Nuria versus Valine. So, Professor Cwen decided not to play favorites after all, Stark thinks, watching the first-round matches being determined. She smiles slightly when she sees Nuria’s boundless energy exuding from every strike of the ball, whether it leads to a score or not. She lifts the tablet from her desk and uses the numbered keypad to the right of the screen to change camera feeds. Only the screen on the tablet changes as she flips through them, finally settling on one right by the glass dome roof that encapsulates the entire arena. She presses the DR button in the top right-hand corner of the tablet screen to change her tv’s feed.
Stark stays calm until she hears threats directed toward the boy in the broadcast booth. She swaps to a feed directly over the booth and uses the arrow keys on the left of the tablet screen to pan over to Lauron as she headbutts the door to the booth. Stark raises the radio from her belt but stops when she sees Lauron subdued by Professor Cwen and Marsh.
I see she hasn’t cured the young lady of her temper yet. I told her that letting her join the Ohaida class would be better…but I don’t even want to think of what Lauron would have done if she’d been at Jojen’s Dojo during the attack.
Stark hops a few more feeds before the round resumes. She grins broadly when she sees Roark sitting in the row right behind the headmaster, slowly retaking his seat as Lauron is escorted outside. At least he’s dressed in plain clothes.
The next few feeds show the crowd cheering on Nuria, and Stark is amazed at the diversity of her fans, even some of the players from the other teams cheering her on. Of course, Rum and Tyra are also on her side, the latter holding up a sign that says “Go, Nuria!” in bright gold letters on a black poster board. The young man in dark clothes between Tyra and Rum ignores the game as he leans back, staring at the glass dome roof, almost masking his nerves. Stricken with a few of her own, Stark can see straight through him.
He hides it better than the other Ohaida freshman, but that attack haunts him, too.
Stark applauds Nuria alongside the audience when she claims victory. She switches to the first feed with the perspective of the camera above the door the contestants and their professors entered from. She zooms in on Nuria and takes a screenshot of the phoenix from the waist up. She whirls and squats, connecting her tablet to her computer, uploading the image and emailing it to herself, but CCs an email called “firstname.lastname@example.org”.
Stark’s phone buzzes a few moments later with a message from a contact also called Execumama that says:
I knew my girl had it in her. Thank you.
Stark and Execumama exchange a few more texts before rampant booing distracts the officer. She puts the all encapsulating feed back on the tv and narrows her eyes at the boy stubbornly lying down on the court.
This is unexpected. Professor Lynald’s class usually churns out more enthusiastic players than the others. Well, if Nuria had gone to him, that tradition might not have changed.
Stark watches the situation unfold, trying to determine a cause behind Wallace’s little protest. Like Aven, he focuses on the roof above, but he looks entirely relaxed, even when lightning flashes through the sky. Stark feels her legs attempt to buckle at the thought of the rain, feeling it on her skin as if she were outside. A few deep breaths help her retain her serenity.
Stay calm. She’s not behind every deluge. You know that.
Her focus back on the television before her, she watches Nuria march onto the field in the midst of Shuri’s match, tossing him the ball. She raises the volume as Nuria launches into a rant.
“–this contest, then don’t let him drag you down, too. Just score as fast as possible and get him eliminated.”
“That works for me,” Wallace says, yawning in the middle of the sentence.
Stark sees how Wallace’s treatment of the Freshman Derby affects Nuria and Neth differently. Nuria fumes, nostrils flared and eyes…
Wait, did they just glow?
The officer rewinds the footage and pauses on Nuria as she leers at Wallace. Stark attributes the glow to be her white irises reflecting a flash of lightning that adds a glare in the corner of the paused footage as well. She fast forwards back to real-time in the live feed, but she doesn’t miss the sullen expression on Neth’s face.
This would be the first time a contestant has pulled such a stunt. He’s worried he won’t be able to pull the hearts of the students back into the game after this. And he won’t. But in all fairness, it’s not up to him. The freshman players run this show and it’ll live and die on their shoulders.
Nuria rushes the field the moment Shuri’s named the winner and all but declares an immediate challenge with her stomp and catch maneuver.
But Nuria won’t let that happen.
Stark smiles proudly. She likes to take the measure of people not just through their values and character, but how well they express both. And as she watches Nuria, she sees a woman who will stand for her beliefs and aspirations no matter who and what stands in her way. And she does so with a smile on her face. From her flight training to Star Derby, Nuria’s never failed to impress Stark.
Even as intense as Nuria was when she played against Valine, she did it with a smile on her face. She was happy the entire time. Now, her expression is fierce and ornery. Something about Wallace must have flipped a switch in her attitude.
