Sara glanced at her watch after her plate had been taken away, sending a silent prayer to whoever might be listening that Jasmine wouldn't come for drinks with them after. If that was the case, they were nearly at dessert, so it shouldn't be too much longer. She could still remember last week's conversation with Kelly, her own reluctant agreement to let this happen.
The group had met for coffee. At first, Sara had just assumed Elsa was late, as usual, until Kelly had explained why she hadn't invited Elsa.
"Seriously," Kelly replied in a monotone. Her voice becoming more expressive, she added: "Elsa's been miserable about this. I can tell she's feeling torn up about it, pulled between us and them, especially us and Jasmine. I just want to try and make things better for her. She's my best friend, and she's not often in tears."
Sara was shocked: she'd never seen Elsa cry.
"Look, I'm not asking you all to come. I completely understand if you can't face it. But if you can I know it would mean a lot to Elsa. You don't have to say much to Jasmine, just be civil." Kelly's face twisted with discomfort. "I'm going to have to chat away to her and be friendly, but I'm not asking you to."
Huan's face was set angrily. "Kelly, I can't believe you invited her without telling us first."
Sara nodded. "I do kind of feel we're being kicked out of Elsa's birthday party."
"I'll arrange a second one if I have to," Kelly countered. "And I'm sorry, I don't mean to offend you guys. I should have done it the other way round, really, but… look, she was so upset the other day that I just didn't think about much else than what I could do about that."
Sara sighed. Much as she hated the idea, Elsa had been a good friend to her. "Okay, I'll come. As long as I don't have to sit near the slug-worshipper."
"As long as you don't call her that to her face," Kelly said, with a slight smile, "then fine. And thanks, Sara."
Glancing up the table, Sara could see Kelly was being as good as her word. She was smiling at Jasmine and the two were engaged in conversation, though it seemed halting. Sara glanced across to Huan, who rolled his eyes.
"Counting down to when we can leave?" he muttered.
Sara nodded. "Yeah, I can't stand this. Though I guess it was brave of her, to apologise."
Sara was distracted by the arrival of the dessert menu. She grinned when she saw a salted caramel sundae among the ice-creams listed and looked towards her Yeerk. Another thing that irritated her was that she'd barely spoken a word to Kal all evening. Kal had been busy with Jasmine and the others, and Sara hadn't wanted to get drawn into a conversation with them. But she refused to spend the whole evening not talking to her Yeerk.
"Five bucks on what you're gonna have," she called across a gap in the conversation.
Kalran turned towards her, looking a little wary. She still smiled when she met Sara's eyes, though. "Hmm," she murmured, pretending to consider. "I can't choose. Do I go with the salted caramel sundae… or the salted caramel sundae?"
Elsa laughed. "I've never seen anyone with such a sweet tooth, Kal."
"What are you going to have, Sara?" Kalran asked, turning towards her.
Sara sighed. "I'm supposed to be on a diet," she muttered. "Not that people who got to handpick genes for a fast metabolism would understand that."
"You want to share?" Kalran asked.
It was sweet of her: Sara was well aware Kal could easily enjoy a full sundae to herself. But she rolled her eyes anyway, gesturing at the layout of the table. Kal was at the opposite side and three seats away: everyone was having to watch their conversation to allow them to have it at all. "How long are you expecting the spoons to be? Anyway, I shouldn't have anything, really. I'm full."
"We can swap seats, if you like," Alma offered from her position opposite Kalran. "Though I understand your pain. I'm trying to lose weight, too."
"Neither of you need to," Elsa said loyally.
It wasn't true: Sara'd gained half a stone since she'd finally split up from Lee a couple of weeks ago, something she still hadn't told Kalran. She had to get a hold on it soon. "I'm fine, thanks, Alma."
Sara ordered a coffee when the waiter came, closing the menu to avoid temptation. Once the dessert orders had been taken, a few people disappeared off to the bathroom, and Elsa soon slid into the seat vacated by Mary, one of Elsa's friends from university.
"Hey, guys," she said to Sara, Huan and the others at the end of the table. "Having a good evening?"
"Yeah, thanks," Harry, a friend of Elsa's from school, replied. "The food here's great."
Huan nodded. "It is."
"Kelly organises a great party," Elsa acknowledged. "Though I think I might burst if I eat much more."
