~ Valkyrie Falls, southwest side ~
Tyrallin Alwick drove to school that Monday morning with both eagerness and a sort of uncomfortable, nagging dread.
“Can’t this car go any faster, Tyra?” said Sally Kendrick, his passenger and next-door neighbor. The human girl twitched and shifted restlessly in her seat, chewing on the nail of her pinky finger in the way she always did when she felt nervous.
Tyra let out a quick laugh. “Hey, you’re the one who normally complains that I drive too fast.”
Sally frowned at him and crossed her arms. “Well, today’s special. Step on it, Speedy!”
Tyra glanced down at the speedometer. “If I go any faster, I really will get in an accident.”
Sally dug her cellphone out of her backpack and flipped it open. “He’s not answering my texts. I’ve sent him two. Does that mean it’s bad news?”
Tyra couldn’t think of an answer to that question, so he let it drop.
They passed the rest of the trip in a silence weighted with anticipation, but at least it was companionable. The silence was as comfortable and familiar as Sally’s old habit of chewing on her pinky fingernail. Tyra glanced at his human friend. She had dyed streaks of blond in her short, hazel-brown hair, and today she wore it held back with a red headband — her lucky headband, as she liked to call it.
Eventually Tyra pulled his car into the crowded parking lot of Blue Ridge High School. He took the very first available parking spot that he could find, even though it was behind the school in the south lot. After he stopped the car, he pulled down the sun visor to check his hair in the mirror. He fluffed up the light-gold spikes on top of his head and made sure to tuck back a few stray strands behind his pointed, pierced ears. He preferred to show off his eartips as much as he could.
Sally, meanwhile, was already out of the car and had her backpack thrown over her shoulder. She leaned down to look through the passenger door at him. “Yes, yes, you’re pretty, you’re gorgeous. Now cut it out and come on!”
“Yes, dear. Whatever you say, dear,” Tyra responded in a falsetto voice. However, despite his teasing, he hurriedly got out of the car, retrieved his messenger bag from the backseat, and locked the car. “Got everything?” he asked Sally.
“Okay, good. Now, GO!” They both broke into a run for the south entrance of the high school, dodging between parked cars and laughing like they were kids again, running about on a park playground. Tyra had to slow down a bit as they reached the entrance so that Sally could keep up.
They hurried through the crowded halls to reach the senior lockers. Students wove through the building in a sort of unspoken order that looked like an absolute mess to an outsider. Tyra and Sally had to apologize multiple times as they bumped into their classmates and disrupted that order in their haste.
When they reached the senior hall, they had to pause to catch their breath. Tyra spotted their target quickly. His best friend, Jerrik Redforest, stood at his locker, hastily transferring books and folders to and from his backpack. His shaggy hair obscured his eyes as the light brown, silver-streaked locks framed his face.
Tyra had known Jerrik as long as he’d known Sally. They’d grown up together, the three of them, and Tyra couldn’t help but think sometimes that they should have been born as siblings.
“Jerrik!” Tyra shouted to get his attention. The other sire looked up and waved at them, and Tyra and Sally ran to his locker.
“Tell me you got them, Jerrik, just tell me you got them,” Sally said, practically bouncing in place despite the fact that she was winded from the running.
Jerrik shrugged helplessly and gave them a wince. “Weeell….” he said. He drew out the moment painfully before he grinned at them and said. “You bet I did. The online auction for four Bowzer tickets closed just one minute before I had to leave this morning. The top bidder was one Jerrik Redforest, auction stalker extraordinaire.”
“Forests,” Tyra said and sagged against a closed locker in relief.
Sally shrieked in delight and threw her arms around Jerrik. “Oooh, thank you, thank you, thank you! You’re the best sire in whole world!”
Tyra put a hand on Jerrik’s shoulder. “You’re my hero, Jerrik. I’m not even going to argue about the ‘best sire in the world’ comment because I completely agree right now.”
“Heh, I hope you still say that when you have to pay me back for your ticket,” Jerrik said with a wry smile.
Tyra shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. I can cover it.” He could more than cover it. He had money tucked away from work he’d done for his father’s construction company over summer vacation. “We all agreed that seeing the Bowzer concert was going to be worth the extra price.”
Jerrik grinned, his purple eyes twinkling. “Damn straight it’s worth the price.” He shouted out for the rest of the senior hall to hear. “We’re going to see Bowzer this Friday! Arroooo!” He howled the way the Bowzer band leader was known for doing. A couple of students yelled at him to shut up, but a couple of others howled back at him.