Stark cuts back to a previous feed briefly and sees Rum is also cognizant of her new attitude as he scowls; the rest of Nuria’s fans remain oblivious as they cheer for her. Once she turns the encapsulating feed on again, she zooms in tighter on the court and grimaces. Nuria isn’t the only one infuriated as they play.
He seemed so happy when I gave him his camera back earlier, so I never expected this. Whatever he and his grandfather were at each other’s throats for earlier has to relate to this game somehow.
Stark waits for the first round to finish before cutting to the headmaster. She sees through the plastic smile he puts on for the students and sees his hands tremble as they tightly clutch his wooden cane. With one more feed swap, and a quick zoom and pan, she sees Professors Zathony and Marmagar race their fingers as they no doubt discuss Nuria’s performance.
All of them should know better. This is only a game at the end of the day, and they gave Nuria and Shuri too much to handle prior to the tournament. Stark sighs and shuts her eyes. But I’m no better. I’ve learned how intensely both of them have obsessed over their own desires, so their current attitudes should be no surprise.
I could end it now. I should…
Stark opens her eyes and finds the rainstorm already on the tv screen, her body aware of what has her so terrified.
But I can’t…
“That was one nail-biter of a first round!” Kez yells. “Shuri may have an 80-point lead, but there’s no clear winner just yet!”
Not if I have anything to say about it, Nuria says to herself, fuming much too much as she approaches Trixee.
“Hey, are you okay?” Trixee asks, unnerved by Nuria’s fierce expression.
“I will be when I win,” Nuria says harshly.
“I mean, it’ll be good if you win, but–”
“No buts, Trixee. I will win this.” Nuria snaps her head up and faces forward when the new round bell goes off. “I have to.”
“You don’t have to–”
Nuria tunes out Trixee there, room for no thoughts but her own. Shuri’s a fan of kicking, so I have to use my legs to counter. My hands have proven too weak on their own. And look at him. Thinks he’s too good to get advice from Trixee now. Smug and cocky because he has the lead. Shuri stands with his arms folded in the starting position, having none of the breathing difficulties Nuria’s experiencing. He won’t for much longer.
The moment the round begins, Nuria takes the ball and tries to confuse Shuri by juggling with her feet instead of her hands, paying no mind to the 10-point penalty. She squats low and kicks the ball upward off the ground. Shuri has to race to it to block it and knocks it out of bounds.
Nuria jumps back into the thick of things and continues to mess with Shuri by blocking his leg shots more successfully, then scores twice in a row; first with a purple ball and then with a white one. Nuria smirks mockingly when he shoots her an exasperated look.
Just as easy to read as the day we met.
Nuria stumbles when she remembers the fun they had destroying all the wooden targets. A smile forms before she even realizes it. That was a strange day, but that was easily top five moments I’ve had since coming here. She shakes her head fiercely. What am I doing? I’m treating Shuri like he’s my enemy…
“Hey-o! Nuria, you still with us out there?” Kez asks annoyingly, jarring her back to reality.
“Uh…yeah, sorry.” She slaps her palms against her cheeks, then raises her head with a gamine grin full of mirth and excitement. “I’m ready to really play now.”
She stares across the court and sees the complete lack of jubilance on her adversary’s face. She shivers when she realizes she must’ve looked like that just moments ago. I have to get Shuri to calm down, now, too.
The next green light bell, Nuria only jogs at a mild pace, hoping to signal to and calm Shuri down before they continue. She yelps quietly when he grabs the ball and races past her, bumping her shoulder violently, and spikes and a red ball through her goal. He gives her a pointed and pissed off stare on the way back to his side of the court.
Nuria feels her rage try to resurface as her fists clench without her conscious command. She shuts her eyes and takes one long, deep breath. I know Shuri. He’s not mad at me. He just needs the same reminder I did.
Nuria tries again to flag him down during the round, but he ignores her attempts by forcing her to play, hitting the ball right at her. Nuria gives up on trying and lets him score with a purple ball, though maintaining a 480-440 lead on him.
“Stop trying to force me into penalties by talking to me,” Shuri snaps. “Just play the game!” He turns sharply and returns to his starting position.
“Fine,” Nuria snaps back, failing to hold back the venom in her tone.
Nuria makes sure to beat Shuri to the ball on the next bell, then tosses it out of bounds after crossing onto Shuri’s half the court. “There, it’s not about you losing points anymore,” Nuria says softly.
“What are you doing? Throwing the game? I don’t need your charity!”
“But you need a reality check,” Nuria counters. “We can administer that here on the court or out of the sight of all these people. Your choice, but I’m done playing until you tell me what’s wrong.”
She holds his gaze until he breaks it briefly to side-eye someone in the crowd, and while she doesn’t have to follow suit to know who she does so anyway.
