3.7: Children

Nuria slams her suitcases shut with an axe kick, locking the latches while on the floor in a splits position. She slaps the floor with her palms and jumps back onto her feet. She pulls out the handle after tossing her bookbag on. She takes a breath and looks around the empty room. Her peers have all already went ahead to the train shuttles, but Nuria chose the final one purposefully, much to Rum’s umbrage.

     She makes her way to the door and stops when it opens from the outside. Professors Zathony and Marmagar step inside and are instantly perplexed.

     “Perhaps you should dress more appropriately,” Zathony says while pointing at her shirt. “You’ll be in the public’s eye soon.”

     Nuria looks down at her shirt and grins. “Nah. I wore it my first day here, so I’ll wear it on my last, too.”

     Professor Marmagar chuckles heartily, then he gives Nuria a thumbs up followed by arching his hands outward in a semi-circle.

     “Thanks. You have a good spring, too.”

     She passes by Zathony but stops in the doorway when he says, “When you return, Nuria, do not expect the same leniency from either of us. You will stick to our curriculum, and should any extra activities impair your ability to keep up, your grades will reflect that. And Stark won’t be able to save you next time.”

     Nuria turns her head back to him, the challenge in her eyes clashing with his. “I’ll be better equipped next year. I plan to end my catch up this spring. I’ll be a whole new phoenix next summer, just wait and see!”

     Nuria nods a farewell to them and leaves without another word, spurred into action now. She plans to use her now wide-open time to get her flying perfected. Also, on her agenda is to consciously summon her golden flames. Nuria grins broadly as she leaves behind the eerie red, black and dark wood interior of the Vanusi dorm behind, feeling she’s done a lot in just one school year, with homework and assassins to contend with. She shields her eyes from the blindingly clear sunny day, but they lose an incandescent glow under the shadow of her hand.

     “I thought you might need these,” Rum says, offering her a pair of sunglasses similar to the pair on his face. “Although, I guess I should’ve bought you the aviators instead.”

     “Nah,” she says, accepting the glasses and throwing them on immediately. “My eyes are at their strongest in the sky anyway.”

     “Really?” Rum asks as he starts to move away from the dorm, forcing Nuria to walk at his brisk pace, their suitcase wheels scratching against the ground. Nuria quietly laughs at him, recognizing how badly he wants to get home. Then again, she’s feeling it, too.

     “Yeah, Professor Marmagar mentioned it was a Primal Sense thing.”

     “Primal Sense?”

     “Yeah, I don’t really know what it is. He said it was a future lesson plan, so I decided not to cut into my flight training by looking it up.”

     “How like and unlike you,” Rum says.

     “Here’s hoping I get all I need from my wings this spring, and then- wait!” Nuria pulls her bookbag around and removes her swamp-stained journal. She skips to the first mostly clear page and scribbles down a few lines furiously.

     “Haven’t seen that journal in a long time,” Rum comments. “How’s the song going? Or did flight training overtake that, too?”

     “It took over everything.” Nuria snaps the journal shut before placing it inside her bookbag again.

     Rum whistles, both impressed and surprised. “I wish I had that passion.”

     “Talking about your lightning?” she asks.

     “Yeah.” He lowers his sword case and raises his hand to generate a modicum of blue electricity, the weak currents dancing between his fingers. “This is all I can manage, but at least I can do this upwards of once a day.”

     “Have you learned the max times a day yet?”

     “If I keep the current running for only three seconds, then I’m up to five times daily.” He lifts his case and gets him and his sister back on track.

     “That means you could run one long fifteen-second current,” Nuria says.

     “Doesn’t sound terribly efficient.”

     “It is at the beginning, which you’re back at,” she says with a laugh. “I’m currently a better Sulublei than you, so pay attention.”

     “You’re gonna rub this in forever, aren’t you?”


     Rum groans. “Why is it more efficient?”

     “When I was first learning to use my fire, I always pushed the limits. One day, my body reached a natural plateau where it wasn’t stressful to even do something like this.” She holds up all her fingers and ignites their tips like lighters. “Once you hit that plateau, with even a little effort, you can do something like this.” The flames on her fingertips extend into the air some three feet above Nuria’s head. She lets the ten streams of flame burn for a solid minute. “I think Shuri’s gonna hit his plateau this spring. Oh, and speak of the devil. Hey!”

