3.7: Crimson

Rum takes the soapy plate from Auriel and rinses it clean. He makes a face for the ceramic surface to reflect, his smile full of teeth. Auriel snickers and nudges his gently, urging him to move the plate down. When he turns to hand the plate to Nuria, his cheery mood flatlines.  In her grasp is a dry plate she’s still wiping in circular motions, staring ahead blankly. He grimaces and moves to snatch the plate away but Auriel beats him to the punch.

     “Go upstairs, sweetie. We’ll finish the dishes,” Auriel says, grabbing the plate before Nuria absentmindedly drops it like she does the rag. The phoenix shuffles away silently and sluggishly.

     Rum scoffs. “Don’t you think it’s time we did more than let her stay sad? It’s been a week already.”

     “This is more than sadness, Aurum.” Auriel puts the dry plate in the dish rack, picks up the rag, grabs the damp plate from Rum, and commences wiping it. “She’s dealing with a lot. Some things we know. Some things we don’t. Us rushing her to be happy won’t change anything. We have to let her process things at her speed. And it’s working. We got her out of her room today.”

     “Yeah, for five minutes.” Rum points to a messy plate beside a full plastic container on the kitchen island counter. “She didn’t speak. She didn’t eat. And now she’s gone again! How are you okay with that?”

     Auriel lays a hand on the sink and one on her hip. “Why aren’t you okay with that?”

     “Because she acts like the world ended! It didn’t! We made it through! We had to punch and bite and claw our way through all that crap, but we did it! Being sad after the fact gives those jerks more to be proud of! We need to stop crying and start fighting!” Rum rants, though his real issue is that, for the second year in a row, his sister is delaying his desire to learn of his real parents, and he doesn’t want to leave Nuria out of that conversation.

     Auriel studies Rum for several moments then shrugs. “Perhaps her world did end. I’ve stayed in contact with Stark all semester long between calls with you and Nuria to learn what you don’t always tell me, such as the mall bombing.” The look she gives Rum promises a punishment is coming. “My world almost ended a week and a half ago when news of the War of FHA popped up on my radar.”

     “You saw it on the news?”

     “I received a phone call from Four Hearts the day after. First, Nuria’s professor, Reddic, called on Stark’s behalf while she was otherwise busy. Stark called me again later that same day.”

     Reddic said with a grin, “That’s a theory I hope we get to prove true. What do you say, Aurum? Do you have a dream you care to share?”

     At that time, Rum was already growing suspicious of Reddic than ever. His sudden appearance at FHA, his unrivaled knowledge about the phoenix species, and his ability to turn invisible were the biggest factors. But when Rum decided to follow Nuria down into the cabin basement, the final straw was the garden full of flowers producing sun seeds, Nuria’s medicine growing up. Knowing that being at a high peak like the Drijadi Hills and having sun seeds on emergency standby fit too perfectly to be natural.

     Rum narrows his eyes as he hangs his head. I suppose it’s no big deal for Reddic to get the number from Stark. But still…

     “How do you feel about Nuria no longer taking the sun seeds as medicine?”

     Auriel lifts an eyebrow. “Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. They were always a stop-gap until she was capable of a certain proficiency with her phoenix powers. It’s not widespread knowledge since Vanusi like her are rare but most like our dear Nuria use them in their early life.”

     “How’d you learn about it?”

     How did Reddic?

     “I was told. The same doctor that I had falsify Nuria’s blood tests informed me early on when she was a baby. He connected with a company who could supply me a sun seed prescription as needed.”

     Company or individual?

     “Why do you ask?” There’s a fearsome glint in Auriel’s eyes.

     Disguise the truth.

     “I want to tell you the things I haven’t told you or had the chance to tell you. Nuria’s sun seed situation was just the first one to cover.”

     “Didn’t that happen after the mall bombing?”

     “You sure that’s where you want to start?”