Sara smiled. "It is your birthday, you can eat what you want. How's your day been?"
Elsa grinned. "Great. I got some amazing presents: loads of books to read, and my Mom and Dad surprised me with some tickets to go to New York later this year. We're gonna see a few Broadway shows and explore. I've never been before."
"That's a great present," Sara said. "You do anything with your family?"
"My Dad made his delicious pancakes for brunch, then we went to the beach. Annie even came with us and, get this, put her cell phone down for more than two minutes at a time." Elsa paused, her face becoming more serious. "And I've had such a lovely surprise, tonight, from all of you. Thanks, Sara, thanks, Huan. I know it probably hasn't been easy, but I want you to know I really appreciate it. I felt like a total bitch, not inviting Jaz, not even telling her." Elsa glanced up the table, uncertainly. "I hope she's forgiven me. She can be kind of hard to read, sometimes."
"She should understand," Sara muttered harshly. "Please tell me she's going home after this, we're not going out with her after, are we?"
"My tolerance is pretty much exhausted," Huan agreed.
Elsa's face fell slightly. "She's not sure. She certainly won't stay long, if she does come with us. Please, guys, I know it isn't easy for you, but please be polite if she does join us. I… she's so nervous as it is."
Sara glanced towards Jasmine's end of the table, observing her conversation with Kelly. It seemed less smooth now Elsa wasn't there: for every question Kelly asked, Jasmine seemed to look at Kalran before she answered it, often with what looked like a single word. For goodness sake, Sara thought, Kelly was going out of her way to be friendly, hadn't Jasmine calmed down by now? And what the hell was the point of looking at Kalran all the time, as though expecting her to answer instead?
In one of her turns towards Kalran, Jasmine caught Sara's eyes on her and froze, looking like a deer caught in headlights. Kalran followed her gaze.
"You okay, Sara?" Kalran mouthed, a hard edge to her expression that Sara wasn't used to seeing at all, let alone directed at her.
Sara nodded, embarrassed, looking back towards Elsa. "Seriously, Elsa, what can you possibly find to like about her?"
Harry was watching them all, a little confused, but Sara had little attention to spare for him.
"She's lovely," Elsa said softly. "She's kind, she's really good fun when she's relaxed, she's a great friend…"
"Great enough to leave you in a cage?" Huan muttered angrily.
"She's said sorry." Elsa's face hardened, and she folded her arms. "And it was a long time ago. I don't blame her for any of that, anyway. I know you might feel differently, and that's okay. I'm not asking you to be her friend."
"No, just to have dinner and go out for drinks with her," Sara muttered.
"She probably won't even come," Elsa said pleadingly. "Look, just leave it, okay?"
"Will Kal come, if she doesn't?" Sara asked, without much hope. "I've barely spoken to her all night."
"Swap seats with Alma for a bit, then," Elsa said, though more gently. "But you'll have to be polite to Jaz, if you do. I'm sorry, Sara, but I wasn't even expecting Kal, anyway, was I? She's clearly come along to make Jaz feel a bit safer, so I don't think they're gonna separate."
Sara hesitated, glancing up towards Alma's seat. She really wanted to speak to Kalran: she was very worried about her, with everything that had happened with Oglud and Ilkiss. Jasmine was worth tolerating for that.
"Okay, I will," Sara decided, standing up to go and slide into Alma's, currently vacant, seat.
Kalran looked at her warily when she sat down opposite her. Jasmine broke off mid-word to Kelly, looking down at the table as though some world-famous artwork was stuck to it.
"I'm not here to have a go at anyone," Sara said quickly. "I just wanna talk to you, Kal, we've barely spoken. How are you doing? You sure you're OK, after…?" Sara trailed off.
Kalran looked surprised, then smiled slightly, despite the pain in her eyes at the question. "This is good of you, Sara, I… thank you. Yes, I'm… I'm upset, but I'm okay. I have so many people supporting me through this, I'm very grateful to all of them." She glanced down. "I'm sorry I said no to meeting, the other week. I… I didn't feel up to it. How are you, Sara?"
Sara shrugged. "Fine."
Kalran must have seen Sara tense at the question: she didn't fancy explaining her break-up in front of others, especially not Jasmine. Quickly, her Yeerk stopped and backtracked. "I mean… how's work?"
