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Welcome To Ilirea

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"How's it even possible that we have homework on the first day of school?" Saphira complained as she stared out the window idly. She didn't need to be looking at Eragon to see the smile on his face.

"The teachers at this school are dicks," he remarked. "They're not gonna go easy on you."

"Yeah, well…" Saphira crossed her arms over her chest, sinking down into the bucket seat and sulking like a kid. "Just because I know they're dicks doesn't mean I can't complain about it."

"I thought you'd be happy about it." Eragon pressed down the clutch and shifted quickly, causing the car to jerk forward a bit. "Makes it easier to maintain your GPA, yeah?"

Saphira sighed dramatically. "How many years have you been in school, Eragon?" He cocked his head at her and twisted his mouth. "Then you should know that isn't how any of this works. If I'm swamped in all my classes, then I run the risk of becoming overwhelmed and falling behind."

"Hey," he said unsympathetically, "you're the one who decided to take nothing but college-level courses your senior year. You'll find no compassion here, my friend."

She grumbled a petulant "whatever" under her breath, and turned closer to the window, staring intently at the rows of cookie-cutter houses as they passed them. The neighborhoods blended together, becoming indistinguishable as they whizzed by. Eragon really did need to learn how to slow down. He was likely to get somebody killed one of these days.

"You shoulda taken a page outta my book," Eragon continued on, unaware—or maybe he just didn't care—of his friend's sulking.

"What?" she shot back hotly. "Slack off and take as few classes as possible? Filled to the brim with Freshmen?" She hadn't meant it to sound so mean… Well, maybe she had, but Eragon could be so clueless sometimes. Did he not understand how much this year meant to her? How much it should mean to him?!

He rolled his shoulders in a show of flippancy. "Well excuse me for not wantin' to kill myself my last year of high school," he mumbled, popping the transmission into third so he could swing around a tractor.

"With the way you drive, Eragon, it's practically a guarantee. You know you're not supposed to drive into oncoming traffic, right!" Saphira gripped the seat tightly, squeezing her eyes shut as they raced along the two-lane road.

Eragon just let out a raucous laugh and swerved sharply into her neighborhood, barely tapping on the breaks and practically sending Saphira flying into his lap. "Where's your sense of adventure, Saph?"

"It died!" she yelled fearfully. "Right along with your common sense!" That just caused him to laugh more. It wasn't quick enough when he pulled into her driveway thirty seconds later. Without a second thought, she flung herself from the car and ran around the front, coming to the driver's side window. Eragon cranked it down with a wicked grin and playfulness in his eyes.

"Come on, Saph, you know I'm just playing around." Against her better judgment, Saphira felt herself softening at his boyish charm.

"Your 'just playing' is going to cost me my life one day, Eragon." She reached through the open window and mussed his hair playfully. "And then you'll be really sorry." She gave him a small smile and then turned towards the house, bounding onto the front step and reaching for her keys.

"Remember, Saph," he called out the window, "twenty-til and not a minute later. Got it?"

She waved him away dismissively. "Yeah, yeah, see ya tomorrow, Eragon!"

She pushed open the door without looking over her shoulder and listened as the engine rumbled down the street. When the low roar of Eragon's car was finally gone, she strolled into the kitchen and opened the fridge, searching for a snack. A packet of nuts and cheese seemed to be calling her name, so she snatched it without really worrying if anyone had already laid claim to it. Readjusting her bag on her shoulder, she raced up the staircase and shot straight for her room, closing the door swiftly before her mom realized she was home. It was past dinner time, and she didn't really want to listen to any lectures at the moment.

It wasn't really her fault that she was so late. The entire percussion section had decided to goof around for the first hour of rehearsal, and Mr. Adams had made them all stay late because of it. Not that it mattered; she knew she needed to get her drill down before their first show, which was only in about a month. As co-section leader, she felt obligated to be ahead of the curve... But this year, she'd been so damn distracted.

