Behold, the new-and-improved Chapter One! I crammed chapters 1 & 2 together, like I said I would! I also took out a bit of stuff too unnecessary for words. Don't worry, it was just a little bit.

If this is your first time reading AFD, then have fun reading, 'cause this is just the beginning!

Disclaimer: I don't own Barney or Blues Clues or anything else mentioned in the story (including Toland School, which as far as I know doesn't exist)

"Am I ever glad to see you!"

Brenna turned slightly. She sighed.

"Is there ever a time you're not glad to see me, Carl?"

Without waiting for an invitation, the tall, towheaded boy sat down at the desk next to hers. He cleared his throat. His blue-gray eyes looked into her turquoise ones.

"What do you want?" Brenna knew from experience that Carl depended on her. They'd been friends since kindergarten, but lately, it seemed less like a friendship. Instead of "Wazzup?" it was always, "Do you have a couple bucks I can borrow? There's this…" It was always something.

"Well…" When they were younger, they had no problem borrowing spare change from each other. Now, however, Brenna had enough money from babysitting to keep her out of debt, while Carl couldn't save a quarter for more than a day. There's a lot of difference now, the brunette thought morosely. Eight years difference.

Carl hemmed and hawed before asking, "Um, can I borrow a buck? I made a bet with Jim, and…"

Brenna reached into her secret pocket. As always, she had some change in there for Carl. Pulling out a dollar bill, she dropped it in his hand.

"Next time you make a bet, back it up with something," she scolded. It was just a habit; she would give him a dollar next time, and anytime. They'd been friends too long to turn each other down.

"Thanks," grinned Carl. He ran out of the room.

Brenna lowered her forehead until it touched the cold desk. What am I going to do with Carl? she asked herself, for the zillionth time.

Mairin checked her nails. She had just painted them this morning, and they had to stay perfect until seven o'clock. Nothing could go wrong tonight.

School had been out for two hours, but many students still were around. The teachers at Toland Grade School didn't lock the classroom doors for two reasons: first, there was nothing worth stealing in the rooms, and second, the janitor didn't want to get a call at 12:30 a.m. from a worried student, asking if she could go into the school and get her math book.

Tina and Alice would be cleaning their lockers inside; Jim would be collecting money from the bet he'd been bragging about all day. And of course, Joel was getting his makeup work from the science teacher, and Mairin was waiting for him.

Her crush had been out with pneumonia, and it had been a stroke of genius to suggest a 'welcome-back' party for him when he came back to school. What a perfect way to get his attention!

The chilly October wind stirred Mairin's silky blonde curls. She smoothed them carefully. Nothing could go wrong.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her mother's blue van. It surprised her; her father always picked her up.

She turned her head. Her mother was running towards her, her face pale.

"Mairin!" she called. "It's your father! Hurry!"

Jake looked out the window. He saw Mairin rush into the van. He turned away, closing his eyes.

"So it is," he murmured. "So it shall be."

He picked up his backpack and walked to the classroom door. Before he reached the hallway, he turned. Looking to the window again, he saw the faint reflection of his light-brown hair and green eyes.

What can I do? he asked himself silently.

Joel whistled as he walked out of the school building. Even if he had a little extra homework, he didn't mind. Mairin had finally noticed him!

He'd been afraid to tell her how he felt about her, even though they'd been in the same science class since 3rd grade. Four years in Mr. Greene's class, and she finally speaks to me! he thought happily. Wonder if she knows I like her…

"She isn't here."

Joel started. He'd been so deep in his daydream that he hadn't noticed Jake.

"Who isn't here?" he asked.


Joel felt his stomach flip over. "What do you mean, she's not here?" he demanded. "She was waiting for me! Is this some kind of joke?"

Jake shook his head. "Of course she was waiting for you. But her mother came. Her father had a heart attack."

"No way!" Joel dropped his backpack in surprise. "How do you know? Did she tell you?"

Jake didn't answer. He turned his head, looking towards the school.

"Of course, he's the only one… who knows."

"Knows what?"

Jake turned quickly to Joel. "Do you want to help Mairin?" he asked, a sense of urgency in his voice.

"Of course!" said Joel, a little too quickly.

"Good. Then listen to me. You have to give her this message. It might seem strange, but it might save her life."

Brenna dropped her backpack by the door. Kicking off her shoes, she yelled, "I'm home!"

Jill, her five-year-old sister, ran straight to her. "Brennabrennabrenna, you're HOME!"

The thirteen-year-old laughed as her legs were squeezed in a bear hug. "Nice to see you too, Jill. Anything good on TV?"

Jill wrinkled her nose. "Just Barney. I hate Barney."

Brenna smiled. "How about I put on some Blues Clues?" It will keep her busy so I can do some homework.

"Ok!" Jill bounded down the steps to the basement.

Thank goodness. Brenna started down the stairs after her sister.

Even if she was a pest at times, Brenna loved her a lot. She'd never do anything to hurt her.

Mairin sat on a couch in the alcove near her father's room. She ignored the sharp, sterile smell of the hospital air. I can't believe it… can't…

Her father, in the hospital? The same dad who built her a playhouse a few summers ago? Who tucked her into bed every night? It was unbelievable, and Mairin didn't want to believe it.

Suddenly, she realized something. Joel! He was going to meet me at school! I forgot about him!

Right on cue, Joel rounded the corner of the alcove. He stopped when he saw Mairin.

"Uh, Mairin…"

Mairin wanted to fling herself at him and cry on his shoulder, but she resisted. No use, scaring him off.

"Oh, Joel, I'm sorry-"

"I know. Don't worry."

Mairin was puzzled. "You know? Who told you?"

"You know Jake?"

"That seventh-grader with the dreamy green eyes?"

"Yeah." Did she like him? "He said your mom came. Don't know how he knew, though."

"Mom didn't tell anyone…"

Joel cleared his throat. "You know, uh… Jake sent you a message. Well, it's really for your father." A twinge of guilt hit him. "Oh, um… how is he?"

"Dad? Well, Mom won't let me see him, but he's still alive, thank goodness."

Joel reached into his jacket pocket. He pulled out the scrap of notepaper he'd written the message on, though he knew it by heart.

"You're supposed to read it to him, Jake said." He felt a little silly. "He'll understand."

He handed Mairin the note. She read it to herself, confused by the strange words. It ran like this:

Mairin Osborne, daughter of Samuel Osborne

Give your father this message:

Blue Falcon, the battle rages on.

Do not give up, for we shall soon stretch our wings again.

The blackbird flies south on the morrow.

Joel felt very silly now. The girl he liked stood right in front of him, reading a nonsense note from an older boy! He was such an idiot; it was probably a secret message, a love note. I'm so stupid!

Mairin looked up. "I'd better give this to him. It might be important." She smiled, then got up and ran down the hall.

Joel sat down. He was such a dummy! Mairin probably felt sorry for him, delivering a coded love note without knowing it. She saw right through him, he was sure.

Mairin came back, looking very sad. Joel wanted to tell her it was all right, he'd protect her… Forget it, dude. She loves Jake, not me.

"Dad said, 'Tell this Jake that the falcon needs some sky. Cardinal at 3:46.' What on earth does that mean?"

Joel shrugged. "Should I bring back the message?"

"No!" Mairin blushed. She hadn't meant to sound so eager. "Well, uh… can you stay a couple minutes?"

"Sure." It was a game, her game with him, but he'd play anyway. "Um… want to talk?" he asked lamely.

"Alright." Mairin sat down next to him. A little light of hope shone through the clouds of sadness in her eyes.

Well, I won't tell you to review, since you have a lot more to read… but keep going!