1.1: Tryouts

In a self-aware way, less conceited than most other girls her age, Pan realizes she’s beautiful. Right now, as she stares at herself in the bathroom mirror, wearing an overly large baby-blue t-shirt and pinstriped grey pajama pants, she brushes the hair away from her face and gives herself a clear view of her forehead. Without Nuria and Tyra’s intervention, she’d have a hideous scar across her brow from temple to temple. Her once near flawless face would’ve become a city with that one gruesome haunted house attraction built in front of a breathtaking garden- the thing people would no longer notice.

     She wants her face noticed now; thankful the scar was denied real estate on her brow. She leans back away from the mirror and winces as she straightens. The biggest of her cuts was taken away, but since she was healed last- at her own insistence- Tyra was sweating by the time her turn came. So, Pan decided to keep the nicks on her back- from being flung into the pile of shields- her own secret. No doubt her parents will freak once they seem them.

     But likely think I got them because I deserved it, she thinks bitterly.

     Pan returns to her side of the dorm, the large room all to herself. The beds are all close together, the sheet tied between them to form mock tightropes that she uses to practice her balance, 15lb dumbbells resting on the floor beside the right-most bed.

     She dumps her pajamas on the floor, revealing half a dozen pink welts in the small of her back. She plucks a fresh outfit from her bedside drawer, ignoring the many strewn on and around the bed she slumbers in. She tugs on a green tank top and shimmies into a pair of black jeans. After knotting her hair into a bun, Pan goes in search of her target- the one most responsible for saving her life- and knows where he hangs out on their off days.

     With Nuria.


     As expected, but he’s a man of habit, choosing to hang out with her until the sun starts to set. What he does after returning to the dorms is a mystery.

     She’s never entered the boys’ door if it was closed and demanded the same of them, mostly to avoid the shame of being outed as slovenly. She knocks on the classroom door in the same manner he talks, harshly.

     Nuria flinches before saying, “Oh, hey, Pan.”

     “Eagle eyes.”

     “Hey, Nuria. Hey,” she whispers the next word, “dick.”

     Nuria fails to hear but Aven’s shoulders rise and fall as he snorts with quiet laughter.

     “If you’re looking for Rum, I don’t have a clue where he is,” Nuria says sourly.

     Neither do I, nor Shuri, nor most of my class these days. He shows up for class, but is always just gone afterward. Given his strangely good observational skills, Aven just might.

     She tucks hair away from her face and behind her ear before she says to him, “Have you eaten lunch yet?”

     “Sure did,” he replies plainly. “Feathers over here and I ate early and then came straight here.”

     “You guys must be so happy to have Aven as a classmate. His mind is sharp as a tack. He told me that treating the grid as three-dimensional works better, so for each grid, I view them as top-down instead of as a side profile. It makes it easier to chart multiple paths! Check it!”

     Nuria gestures to the board where a huge 9×9 grid is drawn. In the left-most box in the middle row is a brown dot. From that dot radiate orange lines: one fashioned of dashes, one of periods, etc.; each one connecting to a brown dot in that same aisle on the far right.

     “You two have been working on this the whole time?” Pan asks, failing to comprehend their objectives.

     “Not the whole time. I didn’t listen to him at first, thinking his insults were just to annoy me.”

     “Yeah, he tends to do that,” Pan says with a smile, but Aven’s eyes stay on Nuria.

     “Too bad you can’t fly,” Nuria says, “or we’d be out there right now.”

     “Tyra, too, right?” Aven asks, his eyes gleaming with desire.

     Pan’s mood sours instantly. So, that’s what he’s doing. Getting close to Nuria to get close to Tyra.

     Many boys did the same thing to Pan and her old best friend, Mason. After learning they weren’t a couple, many of the boys would make their passes at the young lady. The thing is Pan always liked Mason and never told him. She didn’t want to make that mistake now, but Aven clearly wants someone else.

     “‘Tyra, too, right?’ what?” the girl in question asks, joining Pan in facing the graphic artists.

     “Aven wishes he could fly with us,” Nuria teases.

     “Oh,” Tyra says, an octave higher than necessary, and Pan then sees it. Banked, but definitely there in her eyes, she expresses the same desire as Aven.

     I’ll be damned. Aven’s on everyone’s radar.

     Pan sighs. “I think I’ll leave you all to it.”

     “No need,” Tyra says. “Professor Zathony ordered me to come and collect Nuria for Star Derby practice. We have to go immediately.”

     “Mind if I tag along?” Aven asks.

