1.1: Permission

“Upsy daisy, Nuria,” her mother says quietly while yanking the covers off of her, her muscle control so keen that her voice doesn’t rise as she does so. She dumps the black and blue checkered blanket on the floor. Her sharp gaze swiftly finds the telltale signs of Nuria pretending to be asleep: nose twitching erratically, breathing hastened and uneven, and eyelids shifting uneasily. “You get up now, or I’ll let Rum do the honors.”

     “Oh, please, let me do it!” Rum says as he joins their mother’s side, shedding a black and blue blanket of his own to show off a black t-shirt and gray pajama pants. He cracks his knuckles, a delinquent smile on his face.

     Nuria opens one eye at first, sees how wide awake and serious they are, then groans as she sits up on crossed legs. Her pajamas are one overly large, bright yellow shirt, brown sweatpants, and black socks. “Rum, how many plans are you going to ruin?” She yawns as she scowls at her brother. “We were supposed to sleep in and then stay up all night so we’d be able to enjoy all twenty-four hours tomorrow.”

     Rum’s delinquent grin becomes a frown. “Sorry, but Mom says what we’re about to do–”

     “Is important,” Auriel finishes sternly. “You have ten minutes to get dressed and meet me downstairs. Do not make me come and get you,” she warns as she leaves.

     The siblings’ argument echoes all the way downstairs and it appears Nuria is quite furious. Auriel grimaces and crosses her arms, looks down the adjacent hall to her bedroom door, then stares at her bodysuit, the collar made of the same ruffled metal plating running down the middle of her torso that stops just above her waist. Her knee-high boots are laced tightly with laces made from the same metal as her collar. This should be enough. No need for my sword.

     Auriel turns as the siblings stomp down the stairs, emerging in time and both dressed. Nuria wears a gray t-shirt covered in black musical notes and a pair of black jeans. Rum wears a sleeveless cobalt undershirt and dark shorts. His buster sword hangs on his back via the leather strap with magnets affixed to the blade. Auriel notices their poor attitudes as they refuse to even look at one another, but chooses to address a different concern first.

     “Go and change, Nuria. This is going to be an intense exercise.”

     “Too bad. I planned to put this on from the moment I woke up and keep it on until midnight tomorrow. I keep my word, unlike some people,” Nuria says.

     “There are only three people here, genius. You’re not being subtle,” Rum rejoins sourly.

     “Not trying to be.”

     “Because you can’t.”


     “Hey!” Auriel shouts, quelling their bickering as they get ready to hit one another. “You two need to cool it, and I mean this very instant!”

     “But he started it!” Nuria whines.

     “If either of you keeps it up, I’ll finish it! So, enough!” Auriel commands. She leans forward and places a hand behind her ear, waiting on two magic words.

     “Yes, ma’am,” the siblings reply simultaneously.

     “Good, because this exercise relies on you working together. Follow me.” She leads them past the white walls of their living room and kitchen, contrasted by the black and chrome furniture and appliances. They come to a stop outside in their front yard, which opens up to a vast desert, sand and sky the only thing in sight for miles.

     “So, what’s this exercise and why’s it so important we do it now?” Nuria asks.

     “Because unless you succeed, you won’t be returning to Four Hearts Academy,” Auriel drops the bomb with zero inflection. The children take a second to register the risk.

     “What?!” Nuria and Rum shout.

     “I’ve given you both all spring to practice your powers as much as you wanted. If you want me to send you back there, show me you’ve improved.”

     “That’s it?”

     Nuria blows a raspberry. “Easy.”

     Auriel raises and waggles a finger at them. “Not so fast. It’s a joint effort.”

     “What do you mean by that?” they ask in tandem.

     “This exercise is called Handi-Tag. It was standard in the Ohaida army practices until a few years back. It’s a two-versus-one exercise where the two-person team has a limited time to coordinate actions to pin their solo opponent. Now, the contest is typically one-versus-one; one teammate fights the opponent while the other waits on standby and watches. The one watching has the power to switch places with their teammate by shouting the word “tag”. The best time to do so is when your teammate is put on the defensive, or the opponent is off balance and you have the better position to pin them. The two-man team fails if either one of them is pinned first. Do you understand?” She says, “Good,” once they both nod. “I’m giving you two ten minutes to pin me. Now, which of you is taking the lead against me?”


     “I’m running point,” Rum says as he steps in front of Nuria. “Since you made us wait, you hang back for now and enjoy the show.” Rum detaches his magnetic strap and holds his buster sword forward with both hands. “Mom isn’t using her sword, so this’ll be a piece of cake.”

     Nuria huffs and squats. “Yeah, good luck with that.”

     “A piece of cake? What makes you so confident?”

