Man, I miss her so much!
The shower curtain rings rattle against the pole they grip as Nuria emerges with an “Aah”, refreshed from her bathing. She drapes a towel around herself before stepping around the corner. Carnya and Barry are drying their hair in front of a wall of mirrors resting above the sinks. Nuria commences ringing out the hair of her undone braid. She ends up coming out a staunching number of loose strands.
Has it really been that long since I’ve flown?
“That was one helluva of a first night,” Carnya cheers. “You and Valine showed out!”
“Hell yeah!” Barry agrees. “I feel bad we didn’t think to include you officially.”
“It’s a good thing you didn’t. I would’ve said no. Last night was a last-minute, spur-of-the-moment thing.”
“Are you saying last night was a one-time thing?” Barry asks, mortified by the possibility.
“What? No. Nononono. I’m definitely gonna sing again. I’m just saying I wasn’t in the mindset I had last night over the break is all.”
“Ohhh. Oh, okay.” Barry breathes easy again. She flattens her flaxen hair beneath a rose bandana that she knots at the base of her skull. “Whatever got you in the mood, I’m glad it did! Next week is gonna be even better1 I know it1 I’ll see you at class!” Barry grabs her toiletries and waves.
“Wait, I’m coming, too,” Carnya says. “I wanna talk about your menu. You killed the grilled pork cuts.”
“Man, my arms are still sore from all that cooking, but I’m glad you enjoyed it. Pork’s my favorite meat to–”
The rest of their conversation cuts off when the bathroom door shuts. But it’s Barry’s mention of Nuria’s change in mood that the phoenix reflects on. The talk she had with Tyra prior to their mad dash to gather everyone for the party got swept underneath all the hype of the Reverse Iceberg grand opening.
I’d still be in my Handreau mood if Tyra hadn’t talked me down. She’s the real reason last night was so fun. Nuria sighs. I wish Rum hadn’t left. He’d have enjoyed it. Maybe Pan can get to him the way Tyra got to me.
When she lifts her head and looks in the mirror, the scar running through her lips nearly forces her to go catatonic. Nuria lifts her hand, her loosened strands weaving and clinging around her wet fingers. She smiles as she washes them all down the drain. Her next desire is to remove her dead hair in the most fun and natural way available to her. She grabs her ID and toiletries, races to her room, and nearly crashes into her roommate in her haste.
Tyra spins out of the way swiftly. “Maybe you don’t need this after all.”
“Don’t need wha–” Nuria’s nose solves the mystery for her. The sweet aroma of fresh coffee makes her mouth water. She exercises extreme self-control to keep from pouncing on Tyra again. She painstakingly shuffles over to Tyra and calmly accepts the cup of caramel mocha.
“Be careful. It’s ho–”
Nuria immediately chugs half of the cup. After exhaling, she slowly blows out a stream of clear steam. “Coffee only tastes good when it’s fresh and hot. Lukewarm or room temperature,” she accents her thoughts on those with an exaggerated moan of disgust. “You know, I’m now realizing that maybe hot and spicy foods don’t bother me because I’m a phoenix.”
“Yeah. I’ve never come across anything too hot or spicy for me to handle.”
“What’s the angel diet like? Don’t think I ever asked.” Nuria moves from Tyra’s dresser and hefts a pair of black sweatpants on under the towel that she trades for an acid-washed grey t-shirt with black streaks all over. The metallic slits for her avian dimensions are wider and longer than they used to be by half an inch and three inches respectively. “I feel it has to be at least a little unique.”
“I hate to burst your bubble but our appetite is not what makes the Heaven’s Class (one of three higher Vanusi echelons) special. That’s a thing you Hero’s Class individuals enjoy exclusively.” Tyra blows on her coffee before taking a quick sip. “I have to treat hot coffee with respect.”
Nuria laughs then chugs the last half. She tosses the lid into the garbage, dumps the last few drops onto her tongue, then discards the cup as well.
“Or maybe you did need that.”
“Okay, before you–” Nuria belches loudly. “Sorry, but before you make fun, it’s not my fault. A friend got me hooked on them. That’s it. You may make your fun now.” The phoenix resigns herself to the ridicule as she pulls her socks on.
Tyra shrugs. “No fun. Just noting more and more similarities between you and my old babysitter. His beverage of choice is steamed milk.”
Nuria makes another moan of disgust. “That’s like a tiny bit better than powdered milk..”
“No arguments here.” Tyra takes another sip.
“Look at you, being on the right side of history,” Nuria teases, pulling her last shoe onto a lifted foot. “All right, I’m ready.”
Tyra tilts her cup. “Your hair isn’t dry yet.”
Nuria goes to the window. “Nothing a good flight can’t fix.”
“Your braid- is the breeze gonna fix that, too?”
