6

Screaming, hoarse voices,and thundering feet penetrates our tired ears and jerks us awake. Through our blurry vision we see that Berry has disappeared. Cold dread enters our body. How could they just leave us here? Or, has Vincent already caught them, and the guards are stationed outside the door waiting to arrest us? To test our theory, we slowly slip out of bed and tiptoe over to the peephole in the door. A woman in their pajamas runs past the door with lightning speed.

The authorities have gotten wind of our escape. Our heart pounds and we make our way back to the bed and hug our knees to our chest, unsure what to do. A knock comes from the door. A familiar knock. We walk up to the door again. "Who is it?"

We croak, even though we could easily see who it is through the peephole but

we are too frightened to look.

"It's us! Open up!" The voice belongs to Berry.

We very slowly unlock the door.

WHAM! The impact of the door sprawls us onto the ground.

"Omygosh! Kiana, are you okay?" Berry rushes in to help us up. Galleria closes

the door behind them.

We rub our head. "We were just fine until you whacked us in the head!"we say, more bitter than intended.

Galleria pulls a first aid kit out of the closet and hands us a wet cloth. "Sorry about that. Maybe if Sherri would calm down," they glower at Berry, who looks away.

We hold the cloth to our head and stumble over to the bed. "So, what's happening out there?"

Berry brushes their hair in the mirror. "Sorry we weren't there when you woke up, but at breakfast everyone went crazy when Commander Vincent said you escaped, and since Galleria and we were the last ones to see you, we were taken in for questioning! But we kept them from going in our room," They send a reassuring smile towards us. "Everything will be fine."

Galleria storms over to Berry and snatches the brush from them. "You call this fine?! Lieutenant Harris left us in charge of guarding you, not helping you break the law! We'll be lucky if we make it to tomorrow!" They grip us by the shoulders and hiss, "If this is ever going to work, we'll need something to help you blend in."

At that, Berry jumps up. "Hang on! We have just the thing!" They run to the closet and fumble around for a while, until they pull out a medium sized red box

with a golden heart encrusted on it. The open it, revealing a single red wig.

"Sherri! What are you thinking? Why do you even have that? Those have been illegal for years!?" They put a hand to their chest, and we're afraid they're going to faint.

Galleria is right, of course. Wigs have been forbidden forever. Faking your hair color is strictly against the rules, and results in death. But we can't help but be transfixed by the shiny red hair piece. It looks real, like it was ripped right from someone's head.

Berry ducks their head. "Mother cut some of their hair and made this. They gave it to us when they..." Berry trails off, their eyes fixated on nothing. Galleria nods and says nothing more as they guide us to the mirror, commenting on our waist-length hair.

"Women in Tan Hills tend to grow their hair long," we inform them.

"Must be something in the water supply," they mumble.

We try to find it in us to be offended by the statement, but we feel nothing.

We watch as Galleria wraps our head, pulls out the wig, and gently places it

on our head, adjusting it to perfection. In the mirror, we look like a completely different person. We now have long, red, curly hair that falls down to our shoulders. No trace of black hair anywhere. Galleria pulls out red lipstick. When they raise it to our face, we instinctively pull back.

Galleria purses their lips. "Don't be so childish. If you want to blend in, you'll need

to look and behave like a young lady."

They raise it again, and we let them run the stick over our lips, turning them blood red.

They apply blush to our cheeks, then toss us a red skirt and white button-up shirt, and we quickly change into them.

A voice booms through the intercom we just noticed. Commander Vincent's. "Attention all residents of the Ruby Central Building! Come outside as quickly as possible! Attendance is mandatory! We have a very important message to deliver!"

We turn to Galleria. "Does that include us?"

They check their watch. "It sure does. And we all know what the announcement

is going to be," They rub a hand down the side of their face. "Let's get this over with."

They usher us out the door, but not before hissing to Berry, "This plan of yours

better work."

XXX

Berry, Galleria,and we are standing in a huge mass of people in the courtyard.

A large stage is in front of us. We dreadfully await the appearance of Commander Vincent, who will announce our escape on live TV. Everyone in Ruby Hills

is going to be expecting our execution, but instead they will get bad news from their great leader. So far, no one has recognized us. Let's hope it stays that way.

After a few more minutes, Commander Vincent makes their way onto the stage.

They tap the microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen, We appreciate you being here.

