3.6: Heart And Mind

I dedicated today to my friends.

     It’s never going to be the same.

     Stark laments the quiet in the bus, the dull spirits of the students within. Even though everyone is dressed to the nines for the concert, not one of their expressions matches the occasion, least of all Nuria’s. Stark can still recall their first night together again after months, the unbridled jovial atmosphere of that celebration. It made her grant them an extra ten minutes while she waited outside. Jinxes aren’t anything she adheres to but the fact she put an end to their fun and then returned only for it to end shortly after isn’t lost on her. The pattern follows a string of incidents which the root cause Stark didn’t foresee.

     Not one year ago, most of the students behind her fought at one another’s backs to survive. If forced to make that choice now, Stark has no doubt it would happen…eventually. However, she’s concerned that eventually might come too late.

     And we’re taking them to a large, public, unsecured location.

     But even so, that’s the least of the complications they face. The officer glances into their faces through the rearview mirror, one at a time. Nuria sits in the front, her gaze so flat that one might mistake her as being blind. And given the mashup of colors she wears, they’d be justified. She wears a purple gaiter mask, a black blouse with red and orange spots on the shoulders, and white pants held up by a blue belt. Her shoes are brown flats. Tyra sits at her side, adorned in her usual red, black, and white, trying hard not to be worried. The only sign of life in Nuria is her glowing.

     Nuria and Rum’s fight the other day was not the only aggravated conflict. She knows of the bad blood between Wallace and Mac, the still brewing issues between Koren and Shuri, and now the animosity between Nuria and Norris, though the officer only knows of the latter after obsessively over footage of the classroom. Aside from Norris, every single one of those boys appears drained of their spirit.

     Stark argued for the concert to be postponed and Cwen agreed after some time but said Nuria and Valine did not want to miss out. Valien looks ready, her lips moving as she silently rehearses. Her passion is evident. Nuria’s is not.

     Who knows? Maybe she’ll pull it together in time. This could be their first night all over again.

     Stark pulls the bus onto the grounds for the amphitheatre, locating the spot reserved for them. The parking lot is mostly empty but the concert is still a few hours away. Soon, Stark’ll only be able to see the bus because of its height. She cuts the engine and stands in the middle of the walkway.

    “I know the professors have lectured you all already, so I’ll just say this one thing; try to have fun tonight. Cwen’s goal all semester was to teach you all the joys of art. How to express yourselves in more unique ways. Music is one of the greatest arts. When you see your classmates giving their all on stage and watching them in the audience, you should be able to experience joy. I broke up the last time you guys had that chance. I won’t break this one.”

     It’s not by much but Stark sees the light return to the eyes of Nuria and some others.

     “All right, that’s it. Now, get off the bus,” she orders playfully. She waits for everyone to amble outside, the professors and headmaster coming last.

     “Well done,” Neth whispers in passing.

     She nods to express her thanks.

     After she locks the bus, a curious sign catches her attention. The sign is a picture of three wings touching in the center of the sun.

     A diplomatic reservation? Are we going to share this space with a governor?

     Stark eyes Tyra suspiciously.

     Does she know? Does Neth?

     The officer chooses not to pull that thread and keeps that info to herself. The good cheer in the atmosphere is limited as things currently stand. She follows at the rear of their group.

     A pavilion rests at the start of the three paths to the amphitheatre proper. The roofs of the pavilions are in the shape of trapezoids and made of glass. Standing below the one in the center is no doubt Cwen’s twin sister. They both have the same baby blue eyes, short and curly blonde hair, grey glasses, and thin lips. The only difference between them is their fashion sense. Cwen’s fond of sweater vests whereas her twin dons a vernal gown with a high collar and a split halfway up her thigh. Her pale arms envelop Cwen in a loving embrace.

     “Hello, love! I’ve been on pins and needles all day! Welcome, welcome!”

     “Oh, I bet. And thank you. We’re glad to be here!” Cwen says.

     “Of course! Now, introduce me! I want to meet your superstars!”

