2.4: Stressed Depths

When I asked to talk to Rum, she said he was in class.

Sweat and lack of phoenix eye activation aren’t the only things hampering Nuria’s sight during her pursuit of Professor Zathony. Anytime Zathony leads her back toward the front of the forest dome, her eyes wander against her command and lock onto Koren cheering her on. The constant boiling in her stomach makes it impossible to concentrate. Both of her attempts to tag Zathony go as well as Syl’s and she doesn’t bother going for a third. She ends up sulking through lunch.

     Her newfound attraction to Koren is a complication she doesn’t know how to handle, especially in the face of all her other hurdles. She isn’t sure how to tell Koren how she feels, or even if she should. She would be blunt and just tell him outright but doubts that tactic’s truly appropriate. And unfortunately, the only person in any sort of boyfriend-girlfriend relationship she’s comfortable asking is mad at her still.

     And if he hears I asked Pan, he might think it’s to insult him. Why’d I have to catch feelings now? This is the worst time for this! And me dating Koren might not be the most…logical thing. I mean, cats eat birds. Sometimes it’s the other way around. I mean, would a phoenix ever really

     She shakes her head, terminating that train of thought right there.

     What the hell am I supposed to do?

     “Nuria,” Tyra calls, her voice penetrating the phoenix’s brood. “Don’t you have rehearsal soon?”

     “I- oh, crap! I gotta go!” Nuria races away so fast that she leaves her books behind. She doubles back but Tyra waves her off.

     “I’ll take care of it.”

     “Thanks, T!” Nuria shouts as she bangs out the Reverse Iceberg doors.

     Her run to the art room is chaotic. Her braid goes from flailing in her wake to limp and back again. Her confidence to sing before people comes from a shaky time during her stint at Mount Handreau. Her mother gave her the push she needed to get on that karaoke stage. The first night at Reverse Iceberg was even better. But again, her brother’s attitude gives her pause. Even without reading her journal daily, the rift she chronicled between them has been a perpetual weight on her heart. And if she can’t convince him to come to the concert, she fears it’ll be too heavy to remove.

     Nuria races into the art room, hoping that showing her haste to arrive will overwrite the fact she’s late. Professor Cwen and Valine halt their harmonizing exercise when she joins them at the front of the room. A camera rests across from them on a tripod.

     “Sorry, I’m late. No excuses. Just…I’ll do better next time.”

     Professor Cwen adopts her straightforward speech. “Please do. I’ll appreciate that. Here are the lyrics for the song we’ll be performing at the Juniper Amphitheatre.

     Nuria accepts the sheet and frowns at it. “There are no musical notes on it.”

     “And for good reason. The melody and rhythm are for the three of us to create for ourselves.”

     “That’s why we were harmonizing when you came in. We were constructing the melody for the chorus there.”

     The section Valine points to reads:

Like the crystals that twinkle in the sky
We light the path and the past
We battle the future via fist and via flash
Until the day comes we are the champions of night

     Nuria nods as she reads the verses, those lyrics equally as long. “Are these the kinds of songs J.O.G. normally performed?”

     Professor Cwen grins. “So, you did notice the way we sang during the recording? I thought you might.”

     “Yeah. Two of the sopranos did the fast-paced lyrics. Three were able to carry the word heavy lyrics like these.” She waves her sheet. “You, your sister, and one more held notes so long I thought you might pass out.”

     “I did, too,” Valine says.

     “But wait, how do we come up with the melody? Don’t we need the musicians from the orchestra here for that? Or should we rehearse at the amphitheater?”

     “I’m one step ahead of you.” Cwen aims Nuria’s attention toward the camera, a red light glowing on the side. “I’ll be recording each of our rehearsals and sending the footage to my sister. She’ll construct a music sheet based on what she witnesses, clean it up a little, then email it back to me. That’ll be our process for the next three weeks. After that, we simply rehearse to get our timing down.”

     “Are you sure three weeks is enough time?” Nuria asks.

     “Even more now than I was five minutes ago. The two of you were both able to dissect the sound of the sopranos after just one listen. That’s a rare talent. So, yes, I’m confident we’ll have enough time. Our main objective today is to tackle the chorus only. Gwen will be able to deliver back to me some preliminary melodies for us to apply to the verses for a seamless transition.”

