The blazing light in the bathroom ceiling illuminates the sink, floors, wall, and mirror brilliantly, but Stark’s eyes are painted by austere shadows. She narrows her eyes as she fingers the surgical scar between her left breast and collar bone. She’s only ever had one good thing to say to herself in regards to her mother, and that was the fact nothing she ever did left physical traces. Sure, Stark’s suffered innumerable mental injuries due to her mother, but her body’s never been touched because of her previous schemes. Until today.
Stark’s arrested a large number of miscreants during her years as an officer, and she knows this scar is as much a social stigma as being associated with The Pure. Only long term and serious criminals are given a recistene patch that requires surgery to remove, always resulting in the scar she gravely studies in the mirror. The rough and darker square patch of skin has three similar spots beneath it. Her mother’s interference in her new life has brought this upon her, and she fumes thinking about it.
I thought I was safe. I figured she’d be gone and I’d never see her again. I mean, the last time we saw each other, I’d made it clear I would never again love her. But now, eleven years later, she decides to return… It can’t be about me.
Stark grabs her shirt hanging on the door hook. She hastily buttons the blouse and tucks it into her dark pants. She pulls a tie from her pocket and knots it tightly around her neck, adjusting it to hang directly over the buttons. She looks her reflection in the eyes and is pleased by the ferocity in her expression.
Something about this year at Four Hearts Academy is different. It can’t involve Nuria since she seemed too surprised by her power at the Freshman Derby. However, my only theory is that one of the freshmen drew her eye. Based on what Nuria told me that Kari said, it’s not Tyra, either. Which means that Underworld may not be as involved as I think.
Stark raises her head and her eyes are basked in the same brilliance as the rest of the room.
If I’m going to stop my mother, I have to be a part of Four Hearts Academy.
Stark opens the door and steps into her hospital room, but she breaks into a brazen stride to exit straight away, not bothering to wait for Warden Crata to match her pace.
“Is your head back on straight again?” he asks sternly.
“What do you think?” she asks back with a levelheaded serenity.
“Does that mean you have a plan?”
“It means I’m working on one. But we can go over that later. Tonight,” Stark stops so suddenly that the warden ends up a few feet ahead of her, “I have someone who deserves all the thanks in the world.”
Warden Crata smirks and lifts one eyebrow. “Do you think I’d come here without her? It took quite a bit of coaxing since the professors still don’t quite trust the results of the trial being suspended as it was, but the young lady and Officer Roark are awaiting us downstairs.”
Stark grins and resumes her march. “Good. Oh, and have Syerus meet us after the celebration. The commissioner and mayor should be done chewing him out by then.”
“I’m not so sure. They are less than pleased to have been made fools of on national television,” the warden explains bitterly. “They even suspected for a time that I was responsible. I wasn’t held up by their interrogation until an hour into your surgery.”
“Are you saying you weren’t an accomplice? I saw you and Nuria come into the courtroom together, and I know you shared my sentiments of her exposing her,” Stark mouths her next words soundlessly, “phoenix powers.”
“I would have if it were possible for me, but my favors don’t reach that high. I think you know which other person to thank when you get the chance.”
“If I get the chance. Headmaster Neth made no moves to come to court, either for or against me, so I think he’s decided to scrub his hands of my tainted lineage,” Stark says sourly. “Getting him to reinstate me isn’t likely.”
“But this time you’re going to fight,” the warden says, looking down at her with rage-fueled disappointment. “I don’t care who or what tries to keep you down, Officer Stark, you will never cave the same way you did during this case again. You will fight to get your job back at Four Hearts Academy. You’ve been officially cleared, and the nation will forget about your name soon enough. Commissioner Daci and I had a talk after he was convinced I wasn’t behind the case being suspended, and I reminded him why I nominated you to run the Jupiter City security task force at FHA to begin with. He and the mayor will support you when you convince Neth of the same.”
Stark nods and ponders her strategy as they weave through doctors and patients throughout the hospital corridors. She has only the elevator ride to the first floor to think when her mind suddenly flies to nothing but words of gratitude. She hesitates only briefly to exit the elevator when she sees Nuria spinning around in a tilted back wheelchair. The young phoenix nearly falls when she sees Stark approaching, but Roark keeps her stable.
“Hey, hey, hey, you’re back!” Nuria cheers, but she stops herself from leaping into Stark. “Did they take that blue thing out of you? I don’t want to hurt you with another hug.”