Nuria blinks and scoops up her damp hair, revealing wet stains down to the middle of her back. She blinks again and faces Tyra slowly. “Yeah, I can’t focus right with fresh coffee in my system. I need to–” The freezing she denied her scar before comes when she thinks of Rum. Historically, either her mother or Rum has tied her braid. She doubts Rum will be accommodating now. Doing it herself now will take too long but Tyra’s last attempt was less than ideal.
If I’m going to show my scar, then I must show my braid.
Nuria turns to the open window and stares at the sun reverently. She executes her prayer actively, drawing in just enough solar energy for her next actions. She creates two wells of energy within herself. She splits one well to cover the wet stains on her back, the other she delicately infuses into every strand of hair she has. With one simultaneous release of heat, she dispels every damp area. The resulting steam pulses off her backside and crackles in the air before fading out.
“T, I need a favor.”
The angel’s smile exudes more excitement than anticipated, unsure if it’s creepy or not. The choice becomes clearer when Tyra swings her legs onto her bed and pats the space in front of her.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
Nuria smiles with mirth, unable to deny the angel’s infectious joy. She kicks off her shoes and accepts the invitation, sitting cross-legged on the bed. Tyra’s fingers running through her sienna locks tickles the phoenix.
“You’ve gotten really proficient with that drying thing you do. I can’t find any traces your hair was wet ten seconds ago.”
“Would’ve preferred a blow dry experience.”
Tyra commences separating Nuria’s hair into three tails. “It wouldn’t have worked from here anyway. All of the windows operate like the ones in hotels- they don’t open.”
“Just a little bit of foresight. That’s all. Now, hush. I have to concentrate.”
Nuria sits silently and stonily, allowing Tyra’s concentration to shine. Somehow the angel manages her hair like her mother typically does, moving it with such purpose that she never agonizes over a move she’s made and compensates moving forward. Rum tackles her hair like an algebraic equation, making absolutely certain all three tails are even and attribute to the braid evenly.
It’s crazy that he’s still the fastest at it, Nuria ponders when Tyra finishes.
She strokes her braid and it feels firm and weighty, as it normally does.
“Wait, one last thing!” Tyra races to her dresser and back. She wraps a yellow ribbon with black borders around the top of the braid. “There. Perfect. Go ahead and check. I’ll wait.”
Nuria giggles quietly. “No need to look. As long as it feels right- and it does- then it’s perfect. Thanks, T.”
“And you thought I’d suck again.”
“I…” Nuria whirls around on the bed, “totally did…yeah. Sorry.”
“Truth be told, I practiced on myself a lot before I cut my hair short. You know, just in case you did come to get me from home and we’d be on the lamb, just the two of us, and your braid was in disrepair.”
“On the lamb, huh? Well, I can think of no one better to live a life of crime with.” Nuria sticks out her fist.
“You better not.”
Tyra completes the fist bump.
Nuria climbs the steps connecting the girl’s locker room to the Star Derby arena. Even though the stairwell is lit clearly, entering the arena proper does stun her briefly. Her disorientation forces the train of young ladies behind her to halt as Nuria awes at the full size of the arena up close. The overall size is smaller than before but the smaller stadium seating makes the court larger than the previous one. A double-sided scoreboard hangs from the roof above the center of the arena.
“Nuria, do you mind moving in some more? I can feel your peers’ growing unrest from here,” professor Tameri says, standing in the stands over the phoenix’s shoulder.
“Whoops. Sorry, just caught up in nostalgia.”
Nuria skips to the center of the arena, the other female students following suit, all dressed for a workout. The boys arrive moments later in similar attire. The groups mix and mingle, happily greeting one another with the exceptions of Nuria and Rum.
“Good to see last night didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits.” Tameri carefully hops down from the stands, a folder in her left hand impeding her typical exceptional balance. “Us professors wanted to give your party one more hour but Stark wasn’t of the same mind. We wanted to encourage your return to be celebratory and without worry, hence why today is only a half day. Do note that it will be the last for a time. Your education is still our top priority, and to that end, allow me to present you with this.” Tameri bestows the folder to Nuria. “Take one copy of the syllabus inside and pass it along.”
Nuria takes her copy and passes the folder over to Tyra. While the rest of the class claim their copies, Nuria takes notice that each professor claims one day of the week apiece only.
This can’t be right.
Professor Tameri accepts the empty folder from Shuri and continues her speech. “As some of you are seeing, the schedule is not like it’s been in the past. With only one graduating class to work with, we’ve adapted our approach accordingly. Instead of su each teaching our individual houses even single subject, we have decided to teach you all one subject each. Every Acro, Professors Zathony and Marmagar will conduct your math classes. Every Anati, your science classes will be conducted by yours truly. Professor Lynald will lead you through Avinia’s history every Tapho. Excluding today, Motte will be reserved for Star Derby. Practice will be afforded to each team for one hour in the first half of the day with rotating priority. The last team to practice will have two hours to rest before the official games begin. The schedules for practice and games will be emailed to you all later today. Between now and then, each of you may choose your own team captain.
