2.9: Cutting Loose

You’ll never guess who I ran into on the road up there!

     Pan slams her head against the door when her ID card fails again, even though she knows it wouldn’t work. After Sutar’s lab exploded, Stark altered the digital security around campus. The only building students have unrestricted access to is Reddic Union Hall. The professors are now the only ones with access to the sparring domes, and the other buildings now have round-the-clock security guards to grant access.

     Honestly, it wouldn’t be so bad if “security” wasn’t so tight in the dorms, too.

     Pan rolls her eyes. After leaving the door’s alcove, she leans against the wall, holding her recurve bow behind her. She shifts her feet side-to-side, looking at the Arrowhead laces with a thousand-yard stare. Her gaze moves to the matching neon blue Arrowhead jersey. Her issues with her clothing aside, another problem has her stressed. She removes a folded piece of paper from under her jersey. Her fingers go back and forth over her indecision to unfold it.

     Gah! This year sucks!

     The next thing she locks onto are the remnants of Sutar’s lab. The scattered debris are gone but the destroyed building remains, covered by a large white tarp and cordoned off with red tape. Soon, the young archer finds herself staring at the fresh wreckage.

     Pan found it hard to watch her classmate break down like that. In her weakest moment, she thankfully had no witnesses. For that reason, she didn’t want to stare, but her empathy proved greater than her pity. She patted her stomach in solidarity.

     So much for this year being great.

     She was so numb at that point that she didn’t feel Rum’s hand until he gripped hers firmly. The strength of his grip chased her numbness away in an instant. She still was slow to look him in the eyes. She was not prepared to talk to him yet, especially after blowing up on him the way she did. And if he propositioned her again, she would repeat it. When he nodded away from the crowd, she was fine to oblige. He escorted her to the Ohaida sparring dome.

     “What do you want, Rum?” she finally asked.

     He guided her to the sandy ring and stopped so that only he was standing in it. He kept a hold of her hand and knelt in the sand.

     “W-Whoa, Rummy, no- stop! This is–”

     His laughter took her breath away. She hadn’t heard such a joyous sound from him in so long.

     “I’m sorry,” he said after he calmed himself. “I only just realized you haven’t called me “Rummy” in weeks. And I hate to admit this but I actually missed it.” He cleared his throat. “But I want to apologize for not truly seeing you this year. My sister and I have our issues but I never should’ve let that blind me to you. While school was out, that week I spent with you was my favorite!”

     Pan’s heart and gaze warmed and lightened significantly. “Yeah…I felt the same. It hurt like hell to see you leave.”

     “It hurt like hell to leave. And again, I’m sorry. I’ve prolonged our hell all semester, but I promise I’m done.” He rose without dusting his pants off, removing a folded piece of paper from his inside jacket pocket. “This is a special drawing I made for you.” He handed it to her and then shouted. “Whoa! Wait! Don’t open it yet!”

     “Why not?” she asked.

     “My drawing is on the left side.” He tapped the side of his chest where his jacket pocket was. “You complete it by drawing something on the right side.”

     “What do I draw?”

     “Once you see mine, you’ll get the idea. I’ll come to your floor every night from now on to collect it. I’ll wait for an hour from midnight to one a.m., as long as it takes for you to draw something. You can take as much time as you need…or want.”

     “Rummy…” She raised her face from the paper, looking absolutely miserable. “I can’t draw.”

     He smiled faintly. “As long as I can tell what it is, I could care less how good it looks.”

     Pan folds the paper after looking at Rum’s colorful masterpiece.

     I can’t draw a crappy stick figure to add to this…but all of my practice isn’t working either. And just because he’s willing to wait doesn’t mean I want him to. I really don’t want him to.

     “Well, well, well, look who’s finally early!”

     Pan hides the paper quickly. She furrows her brow and gives Lauron the side-eye, annoyed by the black “security” shirt she has on.

     That’s easier said than done!

     “Lauron, be nice. She’s our guest,” Professor Cwen says. Together, the two of them are dragging a cart full of solid black crates. The rest of S’nue class and Nuria are in procession behind them.

     Did Lauron challenge Nuria, too? Why am I not surprised?

     “Good morning, Pan,” Cwen says.

     “Good morning.”

     “Did you get a good sleep?” Lauron teases.