     Nuria races away from Rum, who’s lost deep in thought, and stops just before Shuri, the final obstacle between her and the jeep shuttle to the train station. However, she’s pleasantly surprised to see he doesn’t have his swords with him. “You didn’t have to see us off, you know. School’s over. Sleep in a little.”

     “I’ll do that tomorrow. It’ll be easier when you and Rum aren’t around,” he says.

     “Now, that begs the question- what are you gonna do here all by yourself?”

     “I won’t be alone, I think. One of Professor Cwen’s students is also staying here over the break. I’ll see if they want to hang out.”

     Nuria cracks a smile. “Good. I’d hate to have to worry about you.”

     “Should I be worried about you?”

     “Nope, that’s his job.” She nods at Rum as he finally joins them.

     “And she’s gonna be a handful.”

     A sharp rapping against the jeep’s window gets all their attention.

     “Well, it’s time to go. Take it easy, buddy.”

     “See you next year, Shuri.”

     The siblings give him farewell hugs, dump their suitcases in the trunk, then hop inside the jeep. Nuria steals the front seat and sits with her legs crossed in the seat with the rest of her body. “Can you turn it to 82.2, please?”

     “Good morning to you, too, Nuria,” Stark replies before obliging the phoenix.


     His hope when he first learned of the delayed Sudita was that his issues with transportation would be gone. His current retching in the train restroom proves to him that his affliction wasn’t caused by his lightning powers, but somehow worsened it. When he rises and wipes his mouth with tissue, he feels his stomach’s emptiness came easier than before.

     Or could it be the more I master my powers, the less this stomach thing will be an issue?

     He cleans himself up before joining Nuria back out in the Ibri car. The children of families he passes point and laugh at him, and even a couple of the parents, too. He knows he can be loud when he vomits, but he hoped for better insulation from the restroom walls.

     “So, this plateau? How long did it take you to reach it?” He asks her as he takes the seat to her right.

     Nuria places a thumb to her chin. “I’d say somewhere between eight and twelve months. It was right around when I started the instrument melting. By accident.”

     “I know it was an accident. But hey, we’ve both destroyed school equipment with our powers now.”

     “Welcome to the club,” Nuria says warmly. “Does this mean you’re willing to practice your powers?”

     “I think I should’ve been doing so all along. The minute you saw those golden flames, you didn’t let anything stop you from learning the secret behind them. I’m following your example.”

     “Even if Mom tells you not to?”

     “If she told you not to fly around the desert, would you listen to her?”

     “Only when she’s home.”

     “Then that’s how I’ll play this.” He does the current finger dance again. “I wanna see how far I can take this.”

     “I don’t have any knowledge of electricity, but it’s a Sulublei power, so I’ll offer any assistance I can. After all, it’s back to just the two of us as classmates.”

     “Too bad you’re not also Ohaida,” Rum states. “I’d be able to return the favor.”

     “I’ll just save that IOU for something later.”

     “Probably to get me to take the blame for breaking one of Mom’s rules.” Rum adds a brief pause, tired of dancing around the subject and just says, “Speaking of Mom, maybe we should resume the little chat we were having some months back.”

     Nuria doesn’t look ready to talk at first, but her face lights up after a long moment. “I have a theory, and I think it’s just best to get it out there. I believe that maybe we’re orphans from some sort of battle.”

     Rum blinks, shakes his head, then blinks twice more. Not where I expected this talk to go, but okay…

     “And why’s that?”

     “During Stark’s trial, everyone kept mentioning the risks behind my testimony.” She stops talking momentarily to check their surroundings. Nobody appears to be listening, and the two seats across from them are empty. “They kept referencing the army. I think Mom found us on some battlefield and took us home with her to escape some weird trauma she experienced.”

     “Then why would she let you testify and expose yourself like that?” Plus, I don’t want to think about what our parents would be like in that scenario, especially if they didn’t die in that battle.

     “I…oh. Yeah, okay, that wouldn’t work. Never mind.”

     “Anyway, I was thinking we should take about the other half of that conversation.”

     “You mean our…parents?” she whispers the last word.

     “Yes, them.”

