Nuria tries not to let the excitement get to her but finds herself leaning forward, feet tapping, and heart thumping. Allowing herself to be lulled by expectation has cost her enough. Still, directly ahead is the FHA campus. Even from the start of the lane, she can tell the ruin from before has been erased. She looks to her left to share her awe with Rum but he keeps his to himself.
As they near the front gate, Nuria’s breathing becomes rapid and heavy. Her gaiter mask traps her gasping breaths against her face. Her heart thumps so hard she feels it might burst. The pressure mounts and every muscle in her body feels like a lead brick. She’d scream to tell her mother to turn around if she could open her mouth, fearful she can’t handle crossing the campus threshold.
No one’s back! Tyra’s gone! My request wasn’t fulfilled! This was a mis–
Nuria practically melts in her seat once her muscles relax, the sight of her entire class gathered in the courtyard the balm her soul needed. At the head of the pack stands Tyra, dressed in an even more impressive outfit than usual. To her right are Headmaster Neth, Stark, and the professors. To Tyra’s left, the remainder of the class of ’92 is in attendance.
Nuria scrubs furiously at her tears. Her last few months have left the young phoenix with deep scars and traumas that compounded with the ones from The War of FHA. She believed it would be the same for the rest of her class. She witnesses their attendance, the bright and excited smiles on their faces with incredulity.
And I almost gave up. I would’ve failed…again.
Nuria shakes the last tears away as the jeep comes to a halt.
Thank Drijad I was wrong!
“Okay, you two, ears open,” Auriel says the moment Nuria grabs the door handle. “I’ve given you my one condition for allowing you to stay. I do trust my decision, however,” she delivers silvery looks to them one at a time, “do not abuse that trust. Do you understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Rum says.
“Nuria?” Auriel asks when she doesn’t answer right away.
The phoenix puts her solemn memories aside, no more willing to entertain them than to let Auriel down. “You don’t have to worry about me, Mom.”
Rum scoffs. Nuria looks down sourly.
“Not now, Rum,” Auriel warns.
“Can I get out now?” he barks.
Auriel sighs. “Go. I’ll get your bags.”
Rum bangs out the door and hurries over to their classmates.
Nuria’s hand wobbles on the handle. She shuts her eyes, inhales through her mask, and pushes the door outward. She’s suddenly straitjacketed by arms stronger than steel, unsure how her muscles of straw withstand the blow, but smiles from ear to ear beneath her mask.
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t wait any–”
Nuria cuts Tyra off by squeezing her as tightly as she can muster, making the angel cough out of surprise.
“No apologies, T! I needed a good angel hug!” Nuria cheers.
“I don’t want to let go but I’m not the only one excited to see you,” Tyra says. “Is that selfish?”
“Damn right it is,” Carnya teases then presses her cheek to Tyra’s. “But I have a workaround.” Carnya morphs her arms into blue-ringed tentacles that she stretches around Nuria and Tyra and locks them in a bow.
“Any room for us?” Koren calls, leading Syl to the group hug.
“Make some room, C!” Nuria says.
“Get in here, boys!”
Carnya extends the length of her tentacles effortlessly. Koren dashes under and inside the ring, high-fiving Nuria instantly. Syl casually joins the group a moment later. Carnya constricts her tentacles and forcibly drags Nuria and the others into her, crossing all kinds of physical barriers. Tyra and Syl turn red and cast furtive gazes at the ground. Nuria shares the same devil may care attitude Carnya and Koren express, the three of them beyond ecstatic to be reunited.
“So glad we’re back together again!” Carnya announces. “Wait…” she looks at Nuria nervously. “Are we back together again?” She undoes the hug and returns her arms to their normal brown hue.
Nuria’s smile doesn’t break as she lies. “Even if Ibri House came back, I couldn’t be without you guys two years in a row.” She hides her physical discomfort over Reddic’s absence by wrapping an arm around Carnya and Koren’s shoulders. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Nuria ushers the Vanusi crew to the rest of the class as Rum completes his string of reunions and approaches the professors next. Nuria chooses not to soil her good mood by paying him any mind. There are people happy to see her and that she’s happy to see.