     “I think my troubles are almost over,” Pan replies tersely.

     Cwen unlocks the door and then peers at them. “What’s going on here, ladies? And do not say “nothing”. I can sense the tension.”

     “Just a little contest, that’s all. If she wins, I ease up on my hall monitor duties a little.”

     “Oh, man, yes!” Sticker says.

     “Take her down,” Valine argues.

     “Um…what they said,” Mila adds.

     “You were all a little fast to support her, don’t you think?”


     “Not at all.”

     “You’re a bit of a power freak,” Mila says.

     Cwen suspires wearily. “Lauron, we made you hall monitor to watch your peers, not to police them.”

     “I’m just trying to keep order. It’s not like late-night trips are necessary for anyone. And as of late, guarding my floor has been stressful, giving time for Norris and Carnya to slip by,” Lauron elucidates.

     “The point remains. Take it down a notch. That’s an order.”

     Lauron exhales through her nose. “Yes, ma’am.” She leers at Pan. “Guess our deal’s moot. You’re free to go.”

     Well, that’s one roadblock down. But since I’m here, I know how to handle the other one.

     “No, I’ll earn my peace, we just have to change the terms.”

     “You two can figure that out inside. Come on,” Cwen says.

     The young ladies march inside as Nuria and Evic position the cart in the center of the dome. Cwen helps them remove the four crates and place them on the floor.

     “So, what’s the new deal?”

     “Simple. If I beat you at whatever this exercise is, Sticker will draw something for me.”

     “Huh?” Lauron asks.

     “Shouldn’t you levy the bet against me then?” Sticker asks.

     “You know how Lauron gets when she’s robbed of her fun. This way, I give her what she wants and you don’t have to participate. Or, would you like to take my place?”

     Sticker widens her eyes and raises her hands in surrender. “She’s all yours.”

     “Well, unfortunately, Sticker, you will have to participate. Today’s challenge is going to be a team game,” Cwen announces.

     “Team game?”

     “Yes. You see the four crates behind me.” She rests a hand on one. “Inside each of them is the same kind of puzzle to solve. You’ll solve them with your teammate.”

     “Well, since the bet is me versus Pan…and somehow Sticker, they should be one team. I’ll take Valine.”

     “That’s fine with me,” Pan says.

     “I’m shocked you didn’t pick Nuria,” Valine says.

     “Normally, I would but I have a strategy in mind to win and Valine’s powers are critical. But do you want in on this bet?” Lauron directs to the phoenix.

     “Nah, I’ll pass. Tired of competitions.”

     Pan watches Nuria approach Evic curiously.

     Hard to tell if her attitude is because of the bet with Rum or not. Then again, nobody’s like themselves right now. Sutar leaving definitely put a damper on everyone’s spirits.

     Once Hugh and Mila join forces at the final crate, Cwen speaks up again. “Now that the teams are made, I’ll explain the challenge. You see, these four crates are all locked and the keys are hidden somewhere in this room. You’ll have to find the keys f- Lauron, where are you going?”

     “I don’t need keys to open that,” she says as she stops at the door and turns around.

     “If your strategy is to use your sword, you may not. The only powers you can use are strictly S’nue and even those may not be used on the crates for any means.”

     “Who do you think I am? I don’t even need my sword!” She drops her broadsword and breaks into a mad dash. She jumps into the air and leans her head back.

     Pan flinches. Is she serious?

     “We call this a headbutt!”

     She brings her head down with all her might but stops an inch away from the crate’s edge. Her sudden loss of momentum generates enough of a gust to rattle the lock. Her arms, legs, and torso are constricted by a large, spectral jellyfish. “Oh, come on, I was so close!”

     Cwen takes a quick breath and wipes the sweat from her brow. “Yes, you were close to splitting your head open. Those are solid steel crates with sharp corners. Don’t let the weight confuse you.” She takes another breath. “Are you done acting up or should I leave Marsh out?”

     Even while restrained, Lauron looks adamantly wild. “I think you know the answer to that.”

     Cwen commands Marsh to release Lauron but has him hover nearby.

     “Anyway, the rules I’ve listed are the only ones to be followed. Once you and your teammate have finished your puzzle, you are free to stay or leave at your discretion. The trial begins now.”