Stark smiles wistfully, then opens up her arms. She braces herself for Nuria’s rocket launch of a hug, but still ends up coughing from the blow to her lungs. She lowers and embraces Nuria back, pulling her head closer. “Thank you,” she whispers reverently.
Piranha BBQ is the go-to restaurant in the Vanu nation, no less than three or four in every city within the borders. The signature of the restaurant is to combine several types of cuisine with their own unique recipes, such as the eelectric ramen (which Nuria orders). The noodles are an electric blue inside a bowl of yellow broth, garnished with bamboo shoots and a fried egg. Nuria slurps down the broth boisterously, using her fork to keep the bamboo shoots and egg at bay. Stark, the warden, and Roark watch her clear the broth in seconds, both disgusted and amazed by her appetite.
“Are you sure that was enough for you?” Stark asks as Nuria shovels down the ramen with her fork in a similar timeframe.
Nuria wipes her lips on the back of her hand and takes a satisfied breath. “I could go for another if you don’t mind. Haven’t had eelectric ramen in months. Missed it more than I thought, I guess,” Nuria says. “I gotta talk to Marmagar and try to convince him to bring us out here at least once a month.”
“Why once a month?” Stark asks, sipping her water.
“Oh, it’s what I and Rum and Mom did back home. It’s why I always order the eelectric ramen. Reminds me of Rum’s powers. It’s actually an inside joke of ours. I eat the ramen and he always attempts to finish the sweet fire nugget bowl by himself.”
“That’s a seven-pound bowl of spicy chicken nuggets, isn’t it?” the warden asks.
“Yep, and he never succeeds. Not even with my help. But it doesn’t stop us from trying whenever we go. And they’re not that spicy, really.”
“Warden Crata can’t handle spicy foods,” Stark teases.
“Really?” Nuria and Roark ask back.
“I don’t see you ordering them, Officer Stark,” the warden replies.
“Can you make her, though?” Nuria asks. “Order her to order the bowl, that is?”
Stark brings her water to her lips to cover her bashful expression. “If he does, he’ll have to eat some, too. I don’t have a big enough stomach for that.”
“I’ve never had them before, so I don’t mind sharing,” Roark comments.
“Wait, are we really doing this?” Nuria’s excitement starts to rise. She laughs giddily when Stark begrudgingly nods. “Oh, man, I gotta tell Rum about this. He’ll be jealous, especially if I finish the bowl without him.”
“Your mother never helped you guys?” Stark says after putting in the order for the nugget bowl and Nuria’s second helping of ramen.
“She doesn’t mind us pigging out as we please, but she never really indulges her appetite that way. Her meals are always very small portions. And I mean compared to the eelectric ramen. Her breakfast every day is either one apple, orange, banana, or on rare occasions watermelon.”
Stark and the warden quickly exchange looks when Nuria shakes her head in disgust. The two of them are aware that such a tight diet is one of the staples of army training in Vanu, typically reserved for those being groomed for higher positions, from captain and above. In one instant, they agree with their gazes to discuss this later on, finding the new detail enlightening to their current situation.
“On second thought, Nuria, perhaps you’d like to take the sweet fire bowl with you back to campus. You and Rum could have a little taste of home away from home,” Stark says.
“Oh, well, I guess I could coax him into sharing it with you, too,” Nuria replies.
Stark sighs and leans forward on her elbows. “Nuria, I need you to listen carefully right now.”
Nuria loses her grin as she faces Stark, holding her hands just above her lap. “Okay.”
“I’m not returning to the school just yet. There are a couple of things I still have to set straight before I can. But I will do my best to return as swiftly as possible. After all, I still haven’t seen you fly. I’m looking forward to it.”
Nuria smirks proudly. “By the time you get back, you have no idea what I’ll have in store for you.”
“Good, but in the meantime, I need you to do me a big favor.”
“I need you to forget about me now. I’m free. I’m safe. I have you to thank for that. You and Tyra. And I plan to do so when I see you both again, but until that time, you have to be a student. Be a child. Play with your new friends, study hard and listen to Professor Zathony, no matter how you may feel about him he is still your teacher and you must treat him with respect. Understand?”
Nuria swallows hard, but nods.
