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  1Tashi wakes up bleary-eyed and fuzzy-headed, having slept much deeper and longer than she expected.  She looks up to see a blond waterfall of hair leaning around the doorframe, and beneath it, Ately's apologetic face.  "Excuse me," the girl says quietly, "but Lyddie thought it was time you should be up."
  3"Oh, of course, sorry," Tashi says sleepily, arching her back and lifting her arms into a wide stretch.  She shakes herself and sits up, letting the sheet fall to her waist; Ately's eyes go wide, and she retreats around the corner hastily.  
  5*Oh right – the nudity taboo,* Tashi remembers.  "Sorry!" she calls out, as she scoops up her undershift and leggings from the floor and quickly pulls them on over her briefs.  "I'm clothed now, sorry."
  7"That's alright," Ately calls back, but when she reappears her face is pink.  She meets Tashi's eye, though, and says softly, "I thought of a think that you might like to see, since you're here to explore the City and all."
  9"Oh, yeah?" says Tashi.  "What's that?"
 11Ately smiles, just a little smile, the corners of her mouth turning subtly up.  "It's a secret place," she says softly.  "A garden.  I don't think that anybody else goes there, just me and... Just me."  A flash of sadness crosses her face, and is quickly swept away.
 13*Me and Silene*, Tashi mentally fills in.  Of course.  That's how it happens: the targeted forgetting, the erasure of their... friendship, partnership, whatever it is, from Ately's personal history.  It's already begun.
 15Always so tragic, Tashi thinks, but she makes herself smile at Ately brightly, as if she hadn't noticed the little break in her self-censorship.  "That sounds great," she says.  "I'd love to see this garden."
 17"Bring your... your cameras, and such," Ately says, nodding at Tashi's rig where it lies on the floor, next to the two full memory banks that Tashi has taken from their holster.  "I think that I would like for the Outsiders to see this."
 19"Of course," Tashi says, and she feels Ately's eyes upon her as she quickly dons her rig, snapping the straps into place and rapidly flicking through a test sequence of all the various sensors and cameras.  Everything comes back green, of course – and how awful would it be, Tashi thinks, for something on her rig to break down now –  and she nods.  "Alright, we're good to go."
 21She follows Ately down the narrow stairs into the common room / kitchen, where Lyddie is sitting and going through her morning medication.  Ately grabs two numbered tube of food paste from the cupboard, and tosses one to Tashi.  She bites the end off of her own, and starts to suck the paste down as she pushes open the door, gesturing for Tashi to follow.
 23As they head down the street side-by-side, Tashi decides to ask about something that she's been wondering.  "Are these... Does everyone, all of the People, eat like this?" she asks, nodding at the tube of bland paste in her hand.
 25Ately looks at her strangely.  "How else should we eat?" she says.
 27Well, I guess that answers that, Tashi thinks.
 29"Okay," she says.  "I'll take that as a yes.  And, well, it makes sense; they're compact and calorie-rich and easy to transport, like field rations.  But I don't understand..." she pauses, and tries to figure out how to phrase her question in a way that Ately will understand.  "I mean, I've *tried* the Civil Defense field rations, and they taste a *lot* better than this.  And it's not like it's hard or expensive to synthesize stable extracts of most flavors.  Why is the food here so *bland*?"
 31Ately looks lost, and Tashi figures that she probably understand about one word out of every five in that last sentence.  But then understanding dawns on her face, and she says, "Oh.  It's because you've been eating Lyddie's rations.  We decided to do that because Lyddie is a Gms. and doesn't eat as much.  She says a young, growing Miss like me needs all of my food."  Ately looks down, like she's embarrassed.  "Anyway, Lyddie, and a lot of the other Gmr.'s and Gms.'s around here have hypergustia, so they get the special bland stuff.  Here, try this."
 33She offers her tube up to Tashi.  Tashi thinks about bodily fluid contact and the spread of disease, and shudders.  "No thanks," she says, "I'm fine.  So... hypergustia," she says, sounding out the word.  "Excessive taste?"
 35Ately nods.  "Anyone who has Cohnman's or the wasting disease develops it," she says.  "Not because of the diseases themselves, but because of the medication we have to take for it.  Over time, it makes people's sense of taste more and more sensitive, until they can't handle regularly-flavored food anymore."  She looks at Tashi.  "You Outsiders must be a little bit wise, at least, because you know to provide the unflavored stuff as part of your tribute."  She shrugs.  "I'm told that it tastes perfectly fine, to them.  Lyddie says it's clean, like a relief from having to constantly taste the inside of your own mouth."