     Nuria nods. “Okay, that sounds good. What were you guys working on when I came in? Can I heat it again?”

     “Sure. Follow along with the lyrics and see what you pick up on,” Cwen instructs.

     Nuria shuts her eyes and locks a projection of herself inside a glass box. Orange light pulses on the walls in accordance with the humming. The first ten pulses are rapid. The second pulse to follow those rises quickly and falls slowly and in a measured frequency. There’s one more quick pulse, then a slow one with a rapid one right after. The next two pulses appear at average speed, the same as the next six. The next five pulses start fast and only get faster, moving back to average speed for the next eight. The final four pulses rise quickly and fall slowly, the chorus fading out gently. Nuria runs the chorus through her mind twice more.

     “What did you hear?” Cwen asks.

     Nuria smirks and opens her wintry eyes wide. “Aside from it being awesome, I can tell you’ve made it so that the rhythm follows the same rules you guys used in J.O.G.”

     “Precisely. Since all three of us are sopranos, that variety will help spice up our performance. Each of us can take a role and split the lyrics that way. I’m obviously more fond of runs but any of them work for me. Valine, since you were on time, you can choose first.”

     “I’m better with tightly grouped lyrics, so I’ll take the fast-paced sections,” she replies swiftly and clinically.

     Cwen nods and turns. “Nuria, are you good with longer stretches of lyrics?”

“No time too soon to see the moon and the waves
Away from the graves, the valleys, the caves
We rise with the flowers, show our powers
The world we will boon”

     Nuria ends her solo abruptly, her breathing no more labored than it was prior to the demonstration. Cwen and Valine applaud softly.

     “And what song is that from?” Cwen asks.

     ““Losing Games to Butterflies”,” Nuria says. “My all-time favorite song by TFF.”

     “Have you heard the new album?” Valine asks.

     “When did they make a new album?” Nuria asks, annoyed she missed the debut of one of their works for the first time since she first listened to them.

     “Back in Keal. It’s called B.O.A., which stands for B.ad O.n A.rrival. Seven total tracks. Which is weird in my opinion. I think every album needs at least ten tracks, even if not all are good.”

     “TFF have always done just the seven. They don’t release songs they don’t like. They workshop them until they work or let another artist use them in exchange for the writing credit. It took them three years to release “Losing Games To Butterflies”,” Nuria explains.

     “Oh, wow. But then–”

     “Okay, girls, focus on the task at hand now.”

     “Sorry, professor.”

     “Yes, ma’am.”

     “Now that we have our roles assigned, let’s rehearse our group rhythm to get things rolling. Nuria, you open.”

     Nuria imagines her glass box around the three of them and sings the first line. For extra effect, she imagines the pulses reflecting off of Cwen’s glasses. She adjusts her delivery with coaching from Cwen and even Valine. It becomes clear quickly that Valine’s benefited from being a long-term member of the choir, offering tips on Nuria’s projection and cadence. Until this point, Nuria’s singing was from her pure talent. She recognizes the disparity between her and Valien is vast.

     I should’ve done this sooner. Maybe then they wouldn’t have to slow down for me.

     As they continue along, the bulk of the chorus belongs to Nuria, Valien contributing the next most. Valine comes up with the idea that Cwen should have background notes to vocalize between her original parts, an idea that Cwen parrots to the camera directly. She ends the rehearsal after two hours, confident with the progress they’ve made, and tells them to practice their parts and bring their ideas to the next rehearsal.

     Nuria rehearses every second she can spare between her tea kettle gut whistling and spilling her secrets to Tyra. However, even as she racks her brain all night, she can’t come up with anything. She only feels worse when Valine hands Cwen a half sheet of paper while whispering to her, Nuria’s positive it has to do with their song.

     Damn it! I’ve never been this slow! And it’s music! I should be all over this! What is wrong with me?

     “Okay, everyone before class starts, I’m going to announce our next student of the week! It was a close race this time around, but one factor decided for us!” Cwen unveils a silver VI.P. ticket. “There were some accidents during the last Star Derby day that made things tense. One student among you turned the situation around, eliminating that atmosphere.  Shuri, when you decided to cheer on Mac, you exemplified everything Four Hearts stands for. Today’s ticket is for you!”

     Shuri receives cheer from his peers as he accepts the ticket, but Nuria is not one of them. She stares blankly with her mouth agape.