     Rum smirks. Azure sparks pop along his fingers and dance through the air until sinking into the glass disc embedded in his buster sword. Inside the glass disc is a hollow dark circle with five lines radiating from it, two of which are directly opposite each other. The other three lines rest between them. Even as the glass disc surges with electricity, the black marks remain unchanged and uncharged.

     “I’ve broken into my plateau,” Rum boasts.

     “Then work on breaking into your mountain next!” Auriel levies the challenge as she crosses her wrists across her chest. “I’m the mountain, by the way.”

     “That’s a weird metaphor!” Rum hollers as he breaks into a run, sword pointed ahead of him like a rhino’s horn. He sees her prepare to parry the thrust, the flips the sword forty-five degrees to launch a flurry of slashes at the last minute. She performs her full body parry for the first swing, then jumps behind Rum. She frowns when he elects to continue slashing at her instead of backing off and regrouping to enact a better tactic.

     Surely, I’ve trained him better than–

     Auriel has a realization and stops short in an effort to make Rum’s next attack connect. He stops his swing clumsily midway and falls forward into the sand. The azure sparks burn dots in the sand as they retreat into the glass disc.

     “Aurum, you are not going to pin me by holding back. I may not have my sword, but I have sufficient defense against your lightning. Underperform again and you can kiss FHA goodbye.”

     Auriel assumes her starting stance again and hides her smirk behind her hands when she sees the look in Rum’s eyes gain some steel. He never hits her, but he keeps her on her toes, changing between slashes, thrusts, parries of his own when she attempts to counterattack, one of which is a downward kick to his left shoulder. Rum sticks his sword in the sand and pushes himself up, forcing Auriel’s leg too high for her to keep her balance.

     Rum falls on top of her intending to pin her, leaving his sword behind. She parries his tackle with both legs before regaining her footing with a backflip. Without his sword weighing him down, he’s able to chase her around easier than before.

     “While I’m pleased, I wish you were this quick with your sword,” she teases as she blocks his every punch and kick. She gets swept up in her parental pride and falls for a feint, opening up her legs. Rum sweeps her feet and shoves her toward the ground. He sweats when he realizes he pushed her too hard and he can’t leap to catch her from his position.

     “Nuria, call your sub in now!” Rum shouts past Auriel.

     Yes! Auriel thinks as she feels the warm sand splash against her back.

     “No, thanks,” Nuria says. “You got this.”

     “What?!” Rum hollers.

     Oh, boy. Auriel sits up as Rum races past her, turning to observe the siblings’ inevitable argument.

     “Are you serious? We could’ve had her!”

     “You could’ve, too. It’s a piece of cake, remember? Oh, well.”

     “You idiot, it’s a team exercise. We have to win together!”

     Nuria rolls her eyes. “So, you want to be a team now when it makes you look good? Where’s that enthusiasm when it’s something I want?”

     “Are you going to be that selfish right now? We don’t go back to FHA if we fail this!”

     “Okay, okay, time out guys,” Auriel states as she turns them her way. “First, Rum, we’ve both inconvenienced Nuria by surprising her with this, so she’s in the right to be a little sour.”

     “Thank you, Mom,” Nuria says to her, though she directs more sourness Rum’s way.


     “Still,” Auriel cuts off Rum, then faces Nuria, “you’ve failed to see the true point of this exercise. I want you and Rum to have each other’s backs even more now. You’re fifteen now, Nuria, so I want you to have Rum’s back like he’s always had and always will have yours. I did this to examine your teamwork. Right now, I’m quite disappointed.” She turns to go back into the desert, stopping beside Rum’s buster sword. “Go and change Nuria. When you return, we’re giving this one last go, so mentally prepare for that while you’re up there.”


     Nuria slams her door shut, nearly causing the concert poster hanging there to drop. Like all the other posters around the room, the bottom left corner is signed by “TFF” with a standard T and two cursive Fs. The one above her dresser has poorer quality than the others due to it being taken from her cellphone camera. She took it during the encore performance of her very first concert, had it blown up, and digitally attached the TFF signature onto it (with a lot of help from her mom). She looks up at the poster for a few moments and when the memory comes, she smiles.

     Nuria tried many times to jump over the people in front of her to snap a photo of the band. Her twelve-year-old height was less than sufficient to overcome the other adults and her sulking was starting to overcome the ebullience from the music. That’s when she nearly shrieked when her legs were grabbed. Rum, who was barely two inches taller, tried to lift her onto his shoulders by slipping his head between her legs and standing, causing them both to fall. Before she could yell at him, a pair of hands lifted them both.

     Auriel gave them both a bird’s eye view with her seven-foot-high shoulders, one for each of them. Nuria finally had the room for her picture.

