Nuria blinks her one open eye as the professors ignore the woman in the rear of the arena. Nuria focuses solely on her once her other eye opens. She seethes, not being able to do anything to stop her, so much so that her rage targets her own body, the intense feeling burning her from the inside out.
Nuria’s eyes snap wide open. “Stark, I got your- ow!” She instantly recoils with a hand on her head after having startled the nurse with an abrupt headbutt. Before saying another word, she turns all around and finds she recognizes her surroundings, though she’s annoyed to be back in a patient gown.
“Please don’t tell me I was out cold for another week,” Nuria groans.
“Uh…well,” the nurse starts nervously.
“You’ve been out twice as long this time,” Rum says as he steps into the room. “You were in and out of consciousness a lot, but I figured when I heard you shout Stark’s name that you had to be fully awake.”
“I guess that means I didn’t talk in my sleep.”
“Uh…well…” Rum holds the pause until Nuria looks at him.
“Shut up!” she says and he laughs. “Was I really out for two weeks?”
The nurse moves away to a phone built into the wall as Rum takes a seat beside Nuria’s bed. His expression grows more solemn as he says, “Yeah, and you’re not gonna like this next part either.”
Nuria groans again. “You told Mom, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t have a choice this time, Nuria. You weren’t answering her calls and I was running out of believable excuses,” he says, a little heated. He calms himself to deliver the next bit of news. “I kind of just told her everything. My lightning, your phoenix…the attacks.”
Nuria’s eyes widen with astonishment. “Really? Then why are we still at FHA?”
“Stop it, stupid. I can see the flagpole outside the window behind you.”
Rum turns and looks over his shoulder. He squints as he can barely see past the sunshine spilling through the window. “There’s a flag up there? You can see that?”
“Rum.” Nuria gives him a look.
“I mean, I spent a lot of time this semester at another school. I never noticed.”
“Rum,” Nuria repeats.
“How tall’s the flag?” he asks. “Can you see that from here?”
“Rum!” Nuria shouts. “Your excuses aren’t working now, either. Stop stalling and tell me already.”
He sighs and sits up straight. “She already knew everything, Nuria. All of it. Every time we talked to her post those events and discoveries, she knew. When I finally told her, she thanked me for opening up. And then I–”
“Wait, how did she figure all that out? Who told her?”
“She said Stark did. She said that Stark argued for us to stay here and that we’d be safe on her watch. I greased that wheel as much as I could without lying. But she still wants your side of things, too.”
“I can do that. I want to. I owe Stark my life twice over now. She must’ve protected me that day in the arena.”
“You don’t remember what happened?”
Nuria shakes her head. She recalls her weird dream, but she knows she’s not capable of such things. It had to be her desire to be at Stark’s side happening the only way possible. In her wildest dreams.
“No. Last thing I recall is…” she pauses and tries to focus. She remembers seeing Stark from the floor, and before that a woman standing atop the glass dome roof. “Being knocked out…but I’m not sure how I did.”
Rum growls. “That woman did it to you. The one who ruined the arena. Star Derby’s canceled for the rest of the year.” He leans forward and clenches his fists. “I’d have come for you if not for the forced evacuation.”
Nuria shakes her head with a smile. “I’m glad she couldn’t get her hands on you. While I’m glad you’re here, I’m even more relieved it’s not as a fellow patient.” She sees nothing but empty beds around her. “And it looks like Shuri and Trixee and the others are okay, too.”
“Yeah, they’re okay, but Shuri says they aren’t allowed to talk about what happened. And I was forced into the security building’s basement where the EMTs triaged us students with minor injuries.” Rum raises his sleeve to show a couple of stitches on his left arm. “Just some scrapes from the glass. I’ll live.”
Nuria erases her rising temper by adopting the same calm her brother has about it. “Quite a first year away from home.”
“It’s had ups and downs, yeah, but I’m still glad Mom sent us here. Aren’t you?”
Nuria slowly finds the energy to smile from ear to ear. “We’ve met some pretty awesome people.” She envisions what the room would look like if Tyra, Shuri, and Stark were present. Stark would be hanging back with crossed arms and a reassuring grin. Tyra would be insisting on healing Rum’s arm, feeling less self-conscious about that ability of hers now. Shuri would sit on the other side of her bed. Hopefully with his swords on him.
“Okay, I’ve had enough rest. Let’s get out of here.”
“Whoa! You just woke up. Take it- never mind.”
Nuria hops out of bed legs first, thankful her patient gown was knotted closed. Mooning her brother would become one of her top five least favorite moments of her freshman year.
“Where do you wanna go first? Are you hungry?”
Her stomach rumbles deeply. “I wasn’t until you said something.” She falls to her knees, cradling her empty stomach as it screams at her. “Okay, I’m not ready to move. Can you–” she howls in pain until the nurse comes back to help her back onto the bed. “Bring me something to eat! And get…help. I’ve got a…Carnya-sized…appetite. Please hurry!”
Her stomach isn’t the only thing to torment the young phoenix as she turns back in forth in bed. More visions flood back in from the dream she was having.
Between intermittent flashes of light, Nuria sees the hostile woman in a mad retreat from her, each time appearing more injured and afraid. She falls over and her eyes flutter closed, but not before she hears Zathony say, “You’ll have to excuse us if we don’t trust her in your care moving forward.”
