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NASUADA

"Okay Nas, that's really great. I can tell you've been practicing." The choir teacher—Mrs. Howell—said warmly, giving Nasuada a wide smile. She'd just finished singing a piece her private teacher had her working on.

"All summer," she assured her with a slight bounce on her toes. "I wanted to be ready for the All State auditions in December, so my private teacher and I have worked up a few pieces I think will be really good audition material."

Mrs. Howell gave an appreciative nod. "It's always good to be prepared," she replied, closing the fallboard of the piano. "Do you have a few moments? I wanted to talk to you about some stuff real quick." The choir teacher was relatively young in comparison to her students, but that just meant they loved her all the more. And Nasuada found her very easy to talk to, be it about choir, boys, or just life in general.

Nasuada checked the clock that hung over Mrs. Howell's desk in the corner. 2:15 "Yeah, I've got some time." This was her free period anyways; even if she did have some colorguard practice to get in, it could wait a little bit.

"Okay, great," her teacher replied. "Let me organize some stuff and I'll meet you over in my office." Nasuada nodded and grabbed her bag off the floor, placing her music back in her folder and then shoving the folder into her backpack. Mrs. Howell's office was just across the hall from the choir room, and was unlocked, so she went right in to the cramped space, taking a seat in one of the chairs meant for students. The office was actually connected to the orchestra teacher's office, and he'd left his door open, so she could see into the orchestra room.

Mr. Woodworth looked like he was having a hard time teaching a guitar class. Those kids were always running around acting crazy, or they were constantly picking at their strings, trying to nail down whatever pop or rock song they were currently learning. The rest of the kids in the Performing Arts department tended to look down on them, like they were somehow beneath the kids who studied violin or saxophone or singing. But Nasuada didn't think that way. She actually thought it was good for there to be an outlet for those kids. A lot of them were troubled academically, and this allowed them to have something to forget about that... at least for a little while.

"Okay, guys!" Mr. Woodworth called over the cacophony. "Let's put our guitars down for a minute, please? Thank you." Right then, Mrs. Howell came in the office and wiggled around to sit behind her desk.

"Hey, Nas, will you go close that door?" she asked distractedly, filing through some emails on her computer.

"Sure," she replied softly, walking over to the other side of the office that belonged to Mr. Woodworth. As she stepped up to the door, the orchestra teacher looked over at her and gave a small wave. But that wasn't where her attention was focused; it was focused on the pair of grey eyes staring intently at her.

She recognized him from the other day, when he'd dropped his glove outside. And when he'd almost bit her head off for giving it back. Murtagh Morris. She didn't know he played guitar... Well, maybe he didn't. Maybe he was just starting to learn.

His gaze didn't leave her, even as she went to close the door. It was actually a little frightening, how intensely he was staring her down. Was he angry with her or something? It gave her a shiver to think about it, which she banished with a quick shrug of the shoulders. As the door latched closed, she hurried back to the other side of the office.

"Okay," Mrs. Howell said slowly, drawing out the word as she hurriedly closed down several tabs on her desktop. Once it was cleared, she turned to Nasuada with a wide smile. "Let's talk."

"What about?" Nas questioned.

"About the future." That word struck a chord of fear in her heart. The "future" was the absolute last thing she wanted to discuss. "I know it's only your Junior year," she continued, unaware, "but it's really never too early to start thinking about these things. Do you have an idea of where you'd like to go to college?"

"Um, well..." Nasuada hedged nervously, twiddling her fingers in her lap. The truth was that she didn't really know. Well... she knew what she wanted to do, but that was in such stark contrast to what her dad wanted her to do that she hadn't told anybody.

Mrs. Howell picked up on her hesitation quickly. "Have you considered studying music?" she asked, a knowing look in her kind, blue eyes. Nasuada nodded with a slight chuckle. "I thought as much. But maybe that isn't what your dad wants?"

"Kind of ironic, isn't it?" she laughed in reply. "My dad is the band teacher, and he wants me to become a doctor or a lawyer or a politician."