“And that goes for Headmaster Neth, as well. You disrespected him greatly by coming out here without permission, and if you had been hurt while coming here, he’d have been held responsible. You must not put him in that position again, Nuria. Ever.”
“I won’t, but I didn’t exactly have zero permission,” Nuria states meekly.
Stark narrows her eyes suspiciously. “What do you mean by that?”
“I barely made it one mile away from campus when I started to panic, thinking I was making a mistake. Tyra had just told me what I was risking by exposing my phoenix powers to the world, and I was more than nervous. So, I called my mom. Rum told me that you’d been filling her in on the events of this year, and that she wanted my perspective, so I gave it to her before I explained your predicament. I asked her what she would do in my shoes. She was the one who told me that I should defend you if I felt so strongly about it. Since I’d already left the campus, I committed to the journey, thanked my mom, and told her I’d be careful with my testimony. Between my mom and Headmaster Neth, I had all the permission I needed.”
“Is that right?” Stark says with a touch of scolding in her tone.
“But I will put more weight behind the headmaster’s words from now on. I promise.”
“Good.” Stark turns to the waiter as he delivers the sweet fire bowl and eelectric ramen. “Could we have all this to-go, please? Thank you.” The waiter hefts the dishes and goes to fulfill Stark’s wishes.
“Next time, you, me and Rum are splitting a bowl for sure,” Nuria says. She pulls her phone from her pocket and calls him. “Rum, hey, guess what I’m bringing back to campus?”
Stark smiles as Nuria launches herself fully into her phone call, teasing and poking fun at her brother. I’m glad Nuria still has others to help her smile. I don’t know how long it’ll take to convince Neth I’m still the woman for the job, but I have to do it. I’m not letting my mother harm another student. I’ll hunt her down. She will not ruin this life of mine, not again.
“Oh, good, you’re here already.”
Rum and Tyra turn away from the admin building, the former dressed in a sweaty blue shirt with three black stripes going down each sleeve and a pair of dark shorts and sneakers; the latter dressed in a ruby kimono decorated with white roses and held secure with a black sash. Rum takes one whiff when he sees Nuria carrying a large bowl with foil covering the top and smiles from ear to ear.
“No way, you actually found a Piranha BBQ out here?” he asks incredulously, mouth watering.
“Sure did. And we’re gonna feast on this entire thing if it kills us!” Nuria boasts. She turns and looks around. “Did Shuri come with you?”
“You invited him, too?”
“I mean, I had to. I haven’t had the chance to hang out with him since the Freshman Derby. Didn’t wanna him to miss out.”
“Well, I wasn’t with him when you sent the text. I was working out with…” he pauses and strokes the top of his head, “with, um, Pan.”
“Oh, really? She as sweaty as you?” Nuria asks playfully.
“Why didn’t you invite her?” Tyra asks.
“She decided to have dinner with Aven instead.” Rum uses Nuria’s tone when he addresses Tyra saying, “Maybe you’d like to join them, too?”
Nuria looks from Tyra’s rosy cheeks to her brother. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that Tyra–”
“Are you guys gonna just wait down there forever?” Shuri shouts from the flagpole up above. The lights around the trio illuminate Shuri’s head as he peeks over the ledge. Nuria squints her eyes, but she can’t pierce the darkness around his shoulders. She shakes her head and hefts the bowl so it’s more secure in her grasp.
“Tyra, can you carry Rum up there? I’ll bring the food.”
Tyra summons her wings and they glow faintly in the night. She beats them once to lift off the ground slightly, grabs Rum’s hands, then soars straight up with little effort, even with her passenger in tow.
Nuria waits until she sees them vanish over the ledge to leap into the air, using the freefall sensation to get her wings to unfurl. She uses them in combination with flames underneath her heels to take flight. She extinguishes her flames before even reaching the ledge, but uses her upward momentum to land safely on the ledge. She takes a deep breath when she squats down upon touchdown.
Damn, I should’ve gone alongside them so they could’ve seen that flawless flying. She almost vocalizes her pride in her new skills when she takes one look at Shuri. The detail she failed to discern before is clear now. His twin swords are back where they belong, one hilt poking over each of his shoulders. He must be over the moon right now.
“I hope you’re all hungry!” Nuria cheers. She removes the foil and steam rises from the bowl of sweet fire chicken nuggets. “I convinced the cooks to nuke this in a microwave for us. Should be as hot as when they first came out.”
