2.1: V.I.P.

We exchanged a few stories but it became clear we were both trying to not spoil surprises for the other and both laughed when we realized that.

     The snow surges in her wake, a snake in pursuit of a zigzagging snow rabbit, as Nuria tackles the intermediate trail for the first time. Against the advice of the tail proctor, she heads for the ski slope. Although, it’s not to snowboard down it but to try and observe her target from a higher altitude than normal. Once she sees the slope upcoming, she diverts to the right toward the thicket of pine trees.

     Nuria disregards the concern of the other snowboarders when she willingly enters the thicket. She hopes that the volume of trees and her dark Glade Gear outfit (the logo on the left shoulder and pants leg an acorn with a gear imprinted on the lower half) are enough camouflage to hide her next move. She launches herself off the edge of the trail. She awes at the majesty of the crystalline landscape below for a brief moment. Snow is still new to her and the beauty is breathtaking, making her hesitate her controlled descent a few moments more.

     She squats down and grabs her snowboard by its side, removing it promptly. She kicks her boots into the air easily since she didn’t tie them prior to going down the trail. Using energy provided by the sun in the clear sky above, she crafts her mezzo flames, concentrated white jets with a modicum of golden fire in the center. She catches her boots with one hand, then proceeds to lower herself.

     It doesn’t take long for the game she seeks to begin. When her eyes meet her target’s eyes, they both gleam gilded.

     When Nuria’s eyes pop open, the rest of her face is sprinkled with drops of salty water. She touches her face and pillow, both wet with tears. She sits up slowly, drying her face without a sound. She glances across the room. Tyra still slumbers, tucked snugly beneath her sheets.

     At least she didn’t see me like this.

     The clock on her nightstand reads 8:13 a.m. Nuria slides out of bed and replaces her yellow pajamas dotted with microphones with a baby blue shirt, black jeans, and white sneakers. She rifles through her desk drawers and finds two journals, nabbing the one with the plain orange cover, one more tear falling onto the journal left behind.

     After leaving the room, the phoenix traipses through the silent corridors of Reddic Union Hall, in search of a new place to think and reflect. She had the flagpole her first year, and the Ibri House basement last year. She’s gone high and gone low. Now, she searches for something in between.

     She spreads her wings and soars just off the ground to survey the campus. The Jun-Sen and all its amenities, Reverse Iceberg, and the greenhouse are places she leaves for her other classmates to claim. She whirls and looks up.

     It’s not as high as the original flagpole, I guess. Besides, I named it, so I may as well claim it for myself.

     Nuria perches atop the dorm’s roof, the tiled floor soft but firm. She finds a nice spot on the interior of the edge’s perimeter to stay hidden from onlookers below. She doesn’t want anyone to get wind of her current mood. She alone will face it, and she starts by cracking open her orange journal. On the inside of the first page is the phrase:

“Nuria’s Notes”

     As Nuria peruses the adventures scribed within, her emotions cycle through anxiety, guilt, joy, amusement, pride, love, embarrassment, and fear, the latter the strongest of them all, especially near the end of the journal entries. The pain that comes after concluding the adventure is what Nuria seeks, a near-daily ritual of hers. She let herself experience the illusion of happiness the last couple of days, but as her dream reminded her, she can’t escape the greatest tragedy of her life.

     And I never will. I don’t want to forget. I’ll never fix this but I can try not to make the same mistake again.

     Nuria shuts the journal gingerly and leans back, staring at the sun as it climbs to reach its zenith. The energy from the sun allowed her to succeed at Manifestation, and she wants to remain thankful, but a hole in her heart started to form at that moment. The next tears come in a flash. She lets out her wails and sobs here, too, now that she’s alone.

     Or so she thinks.

     A pair of arms gently close around her shoulders. Nuria quiets herself as two moonlight wings eclipse the sun. Tyra doesn’t say anything, just kneels and hugs the phoenix. When she clutches Nuria’s shirt, the phoenix breaks down and lets out the rest of her anguish, her cries muffled against Tyra’s shoulder.

     Once Nuria calms down, she and her sister sit side-by-side, expressing solidarity with silence. However, Nuria catches Tyra eyeing her journal several times throughout.

     Nuria sighs softly. “You want to read it, don’t you?”

     Tyra doesn’t answer right away. “Of course, I do. I’d want to read anything you poured so much of yourself into, but only if you wanted me to. My promise to respect your emotional privacy goes beyond my scrying ability.”

     “Wait, then how’d you find me up here?”

     “I didn’t. I followed you. You were crying in your sleep, so I figured something was bothering you. I knew you wanted to be alone, so I was going to leave until you started crying again. And I know that crying alone is as painful as whatever the cause is. I told your mom that I’d look out for you, whatever role I have to play. I’ll admit, I’m not sure how to juggle the line between both promises, so you let me know when I’m overstepping.”

     Nuria laughs meekly. “We’ve threatened each other’s mom with war. Not sure there is anything left to overstep.”