“How yah been, Feathers?” Aven asks, bumping Shuri aside to reach her first.
Nuria gets off her classmates to address him. “It just occurs to me that I don’t have a nickname for you.”
“Call him “Cutter” for cutting in line. Hey, Nuria.”
Nuria pounces on Shuri with a hug. She feels her mask scratch against his cheek and blinks when she retreats. “Oh, wow! Look at you, Shuri, rocking the beard!”
Shuri strokes his pencil beard lining his cheeks and chin, though it’s only connected to his mustache on the left side of his mouth. “Can’t wait for it to fill out all the way.”
“You growing one under the mask?” Aven says.
Pan slaps him upside the head in passing. “Shut up. Hi, Nuria. Good to see you again.” She surprises Nuria by pulling her in for a hug. “Give Rummy some time. He’ll come around,” she whispers.
“I hope so,” Nuria whispers back.
They break apart as Roy brings Donovan, Wallace, and Sutar with him. Nuria greets the boys the same but is stunned by Sutar’s appearance briefly. Two spring-green veins travel from beneath her dark collar, run through her royal Windsor carnation irises, and vanish beneath her red hair. Both of her hands are fully engulfed by the spring-green pigmentation.
“What happened here?” Nuria asks, her wonder shining through. “You look so pretty!”
Sutar flushes, the compliment catching her off guard. “Thanks. Went a little crazy at home. Half of my right leg looks like my face.”
“You didn’t thank me when I called you pretty,” Wallace points out.
Sutar turns an annoyed look his way. “You didn’t say pretty, you said “foresty”.”
“There’s no difference,” Wallace argues.
“Are you serious?”
She takes a closer look at the class of students gathered around her and notices none of them are hiding any changes or marks on their bodies. Aven’s short-sleeved dark dress shirt has his forearm scars on full display. Sutar’s new physique is in the open. She spies a curiously bright blue tattoo on Roy’s right wrist. At the S’nue camp, Lauron sports an almost healed black eye, smiling like she doesn’t. Behind her, Evic meets Nuria’s gaze and turns away sharply, his long white ponytail whipping and bouncing slightly. She wants to go to him but decides on a wiser course of action.
Nuria chuckles. “It’s not just you.”
Nuria grabs the top of her gaiter mask with both hands and pulls it all the way down to her collar. She lifts her head and turns slowly, giving everyone a clear look at the scar running through the center of her lips, stretching from just below her nose to right above the tip of her chin. She smiles to try and erase the mortified expressions on her classmates’ faces. Well, most of them.
“Holy crap, that’s an awesome scar!” Lauron shouts. “I wish I had one that cool.” She rolls her eyes. “This shiner sucks.”
“I don’t know, I think it suits you,” Nuria says.
Lauron hefts her broadsword, aiming the pommel at her shiner. She spits and says, “Heroes don’t have shiners.” She points the pommel at Nuria. “Heroes have that.” She aims the pommel behind Nuria next. “Or that.”
Nuria whirls and her wintry eyes widen. The courtyard fountain has a statue erected in the center that pours water into it from its hands; a statue modeled after Stark’s likeness. The sculpted expression perfectly captures Stark’s vow to protect the students from any threat.
“You’re absolutely right about that one,” Nuria concedes. She crosses over to Stark and the professors. As she switches places with Rum, he bumps into her shoulder and keeps walking. She swallows her frustration and carries on. “So, did you have to pose for that?”
Stark scoffs. “That’s forty-six hours I’ll never get back.”
“Come now, Stark. It’s a lovely statue,” Tameri interjects. “Hello, dear. How’ve you been?”
“I’m just happy to be here. Glad you’re all here,” she says to the gathered professors. “Looks like you’ve all recovered nice–” She flinches when she notices Professor Lynald’s cane. “Sorry.”