 37"Oh," Tashi says.  "I see.  But you don't have it?"
 39"I don't have it, yet," Ately affirms.  Tashi doesn't miss the "yet" that she automatically appends.
 41How awful, she thinks.  To be never able to eat regular food, or anything that has a flavor.
 43"Oh, here we are," Ately says, and Tashi looks around her.  They're on a block that she hasn't been to before, although it looks similar to every other block she's seen within the Dome.  Concrete roads edged up against concrete-block houses.  She has trouble imagining how anyone might have been able to plant a garden here.  
 45There are weeds, of course, of the sort ubiquitous in cities – tough little plants, yellowing and spindly but still reaching for the sun, that send stubborn roots down deep and force themselves up through any possible crack.  But Tashi hasn't seen a proper patch of dirt, or a tree worthy of the title, anywhere within the Dome.
 47Ately turns to face the buildings in front of them, and Tashi turns with her.  There's a little alley, of the sort similar to the one they talked in yesterday, nestled in between two banks of concrete row houses.  At the mouth of the alley, it looks like someone has constructed a little shed, a ramshackle structure of cracked boards and the ubiquitous concrete blocks, with a frayed plastene tarp molded across a hole that might have once been intended as a window.  
 49The shed looks decaying and abandoned, like it might fall apart with a single gust of wind, if there was ever wind within the Dome.  (The Dome Wall pretty much universally blocks it, as far as Tashi can tell, and the air within the Dome has been incredibly still the whole time that she's been here.)  Tashi runs her eyes over it, taking care to record every detail of the jury-rigged construction.  
 51The socio-architects at Shindi U. will throw a party for this footage, Tashi thinks.  Assuming they ever get to see it.
 53Which they will, she reminds herself firmly, because I'm going to leave the Dome, and the Reintegrators will help me get the footage out even if I'm in jail, and everything will be okay.   
 55Everything will be okay.
 57"Come on, through here," Ately directs her, and then she gathers up the arms and skirt of her dress with practiced hands, rolling it up into a surprisingly compact bundle.  Tashi does her best to follow, feeling awkward and clumsy in comparison.  
 59Obviously, someone who's been dressing like this for her whole life has learned some tricks to manage, she reflects.  It's like the Covered that she sees gliding elegantly through the marketplaces and office buildings of Shindi Yuga, never getting tripped up by their veils or long robes.
 61Though Ately might not appreciate that particular comparison.
 63The skinti girl walks up to the shed, looks back over her shoulder to make sure that no one is on the street behind them, and then she folds herself carefully into and through the crack between the edge of the shed and the wall of the adjacent building.  Tashi would not have guessed, looking at it, that a person would fit through it.  Ately manages, though, because she slides out of view, and then her hand appears around the edge of the shed, waving Tashi forward.  "This way!" she says, her voice slightly muffled.
 65Oh boy, Tashi thinks.  She's fit, but she's not nearly as skinny as a Domer, and she has some serious doubts about her ability to fit through.  She folds her rig accessories – the servo arm, the extensible sound recording antenna – in as tightly as possible, and then steels herself to just go for it.  
 67She studies the crack, turns herself sideways, and attempts to go for it; she gets stuck about halfway through, and curses as one of her rig's upper-arm straps gets caught on something.  She can't turn her head backward to see what it's caught on, much less move to free it.  "I'm stuck," she calls out, and Ately appears in front of her.  Tashi manages to work her left hand forward and out of the crack.  "I'm caught on something.  I need you to pull me forward, as hard as you can," she says to Ately.
 69Ately clasps her hand in both of her own.  Her hands are delicate and bony, and the skin seems excessively cool to Tashi.  Ately doesn't hesitate, though; she braces herself, with one foot against the building wall and one against the corner post of the shed, and tugs with all of her might.  At the same time, Tashi sucks her breath in, and tries to throw her weight forward as much as possible.
 71There's a sharp tearing sound, and Tashi tumbles forward out of the crack.  She lands hard on her side, knocking the air out of her lungs – instinctively turning and taking the brunt of the fall on an area that's least laden with expensive, necessary equipment.  It doesn't hurt nearly as much as she'd expected, though.
