Monday, 12 October 2015 09:13

Wine, Women, and Ayla (Part 2)

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A Whateley Academy Adventure

Wine, Women, and Ayla

by ElrodW

Part 2


Monday, April 23, 2007 - Dinner
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

Adalie was so depressed that she sat sulking with Kayda and her friends instead of with the Berets; the smug expression on Charmer's face was more than Addy could handle. "It was all 'er fault," she grumbled bitterly. "I know she found out and tipped off Hartford."

"Ah'm not sure," Alicia drawled. "How would she have found out? And Ah don't think Charmer would lower herself t' talk to Hartford."

"Did you hear the latest?" one of the girls passing the table said loudly enough that everyone heard. "Charmer got caught playing kissy-face with Ayla in her cottage this afternoon." The gossiping girls moved off toward wherever they were sitting, leaving a stunned - and crestfallen - Addy in their wake.

"See?" Addy sniffled to Alicia, fighting hard to control her tears. "Charmer 'as won!" Her mood sank into a deep funk, and no matter what Kayda and Alicia said to her, she sat quietly, refusing to be drawn into conversations, but instead just picking at her food with a complete lack of enthusiasm.

After giving up trying to encourage Addy, Alicia finished her meal. "Let's go back to our room," she prompted Addy.

"Sure," Addy muttered. "Not like there's anything better to do." With her roommate, she carried her tray to the conveyor belt.

"Hey, Addy," Jenny greeted her friend as she and Reach crossed paths with the two Melville roommates. Adalie turned toward Jenny, and then she started, seeing Ayla approaching the conveyor.

Charmer saw too, and she moved quickly to intercept Ayla before Charge, in her depressed state, remembered to try to walk with Ayla. It didn't help that Ayla was smiling and conversing as if she was really enjoying herself.

"'Allo, Adalie," Charmer oozed as she and Ayla moved past the little group. "I 'eard you 'ad a little adventure this afternoon."

Adalie started to react to the taunt, but Alicia's and Jenny's hands on her shoulders gave her pause. "Pute!" she spat the word under her breath.

"Good evening, Adalie," Ayla said with a smile, missing the harsh looks and muttered oaths between the two French girls.

Addy forced herself to smile before turning toward the object of her affection. "'Allo, Ayla. 'Ow are you this evening?"

"It has been an interesting day," Ayla responded. "Kayda surprised me with a test in my calculus class, and of course Ito made martial arts difficult."

"Oui," Addy replied, her tone flat. "'E tends to do that."

Reach knew he had to do something, because Addy was definitely not in a mood to be conversant. "Did you get more data on importers and distributors?" he prompted Addy.

Addy simply shrugged, uninterested. "Oui," she said unenthusiastically.

"Would you like me to review your data? I should be free after classes tomorrow afternoon," Ayla suggested helpfully, picking up on Reach's conversation.

Beside Ayla, Charmer's scowl turned to an icy glare that would have frozen Charmer in place if it had been any colder, ensuring that Addy know how Charmer felt. "I thought you wanted to practice the techniques I was 'elping you with," she said, turning on her charm and looking so sweetly and innocently at Ayla, all but batting her eyes seductively.

"Go a'ead and do what she wants," Addy muttered in a totally self-pitying tone, her eyes suddenly so misty that her vision was blurry. She turned away sharply so Ayla and Charmer wouldn't see her fighting to not cry. "It's not like my papa's business is important or anything," she added before abruptly turning and walking very quickly and then breaking into a run out of the cafeteria, right past Fey who was staring curiously at her.

"Is Adalie okay? Did I say something wrong?" Ayla asked after watching her go, confused.

"Excuse me," Jenny said immediately, ignoring Ayla as she darted after her friend, leaving Ayla standing beside Charmer, looking puzzled.

Reach sighed heavily, giving Ayla a disapproving look. "This business is very important to Addy," he explained, frowning. "She wants to get it right so her dad will be proud of her, and the business needs to get more income so Addy's little sister can come here next fall."

"Way to go, Ayles," Toni interjected, standing with Fey in the outskirts of the group. "You win the Captain Insensitivity award this week."

"Then I need to talk to her and apologize," Ayla said, looking at the door through which Addy, closely followed by Jenny, had left.

"Ya think?" Toni asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

Ayla, looking unhappy with herself, started toward the exit Addy had taken, but Reach stopped her. "Let me go talk to her instead."

"Are you sure? If I hurt her feelings ...." Ayla was obviously upset with herself for having caused distress to Charge.

"I'm sure. Now if you'll excuse me," Reach said, "I need to help Jenny calm down Adalie, or I won't get any quality time with Jenny tonight."

Outside, Addy slumped on a bench in one of the more isolated of the numerous little sitting areas scattered about the campus. Her head was downcast, her cheeks still moist from the few tears that had escaped her futile efforts to control them. Jenny arrived first, sitting beside her and putting her arm supportively on Addy's shoulder. "She'll come around," she said. "You have to work the plan."

"The plan isn't working!" Addy cried. The tears which had merely been threatening erupted, trickling rivulets on the distraught girl's cheeks. "It'll never work! Don't you see?" she asked through sobs. "Charmer won! I lost!" she exhaled slowly, her breathing punctuated by tiny spasms as she gave vent to her inner fears and doubts. "She ruined our plan. Some'ow, she told Ms. 'Artford about the package, because she was at the train depot waiting!"

"You don't know that Charmer is responsible for that," Jenny cautioned.

"Who else could it 'ave been?" Addy asked, shaking her head sadly and letting her tears continue to trickle down her cheeks.

Reach joined the two French girls on the bench. "It could have been just a lucky coincidence," he explained. "I'll poke around and see if I can find out, but my gut instinct tells me that Charmer wasn't involved."

"She was so ... 'appy that the scheme failed!" Addy rebutted through her sobs. "Why would she be so ecstatic if she 'adn't been behind it?"

"You had a setback, so you're going to give up?" Jenny asked, her voice echoing her disappointment in Charge's fatalistic outlook.

"'Ow can I compete?" Addy asked, shaking her head, her lip trembling as she fought an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and futility. "You 'eard that she's been kissing Ayla! What am I supposed to do?" She lost what little control she had over her emotions and her face sank into her hands as she began to bawl.

"You're right," Reach said after a moment and with an air of finality. He noticed Jenny look up at him, shock on her face, and he winked at her, trying to signal to his girlfriend what he was doing. It took a moment, but Jenny's eyes widened and her mouth opened in a silent 'oh'. Reach continued, "You can't compete. You have nothing to offer Ayla, either in business or personally." He shook his head. "I suppose you'll get over her, and maybe someday find someone who has everything that Ayla has. Besides, Ayla isn't that special, is she?"

Addy looked up sharply, her expression angry even though her cheeks still glistened from tears. "Ayla is special!' she replied testily.

"But 'ow can you compete against Charmer?" Jenny picked up the contrarian arguing that Reach had started. "She's rich, she 'as connection to royalty, 'er family business is famous." She shook her head. "'Arley's right - you can't compete."

"Yes, I can!" Addy retorted angrily, her eyes narrowing to slits. She looked like she really wanted to hit Harley for suggesting that she couldn't compete with Charmer. "I 'ave more to offer Ayla than Charmer does!"

Reach stared impassively at her for a few seconds. "Okay," he finally said, a wry grin on his face. "You do want to fight for Ayla. Good." He put his hand on her shoulder as a gesture of support. "Now remember the feeling. Remember your determination to fight for Ayla. Let it motivate you, not discourage you."

Charge wiped her cheeks, managing a tiny smile toward Reach and then toward Jenny on the other side. She stood abruptly, squared her shoulders, and smoothed her clothing. "If you will excuse me," she said, her voice still quavering but not nearly as much as only moments before, "I 'ave someone I must talk to."


April 23, 2007 - Evening
Fixer's Patio behind Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

Jadis Diabolik's eyes tracked the French girl from the moment she rounded the corner of Schuster. She had the look of a person on a mission, and the Melville fixer suspected almost immediately that that mission included talking to her. Still, she kept her head down, feigning interest in her book while she watched covertly.

Addy stopped on the patio, glancing around uncertainly. Some of the fixers had left, and with the heaters and lanterns lit, the patio was slowly transforming from a place to make a surreptitious deal to a place for students to instead make a not-so-secret rendezvous.

Her eyes sought the white-haired Melvillain, as many who didn't live in that cottage called the residents. It was probably meant to be disparaging, a play on the view that many of the rich kids were the offspring of known villains, but over the years, the nickname had become somewhat of a point of honor for those who lived in the A-listers' dorm. At least it wasn't as bad as the nicknames for the residents of Whitman and Dickinson.

Jadis wasn't hard to pick out; her white hair and ever-present book marked her instantly. Charge stepped deliberately and slowly - which was difficult given her nerves and sense of urgency - toward Jadis' table, stopping short, amazed that the daughter of a major villain would be so casual and careless, sitting exposed and inattentive ....

With a tiny start, Addy realized that Jadis was most definitely not inattentive, but was carefully studying her, and probably had been since the moment she stepped onto the fixer's patio. She couldn't help but smile and chuckle at the way Jadis was obviously encouraging people to underestimate her.

"And what, pray tell, amuses you so?" Jadis asked, putting down her book and looking at Addy with a carefully schooled expression that betrayed nothing.

"I was just thinking 'ow you are trying so 'ard to look so casual while remaining alert and cautious," Addy replied, easing into the seat that Jadis gestured to.

"Point for you," Jadis smiled. "Now, I assume you want to talk about your rather ... disastrous ... misadventure this afternoon."

Addy frowned at the memory of being chewed out by Ms. Hartford. "Oui," she said. "Some'ow, Ms. 'Artford was alerted to the package and ... confiscated it. She kept it to give to 'er father as a gift," she spat angrily.

"And I'm sure she expressed her gratitude for helping her find a suitable gift," Jadis replied in a voice that dripped with sarcasm.

"But 'ow did she know?" Addy asked, shaking her head. "'Ow did she find out? She knew exactly what we were doing and was waiting for us!" She drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "Charmer must 'ave found out and tipped 'Artford!" she spat venomously.

Jadis chuckled softly, shaking her head. "There's a saying - 'never attribute to conspiracy that which can be explained by stupidity'." She saw the French girl look up, her mouth already open to rebut - probably quite sharply, but Jadis continued before Addy could speak. "I know for a fact that Vera was occupied from fifth period until nearly dinner, so it's highly unlikely that she had anything to do with what happened."

Addy's expression changed in an instant from anger to confusion. "Occupied? Where? And doing what?"

"That's ... sensitive information," Jadis said nonchalantly. "But as to how Hardass was tipped off, let me ask - how did your aunt wrap the package?"

Addy puzzled for a moment at the abrupt course change of the conversation. "Like she 'ad to," she replied. "She told me that she'd 'ave to pay the import duties and mark the package appropriately because it was coming from the consulate, which is considered sovereign French territory, and anything leaving 'as ..."

Jadis nodded. "... has to comply with import regulations, taxes, levies, and duties and all that, which includes marking containers of alcohol as compliant with Treasury Department rules and fees."

"But ... 'ow would Ms. 'Artford ...?"

"Do you know that the postmaster and the stationmaster have very ... cordial ... relations with the administration, and they routinely alert the Headmistress' office if they encounter any shipments that are ... suspicious?"

Addy's jaw dropped, and one could practically see the gears turning in her mind as she digested the facts. "So ... the markings on the package ..."

"My sources tell me that the administrative offices received a call from the Dunwich station-master about the time you three requested off-campus passes," Jadis reported nonchalantly. "Approximately ten to fifteen minutes after the train arrived and freight and packages were unloaded. Sufficient time for the station-master to notice the markings and the 'care of' information."

She looked down, shaking her head. "Mais bien sûr! Aunt Teri will need to mark the package ...."

Jadis shook her head. "Won't work." She saw the confused look. "Having attempted to get contraband on campus, I guarantee you that your name is on a 'watch list' at both the station and the post office."

Addy's heart, and her expression, sank. There was no way that she .... A sudden thought occurred to her. "Per'aps you could ...."

Jadis' expression hardened. "Don't even go there," she said firmly, her eyes narrow slits. "I will not get involved with evading Treasury Department regulations and state laws on shipping alcoholic beverages and distribution of said alcohol to minors!"

"But I ...." Addy started to protest.

Jadis' eyes burned with an intensity that almost made Addy cringe. "No. And that's final." She saw the gears turning in the French girl's mind again. "And I wouldn't ask Loophole or Dashboard, either, since they were in the first attempt. And your friends in the Euro League are probably also going to be on the watch list for a couple of weeks."

Addy sighed in frustration at the seemingly impossible situation. It seemed there was no way to get the cognac she needed for the chefs to create stunning dishes to impress Ayla.

"If it were me," Jadis continued, "I'd look at alternate ways to get your ... package ... onto campus."

"But you said ..."

"Have you tried having the ... items shipped directly to the chefs?" Jadis asked the obvious question.

Addy nodded sadly. "They 'ave been told by Mrs. Carson that they are absolutely not to receive any alcohol on behalf of anyone in the Euro League."

"Okay then, if you'd like some help finding an alternate route," Jadis continued with a knowing, slightly smug, smile on her face, " you might find a fixer who, in exchange for a future favor, could point you to a, shall we say, less-than-scrupulous staff member who might be persuaded to help for, perhaps, a percentage ...."

Adalie stared at Jadis, trying to discern any hidden meaning, but she couldn't. "And what would this ... faveur avenir ... consist of?"

"Nothing illegal or against school rules," Jadis replied evenly. "Mostly because Ayla is a ... very good friend from long ago, and I know your scheme somehow involves him."

Adalie perked up a bit; there was something in Jadis' voice, in the look in her eyes, when she mentioned Ayla's name. She ... wouldn't be interested, too, would she? Addy had no way of knowing. "Are you ....?"

Jadis picked up on Adalie's meaning instantly, and she chuckled. "That, Adalie dear, is privileged information." The chuckled turned into a wry smile. "But as I'm sure you've heard, la bourse ouvre la bouche."

A frown appeared on the French girl's face. "And what information do you have that opening my purse would gain me?"

Jadis glanced around. "You're more than slightly interested in Ayla, true?"

"That is privileged information," Addy rebutted sternly.

"Touché," Jadis laughed. Despite her somewhat harsh looks, her laugh was soft and melodious, and it put Addy at ease - a bit. "Okay, you've piqued my curiosity, and while I'm certain that I could find out on my own, I propose we trade information."

"Oh?" Addy goggled the upperclassman. "At no cost to me?"

"Not related to the favor for assisting," Jadis added quickly. "Let's just say that I'm curious enough to swap stories. You tell me about your ... interest, and I'll give you a little background information."

For a few seconds, Adalie was struck with indecision; Jadis would probably want to know everything, and that information could make her life difficult - or even dangerous should someone surmise that she was bisexual. Les Americains were very unsophisticated about sexuality to the point of being vicious. On the other hand, Jadis knew something about Ayla that she wasn't saying, and that could be important information to her. "Agreed."

"As a gesture of trust in a fellow Melvillain," Jadis began, "I'll go first. And this is privileged information, so I don't want to hear it repeated by anyone else."

"As is mine," Addy said solemnly. "So I promise to keep it secret, and I expect you do to the same."

Jadis nodded, and then she bit her lower lip in thought as she stared off somewhere above Addy's head, clearly trying to sort her feelings and thoughts and figure out how to say what she intended. "Ayla and I have been friends since way back in grade school," she began. "He was completely a boy then, but somewhat small in stature, incredibly smart, and almost obsessively driven." She chuckled. "At least that part hasn't changed. And since he's a Goodkind, you can imagine that I was quite surprised to find him here, especially since his mutation made him look so ... different. He ... took me to the play before Spring Break," she finally said, a somewhat wistful look in her eyes, "because Vox didn't want to go and because we share an interest in Shakespeare."

"Among other ... refined ... literature?"

Jadis nodded with a smile that Addy could tell sprang from fond memories. "Afterwards, Vox came to see me, quite furious, yelling at me to quit kissing her boyfriend ..." She sighed, shaking her head. "She said, and I quote, Leave him alone! There's nothing you can do that will ever make him love you! unquote. A few seconds later, Ayla came in, afraid he was going to have to break up a fight, and as soon as Vox saw him, she took off like a rocket. And that's it. Ayla and the Kimbas can't get her to explain. Nobody can. She won't even talk to Ayla."

"And you and Ayla ...?"

Jadis chuckled. "Ayla is a friend and nothing more." For a moment, a wistful look crossed her otherwise schooled face as she thought of a memory, but then she shook her head sadly. "I don't think either of us planned it, but that one kiss ...." She sighed again. "We both realized that we'd never be anything more than friends. He's a dear friend, that's true, but I ... I don't want to risk our friendship on something further. Besides," she continued with a slight smile, "with Ayla's current figure ... well, let's just say that I don't want a boyfriend who looks better in an evening gown than I do."

Addy exhaled, not realizing that she'd been holding her breath with dread anticipation of what Jadis was going to say. But now, knowing that Jadis was just friends with Ayla, she felt a surge of relief.

"Your interest in Ayla extends beyond business, true?" Jadis asked.

The French girl stared at her for a moment, realizing that Jadis had a formidable intellect and remarkable reasoning and logical deductive skills. "Oui," she answered softly. "I find Ayla ... very desirable."

"Despite his outward appearance?" She read Addy's expression. "Ah. So might I gather that you're ... bi? And you think that Ayla would satisfy both of your desires?"

"In Chaniers, my best friend Collette and I ..."

Jadis nodded, holding up her hand to signal Addy to stop. "You can spare me the details. I presume you've ... confirmed ... that you find boys attractive as well?"

Addy blushed furiously, her cheeks burning. "Oui," she said, looking down at the table with embarrassment. When Jadis didn't say anything, she looked up, her eyes pleading. "You won't tell anyone? Especially not Ayla?"

Jadis nodded. "That was the agreement." She opened a small notebook and scribbled on a page, then tore it off and handed it to Addy. "You'll want to talk to him. And not in the offices. There are too many ears around."

"Should I tell him you sent me?"

"Good God, no!" Jadis snapped in reply. "Just tell him that you heard he could help, and whatever you do, do not mention Ayla's name."

"Merci beaucoup," Addy said as she stood. "I owe you a favor."

"Yes," Jadis answered with an almost predatory smile. "Yes, you do. And Adalie?"

Addy stopped cold, dreading what condition Jadis was about to add. "Oui?"

"Do not hurt my friend." Jadis' words, though calm, carried a warning that if Ayla's feelings were hurt in any way, there would be hell to pay. Addy gulped and nodded, realizing that she was under the protective fixer's microscope.


April 23, 2007 - Evening
Charmer's Room, Dickinson Cottage, Whateley Academy

As the door closed with a 'thunk' behind her, Kismet sprawled casually on Vera's bed. She grinned at the girl. "Since your roommate isn't 'ere," she said conspiratorially in her native tongue, "I want to hear details, girl!"

"Details of what?" Vera asked, feigning innocence as she turned from her desk where she'd been studying. She, too, spoke French because it was easier and also it reduced the chance of someone listening in.

"Oh, don't play dumb, cherie," Kismet grinned. "Rumors are everywhere that you and Ayla were ..."

"I was teaching 'er relaxation techniques to 'elp with 'er magic class," Vera cut off her friend's speculation.

"And since when does relaxing to focus essence involve a significant amount of touching of the lips?" Kismet chuckled.