     “Come with me.” Cwen ushers her closer. “Everyone, there’s no way to tell at a glance but this is my twin sister, Gwen.”

     “Oh stop,” Gwen says bashfully.

     Cwen continues after everyone says hi. “And Gwen, these two are my choir mates for the show.”

     “O-oh, yes, I recognize them,” Gwen says. Her voice betrays her shock at Nuria’s outfit and glow but not her face. “I’m honored to have you two here with us today. Oh, and Nuria, Cwen’s already informed me of your glow and your scar. We’ve already adjusted the lighting on stage and if it makes you more comfortable to keep the mask on, we have mics designed to ignore fabric. J.O.G. has had to do shows in masks and costumes before.”

     “Thank you,” Nuria says dryly, though her eyes look more alive by another degree.

     “Excellent. Now, come, everyone. We still have time for a quick tour before we need to get ready.”

     Stark continues her vigil from the rear of the group. Her nose picks up a peculiar yet familiar scent. She smiles wide, her confidence about the outcome for tonight much brighter than before.

     Then her phone chimes.


     It’s just a phone call. Just a…just a phone call.

     Nuria’s mantra is in response to Stark staying behind at the pavilion. The way the last few weeks have gone, she’s given up hope on her front-row crew vision. Rum, Tyra, Evic, Auriel, Stark, and Reddic, she doesn’t bother hoping for that dream any longer. She barely wants to be here herself but won’t let down Cwen and Valine simply because her feelings are hurt. She trusts that even if she phones in her performance that it’ll be beautiful. And that’s as much focus as she gives the concert, barely registering most of the tour.

     Gwen explains the history of the amphitheatre, and the ideas behind each decadent hall, and points in the direction of the veranda connecting their illustrious indoor garden. Nuria only pays attention to that last point because Gwen mentions heart trees.

     “Just like with our pavilions out front, the roof of the garden is all glass, allowing the trees and plants to get all the sun they need. If you want to go now, I suggest waiting another five minutes. The sprinklers run for an obnoxiously long time and all at once.”

     “Is there time to see it all?” Wallace asks.

     “Not if you want to finish the tour. The concert is three hours away, but Juniper Amphitheatre is quite large. We have the gardens, a shopping area in the rear, and three five-star restaurants on site.”

     “Is it okay if I go there now? To the garden, I mean?”

     “I’ve no issue with that.”

     “Can I go, Professor Lynald?”

     “Me, too,” Donovan says, followed by Roy.

     “Of course.”

     “One second, young men. You will need to make sure you’re in the theatre no later than 6:05 p.m. Once the doors close, there is no getting in. Zero exceptions.”

     “No worries. I’ll make sure to fetch them in time,” Lynald says.

     “Then we’ll be going.” Wallace wanders off with Roy and Donovan at his sides.

     Nuria smiles beneath her gaiter mask. Their mission is to wait there for Sutar, who absolutely wouldn’t pass up seeing that garden. She’s glad Sutar has people like that in her corner. Hell, she misses the up-and-coming doctor, too. They didn’t have any time to talk before she was taken away. She smiles again.

     She’ll have a million questions about my glowing. I wonder if she looks any different these days.

     She can’t wait to see Sutar, actually, a face uninvolved with any of the drama with her brother. The change of pace is what she covets. It comes closer when Gwen takes them to one of the restaurants she alluded to, called Rouge Tavern. A translucent curtain hangs at the entrance and disguises the interior’s design but not the food. The sweet and spicy aromas cause Nuria’s gaiter mask to go damp with drool.

     “What kinds of food do they serve here? Do they have menus? Ones with the ingredients listed?” Barry asks.

     “They specialize in steak, risotto, and pasta. A select few dishes include all three. There are menus but no ingredients listed, I’m afraid.”

     “Then I’ll have to taste everything. Let’s go, Dig!”

     “But can–”

     “Do you expect me to say no?” Lynald asks.

     “Then, can I?” Carnya asks.

     “Take Syl with you so he can drag you out when it’s time. And try not to make a mess in there, if you can,” Zathony states.

     ““If”?” Gwen asks, alarmed.

