One more week to go!
“I’m not sure that this is a wise idea,” Tyra says. In her hands is a paper with bullet points under sections for “ConcerT”, “PersonaL”, and “PowerS”. “Pros and cons are good for short-term goals. When you try to force them on long-term goals, you run the risk of fighting yourself alongside the expected complications. By Drijad, I’m quoting my mother. Anyway, as you’ve seen, unexpected complications can spring on you from anywhere, anytime.”
“I’ll deal with those later. Right now, I need expediency!” Nuria bounces on her bed from a seated position, pumping her fist into the air.
“I–” Tyra stops short and shakes her head. “Okay, I won’t argue. Where do you want to start?”
“The section with the least urgency. “PowerS”,” Nuria says somberly.
Tyra lifts a single eyebrow. “Since when do you put such a…well, low priority on your powers? You’ve been full-throttle since I’ve known you.”
Nuria smirks. “Long before we met, too. But I can’t focus properly on our exercises with Koren there. Handling that takes precedence so I can focus on my powers.”
“Okay, let’s go over them anyway, just to maintain certainty. Golden fire?”
Nuria sims her hand toward the window. She lures the solar energy over to her fingers and absorbs it like a sponge. She releases the gathered heat in little pips, gilded embers popping off her fingers.
“Okay, that’s certainly the pro you claimed. Phoenix wings?”
The hem of Nuria’s dark tank top flutters from the sudden force of her wings spreading from her back.
“I don’t need to be in the air to summon them anymore.”
“Pro confirmed. Sonic voice?”
Her phoenix wings droop before vanishing. “I have access to it but the trigger isn’t clear. I thought maybe since singing is what awakened it that that might be it, but it’s not.” She pulls her phone out. “Even after learning the entire B.O.A. album by heart, it never activated. And I–”
“Do not hit play, Nuria. Now is not the time. Your obsession to learn those songs cost you the last V.I.P. ticket. Focus on the song Cwen gave you.”
Nuria pouts and pockets her phone. The opening jingle to the first track, “Heart Muscle Discount”, runs through her mind. The soft piano chime helps her regain focus.
“Fine. It’ll come up again later, anyway. What’s next?”
“Phoenix vision…is a con?” Tyra asks.
“It’s far too inconsistent. It either works perfectly or not at all. I’ve tried to use it without my wings out but it never works then. It’s my singularly worst power because of that alone. At least sonic voice doesn’t taunt me,” Nuria explains testily. It’s at the bottom of my list. Next!”
“Wait, can we run a test really quickly? I want to see something.”
“Test what? Can you read my energy with your angel powers or something?”
Tyra lowers the list. “Not quite. It’s tough to explain but my emotional scrying can go so deep that I can see someone’s soul. A person’s powers change the properties of the soul in some way. Do I have permission to look at yours?”
Nuria hesitates slightly. “I guess. What do I do?”
“Use or try to use your four phoenix powers. I’ll let you know if anything irregular happens.” Tyra shuts her eyes. “Go.”
Curious about what the angel’s looking for, Nuria starts by trying to call her sonic voice. She knows it won’t work but notices Tyra’s forehead twitch as she looks hard for any change. The angel’s expression relaxes, the golden fire and wing tests going as expected. However, for the phoenix vision test, both of them shift their postures uneasily as nothing changes. Nuria feels especially disappointed since she tries to transform her eyes with her wings out.
“Yeah, bottom of the list it stays,” Nuria says, conceding to defeat.
“It may be just a morpu problem. Your soul changed for sure but it couldn’t maintain its shape for long. It’s not inconsistent, just fledgling.”
“So, what, just practice more?”
“That’s the simple answer. Sometimes, how you practice matters more than the amount of practice. Take me for example. I got better at emotional scrying by getting a better handle on my own emotions. It might be the same for you, although I suspect it depends on where you practice.”
“You’re thinking about the Drijadi Hills, aren’t you?”
“I saw you fight when you got back. Your powers were incredible. I think going back there or somewhere similar will help.”
I did seem stronger at Mount Handreau but it wasn’t quite the same. I’ll ask Reddic when he comes to the concert. Speaking of which…
“Nuria, no. Not again. I can’t listen to that alb–”
Nuria chuckles as she thumbs up a message. “Don’t worry, T. Just had to send a message. Oh, wait!” She makes sure to send the following message to “Mom” too:
I’m gonna be in a concert as a singer! Professor Cwen and my friend, Valine, will be singing with me1 You are cordially invited to come! I will make you cry with my performance!
