Only this time, it’ll have a happier ending.
“Did you really have to drag me out of Lynald’s class?” Nuria asks.
Stark leads the young lady down one of the cream-colored corridors in the admin building. “It’s come to my attention that you weren’t likely to attend. Your activities of late have been both salacious and disrespectful, Nuria. I’m taking you to the first part of your punishment.”
Nuria groans. “Oh, so now that I’m happy, now I get punished. Figures.”
“Hey!” Stark shouts and turns, waiting for Nuria to look at her. “The time for your attitude is over. When we go inside, you are going to sit and listen. Do you understand me?”
Nuria keeps her expression hard but nods.
Auriel said she was worse off but this can’t be the same Nuria from that first night. She fought the hardest for that celebration to continue. But now, she acts like she’d rather be anywhere else.
Stark opens the door to the teacher’s lounge and ushers Nuria inside. Due to the extensive renovations, the walls, tables, stove, cabinets, and utensils have all been replaced by newer models. The only things to remain from previous years are the coffee table and grey couches, one with a box underneath to support its broken leg. Professors Tameri and Cwen fill that couch, Stark gesturing to the other. As Nuria takes the suggested seat, the officer leans against the wall, her silver uniform seemingly brighter against the navy paint.
“So, let’s not beat around the bush,” Tameri says. “Nuria, do you know why you’re here?”
“Because I’ve been cutting classes,” she replies matter-of-factly.
“That’s part of it, yes, but the crux of the matter is why you’ve been missing class. From what we’ve seen and been told, you have been having sex without restraint.”
Nuria shrugs. “So, it’s just sex.”
Stark snaps her fingers. “Sit and listen.”
Nuria sits back and crosses her arms.
Cwen told me she was over the moon last week. What the hell changed? Maybe I missed something in the fight footage?
“Nuria, dear, no one here is mad at you, let me just say that. But we would be remised if we didn’t intervene.” Cwen pushes her glasses up to disguise her discomfort. “Has your mother talked to you about sex before?”
Nuria pivots toward Stark.
“You may answer direct questions.”
Nuria faces the professors. “Nope.”
“Then how did you learn about sex? How it works?”
“Through the B.O.A. album Valine told me about. And as for how it works…trial and error.”
What th- This girl, I swear. I can’t predict her at all!
“O…okay, well, that speeds things along,” Cwen says.
“Nuria, the mistake you’re making is thinking that sex is just physical. It is not. Sex is emotional, also. You don’t have sex without connecting your physical and emotional self to your partner. By doing so, you are giving yourself to that person. You and Norris barely know each other. Are you sure you want to give so much to him?” Tameri asks.
“That’s the plan.”
Stark narrows her eyes.
She hasn’t said anything that wasn’t direct, so I think I know what’s going on here. As for why she’s doing this, I plan to find out.
“What about what he gives you? How do you feel about that?”
She shrugs again. “Full disclosure, I don’t care. As long as he can keep going, that’s all that matters.”
Cwen says, “Nuria, that’s rather heartless. No matter your partner, they have as much at stake from sex as you do. If you can’t respect what’s at stake for him, then you shouldn’t be having sex with him.”
“He accepts it, though. And as long as he accepts, I will give. That’s all there is to it!”
“Nuria, you cannot ju–”
Nuria surges forward and grips her pants tightly. Little embers pop off of her knuckles. “Get off my back! I tried to do things the right way! Koren and I were fine until Shuri went and acted like an asshole! So, if I can’t get what I want when I try, why should I try? I’m tired of trying! Is that so bad?!”
Stark gets off the wall. Like the professors, she’s dismayed by Nuria’s state of mind. Unlike them, she has a clue into the cause.
When she thought she disappointed Reddic, it nearly unmade her, and that only lasted for a day. I’m willing to bet what’s ailing her now has had longer to grow boils over her fragile soul. I think I know what it is but I have to poke around first. Nuria, forgive me if you can.
“Yes, Nuria, it is bad,” Stark says sternly. “Sex is not without price, and based on the messes you and Norris have left behind, neither of you have been using condoms.”
“What’s a condom?”
So weird to be on the other side of this talk.
“Condoms are safety precautions when having sex. They cut down the risks of contracting STDs- sexually transmitted diseases- and getting pregnant.”
“P-Pregnant?” When Nuria breaks her anger for fear, Stark sees the chink in her armor and charges in head-first.