     “Charge everyone’s bills to the account I provided you,” Tyra says.

     “Would anyone else like to go?” Tameri asks.

     “I’d like to try it,” Rum says after Norris, Devito, and Mac walk inside without a word.

     “Me, too, I guess,” Pan says.

     “Just take Aven with you,” Tameri says.

     “The gentleman with the scy- Ah, yes, okay. OCL or not, you will have to check your weapon at the front desk,” Gwen explains.

     “Do they have seating near the drop-off?”


     “Then it won’t be a problem. Let’s go, you two.”

     Nuria’s relief to see her brother vanish behind the curtain hurts. She’s never once felt that way to see him go away. She misses the days when they were each other’s best friend.

     If he hadn’t destroyed my journal, then we’d still have a shot. He’s chosen my replacement. I could never replace Rum but I can’t let my heart stay broken forever. Should I?

     “And this is the stage!” Gwen announces in grandiose fashion.

     Nuria blinks and looks up, unaware they’d already arrived. Her truncated party stands at the edge of the lowest row, staring down at the curved stage. A black ladder rests in the center of the maroon carpet. The stage is chrome silver all around with a brush coating to dull the reflections of the lights above, which will have a similar effect on her unconscious glowing. Seventeen rows of clear chairs are accompanied by music stands. Three microphone stands are positioned at the edge of the stage.

     “The chairs are designed to look that way to appear invisible, giving the orchestra the look that they’re floating on air.”  She turns and points to the seating on their left. “All of your VIP ticket holders will be over there. You’ll be sharing space with some of the most distinguished people in Jupiter City; the mayor, the district attorney, and even a famous doctor from Ohai. As for the rest of you…” She lifts her hand and points to the center section of the highest level. “You’ll be in the nosebleeds, I’m afraid. Rest assured, this theatre was well-designed and the sound will carry up there perfectly clear.”

     “Does this mean the entire theatre will be filled?” Valine asks.

     “Yes, dear. We sell out for every show, I’m afraid. Are you nervous?”

     “A little, yeah. This is wild. I’ve never performed a group bigger than, well, this.” She gestures to everyone around.

     “I see. And you, Nuria? What’s been your largest audience so far?” Gwen queries.

     The sting to her heart doesn’t stop her from answering. “An open-mic night at a mountain resort. Maybe one hundred people.”

     “Well, this theatre can hold nearly thirteen thousand people. Are either of you too intimidated to perform?”

     Nuria and Valine look at one another and it’s clear neither one considered the audience until now. Nuria isn’t sure she is ready, and certainly not if she phones in her performance. She can’t disrespect so many guests.

     But how do I do that? I can’t even get my brother to pay attention to me.

     “Nuria intimidated? I think not,” a jubilant voice states, followed by a jocund laugh.

     The clouds part, the rain stops, and the lightning dissipates. The storm raging in Nuria’s soul vanishes without a trace. She whirls and races toward that heavenly laugh at full speed. She leaps at him, tears of enormous joy flying from her eyes. On her way to his arms, she crashes through several memories as if they were walls. Her shattering the classroom windows while yelling at Rum, punching Koren to the ground, and collapsing face-first into the snow, she pulverizes them all to reach Reddic.

     He drops the garment bag he’s holding to catch her. He spins her around as she locks her arms around his shoulders, not willing to let go anytime soon.

     “I can’t believe you actually made it!” Nuria confesses.

     “I wouldn’t miss this for anything. I told you that. I even brought my lucky tooth,” Reddic says brightly.

     Nuria’s surprise weakens her hold and she drops to her feet. “As in…right here? Right now?”

     Reddic darts his eyes quickly to her left.

     “No way!”

     “Ah, so you know this character, do you?” Gwen asks.

     “Of course! He’s only the best professor there is!” Nuria boasts.

     “Well, now it makes sense. He’s been busy the last couple of weeks helping us prepare in exchange for a pair of seat swaps.”

     “Seat swaps?”

     “Yes. He’d already purchased a front-row seat but once he saw where your mics would be, he’s been trying to sit front and center.”