 73Tashi breathes heavily for a moment, trying to marshal her thoughts and push away the swirling brainshock of an endorphin-laden pain response.  As the fuzzies around the edge of her vision clear, she notices that she's lying on dirt – hard, packed, dry dirt, but still dirt.  Not concrete.
 75That's why it didn't hurt so badly, then.  Thank goodness.
 77She pulls herself and turns to inspect the damage to her rig.  The arm strap is torn completely through, and the hapto-sensor, microphone, and side-camera are dangling.  Luckily, though, they all seem to be undamaged, and Tashi's side monitor still reports them all as status green.
 79She's really lucky.
 81She frowns and pulls the edges of the arm straps together with her other hand, thumping it with a finger to activate the material's self-healing properties.  The jagged edges melt and flow together, like seeking out like.  Tashi flexes her arm to prevent the strap from shrinking, and after a moment it re-solidifies, and is like new.
 83She looks up to see Ately watching her intently.  The Domer girl says nothing, though, just holds out her hand again to Tashi and assists her, best as she can, back to her feet.  She keeps ahold of Tashi's hand, even after she is up, and pulls her gently forward.  "Come and see!"
 85Tashi follows a step behind her, hand in hand, as they step round a gigantic pile of rubble that blocks almost all of the alleyway.  Then she stumbles to a halt, and her mouth drops open.  "Oh wow," Tashi says.  Her 'caster discipline falls away, and she finds herself just speaking her mind, simply *reacting*.  "Oh, wow."
 87There in front of them, filling most of the narrow alleyway, is a low, spreading tree covered in green foliage and bright, bright, eye-wateringly crimson red blossoms.  It's the brightest, most colorful thing that Tashi has seen in her whole time inside the Dome.  It puts even the Councilmen's robes to shame.
 89"There," Ately says, and smiles proudly.  "See?  This is my secret garden."
 91"Wow.  Is that..." Tashi says.  "Is that actually what it looks like?  Is it a Gul Mohar?  The Peacock Tree?"  She steps forward and brushes her fingers lightly over a leaf.  The whole branch shakes at her touch, sending red flower petals trembling.
 93Ately shrugs.  "I call it the Blood Tree," she says, "because the flowers are red like blood.  That's just my name, though."
 95"I think it is," Tashi says.  "Wow.  But the Peacock Trees are all extinct!  They all were killed in the oak pest blight, back in the 2580s...  Oh.  But this one must have been isolated enough to survive," she breathes, full of wonder at the sight.
 97No oak pests made it in here.  And here it is, a still-living Peacock Tree.
 99Tashi was barely alive, back then, but she still can vividly remember helping her grandmother tend the Peacock Trees that used to line the driveway of Tashi's family estate, back in rural Oressah.  She remembers how carefully, how desperately Amma had fed them different combinations of fertilizers and soil amendments, trying to ward off the blight.  All for nothing, of course; there was nothing anyone could do, no amount of care and attention that could save a Peacock Tree once it was infected with the oak pest.
101She remembers how her grandmother had cried, when the last petal of the last flame-red flower had shriveled and drifted to the ground, leaving only a skeleton of bare, stubbly branches, the bark blistered and seeping from the oak pest infection.  Tashi was the only one who'd been there with Amma, and her grandmother had held her close and sobbed to her that those trees had been here for hundreds of years, that she'd seen recordings of them from shortly after the property was built, in the 2200s; how she'd spent hours playing beneath them when she herself was just a little girl; how she'd worn a Peacock Flower in her hair, when she'd officially partnered with Tashi's grandfather. 
103Amma passed away almost eight years ago, now, and Tashi wishes with a sudden burning heartache that she could be here to see this, or at least was still alive to ride Tashi's footage when it is 'casted.  She would be happy, Tashi thinks, to know that there's a Peacock Tree somewhere that's still alive.
105Ately slips her hand into Tashi's again, and Tashi squeezes it, unthinking.  Just wanting something friendly, something safe and solid, to hang onto for a minute.  They stand there, side by side, and Tashi can pretend for a minute like she's back in the real world, where things are normal, holding hands with Nokomis as they walk around the Pearl District, arguing and laughing and looking at bright, colorful things.
107Then Ately leans in close to Tashi and tilts her face up – Ately's actually only a hair shorter than she is, Tashi realizes distantly – and presses her lips against Tashi's.  Tashi thinks, ok, this is weird, but it's a Domer thing, a show of affection.  And she lets her.  
