A dark skirt hangs in an arched doorway, the hook of the hanger balanced on top of the frame. The skirt itself is pristine and wrinkle-free. Soon to be in similar condition to the skirt and adjacent suit jacket is a matching dark button-down blouse that Stark runs an iron over with meticulous attention, leaving not a single wrinkle, even under the armpits and hem she tucks in as she dresses in the all-black ensemble, completing it with a dark tie and pair of black boots.
She straightens her hair and pulls it back into one long ponytail that brushes her shoulder blades when it swishes between her long-legged strides. She pauses at the base of her hardwood porch and narrows her eyes. The once white picket fence is tagged with several juvenile and hate messages, like “U suck!”, “Leave our neighborhood!”, and “Drown yourself!” The geese gathered at the bank of the lake just across the street from her would likely take her down before she could even get one foot in the water. She exits through the fence and spares no glance to the front of the fence, aware she’ll only see more of the same. Stark has no time to address the empty grievances of strangers; she has a greater rancor to come to terms with.
Her walk to JJ Memorial Cemetery is relatively short. Citizens that pass her in the street either point and whisper, mutter obscenities, or go out of their way to steer clear of her as if she had an infectious disease. Stark continues on, unblinking in the face of it all. However, the moment she crosses onto the cemetery grounds she stumbles as if she was just sucker-punched. Unlike with the tags on her fence, this is much harder to bypass.
Stark looks into the far end of the cemetery and it seems to stretch farther and farther away until she feels her target is as far away as the moon. In the six years since she’s been here, she’s been running and she feels just how far that distance equates to now. To even breach the distance before her, she has to first breathe. Her lungs fail her as she just stands in the entrance. Sweat drops down her brow and the moment it reaches her eyelashes, she instinctively crouches as she wipes it away hastily. She looks all around for her mother, exhaling when she doesn’t see her anywhere, though the encroaching dark clouds have her feeling uneasy.
I’m still scared.
Stark rises and slows her suddenly hastened breathing. She looks forward and the cemetery appears normal again.
But I can’t afford to let that stop me anymore.
Stark squares her shoulders, steels her gaze and attitude, then marches through the maze of headstones. After the first few turns, Stark finds that her body hasn’t forgotten where her father’s grave lies. The headstone where Stark finally stops is an engraved black granite rectangle set into the ground with a cinderblock border. The engraving says:
Dia 23rd, 1938 – Lytha 10th, 1978
“Hi, daddy,” Stark says, staring down at the granite sign with closed eyes, too afraid that once she looks at his name, her tears will flow and she won’t be able to say what she has to say. “I hope you haven’t missed me too much.”
I miss you more and more every day.
“I’m going to c…cut to the chase. I told Crata that I wouldn’t come back here unless I had something new to say to you. In truth, that was an excuse. I convinced myself that “anything new” meant things related to my mother. I knew better. I never wanted anything new about her. Unlike you, I always feared her; what she ultimately became.”
Why didn’t you fear her?
“When I was allowed to become a cop, I did all I could to stay busy, nabbing criminals that I never had time to investigate her. And Crata’s no fool, he knew what I was after, so he recommended me for a job that had no connection to my mother. I was a mess of feelings over the change. I loved locking up criminals, but I was all too happy to be rid of the responsibility of tracking down Mo- Liamria.”
I was such a coward for letting your murderer go free. I couldn’t face you after that.
Stark blinks her eyes open when she hears plopping, thinking the rain has come for her. She inhales sharply when she discovers no precipitation. Despite having shut her eyes, her tears broke through. The droplets surround the engraving of Jerry’s name, some pooling together over the r’s. She sinks to her knees, sobbing and wailing as she scrubs the waterfall of tears futilely.
“I’m sorry, dad…I should’ve stopped her when I had the chance! I,” she pauses as she croaks, “I had the resources, I-I had…I had my badge. I had Crata! But I…I still didn’t have what I needed to fight her! I needed you, daddy! I still need you!”
Stark digs her nails into the ground and locks it between clenched fists as she hollers into the face of the headstone, her screech making the puddles of her tears ripple. She hollers and hollers long as her lungs can go, hoping her pain and sorrow and guilt reaches her father.