“And I’ll use headphones next time I play it.”
“It’s fine. You’ll only end up singing along, anyway.”
“No, not anyway. I’m gonna be a better roommate. No more obnoxious singing.”
“I’ll take it. So, what’s next?”
Nuria rubs beneath her nose. “The top priority- “ConcerT”.
“Everything listed here is a pro. How do you choose first?”
“Easy. Homework is the biggest time suck, so I’ll enlist some help.”
Nuria sits inside of one of the private study rooms with the entire Vanusi crew, Aven taking Syl’s place as he enjoys his videogame room. Tyra leads a tutoring session on financial math. It extends beyond their homework to prep them for next week’s class but that part is where Carnya, Norris, and Devito make themselves scarce. Nuria, Koren, and Aven stay and take in the concepts behind credit, CDs, and loans. Nuria lets herself be distracted by the fact the proximity to Koren doesn’t bother her in a classroom setting. She thinks back to one of the lyrics in another B.O.A. track, “My Midnight Moon”.
My heart races on the track
My knees buckle before my back
At midnight my mind goes black
Am I only attracted to Koren…in a physical sense? I mean, I only feel the boiling when I’m active around him. Hmm.
“It might help to spread your range. I think the professors are prioritizing camaraderie.”
The science tutoring is led by Sutar, a decision encouraged by Nuria and Wallace. Also in attendance are Barry, Dig, and Pan (following a request the phoenix made to Aven). Sutar turns out to be a tough and strict teacher, demanding full attention at all times, so Nuria doesn’t have the chance to seek Pan’s advice until Sutar dismisses them.
“Good. That’ll help with my “PersonaL” goals.”
“You plan to invite Rum, don’t you? Is that why he’s a pro?”
“No, and not quite. I need advice from another Ohaida.”
“Hmm. For your brother and I, I’m the one who initiated things.”
“I held onto his hand pretty tight. I think if he left after that, we wouldn’t be a couple. Find a way to get Koren to respond clearly that he’s interested so that there’s no doubt. Think about it.”
The phoenix doesn’t have to. She already knows what to do. The title of the B.O.A. track “Always In Red” alone inspires her idea.
“And what about this last “PersonaL” goal? How will you handle that?”
“I…won’t. I’ll just let that one go.”
“Even after the mountain thing?”
“Especially after that.”
Her history group doesn’t last as long thanks to Professor Lynald’s easy three-question homework. She wishes she had the time to stay and witness Norris’s heated debate with Devito, the only time she’s seen him passionate outside the pool (which he’s gone back to enjoying alone), but she convenes with Valine to rehearse for the rest of the night.
“But back to “ConcerT”. I’m ready to prove my value to the group.”
“How will you do that?”
“By showing off my first musical love.”
“Okay, well, that should get you in. But if you want your “front row crew” there, you need to show it off now. I’m not getting my ticket until after you get yours.”
“Then you’ll be number five.”
Instead of letting Valine provide the only feedback, Nuria proposes the idea of adding a subtle bassline drum beat to the chorus as rhythmic glue for the entire piece. She performs the melody for Valine, using pencils as drumsticks and a desk as the drum. She switches between a three-beat and a six-beat rhythm.
“What about if Rum gets it first? He seems determined to antagonize you.”
Nuria leads Tyra and Koren onto the Star Derby arena floor, all three decked out in their white and lime uniforms. The three representing the Ohaida team are Shuri, Aven, and Rum. The latter leers at Nuria as the teams approach one another.
“This next game pits the Vanusi and Ohaida teams against one another! So far, both teams are undefeated! The frontrunner of the season will be decided today! The scores are set! It’s time for–”
“Hold on!” Nuria shouts.
“Yes, Nuria?” Tameri asks, bummed out by the interruption.
“I want to make this game more interesting! If the boys are game, I’d like to propose a bet!”
Rum’s leer darkens then. Nuria doesn’t mind because she knows what he’s remembering now, and believes it’ll calm him down in waves.
Tameri looks over her shoulder. “What do you think, sir?” She whispers her next concern.
Headmaster Neth inclines his head slowly, then looks to Nuria and Rum. When he turns to Shuri, he lifts his cane off the floor. Shuri nods back tightly. The headmaster smiles and lowers his cane.
“I see no issue with the change,” Neth announces.
The students in the audience back up his decision with wild cheering.
“What’s the bet, Nuria?” Tameri asks.
