Nuria rummages through her drawers for the right outfit for the evening. She tosses all potential options onto her bed, settling for tops with no artwork or designs on them, and only three pairs of capris (two navy and one black), and a pair of white sneakers with bright orange stripes on the side.
After she finds all her solid-colored shirts, she eliminates all the ones that don’t match her shoes and capris, leaving only three navy shirts and five black ones. She makes her number of combinations much smaller by choosing to wear her black capris. She checks the room and after determining Syl’s changing in the bathroom as agreed upon, she slips out of her jeans swiftly.
She exchanges her shirts in and out until her one long-sleeved cold shoulder navy top with extra holes for her thumbs to slip through makes her feel less self-conscious not wearing a bra as it’s a thicker shirt than her others.
I can’t bet that my wings won’t spontaneously pop out later, and dancing with them out for an extended period would end up hurting. Plus, it’s getting darker, so hopefully will notice tonight. I actually may have to invest in thicker shirts, or wear layers. I don’t want to be ogled at every time I fly somewhere.
The final touch to her ensemble is an orange ribbon that she ties into her braid, but she has to undo and remake her braid in the process, making sure the ribbon weaves through seamlessly and knotting it firmly just before the tail end of her braid. Nuria tests her look by shaking her wildly in all directions and the ribbon stays in position.
“Excellent,” she says to herself.
“That’s what you’re wearing tonight?” Carnya asks from across the room. “I thought tonight was more of a dressy-dressy type of party?” Carnya’s white tulle dress stops just above her dark heels that match her netted top with roses worked into the design around her shoulders, neck, and chest.
“Oh, I don’t want to risk- never mind,” Nuria says, then when she sees the wheels turning in Carnya’s mind adds, “I like your dress. Where’d you get it?”
Carnya groans. “My mom didn’t want to buy me a new one, so she sent me her old prom dress. Not even sure why she still has it. I swear…”
Nuria feels bad she pressed, but is happier she derailed Carnya from pressing into her surprise for tonight. She almost goes back to inspect her own outfit when she gets distracted by Tyra’s. She’s ready for a dressy-dressy party.
Nuria is mesmerized by the butterflies on Tyra’s sash and sleeves when the angel does a little twirl. It reminds her of the fireflies she likes to catch at night back home. She smiles bittersweet to realize this time tomorrow that she’ll have the opportunity to do so again. She looks in the faces of her roommates and sees no concern on Carnya’s. Tyra, on the other hand, looks even more miserable, not even managing to smile. Though she isn’t frowning, either, Nuria reads it from her stiff and slow movements and stale expression. Only a single thought comes as she approaches Tyra.
“I’m gonna miss you,” she says while embracing her from behind. “Both of you.” She nods Carnya over to join the group hug.
“I’m gonna miss you guys, too,” Carnya says. “But who knows? I’ll keep my eyes on the skies in case either of you ever decide to drop by Conis. That’s my hometown, by the way.”
Disguise the truth.
Nuria says, “I’ll see what I can do.” She looks to Tyra and only sees a little life come back to her eyes.
“I don’t think I’ll have the chance to get away, but I’ll definitely miss you guys,” Tyra replies.
Maybe a change of subject will help.
“You guys excited for tonight? Dancing’s always fun!”
“Oh, yeah!” Carnya cheers. “I don’t step on Syl’s feet anymore, so we won’t look terribly awkward on the dance floor. What about you and the grandson?” Carnya asks with a delinquent smile, ignoring the dainty rapping at the room’s door.
Nuria shakes her head. “You’ll just have to wait and see.”
“Aww, c’mon…okay, you know what? I’ll let you keep that secret. Tyra, what you got planned tonight? Who’s your date?”
It comes in the way of a flush, but Tyra suddenly appears more alive and alert. She stutters at the start but manages to in saying, “I…I don’t have a date.”
“What? Then why dress like that? For yourself?”
“Is that a bad thing?” Tyra asks nervously.
“Well, no, but why no date? Did you not ask anyone? Did nobody ask you?”
“I turned down most of them because…well, the one I wanted to ask was never around. He suddenly just dropped off the face of the planet.”
“He who?” Carnya inquires.
“Yeah, now I’m curious,” Nuria says. She holds her sniggering down as Tyra’s pale skin flashes crimson across her cheeks.
“I mean, a dance is the least he deserves for saving me.”