“Fine,” he says finally, then leads Nuria to the doorway they initially entered the arena from.
“Um, guys, the final match isn’t over yet,” Kez calls after them, followed by a chorus of murmurs from the crowd.
“What’s going on with you and the headmaster?” Nuria asks in a hush.
“He hates me,” Shuri says, head held down. “He’s trying to force me to join the Sulublei class. He doesn’t want me to pursue Ohaida studies and is doing everything to get me to leave the course. If I lose today, he gets his wish. I mean…would you force someone you loved into a bet like that?”
Nuria stays silent, unsure of how to respond.
“I just…I don’t understand why he can’t allow me to choose what I want to study.”
“Why do you only want to study Ohaida?”
“Why do you want to only study Vanusi?” Shuri fires back quickly.
“I didn’t,” Nuria says. “Not originally.”
Shuri blinks and asks, “What do you mean?”
“Do you remember the day we met?” She continues after he nods. “I asked you about the nurses here being allowed to run blood tests. Well, I needed answers about this golden fire I conjured one day, and thought a blood test would do it. It did.
“Until I got here, I had no clue I was half Vanusi. Your grandfather gave me the choice to choose to study as a Vanusi or as a Sulublei. He encouraged me to do the former, and I think I did so in part because of him. And…I’d have regretted doing otherwise.
“Now, I don’t know why Ohaida means so much to you, and it’s okay if you don’t want to tell me, but maybe learning more about your wind powers might be beneficial. My flames sure make it easier to maneuver while I fly.” Nuria finishes her speech with a laugh.
“And you really believe that? About me, I mean.”
“If it works for me, who says it won’t for you? And if you’re hesitant because you’ll lose being with Rum and the others, I’ll convince him to join us in the Sulublei class, too. By the way, did he tell you about his delayed Sudita thing? It’s crazy, right? Are there any other Ibri in your class? I know Pan’s S’nue, but what about Aven and…Roy?” Nuria stops mumbling when Shuri’s heavy demeanor suddenly melts away when he finally and abruptly laughs.
“I mean, I still have to lose for that to happen,” he says with a grin, but the challenge in his tone is unmistakable.
“Oh, you most certainly will. It’ll end up just like our first game together,” Nuria teases as she leads him back to the court.
“You planning to burn me?”
She almost chuckles after he snorts, but tries to concentrate on her game plan as they part ways to opposite ends of the court. She turns around and locks gazes with him, both ignoring the wild cheers, Kez’s announcing, and the bell. She reads Shuri’s lips as he says, “On the count of three.”
This time, instead of being all instincts or all thoughts, Nuria combines them both into one indomitable force. As the round goes on, her vision sharpens, her moves become more precise, and her ebullience soars. She can tell that Shuri’s the same when he doesn’t curse under his breath over a juggling penalty, which Nuria mimics seconds later. They both laugh around the thirty-eight second mark when Shuri hits the ball out of bounds twice in a row. But Nuria feels the pressure when he scores, lowering her points to 290.
Okay, I have to score here. Even with just the red glow, I can tie it up. My instincts will do the work.
Nuria fully leans into her heightened vision and suddenly she can see the field before her in higher quality, aware of how to move to reach her goal. She forces her mind clear out of fear thinking it’ll chase away the sensation. The round begins and Nuria applies her new vision to the ball. She kicks the stencil in focus and prays her body does what it needs to do. The ball turns purple but goes toward the ground instead of straight to the goal.
Nuria panics until Shuri dives for the ball and hits it right back at her. Without hesitation, she jumps and headbutts the ball past Shuri. It changes from white (from Shuri’s hit) to red before it slides through the hoop, one second before the end of the round buzzer sounds off.
The crowd goes wild with cheers and adoration even before the scoreboard officially reflects the results of the latest play.
Nuria bends over and places her hands on her knees, exhausted, sweatier and more out of breath than she’s ever felt before…well, once before. This Primal Sense thing is tough on me for sure. It’s even worse than it was during that flight test.
“By Drijad, Nuria actually managed to tie the game!” Kez shouts. “For the first time ever in a Freshman Derby game, we’re entering sudden death!”
Nuria finally manages to lift her head and mouths, “What’s sudden death?”
Shuri shrugs his shoulders. “No clue,” he mouths back.
“For all the new kids, sudden death is a 30-second round where whoever has the most points after wins! And here’s the kicker, each player may use their powers once to their advantage!” Kez announces. “Just don’t hurt one another. That’s a big no-no!”
Nuria straightens despite her aching muscles and gives Shuri a daring look, raising one eyebrow as a question mark. He grins and nods.
“You have ten seconds to consult your coach.”
Nuria and Shuri turn and march to Trixee together.