Nuria turns to her brother, unintimidated by his expression.
“Oh, I’m counting on it!”
“If we win this game, then any V.I.P. ticket Rum earns becomes mine!” Nuria declares. As expected, it forces her brother to grow angrier.
“Wait a second. What if I earn a ticket? Wouldn’t you want mine?” Aven asks.
She gazes at Aven shrewdly. “From what I hear, you’re too busy to earn one.”
“Oh, from what you hear, huh?” He turns that shrewd gaze Tyra’s way.
The angel shrugs. “You never said it was a secret.”
“What do I get if you lose?” Rum asks harshly.
“My ticket, obviously.”
Rum clicks his tongue. “Try again. If you get one, why would I want it?”
Nuria doesn’t let the sting show on her face. “Fine. Okay, Cutter, if we lose, what do you want?”
Aven smirks, eyes still on Tyra. “If we win, I’ll let our president know my price. You don’t need to know.”
“Pretty sure everyone knows,” Nuria whispers, getting a laugh from Koren. When her gut boils this time, she finds strength, looking at the cat-boy with determination in her eyes. “You ready for this?”
“More than I’ve ever been. Your performance is on the line, so I’ll give it one hundred and ten percent!”
“And our perfect record can’t be taken so easily, either!”
Nuria high-fives Koren and joins him on the zoneman lines, Shuri and Aven at their backs set to contend with their iron wall of a goalie. Even with Rum as her obstacle, Nuria doesn’t sweat.
He won’t stand a chance against me and Koren together.
With their whisper strategy, immaculate teamwork, and unbreakable goalie, they claim victory by over four hundred points. Strangely enough, Aven’s performance is the least fierce among the Ohaida team, despite his prize on the line. Rum’s aggressive play was expected but not Shuri’s, especially after his vote of confidence before.
“And that’s the game! Congratulations to the Vanusi team for continuing their undefeated streak! Can we give them–”
The student audience rises and applauds the Vanusi team even wilder than before. Lauron rushes to the arena floor and lifts Nuria, Koren, and Tyra’s arms at once.
“This is our first-place team! They’re the ones to beat!” Lauron locks eyes with Nuria. “And next time we play, I intend to!”
“Bring it on!” Nuria says. Her game face fades quickly, her brother back in her sights. She approaches him and his team. “Good game.”
“You, too, Feathers.” Nice moves,” Aven compliments and shakes her extended hand.
“No more Cutter?”
Nuria sticks her tongue out. “Eh. Didn’t feel right. I’ll leave the nicknames to you.”
“But I came up with that,” Shuri says, dragging a glare away from behind Nuria.
“Sorry, Shuri. It’s best left to the pro. Right, Rum?”
He doesn’t bat an eyelash.
“Oh, come on. You can’t not be in a good mood. It was a good game and we made bets all the time when we were kids. You can’t tell me you’re not feeling nostalgic.”
“I’m not.” Rum turns away from Nuria and stalks off.
Nuria watches him leave with a coy smile.
“Did I miss something? He just ignored you and you’re smiling,” Aven says.
“It used to be worse. I’m wearing him down. Slowly but surely.” She winks at Shuri and some of the young man’s angst erodes. However, she sees a glimpse of it return when Koren latches onto her and drags her back into the celebration.
“How are you going to tackle this week’s z-tag if your eyes won’t be viable?”
“I’ll go after Zathony with a new tactic. Brute force isn’t the only way to lay a hand on him.”
Nuria waits patiently while her Vanusi peers each try their hands at tagging their terse professor. None of them are successful at their two mandatory attempts. Nuria doesn’t step up to the plate until Zathony forces her to do so. He eyes the sack in her hand curiously.
“Are there any rules against tools?” she asks.
Professor Marmagar makes a motion as if using a wrench.
“Maybe prop is more appropriate here.”
“Props are fine. We start on yo–”
“Three!” Nuria shouts.
She spreads her wings, runs, jumps into the air, and rips open the sack when directly above Zathony. A smokescreen of confetti fills the air between them. She beats her wings to send the confetti paper onto his person. When he tries to remove them from his forearms quickly, she knows she hit pay dirt with her research.
“Should I be scared?”
“Zathony should be!”
Scorpions use their fine hairs to detect predator and prey alike and it informs their reflexes. All I have to do is keep the hairs from reading me.
Between the onslaught of confetti, her flight, and her invigorated spirit, she practically ends up tickling Zathony as many times as she tags him, amusing her peers, and even Professor Marmagar chuffs softly.