"We did none of that!" Vera protested.

Kismet sighed, shaking her head. "Well, you should! If you're going for the romance angle, you should be kissing Ayla whenever you get a chance."

"Bah!" Vera snorted at the suggestion. "I'm doing just fine."

"You better act before you get competition. You know Charge is interested in Ayla, too!"

"'Er?" Vera laughed aloud. "She's so busy wasting her time trying to get a business deal with Ayla! As if she'd be any competition!" A broad grin spread across her face. "Besides, I 'eard that she was apprehended by Ms. 'Artford trying to smuggle her pere's cognac onto campus! If that's the best she can do ...." She closed the book she'd been studying and sat down on her bed, stretching out a little.

"You might want to take her a little more seriously," Kismet cautioned. "She's got to be very serious about impressing Ayla if she's risking detention!"

"Hmmpphhh! We know that Ayla isn't interested in business deals! She said so 'erself."

"Tsk, tsk, tsk," Kismet shook her head.


"'Ow long before Charge gets the idea to try the approach you are taking?" Kismet queried, an eyebrow arched to emphasize her point.

"But ... she wouldn't do that!" Vera sputtered, though her voice betrayed a hint of uncertainty.

"Oh, wouldn't she? What if 'Arley or Genevieve decides that she needs to try something different?" She shook her head, a sad smile on her face. "You know those two are always kissing - even when 'Arley is a girl - so do you think they wouldn't try to convince Adalie that it's 'er best chance?"

"But ..." Charmer sputtered, not quite sure how to answer. "But kissing Ayla ... it is ... so etrange!"

Kismet chuckled. "If you aren't kissing Ayla - and even more - then 'ow do you propose to convince 'er that you are being romantic?" She smiled in her triumph of logic as Charmer struggled to answer. "And you may have to do more than just kiss."

Vera winced at the truth that was slapping her in the face. "Perhaps," she said, mulling over Korrende's words.

Korrende realized that Vera needed a little push, a serious nudge out of her comfort zone. Moving more quickly than Vera could react, she sat up, reaching her hand around behind Vera's head, and pulled her into a serious kiss.

It took a moment for Vera's senses to realize exactly what was happening, and she pulled away in horror. Or rather, she tried to pull away, but Korrende had anticipated that and wrapped her other arm around her friend to keep her engaged in the lip-lock, even as her tongue pressed between Vera's lips.

A moment later, Vera did regain her composure enough to pull away from the unexpected - and confusingly pleasant - kiss. "What are you doing?" she demanded angrily.

"Was that so bad, cherie?" Kismet said through a wry grin. "Tell me honestly that you didn't find that pleasant."

Charmer tried to glare at Kismet and deny it, but the words stuck in her throat and she glanced down, her cheeks reddening in embarrassment. "It ... it was ..."

"It was as pleasant for you as it was for me, cherie," Kismet chuckled. "Even though we both like boys much more, it is still enjoyable to share a passionate kiss, non?"

Vera winced; there was more than a hint of truth to what her friend said. "Uh, it was ... okay ... I guess."

Korrende grinned triumphantly. "I told you. Now, you need to caress my breasts."


"Ma cherie," she continued smoothly, "if you want to get romantic with Ayla, you very well may have to touch her breasts, and if you are as 'esitant with 'er as you are with me, she'll notice. And then where will your romantic endeavors be?"

"But ..." Vera sputtered, gawking at Korrende and her flawless logic. "Are you ...?" she asked hesitantly as her brain got past the shock.

It took a moment for Korrende to realize exactly what Vera was asking, and then she laughed aloud. "Non, cherie. I have my eye on a boy, and I know that I very much prefer a boy's ... company." She glanced around the room quickly and conspiratorially. "But that's not to say that I 'aven't kissed and touched a girl or two. And enjoyed it." She thought of a particularly thin girl back home that had introduced her to kissing. "Now, come on." Seeing Vera's continuing hesitance, she reached down and took Vera's hand. "Just relax."

"That's easy for you to say!"

"If it 'elps, think of signing a deal with Ayla for your pere's wine business," Korrende replied, slowly moving the other girl's hand up.

April 23, 2007 - Evening
Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

"Excuse me?"

Startled because he hadn't heard the girl enter or approach, the desk officer fumbled to put down the fishing magazine he'd been reading to pass the time and get his feet off the desk and back to the floor, trying to regain a professional and dutiful appearance. He looked up at the voice. "Yes, ma'am?" he asked, having recovered his composure.

Charge shook her head at the man's unprofessionalism, because security at Whateley was responsible for safeguarding the students, and shirking their duty to read magazines about fish and wildlife seemed like it could endanger those same.

"I am looking for Officer Trews,"

The officer at the desk, Simpkins from his nametag, scowled slightly. This late in the evening, a girl coming in looking for a specific officer meant only one thing - there was a deal in the offing, or some payoff was about to happen. Simpkins' greedy instincts kicked into high gear. "He's down in the tunnels ... helping with lab security or something." Simpkins knew that Trews was really providing security for the monthly rich-kids soiree, a gig that he wished he had. Hell, everyone in the Third Platoon wished they were on that gig! He leaned a bit forward, trying to look helpful and friendly. "Gary and I are buddies and partners. We take care of each other's business all the time." In truth, Trews and Simpkins were anything but friends, but Simpkins was not going to let a few facts stand in the way of a payoff. And he could smell a payoff; the girl was asking for Trews in the security office which indicated she was rather naive, she spoke with an accent which indicated she wouldn't be too familiar with American laws and customs, and she was very easy on the eyes.

"Merci, non," Adalie replied curtly. "I was told that I should speak only to Officer Trews. Now, could you please tell me where I can find 'im?"

Simpkins grimaced inwardly. He had to figure out how to horn his way into the deal. "Level 2, go right in the main tunnel, then to left in Tunnel Bravo about a hundred and fifty yards from the elevators. You can't miss it."

"Merci beaucoup," Charge acknowledged with a smile.

"You can take the elevator down; it's back in the entry foyer."

The girl nodded and departed, while Simpkins scowled. There just had to be a way to get in on the deal. After staring at the door for a moment, he pressed an intercom button. "Sanderson, can you take over the desk for ten or fifteen minutes? I've got a ... personal ... errand to run."

As soon as Sanderson was in the room, Simpkins bolted from the desk, crashing through a stairway door and taking the steps down two at a time, hoping he wouldn't be too late. He emerged on the first tunnel level and dashed through 'Broadway' as the tunnel was known, dodging and weaving around startled students as he ran. A quick trot down a stairwell and he paused at a metal door, gently easing it open.

Simpkins was in luck. The girl was just passing, so he wasn't too late. Now it was necessary to gamble, and a working knowledge of Trews' methods would possibly pay dividends.

April 23, 2007 - Evening
Devisor Tunnels beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

As soon as she saw two officers perched on stools and leaning against a wall, Charge knew that she had the right place. Pausing to take a deep breath, she marched up to the officers, who were alert but still casual when they spotted her.

"I would like to speak with Officer Trews," Charge announced, halting before the two. She could have simply read the name tags, except for her nervousness of the hitherto unknown process of bribing a school official.

One of the two officers glanced at the other, while the one whose name badge said 'Trews' straightened a bit. "That would be me." Out of habit, he glanced up and down the tunnel to get situational awareness and ensure nothing surprising was going to happen.

"I think that speaking ... privately ... would be better," Adalie said nervously, wincing.

Trews nodded and slipped off his stool. "I'll be back in a sec, Green."

"Sure." The other officer slumped back against the wall, crossing his arms and letting his eyes drift half-shut again.

Trews gestured with an open arm down the tunnel the way Charge had come. When they were a fair distance from Green, the officer nodded toward a stairwell door, leaning against the crash bar to noisily push the metal door inward. When the girl followed him, he let the door shut.

"Now, who sent you, and what can I do to help you?" Trews asked, skipping formalities and getting right to the point.

Charge winced. "I cannot tell you who gave me your name," she apologized, "but I was told you could 'elp."

"And just what would this help involve?"

"I ... we ... in the Euro-Promotional League ... we cook, but Madame Carson 'as pro'ibited us from cooking with wines and spirits," Charge blurted out in a rapid-fire dump. "It is impossible to cook without a good wine or cognac." She sighed. "We 'ad some good cognac, and she confiscated it."

"I see," the man nodded understandingly. "And you want to get more, but keep it hidden?"

Adalie nodded, nervous at how quickly Trews was figuring out her scheme. "I ... 'ad my aunt ship me a couple of bottles, but ... Ms. 'Artford found out and took them."

"I see." He worked hard to keep from grinning. The girl, he could tell, was desperate to get some spirits on campus - for whatever reason that he didn't care about - and she knew that she was on Hartford's radar. "I see. Of course, since Hardass caught you once, the ... risk ... to me goes up."


"So I would expect my payoff to be a little higher than for, say, simply smuggling a case of beer to one of the seniors." He smiled pleasantly - at least he hoped it was pleasant and not predatory. "I presume you want more of that fancy cognac?"

Charge nodded slightly. "Oui. And it 'as to be from my father's distillery."

"Okay." Trews was really fighting to not drool or grin. He liked fine beverages. "How much were you needing to get?"

"I need two bottles," the girl replied. "One for cooking, and one to give to one of the chefs as a merci gift."

"Ah, now that's a problem," Trews clucked. Seeing the girl's eyebrows raise, he explained. "I could get in serious trouble supplying booze to a minor, you understand. So it has to be worth my while, and putting my career at risk for two bottles isn't really worth it." He looked thoughtful for a moment. "Now if you were getting a case of twelve bottles, then three or four bottles would make it worth my while."

Adalie's mouth dropped open. "Twelve bottles?"

"Of course, for that price, I'd keep it safely hidden on campus so Hardass and Carson wouldn't be able to find it, and then you'd have it in the future for cooking, for gifts, or ... whatever." He leered at the last word, knowing what teenagers usually did with booze.

Adalie took a moment to mentally process what Officer Trews had said. "And you want three or four bottles ... to arrange this?" she asked bluntly.

Trews scratched his chin again, looking a little over Adalie's head like he was doing some mental calculations. "Three bottles should cover my risk."

"Three ... bottles?" Adalie's mouth dropped open. "Of Vitesse XO cognac? Do you 'ave any idea 'ow much that's worth?"

"I'd say a hell of a lot to you, since you can't get it on campus by yourself," Simpkins retorted with a grin.

Charge fumed because the security officer was right. She couldn't get the cognac herself, and she had to have it. "Very well," she grudgingly agreed.

"How will your aunt ship it, and when?" Simpkins delved into details of the transaction.

"By train, tomorrow if I can arrange it."

"Perfect," Trews grinned. "The afternoon train gets in about half an hour before I start my shift, so I can pick it up on the way in." He fished in his pocket, retrieving a pen and a business card, and wrote some information on the back. "Give me a call at that number when you know that it's been shipped. And make sure it's shipped to me instead of you so Hardass doesn't get tipped off."

"And you will let me know when you 'ave it?" Adalie asked.

"Of course. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to my post. Nice doing business with you, Ms. Vitesse." With that, Trews pulled open the door, holding it for Adalie, and then as she strolled back toward the elevators, he sauntered happily back to his post.

Not surprisingly, the elevator stopped on the first tunnel level; this late in the evening, there was a mad rush to get back to the cottages before curfew. Very surprisingly, Officer Simpkins stepped onto the elevator car. "Nice to see you again," he said pleasantly.

Adalie's eyes narrowed as she nodded; there was something about the officer's demeanor that bothered her. As soon as the door shut, she glared at him. "You are following me, non?" she demanded, knowing that he'd been at the desk in Kane only a few minutes earlier.

"Me? Follow you?" Simpkins asked with mock indignation. "Why would you think such a thing?"

"You ... were at the desk ... upstairs ... a few moments ago."

"A fella's gotta stretch his legs once in a while." He pressed the 'stop' button on the elevator. "You know," he said, grinning at the startled girl, "it'd be such a shame if I had to write a report on certain ... transactions."

"What are you talking about?" Adalie snapped back at him. She glared at him. "You followed me!"

Simpkins grinned. "I was just taking a little walk. I can't help what conversations I happen to overhear. Of course, if the conversation was about something against the rules, I'd be duty-bound to report it, wouldn't I?"

Addy stared at him, jaw hanging open in astonishment at the man's blatant extortion, and then she slowly nodded. "'Ow much do you want?" She wasn't dumb; she knew he'd followed her just to get in on the action.

"Oh, I'd say one bottle of your ... merchandise ... will help me forget all about anything I might have heard."

Tuesday, April 24th, 2007 - Morning
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

"She was rather furious with me," Addy whispered to Reach and Jenny, seated alone at the Beret table in the caf. Their privacy wouldn't last long; Kismet, Wunderkind, and Charmer were in line getting their food, and Chat Bleu was somewhere - probably talking with Kayda or that Russian boy Vasiliy.

"But is she going to ship it?" Reach asked.

"Oui." Addy sighed. "I 'ave to call papa to 'ave 'im ship a couple of cases to Aunt Teri today or tomorrow." She saw her dining companions' eyebrows lift. "The consul general was very un'appy; Aunt Teri 'ad to take all but one bottle of 'is supply of papa's cognac."

"But if you got caught the first time ...?"

"I 'ad to make some ... arrangements ... with one of the security officers," Addy said softly, glancing around nervously.

"You WHAT?!?" Jenny exclaimed loudly, drawing a lot of attention to the trio. "You ... bribed a security officer?" she continued in a very hushed voice.

Charge nodded. "Oui. And 'e wanted three bottles for bringing the case on site."

"A case?" Reach asked, goggling at Charge. "You got a whole case?" He shook his head. "How the hell are you going to hide that?"

"That was part of the deal," Adalie explained. "'E will 'ide it for me, so I won't be caught."

Reach winced. "I don't know if Ayla will be impressed with your skills with ... bribery." He wrinkled his nose. "Why didn't you just have it delivered to the Chef?"

"Because when Madame Carson confiscated the supply from our club'ouse, she told the kitchen staff that they were forbidden to 'elp us get any more, and that they were to report any attempt from any of us to 'ave spirits delivered through them."

"Yeah," Reach nodded slowly, "that'd do it."

Addy winced. "So I 'ad to talk to ..." she glanced around nervously, "... She-Beast to find a name. And then another officer over'eard, so I 'ad to give 'im a bottle, too."

"Now I know Ayla won't be impressed."

"So you cannot tell 'er!" Charge practically begged.

"Tell 'er what?" Kismet sang out as she sat down, followed seconds later by Charmer. "Are you 'aving more adventures with 'Artford?" she teased Adalie.

Rather than be baited by Kismet and the overly-curious and somewhat smug Charmer, Adalie wisely chose to shut up, turning away from the two newcomers. The rest of breakfast, she talked with Reach and Jenny about Jenny's project, summer travel plans, classes, and other assorted topics.

"Are you getting together with Ayla again this afternoon to 'elp 'er with relaxation techniques?" Kismet piped up to Charmer, deliberately loud enough that Addy would overhear.

"I asked 'er," Charmer replied sweetly, but her eyes shot daggers at Charge when she glanced Charmer's way. "It depends on 'er schedule this afternoon."

Addy clenched her jaw tightly, her muscles tensing. Jenny noticed and put her hand lightly on Addy's arm to try to calm her. "I understand, ma cherie," Jenny said casually, but also loud enough that Charmer would overhear, "that your papa is very 'appy with the data you've gathered with Ayla's 'elp. Are you meeting with 'er this evening to talk about potential distributors?"

"I 'aven't 'ad a chance to talk with 'er about it yet," Addy said, glaring at Charmer, who was returning the love. For a moment, the two of them tried to stare each other down, both seething at what they thought the other was doing. Satisfied that each had intimidated the perceived rival, the two turned their attention back to their breakfast, but the air at the Beret table was left decidedly chilly.

When she finished, Addy stood, which caused Reach and Jenny to begin rising. "Non," Addy said quickly, gesturing for them to stay seated. "I 'ave an errand to run. I'll be right back." Hastily, she carried her tray to the conveyor belt and then walked deliberately into the kitchen.

"Ah, Madmoiselle Vitesse," Chef Andre's voice rang out as soon as he spied the girl. ""Ow was your breakfast this morning?"

Addy smiled, thinking of the very same question that Daphne asked her every morning after the morning repast. "It was tout a fait delicieux," Addy said with a genuine smile. "Like all of the dishes you prepare."

"Ah, ma cherie," Andre replied with a broad grin, "You are pulling my leg, non? Nobody says the oeufs brouilles are delicieux! I think you are buttering me up to ask a favor, non?"

Addy blushed at the fatherly way the chef teased her. "Per'aps," she said with a shy smile. "I ... 'ave a friend who I would like to treat to a special dish, and I was wondering if you could 'elp me?"

"And who might this special person be that you want so much to impress?" Chef Andre asked knowingly.

Addy looked down, blushing even more. "Ayla Goodkind," she confessed softly.

"Ayla?" he asked, eyes twinkling with amusement and perhaps some fond memories. "So you are competing with Charmer for Ayla's attention, non?"

"We 'ave completely different interests," Adalie said, trying not to sound huffy, but failing. She decided to press past the subject of her rivalry. "Chef Guimond sent me ..."

"Chef Guimond?" Andre interrupted, surprised. "That wouldn't be Daphne Guimond, would it?"

"Oui," Addy replied. "Papa 'ired 'er as a private chef ... after mama passed away." She felt her lip trembling as she spoke of her mother, and decided to quickly change the subject. "You know 'er?"

The chef grinned, nodding. "Oui. She was once my star pupil." His eyes twinkled as he recalled the chef. "That was back when I taught, before I came 'ere."

"She sent me some recipes that I would like to serve Ayla," Addy said, feeling a little more confident knowing the past relationship of Chef Andre and Daphne. "Recipes featuring papa's cognac."

The chef winced. "Ah, but I 'ave none of your papa's excellent cognac," he lamented. "Chef Marcel shared the bottle you brought from your trip to Boston. Etait superbe!"

It was Addy's turn to smile knowingly. "My Aunt Teri is sending some more." She saw the chef's eyes widen, surprised and perhaps even shocked because he knew that students were not permitted to have alcohol on campus - even for cooking. "I 'ave made arrangements to 'ave some ... delivered ... this afternoon ..."

"Do I want to know about this?" Andre asked warily.

"Non," Addy assured him.

"But ... Madame Carson said that we were to report if any student asked us to get any alcoholic beverages ...," the chef protested warily. Getting in trouble with Mrs. Carson was bad for students, but she could be even harsher with the faculty and staff, because she expected them to set an example for the herd of teenagers in her school.

"I was in the room when she delivered 'er ... lecture," Addy said, wincing at the memory of the thorough and intimidating sermon about alcohol, laws, students, the student handbook, and most especially, her expectations of behavior. "If I remember correctly," Addy said, scrutinizing the chef's face for signs that he wasn't going to help but might report her, "she said that you were not to 'elp us get such beverages on campus, non?" Andre nodded slightly. "Am I asking you to 'elp me get cognac on campus?"

The chef slowly smiled. "Non, ma amie."

"So if I bring you a bottle to use in some ... special dishes, and per'aps a bottle for your personal enjoyment ..."

"Ah, ma petit cherie," the older man chuckled, "You seek to bribe me, non?"

"Well,'' Addy replied, looking down and blushing, "I prefer to think that I am giving you a gift to say merci."