As you are no doubt aware, miss Kiana 2-7180 of Tan Hills, was tried for their crimes and was scheduled for execution this morning. Unfortunately, not on our account,

the teenager has made an escape."

A round of worried murmurs spread across the crowd. We shrink next

to Berry, who grips our arm so tightly we're sure their fingernails will leave marks.

Vincent tries to assure the crowd. " However, from the information we received, we know that they are headed towards the White Kingdom," this is greeted with shocked gasps, "a task that can't be fulfilled without entering Golden Hills. We have informed Commander Carla of the future intrusion and they will make sure to capture them as soon as possible. We have also sent elite guards

into the woods. We have also contacted Commander Chaston, and he will be joining the search. There is no need to worry. This instigator will be dealt with!"

Some of the crowd cheers, others don't. They either look scared or angry.

"For now," They continue. "Let's focus on the upcoming event next week. Good day, and we hope to see you all at Elysium!"

The crowd begins to disperse. While Berry and Galleria steer us away, our curiosity gets the better of us. "What's Elysium?"

Berry grins. "It's a party the officials have to celebrate the very uneasy treaty between the cities. Chaston and Carla will be there. Probably someone you know will be there."

We shake our head. "Doubt it. We live in the outer part of Tan Hills, not the Central."

Berry lightly puts a hand on our shoulder, and we instinctively flinch away. They notice, and draw back shyly.

"Sorry," we mutter. "We never- we weren't supposed to-"

They wave us off. "We know. We shouldn't have tried to do that. Sorry to make you uncomfortable."

They walk faster to catch up to Galleria, leaving us trailing behind them, our gut ripped open to reveal an empty void.

XXX

The week passes by in an uneventful blur.

We follow Berry and Galleria's rules and evade interaction, only leaving the room for food and other important things. Our everlasting worry over being caught kept us from worrying over Patch, who is still locked up. Commander Vincent concludes that we escaped on our own. Even though with our disguise and new name, which Galleria has decided will be Aria. Galleria told everyone we are new to the Central, so we spend all day greeting people you wouldn't ever want to meet.

Every night,we fall into bed and pass out, sometimes fully clothed. And all our

nightmares would consist of Patch being murdered, us forced to watch.

However speaking with others has it's advantages. Elysium happens every year,

and each year they would swap locations. This year, Ruby Hills would play host.

We beg Berry countless times to rescue Patch, but they say the last thing the

city needs are two missing prisoners. They promise to rescue Patch and let us leave after Elysium. Not that we had much interest in the foreign festivity.

One day, while we are sitting in Berry's room, resting. Berry bursts into the room, grinning like a cat. What ever happened to Grimalkin? We hope they didn't get caught.

"It's time!" they shout. They are sporting a red sun dress today.

"Time for what?" we strain to sit up.

Berry bristles. "You're hopeless. Elysiums here! We have to get you ready! Galleria and Johnetta are waiting for us!"

Before we could ask who Johnetta is, Berry grabs our arm and takes us from the room. We walk down a part of the building we don't recognize and stop at a door.

Inside is a small bedroom far fancier than Berry's. A steaming pool through a side room door catches our eye, and it feels like forever since we'd had a bath.

We hear footsteps on the carpeted floor, and turn to see a pale woman in a long

red and willowy dress and red hair cascading down their back. They are not smiling, examining us closely.

They shake their head. "We see this girl has the same fashion sense as you, Berry."

In the corner of our eye, Berry beams. "You say it like it's a bad thing," they say,

twirling their dress.

The woman smirks. "Fashion can be a bad thing. If you don't know how to express yourself correctly." They turn to us. "Well, aren't you cute. Our name is Johnetta Vargas, seamstress of Ruby Central. And you are?"

"Ki-ow!" We rub our arm after Berry punches us. They give us a warning look. Oh, right. Fugitive. New name.

"Aria. Our name is Aria."

They raise their eyebrows, but say, "Beautiful name, hon. Everyone who's part of Ruby Central is supposed to be taken to us to make them presentable for Elysium tonight. But for you..." They trail off and give us a once-over. "This might be quite a challenge. First off-" they gesture to Galleria beside them. "Galleria will

attend you while you two take a bath. We will be busy making your dresses." They clap their hands. "Off you go!"

Guessing that we were taking a bath first, we follow Galleria to the pool, strip off our clothes, and sink into the water.