109Then Ately opens her mouth and sticks her tongue out, trying to slip it past Tashi's lips and into her own mouth.  Tashi jerks back and instinctively shoves at Ately, pushing her away.  "What," she says breathlessly, "What was that?  Why did you do that?"  She shoved hard, too hard; Ately falls backward and stumbles against the building wall, knocking against a branch on her way over.
111Peacock flowers fall down all around her, and all that Tashi can think of is the litany of diseases from her Plague History class in college.  The teacher's dry voice crackling over the 'cast: "HIV, Fresnavirus, Corta A and Corta B, Cohnman's Syndrome, Drug-Resistant Gonorrhea, and various secondary and tertiary infections," he recited.  "All shared and spread through contact with bodily fluids: blood, semen, saliva.  Passed from human to human, among sex partners and in hostipals, and from mother to child in utero or during biological childbirth.  Before we got smart enough to stop doing all of that."
113Oh god, she thinks, and no amount of 'caster discipline can stop it.  Oh god, don't touch me.  Don't touch me!
115She realizes, then, that she's said it out loud.  Ately's face crumples and she pulls herself back up to standing, tears filling her eyes.  She seems unharmed from Tashi's aggressive push; thank the Domer Lord for that, at least.  
117"I'm sorry," Ately says lowly, brushing a peacock petal from her cheek.  "I thought..." she bows her head.  "I don't have anything, you know," she says, in a tiny voice.  "Not yet.  I was born clear, somehow, and I haven't... I haven't..."  She breaks down and begins sobbing again, great heaving sobs just like the ones from yesterday, with an arm thrown over her face to hide her shame.  "You didn't have to..."  She can't even get a full sentence out, her thin shoulders shaking and heaving with emotion.
119Tashi is still freaked out, and now she feels like a jerk, too.  "I'm sorry for pushing you," she says, and bites her lip.  "I shouldn't have done that.  It's just, I wasn't expecting... Look, it's not you.  It's just that my people, the Outsiders, we don't do that."  
121And it's not me, either, she thinks but does not say.  You're out of your mind with grief, and you're looking for a distraction.  You would have done the same to anyone you trusted enough to bring here with you.
123For some reason, that makes Tashi feel a little bit better about her actions, less of a bad person.  She didn't just protect herself; she saved Ately from making a horrible mistake. 
127Wow, this is going to be some controversial footage.  Which is, generally speaking, a good thing.
129"Don't what, don't kiss?" Ately says.  "Really?  You don't have to lie to me, it's okay," she lies visibly.  "You can say that you don't want me."
131Oh god, Tashi thinks.
133"No, really," she says.  "I mean it, I'm not lying.  We don't do that.  We don't kiss... like that, anyhow," she says.  "With our tongues."
135Ately's sobs lessen a little.  It seems like her curiosity distracts her from her grief.  "Why not?" she says.
137"It's because of bodily fluids," Tashi explains.  "We don't do things that would put one person in contact with another person's bodily fluids.  It's dangerous.  That's how you get diseases."
139"Well, yeah," Ately says, matter of factly.  "Of course it is.  But *everything* does that.  I mean, sex does it, childbirth does it..."  Tashi shudders.  "There's no way you can just cut out every single thing that involves two people touching."
141"Not everything," Tashi agrees, "but those things, yes."  She takes a deep breath, and decides to lay it on the table.  This will make a good test case, really: the reaction of a Domer who's probably the most inclined to be sympathetic to the Outsiders, who's already expressed interest in going Outside.  
143If she reacts poorly, then it can be assumed that other skintis will react even worse.
145"Sex and childbirth, as you said.  We don't do those things, Outside."  
147Ately looks at her as if she must be joking; Tashi does her best to convey, with body language and gaze, that she is dead serious.
149"But that's ridiculous," Ately says.  "There wouldn't *be* any Outsiders, if you didn't have sex and give birth to babies.  I mean, I know that the Outsiders deny life, but there's no way... I mean, how?"
151"We have artificial wombs," Tashi says, "and when a partnership decides that they want to raise a child, they go into a Birthing Center and pieces of both of them – all of them, they've gotten the number of genetic parents up to five, now – are combined, and the Birthing Center grows a baby for them.  It's great fun, most partnerships throw a big womb-opening party when the baby is delivered, and then they have a child.  It's all perfectly safe, we've been doing it for more than 400 years, now.  Ever since the Plague."
153"Oh my Lord," Ately says, looking a little bit shellshocked.  "There are no mothers?"