     “Oh,” Nuria says, then looks away guiltily.

     “What is it?”

     “I…I only have one question on that front. And only Mom can answer it.”

     “Just one?” He asks curiously.

     “Just one.”

     He wants desperately to know what it is she’s keeping to herself now. He likes to let her come to him, but sometimes he wants to press. Not to be nosy, but to understand her a little more. Since they started attending FHA, he feels like she’s gotten a bit more distant. He hopes this spring will correct their relationship.

     “You’re not curious, at the very least. I mean, surely it’d be a pretty good story to know at least how Auriel knows our parents.”

     “If she knew them. I don’t know why, but the orphan theory makes some sense to me. Some, anyway.”

     Rum narrows his eyes when Nuria turns and looks out the window, all but telling him she’s done with the conversation. He huffs as he looks down at his feet with crossed arms. He realizes that both are trying to push their own theory on the other, not willing to give an inch; an impossible impasse. His brood is broken when a pair of conjoined blocks, one blue and one white, land at his feet. He lifts the blocks and looks around.

     He returns the blocks to a family of three. The mother and father thank him before proffering the block back to their infant son. Rum imagines himself as that infant on the way back to his seat, imagining a set of parents holding him together. When he sits and still sees Nuria staring at the passing skyline, he frowns.

     How could she not want to know? We could find them. See them, feel them, perhaps love them. We could be a normal family. A happy one.


     Rum’s spirits have yet to recover, even as he and Nuria disembark the train, arriving at the Sakela Train Station a half-hour ahead of schedule. He puts his shades back on to mask the look in his eyes. This past year has taught him that he’s easy to read through his eyes and he doesn’t want his mother to see his disappointment. He pretends otherwise that he’s okay, smiling and conversing with Nuria as they traverse the concourse, his little sister’s energy climbing as they get closer and closer to the exit.

     She really doesn’t care, does she, he thinks as he watches her almost break her shades from bouncing from foot to foot. She resumes bouncing after tucking the shades into her shirt collar.

     “Do you think she has a feast waiting for us back home?” Nuria asks. “A great big welcome home dinner would hit the spot!”

     “No Piranha BBQ?”

     “Nah. Not for our first meal back. Maybe we can con her into taking us next week.”

     Rum holds the exit door open for her. “Not sure I’m ready to con her yet.”

     “So, you’re a chicken? And I thought you got brave after giving Pan your number!” Nuria boasts as she steps through the door backward, mocking him with her gaze.

     “Who’s Pan?” asks the tall woman in a ruby blouse and blue jeans right behind Nuria.

     The phoenix whirls around and her instant smile is blinding. She leaps and embraces the seven-foot woman, nearly Able to touch her knuckles across her spine. “Oh, man! I missed you, Mom! I’ve got so much to tell you! And Pan’s…well, I’ll let Rum tell you!”

     When Nuria hesitates to release their mother, the woman herself gently pries Nuria off and rests her hands on her shoulders. Rum expected a scolding here, at least for Nuria taking off for school the way she did. Instead, she just stares into Nuria’s eyes for a few seconds, something he’s afraid to have her do to him. After what feels like an eternity, their mother’s intense expression softens.

     “Oh, I missed you, too, Nuria!” She sweeps the young lady up in her arms and spins her around. “The house was so quiet without your singing! I was all alone and it was dreadful!” She stops spinning and faces Rum. While she holds Nuria up with one hand, she holds out the other. “And of course, I missed my little swordsman, too!”

     Like a balloon struck by a bobby pin, his fears burst. He drops his bag and sword case and leaps into Auriel’s free arm with tears flying from behind his glasses. He cries out of guilt that he ever thought he didn’t have a normal family. He saw Nuria and Auriel standing there waiting, a clear gap where he now fits. He smiles as he realizes Nuria was already aware of that.

     But then what’s this question she wants to ask?

     Auriel slowly lowers them, letting them go with unwilling hands. “I’ll be ready to hear every story the moment we get home. We just have to stop and get groceries on the way.”

     “Wait, we’re gonna have a big dinner? I called it!” Nuria gloats, then dumps her bag in the jeep’s trunk.

     “Oh, yeah! And we’re gonna cook it together so it gets done faster!” Auriel says. “You can grab anything you think you can cook. I’m calling cap at $300. Deal?”