“You mean the Ohaida boy with the attitude?”
“Ohaida boy with attitude?” Nuria’s inner lightbulb goes off. ‘Oh, you mean–”
“Aven, yes,” Tyra sort of shouts.
“Wait, is that why you always hung out with him this semester?” Nuria grins playfully. “Do you like him?”
“I…well…I guess so,” Tyra mumbles while twiddling her thumbs.
“There are no classes right now, so there are only two places he’s bound to be,” Nuria comments. “You ready to go get him?”
“But what if he already has a date?”
“Not today, Tyra. No room for doubts. Time to kick “what-ifs” in the ass!” Nuria boasts. “You’re the best-dressed girl here. Go and show Aven what he’s missing out on!”
Nuria stands still with her thumbs up in the air as Tyra absorbs her words, hoping she applies them. She hears someone knocking, but like Carnya she ignores it when Tyra pulls out her journal with a “D” made of duct tape on the cover. She flips to the second page and scribbles something down.
“What’d you just write down?” Carnya says.
Tyra snaps the journal shut and says, “Just a little something to remember from time to time.” She places the journal back under her pillow. “Shall we go?”
Someone knocks again, this time with some power behind them.
“I think so,” Carnya answers. “Syl’s losing his mind out there.”
Nuria starts to follow behind her roommates, but when she sees Carnya’s bags all packed and ready to go, she looks back at her own bed. She sees her still to be packed suitcases and frowns. She may have alleviated Tyra’s funk. But hers slams into her at full force. The phoenix crosses back to her bed and pulls her ruined shirt from between her mattress and comforter. To Nuria, the shirt represents her passion to discover all that she is and can be, her testament to committing to new chapters of her life and feeling as if she’s found a lot of what she’s missed the last five years of her life. Looking at this shirt reminds Nuria that she never knows what to expect and next, but to enjoy the journey for all it’s worth.
And this year has been more than worthwhile. I may be leaving tomorrow, but that’s a whole night of fun from now. Enjoy yourself, Nuria!
“Please tell me you’re not changing into that?” Carnya calls out from the doorway, Syl and Tyra also staring at the tattered shirt in disbelief.
Nuria puffs out air in denial, then puts the shirt back where it was. “No, just needed to hype myself up. Let’s go!” She races to them, no longer plagued by her anxiety over leaving, but made lighter by the prospect of seeing them again next year.
The second they arrive at the party, Carnya takes Syl and they get into the buffet line. Nuria follows Tyra around the student seating and once they determine neither of their dates (desired or otherwise) are present, they go to Professor Tameri for help.
“Nuria, where are you going?” Tameri asks when she turns a different way.
“Oh, I know where Shuri is. Just wanted to make sure Tyra had permission before I left. See yah back at the party, T!” Nuria cheers before racing away.
The phoenix’s target is a ninety-degree straight shot. She runs, skips, and leaps across the horizontal forty-five degrees. For the vertical half, she jumps straight up and creates two condensed jets in the spaces just beneath her feet to avoid melting her shoes- and rockets directly up. Instead of using her wings to slow her ascent, she consciously lowers the propulsive force of her jets to hover in place. As expected, she finds Shuri there waiting.
He whirls on her with crossed arms, dressed in a dark suit with a teal silk shirt and a pair of black sneakers with smooth soles. He’d look confident if those smooth sneakers weren’t restlessly tapping the floor.
Don’t tell me he’s in a mood, too.
“Nothing,” he says as she decides to land. He adds, “Just still uncomfortable to not have my swords in hand,” when she gives him a cross look.
“I mean, you’ll be gone all spring. You and Rum. I’m just getting ready to be alone again.”
Nuria dismisses the confusion on his face when she smiles. “I was in that same funk for second earlier myself. You know what helped me?” She watches him shake his head. “I realized I’ll be back in no time. And just in case you end up missing Rum and me too much, I have a great idea. Give me your phone.”
As soon as Shuri obliges, Nuria enters in both their numbers. “Just tell Rum to deal with it when you first text him. Better yet, tell him I said to deal with it.” She hands the phone back.
“He’s prickly about his phone. Doesn’t give it out easily. The jerk even made me work for it,” she states sourly.
“It took you a whole school year to give yours to me.”
“I- whatever! Just say “cheese”!”