155"Of course there are mothers," Tashi says, "and fathers, and ziethers too.  Just because it doesn't gestate inside of someone's belly... I mean, you still have to *raise* the child, and all of that."
157"My Lord," Ately says again, clutching the wall behind her.  "What about sex, though?"  She drops her head, looking embarrassed.  "The elders say that the urge to life is the strongest part of human nature," she says.  "And... even though I'm a lesbian, and the urge is twisted and miswired within me, I still... well, you know.  I mean, with Silene... I mean, we never, but...  I would have.  I wanted to."
159"Well, yeah," Tashi says.  "It's true, the vast majority of people do have a libido.  But that's no big deal, we have fleshunits for that.  They're like..." she struggles with how to describe it.  "They're like mechanical devices that kind of seem like people, except they're only there for sex.  And they're safe, self-cleaning so that they don't spread disease, and you can make them look and sound and feel, and to a certain degree act, like any person.  Real or imaginary, anybody that you want."
161"There's a whole industry of skinhackers that exists solely to make... copies, kind of, of people, for the fleshunits.  And everyone gets one, when they turn thirteen and become a Citizen, and that's how we deal with the 'urge to life', as you say."
163She watches Ately carefully, to see how she will react to this knowledge.  Tashi knows that she's taking a risk.  She can't rule out the possibility of this being too much, even for Ately – of the girl falling back on her upbringing, on her culture which teaches that everything Tashi just said is an abomination, and becoming violent toward Tashi, or worse, running to tell the Council.
165It's possible that she has just jeopardized her mission.  But Tashi's 'caster discipline is back in full force, now, and she is prepared to do many things, up to and including blackmailing Ately, in order to keep this thing on track.
167Ately just stares at her, though, face white and drawn.  Tashi decides to push her, just a little.  "Think about it," she says.  "You said that you don't have anything right now, and that's awesome."  Really, it's a miracle, Tashi thinks.  If it's actually true.  "But how long do you think that's going to last?  Do you think it'll last after you get married?  Do you think you'll find a partner, a husband, that's also clean?  If one says that he is, how will you really know?  Do you think it'll last through childbirth, that you'll be able to have a healthy baby despite the evidence around you, all of the refusals that you're seen?"
169Ately bursts into tears, again.  Tashi takes that as a no.  "Everyone around you is sick," she says.  "You're all still living in the Plague Years, that's why you're in here.  Because you refuse to let it go, or your ancestors did.  They could have chosen; all of you, together, could have chosen to change.  To just stop doing it, in favor of survival.  You couldn't, though, or won't.  And now..." Tashi waves around herself, seemingly unable to stop.  "Now all of this.  Now the Dome, and you've been cut off from everything else for 400 years, and your culture has been regressing, and even your language sounds different.  And you have art, and a Peacock Tree that's still living, but you're still stuck inside a Dome.  Wouldn't it be worth it, bending tradition, to get out there?  To become part of humankind, again?"
171She didn't really mean to go that far, but now there's no unsaying it.
173Ately wipes her face, sniffles, and says, "But the Dome protects us from the demons.  It's a blessing that we're in here because we're safe, everyone knows..."
175"Oh, for..."  Tashi narrowly stops herself from rolling her eyes.  How is Ately to know?  She only knows what she's been told.  "There are no demons.  The ones that you guys call demons are just the Covered.  They're people just like you and I."
177"People?" Ately says.  "But then why do they hide their bodies and their faces, and even disguise their voices, if they're just people?  What's wrong with them, that they have to hide?"
179Tashi can't even bring herself to be offended by the dressism inherent in Ately's statement.  That would be like being offended by a dog's barking, or a child's laughter, or a drone's hum.  It's just inherent.
181"Nothing's wrong with them," Tashi says, "they just believe in privacy.  Which is their legal right, established by the Identity Protection Act way back in 2216.  There were Covered even before the Domes were established, though they weren't legally protected at the time."  Which is probably where you got your ideas about demons, she realizes.  
183Ately looks blank, clearly not understanding.  Tashi lets out a huff of air, and tries to think of how to explain.  "Some people," she says, "for whatever reason, are incredibly bothered by the idea of someone else taking their identity – their face, their voice, their body – and using it on a fleshunit.  According to what I've read, most Covered say that it feels like a violation, in a very personal way, for someone to be using their image for sex, without them having any say over the matter.  People who are like that can choose to Cover, when they turn 13 and are given access to the public web.  They stop being men or women, and declare themselves zieling, and they cover themselves and disguise their voices so that nobody can know anything about them, about their body.  So that no one can use their image in a way that they don't want."