     “Easy! I know exactly where you hid the keys! And they’re all mine!” Lauron lifts her left hand as if her broadsword were in its grasp. Instead of the sword returning to her hand, it flies all over the S’nue dome, striking and disturbing the floating balls. In no time at all, four keys fall toward the floor. “Valine, use your powers to bring the keys to us!”

     “So, that’s what you had in mind! I’m on it!”

     Valine shuts her left eye and her right glows cerulean. The four keys pop out of existence and reappear in her hand.

     “Okay, that can’t be fair!” Sticker shouts.

     “Actually, that’s a fair use of their powers since they aren’t targeting the crate,” Cwen says.

     “I’m more impressed she knew where they were. How’d you figure it out?” Pan asks.

     “Cwen thinks I don’t think sometimes, but she’s wrong. I know she’s been testing us all semester by targeting our fears. Our last challenge made it so that Valine had to get used to using her powers while staring at her reflection to boost her comfort using them. I knew my turn was coming, which meant the stupid balls were going to be important.”

     Pan stares up at the floating balls filling the air. Fears? Is Lauron afraid of heights?

     “And I do not think that about you, Lauron. I just wish you’d act less rashly after you think things through,” Cwen explains.

     “Come on, Lauron, give us the keys,” Sticker says.

     “Nuh-uh-uh. You want ‘em?” She tosses one to Valine. “Come get ‘em!”

     “Oh, boy,” Sticker whines.

     “Okay, forget what I said before,” Nuria boasts, floating over Pan’s shoulder on crimson wing. “I accept this challenge. Hand me the keys or I’ll drag you up here and take them anyway.”

     Guess Nuria figured it out, too.

     “Bring it on!”

     “Uh, professor?” Valine says.

     “Just try to keep it civil, ladies. Marsh, intervene if it escalates.”

     “Give me those keys!”

     Pan finds it amusing that Lauron is able to fend off Nuria fairly well while exchanging keys with Valine to test on the chest.

     “What are you doing? Sticker asks. “Don’t you have a challenge to win?”

     Pan scoffs. “What? You think I’m getting mixed into that?” She jabs a thumb over at Nuria and Lauron grappling and wrestling over the keys. “I’ll press our advantage while they’re distracted.”

     Pan drops her recurve bow and yanks the metal hair clip holding her hair in a bun, letting her sandy blonde locks flowing to her shoulders. She removes the wire from the hair clip to create a makeshift lockpick. She kneels and tinkers inside the lock.

     “You can pick locks?”

     “Sure can. Oh, is this allowed?” she asks.

     “No powers, no problem. Continue with your plan.”

     Pan smirks fiendishly and gets to work. She isn’t as proud of it as she once was but thievery was once her extracurricular of choice. Pickpocketing, lockpicking, and safecracking were her hobbies. At first, it was her only chance to get her parents’ attention. Soon, it was because she learned to love stealing, so much so that she garnered a terrible reputation. Unfortunately, her original goal to get her parent’s attention backfired when they sent her to Four Hearts Academy to get her out of their hair for a while.

     It’s almost funny how it’s the complete opposite now.

     Her work with Arrowhead, her parents’ greatest rivals, has hurt their company’s image beyond belief. Since the magazine she shared with her classmates hit circulation and her parents’ inbox, their agents and their secretaries have tried to call her, entice her with endorsements and photo-ops, and released several fake statements about them being okay with her branching out and expanding her horizons.

     Everything but contact me personally. Too much of a hassle. And that’s fine. I don’t do what I do to hurt them anymore. It’s why I divorced them quietly.

     The lock to the crate clicks and it hisses as it opens.

     I’m here for the family that cares for me and that I care for! That drawing is mine!

     Pan throws the trunk open and inside are stacks of foam cubes.


     “You got it open!” Sticker cheers.

     “What?!” Nuria asks.

     “How?!” Lauron asks.

     Lauron and Nuria stop mid-brawl, Valine still fussing with the lock.

     “Not all about powers, y’know,” Pan taunts. “So, how do we solve this puzzle?”

     “It wouldn’t be much of a contest if I told you. But if you can open the chest without a key, you’ll do just fine,” Cwen states.

     “Okay…well, let’s go, Sticker.”

     “I’m with you.”