“And the rehearsal after?”
“Have I ever told you about my first music class?”
Nuria races to be early and sets up the desks in the corner as a makeshift drum set. She had it in her mind to wait but once she pretends her pencils are actual drumsticks, she gets to playing. She doesn’t care how out of practice or amateurish she sounds, she relishes her imagined time on the drums.
“Before I got control of my pyromancy, I…melted the drums at school.”
“That sounds just like you. I once broke my babysitter’s nose when he wouldn’t feed me. I was three.”
The heat in the room right now is not only from friction but her rising excitement. She tests out the three and six-beat rhythms as she belts out the chorus. She adjusts things until both melodies run together harmoniously. Nuria wipes the sweat from her brow, her smile broken by taxed breaths but bright all the same. She prepares to move on to the verses when someone clears their throat behind her. The phoenix whirls to see Cwen and Valine in the doorway, the camera aimed at her.
“What do you think, Gwen? Did that sound good or did that sound good? You might want to talk to her about joining J.O.G., I’m just saying.”
It takes a lot to not let the compliments go to her head but she succeeds, eager to continue the rehearsal as planned. They lock down the upcoming performance, using the notes provided by Gwen.
“Nice work, ladies. You’ve both done so well,” Cwen says sweetly.
“Thank you,” Valine replies.
“Rest well, tonight. You’ve both earned it.”
Nuria refuses to rest now. Her soul’s on fire and things are looking up. She knows tomorrow comes with the risk of failure but she refuses to accept it as a guarantee. She won’t succeed at any “PowerS” goals, but she’ll have concrete answers for “ConcerT” and “PersonaL”.
“This last one in “PersonaL”, “B.C.”, what’s that?”
“Oh, you’re gonna love this!”
Nuria grabs the second weathered journal from her desk. The pages within are full of lyrics, sections of written music, and title names. Among the latter, the only one not crossed out is “Breaking Cages”. She reviews the work within proudly. Vowing to return to it when she has more time as a preemptive apology, she tears out one of the pages. With Pan’s advice in mind, she scribbles down a clear message.
I like you and I like red. If you like me, too, then wear something red tomorrow, too.
She waits until the cover of night to deliver it to the appropriate room. Her ruse is almost discovered by Carnya’s late-night snack run but she returns to her room just in time. Her sleep doesn’t come to her easily, her heart thumping like the imaginary drums she beat to death and back. She doesn’t fall asleep so much as she passes out, her body unable to sustain the energy output her soul demands.
Nuria wakes in plenty of time for class but makes herself tardy on purpose. After choosing a red shirt with a black heart in the center over a red shirt with a stencil art swordsman on it, she ambles to Cwen’s art class slowly. She stares at the door from the end of the hall skittishly. She clutches a folded note between her fingers. Her phone vibrates in her pocket twice.
I’m sorry for replying so late, sweetheart. Of course, I’ll be there! I talked to Headmaster Neth and I’ve already reserved my ticket! I can’t wait!
Do you honestly believe I’d be anywhere else? I may no longer be officially affiliated with Four Hearts but if push comes to shove, I’ll just sneak in. Even if you don’t see me, know I’m there!
Her feet carry her to the door before she knows it.
“Ah, fashionably late, I see,” Cwen says. “And did a memo go out last night? Half of you are wearing red today.”
“Huh?” Nuria blinks and whips her head around. The students dressed in red include Shuri, Lauron, Syl, Carnya, Sutar, Mac, Pan, Rum, Barry, Koren, and Ev–
Oh, good, he got my message!
“Anyway, Nuria, I’m glad you’ve joined us. I have a V.I.P. ticket for you. Word of your study groups and sportsmanship were the biggest factors, but I’ve personally appreciated your continued and increasing devotion to our group rehearsals. Your work has not gone unnoticed.”
“Thanks! I’ve been waiting for this! I’ll make the most of it for sure!” Nuria says as she absently grabs the ticket. She strides past everyone applauding her, moving beyond the host of most red-clad students, stopping at Koren’s desk. She hands him the folded note. “Make sure you read this one, too.”
She fuels a chorus of “Oohs” and “Aahs” by choosing to not only wink at Koren but to stroke one of his ears in passing. “I’ll give you a chance at my feathers later,” she whispers so that only he can hear her.
Her “PersonaL” goal to “explore this crush on Koren” makes her realize the wisdom from the B.O.A. track “White Knuckles All Night”.