“Stop it,” Professor Cwen scolds. “Ignore him, dear. He’s fine.”
“I am back to one hundred percent. I just got attached to this cane while in recovery.” He straightens and tosses the cane in the air. He spins on his tiptoes, catches the cane on its way down, twirls it, and taps the bottom of it on the ground. “As you can see.”
“Oh good,” Nuria says, overcome with relief. She turns to address her future professor and housemaster. She first touches her fingers together with raised thumbs and tilts them forward, points at Professor Marmagar, and lastly touches her index finger to her chest and bounces it twice.
Professor Marmagar points to Nuria and then to himself prior to making a “V” with his middle and index fingers.
“Don’t be so impressed,” Professor Zathony says. “He and I had little to recover from.”
“Oh yeah?” Nuria asks, irked by Zathony’s typical prickliness. Unlike with her brother, she doesn’t mind this challenge. “To be honest, I was worried you might’ve taken off with the wasp lady.”
Every other professor but Tameri laughs shamelessly, though she only keeps from joining in by biting her lips.
“I think it’s time for you to return to your peers,” Zathony barks.
“Copy that. Congrats on the statue again, Stark.”
“Thanks,” Stark says in a sour tone but Nuria can tell from the warmth in her gaze when she looks that way that she appreciates it. The phoenix does, too.
Neth taps his cane on the ground twice, commanding the attention of students and faculty alike. Nuria’s been awaiting this speech with greater fear than anything. However, that was before she had the chance to witness her friends gathered together. That miracle now has her heart aflutter for what’s coming.
“Before we begin the tour of our renovated campus, I have a few words for you all. First and foremost, the seven of us owe you all immense gratitude. Our careers as educators would be over if not for the courage you all possess for trusting us to do our jobs while keeping you safe. We do not excuse our failure before and do not expect you to forget it anytime soon. We’ve put forth every measure to ensure your last two years run smoothly. Stark has overseen the reconstruction of our security from the ground up. Every physical and cyber component was designed by her. She–”
Neth’s speech is interrupted by the abrupt cheering from the students. It takes the officer herself to quiet them so he can continue, Nuria and Lauron proving the most difficult.
“She oversaw the entirety of the campus’s reconstruction as well. For the best possible outcome, we had several companies contribute, including Coast Construction from Professor Tameri’s hometown, Vanis Town. And the work is ongoing. For years, Tameri has encouraged me to purchase the land lots in and around Four Hearts, and at long last, I have done just that. By using the donations granted to our renovation efforts, we’ve purchased miles of the unused land around us for official use. For all intents and purposes, the campus is over a dozen times larger than it was before. Proper borders are being drafted on maps the world over.”
“Wait,” Aven says. “Are you saying that Four Hearts is an official state?”
“Indeed, it is. A state with no nation to call home. We are a true independence.”
Nuria watches as Aven’s jaw drops slowly. She recognizes his knowledge in this area is greater than her own and understands that the gravity of that change must be big. To understand on a level comparable to his own, she asks, “Last time you made a world-shaking announcement, news crews were present. Why aren’t they here now?”
“We gave those same news stations each private interviews that will air tonight. We did not want them here when you all arrived. Today is about reacquainting you with your home here on campus. Over the break, I contacted each of you with the same proposal. It was to ask each of you for one personal request to be fulfilled if you planned to return. Nearly half of you tailored your requests around our dear Officer Stark, the fountain included.”
Nuria feels the sting from her peers’ gazes. “Nope, the fountain wasn’t mine.”
“That was all me!” Lauron boasts, sticking her chest out. The three words layered vertically down her shirt read “Always On Point”.
“What about mine?” Aven asks. “Is that a possibility?”
Neth sighs heartily. “Unfortunately, not.”