     The brawl in the background continues but Pan puts her focus on the challenge now.

     Inside the crate are sixteen foam blocks. The faces of each side have different colored squares on them, including red, purple, yellow, blue, green, and white. As Pan inspects the blocks, some have faces where all six sides are different colors and some have faces with three or fewer colors overall. She shakes one to see if there’s anything inside and one of its faces falls off.

     “Oops. Didn’t mean to do that.” She grabs the side to replace it but Sticker grabs her hand first. “What?”

     “It’s a color puzzle! We have to break all the blocks apart and put them together again with all six faces the same color!”

     Cwen laughs and claps. “Excellent job, Sticker. Now it’s all about speed.”

     “I got it!” Valine says, throwing her crate open.

     “Then I don’t need these!”

     Lauron tosses the other three keys into the air. Nuria narrowly misses catching them but they stop in midair right behind her. Pan watches in awe as the three keys are drawn to Hugh by an invisible force.

     Is he Ibri? Can he do what Rummy can, too?

     “N-No way…” Valine says.

     “No way, what?” Pan asks.

     “Well, I’ll be, that’s your power, huh,” Lauron says, slamming her foot against her crate. “You’re a Mythic. No wonder you hid your powers so long.”

     “Mythic?” Pan and Nuria inquire simultaneously.

     “You see, there are S’nue powers so rare that they’re nearly mythical. They don’t follow any basic genetic rules. You can be born with them out of the blue, even if your parents have vastly different powers. People who can use telekinesis, read minds, shapeshift, or even predict the future are all Mythics. They tend to get shunned because of that, too.”

     “Hugh, are you fine revealing your power? It wasn’t necessary, you know,” Cwen says.

     “I’m aware,” he says while unlocking his crate. He hands the last two keys to Evic. “But I want to show that I’m starting to feel comfortable here. This will sound strange, but ever since the explosion, I’ve felt more and more like I belong. I saw how you guys take care of one another now. When that girl, Sutar, broke down, everyone in her class rallied to her instantly. It was…nice to see.”

     “I see. Thank you for sharing.”

     “What about you, Mila? You a Mythic, too? You said your power was invasive; can you read minds? What am I thinking right now?” Lauron laughs.

     Mila laughs but squirms. “Not a mind reader. That’s all I’m fine saying.”

     Lauron goes quiet and silent and still for a second, then shares a knowing look with Valine. She turns back to Mila and shrugs. “No problem. Tell us at your pace.”

     What was that just now?

     “Besides, you guys are making good strides. Evic here still hasn’t told us his power and he’s been here since we were freshmen.”

     “Oh, you mean he hasn’t told you yet?” Nuria asks, landing right next to him.

     He unlocks the crate as he sighs. “Stop. She’s going to believe I told you.”

     Lauron eyes them suspiciously. “Uh-huh. I’m watching you two. Let’s get this done, Valine.”

     “Oh, crap!”

     Pan panics, so absorbed by the talk that she forgot all about the puzzle.

     “Done!” Sticker announces.

     “What?!” Lauron shouts.

     “That fast?!” Nuria says.

     “That’s impressive,” Evic adds.

     “That was quick,” Hugh comments.

     Sticker sits up and wipes the sweat from her brow. At her feet are five red blocks, four purple ones, three white blocks, two yellow, and one each for blue and green.

     “What can I say? I’m good with colors!”

     “Congratulations, Pan and Sticker. Now that you’re done, you are free to leave if you so choose.”

     “Whaddya say? We can go and get started on that drawing you want.”

     Pan stops herself from touching where she has the drawing hidden, not wanting to make things awkward.

     “Let’s stay. I’m feeling comfortable, too. And I wanna see how everyone else goes about solving it.”

     “Oh, good. I need a break after that,” Sticker admits, rubbing her shoulders.

     “Then it’s a race for second place!” Lauron declares.

     Pan sits cross-legged, places her bow on her lap, and watches the techniques on display. Lauron hurries and tears the blocks apart, tossing the sides all over, leaving Valine to scramble to put them together. Hugh and Mila work orderly, taking the blocks apart and stacking the like-color faces in disparate piles. Pan finds it impressive that Hugh can do his with his hands and powers at the same time.