“That’s right. Unprotected sex can lead to getting pregnant. You’d have a life forming inside of you. Given how much you and Norris have done, we’ll need to–”
“No,” Nuria mumbles. “No, I can’t be pregnant. I can’t! Am I?” When Nuria looks up at Stark, her irises and pupils fade out of existence for a moment.
“No!” Nuria grabs the sides of her head. “No! I can’t be pregnant! I can’t have another kid!”
“What?” Tameri asks.
“Come again,” Cwen says.
Stark halts their inquiries with a finger. She crosses to the phoenix and lays a hand on her shoulder. “It’s–”
Nuria abandons the couch, spooked by Stark’s touch. “You’re lying! You have to be! There’s no way that’s how it works!” The tears in her eyes fight to stay up. “Sex is fun and it feels amazing! It’s not supposed to ruin my life!”
Stark slides forward slowly so she doesn’t alarm Nuria. “Why would you think that?”
“No! NO! Leave me alone! It wasn’t supposed to matter anymore! Stop! Get off me!”
Stark contends with Nuria’s weak protest against her embrace swiftly. She clutches the child tightly. “I’m sorry, Nuria.”
“It… I…I…” The phoenix loses the ability to make intelligible sounds. She cries tirelessly, every drop of her tears and snot sticking to Stark’s uniform. “I tried, Stark! I promise I tried! I did everything I could! We were having fun! I loved her! She…she was…she…”
Stark shushes Nuria gently. “I don’t need you to tell me, Nuria. I know you did. You always try. That’s what makes you special. You don’t stop. You don’t bend. You don’t quit. When one way doesn’t work, you try something else.”
“I can’t fix this one, Stark! I failed!”
Stark senses the growing fragility in Nuria’s frame but holds her up with her own self-assurance. “You only fail when you quit, Nuria. Do you quit? Will you leave FHA? Will you forget about me one day? About Tyra? Reddic?”
“Why can’t I? Reddic,” she sniffles, “got to quit.”
“He didn’t quit, Nuria. He simply adjusted how he aids the campus.” She kneels to face Nuria eye-to-eye. “When it came to gathering donations to support the reconstruction, only one person outperformed Reddic. Now, who do you think he put in that much effort for? Who here would he want to see flourish above all else? He built this place so you could be happy without him next to you. If you quit, it’d be like spitting in his face. Are you going to spit in Reddic’s face?”
The depth of Nuria’s pain is evident as she wrestles to make a decision. The time away from Reddic and everyone else holds her underwater. She tries to surface several times as she fixes her face, accepting tissues from Tameri as her life raft. “But…it’s hard.”
“Nuria, you’ve spent more time with Reddic than everyone in this room. You know that ninety-nine percent of the time, he’s smiling. Even now, as it pains him to be away, he still smiles. That’s his promise to himself to always rise above his struggles. Can you smile for me? You know, the way that he does. Show me. Think of the fun you mentioned a moment ago.”
Nuria’s eyes lose focus as she smiles, slowly but surely. When she blinks, tears scale her cheeks.
“There. Right there. What you just remembered, whenever you feel ready to quit again, think of that. Think of that happiness and remember you can have that again. That’s your happy place. When you need to feel better, that’s where you go. You don’t have to sleep with anyone just to feel better any longer.” Stark takes Nuria’s hand.
“But…sex I still fun,” she mumbles.
“We’ll talk more about that on the way to the nurse’s office. Professors, thank you for the backup.”
“Of course, dear,” Cwen says.
“It might have to happen again, at this rate,” Tameri replies.
Stark sighs regrettably.
I’ve been dreading this time for so long. I just hope nothing else is this eventful.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this with me.” Rum says. “You didn’t seem like you were ready for this kind of,” he snorts, “commitment.”
Aven rolls his eyes as the elevator dings, descending the floors quickly. “Don’t remind me.”
“Oh, you nervous?”
“Like you aren’t, too.”
Rum sneers. “Oh, please. If my sister can do it with some stranger, then Pan and I are a guarantee.”
And I’ll crush that worm if he hurts her!
“Stranger, huh? Is that how you view Fain over here?” Aven nods to his left.
Fain sinks deeper into the corner, bending his head down to hide his eyes behind his shaggy hair. “Oh, I’m not here right now. Just ignore me.”
“Fain’s a good roommate and an excellent sparring partner in our downtime. He’s a friend. Nuria and Norris just started hanging out one-on-one.”
The elevator doors split. Rum and the boys leave in search of different targets. Fain beelines it straight for Reverse Iceberg. Rum and Aven both find their targets in the dorm lounge. Rum blinks, surprised by Aven’s haste. He goes to Tyra and whispers. She blushes when she hears what Aven’s bet price was going to be, ruminates for all of two seconds, then takes his hand and follows him outside. He winks at Rum before leaving.