"It's fine," Sara said, with a welling of gratitude. "Not the most exciting, but it pays the bills." She hunted around quickly for a better change of subject. "I'm gonna start a photography class next week. Don't think I told you yet."
"You didn't," Kalran replied, leaning forwards excitedly. "That sounds amazing, Sara."
Sara shrugged. "It's a new way of doing art, especially now they've got pretty good cameras on cell phones. So it's sort of thanks to the Andalites, really," she added teasingly.
Kalran rolled her eyes. "I suppose they have to be good for something."
"I just need to learn how to use the camera properly. Kind of what the class is for, though there might be some artistic ideas, too."
"Is it a particular kind of photography?" Kelly asked, also looking interested. "Like landscapes, people…"
Sara shrugged. "This one's just general, but I want to get into photographing people eventually. There's money in that, if you get good enough, wedding photography and things. Though I'd probably need a better camera than the cell phone, still, so that's probably a bit of an unrealistic dream, to be honest."
"Oh, but you'd be wonderful!" Kalran said enthusiastically. "How much do the cameras cost? I can help y-"
She stopped at the glare on Sara's face. "Don't even think about it."
Kalran had a habit, especially when she was emotional about something: worried, enthusiastic, any kind of feeling, of offering to spend far more money on Sara than was reasonable for a friendship. So far she'd tried to offer to help Sara with rent for an apartment in a better neighbourhood, to buy her a car, and now this.
"We've been through this, Kalran. I don't want to owe you anything."
"You wouldn't, but okay. I'm sorry. I forgot, it… it just slipped out." Kal's eyes dropped to the floor, looking miserable. "I shouldn't have said it, I'm sorry."
"You only need to apologise once," Sara pointed out.
"Usually I don't make people apologise for offering to spend hundreds of dollars on me," Kelly said archly. "Not that anyone does. Well, my parents, sometimes."
Sara rolled her eyes. "Well, Kalran's definitely not that. Biological impossibility."
As she looked back towards Kalran, she noticed Jasmine had snaked a hand onto her shoulder, and anger flared within her. "Don't you get involved," she snapped.
"Sara!" Kalran whipped her head back up. "It's lovely to talk to you, but if you can't be civil then don't sit here. Anyway, how on Earth is Jasmine getting involved? She hasn't said a thing."
Sara shrugged. "She's touching you."
Kalran glared at Sara, reaching to cover Jasmine's hand on her shoulder with her own and turning to smile at her. "Well, it's okay with me, Jaz. I wasn't aware it was Sara's business."
"It's like you're judging me, that's all," Sara muttered, glaring at Jasmine. "Fine, though. I don't want an argument, Kal, I know it's been a tough couple of weeks for you."
Kalran looked upset again and nodded. "Oh, Sara, the last thing I want to do is fall out with you, especially now."
"Oh sweetie," Sara said, her anger evaporating at the expression on her Yeerk's face. She stretched a hand across the table, which Kalran seized instantly. "Oh, you said you were okay. You're not okay, are you?"
"I'm fine," Kalran murmured, her every expression saying the contrary. "I don't want to spoil Elsa's birthday. It's just… everything with Ilkiss and Oglud… and then I saw Tilniss, which was lovely but it's always awful when she has to go back." She sighed. "I… I'm sorry, Sara, with everything it just… it just slipped out, about the camera. I know I shouldn't have…"
"Hey, you were offering to do me a favour. You don't have to say sorry, Kelly's right."
"Who's Tilniss?" Kelly asked gently, leaning forward. "If you don't mind me asking."
"My schrellie… my sister… if you know what…"
"I know what that is, yeah," Kelly said. "I picked some stuff up. Go back where?"
"Massachusetts," Kalran said sadly.
"It's where they assigned her," Sara explained, wanting to save poor Kal from having to say it. "Where they assigned her work, her housing."
Kelly frowned. "They split you up that far?"
"She comes down as much as she can. I've been up there, too, but she prefers to come here, she has a lot of friends here, from the war. They put a lot of us round here because of that, but they couldn't keep everyone in California. But it depends when she can get time off."
"Can't she just move back?" Kelly asked.