     “Deal!” both children reply.

     With his head back on straight, Rum takes the shades off and allows himself to enjoy the ride and the shopping. He laughs when Auriel proves impatient and starts asking about their year early than she said, asking them to state three things apiece they truly loved about their year away from home.

     “Star Derby is really fun.”

     “I won a couple’s dance-off.”

     “Ooh! I danced in the sky!”

     “I helped forge a sword.”

     “I’m a phoenix,” Nuria whispers.

     “I…uh, went through delayed Sudita.”

     Rum and Nuria watch Auriel’s reaction closely as she grabs a carton of eggs. Her expression doesn’t change in the slightest, except that her grin widens.

     “Sounds like quite the year.” She grabs a couple more egg cartons and lowers them into the smaller section of the shopping cart, the larger section so full that it’s nearly overflowing with food and drink. “Is that everything?” she asks, and her mother tone slips out.

     Oh, yeah, she’s mad. She’s just holding it in till we get home.

     Rum turns to Nuria as she faces him and intuits they’re on the same page. While Rum dreads the talk to come, Nuria takes advantage of their mom’s public calm and suckers her into buying a couple of brand new journals and a cheap audio recorder. He offers to organize the groceries himself to both stall and soften the lecturing coming his way. Again, he and Nuria have the same idea.

     “You’re not leaving me alone with her right now,” Nuria whispers urgently.

     “Like how you left me,” Rum says as he pushes their luggage up against the backseat.

     “I’m the younger sister, you should’ve never let me go alone. But I’ll show you how it’s done by going into the jeep at the same time as you.”

     Rum rolls his eyes. “How generous.” Annoyance at his sister aside, he hates how quickly they finish putting the groceries in place, even though they purposefully took their time. He gives Nuria the side-eye when she gives him the front seat. “Everything’s all set.”

     Auriel inserts the keys and turns the engine on but mutes the radio, so the rumble of the motor is all that can be heard inside the jeep. The mechanical whirring sets Rum’s belly on edge, but he’s still more anxious about the coming punishment.

     “Did you two enjoy being at FHA?” their mother asks.

     “Yes, ma’am,” Rum says.

     “I sure did!” Nuria cheers.

     “Good. That’s good to hear,” Auriel says. “But,” her mother tone is back, “I have a few things to say.”

     Here it comes!

     “First, Nuria,” Auriel looks over her shoulder at her, her brown eyes tight with fury, “that is the last time you will pull such a stunt. Rum and I were worried sick. And then the first picture I see of you is of you destroying school property. Are you serious? The next time you do that and force me to come after you, for every day it takes me to find you is how many concerts I’ll forbid you from going to. Are we clear?”

     Nuria deflates instantly. “Yes, ma’am.”

     “Also, while I gave you permission to testify on Stark’s behalf, I want you,” she nods to Rum, “and you, too, Rum; I want you both to allow the grownups to handle the situation should any others arise. Yes, I’m proud you saved lives, but I would be even sadder had you lost your lives in the process. The two of you are all I have in this world. I’d do anything to protect you, even if it meant taking you away from Four Hearts Academy. And even knowing how much you two enjoyed being there, I’d do it without a second thought. Promise me it won’t come to that? Right here, right now.”

     The siblings take one second to look at one another, both nod, then simultaneously say, “We promise.”

     Auriel’s furious demeanor vanishes so swiftly that her smile makes it seem like it was never there. “Good, now, I’m sure you’re both starving. I am, too. Let’s get home and get cooking.”

     “Yes!” Nuria cheers.

     “You’re actually gonna eat a lot tonight?” Rum asks.

     “My babies are back home! What other occasion is worth breaking habit for, if not this?”

     Auriel puts the pedal to the metal, getting them home in no time at all, parking in their garage beside a smaller vehicle hidden beneath a tarp. Rum catches her eyeing him curiously as he and Nuria make trips back and forth to get all the groceries in the house, crossing through their living room to the kitchen, saving their luggage for last. She looks more concerned than he believes necessary. He has no time to dwell on it as Auriel and Nuria dive into the cooking with great enthusiasm.