Instant bliss. Since we escaped the cell, we hadn't taken a bath. It was too risky due to the showers being outside the room. Plus, we would have to take the wig off.

We forgot how good it feels. A few seconds after we got into the pool, we hear a loud splash that rocks the water into our eyes.

"Ugh!" Squinting through the hot water, we see Berry floating across from us, grinning, sticking their bare feet in our face.

"Berry!" We glare at the laughing girl. "What are you doing in here?"

"Taking a bath," they grin even wider.

"With us?!"

"Well, duh. We take a bath with Gal all the time. Don't you take a bath with someone?"

No. Unless you count us bathing Michelle when Aunt Jean was sick. We shake

our head.

"You people from the city are weird."

Somehow, rubs us the wrong way, like when they tried to put their hand on us. We haven't thought about it until now."Well, Tan Hills is a very practical city, that believes in different things."

"That's funny, considering you left!" The splash soapy water into our mouth, and we start coughing.

XXX

"Well." Johnetta sighs as Berry and we stand before them, blindfolded, in our dresses. "It's not our best work, but it'll have to do. Alright girls, you can take the blindfolds off."

We do so, and Berry and we gape at our reflections. We are draped in a shimmering silky red dress that touches our feet. Long gloves travel all the way up to our elbows, the edges lined with tiny rubies. Berry's dress is similar to ours, except theirs went down to their knees. They have clunky red high heels, and the dress is strapless.

Our hair has been twisted into elegant buns, held together by sparkling red pins, while Berry has their hair down. We are so tired of the color red.

"Well," Johnetta clasps their hands together, and Galleria is smiling behind them. "What do you girls think?"

"We're twins!" Berry exclaims.

"Uh, it's nice," we croak, unsure what to say in front of the crimson goddess that stares back at us.

"Nice? You're hot!" Berry exclaims.

In the face of this judgment, we can't help but stare down at our toes. "We've never been hot, before."

"We put your clothes in the wash," Galleria tells us. "So after the party, you and Berry can retrieve them."

That's kind of useful, since everyone will be outside, we can grab our clothes, free Patch, and leave.

"Let's go," Johnetta says, wrapping a silky scarf around their neck, and Galleria grabs their purse. "And girls, please try to stay out of trouble."

XXX

We've never been to a party before, obviously. So imagine our surprise when we find the whole courtyard packed. Music plays, classic and boring, and the yard is filled with tables of food and couples spinning across the dance floor. To our surprise, Tan Central has already arrived, and there is an intermix of red and brown all around the courtyard. Golden Central, from what we've heard, has always been fashionably late.

We stumble on our high heels, and Berry steadies us with a smile.

"The trick is to take dainty steps," they pick up their right heel and take a long stride-

"Hey! Do not step on me!"

Berry shrieks, but we gape at the gray cat on the floor, bearing their teeth at the redhead.

"Grimalkin!" The cat yawns and regards us with a bored expression. "Where the heck have you been?!"

"Sleeping, and it seems things are going to get interesting soon, so I will stick around," their gaze shifts to Berry, who is frozen with shock. "I see you've made some new friends."

We fold our arms. "Yeah. They rescued us from the cellar and the execution, kind of like what you should have been doing. Where were you?!"

The cat regarded us blandly. "I was watching you the whole time, Kiana. You wouldn't have been executed on my watch, but since your friend was also watching you," the cat smiles. "I didn't have to do a thing."

Something about that puts us off. Grimalkin has been watching us, Berry has been watching us, Vincent has been watching us, the person who took Michelle has been watching us. It seems we've become the focus of everyone's interest.

Berry unfreezes and points a shaky finger to Grimalkin. "You- you know that thing?"

We force a smile. "Their a friend. But it's a long story."

A sudden presence makes prickles our spine, and we turn to see Galleria standing over us.

"Golden Central is going to arrive soon!" they squeal in excitement, failing to notice the gray cat slipping under the table. "Sherri, you have to take you place beside Lieutenant Harris, your father." Galleria ushers us both toward the biggest table. When we see Vincent and Chaston, our heart pounds, until we remind ourselves that we're in disguise and they won't recognize us.

Berry stops in front of the table, curtsies, and we follow their actions clumsily. We have never been to a party before, but our aunt taught us to greet people properly.