     “Why not?” Nuria says, cutting off Tyra’s shaky reply.

     Aven follows them to the door, but stops there and looks over his shoulder at Pan. “And before I neglect to tell you again, thanks for saving my life.”

     Pan feels the flush in her cheeks as she strokes her left arm. “You saved me, too. So, thank you, too.”

     Aven smirks. “Well, I mean I did a cleaner job about it. You almost took out all my organs with that arrow stunt, but it’s the result that matters. Later, Eagle eyes.”

     Pan still raises a hand in farewell, even though she puffs out her cheeks at his backhanded compliment. She swallows her breath and calms down, a smile returning to her face.

     He may not be my Mason, but he’s still my dick…wait, what???


     Nuria focuses the conversation about her brother under a heavy stone, lest she run into another door while distracted. If she goes into this practice with a divided mind, she’s afraid Zathony will hear and scold her. She slaps her palms to both cheeks so suddenly that Tyra jumps.

     “Sorry, T, but had to focus up,” she says.

     “I could pinch you next time,” Tyra offers.

     Nuria shakes her head, her braid sliding down her shoulder and over to the front of her body. “Nah. You’ve seen that my family doesn’t really do things the easy way. Never have. Too weird to start now.”

     “As unnerving as that sounds, it’s why we unanimously voted you as the class’s Freshman Derby representative,” Tyra says.

     “Really?” both Nuria and Aven ask.

     “Figured you’d have the best odds of winning.”

     “Oh. Thanks, I guess.” Nuria reaches for her braid and caresses it gingerly with both hands, unsure if she can live up to their expectations.

     I can barely live up to my own lately.

     “You guys are a tight group, huh?” Aven inquires.

     “What do you mean?” Tyra counters.

     “In our class, we all voted for ourselves.”

     “Then how did Shuri win? At least one other person had to vote for him.”

     “Ask your brother,” Aven says bitterly.

     Aven and Tyra continue talking about the nominees, but Nuria tunes them out after they say something along the lines that Rum wouldn’t be permitted to play anyway. She can’t allow her brother and his circumstances to split her focus in the slightest. Her companions go and sit in the stands around the Star Derby arena, a large rectangular field with dark lines separating into twelve unequal sections.

     Nuria suffers from the nagging idea that the lime green jerseys and shorts of the group gathered in the center of the arena are familiar. The girl in the rear of the group that all the others are facing has one ball underfoot and another tucked under her right arm.

     “Guys, we’re having a terrible season…again! The Z-man keeps giving me detention whenever we lose, so with a 2-4 record, how many have I had so far? And that’s not rhetorical!” the girl shouts the last line as a command.

     The woman giving out the orders is taller than all the others by at least a foot, standing over 6 feet easy. Her blonde hair is pulled back tightly and tied into a bun atop her head. Her fair skin seems to have an excess of wrinkles around her elbows. Her dark eyes look like pools at night-time, refracting the glow from the ceiling lights.

     “Four detentions, Trixee!” the other team members shout back in unison.

     “So, for my four detentions, I’m adding four extra laps to your warm-up run. How many laps does that make?”

     “Seven laps, Trixee!” they all reply.

     “Don’t make it eight!” Trixee warns. “Go!”

     Trixee scowls as she watches her team start their laps sluggishly. She pinches the bridge of her nose with a groan, unconvinced of her future after school schedule changing.

     “Um, hi,” Nuria says, cutting into Trixee’s brood. “I’m here to practice for the Freshman Derby.”

     “Ah, right. You must be Nur-ee-ah,” she says each syllable slowly. “Did I get that right? It’s not Nur-eye-ah?”

     “No, you had it right the first time,” Nuria confirms. “I assume you’re the team leader.”

     “I’m the Vanusi squad’s Star Derby coach, the role that all senior team captains automatically take in their last year. The sophomore and junior teams each have their own captain, but I outrank them during practice.”

     “There isn’t a freshman team?”

     Trixee shakes her head. “That’s why the Freshman Derby exists. The hope is to encourage participation in the freshman’s later years. I was chosen for the FD when I had just started here. It’s a lovely sport. I think you’ll–” she whips her head around so sharply that Nuria almost misses her seamless partial transformation when a stout, curved horn sprouts from the center of her forehead. “Don’t think you can walk when my back’s turned, Harrigan! Pick up the pace!”

     Nuria would normally laugh as Harrigan grumbles beneath his breath before following orders, but she’s in awe of Trixee’s transformation skills, especially when the horn sinks back into her as fast as it sprouted.

