2.3: The Burnt Photo

Pacing is something Stark handles with respect; respect to herself, her duties and responsibilities, and her environment.

     Respect to herself. She didn’t experience Sudita until just before her eighteenth birthday, and she never endeavored to master her powers like there was no tomorrow. She’s been using the lake to reinforce the original training she underwent with Warden Crata. The potential energy clue Reddic supplied reminded her that, like gas, water takes the shape of whatever holds it. For hydrokinetic individuals like Stark, that’s just the beginning. She’s learned to adjust the density of the water to allow herself to walk on it.

     Respect to her duties and responsibilities. Stark never prioritized her powers over her job as an officer. She still doesn’t. Warden Crata has worked nearly forty years as an officer of the law and did so without being a fully realized Ohaida like his daughter was. Stark doesn’t wish to be an exceptional officer because of her powers, just like him.

     To someone like Stark, she can see the value in learning the nature of one’s abilities, but she can’t understand the drive to perfect them at all costs. Even now, she neglects her training to observe why Nuria, Aurum, and Shuri take it so seriously. She starts with Aurum, watching him from a ledge overlooking a stone quarry.

     The young man stands in a circle of scorched earth, parts of it still bright orange. He takes a  deep breath and throws his buster sword into the distance. His next move is to holler as he generates as wide a field of blue lightning as he can, stretching it to five feet in diameter. As the lightning field recedes, his buster sword soars toward him. He stumbles backward after catching it, then labors to restore his breathing to normal.

     Stark expects him to try again but blinks when he jams his sword into the ground and carefully steps around the scorched sections. It’s the first break he’s taken in nearly two hours, likely his attempt to match Nuria’s pace. He walks past a trio of stone mounds and seats himself beside a dark backpack. He removes and opens an HPAA magazine, the third one she’s seen him read since they left Springspell. He goes over each page slowly, occasionally marking the magazine with a pen.

     His automobile focus is a breath of fresh air for Stark. Before her mother’s attack, when she and Tameri mutually respected one another, the Ohaida professor kept her apprised of Aurum. His idea of responsibility and how his delayed Sudita affected him were hot topics between the two of them. Ever since, her well of knowledge on the young man has dried up. But seeing him put an emphasis on something besides his powers makes her happy.

     For the officer herself, she’d spent her time at his age following in her father’s footsteps. He was a lawyer who tackled civil cases, specializing in breach of contract claims. She spent nights going over law books, watching highly inaccurate but entertaining cop procedural shows, and practicing opening and closing statements her father drafted in her bedroom, using stuffed animals in place of a jury. She’d wanted to be a criminal lawyer prior to her father’s death but subsequent events took her down a different path.

     Rather than get caught in the unpleasant memories bubbling up to the surface, Stark rises and heads south. She leaves the stone quarry and traverses around a litany of heart trees. Trampled grass and broken branches are evidence of Nuria’s wild flight patterns. That child’s passion is far and beyond anything Stark can imagine. She knows Nuria loves singing and music, but she doesn’t pour nearly as much energy and into them.

     As far as she’s shown me, anyway.

     Stark marches on intending to check on Nuria next, but then Shuri pops up on her radar. He stands erect, feet together and shoulders squared, holding up his right wrist blade. A slight breeze ruffles his dark hair and the tassels hanging from the hood of his green jacket. He appears entirely calm, remaining motionless, eyes unmoving, even as Stark steps close enough to inspect his right shoulder.

     His camera is resting on the ground behind him. Stark fetches it and returns to snap a photo of him. He smiles.

     “Change the white balance first. Hold the “WB” button and a drop-down menu should appear. Pick the third option down.”

     She follows his instructions and applies the “WEB” white balance setting. On the camera screen, all shadows produced by the wrist blade are sharpened and heavily contrasted by the blade itself. She snaps a photo as the breeze blows his tassels one way and his hair the other.

     “Looks good,” Stark says and extends the camera his way.

     Shuri shakes his head. “I’ll look at it later.”

     Stark lowers the camera and asks, “What does WEB stand for?”

     “Wind energy blade,” Shuri clarifies. “Wrist blade already didn’t seem right and I didn’t want a “WB” setting under the “WB” menu, so I got minorly creative.”

     Stark huffs. “I’ve watched enough tv in my day to know that less is more sometimes. WEB is perfect.” She leaves without delivering a pointed look like she wants, not wanting to influence Shuri’s choice too much. Still, the rush of footsteps behind her does put a smile on her face.

     The officer has seen two of the students escape training in favor of simpler hobbies but knows this third will be the toughest to dissuade. Thankfully, Stark has a trump card in case of emergency.

     Stark descends toward the lake, watching Reddic evade fireball after fireball. Even with Nuria now able to summon her golden flames without needing to activate the normal ones first- a trick that took three days of training to master- she still fails to strike Reddic. Each miss only makes the phoenix more determined to succeed. But Stark has seen all of this before and where it will lead, especially once she gets close enough to glimpse the bags underneath her eyes. Knowing they only have ten minutes left, she decides to let the exercise run its course.

     Shot after shot land and fizzle in the lake. Reddic is soon backlit by a screen of steam, posing with crossed arms. He winks at Stark before Nuria changes tactics and runs up close before launching her fireballs. He can’t keep his arms crossed and the steam screen fades as Nuria’s new strategy has stray fireballs striking the grass.