     Seriously, he’d be one hell of an Ohaida with a focus like that. Focus I don’t have…

     Nuria and Evic employ a similar tactic but they work together on the same blocks. Just when Pan thinks Nuria will panic and pick up the pace any moment, she hears a familiar, joyous laugh come from Nuria. The exact sound she heard from Rum recently. She watches closer, and it’s clear that Nuria and Evic have some kind of connection.

     Hell, maybe she does know what his power is. They seem pretty friendly.

     Once all of the puzzles are complete, Pan notices that everyone only had one blue and green block apiece, but the other groupings were different. Lauron and Valine had five purple blocks, Nuria and Evic had five yellow, and Hugh and Mila had five white. Cwen congratulates them all on a job well done before dismissal. Cwen takes Valine and Nuria to rehearsal, and Evic, Hugh, and Mila go about their business. Lauron pauses at the door, leers over her shoulder at the floating balls, scowls, then leaves.

     “So,” Sticker says once they vacate the sparring dome, “what am I drawing for you?”

     “Um…okay. So, it’s gonna sound weird but…” She whispers it to Sticker.

     Pan and Rum descended the aquarium steps, both sides of the stairwell partitions of glass to give the illusion of being on the ocean floor. She snacked on popcorn the entire time that they marveled at the imitation reef and marine life. The nurse sharks, the anemones, and the sting rays captured Rum’s wonder entirely. Pan was tickled by his starry-eyed excitement as he tried to see everything he could.

     “Can’t believe you’ve never been to an aquarium before?” Pan said.

     “Not a lot of aquatic animals in the desert, so no one ever built one where I live.”

     “Which is where? I might try to visit when…well, when my business is finalized.”

     Rum’s excitement fell as he grew sullen, knowing her struggle. “Are you sure about that, Pan? They’re still your parents.”

     Pan shook her head and soaked Rum’s hand with butter sauce. “This is your last day here. Let’s just enjoy it, okay? Besides, you’re cute when you get all excited over the fishies.”

     Rum snickered and led her down the steps. “You were the same at the zoo. You couldn’t wait for your turn to hold that trainer’s armadillo. Now, that was adorable.”

     Sticker holds up a sheet of notebook paper to show her the drawing. “Does this work for you or should I redo it?”

     Pan compares the style to what Rum drew. His drawing has softer outlines so the colors bleed together beautifully. Sticker’s outlines are clearly defined but the colors in the background only make the subject stand out more, despite the action it takes.

     “I think it’s perfect.”

     “Then I’ll add this to the real thing now.”

     Pan turns around before removing the folded paper, then takes a deep breath.  She whirls, ready to solidify the choice she made all those months ago. She extends the folded paper to Rum, finally allowed onto their floor by Lauron. The “security” officer excuses herself, determined to stop Carnya and Norris. Rum unfolds the paper slowly but doesn’t react to it in the slightest.

     “Oh, no. I messed up, didn’t I? It looks–”

     “Perfect. How could I describe it any other way?” He flips it around to show it off with a wide smile.

     On the left side is a drawing of Pan with an armadillo on her arm. Without outlines the color of her neon pink shirt, light skin, blue eyes, and sandy blonde hair blend with the armadillo’s bronze shell, grey snout, and the pink ribbon tied around its tail.

     The right side uses stark outlines to great effect. The forefront shows a grey stingray cartoonishly hiding underneath a rocky pillar. The background contains not just a collection of colorful coral but a starry-eyed Rum drawn to express his face is pressed against aquarium glass.

     “I’m glad you like it. So, who gets to keep it?”

     “You do.” He hands it back.

     “Are you sure?”

     “Oh, yeah. I’ve got enough art in my room as is. Any more and I’ll start taking over Fain’s half, too. So, let’s go find a place to put it.”

     “Wait!” She presses a palm to his chest. “I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. I’m fine with you spending the night but… Look, when I said you weren’t ready for sex…I meant- I’m not ready, okay. So, if that’s what you want…”

     “I’m not here for that.”

     “You’re not?”

     “Okay, so this may be an accident, but explosions around us typically mean danger’s close. I’m not here to sleep with you. I’m here to protect you. Nobody is going to hurt you on my watch.”

Pan smirks and gives Rum a peck on the lips, then holds up their cute cartoon drawing. “We’ll protect each other.”

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