     Tyra shrugs. “Still, you let me know. Okay?”

     Nuria nods humbly once she sees the earnest demeanor on Tyra’s face. She flinches when the angel rises. “You’re leaving?”

     “I–”

     Nuria’s naked pain sucker punches Tyra. Nuria knows that she can’t tackle life on campus and her shame alone much longer.

     But T can’t help blindly.

     From two hands to two fingers, Nuria extends the journal upward.

     “Are you sure?” Tyra asks.

     “Just don’t let Rum see you with it. He’ll only get mad…der.”

     “He hasn’t read it yet?”

     Nuria shakes her head. “He and I aren’t on the same page right now. He wants to read it to prove his anger is justified and I won’t let him until he calms down and talks to me first.”

     “Maybe I could mediate a meeting between you two?”

     “I’m already throwing a lot at you with this. He and I will work this out on our own.”

     “Oh, okay. Then…” Tyra accepts the journal, treating it reverently. She sits back down and takes a deep breath before cracking it open.

     Nuria watches Tyra read without a word, amazed at how swiftly her eyes scan the pages. The anxiety, guilt, joy, amusement, pride, love, embarrassment, and fear that Nuria felt appear to be magnified for Tyra. Nuria witnesses firsthand why Tyra has such a handle on her emotional scrying; her empathy for Nuria’s plight is brighter than the sun. The angel’s shaking by the time she finishes.

     Tyra swallows then asks, “The end…what happened at the end?”

     Nuria touches her lips, fingers brushing the scar extending from below her nose to just above the tip of her chin. All at once, she feels the chill from Mount Handreau, the searing split between her teeth and gums, and the blood freezing on her fingers.

     “I’d never gone through anything like that. Not to that degree, anyway. After the Drijadi Hills, I thought I’d hit the jackpot. Rum and I were happy. You and I had made up. I had Stark, Shuri, Koren, and Lauron. And of course, Reddic was there. Together, he and I accomplished a mutual dream, and my daughter was born.”

     “You mean the egg?”

     Nuria nods and continues. “This year, all of those people were slated to meet her. My family was so close to perfection.” Nuria clenches her fists over her lap. “Then Reddic retired. Stark’s half gone. And Rum’s too pissed to listen to me. If not for you, the core of that family would be in shambles.”

     “It’ll come back to you. Don’t you worry about that.”

     Nuria fights her rising anger. “What makes you so sure? You don’t even know the situation.”

     “I don’t need to know the situation. I know you and I believe you’ll keep your family. You have your work cut out for you, yes, but that’s never stopped you before. And when you get them back, I’ll help you keep them together.”

     “But…how?” Nuria asks desperately.

     Tyra taps the journal cover with all of her fingers in a rolling fashion. “Do you mind if I hold onto this?”

     “Um, sure.”

     It’ll keep me from reliving it every day. Hopefully…

     “Good.”

     Tyra stands and unfurls her moonlight wings, her pose majestic, journal tucked safely inside her arms, kimono firm but loose enough for stress-free flight.

     “Remember my third rule- never let the vine die, even if one of the fruits is rotten. Rum, Reddic, Stark. You’ll get them all back.” Tyra beats her wings once to float just off the roof, the breeze they generate tussling Nuria’s hair. “You sure you’ll be okay alone?”

     “I won’t be alone long. I’ll catch whomever I can at breakfast. Go do your thing!”

     “I’ll see you at class, then,” Tyra says with a smile. She shoots straight up then dives right back down, leaving Nuria’s sight.

     Nuria would leave with the angel but takes a few minutes to get her mind right.

     Stark’s still busy as ever. I CAN’T FAULT HER FOR THAT. Reddic did what was best for Four Hearts’ revival. The longer I stay sour over that, the longer I disrespect his sacrifice. And Rum, just please…calm down. I know it’s my fault but we can’t communicate as long as you’re angry.

     Nuria looks at the sky, no one point her focus.

     And Xaix, I hope you’re okay, and that you stay okay. That means staying as far from me as possible. It’s for your own good.

-FHA-

     Nuria leads the Vanusi crew into the classroom with a stock of easels grouped in the rear. Every other class is already in attendance, seated at the desks lining three of the walls, save for Lauron sitting on top of her desk.

     “Oh, hey, Pan’s not the latest for once,” Lauron announces.

     “It was- oh, whatever!” Pan pouts.

     “What? Did you guys all decide to come early or something?” Syl asks.

     “Pretty much. I know Cwen’s really excited for today, so I got my floor in gear early. Pan got the Ohaida boys up, and Roy did the same for Donovan. Nobody alerted you guys?”

     Sutar and Barry leer at Wallace and Dig respectively.

     Dig says, “My bad” while Wallace groans and says, “Save it. It is too early to argue.”

     “Looks like my extras left us out, too,” Norris says. He glares at Hugh, Mila, and Fain in passing, taking the seat beside Mac. Next to sit are Devito, Nuria, and the rest, Koren saving a space between Nuria and himself.