Mrs. Howell smiled kindly. "I've known your dad for a while, Nasuada. He's only got your best interests in mind. But I can tell that music is really where your heart lies." Nasuada let that statement sink in, rolling it over in her mind and laughing when she realized how true it actually was. "It's only the first day of school," Mrs. Howell continued, "so don't feel like you have to rush off and have some deep, philosophical conversation with him. But I'd suggest you talk to him about it sometime this semester. Come spring, you'll be so wrapped up with the ACT and AP exams that you won't have time to think about it. And before you know it, it'll be time to start auditioning for some programs."

"I don't know why he doesn't want me to study music," she replied quietly. "He knows I love it, and I know he loves it too. I just..."

"Hey," the choir teacher said softly, "your dad has been through a lot. If you just talk to him, you'll understand." Nasuada looked up at her with a nervous flutter in her chest, but she nodded all the same.

"Okay, I'll talk to him once we get past our first parade. That always puts him on edge, and I don't wanna put anything else on his plate on top of that."

"A wise decision," Mrs. Howell chuckled. "Alright, I've got about a thousand pieces to sift through to try and figure out what we'll be performing this semester, so you go on." Nasuada smiled gratefully and grabbed her bag off the floor, slinging it over her shoulder. She opened up the door to leave, but Mrs. Howell stopped her. "Oh, and Nasuada?"

"Yes?" she asked, looking back over her shoulder.

"You're doing a great job," Mrs. Howell said. "I'm really proud of the progress you've made over the past two years."

"Thanks, Mrs. H," Nasuada replied. She left the office, closing the door behind her quietly, and then strolled out into the main hallway. It was deserted, as it was the middle of class, but she could hear the sounds of practicing and voices chattering floating on the air. This was her favorite place in the world; this was where she really felt at home. All that talk of the future had scared her a bit, but she took comfort in knowing that she still had two years in this place.

Nas walked the short distance down the hall to the band room, making sure she opened it quietly so as not to disturb the class currently going on. Her dad had Jazz Band during 7th period, which was the only thing he took more seriously than Marching Band. When she walked into the room, she noticed Saphira sitting in her dad's office immediately to the right.

"Hey, Saphira," she whispered hurriedly. The other girl snapped her head up to look at her, but smiled widely when she realized who it was.

"Oh, hi Nas, what's up?" she said, putting down the magazine she'd been flipping through.

"Nothin' much, just came to get my flag and practice some tosses. You?" Saphira was sitting in Mr. Adams' swivel chair, so Nasuada took the smaller chair that sat by the door.

"I was gonna try and do some practicing myself, but all the practice rooms are full." Saphira shrugged half-heartedly. "Oh well. I figure everyone's enthusiasm will fade by next week, so I'll just bide my time."

Nasuada laughed lightly. "That sounds like a good plan. Okay, well I'm gonna go throw a 6-foot long metal pole a few feet in the air for fun, I'll see ya after school." Saphira giggled and Nas got up to leave.

"Oh, by the way," Saphira said hastily, causing Nasuada to pause her retreat, "I wanted to congratulate you on getting Captain." Nasuada froze momentarily, trying to decipher if Saphira was being genuine or not. Ever since the roster had come out, Nasuada had had to deal with whispers and scathing looks; people saying she'd only gotten Captain because her dad was the band director. But Saphira seemed to really mean it, so she let a tentative smile grace her dark features.

"Thanks, Saphira, I really appreciate that," she replied. Saphira nodded knowingly, and then Nasuada left for real. She skirted around the back of the band room, giving her dad a quick wave and getting a wink and a nod in response. Once she'd circumnavigated the percussion section, she headed to the closet on the other side of the room that stored the uniforms, flags, rifles, sabres, or whatever else the band needed put away during school hours. She pushed aside a few items until she found the flag with the pink silk that was hers.