     Auriel turns around, leans against the sink, and crosses her arms. “Don’t leave anything out.”

     Rum sighs and hangs his head again to hide his pensive expression.

     Maybe I can steer the conversation back to see if I can ferret out a connection with her and Reddic. Until then, I’ll have to see what happens.

     Rum paints on his best steely visage in the hopes of hiding his motives. He goes over the events of the mall bombing in as great a detail as he can recall. He includes his talk to Pan about training with Tameri (even mentioning the underground complex at Vanis Town), the kiss they share before being attacked, lied on, and saved by Aven, the explosions that rocked the mall, he and Shuri saving Nuria from a woman with ice powers, and the army captain with the ring sword covering their escape.

     “Captain with a ring sword? Do you mean chakrams?” Auriel asks right away.

     “No, it was just one big ring sword shaped like a snowflake. Um, her name was…Venesi. Venesi, yeah. Her nameplate said “Captain” on it. She’s probably still on campus.”

     “Describe her.”

     Interesting.

     “A little older than me. Maybe twenty. Dark hair. Green eyes. Fair-skinned. Very serious and rigid with her orders. She was like a young version of you.”

     “Excuse you?” Her fearsome gaze returns.

     “Sorry, a younger version of you.”

     “Try again.”

     “She’s…um…following in…your foot…steps?”

     “Better.” Auriel smiles then blinks, no doubt discovering something he’s missed.

     So, Captain Venesi has a part in this, too? Well…damn. That doesn’t help.

     “Anyway, in that area of Vanu should be the 60th Regiment.”

     “It’s the 61st Regiment,” Rum corrects.

     Auriel is stricken by another look of shock and discovery. Her silence gives him nothing probative, so he goes digging.

     “What’s wrong?”

     “That means they retired the 60th Regiment without a formal ceremony. That never happens.”

     “Who was the captain back then? Maybe they retired?”

     “Her name was Viary and she’d never retire. No soldier is, or rather, was as devoted as that one. And even if she did retire, that would’ve made headlines even out here. Then her replacement would be named promptly.” Auriel sighs heavily. “Sorry, just realizing how much I’m missing being out of active duty.”

     “Do you ever miss it?”

     Auriel dumps the dishrag and invites Rum to the living room. Auriel sits and grabs the remote but doesn’t turn the tv on. She wrestles to choose between a rigid or casual posture.

     “Honestly, not as much as I thought. But on days like today, it’s hard to resist the urge to call my former CO.”

     “CO?”

     “Commanding Officer. He was my mentor back then. He taught me everything I know. When I left active duty to raise you and your sister, he understood. Too bad I didn’t. The world that was taking shape around me was glorious. It hurt like hell to leave. I felt just like how Nuria does now. Only, I had two children depending on me, so I didn’t have the luxury of being in that state to heal. Funny thing, though. It didn’t last long.” Whatever she remembers makes her laugh for a few moments.

     “Okay, you’ll get a kick out of this story. I was a decorated soldier with exceptional combat skills…but had no clue how to change diapers.”

     Rum lets a snort slip, feeling he knows where the story is going.

     “I had you both on this couch. You were on one blanket and Nuria on another. You had a diaper rash and wouldn’t stop crying, so I tackled your mess first. Nuria, the silly baby she was, was rolling around in her…mess, laughing up a storm. While tangling with you, she decided to try and roll off the couch. When I dove to catch her, I scooped you up in my other hand just in case.” Auriel points to the floor. “I ended up covered in poop because your loose diapers fell as I held you in the air. For the first time since I’d taken you in, I heard the two of you laugh at the same time. It might’ve been your angelic laughing or the absurdity of the situation I landed myself in, but I started to laugh, too. To me, that was when my new world took shape and I knew I was where I was meant to be.