Nuria tries to fight to stay still in spite of her hunger pains, but all she can manage is to shiver while sitting up. Too bad, Zathony, but I choose who I trust to look after me. And I choose chicken.
Nuria blinks and when she sees a dish of baked chicken, steamed broccoli, peppered corn, and mashed potatoes all steaming hot, she snatches it and devours the food with gusto, using her fingers as utensils. Even the bits that she spills onto her gown and bed she scoops up swiftly with her fingers and sucks them down. The baked chicken goes last and in only three bites. She leans back with a satisfied grin, plate on her lap and belches into the air. Her stomach is still rumbling, but her hunger pains have diminished to a slight bother.
“Thanks, Rum,” she says. “Didn’t know you could move so fast. Tameri must be one hell of a teacher.”
“While I appreciate your comment, I am not your brother.”
Nuria blinks, her bliss from the feast blown apart, and she looks upon Professor Tameri and Headmaster Neth with terror, the former holding onto a set of silverware and napkins. “Oh, no. Did I–”
Tameri raises the hand holding the napkins. “It’s fine, Nuria. I brought the food for you.” She extends the napkins to her. “It appears I should’ve brought more.”
Nuria realizes she’s sucking on her greasy fingers and stops, opting to use the napkins instead. “Please forget you saw that.”
“As you wish,” Tameri says and performs a slight bow.
“And an apropos segue,” Neth says.
“Segue into what?” Nuria asks, eyes shifting uneasily between the two adults.
“Since you were unconscious from the Freshman Derby attack to now, you’re the only one we haven’t told, and the one who needs to know the most.”
Nuria wants to rush him to the point, but out of general respect and fatigue, she stays quiet.
“Stark’s been arrested.”
The phoenix’s fatigue fades away and she rises in bed. “What?”
“Nuria, please, sit. You can say your piece once the headmaster is done,” Tameri says with a flowery tone.
Nuria turns to the professor and sees the thorns attached to her tone in her eyes. No wonder Rum respects her. Our mother uses that same look, too. Nuria sits and clamps her mouth shut, then nods for him to continue.
“Now, allow me to explain. The woman who attacked you is Stark’s mother. The organization, or in this case organizations, she’s affiliated with are both extremely dangerous. The woman who attacked you and Tyra is also an affiliate to one or both of those same organizations. And while I believe Stark is not a member, I believe her presence at FHA moving forward will be a problem. Since her mother confessed that she was the orchestrator of the attack on you and Tyra, as well as the Jojen’s Dojo incident, Stark leaving campus is for the better.
“Her arrest and upcoming trial are for her to solve. I will offer all the assistance I can,” he pauses and looks to Tameri with disappointment, “but the prosecution against her will be unrelenting. Cases revolving the two organizations in question tend to draw the eyes of the nation. Her name will be run through the dirt. And possibly the school’s as well.
“And to that end, we’ve told all the students who were present that they’re prohibited from telling the other students what happened and from making online comments about it. The further we distance ourselves from Stark, the less damage that can be done to the school’s reputation.” Neth turns to Tameri again. “An attitude I want us all to have.” He looks back to Nuria. “I know it’s a lot to ask, but I–”
“No,” the phoenix says flatly.
“No?” Neth parrots.
“No, I will not. Whatever you were about to ask me, the answer’s no. You just told me to let a friend of mine be ruined before an entire nation. No part of me would ever even consider that a real option. Not after she’s saved my life twice! I–”
“She never saved you,” Neth cuts of her.
“What? Of course, she did.”
“Nuria, Stark did not save you. Both when you and Tyra were attacked, as well as the Freshman Derby, you were the savior. You were the one who saved lives,” Neth states boldly.
Nuria deflates as she hangs her head low. Is that true? Is that where the dream came from? My memories? Is that why I felt hot? The comas? But I don’t remember anything from the first attack. Is this because of one of my phoenix powers?
“Did I use golden fire during the Freshman Derby? On the- Stark’s mom?” Nuria asks.
The headmaster and the professor turn to each other and nod after some silent communication. “Yes,” they both say.
Nuria feels an invisible force squeezing her soul. Both Tyra and Stark were vague about what happened that night, but when she recalls how terrified Stark’s mother looked at the end, she can guess what became of the bat lady. Her soul feels ready to explode.
I killed that woman. Like Rum did for his classmates. He did it to protect people. The mother phoenix from Halko’s Notes was described as sentient. Maybe the phoenix part of me is even greater than I realize. It fought to protect people I liked when I couldn’t. And that includes Stark.
“I’ll keep the secret from the other students,” Nuria says, but she continues before they can thank her, “and you may use all you need from my mother’s donation to repair the SD arena. In exchange, I want to be at Stark’s trial. I don’t want her there alone, and if push comes to shove, I can defend her. And if you refuse, I’ll call my mom and have her take me to the trial anyway.”
Nuria wants to believe her weary yet hard glare subdued them, but she recognizes something imperceptible to her pass between them.
“Professors Tameri and Zathony were already going to attend to trial, so you may accompany them when they go, but you must be on your best behavior, Nuria. Any rash acts and you’ll only worsen her chances of beating the charges against her.”
“Don’t worry, sir. I trust I can save Stark one more time.”
With a little help from my inner phoenix.