“Now, as for the remainder of the schedule, Basi will be when every house runs their individual exercise sessions. However, you should see the phrase “class exchange” adjacent to an asterisk.”
Nuria’s still in the process of locking down all the Star Derby info but the “CLASS EXCHANGE” written in bold, capital letters triggers her sixth sense.
I could be reaching but that sounds an awful lot like–
“So, as some of you may recall from last year, Professor Reddic went on a tour of three other houses with Nuria. As she can attest, the experiences she had were incredibly fruitful. We have decided to emulate that strategy to a degree. There are eight Ibri among you who can directly benefit from the class exchange but it is open to everyone. For example, I implore Koren, Evic, and Lauron to consider using the class exchange for my exercise courses on occasion. You can request the class exchange up to twenty-four hours ahead of time to allow the professor in question enough time to alter their lesson plans. Any questions?”
Sutar raises her hand and when called upon asks, “What if you’re not Ibri, or in my case, potentially more Vanusi than Sulublei?”
Nuria watches Suat curiously, aware that the last that they discussed her condition she was less certain about the label.
I’ve always assumed Ibri because of her eyes and powers, but if she’s Vanusi after all, then maybe I can be of more help than a blood screen.
Nuria turns back to Tameri, now as invested in the answer as Sutar.
If you’re Ibri or not, if you simply want to observe how the other houses operate, we will not discourage you from the class exchange. However, think first and foremost of your individual growth when making the choice, like Sutar is doing,” Tameri informs the students. “Oh, and Sutar, you are welcome to any Vanusi exercise you wish. Ever since we completed constructing your lab, Professors Lynald and Zathony have exchanged quite a number of potential exercises for you.”
“Great, thank you.” Suat bows her head slightly.
Aw, hell yeah! Nuria cheers internally.
“Any other questions?” Tameri scans the crowd of students slowly, no others speaking up. “Very well. Didaska is reserved by Professor Cwen for various art-themed classes. She’s looking forward to that quite a bit.”
Oooh, I hope we’ll have a music class! It’s been forever!
“Now, before I make myself scarce; Nuria, Shuri, Wallace, and Valine, step forward please.”
Given their location, Nuria knows why she called the four of them forward specifically.
“As the elected representatives for your houses during the Freshman Derby, you four have the most experience, so I am leaving the operation of today’s group session to you.”
“Ohhh.” Valine hisses and stops in her tracks. “I kind of…forgot everything about…Star Derby.”
“I remember a couple of rules. That’s about it,” Wallace confesses.
“Oh, well, I suppose I can stay for today and use it as a general refresher.”
“No need, professor. I remember the rules,” Shuri says.
“Ditto!” Nuria cheers at his side. “Shuri and I can handle this!”
“As long as you’re sure, then so be it. The remotes for the balls, goals, arena, and scoreboard are on the ball rack over there. Powers are not allowed on the court. Guards are posted at the elevators and stairwells. If you need me, have one of them contact me.” She places a hand on her chalk-colored guard and turns to leave. “Enjoy yourselves.”
Once Tameri vacates the arena, Nuria and Shuri convene.
“So, how do you wanna start?” Shuri asks.
“Let’s rip a page from Trixee’s playbook.”
“Works for me.”
The duo spins and faces their peers with domineering expressions. Nuria takes the reins by barking the first order.
“Okay, tadpoles, listen up! We’re gonna start with three laps around the arena to get those hearts pumping!”
“What?!” Wallace whines.
“Tadpole?” Norris asks, irked beyond reason.
“I don’t think so,” Rum argues. “Let’s just get to the practice.”
Nuria answers them in the order they challenged her command. “Yes, three laps. And the tadpole thing is part of a Vanusi tradition. The first team captain was a frog, so the levels of proficiency were named after frogs…plus one other amphibian. Tadpoles for beginners, frogs for novices, salamanders for amateurs, and toads for pros. Shuri and I were both taught by a Vanusi captain, so we’ll stick with that so long as we are co-captains. And the la–”
Nuria hesitates when she sees the look of absolute rage on her brother’s face.
“The laps are part of the practice,” Shuri says. “Any more back talk and it’s going to five laps.”
“Oh no. Three is…perfect,” Wallace laments as he starts the marathon, the others following suit in slow order.
Once the class is out of earshot, Nuria whispers, “Thanks.”
“It’s what co-captains are for. So, what’s the game plan? Should we follow Trixee’s whole playbook?”