     I was. One. Second. Late! That ticket could’ve been mine! But surprise, surprise, I was late again! What the hell? One second?! This sucks!

     The vision of her special front row crumbles into dust.

     “Today, class, we’ll be painting! Grab an easel, canvas, paintbrush, paint tubes, and palette from the back. Fan out and paint whatever you want. Art is self-expression. There are no wrong answers because there are no wrong ways to feel,” Cwen says proudly.

     Nuria doesn’t move until Tyra nudges her, coming back to reality. She follows the angel to the tools and grabs her tools, tubes of orange, blue, and black paint. She finds a spot between Tyra and Norris, the latter focused on his sketchbook.

     “Shouldn’t you be painting?” she asks crossly.

     “I’m more comfortable with pen and pencil. Plus, the smell of paint gives me a headache. I think I’m suffering enough just being here,” he replies.

     Nuria frowns, understanding that all too well right now. She’d rather be working on the concert song instead of scribbling paint across a canvas. Her work is nothing more than three crude stick figures and asymmetrical shapes. She realizes her stick figure in the middle could use some grey and turns to fetch some.

     “Oh, wow, that’s amazing!” Sticker exclaims.

     Nuria doesn’t turn that way until she hears her brother say, “Really? Thanks. I’m just painting the first thing that came to mind.” Nuria can only see one edge as Sticker and Pan crowd around him. The corner is unfinished but Nuria can perceive the violet sky behind the tip of a cactus.

     “It’s so beautiful. How long have you been painting? I can barely tell where your strokes are, they’re so delicate!”

     “Not long. Only a couple of months ago. I took a class over the break.”

     Wait, the class he took was an art class?

     “It must’ve been a good one! This is awesome! Your technique’s incredible!”

     Lauron wanders over, half her face covered with green paint. “Careful, Pan. Sticker’s gonna want him for herself.”

     “Oh, my- No, stop!” Sticker denies the claim bashfully.

     “I get it. He’s pretty cool sometimes,” Pan says playfully as she leans onto Rum’s shoulder.

     “And indeed quite the artist,” Cwen says on arrival. “Why’d you choose to paint the desert?”

     “It…it reminds me of home,” Rum takes his time saying.

     Nuria steels her spirit then. The sky and the cactus gave her the first hint but now with his white lie, she sees her opening to talk to him.

     If he’s thinking about home, then he’s gotta be thinking about me. I won’t be late this time!

     Nuria rushes right on over. “Can I see?” She lifts the back of her right foot to retreat when he addresses her frostily. She believes he only consents because they aren’t alone. She soon wishes he hadn’t. Most of the painting is an innocent rendition of their home at sunset, but the spines lower on the cactus have fireflies impaled on them. Nuria’s first Sudita happened on a night when she was playing with fireflies. A story that Rum knows intimately.

     “What do you think?” he asks, not even bothering to disguise his hostility.

     She looks at Rum without a filter on her vexation. Her biting down on her tongue is the extent of her emotional self-control, turning away before he sees her tears fall. She rips her painting off the canvas, knocking it off the easel. She throws her painting and grey paint tube in the garbage before storming out. She starts running and doesn’t stop until she reaches the Reddic Union Hall roof. She buries her head in her knees.

     The hell with Rum! The hell with the concert! I don’t care anymore! If nothing’s going to work, then why should I bother? I’m so sick of everything!

     Nuria’s vision of the concert doesn’t crumble to dust this time. She imagines herself burning it all away. She starts with the stage and curtains. Her rage reaches its zenith when she faces the imaginary Rum, the phantom repeating the incendiary question from the art room. Before her imagined person slams a flaming fist into his face, her focus is broken.

     She groans when a pair of feet touch down next to her. “Go away, Tyra! I’m not in the mood!”

     “I would but I’m not Tyra.”

     Nuria blinks and spills tears onto her wrists. The one standing above her has a beard that’s still thin but finally symmetrical on both sides.

     “She wanted to come but I told her this was a job for a V.I.P. She called me out for being corny but agreed anyway. Plus, I’m sure she was eager to stay and berate Rum with Pan and Lauron.”

     “Wait, Pan got on his case, too?”