     Stark refuses to entertain things further, her respect for this fabled land empowering her next decision. She commands the lake water and puts out each of the fires. She commands two final streams to extinguish Nuria’s fists and she keeps the water there to keep them from reigniting.

     “Stark, what are you doing?” Reddic asks, a brief flash of annoyance on his face.

     “Yeah, things were just getting good,” Nuria says slowly to disguise her fatigue.

     “I’m ending practice a little early today. It’s time to take a step back and rest for the future.”

     “Shouldn’t that be Reddic’s call?”

     “Normally, yes, but in this scenario, I have to intervene. He doesn’t yet understand the magnitude by which you push your physical limits.”

     “I have taken precautions, Stark. Even with our schedule as it is, she won’t burn out in just two weeks. I carefully tailored it based on what I’ve seen from her to this point,” Reddic explains.

     “If she stuck to that plan, sure, but she hasn’t been.” Stark turns to Nuria, seeing straight through her as she strokes her braid. “Want to tell Reddic about your late-night activities?”

     “Not possible,” Reddic argues. “I have Fanger on guard duty to keep her inside.”

     Stark groans. “He’s followed through on that for me, but…”

     “I…bribed him with fish from the lake,” Nuria admits.

     Reddic stares astonishedly at Nuria, then eyes Fanger. The leopard turns wholly invisible and slinks off to who knows where.

     “I propose to suspend her training for the rest of today and tomorrow, then return to the status quo after that. But Nuria, no more excessive training. You’ve learned so much, but now it’s time to learn some self-restraint. I don’t want you to go through what you did last year.”

      The phoenix hesitates to rebuttal and thinks about Stark’s speech. The officer can see how serious Nuria views the issue but she also sees when Nuria decides to disregard her warning anyway.

     Time for my trump card.

     “You know, I heard that you auditioned for Cwen’s choir. I knew you were into music but I’ve never heard you sing. Or you me.” She adds the last line as bait and Nuria bites instantly.

     “You sing?”

     “Not like you I’m sure, but I can carry a tune.”

     Nuria narrows her eyes. “Are you just saying that?”

     “Tell you what. If my singing is terrible, I’ll let you train as recklessly as you like. If I can, you’re sleeping every night from now on. Reddic will judge. Do we have a deal?”

     “Only if we do it right away. In front of everyone!”

     “Go and fetch the boys. We’ll be waiting in the cabin,” Stark says.

     Exhaustion aside, the phoenix races up the hill apace, her braid whipping wildly in her wake.

     Reddic walks forward and says, “That girl is something else.”

     Stark turns to Reddic with an austere expression. “And I need you to respect that more than you have been. I know why Nuria’s working so hard, but you’re feeding into that desire too much. I’ve seen enough of how you and Fanger operate to know he’d stop her if it was on your orders. I understand that Manifestation is important, but Nuria’s health is more important! You have to–”

     “It’s not just Manifestation,” Reddic barks, punctuating his sentence by slamming the cabin door shut.

     Stark exhales slowly. “What aren’t you telling me?”

     “Are you ready for those answers? Once I start this time, I’d have to tell you everything. Nothing left to mystery.”

     “Very well, but start with why you’re as impatient about Manifestation as Nuria.”

     Reddic marches up the stairs to his room without issuing a follow order. He brushes the slash marks above the knob gingerly. Stark doesn’t ascend until he turns and bows his head to grant permission. She enters through the open door and closes it upon Reddic’s soft command. The room itself is an enigma. Unlike the others below, this one is lacking in terms of decoration. The comforter is plain and thin, the dresser old and worn, and the desk on her left full of damaged pictures still in the frames. Reddic points to the one in the center.

     “Because of her.”

     The photo has not only burned edges but most of the top of it was eaten into by fire also. The two subjects are holding one another in the photo. The man is dressed like Reddic, though the woman’s cream skin and sienna hair shine in combination with her black wedding dress.

     Stark stares at the photo, overcoming a strong urge to remain speechless. “Are you saying the bride in that photo is–”

     “She is.”

     “But…what does that have to do with Manifestation?”

     “I told you that if all goes well that Nuria would meet her mother by the time we leave. Manifestation is a physical embodiment of one’s powers. Nuria and her mother are phoenixes.”

     “Yeah, but I…how’s that- Okay, but the man in the photo…is that you?”

     The door slamming open below is followed by, “Hey! Who’s ready to sing? I know I am! Let’s do this, Stark! Duet style!”

     Reddic laughs his jocund laugh. “If you deliver on your voice, I’ll have a day and a half to explain properly. Nuria’ll drop like a log once she lies down.”

     Stark does deliver, singing abridged versions of the cop procedural theme songs she loved as a teenager, earning two thumbs up from Reddic. However, the highlight of the night is when Nuria takes over, her performance taking her to all corners of the cabin, tickling and impressing Reddic, the boys, and Stark. The officer hopes that she’ll foster her voice even more than her flames. That hope only grows stronger when Reddic unleashes the unabridged account of his history.

     Answers to the questions “What’s your relationship to Nuria’s mother?”, “Why do they allow you to operate in Vanu?”, and “Does Tyra’s enrollment play a part in this, too?” shake Stark to her core, among others. The pace that Stark’s tried to keep her life in accordance with is now extinct. She owes Nuria a lifelong debt, and with the events she now knows may come to be, she has no choice but to remain at the phoenix’s side.

Protecting Nuria isn’t just a job anymore. It’s destiny.

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