“I’d love to devote my time to FHA wholly, but my mother still being free and the growing unrest in Jupiter City also require my attention. I hope to split my time evenly between both locations but, to be honest, I do not see an even fifty-fifty until I fix at least one of those two problems. I’m sorry if that doesn’t satisfy your request.”
Aven shrugs. “I knew it was a long shot. No worries, as long as I can make a new request.”
Aven and Stark turn to Neth for his verdict.
“As if I would deny the young man who saved my life. But I will have to hear your request later. We have a few stops to make before the true announcement for this year. So, if you please, follow me.”
Just as Nuria takes a step into Neth’s awake, Tyra weaves their arms together. She accepts the connection gladly. She takes another sweeping look at their class, allowing herself to bask in the grand expectation of her first day on campus coming true. In the background, she finds it curious that Tameri stays behind, engaging her mother in conversation. She can’t even begin to imagine what that talk will be like. She lets that thought go as the tour commences.
The first stop is the main academy building dubbed “The Jun-Sen”. The request was Pan’s as she decided to call their third year at FHA their “junsen” year. Half of the ground floor is absorbed by a fully stocked library. Home to textbooks and music albums Nuria remembers from the previous version. The brand-new video game section (requested by Syl) is a little cubby fenced off by glass walls, with four bean bags littered across the carpet. The other half of the floor is for the classrooms, four in total, in addition to one other room full of easels (an art studio requested by Sticker that she agreed to let be used for future art classes).
Nuria and Tyra graciously wait for the last elevator down with the rest of the Vanusi crew. The car doors open up to the first sub-level, which turns out to be twice as wide as the ground floor. The entire outer ring is a fully equipped gym with every machine and tool imaginable (including Koren’s request for a version of his specialized jungle gym). A running track contours the entire perimeter.
The center of the sub-level is where the new Star Derby arena is located. The rows of cushioned benches arranged stadium-style surround the Star Derby court. A labyrinthine series of glass lines intersect the space between the goals, which are now holes on the arena walls. A fenced area adjacent to the goals is where the ball will return after each goal is scored. A rack of Star Derby balls is facing Nuria and crew, showing a brand new “S” symbol (Wallace’s request to have the Sulublei symbol changed to “S” for Stark). Two sets of locked double doors perpendicular to the goals lead to locker rooms on sub-level two.
Sub-level two is even wider than the first. The separate locker rooms rest in the center, islands surrounded by four pools of chlorinated water. The largest pool is to the east, twenty yards wide, 35 yards long, and seven yards deep (that pool was Carnya’s request to allow for a more robust after-meal exercise). The pools to the north and south are the exact same except that one is salt water and the other fresh. The “pool” to the west is a hot tub with very strict scheduling and supervision policies.
They leave “The Jun-Sen” behind and traverse across lush gardens and lovely seating terraces to a collection of features old and new and upgraded. The greenhouse that Nuria learned of Sutar’s and Wallace’s silly bickering is now neighbor to the security annex. Instead of the tower it once was, the security annex is a one-story octagonal building with no windows. A tent is set up outside the front doors for the students to take photos for new school IDs to gain access to the next few stops on the tour. Nuria replaces her gaiter mask over her face, not wanting the picture that associates her with Four Hearts to carry her scar.
The sparring fields are no longer wooden stages but four different domes housing different environments. The Vanusi dome contains a miniature forest, The Ohaida dome is filled with metal pillars of varying height and width, with a sandy ring in the center. The Sulublei dome is a mock stone quarry. The S’nue dome contains mirrors lining the interior walls and large floating iron spheres. Nuria’s impressed by the detail that Roy put into his request.
Heartland Grove is the next stop, a fully stocked and well-equipped lab for Sutar to continue her genetic and overall medical studies on campus. The other modification in this corner of campus is a modification of their cafeteria into a resort-style restaurant, a joint request from Barry, Dig, and Valine. Post dinner hours, Dig and Barry will run the operation one night a week. Dig will act as the host and server and Barry will be the cook. Valine will be the singer. Together they dubbed the new cafeteria “Reverse Iceberg” (because they make sure nobody will ever see less than ninety percent satisfaction).
