Cwen isn’t sure what to feel sorry for more, the green peppers or the cutting board, as Reddic minces two of the former with chef-level precision and swiftness. His next victims include a block of ham and white cheddar, using a bell-shaped grater for the latter. He lathers the heated pan with vegetable oil, then deposits freshly whisked eggs. The yellow blanket spreads and soon solidifies. He sprinkles the pepper, ham, and white cheddar over one side, then flips the other half of the blanket on top. She can’t tell if his smile never wavers that entire time if because he loves cooking that much or because he finds a skill she struggles with greatly to be that easy.
Then again, it could very well be both.
“Lunch is served,” he announces, lowering a pair of finished omelets. Both have crossed spinach leaves on the top. “Oh!” Reddic doubles back with two small cups of syrup. “Can’t forget that, can we?”
Cwen grants thanks, but looks down at the omelet with skepticism. Surely, it can’t be as good as it looks. She slices off a piece from the corner, snapping the strings of melted cheese, dips it into the syrup, and finally takes a bite. Her “mm” of satisfaction comes too quick to suppress. She swallows the bite and looks up expecting to find Reddic showing a smug expression. However, he makes his own noises as he eats.
“I’ll have to thank Nuria later for the recipe,” he says, dabbing at his lips with a napkin.
“She says she and her mom and brother cook together most nights. She’s offered to help me several times, but I think too many cooks in the kitchen always leads to disaster eventually.”
“So, you’d trust her to cook without you?”
“Until it’s proven I can’t, yes.” Reddic takes another bite. “Same as you trust Lauron to help Nuria without supervision.”
“I trust in the fact that Lauron will provide sound instruction. As for how she’ll execute that instruction, I have slight reservations.”
“She’s yours, isn’t she? Lauron?”
Cwen blinks, taken aback by the inquiry. “Oh, no. She’s not my daughter.”
Reddic snickers. “Not what I meant, but interesting to know regardless. What I meant is that she’s the one you invest in more than the others.”
“Oh. Then it that case, yes.”
“Is that why she’s so proficient with her powers now? You’ve given her extra attention?”
“Surprisingly, no. She was talented the day I met her. She’s gotten better since enrolling here, but it’s been through her own effort. She’s either inherited strong morpu, or she’s had an interesting life thus far.” She recalls rampant clanging of metal when she peers down at the spinach leaves. “Considering how we met, I’d wager on the latter.”
Chasing fireflies was easier than this!
Nuria chases after the frisbees as Lauron tosses them in rapid succession. She tries to light up her fists with flames when striking them, but her process to ignite them takes too long, so she finishes the exercise with not one frisbee broken.
“What’s that thing you’re doing with your hands?” Lauron asks as she gathers the frisbees.
“I do this–” Nuria claps her hands together and rubs them furiously. She slides them apart and both hands catch fire, though her flesh remains unburnt. “–so I can summon my flames. It’s the only way how.”
“It shouldn’t be,” Lauron says. “Let’s try again. This time, however, treat your powers like breathing. Breathe in, power on. Breathe out, power off.”
Nuria repeats the mantra as Lauron stands at the top of the stage steps, Valine and Sticker leaning against the stage on their elbows. The phoenix breathes in as the first frisbee comes. She breaks it into several pieces with a flaming fist. She exhales deeply but when Lauron throws the next frisbee, her powers are still active. The frisbee sails past Nuria as she tries to cancel her flames. The third frisbee bounces off her shoulder she forces her flames away by exhaling. The next two frisbees are the last survivors once she regenerates her flames again via rubbing her hands together. She packs more energy into her flames that she completely incinerates the rest on contact.
Nuria heaves heavy, frustrated breaths as she looks up at Lauron, finding a smile on her face. “Why are you smiling? I failed.”
“Yeah, but we’re getting closer,” Lauron says.
“I am?” Nuria asks.
“She is?” Valine asks.
“You are?” Sticker says.
“Yes, to all of you. Sit tight!” Lauron orders, racing off without warning. She returns ten minutes later with a Star Derby ball in hand. “Now, we can continue.”
“And just how did you get that ball? They keep them locked in a wooden container,” Valine says, nodding toward Lauron’s pants.
She hastily brushes off the splinters. “Didn’t see a lock anywhere. Doubt anyone will until they get a new one.”
Nuria is slow to join the laughter, not sure how Valine and Sticker react to her antics, still not sure of how to react to them herself. She’s not concerned with her stealing the SD ball, given how she’s done worse herself, but she has one reservation.
“I’m not incinerating an SD ball.”
“The point of this next exercise is not to destroy the ball.”
“Nope. This is to help you get in the mood for the next trial. So, front and center, Nuria!” Lauron goes to the left side of the stage and juggles the ball with one hand. “Sticker. Valine. Get yourselves ready. I’ll need your help for the next trial.”
Nuria sneaks a peek at them now to see how they react now. Sticker appears ready, but Valine’s definitely annoyed by the order. Nuria starts to understand that the overlap ends with her; Valine and Lauron have none.