Chef Andre thought for a moment, scratching his chin. "When will you 'ave the cognac?" he asked when he'd made his decision.

"My ... arrangement ... is to pick it up about four this afternoon."

"And what would you like me to cook?"

Adalie smiled and took a couple of notecards from her pocket. "I think this would be a good entrée," she began, "and for dessert ..."

Five minutes later, satisfied with the arrangement with Chef Andre, Adalie came out of the kitchen - just in time to see Ayla leaving with Charmer. Her jaw clenched in anger at the way Charmer was hanging off Ayla, pretending to be attentive to her every word, and at the same time, her heart broke because she so wished that was her walking with Ayla.

Jenny caught up to Addy and noticed her crestfallen expression. "Don't worry, ma cherie," she said. "You are successful with the chef?"

"Oui," Addy replied unhappily, still staring after Charmer and Ayla.

"Then you 'ave nothing to worry about!" Jenny replied with confidence.

April 24, 2007 - First Period
Schuster Hall Conference Room, Whateley Academy

Adalie gulped nervously at the unpleasant expression on Ms. Hartford's face as she looked around the small table, pausing to focus her displeasure on each of the three girls. It seemed that Addy got the most negative attention, while Dashboard got the least.

"Would one of you please tell me why I shouldn't report this to Mrs. Carson so we can begin the expulsion process?"

Addy gulped nervously, wondering precisely what she was going to say, but Elaine Nalley wasn't so intimidated. "Ah don't believe you have ground to expel us," she said confidently.

"Oh?" Amelia Hartford seemed amused by the redhead's statement. "And why would that be, Miss Nalley?"

"According to the policies and procedures, the administration cannot punish, let alone expel, a student for conduct off-campus. And we were clearly off campus at the time you ... met us."

"Ah, I see," Hartford said, still stern-faced. "And I suppose you would have me believe that putting two bottles of alcohol - which by the way, none of you are old enough to possess - into a hidden smuggling compartment in your car has nothing to do with on-campus? That you were, perhaps, going to deliver the cognac to someone else before you returned to campus?"

Lanie shrugged, while Dashboard fought to keep from smirking. "You didn't catch us on campus, or even entering campus, with the cognac," she said. "By mah estimation, you are inferring that we intended to smuggle the contraband onto campus when you have only circumstantial evidence to back up your assertion."

"When you know nobody in Dunwich or the immediate area? And you perhaps think I should overlook the illegality of possession of alcohol by minors?" Hartford asked. For some reason, the anger that Addy expected wasn't present. Indeed Ms. Hartford seemed to be almost enjoying the verbal sparring she was engaging in with Elaine.

"Until mah car entered campus grounds," Lanie said calmly, "you had no proof that we were bringing it on campus. Further, until then, while we may have been technically in violation of a New Hampshire law, which by the way is not an admission of guilt, you cannot punish us for that as we weren't on campus grounds." Addy was amazed at how calm the redhead could be in the face of Ms. Hartford.

"Then perhaps I should turn you over to the local police for breaking the law."

Addy winced at Hartford's threat, but once more, Lanie sat calmly. "Might Ah ask where your evidence is?" Hartford's jaw dropped. "If you gave or sent it to your father, as you indicated yesterday," Lanie continued, lawyer-like in her presentation, "then the chain of evidence is broken and any case would be purely circumstantial."

"There is Ms. Vitesse's signature for a package."

"A package you confiscated without turning into Security, which you claim in front of two witnesses to have plans to distribute to your father. Even with no indications of what the package contained," Lanie said confidently. "That still rises to the level of theft by taking, Ms. Hartford. Are you sure you want to involve the law? Not that it matters. You can't punish us based on purely circumstantial evidence of off-campus events."

"Miss Nalley," Ms. Hartford said, glowering at the girl, "this is not a court of law, and you will find that the administration has significant latitude in what can be done in the way of discipline."

"All of which are subject to review and appeal," Lanie interjected calmly. "Either of which has a standards of evidence of wrongdoing."

Hartford sat back, staring at the girls, thinking. Finally, she spoke. "Let us assume a hypothetical situation for a moment, okay? Hypothetically, if you were to be smuggling alcohol onto campus, what would the purpose be?"

Lanie smiled smugly. "Hypothetically, if Ah was to be drinkin' anything, it'd be beer," she replied casually. "Ah'm a redneck Southern girl with simple tastes."

"So then," Hartford's eyes tried unsuccessfully to bore through Lanie's self-confidence, "why would you, hypothetically, be smuggling booze onto campus?" She paused and looked at Dashboard, holding up a hand to stop Lanie's answer. "Brigit, for failing to control those in your charge, I want a one-thousand word essay on the responsibilities of an upperclassman when acting as a chaperone. By next Tuesday." She gestured toward the door. "You may leave now." Addy gulped nervously as Dashboard left, leaving the two of them to face Hartford's wrath.

"Now, Miss Nalley," she continued, "hypothetically ..."

Elaine shrugged. "Hypothetically, if Ah were helpin' a friend with such a task, it would be as a favor, and in acceptin' the favor, Ah would be bound by confidence to not disclose that information. And even if Ah didn't have integrity, going back on mah word would be a violation of the school's code of student conduct, and Ah could be punished for that."

"So you were doing a favor for Miss Vitesse?"

Lanie grinned. "Ah thought we were still talkin' hypothetically."

"Even on threat of punishment?"

The grin didn't fade. "If Ah gave mah word to help someone, Ah'd keep mah word, even if Ah got in trouble for it. Ah have integrity, Ms. Hartford. Ah ain't a tattletale."

Amelia Hartford narrowed her eyes, looking thoughtfully at the two girls, watching Addy squirm nervously. "I see that we aren't going to get anywhere here, especially since technically, Miss Nalley, you are correct - even though we all know what you were up to." She looked at the nervous French girl. "One-thousand word essay on American and New Hampshire laws governing alcohol and minors. Due next Tuesday." She turned to the redhead. "One-thousand word essay on the laws associated with legally transporting alcohol."

Elaine Nalley grinned. "That'll be easy, Ms. Hartford," she said confidently. "Since mah great-grand-daddy was a bootlegger!"

"You two are dismissed." Ms. Hartford remained in her chair, watching the two girls scamper out of the conference room. When the door was shut behind them, she touched a button on the phone. "I assume you heard?"

A chuckle sounded from the phone's speaker. "Yes. Quite an interesting trio. The first girl - the oldest? I don't think she's worth watching."

"Agreed. She was just a chaperone so the other two could get off campus."

"The French girl - what do you know about her involvement here? Does she have potential?"

Hartford shook her head. "Her motive is to impress someone and possibly to make a business deal."

"I see." The voice on the speaker sounded disappointed.

"Still she bears watching. Even after I caught her in her first attempt, she found another method to smuggle cognac onto campus, to the extent of paying off two of our rather ... greedy ... security officers."

"Smuggling and bribery? Perhaps she does have potential."

"And she has good taste - it's Vitesse XO Cognac," Amelia added with a smug smile. "Of course, I'd expect no less, since her father owns the Vitesse Distillery."

"How about the defiant one, the one you couldn't fluster?"

"Everyone thought she was a straight-laced, by-the-book rules lawyer. Even though earlier this year she broke into the administration offices and accessed protected computers."

"Changing her grades?" the voice asked, genuinely curious.

"Hardly," Hardford chuckled. "She hacked her way into the school's club registry to reset a series of electronic clubhouse door locks to her thumbprint. At the time it was thought to be purely an aberration of her normal behavior due to her bid to take the Alphas from Solange. Apparently I underestimated her."

"And your assessment now?"

"If she could be turned, she would be a powerful ally."

The voice chuckled slightly. "Yes. Yes. She could be a great asset. Can it be done?"

Hartford started to speak, but the voice cut her off. "And if you reply, 'she will join us or die, my master,' I will have to make a trip there just to spank you."

"Oooh, spank me?" Hartford purred in a tone she didn't use often. Indeed, most of the students would have likely fainted dead away to hear such a sexually charged tone escape her lips. "Promise?"

The voice from the phone chuckled darkly. "Pity we've missed your spring break and I'm not even in your hemisphere." There was a significant pause. "Don't you have some vacation time coming?"

"Hmmm, in that case ... 'she will join us or die, my master'," Amelia purred, savoring the naughty thoughts running through her mind. "I'm going to hold you to that promise of a spanking. And yes, I do have some vacation time coming. What did you have in mind?"

April 24, 2007 Afternoon
Tunnels beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

Glancing around nervously, Adalie stepped into the elevator in Kane and pressed the special button sequence that took her down to the tunnels. At the second level, she turned left down the main tunnel, pausing occasionally to glance at a note with written directions. As a result, she wasn't watching where she was going.

"Bon apres-midi, Addy," a familiar voice interrupted her examination of the somewhat confusing directions. She looked up, startled and appearing more than a little guilty.

"Oh, 'ello, 'Arley, Jenny," she replied, feeling like her heart had tried to leap out of her chest. "What are you doing 'ere?"

Reach chuckled. "I could ask you the same. After all, Jenny's lab is down here," he answered, "so unlike you, I have a reason to be here. But you? You're not usually down in the rabbit warren.'

Addy winced. "It ... is personal," she made a hasty, if flimsy, excuse.

Jenny shot a quick glance up and down the halls, ensuring they had at least momentary privacy. "What is going on, Addy?" she asked, worried by her friend's nervous behavior. "Are you in trouble or something?"

Addy likewise checked for listening ears. "Non," she said in a hushed voice. "I ... 'ave an errand I must complete."

"Oh?" Reach asked, curious. "By chance would this have anything to do with the ... product ... you're acquiring?"

Addy's expression changed to panic. "'Ow ... 'ow do you know?" she demanded in a harsh whisper, glancing around nervously.

Reach chuckled. "You'll never make a world-class secret agent," he said with amused confidence. "First, you're down here where you don't belong. Second, you don't know where you're going. Third, you told us earlier today that you'd made some ... arrangements."

Addy scowled at him and his faultless deductive reasoning. "Oui," she acknowledged. "I am to meet Officer Trews down 'ere. 'E is supposed to 'ave the cognac."

"Do you want us to go along - just to make sure you're safe?" Jenny asked, a little worried that her friend was dealing in forbidden beverages with a corrupt security officer.

"Non," Addy said firmly. "I can 'andle this." She realized that Reach was looking over her shoulder at the paper and snatched it away from his view as she resumed her stroll down the tunnel.

"Tunnel junction Jay-two," Reach said casually, walking on one side of Addy while Jenny took the other side. "And I suppose you need to get a bottle to the chefs today?"

"Oui," Adalie confirmed. "So I will meet 'im and get three bottles."

"Three bottles?" Jenny wrinkled her nose, bewildered. "You said two earlier today. One bottle for cooking, and one for the chef ..."

Addy nodded glumly. "Oui," she said glumly. "Another officer over'eard, and 'e demanded a bottle to keep quiet."

Reach and Jenny exchanged a worried glance. "Addy," Reach said cautiously, "have you ever heard the saying, 'One you pay the Danegeld, you never get rid of the Dane'?"

"Non," Addy said, frowning and puzzled. "What does a Dane 'ave to do with my getting cognac to a chef?"

Reach drew a slow breath and exhaled even slower, shaking his head slightly as he did so. "Addy," he began, "you're dealing with men who are known to be corrupt."

"But ... Officer Trews promised that 'e'd 'ide the cognac for me. Why would 'e ...?"

"And 'e likes the cognac, non?" Jenny asked, realizing quickly where her boyfriend was directing the conversation.

"Oui," Adalie replied, puzzled. "But ... 'e got 'is three bottles, so ..."

Reach was shaking his head, totally oblivious to the long dark tresses dancing around his shoulders. Since the disastrous 'revenge' plot, he spent almost all of his time in the shape of a dark-haired Zenith, and was quite used to it by that point. "But what's to stop him from ... pilfering more cognac while it's hidden? Or for him to simply demand more or he'll turn you in?"

"But ... 'e made an agreement!" Addy protested.

"There is a saying which applies here. 'There is no honor among thieves'," Reach replied. "You bribed him, and in doing so, you proved that he's not exactly trustworthy." He saw Addy's eyes widen in shock.

"But ... we agreed!"

"If he'd break school rules and laws about supplying alcohol to a minor," Reach countered, "what makes you think he's above trying to alter the bargain?"

Adalie became visibly dismayed as she considered what her friends were saying. "But ... 'ow ...?"

Jenny nudged her boyfriend, who gave her a curt nod. "Okay, Jenny, hon," he said in a resigned voice. "I'll help." He looked back at Adalie as she shucked off his backpack and began to rummage through it. "Here," he said, producing a tiny sphere and an electronic box about the size of a Walkman. "Put this in your backpack," he said, handing her the box, "and put this," he gave her the sphere, "on your lapel or something."

"What ... what is it?" Addy asked nervously as she fastened the tiny sphere to the lapel of her coat.

Shaking his head, Reach adjusted the sphere's placement, abutting it to Addy's Euro Promotional League pin so it was a lot less obvious. To someone not familiar with the equipment, it looked like it was part of the pin. "Standard issue Intelligence Corps audio-visual monitor and wireless relay. It'll capture your conversation with Officer Trews, and the box will relay it across the campus network to my computer. Just in case he finds the device."

"What good ...?"

"If you have a record of him delivering you the cognac - and make sure you examine a bottle carefully so you see that it is cognac," Reach explained, "then you've got evidence of him breaking the law."

"I don't understand," Addy complained. "I don't want to get 'im in trouble."

Reach laughed. "It's called Mutually Assured Destruction. Once he knows that the transaction is recorded, he won't dare change the deal. While you would get detention, he'd be looking at losing his job and probably facing federal charges. Neither of you would win, but he has more at stake."

"You want me to blackmail 'im?" Addy asked, astonished.

"No," Reach said simply with a sad shake of his head. Addy had so much to learn if she was going to play in this league. "This is to protect against him blackmailing you."

"Ah, mais oui!" Adalie finally caught on. "And ... you think I can trust 'im to 'ide the rest of the cognac?"

"No," Reach said simply. "So we'll take care of that little problem, too."

"And we'll do the exact same thing with the other officer?" Jenny asked, but it was clear she understood the scheme Reach was getting at.

A couple of minutes later, apparently alone, Addy rounded a corner, flinching when she saw Officer Trews leaning against a tunnel wall, a box under his feet.

"Nice to see you again, Miss Vitesse," the officer said warmly. "Are you having a pleasant day?"

"Oui," Addy replied uneasily. "'Ave you got the ...?"

Trews merely nodded. "Just as promised. Nine bottles of your papa's finest."

"Tres bien," the girl said. "I need three bottles now. The rest ... we can get when we need it."

"Three?" Trews was puzzled. "You said you needed two."

Addy nodded glumly. "Your friend Officer Simpkins over'eard our conversation. 'E threatened to report it if I didn't give 'im a bottle."

"That rat bastard!" Trews snarled. "And for the record, that weasel is no friend of mine." Shaking his head, he opened the box and extracted three bottles. "Here you go. I'll keep the rest of it safe."

"Merci," Adalie said nervously, putting the bottles into her backpack, using a couple of sweatshirts she'd stuffed in earlier in the day to keep the bottles from rattling and clinking.

"When you need more," Trews said with a charming smile, "you know where to reach me."

"Oui. Again, merci." With that, Adalie turned and walked back toward the elevators.

Behind her, Trews chuckled to himself. If another bottle or two went missing, the girl wouldn't dare report it. Naturally, he'd done a little research; since the Vitesse brand wasn't imported, it was very rare in the US, and he figured he could easily fetch a couple hundred dollars or more per bottle if he needed a little extra cash. Hefting the remaining beverage and grinning, he strode down the hall until he came to a small door. Opening it, he disappeared inside, emerging a couple of minutes later without the box.

Korende peeked around the corner, watching with a wicked grin as Adalie put the bottles of spirits into her backpack. So, Charge wasn't giving up? She ducked around a corner as Adalie walked, visibly nervous, back toward the Kane Hall elevators. As soon as she was certain Adalie hadn't seen her, she slipped back into the cross-tunnel where Adalie had met the guard, watching carefully.

Sure enough, the security officer picked up the box, which was probably more spirits, and turned down the hall away from her. Following cautiously, she watched him look around and then slip through a door. A few moments later, he emerged, looked around, and casually strolled back down the tunnel, causing her to scurry away so he wouldn't see her.

She grinned to herself; she had two ways to solve this little bit of interference by Adalie.

Overhead, using his stretching power to stay hidden among the pipes and conduits, Reach moved stealthily behind Trews, watching his every move. Once the officer had stashed the cognac and was safely out of view, the spy kid scrambled down and slipped through the door Trews had visited. It was a small janitor's closet which, from its appearance, had been seldom used in the recent past. And on a shelf, mostly hidden behind long-expired cleaning products, the box of cognac sat.

Reach thought only a moment, glancing interestedly at a second door in the back wall of the closet, its knob covered in dust. Immediately, an idea formed, but rather than go to the door, Reach stretched up to an air vent. A moment later, grinning, he stretched his arms downward and hoisted the box with the precious cognac into the large horizontal air duct with him. On the opposite side of the door, he gently opened the duct's grill and eased the box down onto a dusty shelf, shoving it into a corner without even faintly disturbing the dust-covered floor. Smiling, he slid back into the janitor's closet and took the key from the lock. Opening a small box he'd extracted from his pocket, he pressed the key into some type of gummy substance, closing the lid for a few moments before opening the box and putting the key back in the lock. In the box, which slipped back into his pocket, there was a perfect impression of the key in the rapidly-solidifying gel.

Once that was complete, Reach raced down the tunnels toward Kane. He just managed to slip into the elevator with a smug-looking Officer Trews. As the doors closed, Reach pulled his cell phone from his pocket, quickly punching through the buttons, which Trews studiously ignored.

"I'm glad I caught you," Reach said with a smile. "I have something I think you might be interested in." With that, he held up the phone's screen so Trews could see it.

At first, the officer was surprised, then astonished, and then his expression grew angry. "What is the meaning of this?" he demanded. "Are you trying to blackmail me? Because if you are ...."

"I wouldn't think of doing such a thing," Reach said with a smile. "You know what they say about an honest politician? It's one that stays bought? This is just to remind you to stay bought."

Trews frowned, trying to consider all the ramifications of having been caught on tape. "Okay," he said hesitantly, not exactly comfortable at having the tables seemingly turned on him. But if they were on the level here - and they were breaking rules, too .... "Mutually-assured destruction?"

"My thoughts exactly. You have our word that this will remain a private matter - as long as you stick to your end of the deal," Reach said, putting his cell phone away and pressing a button. "Now if you don't mind, I need to catch up to one of your ... associates ... to make sure he has the same understanding."

Trews was left in the elevator as the doors closed, angrily watching as Reach dashed down the first-level tunnels. He sighed, cursing himself for being careless and letting himself be caught by a hidden camera. At least, though, that rat-bastard Simpkins was in the same boat. And he now knew of at least two students who he might be able to ask for favors - or information.

April 24, 2007 Late Afternoon
Outside Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

"Miss Vitesse!" The voice cut through Charge's feeling of accomplishment, instantly rattling her confidence. She paused and turned.

Ms. Hartford was walking toward her, a determined and very unhappy look on her face. "Miss Vitesse, I think we need to talk."

"Oui, Ms. 'Artford?" Addy replied nervously.

"Please put down your backpack," she pointed to a small outdoor bench. As Adalie complied, Ms. Hartford stood over her imperiously. "Open it."