Nuria blinds the young man with a flash from her phone’s camera. “There. Now I have a contact image, too. Oh, and you,” she gulps,” look handsome tonight.”
He shoves his hands in his pockets and looks down. “Thanks. And you look…pretty. I really like the ribbon in your hair.”
The two of them stand and idly shuffle back and forth for a few minutes. Once the boiling feeling in her gut dissipates, Nuria feels comfortable enough to look Shuri in the eyes and finds him raising his head at the same time.
I wonder if his gut boils, too?
“So, you ready to go have a fun time? It may be our last time this year, but it’s not our last time ever.” Nuria hops off the ledge and uses her jets to stay eye level with Shuri. “You coming?”
Shuri points at the space next to Nuria’s feet and two spherical bowls of dense air form. He steps into them and nods to Nuria after. She propels herself forward with an intense blast-off and Shuri uses the bowls to skate through the air behind her, not able to move as fast.
In no time, the duo reaches the party. Nuria slows her acceleration by flipping vertically and spraying a wild flare from her jets. She stares down at a stunned silent audience below. She sucks in a deep breath then shouts, “That’s right! We’re gonna dance here in the sky! Get on our level!” She turns to the DJ. “Turn the music back on! We’re here to dance!”
Soon as the DJ complies, all the students cheer and a few that weren’t dancing get up to do just that.
“All right, let’s show ‘em how to really dance!” Nuria boasts.
Shuri grins broadly. “But, of course.”
Nuria slides into his grasp and rhythm as he leads her this way and that. They keep to the upbeat tempo flawlessly as they keep their feet parallel to each other’s. However, they have to repeat the same steps during the more freestyle sections of the dance. That is until Shuri decides to surprise her with a twirl. She barely keeps her jets in place when the sudden free-falling sensation triggers her wings, but when he twirls her back into his grasp, she smiles breathlessly.
“I figured you’d like that,” he says.
“And what if I feel because of your little surprise?” She urges him to resume the dancing.
“You beat up an alligator. I knew you could handle it.”
“Oh, you believe me now, huh.”
“I didn’t know you were a phoenix back then. By the way, did you know that–” he stops short when he spies the sole non-vermillion feather behind Nuria’s arm resting on his shoulder. “You have a bronze feather? Why just one? Is that a phoenix thing?”
Nuria jerks suddenly and disengages Shuri to examine her plumage, quickly confirming his observation. Her sweating is no longer just a result of the dancing and use of her powers, but the visions from her nightmares rushing to the front of her mind. The one to plague her most heinously is the one of her locked in a cage.
She remembers that every bronze feather is a get out of death free card. She was happy to learn she didn’t have one, afraid of what it would mean for her future.
But back then, I didn’t have as many possibilities for my future. This year, the whole time I’ve had this feather, I’ve learned to fly, play Star Derby, and met amazing people. Maybe having a guaranteed way to extend this life isn’t all a curse.
“To be honest, I have no clue. Zero knowledge of phoenix anatomy over here,” Nuria says with a smile. “And tonight, that’s okay.” She urges him to lead once more.
I’ll explore more next year.
Rum and Pan defeat another couple on the dance floor when Pan slides between Rum’s legs and allows him to lift her into a pose where he holds her hips and she wraps an arm around his neck.
“You’ve been served, suckers!” Pan boasts when the disgruntled couple leaves the dance-ff circle. “How many wins does that make, Rummy?”
“That makes six. One for every day of the week,” he says, his labored breathing breaking the sentence every two words.
“And you say your mom taught you?”
“Not bad for home-schooled, huh?”
She rolls her eyes as she smirks. “Not bad for home-schooled.” She turns to him fully, wiping the sweat from her brow. “So, think we beat all the couples we need to?”
Rum’s forced to shield his eyes from an auburn flare before he can answer. He sees Nuria and Shuri using their Sulublei powers to fly above the dance floor.
“That’s right! We’re gonna dance here in the sky! Get on our level! Turn the music back on! We’re here to dance!” his sister shouts, and Rum only then realizes that everyone was surprised and amazed by Nuria’s flashy entrance. He also witnesses her outcry motivates their victims to go off and dance elsewhere, and even gets more couples on the dance floor. He recalls how even her exercising was enough to amp up a crowd before, and has a small epiphany.
It seems Nuria truly belongs here. She not only flourishes around others, but can get them to act with actions or words. I think Professor Tameri was wrong. I’m not the example for Nuria. She’s the one for me. And I think it’s time for me to be a little bolder, too.