“I’m sorry!” she shouts. “I’ll do better! I’ll stop her next time! I’ll avenge you! I’ll do whatever you want me to do! Just give me a sign! Anything! I’m begging you!”
Stark lifts her head to the sky. Her heart races when she sees the herd of dark clouds from before sail directly above her. She dreads the inevitable rain, though a gap in the herd allows sunlight to peek through and shine brilliantly over Stark and her father. When the rain descends, both she and the headstone remain dry. The officer looks all around in disbelief as the clouds lay a deluge on most of the cemetery; it stops before the clouds reach where she’s knelt.
Stark slowly lowers her gaze toward the headstone, her frown becoming a full smile as her bright blue eyes both reflect her father’s name. She doesn’t know how much or much less why, but she believes her father is still on her side, her protector.
“I don’t know for sure if you can hear me, but just in case you can, then I have lots to tell you. And not just about Liamria, either. In the six years I’ve been gone, I’ve had the pleasure to be the guardian of a great number of gifted children. Oh, daddy, you’d have loved to teach at FHA if you were capable. The kids are so smart and lively and fun.”
Stark takes a quick peek at the sun as she dries her face completely dry. “And how I wish you could meet Nuria, Daddy. She’s every bit as rambunctious and daring as Dumi was, and then some. The girl fears nothing.” From there, Stark launches into a fully detailed report of every moment she and the phoenix have shared. While she hides no details in the hopes her father gets a complete picture, she’s careful to never openly call Nuria a phoenix, using phrases like “most fiery bird”. Her tales span hours, but they are uninterrupted by the infrequent deluges to the point where Stark stops keeping her eyes on the sky.
“–and my new goal is to make sure there’s no repeat Dumi-type incident. I succeeded this last time only because I had help. I’ve got to get stronger for the next time. And you know Liamria, Daddy, there’s always a next time,” Stark says grimly.
Her phone buzzes and she reluctantly takes it from inside her jacket pocket, worried it means her time with her father is over. The message from Crata says:
Headmaster Neth has reached out and he’s on his way now. He wants to know where to meet.
Stark’s response is swift.
My place, sir.
The boys all look at the paper in Tameri’s hand with no modicum of abject horror, all except for Aven, who looks as disinterested as one can manage. She expected as much, but is puzzled when Aurum rubs his head as if stumped by a solution.
The piece of paper in her hands is a poster of the school’s own original holiday they celebrate every year on Crema 4th called Founder’s Day. It’s an all-day event thrown in honor of FHA’s Founding Four. This year, the event has been cut down since the Star Derby arena is still in disrepair. So, the evening portion of a courtyard banquet and dance is the main attraction. The top of the poster says “Happy Founder’s Day!” with a stencil drawing of a couple dancing together. Details of the time and menu rest below the dancers, but Tameri can tell the boys are stuck on the artwork.
“Surely you young men aren’t afraid to dance, are you?” she asks.
“No…,” Roy says unconvincingly.
“That’s not my particular issue,” Shuri mumbles.
“I’ve only really done so with Nuria,” Rum says.
“You dance with your sister?” Roy asks.
“I learned to dance with my sister. Our mom made us, saying that dancing is too great a form of self-expression to forego.”
“Then why are you nervous?” Tameri directs to Aurum.
“Because I…,” he mumbles the rest.
“I’m sorry? Can you repeat that a little louder?” Roy says with a wide grin.
“What did he say?”
“Because I…don’t know who to ask,” he spits out in a rush.
Tameri shows him a soothing grin in place of chuckling at his innocence, which she does inside. “A word of advice, Aurum, to all of you, really- don’t wait too long to ask a girl to the dance. You could lose your chance to someone else.”
Aurum, Roy, and Shuri all just freeze and look at one another, all too nervous to move. Aven groans and goes back to his bed.
Boys…what can you do? Tameri thinks when there’s a knock at the door. She receives a text from Zathony as she crosses to the door. She smiles after reading it. “Come on in, dear,” she greets the guest.
“Thanks,” Nuria says. She grins and races straight to Shuri the moment she spots him. “Good, I caught you early.”
“Caught me early for what?” he asks nervously.
“Duh, I just saw the poster, too. I’m here to ask you to the dance!” Nuria shivers when he doesn’t respond right away. “Don’t tell me someone beat me to the punch. I ran here as soon as Professor Zathony told my class about Founder’s Day.”