Nuria eyes the microphone stand on the stage anxiously, her brow growing damp and her breathing laborious. She’s back on Mount Handreau, facing a sea of strangers, ready to puke all over herself. She feels like she’ll do it now.
Tyra gently but firmly squeezes Nuria’s arm. “Are you okay?” she whispers so softly that without the squeeze the phoenix would have missed it. “You’re quivering.”
Knowing she can’t whisper that well, Nuria simply nods.
If the angel believes her or not, her expression doesn’t betray that information. She just strengthens her arm in lock with Nuria’s and keeps pace like she’s been doing.
“We only have two more stops, everyone!” Neth announces. “And the first is the brand-new dorm you’ll all be staying in!”
Nuria smiles. That last statement means her request is next. When Neth first contacted her, she didn’t have any idea what she wanted. After a few other phone calls that day, she found her answer. The rectangular beige planters full of spiny succulents, front porch with two swinging benches, and diamond-shaped windows are all Neth’s doing. The silver walls and peach accents, as well as the name, were Nuria’s calls. She’s glad her mom and Tameri join them in time for this reveal.
“Our dear Nuria requested that one of the new buildings be named after our one and only Ibri professor and housemaster. So, I present to you all,” Neth waves his hand to blow the blanket off the marquee to reveal the name in big silver letters, “Reddic Union Hall”.”
“So, she gets to just name the dorm we all have to share?” Rum asks heatedly.
Nuria’s spirited demeanor collapses as her arm goes limp beside Tyra’s.
“She didn’t, young man. She gave me the name. I chose where to assign it. Professor Reddic made a noble sacrifice for this academy and I am glad that Nuria chose to honor him this way,” Neth says, not holding back the scolding tone.
“What was your request, Rum?” Tyra asks. The cold glint in her eyes betrays her annoyance.
Rum guffaws and tilts his head upward. “It’s no statue but I wanted Stark’s heroism highlighted, too. Four Hearts has two flags now.”
Nuria, Tyra, and the rest of their class lift their eyes. Nuria’s phoenix vision triggers and gives her a clearer view of the flags. The new navy flag with the silver “S” design from the Star Derby ball resting in the center. It flaps right next to the vermillion flag sporting a swirling bronze comet.
“Wait, neither of those is the flag from the last couple years,” Nuria says.
“Good eye,” Neth compliments. “The vermillion flag is the original FHA flag designed by the Founding Four. It was the one they hung after miraculously forming this academy and it’s the one we’ll wave for the rebirth. In fact–”
“Sir, perhaps that history lesson can wait. Our final stop is ready,” Tameri urges.
“Ah, right you are. Okay, everyone, we are going to the auditorium. After this final announcement and exercise, you will be dismissed to enjoy your first night however you wish.”
Nuria hates to leave Reddic Union Hall behind as she hoped to see the inside. The depression hits her like a heavy wave, almost strong enough to sweep her under. The lie she told before feels like it’s unraveling at the seams.
Tyra can probably tell even without her emotional scrying.
A clear view of the courtyard shows the hood of a town car behind the bus.
“That yours?” Nuria whispers as they enter the admin building.
“Not exactly,” Tyra whispers. “You’ll understand soon.”
“Professors, please escort your classes into the auditorium and wait for the presentation to begin. Stark, with me, please,” Neth commands.
“Yes, sir.” Stark follows Neth up the curving staircase on the left.
“All right, everyone. Line up in a double-file line and follow me inside,” Professor Tameri instructs.
“Actually, do you mind if I hold Rum back for a moment?” Auriel asks.
Tameri nods. “Be my guest. Everyone else, let’s move.”
Professors Zathony and Marmagar each pull back one of the double doors into the auditorium. The staircase going down to the stage splits two seating areas. Cwen and Lynald guide the double-file line into opposite sides, splitting Nuria from Tyra and seating her next to Shuri instead. Donovan takes the seat on her other side.