Nuria shakes her head. “No. It might confuse them when they go to individual team practices. I say we use today to go over the rules and positions. Give everyone launching points to take with them.”
“To that end, we can run a scrimmage or two at the end. I know for me that it was easier to grasp by doing than hearing,” Shuri explains.
While Shuri goes full Trixee and admonishes Wallace to pick up the pace, Nuria crosses to the ball rack. On each side is a custom pocket for two identical remotes. Nuria hefts the left and studies the button layout. There are 3 sections separated by white lines. The topmost section has three buttons that say “1”, “2”, and “Master” in between. Nuria presses the “Master” button and a few clicks overhead get her attention. Both sides of the scoreboard are active. She presses “Master” again, then tests “1” and “2”, learning that both those buttons trigger only half of each side of the scoreboard.
The next section underneath “Master” only has two buttons, one for “Goals” and one for “SD Balls”. She learns that both follow the settings from the “Master” section. If “Master” is chosen, then the balls on both racks light up and both sets of goals activate. “The “1” and “2” settings settle for separate halves.
The bottom section is titled “Arena” and has the most robust setup of the three. The top of the section has buttons for varying match sizes from “1v1” to “5v5”. Nuria presses them all in turn and the labyrinthine glass lines light up in various layouts, always creating an even number of green and blue squares. She attributes the individual activation to “1” and “2” since those buttons are green and blue respectively. Her test a second later confirms it.
The purpose of the last buttons is clear to her off-rip. There are two black buttons labeled “-10” and “-20”. The four with values starting at -100 are color-coded. “-100” is red, “-150” is purple, “-200” is white, and “-500” is gold.
I guess since Kez’s booth is gone that this is a close second.
Nuria reconvenes with Shuri and shows him the ins and outs of the remote.
“We’ll have to make sure whoever operates them during the games is honest.”
“Or we could have Tyra ask the professors to keep score for us.”
“Okay, the laps are over. Let’s get the real practice started,” Rum barks.
Shuri clears his throat and nods to the side. Wallace sluggishly makes his way through the final stretch, already drenched in sweat and winded, earning the mocking laughter of his peers. He leans over to catch his breath, hands braced on his thighs.
“Let us know when you’re ready, Wallace, and we’ll go over the rules,” Nuria says, admiring the effort he’s putting in.
I’d be mad as Rum if he was still like he was during the Freshman Derby.
Wallace wheezes between words. “Don’t…mind…me. I…know…the…rules…mostly. Go…ahead.”
“All right, then. Shuri, can you grab one of the balls from the top rack?”
As he does that, Nuria reverts the arena to the “1” setting.
“Before we begin, I have a bit of history to share. Did you know that Star Derby was–”
“–created in juvie?“ Aven finishes smugly.
“Aaaand that’s one lap for interrupting. Hop to it.”
“For his outburst? You can’t be serious,” Rum states sourly.
“I originally meant just him but that’s one for you now, too,” Nuria clarifies.
Rum crosses his arms. “No.”
Nuria wants to put her foot down but sweats as she fights off a memory of flying into the clouds away from home.
Tyra claps her hands together. “Okay, if you two aren’t going to respect one another, namely you, Rum, then I’m going to split our group in half for practice.”
“Sounds good to me. Let’s keep it simple and do boys and girls,” Rum says.
“That’s no ideal.”
“What kind of crap is that? Why can’t I practice with the boys?” Lauron argues.
“You don’t want to practice with me?” Pan asks crossly.
“I’m just gonna say it- that’s sexist,” Valine states.
“Shuri, grab one other ball and the second remote,” Tyra orders. “We’re splitting up. So, you and Nuria move to opposite sides of the arena and everyone can choose whom they want to practice with.”
Nuria accepts a ball from Shri before moving to the “1” side.
“Choose, everyone,” Tyra commands.
Nuria is elated when Tyra chooses her, followed by the rest of the Vanusi crew, the new guys included. It morphs into dismay when everyone else but the Ohaida class chooses her also. She doesn’t want anyone to lose out on Shuri’s coaching because of preference for her and their current annoyance at her brother’s remarks, especially since she believes Shuri is the superior player.
“Donovan, Wallace, Mac, Sticker, Mila, and Hugh, do you mind moving to Shuri’s side so the practices can be even? We’ll be running scrimmages near the end and this will smooth that process over in the long run.”
The new kids switch sides without delay but Sticker and the boys amble over begrudgingly. When she locks gazes with Shuri and he mouths his appreciation, her despair over the situation abates.
Right. It’s not just Tyra. I have other ways to stay grounded.
Nuria passes the ball to Koren and he catches it easily despite the force she uses. She wiggles the remote and says, “Lesson one- conduct.”