Several months ago, Tyrallin had found out that Bowzer, their favorite rock band, had a scheduled stop in Valkyrie Falls. However, the venue where Bowzer would be playing was a very famous and exclusive club called Velvet Shadow. The club had released the entire set of tickets first to its VIP members — and the tickets had sold out before any were released to the general public. Tyra had been angry and disappointed when he found out. The three of them had been struggling to find tickets ever since.
“You know,” said Jerrik, “it’s a good thing Jamie doesn’t like loud music and crowded places. I don’t know what we would have done if we’d needed a fifth ticket. Where is Jamie, anyway?”
“He has a group project due today in chemistry,” Tyra replied. “He’s probably in the lab trying to fix whatever the other kids in his group did wrong.”
Sally looked between them in confusion. “Wait, Jamie’s not going? Then who is the fourth ticket for?”
“I think it’s supposed to be for me, Sally-sweetie,” someone said from the other side of Jerrik’s open locker door.
Jerrik closed his locker door to reveal Atsayal, a pretty lifebearer with his long strawberry-blond hair in a braid and a half-smile playing at the corner of his mouth. Atsayal had a slow and lazy manner that often belied his sharp mind. He usually kept his eyes half-lidded as though he were sleepy, but Tyra knew it was because Atsayal had to constantly control his vision of people’s auras. A crowded hall like this could nearly blind Atsayal because we was an oversensitive magic-user.
“Mm, good morning, you pretty thing,” Jerrik said with an appreciative purr. He leaned down and gave Atsayal a brief kiss.
“But, hellooo, you guys,” Sally said, dragging their attention back. “Atsayal’s seventeen. Velvet Shadow has a bar. People under eighteen aren’t allowed in.”
Atsayal shrugged. “I told them the same thing. However, our two rogues weren’t inclined to hear my objections.” He gave Jerrik a stern look. “There are going to be bouncers at the doors, you know.”
Tyra felt a slow smile start to creep across his face. Ahh, he could practically smell it. An obstacle. Something stood in the way of a desired goal. Jerrik noticed his smile and returned it with one of his own, and the two sires grinned at each other over the heads of their two shorter companions.
“Oh no,” said Sally when she glanced up at them. “You two are doing that thing again. Oh, this can’t be good.”
In unison, Tyrallin and Jerrik looked at Atsayal and said, “We’re getting you in.”
The first bell rang. They had three minutes to get to their first class, and Tyra and Sally hadn’t even been to their lockers yet. Sally let out an indignant noise of frustration and ran off to her locker.
Tyra shared a fraternal handshake with Jerrik. “Nice job,” Tyra said. “See you in homeroom later.”
As students scurried about in that last mad dash to reach their first class on time, Tyra ambled through the hall with a smug smile on his face. Today was a good day.
The friends met during lunch break at their usual place, a large old tree in the yard. It was a beautiful, sunny day, already carrying the promises of summer, and most students milled about in the yard, sitting under the trees, chatting and relaxing after some grueling hours inside the classrooms.
Tyra and Jerrik had endured homeroom with patience, practically bursting with the urge to plan out their trip to the Velvet Shadow and how to get Atsayal in. Their homeroom teacher however had a sharp eye on them out of habit, so they had to postpone their plotting.
Tyra, Jerrik and Atsayal were already in the midst of a discussion when Sally finally showed up.
“I hope you didn't plan for world domination while I was away,” Sally said with a wary look in her eyes. “Since I'm coming with you, what ever mayhem you guys decide to cause, I'll be in the middle of it, too.”
“Don't worry, Sally-sweetheart,” Atsayal assured her. “I heard that underage people get in all the time if you just bribe the bouncers.”
“Maybe, but...” The girl paused as she saw a familiar figure walking towards them. “Jamie, what the hell happened to you?” she exclaimed worriedly.
“The chemistry project happened,” Jamie grumbled. “I have no idea what these imbeciles put in the test tubes in the first place, but when I added the acid, it blew up!” His normally neatly combed brown hair was standing up, and there was a fine layer of gray dust on his face except around his eyes where he had obviously worn protective goggles.
Tyra and Jerrik couldn't help sniggering, but Sally shot them a nasty look and pulled our her handkerchief. “Here. And I told you time and time again not to be such a pushover and help everyone! It's okay if you give those kids a hand who have nobody else to turn to, but most of your classmates are just too lazy to listen to the teacher, and they leave the work to you!”