“Just think of this as a warm-up for a Star Derby game,” Lauron says. “Gotta get in the right mood.”
“No, I got–” Nuria panics and hits the ball into the air following Lauron’s immediate spike, the hunter machine look back in her eyes. Nuria recovers as the ball comes down and spikes it back.
The back and forth that exchange intensifies with each subsequent one. Lauron’s precision and ability to predict Nuria’s moves are eerily exceptional. Nuria manages to keep up, but she feels guilty over her rising intensity. She recalls how close she and Shuri came to ruining their friendship last time they got too focused on victory. Instead of returning Lauron’s next spike with another of her own, she opts to catch the ball instead. The impact leaves her palms stinging.
“What are you doing? Why’d you stop?” Lauron asks loudly, the hunter machine look still in place.
“I’m warmed up now,” Nuria says. “What’s the next trial?”
Lauron’s hunter machine demeanor vanishes, but it takes her longer to do than it did after her earlier demonstration. “Fine, sure, whatever. Sticker, can you paint the difference so we have a dozen frisbees?”
Sticker gives her a look.
“Please?” Lauron says, stretching it out begrudgingly.
“Of course,” the artist replies and goes to work on her canvass right away.
“So, what’s this trial?” Nuria asks.
“So, you’re going to have twelve chances to get it right. After Sticker makes our last frisbees, I’m going to throw them at you. However, Valine will use her powers to teleport the frisbees to come at you from a different angle. Your job is to find the angle and destroy the frisbee with your flaming fist. If you can’t, then try to stop the frisbee from at least leaving the stage.”
“Valine, you up for this?”
“Of course, she is. That’s why she’s here. It’s why we’re all here.”
“Yeah, right,” Valine argues sourly. “Let’s just get this over with!”
I’ll just leave their business to them. If she’s ready, then I’m ready.
Nuria performs the same vertical leap as Lauron, though her landing is not as graceful. The phoenix expects a taunt from Lauron, but she doesn’t even glimpse a look of pride or superiority, but rather a look of dour calm, as if she’s already reached a conclusion.
I must be nowhere close to figuring out Active Meditation.
Nuria slaps her cheeks to realign her focus. She stands on legs prepared to spring her left or right, not willing to let anything stop her from success this time. She places her palms together but doesn’t slide them against each other, hoping one snap is all she’ll need to ignite them. It fails as the first frisbee sails past her left shoulder after Valine teleports it to her right. She gets a whiff of paint as it passes.
Oh, crap, are her paint creations flammable?
Too nervous to find out, Nuria misses the next six on purpose while trying to fake it convincingly. Lauron’s growing dour attitude tells her otherwise. While she isn’t impressed by any stretch of the imagination, Nuria is amazed Valine can keep the momentum of the frisbees’ travel steady after teleporting each one. She peers over at Valine to see her right eye aglow with cerulean light as she sings softly to herself. Nuria can read her lips to determine she’s singing “Run, Gyara” again.
Nuria starts singing along in her head when Lauron starts to toss the five normal frisbees. Her straight hand snap works this time, but only two fingers light up. Her reflexes are still too slow to catch the frisbee, but with each new one tossed, she manages to summon a greater amount of flames with each hand snap. The final one comes and Nuria tries to hit it before Valine can change its course, charging forward as she launches into the “Run, Gyara” chorus.
You gotta run, Gyara, straight to the moon
Don’t stop, Gyara, move faster than a typhoon
With her right hand coated entirely in flames, that’s the one she decides to throw the punch with. Her knuckles come within inches of the frisbee when her hair stands on end. For one second, she feels frozen but not in place. She feels air move around and through her, as if she were a filter of sorts. The sensation fades the moment her chin hits the ground.
“Oh, no! Nuria! Nuria, are you okay?” Valine’s shrill voice shouts from the other side of the sparring stage.
Nuria gets up slowly, still dazed over what just happened. She looks up to find the S’nue girls staring at her with vastly different demeanors. Valine is stricken with abject horror, Sticker repeatedly points to her chin, and Lauron’s wide-eyed.
“Nuria, are you okay?” Valine repeats.
“Forget that. How did it feel?” Lauron asks.
“Your chin is bleeding,” Sticker says.
Nuria wipes her chin on her arm. “Honestly, I still feel dizzy, but that’s it. Nothing hurts. Not even my chin. And it felt…wait, was I just teleported?”
“I’m so sorry, Nuria. I didn’t expect you to run at the frisbee and when I flinched, I accidentally looked at you.”
“It’s okay. Don’t worry about it,” Nuria says as her dizziness wanes.
“Good,” Lauron cheers. “Now, let’s try it again. It looked–”
“No,” Valine says boldly. “I’m done.”
“But she’s finally getting the hang of it.”
“I said no.”
“Valine, come on! We–”
“Stop!” Valine shouts, on the verge of tears. “I just teleported Nuria by accident! It was only to the outside of the sparring stage this time, but next time it could be on the fence spikes!” She gestures to the campus’ perimeter onyx fence only twenty feet away. ‘I’m not using my powers for these stupid trials anymore!”