"If she could find a job and somewhere to live," Kalran responded. "That's hard, as a nothlit, to get something else away from what you were assigned. It's doable, some have done it, but she's never had any luck when she's applied down here. There's an initial payoff from the war reparation funds to the employers and the landlords they used, but if you've gone away from the government scheme they don't get that, and most humans don't want to house or employ nothlits without that extra money. Understandably, I know why, but it's difficult."
"What did she do, y'know, before?" Kelly asked.
"Computer programming. Though she'd take any job down here, she isn't fussy, not about pay or anything."
"She was in the movement, too," Sara added, aware that Kelly must be wondering.
"She's very nice," Jasmine said softly, taking Sara aback. It was the first time she'd spoken. "We liked her."
Sara frowned. "What d'you mean? You don't know her."
"Jasmine met her, while she was visiting," Kalran said hastily.
Oh. Kalran was still seeing a lot of Akhir, then, it had to be. And it sounded a close friendship, to introduce her to Tilniss, especially at a time like that. Sara hadn't even met up with them this time, she knew Kal had wanted the space with her sister alone.
It was probably a good job that Elsa's return interrupted them, before Sara could say something she'd regret.
"What'd I miss?" Elsa said, with a certain wariness, as she sat back down.
Sara filled her in. "Kal was just talking about her sister visiting. Tilniss. She's Kal's close sister. She came this weekend: they don't get to see each other a lot, she's a long way away."
"Oh, that's a shame." Elsa looked worriedly at Kalran. "You OK?"
Kalran nodded. "I just miss her. Especially after everything else that's happened." She shook her head. "Anyway, it's a depressing subject for a birthday party. Are you having a nice night, Elsa?"
"Yeah, I am, thanks." Elsa grinned. "It's so awesome to go out with my friends, to eat what I like without anyone nagging at me to get my Empire vegetable quota, no Sharing events getting in the way, I can move my own body… pretty awesome, really. Thanks, Kal."
Sara smiled at Elsa, warmth filling her at Elsa's kindness towards her Yeerk. Kalran really needed reminding of the good she'd done at the moment, and she was glad Elsa had sensed that.
Kalran flushed. "I didn't do that much."
"Yeah, you did," Elsa said firmly. "My Mom wants to meet you, to thank you. I was talking to her about you guys, and then she did some searching on the internet, found out more about the peace movement. It's real good what you did, Kal."
"Yeah," Sara said softly. "Especially for me."
"Elsa," Kelly said suddenly. "Is your Mom still looking for someone to help out with the horses? The riding school?"
Elsa frowned. "Yeah. Well, she's about to start advertising. Why?"
"Does she still have that little apartment, above the barn? The one they rent out for vacations, sometimes?"
"Yeah," Elsa said slowly.
Her frown echoed Sara's: Sara couldn't understand why Kelly had taken this conversational turn.
"And say if someone didn't know much about horses, could you train them up?"
Elsa frowned. "I guess. Though there'll be applicants for the job who do know, I'm sure, so…"
"It's just that I've thought of a way your Mom could pay some of the peace movement back. We could talk about it, in the morning if you want."
Kalran gasped beside Sara, turning to stare at Kelly. "Wait, are you thinking what I think you are?"
Kelly nodded. "Would Tilniss do a job like that?" She turned towards Elsa. "It's up to you and your Mom, of course, but Tilniss was peace movement too, and they really miss each other. She can't move down here because it's too hard for nothlits to get new jobs and new housing."
"No," Kalran said suddenly. "No, Kelly, that's too much to ask of Elsa, and her family. It's okay, we're managing, we-"
"Whoa, Kalran, let me talk," Elsa said, smiling. "I'll talk to Mom. That sounds like a great idea, if she'll take that kind of work. Though the apartment could be more of a challenge, the income from it really helps the business."
"She could pay rent out of her wages," Kelly suggested.
"Her wages won't be much, though," Elsa said regretfully, looking towards Kalran. "It's not work that pays massively well. What does she do now?"
Kalran told her. Seeing Elsa's expression, Sara decided she ought to jump in. Kalran hadn't mentioned anything about how eager Tilniss was to move down: it was clear she thought the help was asking too much of Elsa, but Sara thought Elsa was owed all the information.
"She'd accept whatever the pay was, though," Sara said quickly. "She'd take anything to be down here, especially now. They really miss each other. Don't you?"
