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Welcome To Ilirea

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FÍRNEN

Nearly every day for the next two weeks after that night in the park, Fírnen saw the pretty girl with the blonde hair and blue highlights at school. Up until then, he hadn't realized they actually had a class together. It'd been some cruel twist of fate that he'd ended up in the Dance & Fitness class for his first period of the day, made all the more humiliating by the fact that he was one of only two guys in the class. The two of them tended to commiserate in the back corner, trying their hardest to keep their heads down so they didn't get called out by the teacher.

That morning was much the same. Fírnen stood awkwardly at the back of the class next to Eric, arms crossed over his chest and watching as all the girls streamed in with their various cliques. It was nearly deafening, the chorus of giggles and hushed talking that always came along with them. Sometimes, he felt like a zoologist, studying wild animals in the field. What could they possibly be talking about that was so funny? What kind of secrets did they keep that they felt they needed to constantly be whispering? Maybe they were whispering about him... the New Kid.

It felt like some kind of curse that had plagued his every step. Everywhere he went, people stared, some less subtle than others. But it didn't matter how subtle they were... Fírnen thought he could actually feel their eyes on him. Bad enough that he was new to a small town, but being of Asian decent as well... Suffice it to say, he'd become something of a novelty to a very bland town.

Saphira suddenly entered the room, drawing every eye to her with her magnetic energy. Another, slightly-less-pretty—in Fírnen's opinion, anyways—girl walked next to her, followed by a few other girls that were trying to involve themselves in their conversation. He watched them silently, feeling a little creepy but unable to stop himself. There was just something about her that drew his attention. Maybe it was the way she didn't seem to care what anyone else thought. Or it might have been her wild-colored hair and the fact that she was the only person he knew his own age that had a tattoo. To Fírnen, Saphira was the novel one; the one who stood out in a crowd, while he seemed doomed to fade into the background.

Her electric blue eyes found him in the corner, as they always did, and she offered him her usual wide smile and wave. Two weeks on, she'd ditched the bandage she'd been wearing while the cut on her arm had healed. A strange tingling coursed through his veins as he thought about the night; he'd been doing that a lot lately.

Ever since his accident, when that football player had hit him with his car, Fírnen had found it difficult to sleep. The nights always seemed too long, and too dark. So he'd taken to sneaking out and walking around his new neighborhood. It was nothing he'd ever done before, and he just knew that his mom would kill him if she found out, but it was the only thing that seemed to help him get any kind of meaningful rest. He'd never thought to run into anyone else out seeking a little solace of their own. Even if the circumstances had been somewhat... irregular, a part of him felt that their meeting had been more than coincidence.

But the other, more cautious part of him told Fírnen to stay away from this girl. He was an outsider here, after all, and not planning to stick around for very long after graduation. Plus, what chance did a guy like him stand with a pretty, popular girl like Saphira? He knew that she was best friends with the most popular guy in school... Maybe she and Eragon were a little more than friends. If that was the case, there was no hope for him at all. Why chance heartbreak on such a small probability?

Fírnen suddenly realized he'd been daydreaming while the teacher was talking when Eric elbowed him in the ribs. "Did you hear that?" the tall boy asked, grimacing slightly.

He made a small noise of denial and shook his head. "What's up?"

"We're gonna be starting a ballroom dancing course. Ugh, this is the worst day ever." Eric was a nice kid, if not a little weird. From what Fírnen knew of high school societal hierarchies—which, admittedly, was not a lot—Eric ranked somewhere below the Math and Science Geeks and above the Anime-Obsessed Loners. He had a few friends he ate lunch with in the cafeteria, but generally kept to himself and probably should have showered a little more.

Fírnen thought for a minute, and couldn't quite figure out why this should be considered the "worst day ever", but decided against asking. Better to seem in agreement than to seem ignorant, as his father would say. He looked back towards the front of the classroom where the teacher was standing in front of the wall of mirrors, leaning against the ballet bar.

"Now," Mrs. Hastings continued in her pleasant voice, "obviously there is a very skewed ratio of boys to girls—" cue the raucous chorus of giggling and furtive looks "—so we're going to be fair here." The teacher bent over and picked up a small, plastic bucket off the floor. "In this bucket, are the names of half the students in this class. I'm going to ask the other half to separate and then you'll draw names. Whoever you get, that'll be your partner for the next three weeks. Got it?"