     “What’s that all about?” Norris asks, kicking his feet up on his desk.

     “I’m sorry?”

     “The space between you and the furball?”

     “That’s Tyra’s seat,” Koren answers.

     Norris snorts. “You that afraid of her?”

     “It’s not about fear. It’s about respect,” Koren explains.

     “Oh, yeah? And what if I took it?”

     “I dare you,” Nuria says.

     “Eas–”

     The classroom door creaks as it swings open slowly. Tyra walks into the room- orange journal missing- and marches straight to the desk by Nuria, eyeing Norris fiercely. Nuria turns to him inquisitively.

     “You were saying?”

     He snorts again. “Another day.”

     “Sorry, sorry, sorry, everyone!” Cwen shouts, racing into the room frantically. She gets right to work fiddling with the projector in her hands. “We didn’t mean to be late.”

     “‘We’?” Lauron asks.

     “Yes, we’re all present for today’s class,” Tameri replies, leading a procession of the remaining professors.

     “Another big announcement?” Nuria queries.

     “Correct,” Cwen says. “And it starts with a presentation. Syl, can you turn off the lights, please?” Professor Cwen lowers a screen from the ceiling and centers the projection onto it. The image of a concert stage becomes clearer when the lights dim. “If you can’t see it from the back, don’t worry. All you need to do is listen.”

     Cwen hits play.

     Nuria is immediately swept away by the rising symphony of the string orchestra at the back of the stage. A ring of angled lights from the stage floor makes a luminescent cage to highlight the black-clad choir members. Of the sixteen members, three are tenors, five are altos, and the final half are all sopranos, and it’s the latter that steal the show for Nuria. Only during the chorus do all eight sing together. For the verses, they split up depending on who best harmonizes based on the tempo of the verse at any one time. For fast-paced lyrics, the two middle sopranos sing. For the more word-heavy lyrics, the three on the right sing their hearts out. The three on the left use their voices for the running lyrics, capable of holding those notes expertly. The spectacles on two of the blonde women in that grouping are giving Nuria a sense of déjà vu.

     “Wait! Professor, is that you?” Lauron asks. “Wait, which one is you?”

     “Good catch. Syl, you can cut the lights back on. Thank you.” Cwen cuts the projector off and the heavenly performance ends. The lenses of Cwen’s glasses flash when the lights return. “What you all just witnessed was one of the performances my twin sister and I participated in as part of the Juniper Orchestra Group, or J.O.G for short. Our venue at that time was the Juniper Amphitheatre in Jupiter City.”

     “What’s your twin’s name?” Sticker asks.

     “Gwen.”

     “Can she summon jellyfish, too?” Lauron inquires.

     “My sister never awakened her powers but she’s fine with that. She was able to devote herself to J.O.G. and eventually she took control of it as the conductor. She still runs it to this day. Which leads us to today’s announcement. Two months from now, my sister will be conducting another concert at the Juniper Amphitheatre. She’s invited everyone here at Four Hearts.”

     Nuria perks up instantly. If the J.O.G. now sounds like they did back then, it’s gonna be awesome!

     “And that’s not all!” Lynald cheers. He pushes open his jacket with his cane and unveils a singular silver ticket with “V.I.P.” written on it. “We’ve decided that once a week, leading up to the concert, we’ll be giving a single student a V.I.P. pass. That pass guarantees you a front-row seat and backstage access after the concert. So, eight of you will be able to earn one.”

     Professor Zathony accepts the silver ticket from Professor Lynald. “The passes are highly competitive. Your performance in each of our classes, during power exercises, and the Star Derby games will all be deciding factors.” He passes the ticket to Professor Tameri.

     “We’re here to announce the very first ticket winner, our student of the week. He earned it by being the first person to sign up for the class exchange. Congratulations, Evic! Come and claim your prize!”

     Nuria applauds him silently.

     On the other end of the room, Lauron groans as he accepts the ticket. “Are you telling me that could’ve been mine?”

     “Sucks to be late, doesn’t it?” Pan taunts.

     Lauron almost snaps but laughs instead. “Fair enough.”

     Professor Cwen clears her throat. “There’s one more thing to be excited about. My sister has invited me to open the show as a solo act. However, I convinced her to allow for the possibility of a group performance. There are two members of the FHA choir in this room. Should either of the two of you earn V.I.P. passes, I will allow you on stage with me.”

     Nuria imagines herself on that stage in those black robes, giving the best performance of her life. The people in her front row are Auriel, Rum, Stark, Tyra, and Reddic. She decides here and now to make that a reality.

     “That means you’ll have to meet for rehearsal twice a week assuming you’ll earn one, otherwise we won’t have time to get our rhythm together. The next rehearsal is this coming Didaska at 2 pm.”

     Nuria looks across the way at Valine, the redhead on the same wavelength. They nod at one another.

Challenge accepted!

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