     “Oh, yeah. Cwen had her hands too full containing them to stop me.” He sits down beside the phoenix, the ledge defending his dark hair from the breeze. He takes a deep breath and says, “Just let Rum get it out of his system. This anger he has inside. Let him explode.”

     “What? What kind of advice is that? Let him yell at me for hours?”

     “Okay, to be honest, I don’t have a clue about the brother-sister thing being an only child, but I know a thing or two about toxic relationships. Having once been part of one way worse, I can assure you that what’s going on between you and Rum is temporary, it’s just not easy to amend now that you’re on campus again. A lot is distracting you both.”

     You have no idea how right you are.

     “So, how do I get his attention long enough? How’d you get your grandfather’s attention?”

     Shuri shakes his head. “I didn’t. He got mine. That day at Jupiter Mall when he stopped me from joining you all, he started us on our way to where we are today. It’s unfortunate but since Rum is the aggressor here, the momentum is in his control. Until he’s willing to talk it out instead of provoking you, reconciliation is a far cry away. Which is why I say let him explode. It’ll speed things along.”

     Nuria dries her last tear. “What if I can’t handle that?”

     “Then you’ll have to let him poke at you on occasion. But let me reiterate that this will be temporary, Nuria. You don’t have to rush it. I sure didn’t. I was ready to cut my grandfather off until we made up. It took years to get there. You and Rum are only volatile on reaction to one another.”

     Nuria recalls her daydream moments ago. “I’m not so sure about that.”

     “The two of you are both just incredibly stubborn, in your own ways. I got enough insight about that during my time with you both during the Drijadi Hills trip. The way he prioritizes your health and safety above all else, and your undying obsession to master your powers. It has a very strong push and pull on your relationship. But I saw a bond that would never let anything sever it. Unlike my grandfather, Rum didn’t let his fear of you stop him from challenging you so you’d be okay.”

     Nuria scoffs. “Rum’s not afraid of me.”

     “Maybe not anymore, but he was once. And so was I.” Shuri laughs. “Stark called us out on it. It was her push that finally made him realize he had to talk to you directly. I’m guessing the lesson’s stuck, even if it’s backfiring on you right now.”

     “That’s one helluva roundabout way of saying Rum’s in the right,” Nuria says sourly.

     “I’m not saying he’s right. I know he’s not. And I’d tell him so if he weren’t getting enough of an earful this very second. But I decided to prioritize you in his place. Like him, I’m no longer afraid to intrude on your business when necessary. And I’m only now hearing how that sounds, but I meant it in an honest way.”

     Nuria smiles faintly. “I know. It’s all you’ve ever been, honestly. The first time we met, you critiqued my meal. Although, you were blunter back then.”

     “Another improvement, yes. My fights with my grandfather have taught me the value of knowing when to pull things back and take a breath. It goes further than you think. And the universe finds a way to pay it forward.”

     Nuria blinks and then stares at Shuri incredulously when his V.I.P. ticket falls onto her lap. “Shuri, no, I can’t take this!”

     “You can and you will. You were one second from doing the same thing I did. I know because I was watching you. I saw you trying to get someone to cheer for Mac because you don’t play games solely to win. I’ve known that since our game during the Freshman Derby. I’m not capable of that as easily as you are but I could stand and root for the guy being shunned by everyone else. I was following your lead. The ticket belongs to you.”

     Nuria looks down at the silver ticket. She sees her vision reforming on the glossy laminate surface. She frowns and wipes it away, smudging the gloss with her thumbprint. She hands the ticket back. “I appreciate the gesture, I do, but I’ll earn my own. Besides, I think I’d like it if you were in my front row.”

     Shuri nods tightly and takes back the ticket. His lingering look makes Nuria curious.

     “What’s wrong?”

     “I…I…okay.” He slaps his cheeks. “It’s not just you and Rum.”

     A chill runs down her spine. “What do you mean?”

     “Look, ever since the hills…” Shuri turns and looks Nuria in her wintry eyes deeply. “I think our bond’s unbreakable, too. You’ve probably felt it but our bond has deepened…and well, I want you to know how that’s changed how I…see…you.”

     Nuria’s eyes open wide before she narrows them and worries her lip. “Oh…I see.”

     “I know you have your hands full now, so you don’t have to say…you know. But I just wanted to make my end…clear. Do you understand?”

     Nuria nods with a bright smile. “I do.”

     Internally, however…


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