Between her coursework and the drama between her and Eragon, it all felt like a bit much. She knew it was only the first day, but already she was a little less excited for this year than she had been only a couple months ago. Her Senior Year was supposed to be a time for making memories and having fun with her friends. If she had any plans of making that happen, she was gonna have to tough it out like never before.

She sat down at her desk and pulled out a few of the assignments she'd been given today. It seemed her AP teachers didn't really care if it was the first day or not. But it didn't really bother her as much as she'd made it seem. They only took her about an hour and a half to finish, and then she snuck down to the kitchen to grab something out of the fridge. There was half of a Subway sandwich sitting on the first shelf, so she snatched it and quickly slipped out the back sliding glass door. She wasn't allowed to eat in her room, and she didn't really want to hang out in the living room, in case her mom or dad found her. This day had left her feeling weird, and Saphira didn't really want to interact with anyone right now.

Outside, it was dusky and warm, with a slight haze in the sky. This was her favorite time of day, when everything seemed to slow down as the town prepared to rest for the night. In this sleepy little town, it was unlikely that a lot of people would be out and about. As quietly as she could, Saphira unlatched the back gate and stepped onto the sidewalk, swiftly closing the gate behind her. She started to walk down the empty street, munching on her sandwich as she went. Somewhere in the distance, an owl hooted, and she could hear the faint howl of a coyote. She touched her key ring where it still lay in her pocket, making sure her mini-brass knuckles were still there. The last thing she needed was to cross paths with a coyote or a stray dog.

There was a community park in their neighborhood, and sometimes she went there to be alone and just think. Over the past week, she'd been there a lot, ever since Eragon had admitted his plans to leave her. When it got dark, the park stayed mostly deserted, so it was the perfect place. After a short, ten minute walk, the swing set came into view.

Saphira finished off her sandwich and threw the paper wrapper in the trash can, then skipped over to the swing and sat down in the tallest of the seats. These things weren't really made for kids her age, but she was kinda small, and there was something so freeing about swinging as high as you could. Sometimes, when she got way up there, it almost felt like she could fly.

For the first twenty minutes, she just swung there silently. With every movement, backwards and forwards and backwards again, it felt like a little bit of her stress would disappear. The expectations she placed on herself... woosh... the pain every time she thought of Eragon leaving... wooooosh... the debilitating fear that she would never be good enough... WOOSH!

The flimsy, rubber seat suddenly disappeared from beneath her. Air rushed past, and she was free as a bird, floating through the air on invisible wings. For a moment, she felt some unspeakable joy... but then reality hit. Or rather, she hit the ground... hard.

"Ouch!" she cried out, gritting her teeth. A shock of pain ran up her arm, reverberating in her shoulder.

"Hey!" a voice rang out. "Are you okay?"

Saphira looked around for the unfamiliar voice, and saw a shadow emerge from under the jungle-gym. The shadow stepped into the light of the streetlamps, and she recognized the new kid that lived around the corner from her. She was too shocked to say anything, realizing he must have been there the whole time, just watching her swing.

"Um..." she stammered out, struggling to push herself upright, "yeah, I'm... um." Saphira glanced down at her arm and saw a small trickle of blood eking out of an ugly wound. She never could understand why they used wood mulch on playgrounds. The bloody mess that was her arm was Exhibit A on why it was a bad idea.

"Oh, geez," the kid hissed, kneeling next to her and touching her arm gingerly. Saphira pulled away with a wordless cry of pain, flinching from the stinging of her exposed nerves. "That doesn't look good."

"It hurts," she said dumbly, looking down at it again.

"Yeah, I bet," the kid laughed slightly. Saphira gazed up at him, unsure whether to laugh with him or rage at him for making fun of her. It took her a moment, but she decided he didn't mean any harm by it. "Here," he continued, putting a hand under her other arm, "let me help you up." Slowly, the kid pulled her to her feet as she swept dirt off her legs and side.