"We do," Kalran admitted. "But it doesn't seem right: Tilniss not being able to contribute what she's good at, while humans who have those skills don't get a job that's rightfully theirs."
Elsa nodded. "I see your point."
There was a short silence. Sara felt a twist of pain in her gut, watching Kal: to even imagine Tilniss being closer must have brought her Yeerk so much joy, only for it to be snatched away by practicalities. Suddenly, she had an idea.
"What about Karen?" She ventured.
Elsa's eyes widened. "Oh, yeah! Great idea!"
"Karen?" Kalran seemed puzzled for a moment. "Wait, Karen we met with? Aftran nine-four-two's Karen?"
Kelly raised her eyebrows. "Karen's Karen," she muttered. "She belongs to herself, not a Yeerk. Everyone does."
"Some of us don't mind being referred to like that, though," Jasmine said, very quietly indeed. "Karen might not mind, either."
Sara gave her a disgusted look, briefly, but her attention wasn't really on Jasmine. Her idea could work, it really could! There were several UniBank branches and offices in California, the bank Karen's father owned: surely jobs in IT came up with some regularity?
"I'm sorry," Kalran was saying, in a very small voice. "I didn't mean it like that."
"Never mind all that," Sara said impatiently. "Her dad runs UniBank. They must need computer programmers, or people to run computer systems. It's worth asking her if any jobs come up like that."
"It still doesn't exactly sound fair, Sara," Kalran pointed out.
Sara rolled her eyes. "You really need to break the rules a bit sometimes, Kal."
Elsa shook her head, with a slight smile. "Nah. I owe my freedom partly to her strong moral sense, don't discourage it. But we don't need to cheat: all we need to do is ask Karen to make sure nothlits are considered too, on equal merit to everyone else. That at least gives Tilniss a fighting chance in one organisation down here, if she's got the qualifications and experience, which it sounds like she does."
Hope lit Kalran's face for a brief moment, quickly pulled back. "She does," Kalran said slowly. "She really does, she's excellent."
"Sounds like Karen's Dad'll benefit, too, then," Kelly chimed in. "Great idea, Sara."
"And I'm sure she can rent the apartment, if she needs somewhere to stay. Though it's kinda far out, she'd need a car, so she might want to find somewhere a bit nearer."
Kalran shook her head. "You and your family don't need to do that, Elsa. It's not fair on you."
Elsa frowned. "Why? She's peace movement too, isn't she?"
"Yeah," Sara said quickly. "Yeah, she's lovely."
"Then it's fine, we'd be glad to do it. And it would let us rent out the apartment all year, instead of for the odd week in the summer, so it's a win-win. If she can't find anywhere else, anyway."
"I don't know…" Kalran murmured, and Sara felt a flare of irritation. Her Yeerk really was impossible, sometimes. "It's too much. You don't owe us anything."
"For goodness' sake, Kal! Why can't you just let something good happen to you, for once?" Sara snapped, before she thought it through.
Kalran flushed, looking down, and Sara immediately regretted her words.
Jasmine touched Kalran's arm, again. "You're so considerate, aren't you? You put everyone's needs before yours. Akhir was right when she said you were one of the kindest people she's ever met."
Kalran's blush deepened to a bright crimson, but she was smiling, and lifted her eyes to look at Jasmine. "She said that? She's exaggerating."
Jasmine smiled. "No, she meant it. But I'm sure Elsa…" Jasmine glanced at Elsa, hesitantly: "I'm sure Elsa of all people would tell you the truth if there was a problem with it. I don't think it can hurt anyone: the recruitment process would still be fair, and Elsa's happy about the apartment, if it's even needed. Akhir has a lot of contacts among the nothlits, she has a lot of friends, I'm sure she could help you find a spare room somewhere. She'd be very glad to do it. I know it's not certain Tilniss would get a job, and that must be hard, but surely it's worth trying, ish'li?"
Kalran jumped. "You don't need to call me that, Jasmine. We're equals." She turned to look at the others. "Thank you, all of you. I… it sounds wonderful."
Sara reached for her Yeerk's hand, noticing the tears in the corner of her eyes. She forced down the anger she felt at Jasmine's interference: Kalran didn't need an argument between the two. "You deserve every single bit of it, sweetie."