same thing within their kingdoms? After the war, you wouldn't catch people from Daein with those from Crimea. The laguz have their separate nations as well."

Soren was actually siding with Glyph over this? Stefan's forehead creased into a frown. "If we separate the Branded into tribes, what will happen to those with friends or family outside of their tribe? What about those born of more than one tribe? Will they become the new ones who don't belong?"

"I've already told you that I don't have all the answers, Stefan." Soren's voice returned to something of his old tone - cold and angry and hurt. "You asked me for my opinion, and I gave it. I don't understand your concern."

Stefan closed his eyes. "My concern is that if we allow any divide to become prominent, it will spark prejudice and eventually a war. We're supposed to be Grann, Soren. A single colony, not several."

"Grann will be what they need it to be." Stefan opened his eyes to find Soren meeting them. "Isn't that enough?"

"I thought so, once." That was largely the problem. Over the past few decades, Grann had grown into a welcoming and thriving community, for the most part. They didn't need much else. It was the fact that some of them had decided they wanted more. Stefan shook his head to clear it. They needed Luca and Arah back before anything was decided. They could hold out that long, at least.

For every review, I will give our flat block's resident cat, Chipie, a scratch behind the ear. It's the season of giving, after all.