"Um... thanks," she muttered, poking at the gash on her arm. It wasn't very deep, but it was long, and dirty with mulch and soil. Gingerly, she swept away most of the mulch still sticking to her, wincing at the pain.

"You gonna be okay?" her neighbor asked in concern, tilting his head at her slightly. He was a little bit taller than her, and his brown eyes were warm with genuine concern.

Not trusting her voice altogether, Saphira just settled for a nod. They stood there in awkward silence for a moment, making the hairs on the back of her neck stand straight up. Suddenly, she thrust her left hand out. "I'm Saphira," she blurted out quickly.

The boy gave her a half-smile and took her hand to shake it. "Fírnen," he replied simply.

When his hand touched her own, Saphira felt a strange tugging in the pit of her stomach. Hesitantly, she pulled away, chewing on her bottom lip. Now what?

"Uh..." She stumbled for a moment before she thought of something to say. "How's your head? Sorry Eragon hit you with his car." She'd been absolutely mortified when Eragon had told her that.

"So that's his name..." Fírnen laughed awkwardly, rubbing at the back of his neck. "Yeah, I'm a little banged up... definitely a little sore, but I'll be okay. No hard feelings." His smile was genuine, but Saphira still felt terrible.

"He's a bit of an idiot," she explained, fiddling with the hem of her shirt. "Doesn't usually look where he's going. He's almost killed me more than a few times. But he's my best friend, so..." She let the thought trail off. Why was she even saying any of this? Idiot!

"Some friend," he chuckled, putting his hands in his pockets.

The words began pouring out of her before she could stop. A part of her just wanted to fill the silence, but there was something about this kid that was approachable. And she was curious about this newcomer to their tiny little town. "It's fine," she said with a shrug and a laugh, "I'm still alive, aren't I? Besides, what would life be without a little adventure? It's fun sometimes, even if it's mostly scary. One time, we were coming home from a football game, and he almost hit a steer that was standing right in the middle of the road. You should have heard him scream. It was hilarious!"

Fírnen just stared at her in dumfounded silence for a minute, mouth hanging slightly open. "Wow," he finally drawled out, "that sounds... crazy." If not for his smile, she would have shut up right then and there.

I think I'm gonna be sick, Saphira thought to herself, giving him what she was sure was an awkward attempt at a smile. "Sorry," she finally admitted, "I get kinda nervous talking to new people. And when I'm nervous, I tend to word-vomit. I'm sorry... um..."

"That's alright," he said. "I don't really have an easy time talking to new people either. But you looked like you were really hurt, so I wanted to make sure you were okay."

She stole another glance down at her arm. "Yeah, I'll be fine. Should probably clean it out though. Don't want to get an infection... or something."

Fírnen chuckled at her endearingly. "I can walk you home, if you want?" he offered. At that moment, a coyote yowled somewhere nearby, drawing both their attentions.

"Uh, yeah that might be a good idea," she stammered out, cradling her right arm with the left. They started walking, leaving the dark playground behind.

Saphira knew that he lived a little closer to the park than she did, and thought it was nice that he'd offered to walk her home. "So, how long have you lived here?" he asked, a brave attempt at small talk.

She couldn't help the snort that escaped her. "I was born here, so all my life. My dad is a general contractor, so as long as there's work, I don't think my parents will ever leave. Me, on the other hand... I'm gettin' out of here as soon as I can."


"Hell yeah," she said with a laugh. "I want to go to Texas A&M. They've got an incredible aerospace engineering program."

Fírnen seemed surprised—and maybe a little impressed—at her choice of study. "Wow, that's some heavy stuff."

"I want to work for NASA or Boeing," she explained further, unsure why she was telling him all of this. "I've always been fascinated by flight, and I think it'd be really cool to design airplanes or spacecraft."

"Yeah, that would be cool. It's awesome that you have a plan..." He fell silent, and Saphira could tell he'd left something unsaid.

"You don't?" she questioned tentatively. They were strangers—had literally just met each other—and she didn't want to seem like she was prying.