     Nuria touches the edge of the poster, an extended right fist entering the frame from offscreen, just above the doctored signature. Rum did try to help me that day. And Mom definitely did. I shouldn’t even be acting the way I am. It’s not their fault I’m in a foul mood.

     Nuria disconnects her phone from the charger and checks her messages. The two conversations on screen are between her and Shuri and her and Tyra. One says:

It’ll be nice to have you and Rum back on campus.

     The second one sent last night says:

Are you gonna be there????

     Nuria presses on the latter and the entire conversation is a string of unanswered texts from her. The phoenix scrolls through them with a dead expression, then throws the phone against the floor hard enough to crack the screen. She looks back up at the poster. I should know by now who has my back.

     She slaps both her cheeks and inhales deeply. She strips out of her gray t-shirt and black jeans, folds them neatly on the bed, then dresses in tight-fitting exercise shirt with slits for her wings, and matching orange and black shorts, though she opts to go shoeless this time. The phoenix cracks her window.

     Tyra or no Tyra, I’m going back to FHA.

     When she sprouts her phoenix wings, tiny embers fly off her lesser coverts. She slides through the window and takes flight.


     She holds Nuria’s gaze as she lands, the beat of her wings kicking up the sand around her feet, and the same steel is in her snowy-white eyes as Rum’s. As they stand side-by-side and whisper their game plan, Auriel can’t help but think she hasn’t seen or experienced all the growth they amassed during their freshman year, and how she’s going to miss even more now. Aside from Nuria now a couple of inches taller than Rum, she’s missed most of their growth during their spring break training, too. Despite her approval, Rum kept his lightning practice secret.

     And he’s gone beyond what I expected to be sure. Then again, he’s got my genes, so I really shouldn’t be impressed. And Nuria’s genes…it’s a wonder she hasn’t surpassed me yet, especially with her tenacity.

     Auriel wipes her nose as she sniffs and frowns. She looks down at the sand around Rum’s buster sword and the odor rising from the burnt sand, the stench a muted version of burning paper, but it still bugs Auriel’s nose.

     “Ready, Mom?” Nuria asks as she steps out ahead of her brother. “Rum had all the fun last time,” she lays her arms together across her chest horizontally, “so, I’m running point this time!”

     “Then come at me!” Auriel orders.

     She’s not surprised by Nuria’s immediate charge, but the phoenix’s choice to keep her arms in that horizontal position confuses her. In spite of that, she reciprocates the charge to meet Nuria in melee combat. Auriel throws a punch, but Nuria beats her wings to launch into a flip. Auriel whirls around to challenge Nuria’s next attack when the phoenix locks her knees down on Auriel’s shoulders. She leans back with all her might and slams Auriel face down in the sand. Nuria extends her arms as she pounces, but Auriel’s superior celerity saves her from being pinned.

     “Tag!” Rum shouts from directly behind Auriel. Once more, Auriel’s celerity saves her, this time from a sucker punch to the back of her head. As Rum futilely chases her around, not one blow landing, his expression grows tenser, his fists generating more and more blue electricity. Auriel sniggers as she starts to break away from Rum and he lunges at her out of desperation, his fully electrified hand open all the way.

     Auriel is alerted when a twinkle of light bouncing off of metal comes from nearby. Rum’s buster sword sails into his clutches and he charges the glass disc promptly. Auriel panics now that his range is doubled and scrambles into a somersault to dodge his thrust, stopping in a crouch.

     Was that–

     “Tag!” Nuria shouts.

     Auriel turns on the balls of her feet, still crouched, and sees Nuria racing toward her wings extended. Nuria smirks fiendishly as she ignites her hands, both laid together horizontally across her chest. While her flesh remains intact despite the flames, her shirt suffers slightly from the exposure.

     Gotta be ready for another mix-up!

     “I’d hold my breath if I were you!” Nuria warns. She swings her hands out and throws a plume of burning sand at Auriel. The smell of so much in one area nauseates her, but Nuria’s dark clothes helping her to hide more effectively gives her greater pause.

     “Tag!” Rum calls as he leaps out from the smoke to Auriel’s right, ready to pounce on her from above. With one hand on her nose and the sand smoke stinging her eyes, Auriel is slow to move away, thankful he jumped at her without his buster sword.


    From Auriel’s left, Nuria leaps out from below to bar her escape, and with Rum in free fall, his attack can’t be stopped. She grins and shuts her eyes as they come together to take her down, but their contact is gentler and warmer than she expected. She opens her eyes to see they’ve trapped her with a group hug.

     “This counts as a pin, right?” Nuria asks.

     Auriel successfully fights back tears, even with the sand smoke all around. “This is the best pin ever. Good job.” She turns to Rum. “I’m proud of both of you.”

     “Does this mean we’re going to FHA?” Rum says.