"Madame?" Addy asked uneasily.

"Open your backpack, please."

With a sigh, Adalie unzipped and opened her pack while Ms. Hartford scrutinized her closely.

"Would you mind explaining to me why you have sweaters in your backpack?" Hartford demanded.

Thinking frantically, Addy grimaced. "Um," she said, hesitantly, "my friend, er, Kayda, wanted to ... to try on ... because ... er, we ... might trade?" she said very nervously. As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she knew it sounded totally lame.

"I see," Ms. Hartford said, her voice still stern. "And if I ask Miss Franks, will she know what you're talking about?"

"I was ... er ... to surprise 'er at dinner," Addy muttered. "She ... saw them when we were on spring break, and, er, ... I 'adn't gotten 'er a birthday present, and, um, I thought that ...."

Hartford glared at her, making the young French girl cower. "Miss Vitesse, you are not a good liar," she admonished the girl sternly. "But there is no rule against carrying clothing in a backpack."

"Oui, madame," Addy gulped.

"If I were to go talk to the chefs," Hartford continued with a sadistic smile, "would I find that they had, perhaps, a fresh supply of cognac? Perhaps from the Vitesse distillery?"

Addy cringed, almost paralyzed with fear. "Er, I don't know," she stammered. In fact, she'd left the bottles in Chef Andre's work area, not handing them directly to the chef, and she might not have been seen.

"I see," Hartford glowered at the girl. "Remember that there are rules here, and you are expected to abide by those rules. Understand?"

"Oui, madame," Adalie gulped.

Without another word, Ms. Hartford turned and marched back toward Schuster Hall. Addy was relieved that she wasn't going to Crystal Hall, at least not directly. She sighed with relief; if she'd have met Ms. Hartford only two or three minutes earlier, she would have been caught dead to rights with the cognac. The burning question was who had ratted her out. And she had a distinct feeling that the answer was Charmer.

April 24, 2007, Dinnertime
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

"Was that cognac in the lingonberry sauce?" Ayla asked, standing to one side of the service line and talking to Chef Andre.

"Mais Oui," the chef said with a smile. "It's a Vitesse XO cognac. Personally, it's my favorite - both for drinking and for cooking."

"The cognac flavor in the sauce certainly stands out and it nicely complemented the venison. I particularly like how it mingled with the taste of the asparagus."

"I think you will really enjoy the dessert, then," Andre said with a smile. He produced a plate from behind his back and held it forth to the young tycoon. "Voila! Panna cotta with a raspberry sauce. There is a lovely 'int of cognac flavor enhancing the sauce."

Ayla looked appreciatively at the dessert. "These dishes are not on the menu today."

"Non," Andre replied, his grin broadening. "Someone requested a special favor for you. Is it a special day for you? Baptism or First Communion, per'aps? That is the second lovely young women who 'as asked the kitchen staff to prepare special dishes for you, so it must be a special occasion, n'est-ce pas?"

Ayla shook her head, smiling. "No, it's not my birthday."

The chef's eyes widened. "Ah," he said, realization dawning. "As you 'ave told me, you are a boy underneath, n'est ce pas? So per'aps they have interet romantique?" He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

"C'est ridicule!" Ayla scoffed at the suggestion. "They are amies; nothing more."

"As you say," Andre chuckled, a bemused twinkle in his eye.

"Since it's Vitesse cognac, I can only conclude that it was Adalie who requested this dish," Ayla deduced, "since she has been asking me for business advice about her father's cognac business."

"Oui, it was Mademoiselle Vitesse." He glanced around furtively, then leaned a bit loser. "So if Madmoiselle Vitesse is interested in business 'elp, why is Madmoiselle Villabianca seeking to curry favor? Per'aps she is interested in une affaire de coeur?"

Ayla started to rebut the supposition that Vera might be romantically interested, but she caught herself. "Hmmm," she muttered. I don't think so, but ...." She thought a moment. "She did offer to help me with my magic studies. And she does tend to be physically close to me when she's tutoring me."

"Ah," Andre said with a triumphant grin, "you 'ave one girl who is interested in you for 'elp with business, and another who is interested in you for romance." The chef chuckled. "Your challenge will be to keep the one who is interested in romance from thinking that she 'as a rival, and vice versa."

"I don't think I need to worry about that," Ayla replied with a smile. "Everyone knows I'll help anyone with business concerns, and everyone also knows that I'm not looking for romance. Not after ...." Ayla's voice trailed off as she recalled the unpleasantness of the sudden, unexpected breakup with Vox.

"Well, I 'ope you enjoy the dessert. As usual, I would like to 'ear your opinion. And bon chance, with the two jeunes filles," Andre said.

"Merci," Ayla said before turning and walking back toward the tables.

Behind her, Chef Andre smiled knowingly as he watched Ayla walk toward the Beret's table. "Bon chance," he repeated with a bemused smile. "I 'ave a feeling you'll need it."

Ayla strode casually to the table where some of the Berets still sat, Charge among them. "May I join you?"

"But of course!" Addy gushed enthusiastically, practically glowing with delight. "It is always pleasant to 'ave you dine with us." Across the table, Charmer smiled to Ayla, while inside she fumed.

"I want to thank you for having Chef Andre prepare something special for me," Ayla said with a warm smile. "It was unnecessary, but definitely appreciated."

"Oh, it was no trouble at all!" Addy said, feigning modest. Across from Addy, Reach nearly spewed the mouthful of soda he'd just swallowed, and then coughed seriously as the soda stung his throat and sinuses. Of course, everyone had to look, startled, at Reach's seemingly inexplicable reaction. Charmer took the opportunity to shoot another icy glare at Adalie, who tilted her nose slightly up and returned a smug and triumphant smile.

"It must have been difficult to get your father's cognac for the chefs. It is quite rare here," Ayla continued, not having seen the exchange between the two Berets.

Addy shrugged, looking shy, but when Reach practically choked again, she glanced his way just enough to shoot him a warning glare. "It was nothing, really." She glanced at Charmer, who was still glowering at her. "Oh, by the way, Vera," she said, smiling sweetly, "I'm so sorry your plan didn't work out."

Charmer, disgusted that Charge was the focus of the conversation, rose to her feet. "Let's get some dessert, Korende." Taking a moment to turn her nose up snootily at Adalie, she strode off, with Kismet hurrying to catch up.

"I'll have to arrange getting regular supplies," Ayla continued, ignoring Reach's strange reactions to the conversation, "as gifts for the chefs. I know Marcel loves a good cognac. And the chefs all can create gastronomic wonders with such a quality cognac as well."

"It's just a couple of old family recipes," Addy continued to downplay the dishes. "Daphne was teaching me 'ow to prepare the venison when I 'ad to leave 'ome."

"I know my ... brother loves your father's Pineau," Ayla continued, "so I'm wondering if it might be possible to get a bottle or two before we go home for the summer." A smile slowly spread across Ayla's face as she thought. "And perhaps a gift basket with Vitesse cognac, Pineau de Charentes, and perhaps a Vin de Pays Chentais for the chefs ...," Alya thought aloud.

"But ... I 'ave already given cognac to Chef Marcel and Chef Andre!" Addy blurted out, ready to burst into tears as she realized that she'd undercut a gift that Ayla wanted to give the chefs. And even though she knew Ayla wouldn't say anything, she was filled with dread that Ayla would be upset and hold it against her.

"That's the nice thing about giving fine beverages," Ayla replied with a reassuring smile, not quite sure why Addy was so upset. "If the recipient enjoys the gift, they will always want more."

At the dessert line, Charmer glared at the selection of what she considered mediocre desserts, fuming inwardly that Adalie had arranged a delightful-appearing and fragrant treat for the girl she was trying to gain the interest of. "Did you 'ear Ayla?" she growled at Kismet. "She was talking about making certain there was a reliable, steady supply of Vitesse cognac! That salope Adalie is going to win my deal with Ayla! With 'er inferior wines and beverages! That should be my wines Ayla is talking about!"

"Calm down, ma amie," Korende interrupted insistently. "Ayla only suggested getting more of 'er wines and cognacs, not importing and distributing ...."

Charmer wheeled on her. "'Ow do you know that?" she snapped, anguished. "That's not 'ow it sounded to me! It sounded like 'er last comment was about a distribution deal?" She looked panicked. "I 'ave to get that deal! Do you understand? I absolutely 'ave to!"

Korende Mitterand sighed; Charmer was getting more worked up than she thought the situation deserved. "Then, ma amie, you are going to have to be more aggressive at romancing Ayla, n'est-ce pas?"

"But 'ow? And 'ow do I discredit Addy so Ayla won't deal with 'er?"

Korende's smile turned positively wicked. "We know she bribed a guard to smuggle cognac on campus, non? And I know where she 'id the rest."

"So we report this to the administration? And she will be in serious trouble, non?"

"Non, ma amie," Korende replied. "I 'ave a much better idee!" Korende's little display would have been straight from central casting if she'd have added a type 3 evil cackle while she rubbed her hands in glee at her diabolically evil plan. "You must make a dinner date with Ayla. Something tres romantique. I'll 'ave a little conversation with Yellow Queen, and that should take care of Adalie. After all, Patti is the biggest gossip on campus!"

April 24, 2007, Evening
Tunnels beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

"Are you certain 'e 'id it 'ere?" Vera looked at Korende, frowning.

Korende nodded, puzzled. "I saw 'im carry the box in, and 'e came out without it!"

Vera looked around the small janitor's closet, frowning. "I don't see the box you described. I don't see any box that could 'old several bottles of cognac!"

Korende pointed to an inner door. "Per'aps it is 'idden in there?"

Vera sighed. "Look at it, Korende," she said. "That door 'asn't been used in a very long time. Look at the dust and dirt on the floor and door 'andle. 'E couldn’t 'ave gone in there without leaving footprints!"

"I guess not," Korende said, shaking her head. "Where is it?" She looked around again, including up in the power cables and vents. "What about up there?" she postulated, looking at a rather large vent cover.

"I don't see a ladder or anything 'e could 'ave climbed with," Vera shook her head.

"But ... 'e might 'ave 'idden it there!" Korende insisted, moving to the wall under the vent. "Boost me up so I can look." Sighing, Vera made a stirrup with her hands and gave Korende a lift.

"Do you see anything?" Vera asked, holding Korende aloft.

"Non," Korende said with a sigh as she dropped back to the floor. "I could see a long way down the vent, and there's nothing." She shook her head, frowning. "Where did you 'ide it?" she demanded rhetorically. "I know it's around 'ere somewhere!"

April 24, 2007, Evening
Room 407, Melville Cottage, Whateley Academy

"But Aunt Teri, I have to get some Pineau and Vin as quickly as I can!" Addy complained into the phone.

"You were showing the Cognac," Aunt Teri shot back. "And I 'ad to go to great trouble to get that for you!" It was more than clear that she was frustrated with Addy's request.

"The ... person ... who can 'elp find an importer ... she ... wishes to give some to the school's chefs," Addy winced as she tried to answer. "I believe it will 'elp persuade 'er that Vitesse beverages are worth importing, and that our family is a good business partner."

"That makes sense, Addy," Aunt Teri said. "But tell me, why are you in such a 'urry?"

"I want to 'ave a deal in the works before the term ends," Addy stammered, searching for something to tell her aunt.

"But why 'urry?" Aunt Teri repeated. "Isn't it worth the time to get a good business deal instead of rushing one?"

"But ... but ... papa ... 'e will 'ave to pay for Amelie, because I know she will manifest this summer and ..."

"'Ow do you know that, Addy?" Teri demanded.

"The school tested me and found out I am what they call a precog," Addy explained nervously. "Sometimes, I can tell what will 'appen in the future, and I 'ave 'ad many dreams about 'aving to 'elp Amelie this summer because she will manifest, too. So papa will need to 'ave the money for both of us."

"Okay, per'aps that's true," Teri said reluctantly. "But I'm sure your papa will be able to pay tuition for both you and Amelie even without the deal. What is your real reason?"

"I told you ...."

"Addy," Teri chided the girl. "what is your real reason?" There was silence on the phone. "Addy, are you trying to impress someone?" Again, there was silence. "Addy, who is it? Who are you trying to impress?"

"Ayla," Adalie muttered softly.

"Is this more than just trying to impress a friend?"

"Aunt Teri!" Adalie protested with a shriek.

"Ah!" the older woman said knowingly. "It is an affaire de coeur, oui?"

"Aaaarghh! Aunt Teri!" Addy practically screamed in protest.

"Addy, please," Teri said soothingly. "It's me, your favorite aunt. We can be 'onest with each other, non? You are growing into a beautiful young woman, and you need a woman you can talk with sometimes. Your papa and I talked often about 'ow to deal with you as you grew up."

"But ...." Addy was stunned almost beyond words.

"There are things you would 'ave talked to your mother about, non? But since she's not 'ere, your papa asked me to try to 'elp you if I could. 'E's very worried about you, cherie, and that you 'ave no-one you can talk to."

"But ... I ...." The girl had no idea what to say.

"Tell me about this Ayla," Teri said warmly. "Ayla is a girl's name, non?" A soft chuckle sounded through the phone into Addy's ear. "You think that your papa or I wouldn't figure out your ... interest ... in Colette?"

Addy's jaw flapped up and down a few times as her brain tried to digest what she'd just heard. "Oui," she finally said. "Ayla is a mutant like me, and she is mostly a girl, but ... she... 'as...."

"Ah, I see! Okay, thank you for being 'onest," Teri said. Her smile could almost be heard through the phone. "Now, tell me what you 'ave done to attract the attention of Ayla. And if you think it will 'elp, I'll see what I can do about getting some Pineau and other wines from your papa." She sighed. "I may 'ave to get the consul general to ship it from France in a diplomatic pouch, but ... well, 'e owes me a great many ... favors."

Addy cringed at the blatant innuendo from her Aunt. There were things, she knew, which adults should never discuss in front of teenagers.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007 - Morning
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

"I heard that you had a little ... liaison with someone from security," Hayley, one of the biggest Dickinson Cottage gossips, said none-to-discretely as she slipped into the serving line behind Adalie. "Tell me, just out of curiosity," she purred maliciously, "what is the going rate with security for a bottle of wine? A blowjob? Or full intercourse? Or maybe he wanted something a little kinkier?"

Around the girls, conversations screeched to a halt, and in the deafening silence, Addy realized that all the attention was focused on her. "What is this nonsense you are talking?" she snapped at Hayley, flustered by the accusation that was founded partially on truth. "I 'ave no wine, and I would never ..."

"Oh, no," Heartbreaker mockingly said, standing with Flicker and a little coterie of some of the more nasty gossips from Dickinson Cottage. "You would never whore yourself out for a bottle of cheap wine, would you?" Lightweight, Tangent, Fade, and Carlie laughed at the nasty little jibe.

Adalie felt her eyes misting even as she tensed in anger. "I don't know what you're talking about!" she snarled, fighting to keep her emotions under control.

"Let's see if I can refresh your memory," Carlie taunted with a wicked grin. "Yesterday, about 4:40, tunnel junction Jay-2, meeting with a security officer?"

"What?!?" Addy demanded, shocked that someone other than Reach and Jenny knew of her meeting.

"Oh, don't play innocent with us," Fade cooed. "There's not much that goes on down in the tunnels that the lab-coat crew doesn't know about, and it's really easy to get information from them."

Addy's jaw flapped a few times as her cheeks burned. "So you exchange sexual favors for information?" she finally replied angrily. "Doesn't that make you a whore?"

Collectively, the group frowned angrily, but Fade chuckled and shrugged off the insinuation. "Addy, dear," she purred with a definite air of superiority, "I wouldn't go around casually saying things like that. Some people might get a bit upset." She tossed her head back. "And deflecting conversation by accusing others of what you do? Not at all classy!"

"And you claim your unfounded gossip is some'ow classy? Putes americains stupides!" Adalie sputtered. The girls had gotten under her skin, and they knew it. And they knew that there was a germ of truth in their accusation, which lent more credence to the lascivious and wholly untrue part of their tale.

"Come on, girls," Tangent said with a snooty air, "let's go. Being around a French hooker is bad for our image!" With their noses high, they moved away from Addy.

Addy fought tears of frustration and pain; it was the same nasty, catty backstabbing, vicious torment she'd suffered back in school in Chaniers, when she and her rival Lorraine Poirier had sparred over Jean Michel LeClerc. And just as back then, Adalie was ill-equipped for a war of words, and not at all prepared for the types of nasty pranks rival girls could pull. Head down, cheeks burning with humiliation, knowing that kids around her were staring and probably whispering those foul rumors, she proceeded through the line and to the Beret table, where a number of the club were already sitting.

A hush fell over the table as Addy sat down, and as she looked around wonderingly, she saw the same mix of accusatory and disbelieving stares directed her way. Suddenly, the thought of breakfast was totally unappealing.

A bit of motion caught her eye; she looked up at Kismet leaning closer to Charmer, both of their gazes fixed on her, as Kismet whispered something to her rival. Charmer's smile turned totally smug and triumphant, mocking Addy, while Kismet grinned maliciously.

Picking at her unappetizing food, Addy kept her head down out of embarrassment, knowing that she was on the receiving end of a lot of leers from boys who'd heard the rumors, and looks of disgust from the girls, while around her, gossip swirled and spread like wildfire.

Finally, Addy could take no more. Barely able to keep from sobbing, she quickly stood, snatching her tray, and ran almost blindly down the stairs to the dirty-dishes conveyor.

"Addy, wait for us!" Jenny called as she and Reach quickly gathered their trays to follow their distraught friend.

Addy stopped abruptly by the conveyor, a look of profound horror on her face, as Ayla looked at her, an eyebrow arched. Ayla's face betrayed almost no emotion, but to Addy's mind, it looked like severe disapproval, and even possibly disgust. Her heart breaking - again - feeling cheap and dirty, she practically flung her tray onto the conveyor and dashed out of the cafeteria, unable to control her tears any longer.

Behind her, Charmer grinned triumphantly as she approached the conveyor, while Reach and Jenny glared at her. It was pretty obvious, from Kismet's and Charmer's smug expressions, that they had something to do with the rumors and innuendo. But of course, the moment Charmer spotted Ayla, her malicious grin vanished, replaced instantaneously by a sweet, innocent smile as she veered toward the object of her attention.

Jenny veered sharply away from Reach, interposing herself between Ayla and Charmer. "Ayla, it is tres important that 'Arley and I speak with you," she said firmly.

With a glance toward Charmer, who looked like she, also, wanted to speak with her, Ayla smiled at Jenny. "Sure. What's on your mind?"

"Somewhere per'aps a little more private?" Jenny suggested, eyeing Charmer warily.

Ayla took the hint. "Why don't we go find a nice spot to sit and enjoy the spring weather?" she suggested. As soon as Reach and Jenny had set down their trays, the trio walked casually out of the cafeteria toward one of the numerous little semi-walled sitting nooks that were strewn about the campus. "What's on your mind?" Ayla asked as soon as the trio had sat down.

"There are some ... vicious rumors circulating," Jenny said, barely able to hide her revulsion at the nastiness of the unfounded gossip.

Ayla nodded. "Yes. From what I gather, Patti has been quite enthusiastic in spreading gossip about Adalie and some ... business in the tunnels."

"You don't believe it, do you?" Reach asked, implying by his tone that Ayla shouldn't give the tall tales any credence whatsoever.