     “Nuria hasn’t had the chance to let even one world take shape outside of us. I regret that my choice to remove you both from SMSP (Sakela Middle School Preparatory) impacted that. And now, both her years at FHA might seem worthless. The conflict she and Tyra had nearly invalidated her first year. The war and losing Ibri House were no doubt rough for her, and I wholly understand that pain and sorrow. That’s why I’m okay giving her time. Can you do the same?”

     Rum wants to but he’s given her so much already. He’s tired of waiting to know about his parents. The shades of crimson in his inner mosaic pulse rapidly.

     “Let’s make a deal,” Auriel announces.

     “A deal? For what?”

     “Don’t think I don’t know what you truly want, Aurum. I also know why you’re stalling. However, I’m willing to give you an out. If Nuria isn’t ready to ask about your parents by your 18th birthday, I’ll take you somewhere and tell you the truth of things. I promise.”

     “So, in little over a year?”

     “You don’t think Nuria will be ready in time?”

     The crimson streaks pulse even stronger as he shakes his head. Nuria’s always been more interested in bloodless bonds, and if she’s too distraught to appreciate those, he has serious doubts she’ll ever be on the same page as him.

     “I think you should have more faith in your sister.” Auriel jams a thumb over her shoulder. “Look.”

     Rum looks past his mother and his jaw drops. Nuria slowly makes her way back down the stairs, her eyes still lacking the heat he’s grown accustomed to seeing from her. However, with one hand on the banister and the other gripping her egg, she makes her way to the kitchen. She doesn’t speak or acknowledge Rum or Auriel, but she grabs the plastic container. On her way back upstairs, Auriel cuts the tv on. The station is set on a live tv radio channel playing music by The Four Feathermen. She’s been playing it every day since they’ve been home to elicit a response from Nuria. Today, it works. The phoenix halts in place. She doesn’t dance or sing along but the fact she reacted at all is news to Rum.

     I’ll be damned…

     “Enjoy the meal, sweetie,” Auriel says while powering off the television, allowing Nuria to return to her room. She addresses Rum after they hear her door close. “Your sister will be fine before we know it. Now, back to the original conversation. We can skip the sun seed part. I was aware that was going to be an issue eventually. I’m just glad she didn’t have to wrestle with that addiction harder than she did. The Drijadi Hills was next, right?”

     “Yes…but no.”

     “Aurum,” Auriel says with mom-tone.

     “Ever heard of Springspell?”

     “Nice resort. Beautiful glades. Popular spot for Church of Drijad members. You went there?”

     “Sure did. But…remember the cop and the ice lady I just told you about?”

     “Don’t tell me…”

     “Nuria, Shuri, and I dealt with them. For good, this time.”

     “Rum, you did not ki–”

     “No, they’re in prison.”

     “Try not to sound so annoyed by that. I did not raise killers in this house. I don’t care what they did to you, but you do not kill. Do you understand me?”

     Rum’s assaulted by memories of the Jojen’s Dojo bombing as the crimson sections of his mosaic expand to a disproportionate amount versus the other colors; Shuri buried beneath a pile of shields, Aven unconscious against the wall, and Pan’s bloody face. He sees Tameri’s chest blown open all over again. He imagines the terror Aven and Pan went through during their struggles. Even as he manages to keep relative calm, the changes to his mosaic don’t revert. “It’s not about killing them. I’m not ever going to be the one to look for a fight, but if they come after anyone I love, I’m not holding back.  If they want blood, they’ll be on the ground in a puddle of their own. Tameri almost died because of them and because I wasn’t able to hold my weight in that battle! Neither is happening again!” Rum doesn’t have to take time to forge a steely expression this time, showing Auriel the depth of his resolve.

     Finally, she says, “Then we start tomorrow.”

     “Start what?”

     “Your new stage of training. Just like before, the moves I teach you are not for play. You will only use them if absolutely necessary. Breaking this covenant is worse than even invoking the steel debt. When we start, you are promising to uphold that deal. Will you?”

     Rum nods. “I’m ready.”

“We start before the sun comes up.”

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