     Auriel makes him wait for a few seconds on purpose. “Yes, Aurum, I’ll allow you both to go back. You’ve earned it.”

     And Reddic would have a fit if you didn’t.

     “Eh, it wasn’t so hard once we put our heads together. We had it planned to a tee,” Nuria boasts.

     “Oh?” Auriel asks.

     “Except for the fact that Nuria kept making audible moves. The smoke and throwing me my sword were both good audibles, but stick to our game plan next time,” Rum says.

     “Stick to mine next time and I’ll stick to yours. Deal?”

     Rum rolls his eyes but shakes her hand. “Deal.”

     “Good, and I didn’t throw you your sword, by the way. But the smoke was necessary. I saw Mom having a hard time stomaching the smell when we were planning, and I figured obscuring two senses was better than just the one by throwing the regular sand as intended.”

     “Wait, but if you didn’t–”

     “I see. You were holding your hands like that so I wouldn’t expect them to be full of sand later on.”

     “Exactly. And I was also getting my flames ready, too, just in case. I was a little sour you got caught so quickly. I was gonna do some of my new flying moves if you broke out of the burning sand cloud. You most certainly would’ve been impressed then,” Nuria brags with her eyes closed and an arrogant smirk on her face.

     “Yeah, well, I didn’t show off my lightning nearly as much as I wanted. I have this one thing where I…”

     Auriel rests a hand on her head, annoyed by their bickering. As long as they use their abilities to keep each other safe, they can brag all they want. I just hope they don’t get too caught up in this contest that they forget they’re on the same side.


     “I’m telling you, I could’ve driven us,” Rum says glumly.

     Auriel turns off the street, the tread on her jeep tires scratching the dark parking lot pavement. As she navigates the aisles for a spot she replies, “Yes, you have a better handle on your travel sickness, but your driving still needs work. Maybe next year.”

     “Next year, I should have my own car,” he says, looking at her with pleading eyes.

     “You gonna have the money to pay for it?”

     “What happens if I do?” Rum asks with an enterprising smirk, the bet shining in his eyes. He even raises his eyebrows to entice his mom to bite.

     She spies a nice parking spot, and as he pulls into it Auriel returns the look with just one brow raised. “What happens if you don’t?” she asks as she cuts the engine.

     Auriel laughs on the inside when his confidence falls apart. “Uh,” is the only syllable to pass his lips.

     “We’ll talk about it later. Time to get you guys on the train. Right, Nuria?” Auriel whirls and winks, but Nuria misses it with her head lowered, eyes glued to her phone. Auriel sees nothing but texts in blue bubbles and understands forthwith. “You know, Nuria, technology isn’t the end-all-be-all for communication. It’s fickle. Nothing beats that in-person touch. The longer you put faith in that phone, the longer you’re robbing yourself of that reunion hug.”

     Nuria raises her head slowly, and her expression says she’s not convinced.

     “Rum, get the bags ready. We’ll join you in a moment.” As he does so, Auriel turns back to her daughter. “You know that Stark and I were in communication a lot last year, right? She told me that one of the bravest things she’s ever heard was when you said “I’m not ready to give up on learning this phoenix thing” in the direct aftermath of that first attack, and I agree with her one hundred percent. Don’t get cold feet now because of one friend not talking to you. You’ll make more. Besides, I’m sure others are waiting for you, too. Not to mention Stark, as well.”

     Nuria goes to her only other conversation and her instant smile is a mile long. The phoenix hops out of the jeep the next second, quietly cursing when her phone hits the ground in her haste. Auriel joins her children at the rear of the jeep as they empty the trunk of everything but one long and slender case. Auriel presses the trunk icon on her fob and it closes with a hydraulic hiss.

     “You guys ready?” she asks after turning to them and the one second between that and their response lasts an eternity in her mind. Before her are the closest thing to children she’ll ever have. They exceeded her expectations yesterday, putting her soul more at ease, though her concern for their well-being will never entirely vanish. Rum stands with his sword and suitcase, dressed in his favorite colors of black and blue, and while no longer the taller of the two, the look in his eyes when he sees Nuria is still that of her protector. Nuria swings her backpack over one shoulder and plants both hands on her luggage’s handle, her grin even wider than before.

     When they both declare, “Yes, ma’am!” she’s not the least bit surprised. She simply grins and leads them inside the terminal, hugs them farewell before they enter the traveler concourse, then turns to endure another year without them.

     However, the main lobby’s directory gets her attention. What was once just a black “B” tag overt the Ibri section now spells out the whole word: “Bigene” with scum under it, but misspelled as “skum”.

     Auriel knows what Nuria and Rum will have to endure this year, both being Ibri, will be worse than her solitude. While she believes they’ll handle it together, she’s not she’s ready for them to have to.

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