     The ladies station Rum at the kitchen island resting between the sink and dishwasher half of the kitchen and the oven, microwave, and fridge half, all of which have a black and chrome color scheme. Rum’s job is to dice all meats, vegetables, and garnishes as needed. Nuria’s position is to keep all utensils, pots, and pans clean between courses, as well as to crossover and assist Rum or Auriel if they require help. She sings as they work, and Auriel joins her on the two songs she actually knows. Their mother will fry, bake, and boil all the dishes herself. With tireless and perfected-over-years-of-practice chemistry, the trio finishes the marathon of culinary endeavors in three and a half hours.

     The menu consists of a basket of fried lemon-pepper chicken, a pizza topped with olives, pepperoni, and spinach, a platter of twelve mozzarella sliders, apple pie with a dollop of whipped cream on top, a basket of onion rings and fried okra together, two salad bowls (one garden and one caesar), nachos covered in chili, cheese, lettuce, sour cream, diced tomatoes, and guacamole, meatballs stuffed with mozzarella cheese, and three cupcakes (two with chocolate frosting and the third with caramel frosting).

     “This should last us half a week, right?” Auriel asks. She dusts her hands off on her apron, feeling satisfied by the end product. “Smells like it might not, though. What do you think?”

     “Smells like two days to me,” Rum answers.

     “Smells like tonight! I’m going in!” Nuria hangs her apron on the lowest of three wall hooks perpendicular to the dishwasher. She mixes her plate with a little bit of everything, including the garden salad. She snaps a photo of her plate and thumbs into her phone vigorously.

     “What was that about?” Auriel asks as she grabs two plates, handing one to Rum.

     “Texting Shuri. His head’ll explode when he sees this plate.”

     “You gave your number out?” The mother tone returns.

     Rum freezes as he picks up a couple of sliders. He panics even more when Nuria looks defiant.

     “I did. Gave it to two people, actually. I have theirs, too.”

     Rum watches the two of them stare at one another without blinking. One of the rules of their house is to never reveal their location to anyone. Their address is officially listed as a PO box in Sakela Falls, and that’s where their FHA acceptance letters were sent. Any information that can be used to track them is off-limits to share. Still, he can’t let Nuria take all the blame.

     “I gave my number to two people, too,” he admits.

     Auriel has them both on edge as she leers between the two of them. With one smooth transition, her scowl never existed. “That’s good to hear.”

     “Huh?” the siblings ask.

     “There are a few reasons I sent you to Four Hearts Academy. One, I didn’t want the best years of your young lives to be hogged by myself. I wanted you both to make new friends. I expected this and glad it was met. Though, I thought the number would be higher.”

     Rum swallows hard, but his next question has been burning in his mind since he first thought it up. “How much did you expect us to learn while away?”

     “Let me guess- Bond of the Blade?”

     “Well, there is that. But during the dojo attack, there was this black powder and the smell reminded me of you. I smell it right now, actually.”

     Auriel hums as she removes and hangs her apron. “I have no ties to that powder, but if it was the cause of the explosions, then it might be made from the same material as my bodysuit.” She unbuttons her ruby blouse all the way to show her bodysuit. The collar and one line going down the middle of is made of ruffled metal plating. “It’s built to withstand electrical charges. To an extent.”

     Rum immediately feels stricken. “Is that why you don’t want me to practice my lightning powers?”

     “What do you mean?”

     “You always wear this suit under your clothes. Did you have a bad experience with lightning before? Or with someone who could use it?” Rum did want to drop the topic, but he has an opening now, and he decides to take it no matter what.

     Auriel’s smile is sad as she kneels before Rum. “I was a bit of a lightning rod when I was younger. Before I joined the Ohaida army, I was struck by lightning half a dozen times. I died for six minutes on the last one. My parents couldn’t believe I survived. Since then, I’ve always worn this suit. So, no, it’s not because of you, Aurum. And if you truly want, you can practice your electricity. It was wrong of me to deny that to you until now.”

     She rises and faces Nuria next. “And I’ve been unfair to you as well. As you’ve no doubt learned, I’ve always had your blood test results edited by a doctor I trust. I didn’t want you to learn about your phoenix powers until you were mature enough to handle all that…entailed. I’m sorry you learned the way you did.” She crosses to the teary-eyed phoenix and lowers her plate before she drops it, then envelops her in a bear hug. “I will never do such a thing to you again, Nuria. Any questions you have, I’ll answer them. Either of you. Right here, right now.” She releases Nuria and wipes her tears away. “Ask me anything. Anything at all.”