Rum’s thoughts cease when Pan taps his shoulder, then averts his attention by pointing to the sky. “Do they count as a couple?” she inquires about Nuria and Shuri as they commence their sky dancing.
“Uh…I doubt it,” he replies, not sure how to upstage that. “So, we still win the couple’s dance-off. He faces Pan with a more confident expression. “Right?” He lengthy silence has him on the verge of cracking his newfound countenance as he feels a cough coming from holding his breath so long.
“Challenge accepted?” she asks him softly.
Now, Rum’s smile is as full of excitement as he can muster. “Challenge accepted!” he declares.
“Then close your eyes.”
Even though he does as asked, the moment her lips brush his, he’s acutely aware of their extreme proximity to one another. He feels his heartbeat against his chest like a bass drum. In an effort to lock down this feeling, he closes the gap between their lips after she pulls away. They pull away together the second time and look into the other’s eyes.
“No forfeiting?” she asks.
“Never have, never will,” Rum replies.
The airborne dancers orbit right around each other in tight circles, matching the ever decelerating bpm of the music. The fierier of the two avoids her boiling gut by resting her head on her partner’s shoulder, too nervous to look him in the eyes again. Besides, she enjoys their current pace, the distribution of warm and cool air coming off her jets and his bowls, and not even her wings refusing to go back inside her bugs her anymore.
“Hey, can I ask you something?”
Nuria scowls before lifting her head, displeased to leave her improvised pillow. “What can I do for you?” she asks sweetly.
“Can I touch your wings?”
Nuria stares at him blankly. “What?”
“I’ve never touched feathers before, even on normal birds. I want to know what they feel like, that’s all.”
To be fair, I don’t think I’ve touched them all that much myself.
She shrugs. “Okay.” She uses the finger strategy Tyra taught her, imagining her body as a palm and closes her fingers together to bring her wings around in front of her. “Just don’t pull any feathers.”
“I’ll be careful.”
To Nuria’s surprise, his touch is very gentle, especially when she considers how firm his grip is when they dance. As he runs his fingers along a row of feathers, Nuria gives attention to the other wing. She traces her finger along the coverts and feels just like she would if she were running a hand through her hair.
I wonder if I should wash them like hair. She takes a whiff. That’s a yes. I should ask Tyra how to do that. Wait, where is Tyra?
“Excuse me a second, Shuri.” Nuria floats past him and searches the dance floor for Tyra. That goes fast since most couples have left, but it doesn’t impact her search of the students’ tables. She spies the angel at one of the rear tables with her other classmates, and she looks less than happy.
“Hey,” she faces Shuri, “I’m feeling pretty hungry. You?”
He smiles and Nuria gets the sense he intuited her thoughts. “I’ll grab our plates and find you,” he says as they jointly descend to the dance floor. Once they touch down, the remaining dancers- including Rum and Pan- give them a round of applause. Shuri looks abruptly bashful, but Nuria bows before them a couple of times.
“Just don’t make it a balanced meal, or else I’ll eat you,” she whispers the threat with a saccharine smile.
Nuria races through the student section, accepting high-fives from her peers, including her classmates Syl and Carnya. She holds her hand up for Tyra, even waving it in her face. The angel’s expression remains empty the whole time.
“We haven’t gotten her to respond to us, either,” Carnya says, then rips half the meat off her drumstick in one bite.
“I think that Ohaida guy turned her down,” Syl says.
Nuria takes a seat and inches her chair closer to her despondent friend. “T, you still in there?” She watches her face for any sign of movement and all she gets after minutes is a swift peripheral gaze to her right. Nuria turns and sees a wall clock ticking closer to midnight.
So, it’s not just the date thing bugging her. Good, I’d feel bad since I was the one who urged her to ask him. Wait, no, that’s not good. She’s sad again. How do I cheer her up this time, though?
“Hey, T, I have–”
“Here you go,” Shuri says, laying down a plate with a chocolate cheesecake, peppered and dice steak, garlic mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, and a minuscule serving of steamed carrots.
“That was fast.”
“My grandfather had a couple of plates already set aside for us. I took most of your carrots, so you should be as unhealthy as you want,” Shuri teases.
“Then just take the rest of my carrots. And my cheesecake, too. I prefer caramel to chocolate.”