I’ll be damned. Tyra does like him.
Rum moves over to Pan casually, even more confident after that performance. He steps behind her chair and lowers his hands onto her shoulders. “Watcha doing?”
Pan opens her eyes slowly and removes Rum’s hands. “I was preparing for the next exercise class day. Using image training. I need to win one of Tameri’s contests soon. I’m falling behind.”
“I’ve offered to help you, you know.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. I’ve had enough tutoring. I’ll do this one on my own. Can we talk later?”
“Actually, later…” Rum steps around in front of Pan to peer into her eyes, assuming they’re hardened still from her image training. So, he won’t be heard by the other people in the lounge, he whispers, “I was hoping we could do something besides talk.”
Pan’s expression darkens. She whispers back, “No.”
“Yes, no. I’m not in the mood and you’re not ready,” she whispers again.
“I am ready,” he argues at room volume.
Pan hisses through her teeth. “Okay, if you wanna do this here, we can do this here.” She shuts her eyes for a moment, then flays Rum with a look so dead and cold that he feels like his heart’s frozen. “You’ve been insufferable all semester. It feels like all your attention is on your sister, and it’s all toxic! Not only did you make her cry and antagonize her at every turn, but when everyone saw her half-naked and covered in food, you didn’t make one move to help her! There’s no way the Rum I fell for would ever do any of those things, no matter how mad he was! And I’m pretty sure you only wanna sleep with me because you’re jealous of your sister and want to make her first time less special! Even if it worked that way, I wouldn’t help you hurt her more than you already have! So, just–”
An echoey scream from the stairwell makes everyone in the lounge jump to their feet. The east stairwell door is knocked open by Sutar, several long vines retreating into her arm from her wake.
“What the hell is wrong with you? Why would I ever want to kiss you?” she shouts as Mac exits the stairs, massaging his shoulder.
“I…you know- the whole hate can turn into love thing. Plus, I apologized, so…” Mac explains.
Sutar cries out in disgust. “Idiot! Try to put your lips on me again and you’ll lose the lips!” She knocks one of the automatic doors off-track in her angry dash away.
“Dude, what was that?” Rum accosts.
Pan scoffs mockingly. “Check yourself. You’re no better.” She reverse vaults over the chair. “And we won’t be talking later, after all.” She kicks the door back on track after she leaves.
Rum stares at the door blankly, still stunned by Pan’s rant.
Have I really been that bad?
“Good. I’d rather talk to you, anyway.”
Stark pauses the playback there and zooms in. The playback consumes the entirety of the wall on the other side of her desk. She adjusts the angle until Shuri’s eyes are in focus. The red in Shuri’s gaze is definitely not natural.
If it were drugs, more of his eyes would be affected. No pupil dilation suggests otherwise. But whatever it is has his eyes bright red.
Stark crops the section of just Shuri’s face and moves it to the right side of the wall. She fills the left side with a feed focusing on Koren and hits play.
“Says the clo–”
Stark fast-forwards to hasten her investigation.
“–someone who deserves Nuria!”
She pauses as soon as the red first appears for Koren. Going frame by frame, she sees two red dots sprout in the center of his pupils and spread like ripples in a pond. Once the red light hits the edge of his irises, it traces through otherwise invisible veins until they look just like Shuri’s.
This isn’t any Ohaida ability I’ve heard of but I know how to compare.
After cropping the dimensions of the Koren and Shuri feeds, she searches the archive designated “War of FHA”. She scrolls past the “Refugees” and “Timeline” folders to settle on “Traumas”. The feed she drops to the center of the screen has a focus on Aven. She skips past the moment the nurse is killed in front of him and pauses at his initial reaction. His eyes are red and stressed around the edges but there are no bright red veins to be seen.
That settles it. The fight was instigated.
Stark huffs solemnly, then crosses to the wall screen. Each of the young men’s expressions are ones she hoped not to see from them again.
We’re already under attack again. Someone’s watching and they’re plotting. I assume their plan is to weaken us with internal squabbles and strike while the discourse is fresh. The cohesion from the students last year definitely helped us win the war. Our enemies now are trying to cripple that advantage. If we’re not careful, they’ll succeed.
Another complication she thinks of is Nuria’s worsening state of mind. Even after the pregnancy test came back negative, the phoenix was spooked greatly. An attack on the campus again might cripple her irreparably, as well as a few other students.