“Hey, what’s going on with you and Rum?” Shuri asks quietly.
“It’s nothing to worry about,” she clarifies. “But hey, what was your request? Neth didn’t mention it during the tour.”
“It…w-well it isn’t so grand as naming a dorm and asking for a flag…but it…uh–”
Nuria giggles. “Come on, Shuri. Spit it out. It can’t be that bad.”
“I…asked for a room in this building. Across the hall from my grandfather,” he explains, averting his gaze abashedly.
“Oh, that’s so sweet. So, the two of you have–”
“Yeah,” Shuri interjects, his embarrassment waning quickly. “It was a nice few months, you know, all things considered.”
“Congrats. I’m glad you guys had that chance.” Nuria clenches her fists on her lap and bites her lips to keep from whimpering. A memory of flying around after a golden light nearly brings tears to her eyes.
When the conversation hits a pause, the two of them skirt glances all over, unsure of how to progress or what to discuss next. That’s when a glint to her right catches Nuria’s eyes. Donovan’s belt buckle forces a hearty chuckle to escape her lips.
“Th-that has,” she pauses to laugh some more, “t-to be your request.”
Donovan smirks and turns his chin up, grabbing the sides of his silver belt buckle, the name “Stark” engraved on it. “Absolutely. This is a mark of honor where I come from. A lot of people that work for my dad have one with his name on their belt buckles. They all use gold but I think we unanimously decided silver is Stark’s color because of her uniform.”
Barry snickers and chimes in. “He couldn’t wait to show us all earlier. All eyes had to gaze on its magnificence. I’m surprised he didn’t spring it on you right away.”
“She was late. I wanted her to say hi to everyone first.”
“Thanks for that and the buckle’s pretty sweet.”
“I know, right?”
“Eyes up,” Professor Tameri orders from the stage. “Our final presentation is about to begin. Aurum, please take a seat next to Sticker. Is your mother joining us?”
“No, ma’am. She just left,” Rum says.
Just when Nuria starts to feel neglected, she receives a text from Auriel.
Don’t despair, sweetie. Your time isn’t mine at the moment. Enjoy this time with your friends. I love you! Have fun for me!
Nuria fires a response back immediately.
Love you, too! And you better believe I will!
Nuria pockets her phone and looks up just as Neth takes the stage, Tameri joining Stark on the edge. The other professors remain standing on the staircase, all facing forward with intense focus.
Whatever this presentation is must be on the same level as Ibri House.
“I’ll do my best to keep this brief.” Headmaster Neth takes a swift, shallow breath. “All of us here have learned the importance of teamwork; how having each other’s backs can change even the direst of circumstances around. Surviving The War of FHA was because the faculty in this room had you all to depend on and vice versa. That accomplishment should give us all a magnitude of pride.”
Nuria wants to feel that pride but she has nothing left from that year that made it truly special for her.
Not Reddic. Not Fanger. Not X–
“However, the recovery and return of our glorious campus needed more than what we could muster on our own, and not all of our support was entirely charitable. The price levied to us that this presentation is for was exclusively inclusionary in nature.”
Nuria leans forward and looks directly at Tyra, looking for confirmation that what’s happening is what she believes is happening. The angel nods tightly without looking away from the stage.
“Without further ado, allow me to introduce you to your new classmates.” He faces stage right and says, “You may join me on stage now.”
Six teenagers walk onto the stage in a double-file line. The right file stays on Neth’s right, the left file occupying the space adjacent to Stark and Tameri.
“Introduce yourselves, please.”
The first one to step forward is the middle teenager from the right file. His head full of wavy brown hair bounces as he swaggers closer to the audience. His dark eyes look like glossy puddles at night, contrasting his milky skin. He’s wearing black sandals, orange and white beach shorts, and a loose white shirt. His cocky smile shows off pearly teeth.
“The name’s Norris!”