     This is it! I’ll learn who my parents are! Rum clenches his fists as excitement fills his every muscle. Nuria just has to ask first, then I’ll snowball on top.

     “Is family a myth?” Nuria asks.

     Auriel shakes her head and asks, “Come again?”

     “At FHA, I met some people and the way they view their families are…well, largely negative. It was to the point that I began to think family wasn’t a real thing. At least, not as far as blood is concerned. And then I thought about our situation and how we all love each other, despite not being related. It just…it seems that family is more abstract than concrete.”

     That’s her question?

     “Well, I can see you’ve given it a bit of thought, that’s for sure,” their mother says. “But family is not a myth, dear. And not all families are bound by blood. The best ones are bound by love, like the three of us.”

     Oh, no…

     “I’ve never felt happier with anything in my life than I have raising the two of you. I love the two of you more than you’ll ever know!”

     Nuria shakes her last tears away. “Aww, love you too, Mom!”

     Asking now will only make me a jerk. But I guess Mom’s right. If they loved me, they’d have kept me. And I think Nuria’s cried enough today. I can wait.

     “Love you, Mom,” Rum says with a small grin. “But we should eat while the food’s still hot.”

     “Yes, of course. Plus, I’m still curious about who Pan is.”

     Between plates, Rum and Nuria take turns exchanging stories about their first year at Four Hearts. Auriel laughs about the zoo and steel debt before lightly scolding their impulsive actions. She asks questions about their professors, the lessons they learned, and especially about Pan. Rum feels embarrassed when both Auriel and Nuria ask him about their kiss. He just says it felt right at the moment and changes the subject back to school.


     “You’ll have to show me all that you guys can do tomorrow. That means I want to see your lightning and your wings,” Auriel says as she returns with the cupcakes, handing Nuria the caramel one. She raises her chocolate one. “Here’s to being together again.”

     Rum raises his. “Here, he–”

     Nuria slaps the bottom of his hand and makes him smash his cupcake into his face. Auriel snickers when Rum tries to do the same back to her. She doesn’t even mind the mess they cause. She’s gone eight months without them to clean up after, and having a quiet house was far worse for her than she thought it would.

     “Okay, okay, that’s enough,” she says.

     The siblings cease wrestling, chocolate and caramel frosting, and yellow cupcake fluff all over their faces. Auriel breaks out into full laughter, and the siblings join her.

     “I swear, the two of you are something else. Go wash up and get ready for bed. I’ll put the food away.”

     “Race you!” Nuria shouts and leaps over the living room couch.

     “A head start won’t help you!” Rum shouts as he chases after her up the stairs.

     Auriel starts to follow after she hears glass break, followed by Nuria shouting, “That was me! Sorry!” Auriel sighs and turns away from the stairs. I’m so glad they’re back I’d let them get away with just about anything. The little monsters probably know that, too.

     She puts the leftovers, which being over half of what they made, surprises her. The two of them have always attacked her meals with ravenous appetites. One year away changed them that much, huh. She stores away the last of the meatballs and steps around the stairs. At the end of a short but wide hallway is her bedroom. Like the rest of the house, it sports white walls with black and chrome furniture. An open, long slender box rests on the top of her bureau. Fitted inside the granite cropping is an executioner’s blade with a serrated edge, the hilt has fingers holds to allow for a secure grip. She carefully traces her fingers along the edges, keeping them perpendicular to the serrations.

     Auriel sharply looks to her right when she hears a buzzing nearby. She crosses to her bedroom window and lifts it open. She slides open a small hatch in the sill and lifts a cellphone from within. The message on the screen reads:

Usual place. See you soon.

     She glares at the screen before snapping the phone in two. She strips off her ruby blouse, blue jeans, and sneakers. She pulls a pair of knee-high boots from the bottom drawer of her bureau and ties the laces all the way up. She flicks her wrist and her executioner’s blade floats out of the case and hangs at her back without a harness.

     She stands at the base of the stairs and shouts to the siblings. “I’m going out for a minute, but you better be asleep by the time I get back!”