185"It's freely chosen, and it's important to the Covered.  I mean, I'm not one of them, so," Tashi shrugs, "I can't really *really* understand, but the right to privacy is an important human right, and one that everyone can be glad is firmly established."
187She remembers, suddenly, the Mala Piara Scandal of 2609, which had gotten Tashi her first Solis Award for her in-depth coverage of the entire tragic event.  This crazy dressist bigot had gone on a rampage, assaulting and forcibly unveiling zielings and recording their faces and forms.  She had gone through 7 victims before she'd been finally caught and stopped.
189Tashi remembered interviewing one of the victims, a tall, slender zieling named Min, whose voice had broken as zie had described the sense of horrible betrayal and deeply personal violation.  Zie had said that zir life would never be the same again, despite the best efforts of the incredibly expensive image recovery firm that had been hired to re-erase the victims from the web.    
191Ately looks like she's honestly trying to understand.  "So, people have to decide when they're only 13 between giving up their identity or having it be used for whatever people want?" she says.  "That's horrible."
193"It's not giving anything up," Tashi corrects.  "It's just a change.  And, I mean... some people do choose to Cover later.  That's difficult, though, because once your information is out there it's really difficult to put it back.  There are firms who specialize in identity erasure, but they're incredibly expensive, so basically only the Government and very wealthy people can afford their services.  And even they don't work 100% of the time.  So yeah, most people Cover at 13, or not at all."  She shrugs.  "It's not perfect, I suppose, but it's the nature of the system that we've got.  It accommodates most people pretty well.  And I've never heard of anyone who chose to Cover and then regretted it later.  Not to say it's never happened, but I've never heard of one."
195"Okay," Ately says, "okay.  Wow.  I..." she looks at Tashi, "I can tell that you aren't lying.  That's way too much detail to make up at one time, and besides, you don't *look* like you're lying.  That's... that's crazy, though.  I don't even know..." She takes a deep breath.  "That's just so bizarre to me.  I mean, I knew the Outsiders were different, but I never thought that anyone could be *that* different."
197"I know how you feel," Tashi says, feeling sympathy for the girl, and also pride.  Pride, because she's really taking it rather well, all things considered.
199"And you don't miss it, at all?" Ately says, looking at her.  Tashi suddenly gets the same sense of intensity, of *study*, that she had felt under Ames' gaze.  "You don't miss having sex with another actual person?  Someone where, you can look into their eyes and see that someone else is looking back?  Because, I mean, I don't care how good your... sex robots are, they can't do that.  Don't you miss it?"
201"I mean, the Lord created sex in the first place to bring people together, so that couples could bond with one another and have the strength to stick together, for life, and to raise children.  Don't you feel like without that, things are sort of... lacking?"
203Tashi shrugs.  "I don't miss anything," she says.  "I... Look, I don't know about what you're saying, about bonding and all of that, but we're raised to find skinti sex – that's what we call what you do – disgusting.  And I do.  I'm sorry, but we're not animals, and that's a thing that animals do to one another."  Ately grimaces, but continues to not get visibly mad.  "Besides," Tashi continues, "if it's a choice between that or a return to the Plague years?  No offense, but I'm going to choose *not dying*."
205Ately sits in silence for a long time, staring at the Peacock Tree.  She seems to be done with the conversation, so Tashi lets her be.  Tashi leans back against the concrete wall behind her and joins Ately in staring at the tree, her eyes following the path of each petal as it falls, spinning and twisting through invisible air currents, to land hard on the packed dirt.  Where it will rot, and above it, a new petal will grow up in its place.
207Life continues, Tashi thinks.  That's the important bit.  No matter what we have to change, no matter what we have to give up from the past, life still continues.
209May it always be so.
211After awhile, Ately rises to her feet and, without looking at Tashi, heads around the rubbish heap behind them, back toward the crack.  Tashi follows her, and without talking, they make their way one by one back outside, into the world of grey and concrete, where nothing really lives.
215Tashi had rather lost track of time for awhile, there, in amidst all of the blossoms and emotion.  Halfway between cross-streets, she suddenly remembers, and with a flick of her eyes sideways she brings up her side-monitor's clock.  15:02, it says, and Tashi curses lowly.