Everyone made vague noises of agreement and then Mrs. Hastings started calling out names. Fírnen's ears perked up slightly when he heard Saphira's name called, and he watched as she went to stand next to her dark-haired friend—who Fírnen now knew was named Grace. His and Eric's names weren't called—shocker of the century, right there—and so they trudged to the other side of the room with the other girls whose names were presumably in the bucket. Once everyone was lined up single-file, the teacher started going down the line of the group across from him.

"When you draw a name, call it out and then go stand next to your partner," she explained. The teacher looked over at the other group of kids. "When your name is called, please raise your hand."

The first girl in line pulled a card and called out the name that was written there, going over to stand next to her partner. As the other girls took their turn, Fírnen realized he had a knot in his stomach. But why was he nervous? He didn't care about dancing with a girl; he'd taken tap dancing when he was little, so he was pretty used to it. Then he realized Saphira was looking at him and smiling, and it hit him.

He was praying she would pull his name.

This is so stupid, he thought to himself, trying to keep his face neutral. I don't care, I don't care, I don't... dammit, I care. What the hell am I gonna do if she pulls my name? I can't do this...

Before he knew it, Mrs. Hastings was standing in front of Saphira and she was reaching into the bucket, making quite a show of swirling the cards around while the girls around her laughed. Neither he nor Eric's names had been called, but there were still a few girls in their line too. The odds of her pulling his name were pretty slim so—

"Fírnen!" she called out happily, looking at the little white card with a gleeful smile. Fírnen felt his heart drop into his stomach and his hands start to shake. Before he could remember to raise his hand and identify himself, she was bounding across the empty space between them and skipping to a stop at his side. When she was stood next to him—only a little bit shorter than he was—he remembered he probably didn't need to identify himself.

"Hey," he managed to squeak out, clearing his throat hastily. "How's your arm?" They hadn't actually spoken to one another since the incident, which he realized now was pretty stupid on his part. Of course he had wanted to talk to her, but he hadn't had enough presence of thought to realize that he already had a perfect avenue to start a conversation.

"It's fine, thanks," she replied, clasping her hands behind her back and rocking up on her tippy-toes and then back down. "Healed up pretty nicely after Mrs. S took a look at it. She's a nurse."

Fírnen gave her what he was sure was a blank look. "Mrs. S?" he asked slowly.

"Eragon's mom," she explained. "She's practically my second mom. Anyways, it healed up nice. Even left a kickass scar that I can tell ridiculous stories about." She held up her arm for him to inspect and, sure enough, there was a puckered, pink scar there that was still slightly inflamed from the healing process. The skin around the scar still looked slightly bruised, but it was definitely almost completely healed.

Fírnen wasn't quite sure what to say, so he just settled on, "Cool. Glad to hear it."

Saphira gave him a small smile which did all kinds of things to him, and then turned back to look at the teacher. She'd finished with the name bucket and was standing in front of them now, explaining the curriculum for the next three weeks. They'd start out with the waltz the first week, then the foxtrot, and finish the course learning the quickstep. At the end of the three weeks, the pairs would have to choose one of the dances they'd learned and perform for the class for a grade. Fírnen just hoped that his limited experience with dance class would help him here, but it wasn't likely. Ballroom was a whole different ballgame from tap, and he'd been so little when he'd taken classes. He wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he'd forgotten everything he ever knew.

"Alright, everyone," Mrs. Hastings said loudly, clapping her hands together. "Let's spread out and pair up." Eric shot him a sympathetic look as he walked to the other side of the room with his partner, a short girl with mousy brown hair and glasses that were too big for her small face. Eric towered over her, and she was shaking like a leaf; Fírnen tried to contain his laughter but he let out a snort, which drew Saphira's gaze. She followed his line-of-sight and then smiled softly.

"Poor Amelia," she said quietly, walking backwards til they got to a spot she seemed to approve of. "The rumor mill has been churning out that she's got the hots for Eric. She looks like she's gonna be sick." Fírnen had a hard time believing that anyone could have "the hots" for Eric, but then realized that was a mean thing to think and silently reprimanded himself. It's not like he was any better looking than the gangly, beanstalk of a boy who'd become something of a comrade in the past few weeks.