"Sherri, We're glad you made it," a man who we assume is Harris, smiles at their daughter, and everyone mumbles greetings.

"And who is this?" Vincent questions, raising an eyebrow.

Uh-Oh. "We- um," think of something! "We're-"

"This is Aria. Lieutenant Commander Gaven's daughter," Berry quickly covers for us.

"Gaven is out sick today, Sherri," Harris replies.

"W-which is why they sent us, their daughter, to take their place at Elysium tonight." We force a grin, and we think we hear a snicker from under the table. Oh, shut up Grimalkin.

There is an agonizing silence. Then, after an eternity, Vincent smiles. We've never seen them smile. "Well, in that case," they raise their cup, and everyone at the table does the same. "Welcome, Aria and Sherri!"

We're amazed that they don't recognize us.

Chaston and Vincent resume talking about our escape, and we take our places beside Harris, and we try to calm our pounding heart.

"Impressive," Grimalkin says almost reluctantly. Suddenly a loud trumpeting begins.

"The Golden snobs are here," Berry chuckles. "This is gonna be fun."

The trumpeting escalates, and the tall white archway at the front of the courtyard now holds a tall man in a golden tuxedo. They speak in a clear voice: "Please welcome, Golden Hills Central, the icon of Equality, and savior of our country!"

We groan. During a "disagreement" between the cities and The White Kingdom, it was Golden Hills that made the treaty that stopped the upcoming war and saved us from obliteration. They are now known as the saviors of Equality. They are the spoon fed golden children of the White Kingdom, and we all hate them for it. Not that anyone would tell them that.

And here they come.

Regal, glamorous, sophisticated. Those are the words that come to mind when we see the Golden Central officials. They are all blond, of course. With either yellow dresses or tuxedos. As they pour in, the party becomes more crowded and blends colors of gold, red, and brown.

Then, Commander Carla makes their appearance.

Their long blond hair cascades down their back in a waterfall of gold. Their eyes are ice blue, and if you look into them, you'll freeze. Their pale skin is a contrast to everyone else's tan complexion, earrings almost as big as their head, they're every

bit a queen.

Behind them, their three sons trail in. The first two are tall and built, blond hair pulled back, blue eyes, dressed in yellow tuxedos. The third one, whom we assume is the youngest, bares nearly the same resemblance as their brothers, except for their sea green eyes. And unlike the others, they look bored. We haven't realized we'd been staring at them for so long.

"That's Dylan, youngest of Commander Carla. They spend a lot of time outside, than in the Central building with their brothers."

We snap out out of our daze and look at Berry. "We didn't say anything."

"But you were looking at him," Grim says, smiling from under the table

We glare at them.

"We don't care who they are," we insist, crossing our arms. "Everyone from Golden Hills is a snob."

Berry shrugs. "They're a cute snob, though. And they're looking at you."

We follow Berry's gaze, ans see that Dylan is indeed staring at us. Their green gaze holds ours. Their eyes remind us of a school field trip where we went to a beach. We remember how warm the water felt, and we imagine swimming in Dylan's eyes forever.

We shake our head and look away, appalled that we could think such a thing.

XXX

As the night wears on, we think longingly of our warm soft bed, at home. But

going home is not an option.

The entertainment is like nothing we've ever seen before. Three girls from Tan Hills doing amazing gymnastics. A man from Ruby Hills plays their flute, while a girl dances to the tune. A stunning woman in a brown dress sings a song about a man who defied the whole country to save his lover, and it reminds us of what we're doing for Michelle. After the song, guards come onto the dance floor and escort them away, despite their pleads. Everyone carries on like nothing happened.

Sometime during the party, we hear a soft chuckle behind us. Our heart stops.

"So, this is Lieutenant Commander Gaven's mysterious "daughter"," Dylan smiles, which makes our insides feel weird. "Isn't it a bit weird that we haven't seen you before?" Up close, we can see that they have dirty blond hair that falls into their eyes, and a dimpled smile.

Before we can answer, Berry saves us again. "Dylan. Good to see you again."

They smirk. "Same goes for us, Sherri. Almost."

Berry scowls. "What's that supposed to mean? And we like to be called Berry."

Their smirk remains, but they ignore Berry and turn back to us.

We stare at them, heart jumping in our chest. "Did you want something?"

They chuckle, and we stare at them, confused. "You should see the look on your face. Like we're going to attack you or something. That is against the rules, you know."