Tyra noticed Jamie’s grimace, although he was pretty sure Sally missed it. Tyra didn’t think he could be accepting like Jamie if Sally tried to be as protective of him as she was of the human male.
“Thanks,” Jamie said as he took the handkerchief. “But I wasn’t helping them to be nice, you know. It was a group project, so I didn’t really have much of a choice. I can’t let those slackers affect my grade point average. We pulled off the project, but just barely. “ He started wiping his face off, and he and Sally both sat down on the grass with their lashran friends. “Why, oh why did teachers ever invent the primitive torture method known as group projects? They invariably suck for the hardest worker in the group.”
Tyra finished off his second sandwich and dusted the crumbs off his hands. “Oh, I don’t know. I thought our speech in history class about the Nandar immigration and trading policies was rather stellar.”
Jamie arched a brow at Tyrallin. “Okay, so that was kind of cool.” The corner of Jamie’s mouth twitched. “I still think you should have researched the Private Trade Act more thoroughly though.
Tyra sputtered indignantly. He’d worked his ass of on that project. “Hey now, wait just a minute —” Tyra began, but Jamie cut him off before he could finish.
“So did you get your tickets?” Jamie asked.
Tyra sighed. How did Jamie always leave him hanging like that?
“Yep!” said Jerrik. “The seller’s putting them in the overnight mail, so I should have them in my hot little hands tomorrow.”
As his friends began to chat amiably, Tyrallin put his hands behind his head and lay back in the grass, staring up past the tree branches to the blue skies and small puffs of white clouds floating above the school. It was going to be a long week until the concert, but in truth, it was something of a relief to Tyra that he finally had something to plan for, to look forward to. He needed this concert, a night out on the town, exploring a new place he’d never been before. It would be a nice break from trying to make decisions about a future that still seemed so far away and yet all too pressing on the present moments of his life.
“Hey there, sleeping sire,” Atsayal said, pulling Tyrallin back from his daydreaming.
“Shhh, let him be,” Jerrik interjected with a grin. “He's probably dreaming of the concert, and that lead singer Jaydin will notice him in the crowd and give him a special autograph afterwards.”
“I didn't know that you liked him that much,” Sally said. “I prefer Istaris.”
“Oh? Sally-sugar, you have a thing for lifebearers? Why, I had no idea!” Atsayal fluttered his long lashes at her.
Sally then turned to Jerrik with an absolutely serious expression on her face. “Actually, we’ve been meaning to tell you. I’ve stolen Atsayal away from you, and we’re going to elope tonight.” The human female then pounced on the lifebearer and put her hand across his mouth and kissed the back of her hand in an exaggerated fake kiss, after which both lifebearer and girl broke into giggles.
As they calmed down, they noticed Jerrik giving them a flabbergasted expression, which caused them to start laughing all over again.
Tyra scratched his nose thoughtfully. He said to Jamie and Jerrik, “You know, if Jaydin asked me to stand on my hands in the middle of the concert in exchange for an autograph, I’d probably do it. Hell, I’d even be like those female groupies and bear my chest for him to sign if he’d do it.”
Jamie looked at him with a puzzled expression. “But he’s a sire . . .”
Tyra shrugged. “That’s just because there’s a law of nature that nobody can be perfect. If Jaydin were a lifebearer, he’d be perfect, and the law of nature would fail.”
Jamie nudged Tyra’s exposed ribs with his foot, making Tyra gasp and pull away. “Your logic is faulty.”
“You know,” said Jerrik. “I read a rumor on the Internet that Jaydin is trisexual; species and gender just don’t matter to a trisexual.”
“What?” said Tyra. “You mean like this?” He followed Sally’s example and pounced on his best friend, covering Jerrik’s mouth with a hand and kissing the back of own hand with feigned passion.
Atsayal and Sally started howling with laughter again as Jerrik struggled in Tyrallin’s hold, and Jamie just shook his head and muttered, “Idiots.”
Sally calmed down first. “You guys, we should probably start heading back in for classes.”
Tyra and Jerrik groaned in unison about this prospect but pulled themselves up nevertheless.
The friends didn't have any more subjects together for the day, so they all went to separate classrooms. Tyra had a hard time concentrating during his physics class although he usually liked the subject. But today everything had narrowed down to the anticipation of the concert, and he had no idea how he could live through four more days of school until then.
After some endless hours, Tyra was finally free to go home. As usual, Sally was waiting for him at the parking lot. Since their families lived next to each other, it was a practical arrangement to take her with him, and a profitable one, too, for Tyra, since the girl always thanked him with an insanely huge present on his birthday. It was always something she'd made herself, not just bought in a store. This year, Tyra's old, battered skateboard had gotten the most incredible airbrush design.