"Now, the first thing we're going to be working on," Mrs. Hastings said from her place at the front of the room, "is a proper ballroom hold. Can anyone tell me what that means?"

A slim, blonde girl standing near the stack of aerobic steps raised her hand, eyes wide with anticipation. Mrs. Hastings pointed to her. "It refers to the position of the arms, shoulders, neck, and head during a particular dance."

"Very good, Ellie," she praised the student. "Now the waltz requires what's known as a 'closed position'. For propriety's sake, we're going to be working with what I like to refer to as a 'loose position' hold. Basic techniques will remain the same, with a few key differences. First things first... for my girl-girl partnerships—no jokes, please... you're going to have to decide which of you is going to be the 'man'. Fírnen and Eric—" she fixed each of them with a slightly-amused look "—you've got it a little easier. In this position, the 'man' places his right hand on the 'woman's' lower back and holds her right hand with his left at about shoulder height. The 'woman' will place her left hand on the 'man's' shoulder. Everyone got it? Alright, let's try it!"

Fírnen swallowed a massive lump that had suddenly appeared in his throat. Saphira was looking at him expectantly, arms held up and a smile on her face. The look in her eyes seemed to be asking if he was ready; the answer was a resounding "no". Tentatively, he took her hand in his own and wrapped his right arm around her waist. At that point, he wasn't quite sure where to put his hand, so he left it hovering a little ways away from her.

She placed her hand on his shoulder and scooted a little closer to him. "I hope this is right," she chuckled slightly. "You're supposed to put your hand on my back." She gave him a wry smile, which made him feel like he might throw up.

"Umm," he stammered, "I... is this...?" Feeling like the biggest fool in the world, Fírnen placed his hand on what he hoped was the small of her back. This was the closest he'd ever been to a girl, and the blood was rushing to his face just thinking about it.

Saphira coughed to try and cover up her laugh, but her face betrayed her amusement. "Fírnen," she said softly. The way she said it sent a shiver down his spine, and a tingling running through his fingers.

He swallowed the lump in his throat. "Yes?"

"That's not my back," she said quietly. Fírnen snatched his hand away and stepped away from her.

"Uh... uh I'm sorry, I didn't—"

Saphira laughed boisterously, the sound simultaneously comforting and invigorating. "It's okay," she reassured him. "Come on, let's try again." She took a step towards him and held her arms up expectantly.

But Fírnen felt rooted to the spot, practically shaking from his embarrassment and unwilling to subject himself to that humiliation again. This was stupid; why did he even care what she thought? It wasn't like they really knew each other all that well, so what was there for him to be embarrassed about? But the truth of it was... he wanted to know her better. He wanted to understand where her vivacity came from; what kept her smiling when it seemed like no one else was; why she even went out of her way to talk to him. There was so much about her he wanted to understand, but he had no way of knowing where to start.

It couldn't have been as easy as a dance... could it?

Mustering his courage, Fírnen stepped towards her determinedly. His palms were sweaty, and he was sure he looked absolutely scared to death, but her smile was enough for him to focus on. As long as she kept smiling, he could do this. He settled into the hold and placed his hand at the middle of her back, opting for this safer option rather than embarrassing himself again.

Mrs. Hastings was walking around the room inspecting everyone's form. She stopped at the two of them and complimented their hold before moving on to the next. They separated after that to wait for further instruction, but Fírnen was still buzzing from where the contact had just been. These next three weeks were going to be some of the most interesting weeks of Fírnen's life, but he was equal parts excited and terrified to experience it. Something big was coming his way, he could feel it. He just hoped that Saphira was going to be a part of it.

 


 

His next period of the day—AP European History with Mr. Long—he sat next to Arya, who'd been a great source of help to him in his first few weeks of school. After getting over the initial hiccups, he'd found her surprisingly easy to talk to. Where Saphira was a bit of a novelty to him, Arya felt like somewhere safe he could retreat to when things got to be overwhelming. She seemed to understand what it was like to be an outsider. Though Fírnen couldn't begin to imagine what a smart, beautiful girl like her would had to have endured to be able to relate to him.