“You guys are both doing pretty good out there,” Trixee states. “No matter who wins, I’m proud of you both, Nur-ee-ah and Shur-ee. Go out there and show the school who the best coach is around here!” She raises both hands, one for each of them to high-five, before they return to the court.
“Wait!” Nuria calls out, grabbing hold of Shuri’s sweaty jersey. She wipes her hands on her own when he stops, gazing at her over his shoulder. “I want you to know I’m not trying to win so you lose the bet with your grandfather. I’d hate to do that to you.”
He whirls fully and places a hand on her shoulder. “I want you to win if you can. As much as I hate this bet with my grandfather, I want to win to prove to him I truly want it and have him accept my decision. If I lose, then it means I didn’t try hard enough. There’ll be no hard feelings if I lose. I promise. So, bring your A-game, Nuria.” He turns away.
“Consider it brought,” she boasts before going to her corner. Just gotta ride that same feeling again.
Nuria falters when it doesn’t return right away and loses precious seconds playing catch up with Shuri, and while she plays some solid defense, it does her no good when he scores with a white ball.
“And that’s a statement score! Nuria has five seconds to try and tie it up again! Or…is she planning on going for the golden ball play? Does she know how to activate that color?”
Nuria huffs, her body ready to collapse on her. She leers at Shuri as she tries to catch her breath, upset that he’s nowhere near as exhausted. Damn you, Wallace. Shuri’s had such an easy time. I hope he doesn’t think I’m faking and taking it easy on him. I’m giving it my all. Why did that stupid Primal Sense have to kick in early?
“This is Nuria’s last chance! But if anyone can turn this around, it’s her!” Kez shouts into the mic, and the crowd cheers her on, though some of her fans have converted to the other side.
Great, now he’s taking my fans, too. She sighs gustily. I just have to trust that my body can handle this.
Nuria stands tall and smirks. “This game is mine, Shuri!”
“You just try, Nuria!” Shuri shouts back.
“It’s do or die time! Let’s go!”
The bell rings.
Shuri reaches the ball first and cocks back to throw it with one hand.
Trust your body!
Nuria jumps up and scrunches her body before shooting out both legs against the ball after it leaves Shuri’s hand, both feet slamming into the stenciled sun. The ball turns golden as it sails back to Shuri.
I did it!
Shuri reacts swiftly by creating not a plate, but a bowl of swirling wind in his palm to catch the golden ball and keep it rotating. He throws the ball back to the phoenix. “Game over, Nuria!”
“Not yet, it’s not!” Nuria fires back.
She leans back into a handstand and uses her legs to snatch the ball out of the air. She pushes off the floor with her hands and her wings sprout, keeping her suspended in the air. Her vision and body find new strength and she shoots the ball to the floor before even her mind can register the sensation. The ball bounces between Shuri’s legs and is on target to score. It hits the edge of the hoop as the buzzer rings…but doesn’t go through until the LED lights inside the hoop cut off.
Nuria is too stunned to break her fall, falling onto her wings. Poor aim. I lost because of poor aim. If…If I’d been a better phoenix, I’d have won. I…I…
“Nuria!” she hears the crowd chant over and over, Kez’s booming voice in the mix. “Nuria! Nuria! Nuria!”
She manages to sit up and sees Shuri’s hand in her face. “I hope you’re listening to them, Nuria. They know who really won just now,” he says.
“But I lost.”
“You never gave up. When you countered my counter, I gave up all hope then and there. They all saw me lack what you never did. Plus, it was on a technicality. With even just one more second, I’d have completely lost.” Shuri forces Nuria onto her feet when she still doesn’t take his hand. “And I’m okay acknowledging that.”
“I know that Shuri won, and I will get to that, but our runner-up deserves some praise herself! Not only did she activate the golden ball without the knowledge to do so, but she did so with the clock against her and almost took the game! Give Nuria the applause she deserves, everybody!”
Nuria just smiles with all the support the spectators give her, though she feels a bit embarrassed to have all the attention on her since she lost. She wants to hide her blush with her right hand, but Shuri snatches it and raises it high. To avoid him seeing her flushed cheeks, she turns her head up and looks through the glass roof to the storm outside. She peers at the reflection of her unfurled wings when something else gets her attention.
What is that?
She squints her eyes as she sees a shadow on the roof illuminated by a flash of lightning. The next thing Nuria knows after the crash of the glass roof is a cool, squeezing sensation around her body. She screams when she’s slammed against the goal and through the gymnastic mat barricade, and again when she feels the goal’s pole pressed into her back by the wall.
She feels her wings slide into her back as her once-powerful vision fades. She stares into the aqua eyes of a woman with a bloodthirsty air about her, same as the last woman who attacked Nuria.