     “Did he get them?!”

     Gwen giggles. “Do you want to tell her?”

     “What? What is it?”

     “Wellllll, Gwen and I combed through the guest list to find my replacement when I saw your mother’s name. It was then I petitioned for a second seat next to mine. You’ll see us watching you crush your performance clearly!”

     “Wait, does that mean she’s here, too?”

     “She’ll be here in time for the concert.”


     “Don’t thank me. The pleasure’s mine. Also, this is for you.” He scoops up the garment bag and bequeaths it to the phoenix. “You look fine as you are but–”

     “I don’t care! I’ll take it! Thank you!”

     Nuria skips as she doubles between racing to the restroom and wanting to hug Reddic again.

     “Now, that’s the young lady I’ve witnessed in all the recordings up till now. Excellent.”

     “I’d say she’s ready,” Cwen agrees.

     “Hey, I’m ready too,” Valine cries, her face red as a cherry.

     “Then let’s go test that, shall we? Reddic, may we borrow Nuria?”

     “Of c–”

     “Actually…can I meet you all backstage in a moment. I wanna, um…”

     “No problem, dear,” Cwen says. “Be back by 5 p.m. so we can run through a couple of dress rehearsals.”

     “Yes, ma’am!” Nuria cheers but that would’ve been her response to anything that anyone said. Her heart is so high above the clouds that her senses can’t register properly, barring her eyesight, which she doesn’t take off Reddic for a second. She will not let him disappear on her again so easily.

     “What kinds of things did Gwen have you doing?” she asks.

     “She was against swapping my seats without the consent of the original ticket holders, so I convinced her to put me in contact with the thirty affected parties. Fifty favors later and the tickets were mine.”

     “Why thirty people? Why fifty favors? Wasn’t it only for two seats?”

     “It could’ve been more than that. The issues came when the parties we had to coerce were three or greater individuals. If I’d tried to get a third seat like I wanted, I would not have succeeded,” Reddic explains his woes with a grin.

     “Who’s the third for? Or would’ve been for?”

     “Your brother. Who else?”

     Her heart comes dangerously close to crashing to the ground. Forcing herself to smile like Reddic does activates an emergency parachute.

     “He’s…he’s not gonna be there.”

     “For your big performance? Unlikely.”

     “He and I aren’t n the same page right now.” Nuria leans on the same side of the pavilion as Reddic. “We haven’t been for a while but hey, I’m glad you’re here. Thanks for going through all of that, especially since you didn’t have to.”

     “Oh, but I did. I had to try to make it up to you somehow. Leaving Four Hearts may have been the play to make but not for everyone. Not for me and certainly not for you. I’m sure half my reasons for going so far for those seats is the guilt I feel for leaving you high and dry.”

     For her to protest his claim would constitute a lie. It may have been at her lowest point but she did accuse him of quitting. For him to feel guilty is only natural.

     “I can’t tell you how to feel but…try not to let it get to you…if you can. I don’t hold it against you…anymore.”

     His laughter stuns her, even though she expects it. His spark of joy is always burning and she doesn’t understand how.

     “How can you laugh at that? I just told you I was mad at you.”

     “Yes, you did, and I’m glad you did.”


     “Because it shows me that you’ve learned how to recognize and express your feelings better. This criticism isn’t to tear you down, mind you, but you have struggled with that in the past.”

     “I still do,” Nuria says somberly.

     “And that’s okay, too. You’re sixteen years young, Nuria. Too young to have a perfect handle on yourself. I’m too young, myself.”


     “The point I’m trying to make is that everyone makes those mistakes, Nuria. You learn from those only to make new ones, or you repeat those mistakes and make new ones. It is a vicious cycle but such is life.”


     The strings of her parachute fray.

     “Tell me, Nuria. What became of the egg?” Reddic asks.

     The strings snap.

     “She’s gone,” she says gloomily.

     “How do you mean?”

     Nuria sighs gustily and lowers her mask, showing him her scar. He frowns briefly upon seeing it but shows no surprise.