217"What?" Ately asks.  It's the first thing she's said to Tashi since they left Ately's garden, and Tashi is strangely relieved to hear it.  
219"Oh, it's nothing," Tashi says, "It's just that I have to meet up with Casimir, the Mayor's son, at 16:00.  He said that he needed to 'interview me'" – she does air quotes – "about how my visit is going so far."
221Ately stops dead, mid-stride.  Her gaze snaps to Tashi's face, with a weird, worried intensity to it.  "Did he?" she says.  "Where are you going to meet him?"
223"At the Mayor's house," Tashi says, "where I guess he lives?"
225"Oh." Ately says, and then she stands there for a moment, strangely frozen.  Her eyes don't leave Tashi's face.  Tashi feels her own heart start to race in alarm at her host's strange behavior.
227"Ately?" she says.  "Is everything okay?"
229After a heartbeat-too-long pause, Ately says, "Yes."  With that one word, she seems to leave it and she snaps back into motion, walking forward just a little bit more quickly than before.
233They end up swinging by the artist Ames' house, which Ately announces (rather suddenly) is on the way, and she wants to stop by and thank him for Silene's portait, which was rather well received.  Tashi finds that she really can't argue; at this point, a few more minutes of lost preparation time won't make a big difference.
235Not that she even knows what she's preparing for, really.  She just finds herself wishing that she would have time to take a moment by herself, to sit and breathe, and slow down the pace of events which seem to be whirling by her incredibly fast.
237Ately knocks on the artist's door, and Ames' face appears at the opening, just like before.  With a glance he looks them over and, saying nothing, stands back to let them in.  He doesn't take a seat behind the workbench, like before; this time he stays standing, leaning back against a shelf with his arms crossed casually, and looks as them as if to say, "What now?"
239Ately crosses over to stand in front of the workbench, hesitates for a moment, and then leans back against it oddly.  "I just wanted to stop by and say thanks again," she says, and pulls one arm up behind her, angled strangely, "for the beautiful artwork that you made for the Ahriman Vancoeur wedding."  There's a tiny, very faint clattering sound, and Tashi from her angle can easily see Ately fingering out a thin, sharp-pointed little knife from the tray of Ames' sculpting equipment.  
241Uh-oh.  What is she doing? Tashi thinks.
243Just then, Ately pulls the knife forward into her hand, and it must knock something else off-balance, because it falls with a very noticeable metallic clank.  Tashi holds her breath and flicks her eyes to Ames, who has gone all intent and still, and is staring over Tashi's shoulder.  She tenses, mentally prepping to do any one in range of things, from throwing herself between the two of them to hightailing it out the door.  After a split second, the muscles around Ames' eyes relax, though, and he returns his gaze to Ately's face.  "Thank you very much," he says, "I'm glad to hear it." 
245He nods at her, his face revealing no particular emotion.
247Ately nods back, and leans herself forward, pushing away from the workbench.  "We won't bother you any more, then," she says.  "I just wanted to tell you."  Ames nods at them again, and Ately strides past Tashi, to the door.  Tashi follows quickly on her heels, giving Ames a quick nod behind Ately's back and hoping that she has not misjudged the situation that she thinks she just saw.
249Her assessment is rewarded when Ames nods back, with a different look in his eyes than he'd shown to Ately.
251All the way back to Lyddie's house, Tashi debates asking Ately about it, and her debate has not yet resolved itself when they arrive at Lyddie's door.  Before they go in, Ately stops Tashi with a hand upon her arm, and steps in close to pass her, nearly hip-checking her in the process.  Tashi feels something pressed against her palm, and she closes her fist flat around a hand-length, double-edged, wickedly honed little knife.  It's almost like a miniature, hand-sized dagger.
253Ately pulls away and wrenches the door open.  She is into the kitchen and already greeting Lyddie, before Tashi can even form the words to ask her, "Why?"
257In Ately's room, Tashi debates with herself for several minutes, spinning the little dagger between three fingers and studying the curve of its bright edge.  Eventually she comes to a resolution and slides the skinny dagger down into her under-shift, where it will be invisible between her breasts, beneath her dress.  
259She resolves to listen to what Ately can't tell her, and keep the dagger with her everywhere she goes.
261Then she stands, adjusts the straps of her rig to keep them unobtrusive, and sets out for the home of Casimir Vonhæver, the son of the rather totalitarian Mayor.