"Gossip is cheap," Ayla commented laconically. "The facts are usually quite different."

Jenny nodded. "Oui," she agreed. "We - 'Arley and I - we were both there. We know what 'appened, and it is nothing like the crude lies that are being told."

"As I suspected." Ayla paused a moment. "But there usually is some truth behind gossip, and I know positively that Adalie was in the tunnels." She arched an eyebrow again. "And I can't help but wonder why you're so interested in gossip about her."

Jenny frowned immediately. "Addy is ma amie," she replied sharply. "I 'ate to see her smeared with ugly rumors."

"Fair enough." Ayla smiled. "And I'd be equally upset to hear nasty gossip about my friends." She paused again. "Can you tell me what Adalie was doing in the tunnels meeting Officer Trews?"

Reach opened his mouth to speak, but Jenny elbowed him in the ribs. "Jenny, hon," he protested with a chuckle, "Ayla will have all the information in a few hours anyway."

Jenny glanced back and forth, and then nodded. "I suppose," she relented. "You did know that it was Officer Trews. And the rumors don't go that far."

"Addy was completing a ... business transaction," Reach said euphemistically. When Ayla's eyebrows rose again, Reach continued. "You probably know that Adalie had gotten some of her father's cognac before spring break."

"And Mrs. Carson found it and confiscated it," Ayla said knowingly.

"She ... wanted to demonstrate 'ow good it was, by 'aving the chefs make you some special dishes with it," Jenny continued the narrative, "but when she tried to get some, Ms. 'Artford found out and confiscated that, too."

"So Addy made some ... arrangements ... to get some cognac to the chefs," Reach concluded. "And I have the whole transaction recorded - just to ensure that Officer Trews upholds his end of the bargain."

"Ah," Ayla nodded in understanding. "Okay, I appreciate your clarifications. If you want to kill this rumor," she continued, "you might consider releasing a clip or image of Addy getting delivery in the tunnels to make it clear what she was up to."

Jenny's mouth dropped open, but Reach just nodded. He understood the game a lot better than she did. "She will be ... disciplined," Jenny protested.

"Jenny, honey," Reach drawled, "Addy could get in trouble either way. By 'leaking' images, we control the message, and thus the rumors."

Ayla nodded, appreciating that Reach understood the fine art of public relations. "She certainly can't damage her reputation. In a school like this, Addy could even become something of a hero for successfully smuggling cognac onto campus."

April 25, 2007, Evening
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

"Alright, Ayles," Toni's voice called into Ayla's room, "who's the hot date?"

Ayla glanced up from tying her shoes. "It's not a date," she objected. "Charmer wants to treat me to some special dishes made with her family wines."

"Uh, huh," Toni said, grinning and shaking her head. "In a private dining room. In the tunnels. After the rest of us ate in the cafeteria."

"And that's not a date, how?" Fey chuckled, shaking her head in amusement.

"It's not a date," Ayla reiterated. "It's the same room I've used for dinners before ...."

"Ooohhh!" Fey and Toni said together. "The one that's all swanky and posh and private and romantic?" Toni added, waggling her eyebrows.

"What's going on?" Jade asked, adding to the number of people staring into the room.

"Nothing," Ayla said, standing and picking up a tailored jacket and slipping it on. It might have been intended to minimize feminine curves, but Ayla had enough of them that the jacket didn't succeed in masquerading her very female body.

"Ayla has a date!" Nikki and Toni said again.

"It is not a date!"

Jade pouted. "And you didn't ask me or Jinn to help serve?" she complained, a little hurt because she - or another part of the J-team - had done dinner service many times for Ayla.

Ayla sighed. "Charmer set it up, not me," she explained to Jade. "Otherwise, I would have definitely asked."

"Ayles, if she's asking you out to dinner, she's interested!" Toni smirked.

Ayla rolled her eyes. "She's just a friend, and she's been helping me with relaxation techniques so I'm more open to ...."

"To her jumping you?" Nikki guffawed.

Ayla frowned. "To attracting and holding essence." She shook her head. "Sheesh, you guys don't think of anything but ..."

"Ayla has a girlfriend, Ayla has a girlfriend," Jade called out in a sing-song, teasing voice.

In the hall, there was a gasp and small, muffled cry, followed by running footsteps and a slamming door seconds later. Ayla sighed heavily; she knew that it was Vox, still not talking or even being around Ayla, and yet Vox was somehow distressed by Jade's little taunting. "I wish she'd just talk to me," Ayla said wistfully.

"Girl got issues," Toni replied, shaking her head. "You don't need that mess." She grinned. "I'd suggest finding another woman, but it seems you already have!"

"I think you guys are exaggerating." Ayla smoothed down her lapels, then turned with almost military precision, looking at his watch. "I need to get going so I'm not late. That would be rude."

"Don't worry," Nikki said with a broad grin. "Your new sweetie will be waiting for you."

"Are you packin'?" Toni asked. Seeing the confusion on Ayla's face, she chuckled. "One of your brick condoms? Never know when your woman's gonna want some lovin'!"

Ayla rolled her eyes, sighing again. "It's not a date!"

"Then what is it?" Nikki asked, smiling knowingly.

"It's ... it's ...." Ayla paused a moment. "It's a chance for her to help me with magic studies and relaxation techniques."

"Uh, huh!" Toni replied with a smirk. "You better be packin', then, cuz it sure sounds like a date - and she's the one chasin' you!"

Shaking her head, Ayla stepped past her smart-alec friends and stormed down to the basement, where she took the tunnel branch from Poe to the main tunnel under campus. Greeting and acknowledging all her friends from the lab-coat crew as she passed, Ayla quickly strode to the levels under Schuster Hall, where she navigated the maze of tunnels to a well-known room - one that, she realized sadly, she'd had many dates with Vox. After a moment of indulging in those fond memories, Ayla pushed them away and knocked on the door.

The door opened, causing Ayla to gasp in surprise despite her vaunted ability to mask her emotions. Charmer stood by the door confidently, one hand sliding up the door as she cocked her hips slightly, accentuating her curves in the tight LBD she wore. Ayla's eyes scanned involuntarily up and down Charmer's figure, taking in and appreciating her sexy figure and pose.

"I hope I'm not too late." Ayla said the first thing that came to mind, knowing that Charmer was highly distracting her, and the French girl's perfume slowly wafted toward Ayla, adding significantly to the distraction.

"Not at all," Charmer purred. "The appetizers aren't here yet, so we have a little time to ... talk." She swept her arm to the side, gesturing for Ayla to enter, directing her to a small sofa on one side of the room. When Ayla sat, she slipped onto the sofa quite close to Ayla. As they talked, she flirted, brushing Ayla's hand several times, sitting provocatively close, and turning a couple of times to deliberately give Ayla a view down her cleavage.

They continued the conversation over appetizers and then dinner, and finally dessert, all made with Villabianca wines, and all the while, Vera was pretty blatantly flirting with Ayla. Once dessert was finished, Vera suggested that they move back to the couch to enjoy a little more of the fine Villabianca alcohol-free beverage that Ayla had served when he hosted the Golden Kids meeting.

"Did you ever see the movie 'Hatari'?" Vera asked out of the blue.

"John Wayne, Red Buttons, Hardy Kruger, Elsa Martinelli," Ayla replied confidently. "It was a family favorite." She smiled. "I'm surprised you know of it, since it's an Americain film after all."

"Just because I'm French doesn't mean I don't enjoy a good movie," Vera replied with a most-pleasant smile.

"Why do you ask?" Ayla queried, a little puzzled.

"There's a line of dialog in the movie that I'm thinking of right now," Vera smiled enigmatically.

"What line would that be?"

"How do you like to kiss?" Vera asked, moving her 'wine' glass out of the way and leaning closer to Ayla.

"Yes, that was a good ... erp!" Ayla's voice was cut off when Vera leaned forward and kissed her.

"You like it quick, like that? Or do you prefer slow?" She gave Ayla a very slow, passionate kiss. "Do you like it when the girl starts the kiss?" She gave Ayla yet another, even more passionate kiss. "Or do you like to be the one to start?" She paused, inviting Ayla to initiate a kiss.

Ayla's head spun. This was most unexpected; she'd had no idea that Vera could be so ... aggressive. As Vera initiated another kiss, much more involved, Ayla realized that her teammates had been right, and that she shouldn't have scoffed at Toni's and Nikki's advice. Slowly, she fumbled and set down her wine glass, and then wrapped her arms around Vera, reciprocating the passion that the French girl had begun.

April 25, 2007 - Late Evening
Charmer's Room, Dickinson Cottage, Whateley Academy

A knock on the door preceded it opening by only a fraction of a second, barely giving Vera time to look up. Korende walked confidently into her friend's room, and when she saw Vera lying on the bed, a very contented look on her face, Korende grinned. "I would gather, from your silly grin, that things went rather well," she said, swiveling a chair from Vera's desk and sitting down.

"It was ... okay," Vera said in a very relaxed voice, rolling to her stomach and propping herself up on her elbows.

"If that's how you react to okay, I'd like to see you when things are fantastic," Korende chuckled. "So tell me everything," she said, scooting the chair a little closer to Vera's bed and leaning over conspiratorially.

"It ... it was ... okay," Vera said, shrugging and trying to conceal her feelings, of which she wasn't sure herself.

"I told you," Korende grinned. "Kissing a girl can be just as pleasant as kissing a boy. 'Ow far ...?"

"Korende!" Vera howled in protest. "That's ... private!"

"So did you go all the way?" Korende's expression indicated her hope at hearing some salacious gossip.

"That's none of your business!"

"But you're going to tell me anyway, aren't you?"

Vera blushed. "We ... kissed. A lot. And ... we were ... touching." Her cheeks turned even redder. "Mostly each other's breasts," she admitted softly. Despite her blush, she still had a dreamy look in her eyes. "Part of me wanted to ...," she looked down at her bed in embarrassment.

"I told you!"

"But ... she wasn't taking any 'ints," Vera admitted, looking back up at her friend.

"Really?" Korende asked, astonished. "Everyone says Ayla is so smart and sophisticated!"

"Per'aps with business," Vera chuckled softly, "but not with women. So I 'ad to start things."

"And 'ow did you do that?" Korende was definitely interested in this turn in the story.

"I just asked 'ow she liked to kiss?"

"I told you it would be easy."

Vera cringed a little teeny bit. "It ... it was ... 'ard. I ... I 'ad to remind myself of the business deal I want to get." She suppressed a shudder. "Otherwise, I'm not sure I would 'ave 'ad the courage to start kissing 'er like that." She got a dreamy look in her eyes again. "After that, though, it was quite ... nice."

"So you aren't en realitie falling in love with Ayla, are you?"

Vera sighed. "Non," she replied after a momentary delay. "I am quite certain about that. Even though she's pleasant and very smart, Ayla is too much like a girl."

"What about ... after you get a deal?" Korende seemed a little concerned about something that Vera apparently hadn't considered.

Vera shrugged. "I suppose I'll 'ave to find a reason to break up that won't leave Ayla 'ating me, won't I?"

April 25, 2007 - Late Evening
Ayla's Room, Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

Ayla cautiously opened the door to her room; it wasn't terribly late - only a few minutes after curfew - and she wasn't sure what her roommate was doing. If Vamp had already gotten ready for bed, any disturbance would bring out the Vamp Snark-o-Matic (patent pending), and after the evening she'd had, Ayla was definitely not in the mood for Vamp's snide remarks.

A sigh of relief escaped when Ayla noted that Vamp wasn't in the room. Flipping on the light, she shut the door behind her and turned to her wardrobe to slip out of her disheveled jacket and blouse and into her robe.

No sooner had Ayla hung up her jacket than the door burst open and her neighbors let themselves in. Fey flopped down on Ayla's bed, while Toni did an impossible cartwheel-into-a-backflip and ended up stretched out in one of the hammocks. "So," Fey asked with a small smile, "how'd it go?"

"And we want details!" Toni chimed in. "All the dirt!"

Ayla shrugged, her face a mask of practiced impassivity which, in this case, served to protect her from teasing if she had showed any embarrassment. "We talked for a bit while we were waiting for the meal service."

"Talked 'bout what?" Nikki queried.

Ayla shrugged. "Just ... talk. About school, travels, favorite vacation spots. You know - things." She frowned as a thought crossed her mind. "

"Didja put the moves on?" Toni waggled her eyebrows suggestively.

"No. But ..." Ayla wrinkled her nose. "She ... might have been ... a bit flirty."

"Oooohhh!" Nikki and Toni purred together. "Tell us more," Toni added.

"We had porcini-mushroom tartlets for appetizers."

"Wait, we don't want to hear the menu!" Nikki protested.

"The blanquette de veau had perhaps a trifle too much fennel ...."

"Get to the good stuff!" Toni prodded, frowning.

"Well, for dessert, we were served excellent chocolate ganache and Nutella crepes. The bittersweet, rich chocolate was a perfect complement to the hazelnut flavor of the Nutella. I had to commend her on arranging a first-class meal."

Nikki rolled her eyes. "We want to know why you were out almost an hour after a reasonable person would have finished eating, why you practically reek of what I assume is her perfume, and why one button of your blouse is undone!" Ayla looked down hurriedly, a hint of panic on her face when she saw the open button, immediately refastening it as if somehow, the girls wouldn't notice.

Toni took a step closer to Ayla, scrutinizing her. "And why it looks like there's lipstick on your neck and earlobe!" She stared straight into Ayla's eyes. "Didja score?"

"Yeah," Nikki chimed in. "What happened?"

Ayla squirmed and looked away quickly, her cheeks flushing. "She ... kissed me."


"She asked how I liked to be kissed - pretty much verbatim copying the scene from Hatari between John Wayne and Elsa Martinelli in which Elsa - playing Anna Maria d'Lessandro - was trying to get John Wayne's interest ..."

Toni rolled her eyes, sighing heavily. "You get to the good stuff, and then you turn all movie critic on us? What up wit' dat?"

"So we sat and made out for a while," Ayla blurted out, finally answering the girls' questions. "Okay?"

"Did your hands wander as much as hers?" Toni continued the inquisition, leering at Ayla.

"I'm going to take a shower and get some sleep," Ayla retorted, making it very clear that she was not going to kiss and tell.

"I'm guessing it'll be a cold shower," Toni chuckled.

Ayla ignored the giggling girls; instead, she grabbed her robe and toiletry bag, turned to the door, and left her two friends standing, still curious.

With a frustrated sigh at not getting more information, the girls walked back to their own room, with Nikki scratching her chin thoughtfully. "I don't know," she said hesitantly. "Something doesn't seem right."

Toni shook her head, rolling her eyes again. "Our boy spends an hour lip-locking and playing grabby with a girl, and you think there's something wrong?" She sighed once more. "Sheesh - it's like you've suddenly become a parent or something!" She flopped down on her bed. "As down as he's been since Vox dumped him, it's a good thing that he's makin' time with a hottie! Whatever he's doin', he needs t' keep doin' it!"

Nikki shook her head, lost in thought. "I don't know how to describe it. The ... emotions don't seem right." With a sigh, she looked at the door through which Ayla had departed. "Maybe we should spend a little more time with the Berets to see if I can make sense of this mess."

"You go rub noses with the Euro-snobs! I ain't hurtin' my image by hangin' with them!" Toni retorted "It'd take a month in the 'hood t' get my cred back!"

Thursday, April 26, 2007 - Before Breakfast
Outside Melville Cottage, Whateley Academy

Coming out of the front entrance of Melville Cottage, on a path to intercept Ayla and her friends, Charge glanced up the walkway toward Schuster, and a frown crossed her face. "What is she doing 'ere?" she angrily demanded of her roommate Alicia.

"Ah'd guess that she's hopin' to meet Ayla and walk with her to breakfast," Alicia speculated. "Otherwise, she has no business over here."

"That pute stupide should stay with 'er own cottage!" Adalie snarled. Taking a moment to recompose herself, she put on a pleasant smile and turned toward the Kimbas, walking past Melville on their way to breakfast. "Bonjour, Ayla," she said in a bright, cheery voice. "Comment allez-vous?"

"Très bien merci. et toi?"

As per the daily script, Adalie wrinkled her nose. "I am confused about the business," she said, sounding a bit frustrated. It had taken ten minutes of practice with Jenny and Reach to get her tone to the point that she was convincing as a damsel in distress. "I was wondering if per'aps we could meet later today so you could 'elp me?" Behind them, Toni and Nikki exchanged puzzled but knowing looks, shrugging.

Ayla flinched almost imperceptibly as the groups merged and continued down the path toward the dining hall, with Addy at Ayla's side. "I have a busy afternoon - immediately after my math study, our team is scheduled for a simulation. We'll probably be late for dinner, too."

Addy managed, somehow, to keep from grinning; Kayda had been a wealth of information about Ayla's schedule and she knew precisely what Ayla's schedule was. She was going to have to find a way to thank her Native American friend. "Oh." She again sounded disappointed, but then her face lit up. "Per'aps we could meet over a late dinner, and you could 'elp review the data I've collected?" She was all but begging Ayla.

"Ayles should be free about eight-thirty," Toni suggested helpfully. "Right, Ayles?"

"I can ask one of the chefs to make something for dinner," Addy quickly added, trying desperately to contain her growing excitement at an incipient date with the object of her affection. "They owe me une faveur after I got them some of papa's cognac before spring break."

"Ah, yes," Ayla said with a smile that was friendly. "And Mrs. Carson was none too happy when she found out what you'd done." She could have sounded mocking, but her words were warm and uncritical.

Addy winced. "Oui. Our 'Eadmistress apparently doesn't appreciate the necessity of spirits in fine French cooking."

"I think she appreciates it well," Ayla chuckled. "I think that she just wants us to wait until we're of legal age before we get to appreciate it."

"Bah!" the French girl scoffed. "In France, we have wine with meals from a young age."

"But we're not in France," Alicia, walking on the other side of Addy, countered.

"Oh, look, Ayla!" Jade chimed in from behind them as the group neared Crystal Hall, "your girlfriend is waiting for you!" Too late, Fey tried to hush the exuberant little devisor, while Alicia tightly gripped Adalie's arm to remind her to control her emotions. It would do no good, her touch indicated, for Adalie to get distraught and run off.

Furious and upset, Addy's eyes shot daggers at Charmer, and the only reason Charmer wasn't reciprocating was that she was visible to Ayla and the rest of Team Kimba. Instead, as Team Kimba approached, she practically dashed to Ayla's side, lightly nudging Hank to the side so she could wrap her arms around Ayla's arm, clutching her affectionately.

"I 'ad a wonderful time at dinner last evening," Charmer purred. "We should do that again!"

Ayla smiled, an expression that Charge saw from the corner of her eye. "It was a pleasant way to spend an evening," she agreed.

Around the trio, Hank, Nikki, Toni, and Alicia tensed, expecting the outbreak of hostilities between the two French girls, but with Alicia desperately clutching Addy's arm, a truce of sorts held - mostly because neither girl wanted to be an instigator in front of Ayla. Had Ayla not been there, however, the others were certain that a fight could have easily ensued.

In the service line, Charmer and Charge crowded Ayla, both trying to be helpful, both trying to assist loading the chef's special treat onto Ayla's tray, and generally being catty toward each other, until Nikki and Billie sidled up on either side of their teammate, gently but insistently nudging the two French girls away. "Come on up to our level, Ayles," Nikki insisted. "You haven't sat with us for a while, and we miss your smiling face."

"But Ayla can sit with me!" Charmer protested, a disappointed expression prominent on her face.