     “Stark did tell me it wasn’t pretty but it still hurts to see after preparing myself. Is the phoenix alive?”

     “The last I saw of her, yes. That was months ago.”

     “Tell me, did you imprint on her by chance?”

     She steals his phrasing. “How do you mean?”

     “When you first locked eyes, did hers glow?”

     Nuria has all the answers to that locked safely in a vault in her mind. She obsessed over her journal so much that every single entry is stored securely, down to the smallest detail. The entry she searches for now is the first one she recorded about finding her daughter, and it said: “Even from where I stood on the ice, I could tell she was already as tall as me, a six-foot-tall phoenix with covered in spotless vermillion feathers. Wait, should I count her tail feathers into her height? I’ll ask Reddic. If he says yes, then she’s closer to nine feet from the tip of her longest tail feather to the crown of golden feathers above her gilded eyes. The second those eyes saw me, she flew off again.”

     “I don’t- I’m not sure. They were golden by the time I noticed her looking at me. I was busy calculating her height. By the way, do I count the tail feathers?”

     “Yes, you do.”

     “Okay, so she was almost nine feet back then. Sorry, I remembered a question I had. To answer yours, I don’t think she did.”

     “She did,” he claims.

     “How do you know?”

     “Because just like you, her eyes would naturally be white. If they glow in your presence, the imprint is complete. And since it seems you’ve never seen her eyes white…”

     She absorbs the message he leaves in the air.

     “Is the imprint important?”

     “Tell me, did you ever spend a long period of time away from her after that first meeting? Did anything, in particular, draw you back to her?”

     One more trip to her vault reminds her of the following passage: “I was done being a spectator now! Xaix made it clear it was time! I woke up to find one of her feathers stuck against my hotel window. She missed me!”

     Her heart has a safe landing than anticipated. That is one of her fondest memories to date. She espouses the story to Reddic as easily as she breathes, including the sections involving Greg, and exchanging stories with Shuri and Koren, but he loves when she reveals how, why, and when she declared her Reddic Union Hall request.

     “Before my head gets any bigger, let me make my point. She’s not gone, Nuria. She’s simply elsewhere. And just like the feather on the window, she’ll be back. Phoenixes do like solitude but amongst their own kind- or anyone they imprint on- they yearn for contact. I’m sure she’s searching for you now.”

     She trusts Reddic more than anyone else but before she sets her heart to those heights again, she has to be sure. “Are you positive?”

     “I would not lie to you, Nuria. Not about this. Remember, it was our shared dream to revive the phoenix species. I may not be your phoenix’s father but I want to see her flourish. And until the day comes when I meet her, all my focus is on you. Also, in case you’ve forgotten, Dr. Halko was also imprinted on.”

     “Verm,” Nuria says, stretching out the name. “Phoenixes can imprint on anyone?”

     “Only shortly after birth. Beyond that, they can only imprint on one another or phoenix Vanusi, such as yourself. By that point, unless she imprinted on anyone else at the resort, you are the only one with that connection to her.”

     “But wait, she got hurt at the–”

     “Even if you were the one who hurt her- as if you would- she would come back. It’s what family does…”

     For a second time, she comprehends the message he lets float in the air. “You’re underestimating Rum. I’m not one for grudges but he is.”

     Her vault produces this passage next: “All my calls go straight to voicemail now. I’ll have to work overtime to apologize when I go home and I’m sure I won’t be returning alone.” Everyone knows from their last argument that that was not the case.

     “Your brother is hurting, Nuria. Just as much as you are. I may be smiling but seeing the scar on your face hurts for me, too. I may not know the circumstances but it doesn’t stop me from wishing I was there with you to protect you. That plays into the guilt I feel. Imagine that for your brother, except he’s had to see your wounded face every day. And I’m not saying this to make you feel responsible for his hurting but just so that you can understand his side.”

     Nuria’s always had an inkling but now that Reddic’s opened her mind to comparing pain, she can see that her losing Xaix may not be that much greater than Rum’s. She knows from experience that surviving any trial does not erase the pain from it. Her surviving Kari’s attack, Rum surviving the dojo bombing, and Stark and Tyra surviving their mothers, all of those left their marks on them. The War of FHA spared no one.