“Uh…no, you’re the first,” he says uneasily.
“Then what are you waiting for?” Nuria gives him an impatient look.
“I…I don’t know how to dance.”
“That won’t be an issue, Shuri,” the professor says. “Professor Marmagar and I will be running dance classes twice a week all month long. If anyone else has reservations of that nature, just come to the classes. You’ll find the schedules on the school website and on bulletin boards inside the library.”
“Oh, okay,” Shuri says with relief.
“Too bad you won’t make them,” Nuria states. “I’ll show you how to dance. Let’s go!” Nuria grabs his wrist and drags him along behind her.
“Where are we going?” he asks.
“Where do you think?” she fires back.
Professor Tameri covers her chuckle with a raised hand. “And just like that, two dance partners have been taken. Best hurry, gentlemen.” The professor turns her head. “And that includes you, too, Aven.”
“No, thanks,” he spits venomously.
“Suit yourself, but you’ll be the only one left out. Aurum, Roy, best of luck to you.”
Tameri swiftly exits the room and starts to descend the spiraling staircase, but stops so she has just enough room to linger unseen. She watches Aurum cross the hall, his rigid posture making his strides jerky, including his knocking which comes off soft. His second attempt manages to beckon Pan from her improvised workout, her lime tank top sweat-stained and earphones hanging around her neck. Even out of breath as she is, the young lady smiles the instance she sees Aurum. At the same time, Aurum’s posture relaxes.
Tameri grins broadly. Would you look at that? I wonder if they’re even aware of what they’re feeling.
The professor lingers just a little longer as Aurum fumbles around trying to ask Pan to the dance. She commits to her descent once she hears Pan say, “Of course, Rummy.”
Wow, what a…nickname.
The warm colors dancing in the lake’s wind-driven ripples have the geese hypnotized. They swim to the center of the lake where the waves are strongest, chasing around the refracted sunset glow tirelessly. One goose remains standing at the bank, watching the rest of his flock swim around aimlessly.
Stark stands in her front yard with her a similar stolid posture. Even unshielded from the light breeze passing by at the base of her hardwood porch, her ponytail is unaffected and hangs eerily still. Warden Crata and Syerus stand on the wooden steps behind her.
The latter checks his watch and says, “Is he still coming?” It’s almost dinner time.”
“You have somewhere better to be?” Stark replies without turning around.
“No, but I’m just saying we should eat during this meeting.”
“I have snacks inside you’re welcome to, but you’ll be the only one shewing so long as Headmaster Neth is here.”
“So…is that a ye–”
“No, Syerus,” she snaps. “I’ll buy you dinner afterward,” she barks, silencing his complaints. She takes a breath and goes back to observing the geese. The goose on the bank ambles out into the lake and his flock gathers around immediately, then follows him toward the edge of the horizon. Her observance is broken when the warden steps up on her right.
“And what’s your reservation for tonight, sir?” she asks.
He smiles in spite of her attitude. “Glad to see you’re back to normal, that’s all.”
“I’m not back to normal. I’m furious.”
“Given how you’re dressed, I wouldn’t imagine you to be any other way.”
“Are you sure you can handle your role should Neth accept our terms?”
“I’ve tangled with powered criminals before you even hit Sudita, Stark. Hell, I trained you to use your powers in the first place, if you recall.”
“Feelers won’t cut it this time, sir. I’m going to need–” Stark pauses when her ponytail sways in a sudden and stronger breeze than what’s been passing by. She whirls in an instant and sees Headmaster Neth standing at the top of her porch. He stands with both hands on top of his wooden cane, dressed in a dark grey suit and shoes with a maroon shirt. The look he gives Stark displays both wariness and sympathy, though the latter only after he notices her fence. “Good evening, sir.”
Syerus flinches when he notices Neth behind him. “Wait, when did you get here?”
“Just now, young man.” Neth turns from him to Stark and says, “I presumed it would just be the three of us, Stark.”
“His name is Syerus, and he’s an official part of the proposal I have prepared for you, sir.” Stark watches quietly as Neth sizes Syerus up. He looks uncertain when he’s done, but nods to Stark regardless. The officer marches up the steps and says to Neth as she passes him, “Then let’s get started.”