"Non," Charge rebutted, "Ayla can sit with me and 'elp me with my papa's business!"

"Girls," Toni stepped between the two of them and Ayla, "Ayles is eating with us today. We need to review our last simulation. End of discussion." Her tone and defiantly crossed arms made it abundantly clear that she was not going to listen to arguments or engage in a debate, while behind her, the rest of Team Kimba herded Ayla to the stairs. Ironically, as Ayla moved out of reach of both of them, the two French girls turned to glare at each other, each acting as though somehow, the other was at fault for not dining with Ayla.

April 26, 2007 - after Breakfast
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

Still fuming, Adalie watched Charmer hurrying to intercept Ayla by the dirty-tray conveyor, and while Charmer was able to walk out with Ayla, her teammates were clustered around Ayla protectively. Even then, Charmer managed to cling to Ayla's arm as if the two were an item - despite the angry and hateful glares from the noted campus gay-bashers. She stood watching Team Kimba and Charmer leave Crystal Hall, not realizing that she was blocking one of the trash cans while she clenched and unclenched her fists, her teeth gnashing so intensely that her jaw ached.

"Addy!" The tap on her shoulder and the voice were insistent, finally breaking through her sense of frustration and anger. She turned to see who was trying to get her attention.

"Addy!" Chat Bleu repeated insistently. "Are you okay?"

"I should have hit that ... that ... stupid cunt!" Addy snarled, angrily twisting her shoulder free of Chat Bleu's touch. "She is ruining everything! Everything! Why doesn't she go back to whoring herself for the 'royal court' and leave me alone?" Around the two girls, students glanced warily, most of them not quite sure what Addy was screaming about, but her tone and expression were more than sufficient hints that she was incredibly furious. A buffer zone formed within seconds around Addy in response to her vitriolic rant, which continued unabated for over two minutes, using a quite nasty and descriptive vernacular.

"Addy, please hush!" Jenny insisted loudly as she dashed to her friend's side.

"Did you see what that whore did? She's ...!"

"Addy," Reach said sternly, having naturally followed his girlfriend to Adalie's side, "Shut. Up!" He grasped the girl's shoulders and pulled her face-to-face. "Enough, Addy!" he barked at her. Though harsh, Reach's drill-sergeant approach finally broke through Adalie's fit.

Or rather, it would have, had not Kismet come by at that moment to twist the knife. She was walking with Automa-Tech to bus their trays. "Oh, did you 'ear about Ayla?" Kismet said loud enough that Addy - and anyone else within ten feet - could hear.

Naturally, Addy perked up at the sound of Ayla's name.

"Vera was out very late last night, and when I asked her, she was very coy," Kismet said, watching Addy for a reaction. "She finally confessed to me that she was on a date with Ayla!'

Addy's lower lip started trembling as her eyes misted; only a tiny gasp of dismay escaped her as she took in what Kismet was saying.

"Really?" Donza seemed incredulous. "I didn't think Ayla was Charmer's type."

"She must be, because Vera looked quite pleased with 'erself, even though 'er lipstick was smeared and 'er 'air was a bit ... messed."

Donza's eyes widened, as did those of most girls in earshot. "Did she ... they ...?"

Kismet laughed, knowing that the conversation was being overheard. "She wouldn't say, but my guess from 'er clothing is that they weren't just kissing."

Tears flowing down her cheeks, Addy turned to flee, to run back to the sanctuary of her room where she could spend the rest of the day crying her eyes out. Unfortunately for her, both Reach and Jenny anticipated that move and they were holding her arms even before Kismet had finished taunting Addy.

"Let me go!" she practically screamed at her friends.

"Non, Addy," Jenny said insistently. "You are too upset right now!" She leaned closer, whispering. "Besides, you 'ave a date for tonight to plan, n'est ce pas?"

It took a not inconsiderable amount of time, but finally her despondent emotions faded. "I suppose," she said to Jenny, wiping at one cheek.

"Let's get you cleaned up, and then we'll got talk to the chefs, okay?" Reach prompted. Still holding Addy's arms, Reach and Jenny led her away from the conveyor and the crowd of gawking onlookers, toward the waterfall and the restrooms behind it.

"You aren't ... coming in, are you?" Addy asked in horror when she realized that Reach wasn't stopping at the door.

"Addy," Reach drawled patiently, "right now, as you more than anyone else should know, I'm one hundred percent female. Do you honestly expect me to use the boys' restroom right now?"

Shocked but unable to refute Reach's impeccable logic, Addy shut her mouth.

"And besides, as distraught as you seem, I'd be remiss in my Southern manners if I didn't try to help," he added with a smile, which brought a brief glance of admiration and love from Jenny.

As Jenny helped wipe Addy's cheeks, Reach decided that some distracting conversation would be useful. "What are you planning on having the chefs prepare?" he asked.

It was precisely the distraction Adalie needed. "I am 'oping to convince Chef Andre to prepare a mushroom medley on polenta, followed by a crown roast of pork with cognac-cherry glaze." She actually managed to smile. "It is a dish our cook Daphne taught me, and one of my papa's favorites!"

"That sounds a lot better than what we'll be eating!" Reach snorted, giving Addy a backhanded compliment on her menu planning.

"Of course, we should 'ave mashed gold potatoes and per'aps grilled asparagus in a 'Ollandaise sauce to go with the roast."

"Hold still, ma amie," Jenny chided her as she tried to touch up Addy's makeup.

"And for dessert?" Reach asked, almost drooling at the thought of the dishes Addy was hoping to serve Ayla.

"Peaches and cognac-cream," Addy replied. Her movement earned Reach a look of disgust from Jenny, who was still trying to fix Addy's makeup.

"They say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach," Reach said philosophically. "I don't know about Ayla, but that would sure pique my interest!"

While Jenny slapped Reach's arm, Addy sighed heavily. "Ayla 'as eaten gourmet food all 'er life! What if she doesn't like my recipes?"

"She will," Jenny said confidently. "Be certain of that, ma amie. Ayla will love the dishes you prepare, and in no small part because you are sharing family recipes with 'er, ma amie." She looked at Adalie, and saw a slight nod of hesitant affirmation slowly spread into a more confident smile. "Ayla will love what you 'ave selected. When 'ave the chefs ever not pleased Ayla? With your recipes and their talent, Ayla will be delighted."

"I 'ope so," Addy permitted herself a little bit of positive thought. "I really 'ope so."

April 26, 2007, Evening
Tunnels under Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

Adalie halted at one end of her nervous pacing circuit and glanced at her watch, the same as she'd done at that same point in pacing every single time she'd paused to turn. Her distress was visibly growing with every single pause. The fact that she was a speedster made her pacing look like a frenzied dash back and forth, and each time she looked at her watch, she found that only seconds had passed from the previous check. With every 'lap', she managed to convince herself more and more that she was being stood up, and that her elaborate dinner plans were all for naught.

The sound of the door opening caught Addy by surprise mid-pace, and she spun toward the noise, her facial expression betraying both hope and distress.

Correctly supposing that Adalie had been waiting nervously, Ayla glanced at her watch. "It's not a problem that I'm two minutes early, is it?" she asked, a touch worried by Adalie's concern. Ayla also glanced nervously at how Adalie was attired; the French girl was dressed more for a date than for a business meeting, wearing a stunning red dress and heels, whereas Ayla was simply wearing her school uniform.

"Early?" Addy glanced at her watch again, confused. "But ..." She sighed. "My watch must be incorrectly set, because it reads after eight thirty, and I was starting to fear that I'd told you the wrong time or the wrong location." Quite accidentally, she'd stumbled into a diplomatic answer, presupposing that it was her watch that was in error.

"Perhaps my watch is a little slow," Ayla countered, but his diplomatic response was deliberate and a result of a lifetime of training. He replied in French, graciously giving Adalie the benefit of speaking in her native tongue.

Addy shrugged, nervous and excited at the same time. "Dinner should be served in a few minutes. I hope you aren't offended, but I allowed a little time in case either of us were a bit late."

"Not at all," Ayla replied with a smile. "I also always plan for slight contingencies." She gestured to the table, which curiously, was set with a nice floral centerpiece. "We can start to review your data while we wait."

Adalie noticed that Ayla was looking at the flowers with an arched eyebrow. "Oh, pardon," she said quickly, hoping she hadn't gone too far. "In my house, mama always had fresh flowers on the table, from the gardens or from her small greenhouse." There was more than a hint of sadness in her voice. "After she ...," Adalie's lip trembled slightly despite her intention of staying calm and stoic, "..., papa insisted we keep flowers on the table because it made it seem like mama was still at the table with us." Her voice cracked, and she turned away quickly to wipe at the tear that had leaked from one eye.

Ayla paused a moment, feeling guilty that her curiosity about the centerpiece had caused Addy some distress. Remembering what she'd observed from Nikki and Toni, Ayla took a small step and put her hand on Addy's shoulder, a gentle way - she hoped - of offering support and sympathy. "I'm sorry ..." she started to say.

Adalie spun, clutching Ayla in an embrace and putting her head on Ayla's shoulder. "I'm sorry ..." she said at the same time as Ayla spoke.

Awkwardly, Ayla wrapped her arms around Addy for a brief hug before the French girl released her embrace and stepped back a half step. "I'm sorry," Addy repeated. "I didn't think it would ...."

A reassuring smile graced Ayla's face. "It's okay. We don't get to choose what stirs old memories, do we?" Despite the outward confidence, Ayla was a little confused. She smelled Addy's delightfully-intoxicating perfume when Addy hugged her for comfort, noticed her impeccable makeup, and saw how Adalie was attired, all of which were counter to the intention of a business meeting.

"I suppose not," Adalie agreed softly, wiping at the remains of a tear and desperately wishing that Ayla was still hugging her. While she silently chided herself for breaking the hug too quickly, her conscience reminded the teenage girl that taking advantage of her mom's tragic death would be rather pathetic.

"Are you okay, or should we ...?" Ayla asked, worried.

"While we're waiting for the appetizer ...," Adalie said while she recomposed herself. She gestured to the table again while she picked up her laptop from the small sofa which also graced the room. She was afraid that between the floral centerpiece and her dress, she might be spooking Ayla.

As she started to sit opposite Ayla, the young tycoon smiled. "I think it will be difficult for both of us to read the screen from there." She scooted her chair to one side, making room for Adalie to move next to her.

Blushing, Adalie scooted her chair around the table and sat beside Ayla. Realizing that the centerpiece would be in the way, Addy winced. "Let me get this out of the way," she apologized, reaching for the flower vase.

Ayla shook her head. "No," she replied simply, and then explained. "If it's important to you, we can work around it."

The look on Addy's face was pure adoration when she glanced at Ayla - gratitude for acknowledging her mother, gratitude to be dining privately with Ayla, and above all, teen love and profound hope that she could foster a relationship with the young tycoon. "Merci," she said softly, fighting the impulse to drop her computer, wrap her arms around Ayla, and kiss her.

"I see you have separate columns for each distribution option," Ayla noted appreciatively directly once Addy had her computer open and a spreadsheet displayed on the screen. "What is it that's confusing you?" the business mogul asked.

"I'm not sure about advertising," Adalie replied, getting right to the point. Alicia, Kayda, Jenny, and Reach had pounded into her head that she shouldn't waste Ayla's time - at least not while they were talking business. Afterwards? That would depend on Addy's instincts and feeling of how the meeting as going. Adalie opened another tab on the spreadsheet.

"Good," Ayla said, nodding and smiling. "You have quotes on different types of advertising. She pointed at one line. "But in the US, you cannot broadcast advertisements for any alcoholic beverage but beer." She saw the surprised look on Adalie's face at that bit of news, and smiled. "Yes, compared to Europe, we are sometimes a little less ... enlightened."

"I didn't know that," Addy said, quickly working the keyboard and track-pad to delete the entire line.

"Besides, if you're up-marketing the brand, you definitely do not want to use mass-marketing. How does your father advertise in France and Europe?"

The two discussed marketing for another two or three minutes before an alarm chimed by the dumb-waiter, signaling that the appetizers had arrived. The French girl pushed her computer out of the way and stood, starting to move her chair back to the opposite side of the table.

"Don't bother," Ayla interrupted her. "If we have any pauses in dining and want to look at the data, you'd have to move again."

Addy's heart pounded with delight as she put silverware on the table and then moved the plates to the table, uncovering them with a flourish. Not only was she dining with the object of her desires, but she was sitting intimately close, right beside Ayla. "This is one of mama's recipes. Polenta with a mushroom medley and a special light sauce."

"It looks very good, and it smells even better," Ayla replied. After the first bite, while Addy practically chewed her nails nervously, Ayla nodded. "Your mother was a fine cook," she said simply. "There is no other word but delicious."

Addy exhaled, a profound sense of relief flooding her. She hadn't realized that she'd been holding her breath while Ayla tasted the food.

Ayla politely asked more about Adalie's family as they ate, since it wasn't possible to work on the computer, and Adalie was pleased to share stories of her papa and her sisters, and of the hair-raising adventure she'd had when she first manifested. No sooner had they finished their appetizers than the dumb-waiter chimed again. Ayla beat Addy to the service, moving the appetizer plates to one side, putting the main course dishes on the table, and then sending the appetizer plates back up the dumb-waiter.

"And what do we have here?" Ayla asked as she removed the covers to reveal the steaming main course.

"Another of mama's recipes. Crown roast of pork with a cognac-cherry glaze, with mashed gold potatoes and grilled asparagus," Addy answered with a bit of trepidation.

"No doubt your father's cognac?" Ayla asked with an arched eyebrow. "An XO?"

"Oui," Addy replied.

"So you did find a way to get cognac onto campus around Mrs. Carson's prohibitions and Ms. Hartford's interference?"

Addy's cheeks flashed crimson. "You heard about that little ... misadventure?"

"Yes," Ayla smiled. "Lanie - Loophole - is a good friend, and she regaled me with the tale of your little trip to Dunwich," she chuckled. "And you succeeded anyway. Resourcefulness is the hallmark of a good businessperson." The smile broadened into a grin. "So is controlling the message - like you quite masterfully did when those ... ugly ... rumors started." She read Addy's wince. "And no, I didn't believe for a second that you would have done what the rumors suggested."

"Oh?" Addy didn't want to say anything more, in case she misspoke.

"I don't think Kayda would speak so highly of you if you were capable of such a thing," Ayla said with a reassuring and even sympathetic smile. "Besides, I make it a point to never believe rumors."

"I ... was afraid ... that you ...." In her heart, she was overjoyed to find out, even indirectly, that her friend Kayda spoke so highly of her. She certainly thought of the Native American girl as a dear friend, and was almost overjoyed that they also considered her to be a friend as well.

Ayla put her hand on Addy's supportively. "I know how much rumors and gossip can hurt, Adalie," she said. "Don't worry - people will find something else to gossip about within a day, and your true friends will stand by you."

It was all Adalie could manage to not throw herself at Ayla. While she fought her internal struggle of her friends' plan against her heart's desire, the dumb-waiter chimed again.

Noticing that Adalie seemed a trifle distracted, Ayla stood, lifting her hand off Adalie's. "That must be dessert," she said with a smile as she gathered the plates. Moments later, she was seated beside Adalie again. "What do we have tonight?"

With a smile that reflected her inner joy, Adalie lifted the covers. "Fresh peaches and cream, with a dash of cognac for flavor."

Once the dessert plates were empty and pushed aside, Ayla confused Adalie by resuming the business conversation as if it had never paused. While the discussion was very helpful to Adalie's understanding of the business proposal, she was frustrated that Ayla didn't seem to notice any of her flirtatious behavior, or worse, if she did notice, she was ignoring it.

With a smile, Ayla leaned back. "I hope that answers your questions," she said.

"Oui," Adalie replied. "I hadn't realized how complicated a marketing plan could be, or what rules we'd have to deal with."

"You should work with a reputable - but not top-billed - ad agency to tailor your message. The top firms charge a lot, and the quality you get isn't worth the extra money, especially in niche markets."

"Every time I think I understand enough to make the proposal to papa," Addy sighed with a sad smile, "I find out there is so much more to think of."

"Welcome to the world of ...." She paused when her cell phone beeped, "... of business," she finished while extracting her phone." She looked at the number and frowned. "I hope you don't think it rude of me, but I have another matter that I have to take care of."

"Non," Adalie said, hoping that the disappointment she felt in her heart didn't show, "you are busy with many projects, and it wouldn't be fair of me to monopolize your time."

Ayla smiled at her. After all, their business was concluded. "Thank you for being so understanding. And thank you very much for the outstanding meal. Your mama's recipes are delicieux, worthy of a five-star restaurant. I hope that I can persuade you to sharing more of them."

"It would be my pleasure," Addy replied, not trusting herself to speak more than a word or two lest she blurt out her undying love for Ayla.

Ayla took Addy's hands in hers. "It was a pleasure dining with you, and I'm glad I was able to help. Although you didn't have to go to all this trouble just to talk with me."

"It was no trouble at all," Addie retorted. "Certainly the value of your help is worth a bit of fuss in the kitchens, non?"

As she walked through the tunnels after cleaning up, Addy wistfully thought of what she could do the next time she invited Ayla to dinner. So lost in thought was she that she almost missed hearing the conversation a few steps in front of her between two gadgeteers.

"I tried to call Ayla about the patent," one short, scruffy-looking, lab-coat-clad gadgeteer said, "because I got the letter today, but all I got was the answering service."

"I just saw her heading in the tunnel toward Dickinson," the other gadgeteer replied. "She even waved off Jenny! Claimed she had a very important meeting with one of the Berets."

Addy heard nothing after that; her mind was dunked in the bitter seas of heartbreak and disappointment. Bawling, she dashed down the tunnel toward Melville Cottage.

Friday, April 27, 2007, breakfast
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

Sans breakfast tray, Charge stormed up to the Beret table, standing opposite Charmer and glaring at her. "You ... you ... pute!" she screamed in French. "How dare you interrupt my date with Ayla! Stupid cow!"

Charmer rose to her feet, her face flushing with anger as well. "Me? You call me a whore? You ... slut! You sell yourself to bring your papa's cheap drink on campus, and you dare to call me a whore?"

"You know that's not true, bitch!" Charge countered, her fists balling in anger. "It was probably you who tipped off Ms. Hartford on Monday, wasn't it? You can't win on your own, so you have to cheat!"

"You stay away from Ayla, you stupid cunt!" Charmer shot back, pulling her jacket sleeves up and freeing access to her charm bracelets. "She's interested in me, not you!"

"You ruined my plan, and then you started those rumors, didn't you?" Addy screamed. "I'm the one Ayla is interested in! She's ... helping me with a business deal!"

"If Ayla was going to import wines and spirits, she certainly would import something of quality, like my family's wines!" The yelling match had drawn the attention of every single person in Crystal Hall, watching to see if they were going to have a cat-fight on their hands.

"Quality? Hah! My papa has won more awards in the last six months than your family has since it began business!" Charge shot back. "Stay away from Ayla!" she screamed.

"Why? Why would someone worldly and sophisticated be interested in a peasant farmer's daughter when she could have someone like me?" Charmer countered. She reached for one of her charms, intending to invoke a magic spell.

Charge saw the movement, and she immediately blocked one of Charmer's arm so she couldn't touch the charms. "You? Ayla has more taste than to be interested in an arrogant, snobbish bitch who thinks she's so much better than everyone else!" she screamed. As she yelled, with her free hand, she grabbed Charmer's exposed wrist, and in a move that Sensei Ito would have approved of, she twisted and tossed Charmer over her hip to land awkwardly between two tables.

