A finger trap. A bad play audition lands you a role. A pissed off hive of bees and a locked front door. An interview that was fifty-five minutes away an hour ago. Climbing underneath a dune of sand only to learn that on top, it’s heavier than expected. Of all those examples of self-inflicted punishments, the latter may or may not be one Nuria herself has lived through. Right now, she’s sitting quietly, facing one more.
“I am very disappointed in the two of you. Firstly, Evic, you must never speak that way to a young woman. Secondly, Nuria, an exercise of self-control would be the better option next time.”
“Yes, sir,” both teens softly mutter.
“I’m assigning you both one week of detention in the form of house arrest, since I am less than confident to allow you to be in the same place. Also–”
Here it comes.
“–I am hereby terminating the joint class between S’nue and Ibri,” Headmaster Neth states with finality.
“What?!” Lauron cries out, her chair toppling from her furious rise. “That’s not fair!”
“Lauron,” Cwen warns with her choir instructor’s voice.
“Evic punched her in the face and called her a you-know-what! He’s the only one who should be punished! Get up, E–”
Nuria almost blinks and misses it, but the moment Lauron steps closer to Evic, Cwen’s entire body glows with an eerie green light. The light detaches from her body and coalesces into a six-foot jellyfish with transparent tentacles and a bulbous head. The spectral tentacles restrain Lauron and cover her mouth as she hollers muffled curses toward Evic.
“Valine. Sticker. Please help Marsh escort Lauron back to the dormitory,” Cwen orders. Lauron’s screams of protest grow louder until the door shuts behind them. “My apologies, sir.”
“Just be sure to keep her from attacking Evic, also.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem. I’ve already contacted Professor Tameri, and she’s fine having Evic stay the night with Shuri and his peers.”
“Very well. And speaking of,” Neth turns to his grandson, “that was a fine thing you did. Stopping the fight before it went too far.”
“Wonder who I got that from,” Shuri snaps then rises, gingerly patting Nuria’s shoulder on his way out. The phoenix desperately wants to leave with him, but she’s still stuck under the sand, the weight coming from Reddic’s silence during the meeting.
“What do the two of you have to say for yourselves?” Neth asks with the demoralizing stare all adults seem to have mastered.
Nuria doesn’t hesitate to say, “I’m sorry for attacking you like that, Evic.”
Mom’s going to kill me for this later.
The young man is slower to speak. “And I apologize for calling you out your name. I just wanted you to leave me alone and needed a crystal-clear way of expressing that to you.”
“Young man, that is no–”
“Fair enough,” Nuria says. She locks eyes with the headmaster and nods tightly. He accepts her acceptance reluctantly, then directs his frustration toward Reddic.
“Have you a single thing to say?”
“Oh, plenty. And nothing at the same time,” Reddic says with a sardonic grin, something else Nuria hasn’t seen from him before.
“During the house arrest, I will explain to Nuria the error of her ways and teach her to handle those situations in the future. However, it’s her willingness to adhere to those lessons that matters. Should she find her own method, who am I to judge?”
“Her professor,” Neth states domineeringly.
“I’m her professor second.”
The soft look he gives her is the hand she needs to escape the sand. “First, I’m what she needs most. Right now, that’s to be a friend.” Nuria accepts his hand with a wry smile. “If everything is in order, may we be excused?”
Nuria walks behind Reddic, wanting badly to mimic the confidence in his strides. As he claimed, she’s lacking friends. In just one night, it seems she’s lost all the ones she just made.
Bare-bones again, I guess.
“Thank you, again,” Cwen tells her colleague.
“Sure thing,” Tameri says, looking over her shoulder into the office foyer, unnerved by Rum leering at Evic warily. “Just wish I hadn’t left my phone on speaker,” she whispers.
“Think it’ll be all right?” Cwen adapts the hushed tone.
“It should be. I doubt Aurum will act rashly. Plus, he’s too exhausted to throw a punch.” Tameri crosses to them when the boys turn impatient looks her way. “Let’s get a move on, gentlemen.”
Professor Cwen releases a long breath as she shuts the office door. “What a start to the year,” she says, retaking her seat across from Neth, lifting Lauron’s toppled seat in the process. “A new house, emboldened students, fights breaking out, and a slew of misjudgments. It’s a miracle things have gone this smoothly.”
“Ah.” Neth sits forward intently. “So, you were able to uncover something about Reddic?”
“Indeed, I was…which brings me back to the slew of misjudgments.”
“How do you mean?”
“The misjudgments aren’t his. They’re yours, sir.”
“I don’t sense his actions to be nefarious, and what I witnessed tonight has only solidified my theory. You and Reddic, based on the last week and a half, are polar opposites on one key thing.”
“And that would be?”
Cwen shakes her head. “There have been enough disputes tonight. Besides, I know you’re more than capable of figuring it out on your own. Good night, sir.”
Nuria leans back against the foot of her bed, legs splayed out in front of her. She thought she’d be balling her eyes out again, but she’s too pissed at herself to let the tears fall. The sand may not be crushing her anymore, but she’s heated from the burning rashes it left all over.
I don’t even know why that stupid word pisses me off so much. How the hell do I even fight against a word?
She takes a frustrated breath.
Okay, be honest here, Nuria. The word isn’t the problem. You are. Keeping your calm is up to you, stupid.
The answer comes to her, but she hates to have to rely on his advice.
He’s just lucky I know it works.
“Anchor the calmness,” she whispers. “A feeling of home.”
Nuria translates that literally, excising from her mind’s slideshow everything not having to deal with Rum, Auriel, and herself. Their family chef time, the two of them indulging her at home concerts, and trips to Piranha BBQ.
Time to bring all those to FHA!
The phoenix goes rummaging through her bookbag, tossing aside her notebooks for her classes with Reddic, crying victory when she removes a journal with damaged binding. The first page with eligible writing only hosts two words: breaking and cages.
And I know exactly where to start!