     “By the way, Fanger’s losing his patience. You haven’t pet him once.”

     “Wha- I can’t even see him.”

     “His right ear is behind your left hand.”

     Her fingers bump into the inside of his ear first. She wraps her fingers around to the outside and even though nothing is there she can feel his coarse fur, hear his grateful purr. “How can you see him when he’s fully invisible?”

     Reddic smirks proudly. “A blessing from the mix of my Primal Sense and Mother’s Source. Together they help me view things from several light spectrums, not just one. For example, I can actually see body heat if I choose to. Not for long periods but I can.”

     “Can you do it now?”

     “Curious about your glowing, are you?”

     “Is it that obvious?”

     “Unfortunately, this is new territory for me, also. In all of Kirin’s journals, not once did she mention this. I used my infrared sight on you at first but you didn’t appear any hotter than anyone else around you. So, I played a hunch and viewed you through a UV lens.”

     “Ultraviolet light?”

     “The very same. The light around you is concentrated solar energy in a gaseous form.”


     “You smell like a sun.”

     “I… Seriously? Come on, what’s the real answer?”

     “You’re not doing this yourself, are you?”

     “I wish but no.”


     Reddic pauses when a car lock beeps. Nuria joins him in facing the parking lot. Guests are starting to arrive.

     “Fanger, make tracks. And you and I, we’ll have to continue this later. You have a show to get ready for.”

     “Okay,” she says dejectedly. They only just started talking she feels. She grabs the sides of her mask but Reddic stops her from pulling it up. “What?”

     “Don’t hide your pain, Nuria. Rise above it. Show your peers what you’re made of!”

     She doesn’t have to dig far in her vault this time.

     Valine finished her opening performance and tucked her red curly hair behind her ear. She looked triumphant despite her labored breathing.

     “Thank you, guys. Thank you, thank you. But the party’s just starting! This isn’t the karaoke room I wanted but think of this as an open mic club! That means any of you can grace this stage! And we already have our first volunteer! You know her, you love her, and she’s gonna kill it! Get up here, Nuria!”

     The phoenix flipped over the back of her chair and raced to the stage. Her excitement was boiling. She’d finally conquered her fear of public singing and was ready to show her friends a good time. They were together again and she was going to kick the year off in a mighty way.

     “What’s up, Four Hearts! Welcome to Reverse Iceberg! Shoutout to the owners for letting me go first! Like Valine said, the party’s just starting! If you don’t like it loud then you better go! It’s only 6:30 and we’re gonna rock till four!”

     She didn’t miss even one beat when Rum and Pan left. She saw it coming and she knew Pan would follow. She was glad she did. None of them should be alone tonight, whether they celebrate with her or not. But if they stayed, she made sure they celebrated. She encouraged nothing less. Her first song was one of her favorites by the singer called Entro since they specialized in party music. Another singer, Juggar, did too but since their name was not as easy to pronounce, most kids shied away from them.

     The track she chose was titled “Tic-Tac-Pop”. The song was loved by boys and girls until the music video was released five weeks later. All the pink outfits and decorations turned off most of the male audience. She nearly busted her gut when Roy and Donovan instantly joined in during the chorus. She saw Wallace participate too, even though he mumbled more than sang. Sutar didn’t know the words but she did a cute little bounce to the beat.

     Nuria gravitated over to Valine to merge their soprano voices for verse two. Sticker and Lauron sheered them on wildly, the mic transmitting their cheers as impromptu adlibs. Even Evic joined. It was only by clapping but it was enough to show his entertainment.

     Aven rolled his eyes when she stuck the mic in his face. Both of them widened their eyes when Shuri pulled the mic toward him and belted the next line. Aven was sick to his stomach but not Nuria. Even though his voice was “itchy”, she adored the enthusiasm.

     Nuria ran back to her chair and rode it down to the table like an elevator. She, Tyra, Syl, Carnya, and Koren sang the final lyric together.