Once she'd retrieved her flag, she hurried quietly out of the room, through the double doors at the back that opened to the entryway off the student parking lot. The atrium had tall ceilings, which made it perfect for practicing tosses when the gym wasn't available, as it was now. Nasuada set down her bag up against a wall that was nothing but trophy cases for the school's sports teams. She dug around in her bag until she found her gloves and then strapped them on quickly.

The pole felt a little unbalanced as she did a few drop-spins; she made a mental note to get some weights to put in the end cap out of her dad's office later. As the silk 'swished' and 'snapped' through the air, Nasuada could feel herself calming down. It was sort of therapeutic for her, spinning a flag. Each action was intentional; every flick of her wrist or movement of her arm had a direct effect on the flag, creating a piece of visual art. The silk wrapped her in a sort of cocoon as she turned into a quick butterfly spin. And as the flag spun around her back and came back around on the other side, she flicked it into a pop toss right over her head.

She watched it rotate in the reflection of the glass cases in front of her, arcing through the air gracefully. But as her eyes followed its path back downward, and she raised her arms to catch it, she caught a glimpse of a figure standing behind her. Quickly, she abandoned any thought of catching the flag and turned to face whoever it was lurking by the bathrooms behind where she stood.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to scare you," he muttered quickly, backing up a few steps from where he stood. But his fierce, grey eyes never left her.

Murtagh.

"I just... It's really, um... really cool, what you do with that thing." He motioned at the flag that lay abandoned on the floor behind her.

"Oh..." she said quietly, not sure if she trusted her voice to say anything more. "Um, thanks... Doesn't really explain why you were watching me like that. How long have you been standing there?"

He shrugged. "Not long. Left class to go to the bathroom, and saw you there. Probably only about a minute, if I had to guess."

"It's kinda creepy," she said with a laugh. He was acting so nervous, Nasuada doubted he'd had any ill-intent. And it was sort of endearing...

"Sorry, I didn't mean to—"

"It's fine," she assured him, turning around and picking up her flag. She crossed the short distance between them and stuck out her hand. "I'm Nasuada, by the way. We, uh... we sorta met before."

"I remember," he replied with a sort of half-smile. Nasuada could tell that it was practiced; something he'd learned to do over time, probably because there were so many rumors floating around town about him. She knew who Murtagh Morris was, only because he had a reputation. But the boy standing in front of her didn't line up with the tales of the no-good delinquent she'd always heard. "I wanted to apologize..."

"For what?" she questioned, arching one eyebrow higher than the other.

"How I snapped at you, when you gave me back my glove," he explained, shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his black jeans. "I'm... Well, I'm not used to people approaching me; you caught me off-guard. And kindness with no strings attached... that's not something I'm used to."

Nasuada could feel her chest tightening, overcome with sympathy and compassion. What in the world could have happened to him to make him say something like that? The way he was avoiding eye contact made her think he wasn't just over exaggerating.

"Well..." she started slowly, leaning up against her flagpole, "I try to show everyone kindness until they give me reason not to. And you never have."

He laughed mirthlessly. "I guess that means you've never heard the rumors about me."

"No, I have," she replied with a smirk. "But rumors are just rumors. Until I see something with my own eyes, I tend not to believe it's true. So, no; I do not believe that you spent the last summer in a juvenile work camp, nor do I believe that you are part of a motorcycle gang that deals drugs, or that you are in cahoots with the mafia. They're all just stories people make up because they're bored. And the people in this town tend to get bored a lot."

His face was a mixture of amusement and surprise. "Well, I... uh... Thanks, I guess." He rubbed at the back of his neck awkwardly. "Um, I've got to get back to class. I'll... see ya around?" The questioning tone in his voice caused her to smile.

"We go to the same school, so I don't doubt it," she quipped back with a chuckle. Nasuada turned away from him, facing the glass cases once again and flicking her flag above her head in a quad toss, watching it sail almost up into the rafters. It came down in her hands with a satisfying 'slap', but when she turned to gauge Murtagh's reaction, she saw that he was already gone.