     “Okay,” Rum says.

     “No promises,” Nuria shouts back.

     She rolls her eyes and takes the door connecting their living room to the garage. She grabs the pair of keys hanging just below the doorknob. She yanks the tarp off the smaller vehicle, revealing it to be a black motorcycle with a longer, more slender body to accommodate both her body and sword. She’d take the jeep, but she wants to end her night annoyance soon as she can.

     Even as fast as she drives through the desert, with her sharp and wide turns through a field of cacti, her executioner’s blade never leaves its initial spot at her back. She slows when she reaches the closer grouped cacti and parks beside one with no diverting appendages, just a tall, oblong shape.

     Auriel steps inside a tight circle of cacti and scans the sand, checking for any signs of movement.

     “I don’t have time for your shit, Reddic. Show yourself, or I’m out of here,” she barks into the night.

     “My, my,” a smarmy tone floats from nowhere. “You’re in quite the foul mood.”

     “Perhaps I didn’t emphasize show yourself enough.” She turns around to leave.

     “Oh, fine.”

     She whirls just as Reddic materializes out of thin air, spots of his body becoming visible; first comes his yellow eye, second comes half of his smirk, third his brown dress shoes, and soon after the rest of him, his white eye appearing last. The moment his entire person is exposed, Auriel charges him. She grabs the collar of his dark jacket and holds him mere inches from a fully needled cactus behind him.

     “The only reason you aren’t going to be food for vultures in the morning is because Nuria and Rum are still alive!”

     “You can bluster all you wish, but the only reason I’m letting you touch me this way is because I know you don’t have it in you to follow through with that.”

     “Let one of them get hurt and see how forgiving I’ll be!”

     She hears growling behind her and peers over her shoulder. An adult leopard with camouflaged legs bares it fangs at Auriel as its unseen paws stir the sand restlessly.

     “While I would never harm you, Fanger has his own loyalties. I’d release me soon if you don’t want him to attack. And should you hurt him,” Reddic’s white and yellow eyes both change to resemble the feral look in Fanger’s, “I have my loyalties, too.”

     Auriel smirks mockingly. “Neither you nor your pet scare me.” Her executioner’s blade turns ninety degrees so that the serrations stand between her and Fanger. “You know that if this turns violent that I’ll win.”

     Reddic’s scowl deepens momentarily, but then stuns Auriel with his sudden smile. The very tactic she uses on Nuria and Rum all the time. She refuses to let it get to her and stays on guard. “Okay, okay, you’ve called my bluff,” he says with a laugh. “And you know had I been there that none of that would’ve gone down the same way. Can you please let me go now?”

     She forces herself not to push him when she drops his collar. “Why in the hell weren’t you at FHA? I sent them because you guaranteed me you’d keep them safe.”

     “I was stalled at the last minute with an addendum I didn’t foresee, so the deal was finalized too late. But rest assured, I’ve set the gears in motion for their sophomore year.”

     “And you’re sure about this, Reddic?”

     “It’ll go smoothly so long as everyone does as promised and doesn’t encourage Nuria to testify on national television.”

     “I knew you’d be watching and Nuria really likes Stark. I knew you’d pull your connections to have her rightfully cleared of those charges.”

     Reddic smiles, but his teeth are laced with venom. “I know you hate this plan, but–”

     “I hate you, not the plan,” she says matter-of-factly.

     “–this is for the good of those kids.” He waves Fanger over to him. The leopard and Auriel exchange scornful looks as he crosses behind Reddic. “Try to think of them the next time you wish to manipulate me.”

     He’s fully invisible by the time he and Fanger turn all the way around. It only takes a few yards for the night to cover their tracks. Auriel glares at their empty wakes for a solid half hour before believing them gone, then heads home.

     Before she gets within earshot, she turns the motorcycle off and carts it home. Thanks to her stealth and the siblings’ open windows, she sees exactly what she expected. From Rum’s window, she can see the azure glow of crackling electricity. From Nuria’s, she sees the phoenix sitting on her top bunk with headphones in, singing along to the music.

     Reddic better thank his lucky stars Nuria wasn’t more curious, because had she asked, I’d have ruined his plans, right then, right there.

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