I found Lilly, Angel, and Helena in the crowd; they were standing with Elyse Hawkins and a couple of Hunters I didn’t recognize, whispering amongst themselves. As I approached, Helena smiled and waved in my direction, Angel grinned widely, and Lilly smirked.
“Fashionably late–typical de Ardo,” she teased.
“Well, how else do you expect me to get noticed?” I joked. I waved to the Hunters; one smiled pleasantly at me, while her companion greeted me with nothing more than a nod.
“Hi! I’m Cinnamon Swan, freshman Hunter!” gushed the first Hunter. Her straight black hair was streaked bubblegum pink and pulled back in a high ponytail, and her amber eyes seemed to smile along with her black-painted lips. She even threw in a little wave before nudging her friend. “And this is Storm Cloud. They-them pronouns for them, please!”
Storm rubbed the spot on their arm where Cinnamon had nudged them, their pale cheeks tinted pink. Their olive green eyes were dark and tinted grey as they regarded me. “ ‘Sup.”
I smiled. She seems nice… They seem serious. “It’s nice to meet you guys. I’m Cari de Ardo.”
“You’re the witch that beat up a senior vamp,” Storm stated bluntly. Their eyes darkened with recognition. A few nearby students glanced over warily, as if they expected another confrontation to break out.
I nodded. “Only because he compelled my guide. I wouldn’t have done anything to him if he hadn’t made such a jerk move.”One corner of Storm’s mouth rose in a half-smirk. “Nice. If you ever find yourself needing a wolf,
call us. We’ll have your back.”
I blinked. Is this wolf serious? Witches and werewolves are notoriously bad at being friends… Then it hit me. “Storm Cloud–you’re the Denver Pack’s heir, right?”
“One of them,” they clarified. “Why?”
I shrugged playfully. “Hey, you’re the one who offered themself as an ally. I like knowing who my allies are.”
They grinned, showing off their sharp canines. “All business, huh, witch? It’ll be interesting to see what you would need a wolf’s help with.”
They’re not wrong, I realized. There isn’t much I would need a wolf for. If I can’t do it myself or with Axel’s help, then it probably isn’t worth my time.
“Alright, freshmen!” called out the titaness. She was standing with three other adults before the bleachers. Her medium brown hair was pulled up in a bun that sat atop her head, adding to her already towering height. She, along with all of the coaches, were built lean. “My name is Mnemosyne, but you can call me Coach Nemo. Here we have Coach Cynisca–”
The muscular beauty to her left nodded; her thick obsidian waves were pulled up in a ponytail and fell behind her back in a series of braids. Her arms were folded over her chest as she studied us.
The merman with short sun-bleached waves and a boyish smile waved amicably in our direction.
The vampire stood somewhere between Cynisca’s and Hartley’s heights; his onyx hair was pin straight and pulled back as well.
“Welcome to your first night of physical health and fitness!” Coach Nemo grinned. “You see, AOA has a special, secret tradition where, on the first night, we put the first years through some fitness tests. Your peers–”
She gestured to the students seated on the bleachers with her entire hand, palm facing up.
“–will be your audience. They’re here to support you, to cheer you on as you represent your respective groups and families.”
I caught sight of Wihnhilda seated in the middle of the throng; Rafael was to her left, and Madalynn and Evanora were to her right. Rafael averted his eyes; Madalynn whispered something to Wihn, who smirked smugly.
They’re not here to cheer me on.
“You’re going to do one lap around that track–” she gestured behind us. “One lap is equal to a mile, and we want you to walk as fast as you can without jogging. As soon as you cross the finish line, you’ll have your time clocked by me and your heart rate checked by Coach Hartley. Once Hartley let’s you go, you’re moving onto Coach Cynisca, who will watch you do a series of curl-ups. If she’s busy with another student by the time you get to her, move onto Arima-sensei for the trunk lift. If both coaches are busy, just stand-by until they direct you where to go.”
I’m tired just hearing all this, I whined internally.
“After you all have the one-mile walk, curl-ups, and trunk lifts down, we’re going to start doing push-ups as a group. Then we’ll split you all into four groups and test your flexibility with a couple of exercises. After that, we’ll move this party inside for chin-ups and pull-ups, and then we’ll assign your teams for Wednesday’s event.”
Angel’s hand shot up.
Coach Nemo cocked an eyebrow in their direction. “And don’t ask what the event is. It’s a surprise to everyone and randomly selected at the start of class that night.”
The unicorn lowered their hand slowly, shrugging at Lilly’s amused smirk. “What? Worth a shot.”
“With that in mind, freshman, it’s time to show the upperclassmen what you’re made of!” Mnemosyne called out. “Line up at the starting line, and wait for our signal.”
The audience broke out in cheers and hoots as we made our way to the starting line. Helena and I were side by side as we took our places at the start of the track, and while some would consider it odd timing for a random question, I would posit that I had suddenly thought of something about Helena that I hadn’t bothered to ask before.
“Helena?” She looked my way inquisitively, her braids still pulled over her shoulders. “I just realized that I never asked you, but who’s your guide?”
A pink blush spread across her face as she returned her gaze to the track. “Rafael.” she muttered.
“Oh.” I focused dead-ahead as well. If Rafael’s her guide, and Madalynn’s Evanora’s guide from last year, then the only one left who could have turned down the chance to be my guide was Wihn.
“On your marks!” Coach Nemo shouted. “Get set… Go!”