✨ Chapter 3 ✨

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"No, not again!" Marian pulled her blue-black hair out of reach of the flames. Coughing, she fanned smoke away from her pot of singed dandelions. A petal sparked as it fell to the soil and burned out. "Great rabid rabbits!"

The afternoon session wasn't going any better than that morning's had, and the low chuckle coming from Minx's direction wasn't helping. Marian huffed and fell back into her chair, furiously wiping at her nails. Professor Caustica's mocking coughs echoed from her desk at the head of the lab. "Ten more minutes before inspections, students."

"Well, I guess that's it then," muttered Marian. "There's no passing for me today." She glanced to where Sal sat frowning over her pot of dandelions, her face pinched and determined, as if pleading with the flowers to obey. "Or maybe any of us..."

Endrik stood at his station, rubbing the scruff at his chin while staring at fluffy white dandelions, the way they appear in late summer right before the puffs attached to the seeds float away in the breeze.

"She sounds like a spoiled bride to me, anyway," said Minx, curling the uncovered tips of her fingers around the stem of a dandelion. "Why can't she be happy with roses? Wait—no—I didn't mean—" She winced as half of the flowers inside her pot began to transform, not into flame lilies but into red-orange roses.

Marian looked more closely at Minx's fingerless gloves, admiring the threads of gold woven through the knit pattern.

The clack of footsteps at their backs made both girls jump.

"You've failed, Miss Gullion," Professor Caustica called out as she walked by with her clipboard. "A pity, given that your roses are the best result."

One by one, Professor Caustica pronounced all the summer Glistens failures. The air grew hotter and more stifling with each name she called out. Dejected students slumped in their seats. Whatever focus they'd had dwindled to despair; the passion for their assignment slipped like a rug from underneath them. Instead of wanting to help the hypothetical bride in the assignment, it was as if the students had been too worried about the repercussions of failing.

Professor Caustica turned up her nose. "If it wasn't school policy, I wouldn't bother assigning a Last Chance project. The Glisten community expects me to find students who can follow in the footsteps of the Great Lights. Not failures worried only about themselves."

She continued to wander the aisles, her red robe trailing behind her. "Endrik Sparks and Sal Minikin, you will be on a team. I'm hoping your family relationship will help you find a common ground you might use to succeed. Who do you choose as your third member?"

Minx puffed up, smiling and waving a hand at Endrik. Her face held a look so hopeful and mock-sultry that Marian almost laughed. Marian was sure Sal would choose her over Minx; she wasn't so sure about Endrik, though. Just because he bought lunch for me doesn't necessarily mean he'd like to spend more time with me; I just happened to be walking along with his cousin. Maybe he felt bad offering to pay for her in front of me, she thought, doubt creeping into her confidence.

Sal tugged at her braid. "Marian, please."

"Is that your choice as well, Endrik? Someone who can barely make it past the instructions of the assignment?"

He shrugged. "I trust my cousin's instincts, Prof. C, but thank you for the choice."

Minx's face crumpled. "Of course he'd agree with that little twerp," she hissed under her breath.

Marian and Sal exchanged toothy smiles as Professor Caustica divided the remaining nine students into groups of three. "Miss Spritz," she said to Marian, "you will need to relocate to make room for Miss Gullion's new team."

"On my way, Prof. C." Marian's arms already held a jumble of pencils, notes, and books. She held in a squeal, not knowing whether she was happier about moving away from Minx, getting to work on the assignment with her best friend, or sitting nearer to Endrik, who was likewise in the process of gathering his effects for the move to Sal's table.

"Assigning our lab tables by first name was a ridiculous idea anyway," Marian muttered as she sat down at her new station.

"I'll bet it's nice to finally be away from Rabbit Hole over there," Sal said. She mock-waved across the room and mouthed, "Bye, Minxie."

Minx, with her arms crossed, sat between a pair of identical Glistens who stared at her slack-jawed.

"Rabid rabbits," Marian said while trying to hold back a laugh-snort. "She got stuck with the Fizzle twins."

"From here I can't tell who's drooling over her more—Jinn or Cran," Sal murmured.

Marian's neck prickled as Endrik's elbow brushed hers when he sat down. "Kudos for that, little cousin," he said. "I can't tell them apart face-to-face, let alone across the room."

"Cran's nose gets red when he's embarrassed—happens a lot. Oh, hush, here comes Caustica."

A red robe left a trail of shimmer as the professor strode past their table and up to the front of the room. Her back rose and fell underneath a cascade of dark red-streaked hair before she turned to face the class. She narrowed her yellow eyes as she scanned the room.

"Oh, rabbits," Sal whispered. "She looks ready to burn."

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