“Hot?” Shuri halts reaching for one of the nuggets on the edge.
“You didn’t think sweet fire chicken nuggets were lukewarm, did you?”
“No, but…how hot are we talking here?” he asks nervously.
“You’re either in or you’re out, diet guide,” Nuria teases, then flicks one in the air and catches it in her mouth.
Once Rum and Tyra start to partake, Nuria watches the final domino topple in Shuri’s mind when he finally decides to try one. It goes as she expects after that, with him eating them with as much gusto as Tyra.
“You’ve never had them before, either?” Nuria queries.
“The only restaurant food I’ve ever had is from a diner that a friend of a friend owns. He would sneak me out for meals on occasion. If you think these are hot, then you should try the peppers he manages to somehow digest,” Tyra explains.
“Nuria’s never met a pepper she hasn’t swallowed whole on the first try,” Rum says after swallowing a mouthful. “It’s one of her scarier talents.”
“Scarier than lightning bolts?” Shuri comments.
“I mean, Rum’s back to baby bolts now, so yeah, actually,” Nuria replies.
“They are not baby bolts,” Rum barks crossly.
“They aren’t as big as usual, are they?”
“Doesn’t make them baby bolts.”
“Not judging, Rum. You just have to work up to that level again. But this time, you’ll be able to use it more than once a day.”
“If it makes you feel better, I’m not much better with my wind powers. However, I plan to get better once the school year ends.”
Nuria starts to choke on a couple of nuggets until Tyra slaps her palm against the phoenix’s back. “You’re going to let your grandfather train you, after all?”
“I wouldn’t go that far. I’m going to use the library as a guide and try and learn to use my powers on my own. I practiced my swordsmanship on my own, so I think this can’t be much more difficult than that was.”
“You trained yourself?’ Tyra asks him. “That’s impressive. Vanusi almost always need an instructor. I’ve yet to meet any Vanusi who could learn on their own. At least not without unforeseen side effects.”
“According to the doctor Professor Tameri made me talk to, there’s this thing called delayed Sudita, so perhaps there’s a condition for premature Sudita, also?” Rum theorizes.
“I’ve never heard that term, but it makes sense,” Tyra replies, then slows down eating with the others. She leans back on her hands and stares up at the night sky, the moon obscured by a herd of clouds. Her expression grows sullener, but her funk ceases before she gets too wrapped up in it when Nuria taps her shoulder.
“Follow me,” Nuria says as she stands. She backs away from the group and leaps backward off the ledge. Her body responds quickly by unfurling her phoenix wings. She beats them twice before using her flames to keep her suspended in the air. She beckons Tyra to join her with an inviting wave. She obliges swiftly, leaving the boys behind in a fit of confusion.
“I know it was you that saved Stark today,” Nuria says. “I’m not sure what you did, and I won’t ask out of respect, but both Stark and I are grateful that you lent a hand. I’m not sure if that’s what has you down all of a sudden, but I figured thanking you might lift your spirits anyway.”
Tyra slowly twists her lips into a grin. As clouds sail past, the moonlight makes her raven-colored hair shine brilliantly, and her wings seem to glow brighter, too. She looks up at the moon and says, “It’s not that, but thank you. I’m just glad nothing happened to endanger either of you before my assistance could pull through.”
“You wanna hear how close I was to telling the world I was a phoenix?” Nuria asks, her expression tempting Tyra to again oblige.
“I think I’ve had enough heart attacks today, thank you very much,” Tyra replies wanly.
Nuria contemplates the dour look on the angel’s face, but she comes up lacking in her mine for gold. She sighs, but then swiftly smiles afterward. “Fine, but we do still have one bit of unfinished business.”
“We weren’t close enough to actually touch earlier, but we can fix that now.”
Nuria turns her head to Tyra and extends her right arm, fist balled tight. Tyra turns to Nuria and touches her knuckles to Nuria’s. At that time, Nuria feels a surge of warmth flow into her, right alongside a deep-seated feeling of sadness. She doesn’t have the details behind the feeling somehow transferred to her from the angel, but she doesn’t need them. Her friend feels sad, and she wants to help.
“I have a really good idea, but my current status with Zathoyn and Marmagar might not be in the right standing for me to ask, but I think they’ll say yes to you.”
Tyra lifts an eyebrow curiously. “What do you have in mind?”