Before Charge could press home the advantage, Charmer grasped one of her charms between her fingers. Immediately, a concentrated rush of air slammed into Charge, knocking her backwards and onto a table, landing with a crash on trays and silverware and plates of food.

"THAT'S ENOUGH!" a voice boomed at the two girls, startling them into momentary inaction, and Charmer found her hands firmly gripped by Stormwolf, clad in his armored suit. Before she could react, Charge found herself pinned to the table by Mindbird, likewise on duty as a security auxiliary.

Holding firmly onto the two girls, the security auxiliaries hoisted them to their feet. "Kane Hall. Move it!" Stormwolf growled,

April 27, 2007 - Early Morning
Headmistress' Office, Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

With her patented 'glare of supreme authority', Mrs. Carson stood over the two girls. "Miss Vitesse, you seem to be getting a bad habit of coming to my office with disciplinary problems," she snapped at Adalie. She turned to Charmer. "And you, Miss Villabianca, you know better than to use magic for fighting outside of the gym or arenas. Or should I make you repeat your coursework in magic ethics?" Neither girl dared to look directly at the Headmistress.

"Well? What's going on here?" Mrs. Carson demanded after a moment of silence. "Why are you two trying to wreck my dining facility?"

"She was trying to mess up my deal with Ayla," Charge immediate snapped.

"She's jealous because Ayla is interested in me!" Charmer blurted at the same time.

"Why would Ayla be interested in a slut like you?" Adalie spat back at Vera.

"Slut? That's rich coming from a girl who whores herself out to security!" Vera snarled.

"You're just jealous because Ayla is helping me with papa's business!" The screaming was increasing in volume and emotion, and the two girls seemed to have forgotten that Mrs. Carson was standing over them, glowering at their increasingly angry exchange of words.

"You know that's not true! You started that ugly rumor, you ... bitch!" Adalie screamed right back.

"ENOUGH!" Mrs. Carson roared, reminding the girls with a start that she was present and listening and in charge. "That will be enough of that name-calling and screaming!" she continued in flawless French. After glaring at the girls for a few seconds to properly intimidate them, Mrs. Carson continued. "Miss Vitesse, what is your dispute?" She saw Charmer start to wind up to protest, and cut it off. "I will get to you, Miss Villabianca."

"I am trying to work with Ayla to get an importer and distributor for my papa's cognac," she explained, scowling the entire time at Charmer. "But she is trying to interfere with me! She ... she told ...." Addy shut up suddenly, realizing that she was about to implicate herself with her complaint.

"You think she told Ms. Hartford about the package your aunt sent?" Mrs. Carson asked, eyes narrowed signaling her displeasure at that incident.

"And when I was trying to meet with Ayla to discuss my papa's business, she kept distracting Ayla so that I couldn't talk to 'er!" she continued. "And she started rumors to 'umiliate me!"

"I most certainly did not speak with Ms. Hartford about your clumsy attempt to smuggle cognac onto campus!" Vera snapped, unable to wait her turn to counter the accusations. "And I most certainly did not start any rumors about your ... sexual proclivities!"

"I 'ave never done anything so ... disgusting!" Addy screamed back. "Are you trying to impugn me with your behavior?"

"Enough, girls!" Mrs. Carson yelled, once more silencing the girls. After they were quiet for a few moments, she turned to Vera. "Miss Villabianca - your side of the story?"

"I can't 'elp it if this ... peasant girl ...."

"Miss Villabianca, you will cease name-calling in my presence, unless you wish to draw extra detention!" She saw the smug smile on Addy's face. "The same goes for you, Miss Vitesse."

"Oui, Madame," Addy acknowledged contritely.

Vera simply nodded, still glaring at Adalie. "She's jealous because Ayla is a ... friend, and she prefers to spend time with me!"

"That's not true!" Addy wailed. "She wouldn't prefer you if you didn't throw yourself all over her like a three-franc Parisian whore!"

"Me a whore?" Vera yelled back. "I'm not the one who ... seduced a security officer to smuggle cheap cognac onto campus!"

"Both of you, SHUT UP!!" Mrs. Carson roared. "I don't want to hear another word from either of you." She noticed Vera about to protest. "Not. One. Word." When her Headmistress' glare had both girls quaking, she sat down and pushed a button on her phone. "Miss Claire, please get Phase out of ... AP Physics, I believe. Have Miss Goodkind report to my office on the double."

Less than two minutes later, Miss Claire opened the door, admitting Ayla. "You asked to see me, Mrs. Carson?" she asked, glancing back and forth between the two French girls.

"Thank you, Miss Claire." The headmistress gestured to the open seat before her desk - right between the two squabbling girls. "Please have a seat, Miss Goodkind."

Visibly confused, Ayla sat, stealing another glance at each of the two girls who looked like they wanted to kill each other. "May I ask why I'm here?"

"It seems," the older woman said evenly, "that you are somehow in the middle of some kind of rivalry or dispute between Miss Vitesse and Miss Villabianca." She watched Ayla's eyebrows arch and nodded her confirmation. "I want to know your opinion of what this might be all about, because all these two," she gestured to the girls, "can do is scream accusations and insults at each other."

Ayla gulped uneasily. "Last week, Vera asked if I could assist in getting her family's beverages imported and distributed. I explained why I couldn't do that, she understood, and the subject was dropped. Vera has been helping me learn techniques that should help me with my magic studies, and she's dined with me in the cafeteria a few times. Wednesday evening, we had a ... dinner date."

"I see," Mrs. Carson said evenly. "And with Miss Vitesse?"

"Last week, she asked me if I wanted to go to a movie in Crystal Hall with her, but I had plans, so I declined. She's been asking my advice about a business plan she's working on to get her father's spirits imported and distributed. As with Vera, I've dined with her in the cafeteria, and last night, we had a business dinner so I could advise her."

"Is there anything else?"

Ayla shook her head. "No, not that I can think of."

"I think I have a clear picture." She looked back and forth between the two girls. "First of all, there will be no more bribing the chefs to prepare special dishes for Ayla. Understood?"

"But ...." Addy started to protest.

"No. More." She frowned at the two. "Understood?"

"Yes, ma'am," the girls both said meekly.

"There will be no more of your family beverages on campus. Is. That. Understood?"

Addy gulped more than Vera. "Oui, madame."

"I understand the European model of cooking and dining with beverages, even at a young age, but This. Is. Not. Europe! No more beverages. No smuggling, no bribing security officers, nothing." She was looking particularly at Adalie.

"Oui, madame."

"If you two fight again, you will each serve a week of in-school detention in a 'guest room' in Kane Hall. Is that clear?"

"Oui, madame."

"While I suspect what's going on here, I have no hard evidence other than a rivalry centered around Ayla. If you feel a need to fight, then there are ...."

Charge turned to Charmer. "Then I challenge you to a duel!" she said, glaring at the other French girl.

Charmer laughed. "Your speed against magic? Surely you jest! It will be no contest!"

"Not in the arena," Addy retorted angrily. "In the kitchen."

"What?" Mrs. Carson, Ayla, and Vera asked simultaneously, eyes wide as they struggled to comprehend what Adalie was demanding.

"What do you mean, in the kitchen?" Vera demanded.

"A contest. A cooking contest. Each of us prepare an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert for Ayla. The loser agrees to defer to the other for Ayla's time," Addy explained confidently.

"Tres interessant," Vera said, thinking. "And who will judge this?"

"Ayla, of course," Addy retorted.

"Eep," Ayla squeaked, for once at a complete loss for words.

"Each of us will 'ave one chef to assist," Addy continued in a firm, determined voice. She was obviously comfortable with the challenge.

"I accept the challenge," Vera replied, frowning. "When will we do this?"

"This afternoon," Addy demanded. "We should settle this quickly, and finally."

"Ahem," Mrs. Carson cleared her throat to get the girls' attention. "You have a few minor distractions called classes," she reminded the girls. "Second, I have not agreed to permit this challenge. Third, Ayla has not agreed to judge the event."

"As both girls have interest in me," Ayla said, gulping, "I don't think I should judge this. It would be better to have Mrs. Carson, Ms. Hartford, and the third chef as judges, or at the very least, judging with me."

"Very nice of you to ask before you volunteered me, Miss Goodkind." Sarcasm dripped from the headmistress' voice as she shot an unpleasant look at Ayla.

"The terms are acceptable. I accept." Charmer looked resolute and calm, which caused Addy's confidence to waver a bit. "I will not let you interfere with my ... friendship with Ayla."

"And I will not let you sabotage the deal I am working with Ayla's 'elp," Addy snapped in reply.

"I choose Chef Marcel," Vera chose her assistant.

"And I choose Chef Andre," Addy replied, a confident grin appearing on her face. "Chef Andre taught our family chef, so I am quite familiar with 'is technique."

"Miss Goodkind? You've been sitting there silently, which is not what I expected of you. Do you have anything to say?"

Ayla flinched a tiny bit. "It ... almost sounds like a reasonable way for Adalie and Vera to settle their issue of priority if it were over a possession. I have to say that I'm somewhat uncomfortable with the concept of being battled over as if I'm a door prize. They seem to be forgetting that I have a say in this matter as well."

"Do you agree that, just between themselves, this is a solution to who gets first chance to ask you for your time, and that your decision of how you spend your time and with whom overrides their priority of asking?" Mrs. Carson asked.

"As long as I have the ultimate decision in the use of my time, it seems reasonable."

"Miss Vitesse? Miss Villabianca?"

"Agreed," Addy said, looking defiantly at Charmer.

"Oui," Charmer answered.

"Very well." Mrs. Carson pushed a button on her phone. "Ms. Hartford, can you come in my office, please?" A moment later, the door opened and the Assistant Headmistress entered, closing the door behind her. "Ms. Hartford, Miss Vitesse and Miss Villabianca have a dispute to settle, and they wish to have a cooking duel in the kitchens."


"Both asked Miss Goodkind to judge, but as Ayla is at the focal point of the dispute, she suggested that you, Chef Peter, and I should assist her in the judging."

"I see. And I presume that the dishes they cook will include their respective family line of beverages?" Ms. Hartford asked, eyeing Adalie the whole time so that she gulped nervously. She had the distinct impression that Ms. Hartford knew her secret.

"Yes. With the exception of Miss Goodkind, the judges are of age, so you may serve wine or other beverages."

"'Ow are I supposed to get something like my papa's Pineau by this afternoon?" Addy asked, suddenly feeling a little uncertain.

"You should 'ave thought of that before you challenged me!" Vera retorted disdainfully.

Ms. Hartford scrutinized Addy for another moment. "I'll judge," she finally answered. Then she smiled a thoroughly uncomfortable smile at Addy. "Miss Vitesse, you and I need to have a little ... discussion. Please stop by my desk when you are finished here." With a smile, she departed.

"Would you object to my papa having a warper bring some suitable wines?" Vera asked, smirking at Addy.

"If it's delivered directly to the kitchen, it is acceptable."

Addy frowned. She was now stuck having to get some Pineau - if there was any Pineau at the consulate, and if her aunt could manage to get a bottle or two shipped on the morning train. And she imagined that she'd have to deal with Ms. Hartford again.

"You wished to see me, Ms. Hartford?" Addy asked contritely after she left the headmistress' office. She was more nervous about dealing with Ms. Hartford than she was about Mrs. Carson.

Ms. Hartford turned from her computer, locking the screen. "Yes, Miss Vitesse." She stood up. "Come with me, please."

Nervously, Addy followed Ms. Hartford out of the administrative suite, down the hall, and out onto the fixer's patio, which was still mostly deserted. The assistant headmistress stopped at one of the patio tables away from anyone else. "Have a seat, please." Obediently, Adalie sat, and was surprised when Ms. Hartford sat in the chair beside her rather than opposite her. The older woman took a small gadget from her pocket and set it on the table, turning it on.

Reading the puzzled look on the French girl, she smiled. "There are times when it's useful to make sure no-one overhears a conversation, would you not agree?" Addy nodded, gulping.

"Now, Miss Vitesse, let's talk about your rather ... crude ... effort to smuggle cognac onto campus."

"Pardon, madame?" Addy asked, dumbfounded.

"Please don't insult my intelligence playing dumb with me," Ms. Hartford said evenly, her stern tone carrying a hint of impatience and intolerance. "Do you realize that I have access to all security footage stored on the computers?" Addy's eyes widened.

"I'm going to give you a choice, Adalie," Ms. Hartford continued. Addy wasn't sure if she was more nervous by Ms. Hartford being stern or by her being familiar. "I can easily use the tapes to start expulsion hearings, or ... we can work together to solve some ... unique problems that I have."


"Information can be very valuable, wouldn't you agree?" Addy gulped and nodded. "You are friends with Miss Frank, true?"

Addy goggled. "Madame, I will not betray my friends!"

"Loyalty is another admirable trait, wouldn't you agree?" Ms. Hartford smiled pleasantly. "I'm not asking you to betray Miss Franks. I just need some information about her recent ... activities." She watched the French girl gulp nervously again. "And no, I don't particularly care about her nocturnal activities or sexual proclivities."

"But ... you 'ave the security tapes and cameras! Why would you need my 'elp?"

"Very simple, Adalie," Ms. Hartford smiled again. "Security cameras don't cover South Dakota, for instance. Nor do they cover all of the campus. And if you help me," she continued, "then it could become much easier for you to get your father's cognac on campus for the Euro Promotional League Kitchen." She sat back. "Well? Which will it be? Do I start the expulsion process, or do you help me gather information?"

"That's blackmail, Madame," Adalie grumbled.

"That's such a dirty word," Ms. Hartford said with a smile. "I prefer to think of it as encouraging you to make good choices. And no, this isn't an open-ended commitment on your part. It's a one-time deal."

Addy realized she was perfectly boxed in. "I will 'elp you, Madam 'Artford," she said, her voice resigned.

"Very good choice. Now," Ms. Hartford's smile actually became pleasant, "The school will have a guest coming next week, and I know he is quite fond of your father's cognac. As I understand it, you have several extra bottles hidden somewhere in the tunnels, true?" She read Addy's stunned expression. "I would greatly appreciate a bottle for my guest. In exchange, I will help you get other products on campus ... for cooking, of course. For example, your father's Pineau ...."

Addy nodded. This might not be such a bad deal, she was beginning to think. "Oui, Madame," she said. "I will get you a bottle. During the lunch break?"

April 27, 2007 - Afternoon
Crystal Hall Kitchens, Whateley Academy

"Do we 'ave everything we need?" Addy nervously asked Chef Andre, her voice quavering slightly. The contest had a lot riding on it.

"Everything but the Pineau," the elder chef replied.

"Since that is just for beverage, I'm not worried if Aunt Tess doesn't get it 'ere in time," the girl commented.

Chef Peter and Ms. Hartford walked pointedly to Addy's cooking station, where Chef Andre and the girl were preparing to work. With them was another man who was looking critically at the preparation area. "You remember the rules?" Ms. Hartford asked simply.

"Oui," Addy replied, glancing uneasily at the third man in the group. "Chef Andre may offer advice, but 'e will follow my direction. I am the principle chef for this meal."

"Very good," Chef Peter replied. "Let me introduce a friend of mine who came up just for this contest. Gordon is a very famous chef, at least in Europe, and since he was in Boston, I asked him if he'd like to help judging, assuming it's okay with you girls. It would ensure we don't have a deadlock with four judges. I thought that his skill and insight would be helpful." Adalie nodded, and then Vera indicated her concurrence as well. Chef Peter continued, "This is Adalie Vitesse, one of ..."

Chef Gordon, who Adalie suspected was the cause of a Red Flag day, perked up. "Of Vitesse cognacs, by chance?" His accent was unmistakably British.

Addy blushed a bit at the recognition. "Oui," she replied softly, a touch embarrassed. "You 'ave 'eard of papa's cognac?"

"Of course." He looked at the ingredients organized on a work surface. "What are you making for us today, darling?"

"For an appetizer, I will make a crème brulee of foie gras with a hint of cognac. My entrée is a beef tenderloin in a cognac-cream sauce, with mashed gold potatoes, and broccolini."

"Sounds delicious," the guest chef commented in an encouraging tone. "And for your dessert?"

"A chocolate layer mousse cake with cognac and bittersweet chocolate," Addy replied proudly. "It is one of papa's favorites."

Chef Gordon winced. "Oh, dear," he lamented. "Do you think you might be overdoing it with the cognac? That it might overpower everything else, or become repetitive and tiresome?"

Addy was puzzled by his comment. "I 'ave cooked with cognac all my life. Chef Daphne 'as 'elped me learn 'ow to cook so that the cognac is a subtle addition to the dish, not an overpowering presence."

"Chef Daphne?" he asked.

"Daphne Guimond," Addy replied proudly. "Papa 'ired her as a private chef and tutor for my sisters and me after my mama passed away."

Andre puffed out his chest a little bit. "Chef Guimond was one of my best students. 'Er restaurant in Bordeaux was quite noted before she was 'ired by Monsieur Vitesse."

"Well, I hope you can pull it off. Having multiple dishes with the same ingredient is tricky." He smiled at the girl. "Good luck."

As the judges strolled down to the other work station, where Vera was getting ready, Addy looked up at Andre, nervous. "Do you think 'e's right? Do I 'ave too much cognac?"

Andre smiled. "You learned from Chef Daphne, oui?" Addy nodded. "Did she cook combinations like you are preparing today?"

Again the girl nodded. "I called 'er, and this is what she suggested."

"Do you think a trained, well-known chef would dare to serve too much of one ingredient that overpowered the entire meal?"

"Non," Addy squeaked, allowing a little hope that Daphne hadn't steered her wrong, despite the chef's concerns.

"Then be confident, ma cherie, and let us cook a meal that is worthy of a premier restaurant!" Andre beamed confidently at the girl. "Now, you're in charge. What shall we do?"

"Begin the cakes?" Addy asked uncertainly.

"Non," Andre gently shook his head. "The first thing to do is to plan. What 'as to be prepared, and in what order, so that the meal comes together at the proper time."

"Good afternoon, young lady," Chef Gordon clasped Vera's hand warmly.

"Our other contestant is Primavera Villabianca," Ms. Hartford introduced the girl.

"Of Villabianca Wines," the guest beamed. "Some world-class vintages, and always of the highest quality."

Vera nodded confidently. "Oui. Our family prides itself on our wines."

"As well you should." He looked at the ingredients laid about the table. "What are you cooking this afternoon?"

"I will start with a combination of barigoule of spring vegetables and a pain au chocolate for an appetizer."

"Two radically different appetizers? Isn't that a bit daring?"

"It is a favorite combination in the royal household of Monaco," Vera replied confidently. "For the entrée, I will cook turbot aux beurre blanc ...."

"Using one of your family vintages, no doubt."

"But of course!" Vera said in a tone that could have sounded arrogant and condescending. "And for dessert, a pear tarte tatin."

"It will be tricky to balance the turbot with the wine and butter sauce so the flavors complement each other. Too much or too little sauce and it will be a disaster."

"I have been tutored by only the finest chefs in the royal household," Vera sniffed. "I know that it will be perfect."

"Well, good luck then." Chef Peter and Chef Gordon didn't seem impressed by Vera's claimed tutoring.

"Adalie and Andre are working well together, like they've been a team," Chef Peter observed.

"I suspect their common bond through Chef Guimond helps."