Fírnen didn't seem to mind though. "Not really," he mumbled, offering her a shrug. "I know I want to go to college, just don't know where yet. All I know is that it will be nowhere near here. I never knew a place could be so hot."

She laughed aloud at that; a true, boisterous laugh. "You're from... Pennsylvania, right?" she questioned when her laughter had died down.

"Ohio," he corrected her. "I've never experienced temperatures like this before."

"Triple digits definitely take some getting used to. But you'll get acclimated, I promise. Are you liking school here, though?"

It took him a long time to answer that one, and Saphira wondered if she'd overstepped some unseen boundary. But finally, he said, "It's different. I never thought I'd be starting all over, and definitely not in my Senior Year. But... I'll be okay."

They were almost to her house, but Saphira found she suddenly didn't want to go home. She couldn't quite place what it was, but she found that she really enjoyed speaking to Fírnen. He was so laidback, and really easy to talk to. When she finally stopped at her back gate, it felt like a pit had opened in her stomach.

"Well, this is me," she said quietly, pointing over her shoulder at the back of her house. "Thanks for walking me home."

"You're welcome," he replied, turning and walking in the direction of his own house.

Before he'd taken more than a few steps, Saphira called after him. "Hey, Fírnen!" He turned and looked at her expectantly, somewhat unsure. "If you ever find yourself lonely, or just want someone to vent to... I'm here to listen."

He smiled at her then, a dazzling, genuine grin. "Thanks, Saphira," he said. "I appreciate it." Then he turned and continued his trek down the street.

Saphira waited til he was out of sight, then raised the latch on the gate and stepped into her backyard. She could see her mom through the kitchen window over the sink, presumably washing dishes or something along those lines. So much for staying unseen, she thought to herself, sliding open the back door and stepping up into the house.

"Hey honey," her mom said without looking at her. "Did you eat anything?"

"Yeah, I did." Saphira slipped her shoes off and picked them up, brushing off a few stray pieces of mulch that had stuck to her leg.

Her mom looked over and let out a horrified gasp. "Saphira! What happened to your arm?"

She stifled a groan, forgetting how her mother liked to over exaggerate. Vervada Brighton was a caring woman, but sometimes a little too caring for her daughter's liking. "Mom," she moaned, "I'm fine. Please, don't make a big deal out of this."

Her mother scurried across the kitchen to her, gripping her arm painfully and pulling it closer to her face so she could inspect the wound. "Oh, honey, I've gotta clean this. Come here." She dragged her daughter over to the sink and bent over, rooting around in the cabinet underneath the sink and pulling out a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. Her mom unscrewed the cap and held Saphira's arm over the sink, pouring the sterilizing liquid over her open wound.

"Ow!" Saphira squealed, trying not to pull away as the liquid burned and bubbled on the surface of the gash. "Ow, ow, ow Mom, that's enough."

"You need to put a bandage on it, Saph," Mrs. Brighton said calmly. She bent back over and opened a drawer, pulling out a bucket labeled 'First Aid'. Her mom pulled out a cloth pad and a roll of gauze, placed the pad over her wound, and then began rolling the gauze around her arm. When she was done, she tied it off and then gave her arm a gentle pat. "There," she proclaimed, "all better."

Saphira gave her mother a deadpan look. "Thanks, Ma. That's much better." She leaned forward and planted a kiss on her mom's cheek. "I'm going to bed now. I'll see you in the morning."

"Okay, honey. Goodnight." Her mom gave her a simple smile and then turned back to what she'd been doing before. Being a housewife for almost twenty years, she'd become almost neurotic about keeping everything clean.

Saphira hurried off to her bedroom without another word. As she got ready for bed, careful not to pull off her bindings, she couldn't help but think of the kind boy she'd met tonight. There was something about him she was drawn to, though she couldn't explain it. She crawled into bed and looked down at her phone. There were a few missed text messages from various people, but they could all wait until the morning. The only thing on her mind right then was a pair of golden-brown eyes.