Tyra drove them both home and pulled up to the curb in front of his house. Sally quickly hopped out of the car.
“I can’t hang out this evening. I’ve got my piano lesson, and then Mom’s hauling me off to aerobics with her,” Sally said with a little moue of distaste.
“No prob,” Tyra replied as he got out of the car and collected his bag. “Come over early tomorrow morning if you have any questions about the calculus homework.”
“Don’t remind me!” Sally groaned. “See you later.” She gave him a wave and then ran across his yard to her own house next door.
Tyrallin walked up to his home, a two-floor, blue house with rose bushes on either side of the front door. He entered the small foyer and put down his messenger bag and started to kick off his shoes. He could hear the sound of the television. “I’m home,” he called out to the house in general.
“Welcome home, and don’t leave your bag on the floor in the front hall!” his father called back from the living room.
Tyra grimaced and picked his bag back up and then went to the living room. His father, Lissem, lay on the couch, and his little brother, Feadri, sat curled up on the loveseat and was wrapped in a blanket. A box of tissues sat on the table in front of Feadri, and a small wastebasket was placed next to the loveseat. The wastebasket was full of used tissues. A movie was playing on the television.
“Hey, Dri, I brought back your homework for the day. How are you feeling?” Tyrallin asked.
The young lifebearer turned tired-looking eyes up at him. “I’b still all stuffed ub.”
“I can hear that. My poor baby bro.” Tyra affectionately ruffled over Feadri's already tousled silver hair. “How about getting you a bunch of autographs from Bowzer?”
Feadri's eyes lit up with interest. “Really? You got the tickets, theb?”
“Yep,” Tyra said with a grin. “We're hitting the concert this Friday!”
“That's wonderful news, darling,” Lissem said, and the willowy lifebearer rose from the couch and embraced Tyrallin with a warm smile. “Well, to celebrate, how about you help me cook dinner since my normal cooking companion is unwell?”
Tyrallin gave his father what he hoped was a woebegone expression. “That's not much of a celebration, dad.”
“Not much of a celebration?” Lissem arched an elegant, silvery eyebrow. “You have been talking of nothing else for weeks now! Not that I share your infatuation with that terrible noise you call music, but it's a parent's duty to see his child happy. Now, what do you think of some veggie lasagna?”
Tyrallin made a face and mouthed the words “veggie lasagna?” at Feadri, who just smiled up at him and shook his head. The younger lifebearer clearly was choosing to stay out of this.
Tyra wished he could suggest they go out to dinner, but there was no way to do that with Feadri feeling ill. So he said to his father, “If you say 'jump,' I'll say 'how high, sir?' If you say 'stir that tomato sauce,' I'll say 'how much seasoning, sir?' Just let me put my things in my room.”
“That's my sweet darling,” Lissem announced proudly, as usual the winner of every discussion that happened in the Alwick household. “And I could also make some chocolate muffins for dessert.”
“Is sire going to be able to make it home for dinner tonight?” Tyra asked as he followed his father into the kitchen and they left Feadri to the movie. He put his bag down next to the stairs to the second floor. “Or is that Gro-En building project of his going to keep him late again?”
Lissem sighed as he started pulling pasta and various cans out of the pantry. “He said he'd do everything he could make it tonight, but I'm pretty sure he'll end up working late again at the construction site. You know how things get with the big projects. And this is a big, big project. I think we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, at least.”
“Yeah, I know how it gets. Actually, I know how he gets,” Tyrallin accepted a couple of cans from his father and got out the can opener to get to work. “When things fall behind, he thinks that just being there makes his workers go faster, but that really isn't the truth. I think he just gets really attached to the projects.”
“Well, you know your sire. He loves his work, and he loves dedicating himself fully to it. But that's okay as long as he doesn't forget his family.” Lissem smiled at his son while he filled some water in the cooking pot. “But one word of advice: when you have a family, always show up for dinner. We lifebearers like to know that our sires are bonded to us, not their office!”
“Come on, dad, bonding and family are still a long way off for me.” Tyra got a fresh onion out of the refrigerator and started dicing it for the tomato sauce.
His father flicked a stray strand of hair over his shoulder and then put the pot on the stove to boil. “Oh, I know that. You’re so picky about the lifebearers you show interest in that I know you’re going to take your sweet time before you settle down. It’s just something to keep in mind for the future.” He got out a large pan and put it on the stove for the tomato sauce, and he gave his son a sidelong glance. “Speaking of the future, have you given any more thought to that growing pile of university acceptance letters on your desk?”