I need to go over every inch of footage of the month I missed. I’ll start with Koren and Shuri. If I learn who’s been watching them, I can–
A heavy shockwave slams into Stark and it rattles her office. The wall screen cracks on the sides and distorts the light wavelengths around Koren’s and Shuri’s eyes. The photos on her desk topple as the lights flicker. She snatches the radio from her waist and ashes out of her office.
“Reika Team, report! What was that?”
“An explosion, sir! Heartland Grove is on fire!”
“Cordon off the area! Do not let any students get close! I’m coming to deal with the fire!”
Here’s the next attack!
Stark climbs the steps to the rear exit. Roark and a small troop join her there.
“Do we know if Sutar’s inside?”
“No, sir, she isn’t. She last exited at 10:29 pm last night and checked onto her floor at 10:41 pm. She’s not moved since,” Roark explains, reading off the data from his tablet.
“Has anyone else entered since?”
“Thank you for the report. Now, stay clear!”
Stark commands the moisture in the atmosphere to create liquid plates to bounce higher and higher, gathering extra moisture above her palms. She doesn’t let the intense fire and wreckage, nor the gathering crowd of students, to distract her. She condenses the two spheres above her palms together, holds the new sphere in place to gain pressure, then angles her palms to control the spray over just Heartland Grove. She lets her deluge loose without worry since none of the chemicals they allowed into Sutar’s lab react poorly to water.
For this very reason!
The officer repeats the process twice more to extinguish the fire. She lowers to the ground, using the white smoke as cover for her survey of the lab.
Our system’s foolproof. Nobody should be able to enter without an ID card. Unless they have a combination of Reddic’s and Tameri’s powers, which is too improbable to consider without proof, there will be evidence left behind.
She picks up a burnt security camera. An aluminum capsule on the back shields a SIM card that Stark pockets.
I’ll send this to Reddic while I review our live, stored footage. Between the two of us, we’ll learn something.
Stark exits the white smoke as the final vapors dissipate. Sutar stands at the front of the crowd, gripping the caution tape tightly. Once she has a clear view of the destroyed building, microscopes in disrepair, shattered beakers, and empty, soot-stained flower pots, she falls onto her hands and knees, wailing like Nuria did before. Stark only shows sympathy for Sutar’s unimaginable anguish. Inside, however, she’s as hot as can be.
I am sick of this! Everywhere I go, people under my protection are hurt! This pattern will stop! No one I love is going to be put through this hell any longer!
Just as Stark moves to Sutar, someone else beats her there. Wallace, the young man she used to argue with incessantly, kneels and places a hand on her shoulder. He doesn’t say a word as she coils around him. Soon, the rest of Sulublei class comes to comfort her.
Stark stops and smiles bittersweet. She turns to relay orders into her radio then. “Reika Team, bag all debris as evi–”
A shrewd whistle cuts through the air. “Damn, what happened here?” the new kid, Mac, says as he approaches the scene. He yawns, then notices Sutar crying. “What’s her deal?”
“Not now, Mac,” Wallace says softly.
“Why? Isn’t it just a building?”
Sutar snaps then but Stark saw it coming the moment she stopped quivering. “I know it was you! You’ll pay for this!”
Lots of little thorns protrude from Sutar’s fingers as she aims for Mac’s face. Stark only manages to save the boy by stretching her liquid arm and enlarging her hand to make a shield.
“Why are you protecting this weasel?! It was him, Stark! I know it!” Sutar yells.
“And if it is, I will deal with him. Until then, you are coming with me.” She wiggles the SIM card. “Let’s find out the truth together.”
“Let me come, too,” Mac says. “I want to be there when you clear my name. I may not like doctors but I don’t go around blowing things up!”
Stark turns over her shoulder. “Roark, I’m leaving the scene here to you. Lauron, stay behind the line but pay attention.”
“Yes, sir!” Lauron cheers.
Neth draws his curtains closed so that the daylight doesn’t obscure anyone’s view of his monitor. He takes his seat and Stark looms over his right shoulder. She hands him the SIM card.
“Skip to 20:20 for last night when the video window pops up,” she says.
“And then you’ll see it wasn’t me!” Mac says.
“When we do, I’m going to–”
“Susu, quiet!” Dr. Avery orders. “And keep the phone level so I can see, please. Remember our surgery drills. What’s the technique called?”
Sutar huffs through her nose, long and slow. “Lift and lock.” She steadies her phone.
This Dr. Avery is good. Keeping her cool-headed and teaching at the same time. That’s impressive.