"Then what do you want?"

They bow. "A dance."

Berry covers their mouth to muffle their squealing laughter. We stare at Dylan in shock.

"What? Why can't you dance with Berry instead?!"

"Because it's tradition to dance with someone new to the Central. You should know this. It demonstrates goodwill between the cities. And you will insult our mother by refusing."

Great. We don't need three commanders out to get us.

"So, you're not giving us a choice."

"There's always a choice. We won't force you, but everyone else is expecting us."

We sigh. "We'll just embarrass you anyway. We can't dance."

Their smile grows wider. "Then we'll show you."

We are still wary, but Berry shoves us. "Go on. Dance with them. Maybe they'll be more polite with you than us."

We struggle with ourselves a bit longer.These people keep tabs on he White Kingdom, we think.They might know something about Michelle!

In that case. We timidly place our fingers into their palm, and they guide us away from the table. Berry gives us both a thumbs up. We scowl.

Dylan tightens their grip on our hand, despite our attempts to cringe away. "Follow our lead."

Dylan bows to the officials' table, and we curtsy. The three commanders nod, and

Dylan turns to face us, as they guide our arms around their shoulders and they slide theirs around our waist. We freeze in place. Physical contact is forbidden in the cities.

The music starts.

Dylan steps back and we almost trip, biting our lip as we try to keep pace with them. We kind of teeter across the dance floor, Dylan moving gracefully, while we try our best not to step on their toes. We're surprised no one has started booing.

Somewhere in this waking nightmare, we hear a choked out laugh.

"Quit thinking about it," Dylan chuckles, spinning us around. "Just listen to the music, and follow us."

We press our lips together so we won't snap at them. They've been dancing their whole life, and our level of experience is... How long has this dance been going on?

Instead, we say, "So, you're Carla's son, right?"

"Um, yes," They look at us strangely while spinning us again. "Why so interested?"

"We're not, " we add quickly. "It's just- You guys are friends with The White Kingdom, aren't you?"

"If you want to put it that way."

"Do you know about any prisoners?" They give us a weirder look, and we hurry on. "Particularly a little girl. Black hair and blue eyes?"

They look thoughtful. "The last time we were at The White Kingdom, we were with our mother at a conference. We didn't see any prisoners there."

Our heart plummets. "Oh."

"You know, you don't talk like any redhead we've met."

Our heart speeds up. "What makes you say that?"

They smile, and heat rushes into our face. "Don't play dumb. Redheads are usually simpleminded, overconfident, and extremely careless." They look back at the officials' table. "Take Berry, for instance."

It's all we can do not to laugh, because it's true. Berry is the perfect example of a simpleminded redhead. Although, we have always thought of the blondes that way.

Dylan continues. "You're more like a brunette. Cold, calculating, and stiff."

We are about to blurt out "we are not!" when they add, "And yet, softhearted. You fit that description perfectly."

This takes us aback, and we finally look into their sea green eyes. "We'd prefer you a brunette."

For a while, we just stare, until Dylan looks down and smiles. "See? You're dancing fine."

We'd forgotten about the music, and now we are sweeping across the dance floor like we'd done it a million times. Suddenly, it's like we are the only two people in the world, spinning round and round on the stage. The music inflates us with peace, and we close our eyes, finding ourselves liking the strange sensation.

The song ends, and Dylan spins us a final time, and we end up pressed against their chest. Dylan's eyes meet ours, and they smile. We don't. The halt of the music has jerked us back to reality. Our hands are now sweaty from holding on, and the feeling in our stomach makes us feel like we're going to throw up. We want desperately to leave the stage. To get away.

A scream interrupts our emotional breakdown. We look into the crowd and see that someone in the crowd has collapsed. Someone else falls. And another. And another.

More screams fill the air as more people collapse in groups of two, six, ten.

Dylan and we break apart and scan the situation. People are now either running, screaming, or passing out. The commanders are still upright, calling for order, though Carla is swaying a little. We look upon the ground and notice soft white mist curling up from it. Immediately we know what it is.

Knockout gas.

Our brain leaps into panic mode as the mist coats the air in white. We back away from Dylan, and hold our breath. Someone calls our name, though we can't identify who it is through all the screaming. Take action! Our brain hisses. Before we know it, we hit the floor.

End of chapter six