Sticker follows after Valine but turns back when Lauron calls to her. “I think we’ve hit a good stopping point for today.” After she collects her painted frisbees and dumps them into the canvass, she says, “I’ll catch you guys later.”
Lauron leers at both of their retreating backs. “Who needs them, anyway? We can keep going on our own.”
Lauron groans viscerally. “Oh, come on, not you, too!”
“I just don’t think I’ll be able to perform any better. My dizziness is going away, but my focus won’t be as sharp.”
Lauron turns her leer on Nuria before sighing gustily. “Forget it. This isn’t going to work.”
“But as you said, I’m getting the hang of it.”
“That’s not what I mean. You and I, we don’t have overlap.”
“How come?” Nuria’s puzzled, feeling she and Lauron do indeed have quite a bit in common.
“The first time I saw your power, your attitude at the Freshman Derby, the look in your eyes was just like mine. That’s why I went to grab this.” She juggles the SD ball. “I hoped to awaken that spirit again. Prove to myself I did see what I saw.”
Ah, so that’s why she was down before.
“Clearly, I was wrong. Sorry, I wasted both our time for this.”
“Wait,” Nuria says as Lauron steps away. She catches her and whispers into her ear.
The look in Lauron’s eyes when she leaves gives Nuria hope that her idea has a good chance of coming to fruition. She’s aware of her own failure today, but she’s glad she could help Lauron find what she’s looking for. As for Valine, she knows the fear of using one’s powers destructively acutely, and feels bad for not stopping the trial sooner. For both their sakes. When avoiding the painted frisbees, she was reminded again of her lack of control when stressed. She doesn’t want to practice so hard that she loses control near the end, hence why she chose to stop the trial now.
Since joining the S’nue class, she’s performed a 1-to-1 comparison from Lauron, Valine, and Sticker to herself, Tyra, and Carnya. From that moment, she’s realized how much she misses being with the two of them. Like Valine, she doesn’t want her powers to hurt anyone. Even angry as she was with Tyra when the school year began, she stayed away for her sake. That first night alone in Ibri House, Nuria had intense nightmares of Tyra burning alive. She’s spent most nights staying up singing in the hopes going to bed happy keeps that nightmare at bay. She knows that Reddic must’ve overheard her.
I’m just glad the nightmares aren’t as frequent. I never want to see that happen. I’ve got to learn control ASAP. I have to–
“Well, that was as much of a fiasco as expected,” Evic’s soft voice rings, nearly making Nuria jump out of her skin.
“You were watching us?”
“Then why not join us? We don’t bite. Well, Lauron might.”
“You’re gonna get nowhere thinking mastering Active Mediation is a physical exercise,” Evic states.
“Then why would Cwen use frisbees? Why would Lauron?”
“Stop focusing on the frisbees. They’re not the answer, just the targets. Active Meditation and normal mediation share the mutual effect of calming one’s spirit. Active Mediation is how S’nue anchor that calmness in heated or taxing situations.”
Nuria doesn’t even think to ask him why he’s changed his tune all of sudden. She simply absorbs all the hints he’s dropping. Though, she’ll try and poke around for what he did with his eyes if the conversation moves there. “What do you mean by “anchor that calmness”?”
“Something that puts you at ease. Something that never fails to make you feel like you’re at home.”
Nuria hums as she ponders. “Give me an example. What does it for you?”
Evic stares at her blankly for so long that she starts to believe he won’t answer.
“My…my mother.” He turns and flees immediately, a flash of fear on his face.
Nuria finally comprehends that everyone in the S’nue class carries with them one burden or another. She can’t solve Valine’s or Lauron’s, so she opts not to chase down Evic for greater clarification. That, plus it’s resoundingly obvious to her what her next move should be.
Cwen minces a green pepper with painstakingly slow cuts, trying to mimic the process Reddic employs to get thin sections. Even as slow as she goes, her slices topple over while Reddic’s stay upright.
“How do you do that?” she asks, exasperated by her pale imitation.
“It’s all in the wrist,” he says with a wink. “Comes with experience only. Can’t be taught.”
“Or are you claiming I’m unteachable?”
Reddic starts to dice his peppers into tiny cubes. “Nothing as disrespectful as all that, but your wrist has to be willing.”
She huffs and lowers the knife. “Why’d you let Nuria off the hook before?”
“The choir. You said she was a good singer, but didn’t encourage her to join. Why? Especially when you’ve been so adamant to get her into my class.”
Reddic bags the sliced peppers and places them in the fridge, placing the knives and cutting boards to the left side of the sink after. “Because it was the only time I’ve seen such fear on her face with no hints that she’d overcome it. The wrist has to be willing.”
“I am!” Nuria declares the moment she steps through the door. She stares at them from across the room, slamming the door shut to punctuate her next declaration. “The rehearsal tomorrow night. I’ll be there.”