“Here we are. 20:20, correct?” Neth says.
Neth hits play. The recording has a view of the main area of the lab, only four percent of the corner beneath it is offscreen. Sutar is at the back table, injecting gas from an oxygen tank into small vials, and corking them immediately after. She places the vial onto a rack over a burner running on low heat.
“Explain what you were doing here?” Stark asks.
“Okay, well, you can’t tell from here, but in each of those vials are deposits of soil I’d imparted varied amounts of my power into. My powers react to oxygen. My thought for this experiment was to see how they reacted to heated oxygen. Heated metals produce colored gas when exposed to oxygen, so I wanted to see if my powers did the same.”
“And oxygen is flammable,” Stark says.
“Pure oxygen, only, Officer Stark,” Dr. Avery says. “Even still, Susu took precautions and corked each vial.”
“What about the oxygen tank? Did you close the valve?”
“Of course, I did! Skip to 20:28 right before I leave,” she says boldly.
They skip the feed ahead and it shows Sutar turning the valve off, even double-checking it. The wind from outside makes her stumble when she goes to leave.
“Pause it again, sir. Go back three seconds.” Stark taps the screen by where the burner is. “Why’d you leave these on?”
“Because heating gas is a delicate process. Atoms in solids are still, so they retain heat the quickest. Atoms for liquids are always moving, so they take longer to heat, which is why using pots for boiling is ideal since the molecules are more tightly packed. However, gas atoms are very fast and far apart, with extremely short half-livers. Even contained and heated at a low temperature overnight, her experiment would likely have proved inconclusive,” Mac explains.
Stark turns to Sutar for validation.
“That’s annoyingly correct. Those small amounts of oxygen wouldn’t produce that explosion.”
“Keep playing. We’re almost done,” Dr. Avery says.
“May I?” Stark gestures to the computer.
“Be my guest.”
Stark takes Neth’s seat and plays the video at four times the speed from the moment Sutar slams the door shut. As everyone keeps their eyes peeled for any changes, Sutar’s heavy breathing pounds like a drum. As the hours fly by, her breathing worsens, with no proof against Mac to be found. The screen suffers from a white flare before cutting to static.
“There! That’s the explosion!” Stark starts going back frame by frame.
“That doesn’t make sense. Nobody can in after me.”
“See, I told you it wasn’t me!” Mac argues.
“We don’t know that, yet! How come you know so much about gases?”
“Just because I think doctors are the scum of the earth doesn’t mean I don’t listen to them!”
“Doctors are not the–”
“Susu!” Dr. Avery shouts.
Dr. Avery sighs deeply. “Look at the screen, dear.”
The young lady freezes, mouth agape, eyes wide with shame. The screen is paused on a frame of the explosion starting at the oxygen tank’s nozzle. She shakes her head vehemently. “No! Nonononono. No! That’s not possible! I turned it off! I double-checked! Everyone saw me! I would not make that mistake! It has to be him! He did something to it!” Sutar argues desperately.
Stark stands slowly. “Mac, you’re dismissed, but you may not tell any of the other students what happened. If you do and I find out, you will be expelled immediately.”
“No skin off my back. I’m glad to be done with this. Later, Suture.”
Stark preemptively steps into her path to stop another assault.
“Are you really letting him go? He did it!”
“No, Susu… You did.”
“Hand the phone to Officer Stark, please.”
The blow to her spirit is deft and effective. Without any other protests, she bequeaths the phone to Stark and brings the officer face-to-face with Dr. Avery. Strangely, the scenery behind her is always changing.
Has she been on the move this entire time?
“Officer Stark, Headmaster Neth, I apologize for the damage done to your campus. As well as for doubting you when you brought my attention to Sutar’s issues with that young man. I’d only allowed Sutar back because she promised to maintain her medical discipline while away. I should have never done so. It’s clear she lacks the discipline she boasted. She’s not ready. I will be coming to pick her up tonight. Susu, say your goodbyes and pack your things. I’ll be there in a couple of hours.”
The call ends. Sutar’s spirit is so broken that her phone falls from her limp hand after Stark returns it.
Neth catches the phone. “You know, Sutar, I’d had zero hopes that any of you would return. I’d assumed the last I saw any of you in person was before my coma. But here I am, just under a year later, blessed to see so many beautiful young faces back.” He puts the phone in her hand again. “This family is eternal. No matter where you go, you can always find us again. Lift…”
“…and lock,” Sutar says to complete the mantra. In her grasp is not just her phone but a silver V.I.P ticket.