She never spoke about it—not to him, anyways—but there was an underlying sadness to her that Fírnen recognized in himself. The same determination he had to find an avenue to get out of this little town, he saw reflected in her dedication to her schoolwork. Already, she had helped to tutor him in a couple of areas where he struggled.

"The key to success," she always said, "isn't understanding, it's memorization. All the teachers around here, they just copy and paste their test questions straight from the textbooks. If you can memorize the things you learn in class, then you'll always pass the tests with flying colors."

That was something he'd never really thought about, but she'd been right, of course. The moment he'd started focusing on memorizing the answers, instead of trying to cram as much knowledge into his brain on the off-chance that it'd be on the test, he'd started getting high Bs and low As. He'd been able to maintain all of his grades from the beginning of the semester, and his parents had certainly taken note of that. It seemed he had more to thank Arya for than just her friendship.

Mr. Long had gifted them all with another of his "surprise pop quizzes" that morning, so they were currently sitting in silence focusing on an 8.5x11 sheet of paper containing a myriad of questions about the Hundred Years War. Luckily for Fírnen, Arya had helped him make some flash cards during the free period they shared during 5th period, and he was able to breeze through the test with an acceptable degree of confidence. Arya shot him a reassuring look as she walked up to Mr. Long's desk and handed in her test. Fírnen followed quickly after once she'd sat down, not wanting to seem too eager.

As he trekked back to his seat, he noticed the door to their classroom open and a well-built man with graying blondish hair and a matching beard walk into the room. He was wearing a dark suit and tie, and Fírnen seemed to recognize him as the Vice Principal, but he couldn't be sure.

When he sat back in his desk, the man cleared his throat and quietly said Mr. Long's name. But, as was usually the case, Mr. Long had his nose buried in a book and wasn't paying any attention. The possibly-Vice-Principal cleared his throat again, and said his name a little louder, but still, Mr. Long didn't look up. Finally, the man said, "Jeod!" in a harsh tone and the teacher startled himself out of his concentration.

"Huh? What? What's going on?" he asked, hastily looking around the room and readjusting his horn-rimmed glasses. Fírnen had always thought him to be a nervous, jumpy-sort of man, and this incident only furthered his opinion. Finally, Mr. Long noticed the man standing in the doorway to his classroom and stood up from behind his desk.

"Vice Principal Glaedr, what can I do for you?" he asked, putting his book down.

"I need to speak with you in the hall," the other man replied, slightly irritated.

Mr. Long looked around his classroom, almost helplessly. "B-but..." he stammered, "we're right in the middle of a pop quiz."

"It's urgent," the Vice Principal insisted. Mr. Long swallowed a lump in his throat and then nodded quickly, walking around his desk and down the aisle in between his students to get to the door.

He stopped right under the doorframe and looked back at his class nervously. "Uh... don't cheat," he said, trying to imitate sternness. It only earned him a few giggles, so he walked out into the hallway without another word.

"Wonder what that's all about," Fírnen mused, looking over his shoulder at the slowly closing door. He could just glimpse the back of Mr. Long's head through the skinny glass pane of the door, but it was impossible to gauge what they could be discussing.

"Knowing Vice Principal Glaedr," Arya remarked casually, "it probably isn't nearly as urgent as he's making it sound."

A few short seconds later, Mr. Long reentered the classroom and cleared his throat loudly, drawing everyone's attention. The room fell silent, and Fírnen suddenly felt very uncomfortable.

"Umm, Nasuada, I'm sorry but you're needed at the front office," Mr. Long said, nervously twiddling his hands in front of his waist. A pretty, dark-skinned girl Fírnen had never noticed before stood up slowly, bracing one hand on her desk and clutching a locket around her neck with the other. "Your father is waiting for you," the teacher continued quietly. Fírnen thought he could see the girl starting to cry, but to her credit, she didn't sway or show any other signs of weakness.

Slowly, she gathered her things in her backpack and swung it over her shoulder, cutting around the back of the classroom as everyone watched her go. Whatever was happening, Fírnen was certainly impressed by her fortitude. After she was gone, Mr. Long returned to his desk and instructed everyone that they only had twenty minutes to finish their test. Fírnen leaned back in his chair, thinking about the tall, slender girl, and hoping everything was okay.