"And Miss Vitesse is far less arrogant than Miss Villabianca," Ms. Hartford added.

"If you were cooking Miss Vitesse's dishes, what would you be worried about?" Gordon asked Peter.

"The chocolate layer mousse cake. The layers need to be balanced and even, and that can be tricky. And I think she put the tenderloin in a bit too early. If she's not careful, it will be overcooked."

"Agreed. Miss Villabianca's dishes are technically less complicated, so there is less to go wrong, but if she's not spot-on with the fish, it will be overcooked and rubbery or undercooked and not flaky."

"And the wine flavor in her sauce is a little strong," Ms. Hartford noted. "If she's not careful, that'll overpower the taste of the fish."

"Miss Vitesse seems to be working to a plan, so she looks a good deal more organized than Miss Villabianca," the guest judge observed.

"Considering the complexity of her menu, she'd be in serious trouble if she hadn't had a plan," Ms. Hartford added. After this little demonstration, she was going to have to have another talk with Adalie. The girl continued to surprise her; many seniors wouldn't have been able to plan a complex menu like Adalie did.

Addy looked over at the other pair, and seeing Vera glance her way, she shot her an evil glare, her hostility for the other Beret girl unmistakable. Turning back, she glanced at Andre. "'Ow do you think we're doing?" she asked nervously.

Andre winced. "I 'ate to say it, but they may 'ave been right about too much cognac in the dishes."

The girl's head slumped a little, nodding sadly. "Per'aps," she said. "But I know Chef Daphne wouldn't 'ave told me what to cook if she didn't know it would work together."

"I 'ope so."

"I think the tenderloin is ready to come out so it can rest," Adalie noted, glancing at the clock. "'Ow are the potatoes doing?"

"The potatoes and broccolini will be ready at the perfect time," Andre said with a smile. "As soon as you 'ave the tenderloin out, you must caramelize the sugar on the crème brulee."

"Oui," Addy replied. She let her head loll forward for a moment. "I should 'ave 'ad Aunt Teri send some Vin instead of the Pineau! That would cut down the cognac taste."

"You will do just fine," Chef Andre said. "

The five judges - Ayla, Mrs. Carson, Ms. Hartford, Chef Peter, and his friend Chef Gordon - sat at a long table facing the girls and their assistants, who stood nervously by small tables containing five servings of each of their dishes. Though it was still an hour before dinner service formally began, Crystal Hall was packed with an audience to observe the competition.

Addy, as the challenger, served her entrée first. She winced nervously as the judges each took a taste of her pate crème brulee.

"This is delicious," Gordon commented. "Without question, I'd serve this in my restaurant."

"The cognac flavor is a little heavy," Chef Peter observed critically. "I suspect that, having grown up with cognac around and used heavily in the kitchen, you are used to more cognac than the average person."

Addy cringed as she walked back to her table beside Chef Andre. The guest chef had warned her. Now her appetizer had flopped.

"To be honest, I didn't think that a pain au chocolate had any business being on the same plate as your barigoule of spring vegetables, but somehow, mysteriously, against all common sense, it works!"

"Your tenderloin is just a little overcooked, but the glaze is excellent. The potato mash is seasoned beautifully, but the broccolini are a bit soggy and bland. A little more salt and a little less cooking would have made them perfect."

"The wine flavor in the sauce is a tiny bit overpowering, my dear, but the fish is cooked perfectly."

"This cake is absolutely heavenly! The layers are perfect and even, the mousse is light and creamy, and the cognac is so subtly present that it adds rich complexity. To be honest, I was afraid that the cognac was going to overpower the dark chocolate, but you blended the flavors perfectly!"

"Light, refreshing, crisp. It is a very good effort here."

As Vera walked back to Chef Marcel, Ms. Hartford rose in place. "If you will excuse us, we have some deliberating to do." The other judges rose and filed out of the dining area into the kitchen, leaving the girls sitting nervously, trying to mentally weigh the positive and negative comments they'd received from all the judges - except one. Ayla had remained silent through the entire contest, her face inscrutable. Both girls were starting to regret insisting that Ayla judge, because Ayla might very well hold a grudge about being put in such a difficult situation.

Silence descended over Crystal Hall, and two girls' hearts raced when the doors to the kitchen opened and the five judges emerged. Chef Peter stepped in front of the judging table, flanked by his fellow judges.

"Both of you are to be commended on your efforts today. You both created restaurant-quality dishes with rich, complex flavors and some difficult technique, and despite some of our doubts as you were cooking, you pulled them off."

"We all agree that the best dish, of all those you two presented, is undoubtedly the chocolate layer mousse cake," Mrs. Carson spoke for the first time. "Adalie, if you would be so kind as to share the recipe with the chefs, I would like to add it to the repertoire of desserts I serve at official functions."

"It was extremely close, but in the end, only one of you can win. It came down to slight errors in technique or very subtle mistakes in flavor." Chef Gordon hesitated, looking at both girls. "The winner of today's contest is .... Miss Villabianca," he said, his gesture about halfway pointing at her.

Cheers erupted throughout Crystal Hall, and Vera smiled smugly, having won. She looked at Addy, and there was not a hint of grace in winning; the look she shot toward her rival was unvarnished arrogance in her victory. As other students swarmed in around Vera, Adalie, tears flowing and lip trembling, turned and dashed into the kitchen, feeling humiliated by her defeat.

A moment later, the door opened and Ms. Hartford with Chef Gordon in. Ms. Hartford looked around until she spotted the girl sitting on the floor, her arms around her knees and her face buried, wracked with sobs.

The guest squatted down beside her, putting his hand on her shoulder. "You have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, my darling," he tried to reassure the girl. "Your technique was spot-on, and you created some outstanding dishes. The problem, and I voiced my concern at the beginning, is that the entire meal was a little too heavy on the cognac. I suspect your palate is used to having that type of meal, but for the average diner, it is a little too much."

Addy didn't respond, but continued to sob at her loss. How could she possibly explain to them what it meant to her, that she'd ceded competing for Ayla's heart through the stupid duel that she'd been foolish enough to initiate.

"When you finish high school," Chef Gordon continued, "if you wish to pursue a career in cooking, I want you to get in touch with me, and I'll sponsor you to any culinary institute you wish. I would be proud to have you cooking in my restaurant. You are that talented."

Big deal, Addy thought to herself morosely. She'd lost Ayla.


April 27, 2007 - Late Evening
Beret Mafia Clubhouse, Whateley Academy

A solitary figure sat on the floor in a corner of the room, knees updrawn and her arms encircling them, staring unseeingly at the kitchen area in the dimly-lit room. Only the emergency lights provided any illumination, which was just fine with the girl. Tears had long since dried up, not out of an end to the girl's despair, but because there were no more tears left to shed.

She was so lost in her own emotions that she didn't notice the sound of the clubhouse door opening; even if she had, she figured that in the dim light, she'd blend into the shadows so no-one would bother her. She was wrong.

"You're not easy to find when you want to hide," Mrs. Carson said gently as she eased down to sit beside Adalie. "Why are you hiding here?"

"It doesn't matter anymore," the girl sobbed.

"What do you mean, it doesn't matter?"

"I lost. I'll never 'ave ...." Her voice faded off as she resumed sobbing.

"Your friends are worried about you," the headmistress rebutted. "They've been looking all over campus for you."

Adalie just shook her head. "It doesn't matter. They 'ave each other. I 'ave no-one. I'll never find ... l'amour!"

Mrs. Carson sighed at the girl's depressed state of mind. She pulled out her cell phone and dialed a number. "She's in the Beret clubhouse," she reported curtly before hanging up and re-stowing the phone.

Two minutes later, a knock sounded on the door. Adalie didn't look up, but Mrs. Carson gestured for the kids peeking in the doorway to enter. Slowly, Alicia, Kayda, Chat Bleu, and Ayla filtered into the room. Kayda and Alicia dashed to Addy's side, and Mrs. Carson rose to let her friends sit so they could comfort her.

Mrs. Carson paused by Jenny as she was exiting the room. "I think it's best if you kids handle this from here. Call security or Doyle if you think it's warranted." When Jenny nodded, the headmistress walked out of the room.

Slowly, Kayda and Alicia pulled Adalie up from the floor, one on each side supporting her. "Let's go back to our room," Alicia said gently. Without waiting for acknowledgement, they guided the distraught girl toward the door.

Passing Ayla, Addy suddenly seemed to focus, staring at the tycoon, confusion writ large on her face. "Aren't ... aren't you supposed to be ... with 'er?" she said through trembling lips unable to hide the bitterness from her words.

"I'm not a door prize," Ayla reminded Addy. "Before I go to a late meeting, I wanted to tell you that I've been considering your business plan, and after talking with one of my vice-presidents, AJG is going to spin up a subsidiary to handle importation and distribution ...."

Addy stared at Ayla while she was speaking, not really hearing anything that Ayla said, and then suddenly she launched herself at the tycoon, wrapping her arms around her as she frantically and passionately kissed her. Stunned by the unexpected display of passion, Ayla stood in shock for a few seconds before she was able to react.

When it slowly sunk in to Adalie that Ayla wasn't responding to her kiss, she eased back from Ayla, goggling at the object of her affection as she realized what she'd done and that Ayla hadn't responded at all. With a distressed whimper, she turned darted out of the clubhouse, tears flowing anew, leaving Ayla and her friends standing dumbfounded.


Saturday, April 28, 2007 - Breakfast
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

The Team Kimba table was full of chatter about the contest the day before, and speculation about the feud between Adalie and Vera. Ayla sat quietly, contemplating and not contributing much to the conversation.

"What did Adalie say when you told her about the deal?" Fey finally got around to asking.

Ayla shook her head. "I don't know."

"What do you mean, you don't know?" Toni chided Ayla. "You were there! Unless your famed powers of observation are failing you!"

"I ... I don't know what happened," Ayla repeated. "I was explaining the new subsidiary I'm starting to handle importation and distribution of premium beverages, and ... then she kissed me."

"She what?" Fey and Billie asked at the same moment, surprised.

"Charge is coming toward us," Hank reported, "and she doesn't look happy!"

"What did you do now, Ayles?" Toni demanded.

"I don't know!" Ayla repeated. From the corner of her eye, she saw Adalie approaching the table, so she stood. "Good morning, Addy," Ayla said warmly.

Addy's scowl didn't waver. "I 'eard you went to see Charmer after you talked to me last night," she accused Ayla.

"Yes," Ayla replied, confused. "She and I were ...." Ayla didn't finish, because Addy turned away with a wail of distress and dashed away and down the stairs, crying, leaving Ayla gawking after her. She turned back to her teammates as she sat back down, and seeing their stares of disbelief, she asked, confused, "What?"

"You just don't get it, do you?" Fey scolded her. "You don't ...."

"Here comes the other one!" Hank warned. "And Charmer doesn't look at all happy!"

With a sigh, Ayla stood and turned. "Good morning, Vera."

"I 'eard you made an import deal with Adalie!" she snapped at him.

"Well, yes," Ayla began to answer. "My board and I ...." She got no further before her face stung from a slap. Lifting a hand to the stinging - and reddening - cheek, Ayla gawked as Charmer turned, her nose lifted imperiously, and stormed away and down the stairs. Once Vera was out of sight, she turned back to the table and sat down, conscious of all the stares of disbelief directed her way, and not only from her teammates, but also from nearby tables. "What?" she asked, confused. "What did I do?"

Toni shook her head. "Ayles," she clucked, "you are just so completely, totally clueless about women, aren't you?"

Shaking her head, Fey stood and took Ayla's arm. "Come on," she directed the still-perplexed junior tycoon.


Fey said not a word, instead leading Ayla downstairs and directly to the table where Kayda sat with her friends. "Kayda, we need to talk," she declared.

"Oh? About what?" the Native American girl asked, herself a bit puzzled.

"Privately," Fey added.

Kayda glanced around her friends, with a special non-verbal plea to an older girl who was a visiting alumna and who was sitting close to her, and then she nodded. "I'll be back," she told them before following Fey out of the cafeteria to one of the small sitting areas a few tens of yards away from Crystal Hall.

"What kind of interactions have you had with Charmer in the past week or two?" Fey asked bluntly when they were all seated.

"She asked for an opinion about her father's import business because Goodkind International is dropping their business with Villabianca. The Villabiancas are looking for a new importer, so Vera asked me." Ayla shrugged. "I told her that it might be awkward for me to pick up a business line my family has recently had, and also that I'm focusing on helping gadgeteers here."

"How did she react?" Nikki further questioned.

"She seemed to understand."

"And then?"

"That was the end of that discussion. She also started flirting and hinting that she was ... interested," Ayla reported, blushing. "At our dinner date, she was a little ... forward."

Nikki turned to Kayda. "In other words, they were tongue-fencing." She looked back at Ayla. "Now tell me about Charge."

Ayla only had to think for a moment. "She talked to me last week about the possibility of going to a movie. I told her that I wasn't in the mood for seeing a movie because of ... Vox."


"She seemed a little upset by that, but she got over it, because she's been talking to me to get advice about importing her father's cognac into the domestic market."

"And you had a dinner date with her Thursday night?"

Ayla nodded. "She wanted to go over the business plan she was putting together."

Nikki sighed. "How was she dressed at dinner?"

Ayla shrugged. "She was wearing a tight little red dress, with high heels and ...." Her voice tailed off as her eyes widened.

"What do you think of Adalie?" Nikki asked directly.


"Do you like her? Is she fun to be with? What do you think of her?" Nikki repeated.

Ayla looked at Nikki in disbelief for a moment, and then she thought. "I ... I guess I like her. She is fun to be around, and she's ... pretty cute." Ayla smiled as she reflected on Adalie. "She's got that exotic French thing going for her. She is a little impulsive at times, but that might not be a bad thing," she added thoughtfully, "since all of you tell me I need to be a little less ... controlling."

"Would you date her?" Kayda asked her.

"Yeah," Ayla answered, puzzled again. "But ... she's not interested in me. She's interested in her father's cognac business"

Kayda glanced around and then leaned a little closer to Nikki and Ayla. "I'm going to tell you something that I promised to keep secret, but I guess I better tell you if there's any hope of you getting a clue and not hurting my friend more." In the periphery of her vision, Nikki smirked.

"Adalie is ... bi," Kayda said softly. "And she is very interested in you."


"Why the hell do you think I put that sexy picture of her in your mailbox?" Kayda demanded. "Didn't that give you any hints?"

Ayla's jaw dropped. "I didn't think .... I thought someone was pranking me! You mean ...?"

Nikki and Kayda rolled their eyes simultaneously at Ayla's cluelessness. "When Adalie couldn't get your attention romantically, she changed her approach to try to impress you with her business abilities, thinking that maybe then you'd notice her and she might have a chance romantically!" Nikki explained, a bit exasperated at having to state something that was to her patently obvious.

"And when you didn't respond to Charmer's business query, she decided that you needed some romance since Vox broke up with you - and that way she'd get your attention and maybe, just maybe, you'd open up to the idea of a business deal!" Kayda added.

"So then Charmer got jealous of your attention to Charge's business discussions, and Charge got jealous of Charmer's romantic advances toward you, which you seemed to be noticing," Fey continued.

Ayla shook her head slowly. "I'll never understand girls!" she declared.

April 28, 2007 - Lunch

Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

Ayla marched up to Kayda's table, where Addy sat with Alicia, Kayda, and her friends. "Adalie, I'd like to talk with you," Ayla said when she was sure Adalie had seen her.

"I'm 'aving lunch with my friends," Addy said snootily, turning a little bit away from Ayla.

"It's very important," Ayla insisted. "Please?"

Addy glanced and saw affirmative nods from Alicia and Kayda. "Very well," she said tersely.

At the Beret table, Vera scowled deeply as Adalie and Ayla approached. "What's she doing 'ere?" she snarled softly so that Kismet would hear.

"We need to talk," Ayla said to Vera, whose eyes were shooting daggers at Adalie.

"Why should I listen?" Vera demanded.

"Because I want to tell you that AGC Consolidated's new premium beverage subsidiary is interested in your family's wine products," Ayla replied without hesitation.

"What?" Charmer's jaw dropped in shock.

"That's what you wanted, isn't it?" Ayla continued. When Vera nodded, Ayla turned to Charge. "As to you," she said, her voice softening, "would you like to go to a movie tonight?"

Charge's eyes nearly bugged out. "You're ... asking me out?" she stammered.

"Yes. Would you like ...?"

"Oui!" Addy practically screamed, throwing herself around Ayla in a massive hug.

"Now, would you guys mind if I join you for lunch?"

Adalie goggled a moment, and then nodded enthusiastically. "Mais oui," she answered, practically jumping to her feet and walking close beside Ayla up the escalator to the Team Kimba table. While Ayla carried her tray back to the Beret Mafia table, Charge clung tightly to Ayla's arm, not caring if anyone saw her displaying her affection.

"You might want to get your tray from Kayda's table," Ayla reminded Addy with a smile as she set her tray down.

Charge's eyes widened. "Oh, yeah." Blushing, she dashed downstairs, got her food, and ran back to Ayla's side, setting her tray beside Ayla's and sitting close to the young mogul. She was so focused on Ayla that she would have hardly noticed if others at the table had worn clown hats.

"I ... kind of had your interests confused," Ayla admitted as the group talked - and chuckled - about the whole mess. "I thought you," she looked at Vera, "were romantically interested." She paused. "Who gave you that hare-brained idea anyway?"

Kismet drew herself up indignantly. "It was not a hare-brained idee!" she protested. "It worked, didn't it?"

"No thanks to you!" Jenny scoffed at her.

"Like you 'ave room to talk," Kismet retorted. "I suppose it was you two who came up with the idee to get to Ayla's romantic side through business!"

"As if you 'ave room to talk!" Chat Bleu snapped at Kismet. "You were trying to convince Charmer to whore 'erself to try to get a business opportunity, n'est ce pas?"

Kismet winced visibly, knowing that Chat Bleu's accusation was accurate, even though she hadn't thought of her plan that way, while Charmer blushed bright red when she heard the plan put in such blunt terms.

Jenny and Reach shrunk down slightly, blushing. "But our plan worked!" Jenny said defensively.

"Oui," Kismet agreed, trying to deflect further criticism of her role in the complex plotting and counterplotting. "Both plans worked!"

"Maybe," Reach contributed to the argument, "but Addy was genuinely interested in business advice."

"And somehow, you expected me to figure all this out?" Ayla asked. "I have no clue how girls work!"

Adalie and Vera exchanged glances, and then smirked, which degraded into a full-fledged giggling fit. As that ended, Charmer reached out toward Addy's hand. "I'm sorry, ma amie," she said, her words heartfelt. "I was getting a little carried away ...."

"Non," Adalie replied, "I was the one who was overreacting. I'm sorry." She sniffled as emotions caught up to her. "Can we be amies again?"

As the two girls clutched hands and cried at recovering what they both thought was a lost friendship, Reach sighed. "You know this was a hell of a lot of trouble to go to so Adalie could get together with a gender-confused American boy." He said the last part loud enough that Addy would overhear, and when she gawked in surprise, Jenny and Reach chuckled.

"You know Reach is never going to let you forget that, ma cherie," Jenny said with a grin. "Not after as much teasing as you gave us!"

Adalie sighed. "I suppose you're right." She clutched Ayla's hand, beaming with happiness. "But right now, I don't care!"

Read 2723 times Last modified on Saturday, 21 August 2021 18:18

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