     “Sorry about that. But, as I was saying, I think you’ll have fun. Just one question. Have you ever seen or played Star Derby before you came here?”

     “Just a few commercials. I’m more into music than sports.”

     “Oh? Then why not join the school choir instead?”

     Nuria sighs and says, “I owe it to Professor Zathony to try. He’s been very lenient with me and I don’t want to let him down.”

     “Well, if you lose, he won’t be very lenient with me, so how about we get started?”

     Nuria nods.

     “Yo, Kez!” Trixee shouts as she turns and faces a closed-off booth in the rear of the stands. “Can you activate the balls and goals for me?”

     The ball in Trixee’s arm and under her foot beep and blink colors from white to purple to red to gold and then back to normal. The six goals- three on each end of the arena- also beep as the inside of their hoops glow with LED light.

     “The lights in the hoops react with the ball by reading the wavelengths of the light the ball produces and that helps the scoreboard keep track of the points,” she points to the now active digital display above the booth and the score reads 1000-1000. “Each wavelength reduces the opposing team’s points by certain amounts. Stand here and watch the scoreboard, the right side.”

     Trixee walks to the three goals on the south end and taps a corner of the ball so it becomes purple. When she drops it through the hoop, Nuria turns and watches the right 1000 decrease to 850. Trixee repeats the process by turning the ball red and white, the score lowering to 750 and 550 respectively.

     Trixee juggles the ball with her feet as she approaches Nuria, the ball changing between red and white and purple in a seemingly random fashion. “So, what did you just learn?”

     “The purple wavelength takes off 150 points, red takes 100, and white takes 200.”

     Trixee whistles. “The Z-man did say you’d be a frog in no time.”

     “A frog?”

     “Oh, the original Vanusi SD coach was a toad, so traditionally, the levels of proficiency among us Vanusi players were modeled after that individual. From the bottom up it goes tadpole, frog, salamander, and toad. Right now, you’re a tadpole- a beginner. Most of the people on this team are frogs- novices, like Harrigan. I myself am a salamander- an amateur. Most toads, according to the Z-man, end up going pro. I’d like to go that route myself.”

     “I can tell. You know so much about the game. Not just the rules, but the history, too.”

     “I didn’t always. I paid a couple of visits to the school’s archives with the Z-man’s permission. The way it’s played here is the original and purest form of the sport. That’s why I asked you if you’d watched it before. Most leagues use custom arenas, rules, and different light wavelengths.”

     “Oh, and speaking of wavelengths, you didn’t show me how many points that gold takes off.”

     Trixee grins and holds up her fist, slowly lifting one finger at a time until all five digits are up.

     “You serious?” Nuria asks, stunned by the enormity.

     “Yep, but let’s see if you can figure out how it’s activated. Your first practice is to observe and absorb,” Trixee says as the rest of the team starts to end their laps. Trixee smirks and whispers, “If you wanna learn what not to do, then watch Harrigan.” She snorts and nods in the out of breath ginger’s direction.

     Nuria leans against the wall and watches the team run a couple of scrimmages. She nails down one of the penalties; holding the ball for five or more seconds costs the offending team ten points. The rest of the penalties escape her as Harrigan gets his act together after Trixee gets in his face, horn out, and chews him out quite harshly. She sees a few of the other team members accidentally partially transform while in the heat of the game, but none, like Trixee, appear taxed by the transformation in the slightest, something they’ve gotten down to second nature. She wishes she had the time to go back to trying to get to that level instead of riding a wall all afternoon.

     Nuria throws herself out of the equation, not wanting even her own woes to distract her from learning to play properly. She commits to memory where to strike the ball for all four colors, each spot marked by a stencil image that only appear once the scoreboard timer begins; a stencil sun for gold, brain for red, sword for purple, the same paw as the one on the Vanusi team jerseys is for white. However, she fails to discern the trigger for the gold wavelength by the time practice ends.

     Trixee holds Nuria behind after the others leave. “The Z-man says I’m to work with you daily until the FD. He’s excused us from all classwork until it’s over. Tomorrow, we’re kicking off the day by ordering you a new uniform,” she says as she walks away. “Later, Nuria.”

Nuria starts to sigh, but it becomes a belch as her stomach rumbles. She looks into the stands and sees Tyra and Aven are already gone. She nearly frowns, but thanks the stars that she has more than two people to talk to these days; her brother’s silent treatment is wearing on her, though.

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