“Dibs!” Carnya shouts, then swipes the cheesecake from the plate.
Shuri only half watches Carnya shove the cheesecake into her mouth before noticing Tyra. “What’s with her?”
“I actually need you to do me a quick favor.” Nuria rises and whispers in his ear. “Can you do that?”
“Shouldn’t we eat first?”
Nuria lifts and extends her plate. “Tell your grandfather to hold onto them just a little longer.” She faces her other classmates once Shuri leaves. “You two up for one more dance?”
“I guess, for a slow song,” Syl says.
“I’m in!” Carnya shouts, then belches, rejuvenated after the cheesecake.
“Good. T and I will meet you out there in a second.”
“Sounds good. Let’s go, Syl!” Carnya morphs one of her arms into a tentacle and wraps it around both of Syl’s wrists to drag him along fiercely. Her cobalt rings seem to blink along with the music’s rhythm.
Nuria feels for him to be at Carnya’s mercy, but diverts her attention to the greater obstacle. “So, are you going back on our deal, Tyra? I thought we could talk to each other about our home life.”
Tyra sharply gazes at Nuria, unable to mask her frustration. “On a trial period. And it expires tomorrow, anyway.”
Nuria focuses more of a probative mindset on the issue. She knows Tyra’s never been able to discuss her home too much or that she even likes it from how withdrawn she grows whenever the subject comes up.
“You don’t think you’ll be allowed back here, do you?” Nuria asks, mortified by even the possibility of that.
“I know I won’t. My mother wouldn’t have approved in the first place, and after all that business with the trial, she’ll keep a tighter leash on me. Why are you smiling?”
“Because I know you’ll just do what you want again. You came here to be free and independent. I came here to learn about my golden fire.” Which I realize I still haven’t done. “I’ve tasted what life here affords me and no one is gonna keep me away. Or you. And if you ever need backup, just remember the gift you’ll have in the morning.”
“Gift?” Tyra says, her lips finally off her eternal scowl.
“You ladies ready?” Shuri asks as he approaches, his camera dangling around his neck.
“Ready for what?”
“What else?” Nuria says. “Time for a photoshoot! Let’s go!” Nuria disregards Tyra’s weak protest as the angel allows herself to be dragged back to the dance floor.
Once there, Nuria and Shuri take turns to snap commemorative photos, first of all the dates (Carnya and Syl, Rum and Pan, and of course, of themselves), then of the classmates together (minus Roy who retired earlier with students from a different class), and lastly of any combination of people that want photos together (such as Nuria and Rum standing back-to-back, Rum and Shuri and Nuria with Nuria in the middle, Nuria and Tyra bumping fists).
The party comes to a close shortly after the photoshoot. Neth dismisses the crowd with a brief speech and wishes them all safe travels home. As the professors escort their respective classes, Nuria and Shuri, of course, opt to do their own thing.
Nuria follows Shuri to the library, using a bit of force to break inside. They upload images to a school computer and print out as many copies of every photo as there are people in them, Nuria keeping track of the numbers with her phone. Once they finish, they hug and part ways for the night.
Nuria tiptoes her way into the dorm room, thankful the dancing tuckered out her classmates so. She slides photos into Syl’s and Carnya’s suitcases and bags quietly. Before she places a stack for Tyra inside her suitcase, she turns over the photo of them bumping fists and scribbles softly. She deposits the photos, keeping hold of one last set for her. A smile forms as she stares at her soundly slumbering friend.
She finally graces her bed with her presence and as soon as her head hits the pillow, she blacks out. She dreams of a field of flowers, similar to a vision she saw when trying to learn what her creature form was, but this time she can fly with more control. Unlike last time, the closer she gets to the ground, the fuzzier the image becomes. She slams headfirst onto the floor just as she sees a blurry shadow standing in the field. She growls as she awakens against the dorm room floor, immediately thankful she’s alone in the room.
She pries herself onto her feet by grasping the edge of her bedside drawer. She wipes her eyes and the drool off her mouth when she sees her phone awake with a message alert. She opens it up and sees a message from an unentered number. She opens it up to see a selfie from Tyra, still in her Founder’s Day dress from the other night. Below, a second message reads:
Looking forward to next year, Nuria!
Nuria smirks and saves the number, using the selfie as Tyra’s contact image. Looking forward to next year, Tyra!