     The remainder of their night was more of the same. Everyone took a turn to sing, barring Aven and Evic, and each performance was a hoot. More than a dozen other Entro songs were sung. Lauron, surprise, surprise, chose a heavy metal track that was more yelling than singing. Shuri went up next and made an entire fool of himself but none of the laughter was mean-spirited. Sutar’s soft alto paired nicely with the Kruzer song she chose. Koren’s pick caught her off guard, never expecting him to sing an older song. He explained that it was his dad’s favorite. The biggest shock, however, was Tyra’s performance. She sang a beautiful slow-paced piece with masterful projection. Nobody cheered because she seized their attention so thoroughly. Even Aven leaned forward, caught in her spell. She made sure to grill the angel about her secret talent before they got wild again.

     At one point, Nuria saw Stark peek inside before leaving. Ten minutes later, she knew the officer graced them a little extra time. Nuria appreciated it but wished the night would never end.

     “Yes, sir!”

     She splits with Reddic reluctantly at the crossroads between the restroom and the main lobby. She hangs the garment bag on one of the stall doors. She takes a breath and unzips it slowly.

     Oh, yeah. I’m putting this on ASAP!

     She abandons her colorful outfit. She pulls up the brown dress pants first, then puts on the socks and shoes supplied. She buttons up the yellow blouse and tucks it in carefully. The double-breasted vest is a little trickier with the inside buttons to connect also. She watches her reflection to make sure she rolls her sleeves back just the same Reddic does. All of the clothes fit so well that she knows he had to ask her mom for her sizes.

     Then again, his vision is on another level. Maybe he could just tell that at a glance, too.

     One thing she doesn’t know is how she’ll perform for him tonight. The last time she sang for her former mentor doesn’t even compare to the opening night of the semester, and she plans to make that pale to her upcoming performance. Tonight, she abandons her old front-row crew vision and replaces it with one including everyone.

     Nuria exits the bathroom, her previous outfit in the garment bag now. She strolls over to the front desk with an embarrassing question. “How do I get backstage from here?”

     The group of people gathered ignore her, absorbed by the news report on the tablet screen between them.

     “What’s that about?” Nuria asks blithely.

     “There was a threat called into the downtown JC train station. Someone was targeted for assassination but no other details yet.”

     “Oh, okay, cool. So, how do I get backstage from here?” she repeats.

     “Down the hall behind you, make the next two lefts, right at the garden entrance, and go down the steps behind the “authorized personnel” doors. Just follow the blue arrows after that.”

     “Thank you,” Nuria replies in singsong, warming up her voice. She hums all of her parts to the song while she swaggers through the halls. The glass doors to the garden are the demarcation between the carpeted floor and the wooden veranda. The time on her watch reads 4:38 p.m.

     I can try and find Sutar quickly. Gotta make sure I say hi in case she has to leave as soon as the show ends.

     The automatic doors open for her but then swiftly close. She turns and watches the doors curiously for a second. They don’t open right away and she frowns. She wishes Fanger was near but if the door isn’t activating, then he must have obeyed Reddic’s order this time around. She shrugs her shoulders and moves on. The walkway into the garden from the veranda is beneath an arch draped with vines and lotus flowers. The offshoot vines are cut short, their expert care evident.

     The same can be said for the topiary scattered throughout the garden proper. She sees bushes in the shapes of bulls, tigers, owls, porcupines, and ravens. The angled glass wall on the other end is bordered by a row of heart trees with their signature exposed roots. The looming sunset basks the topiaries, flowers, and trees in a harmonious mix of orange and pink, the leaves shimmering. The beauty of the moment is unmarred by competing sights, smells, or sounds. Even from her position at the arch, she can tell not one soul is inside the garden.

     Must’ve just missed her. Maybe I’ll see her afterward.

The door hisses open just then but doesn’t shut immediately. She spins on the balls of her feet, hoping to see Sutar, Roy, Wallace, and Donovan, to greet them with open arms. So, her face is defenseless against the fist that smashes into it.

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