Tyrallin hesitated in his dicing for just a moment, long enough to give away his tension to his father. He clenched his jaw and finished with the onion. Had he given it any thought? He thought about it constantly. One after the other the acceptance letters had come in, most of them with the words “full academic scholarship” dangling from them like ripe treats for the plucking. He had his pick of schools, all of them with outstanding reputations.
“I haven’t made a decision yet, if that’s what you’re really asking.” His father poured the cans of tomato sauce into the cooking pan, and Tyra tossed the diced onion into the sauce. “Trust me, I’ll let you know when I do.”
Lissem got out a wooden spoon for the tomato sauce and handed it to Tyra. He then leaned against the counter and regarded Tyra with an appraising eye. “You should start setting up visits to the campuses, talk to some professors.”
Tyrallin felt his frown deepening. “What’s the point when I’m not even sure which professors from which departments I want to meet with? It’d be a waste of time.” —
“Getting informed is never a waste. Just talk to them, take a look around the campuses, and see if you like the atmosphere. I mean, it's not as if you still have all the time in the world for it,” Lissem reminded him while he put some fresh herbs in the sauce and stirred it. “You have to decide eventually, so take every opportunity that will help you make up your mind.”
Tyra threw his hands up in the air. “Fine, fine! I'll make appointments to visit Dalling and Raylington next week. They're not far, so I can take half days off school to visit. Maybe I can meet with a dean or something instead of anyone from a specific department.”
Lissem leaned in a little and looked up at Tyra. “And you should meet with the guidance counselor at Blue Ridge.”
Tyra pointed the wooden spoon at his father. “Okay, now you're really pushing it. No, not doing it. I don't need some guidance counselor telling me what my options are, especially not Mr. Janison of Blue Ridge High. The man is an a—” Tyra caught himself before he finished the word.
Lissem smiled. “Well, you don't have to like him, just try to listen, Tyra. It's a huge choice you have to make, after all.”
Before Tyra could answer, however, Feadri showed up in the doorframe, clutching a handkerchief.
“Can I do sobething to help?” he asked. “I think I'b actually getting hungry.”
“That's good news, sweetie,” Lissem declared. “If you like, you can put out the dishes. The noodles will take a while, but in the meantime I can make some muffins. Or are my children already too old for them?” he asked teasingly.
“I'b sick,” said Feadri, and he deliberately made big helpless eyes at his father. “I think I need muffins to helb me get better.”
Feadri gave Tyrallin a fleeting, speculative glance. Tyra realized his little brother, the supposedly “cute and innocent” sibling of the two of them, was going to expect a favor in return for taking the heat of the conversation off him. Well, he was still grateful for it, so he turned to Lissem and said, “You know, dad, I think Feadri's right. And I need muffins because I'm a growing sire. I still might be able to reach six-feet-two like sire.”
“So?” Once again Lissem's silvery brows threatened to wander up into his hairline. “Then you're going to need a bunch of new trousers, or you start a new fashion with some high-water pants. Alright, muffins it is. But you two can clean up afterwards if the chocolate gets everywhere again.”
“But you’re the one that always gets the chocolate everywhere,” Tyrallin pointed out.
Lissem started pulling out the muffin ingredients. “I am the lord and master of the kitchen. You are both my squires. I do battle with the muffins, and the squires do the cleanup. Got it?”
“I want promotion to knighthood when I graduate,” Tyrallin said.
“I think I’b more the princess tybe than the squire tybe,” said Feadri.
“Mutiny! Out, out of my domain, you knaves!” Lissem shook the canister of baking cocoa at them threateningly, and the siblings both hustled out of the kitchen and back into the front hall.
“That went well, I thought,” Tyrallin said to Feadri.
“Next time dad tries to get me to audition for a play . . .” Feadri began.
“The favor should be returned. I hear ya, baby bro.” Tyrallin held up his fist, and they bumped knuckles in agreement. “Back to the movie?”
“Movie,” Feadri agreed, and he headed into the living room.
Before following Feadri, Tyrallin glanced at a basket on the table in the front hall. In this basket were kept magazines and daily mail. On top of the pile was a long, stuffed business envelope. It was addressed to Mr. Tyrallin Alwick. The return address on it said “University of Kensing.” He left it sitting in the basket, unopened, and went to watch the movie with his brother.