Singing was Nina’s passion. Or had been her passion until a debilitating sickness stole her dream away and left her with only being able to hear the wonderful words and sounds she longed to belt out in her own voice for all to hear. She was upset, sure, cried about it for weeks and moped for even longer. Who wouldn’t have? Especially when that’s all she thought about doing? Singing was her life. It wasn’t easy to let something like that go.

But she wasn’t one to let anything hold her back, even at the age of nine. She found another way to express herself—through music of a different sort, the kind that involved a musical instrument and her hands and feet. As soon as she laid eyes on her grandmother’s newly purchased baby grand piano, Nina fell in love. At the first touch of the ivory keys she felt a connection deeper than anything she’d experienced in her short life. She learned how to play London Bridge and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star during that fateful summer visit to her grandmother’s and practiced until her fingers were sore and her shoulders ached.

Thus her affair with music began anew. However, as with all things, summer drew to a close and it was back home to a piano-less house. Her heart ached at having to leave behind what she had come to think of as part of her soul. Her parents realized how despondent she was during their first week back and surprised her with a piano all her own. It wasn’t as nice as the one her grandmother owned, but she wasn’t about to complain. Not when she had the one thing that allowed her to speak.

It wasn’t long before she picked up the more complicated stuff and moved on to Beethoven and Mozart and Bach. School began as the leaves started to turn and the chill winds of Autumn blew, and off she went. She managed to impress her music teacher that year and each year after, eventually landing a scholarship to one of the most prestigious performing arts schools in the country.

And that’s where everything began to fall apart, because that’s when she met him.

His name was Xander, and he had the one thing she would never have. A voice that could stun you into shocked silence. A voice that was heaven sent and had the ability to bring tears to your eyes or draw laughter from your vocal chords. A voice that made you feel and ache and love all at once. Nina almost hated him for it.

He had tons of friends, too. She wasn’t sure how that related to her reasons for not liking him, but she lumped it in there anyway. He probably had an ego to rival the biggest egoist in the world, too. (So she couldn’t name anyone specifically and had no actual proof, did it really matter?)

She made up her mind right there and then to ignore him forever, which actually meant she would observe him from the shadows and hope he never learned of her existence.

As fate would have it, though, he caught her gawking one day not far into her first semester during a rehearsal, and tried to talk to her. Embarrassed at being caught and angry with herself for liking his voice to begin with, she turned tail and ran, pretending she was deaf as well as mute. Of course, he would have none of her aloofness. They shared a couple of the same classes and he took it upon himself to pester her all through the rest of that first semester together, trying to get a reaction from her other than her cold stares and general ignorance.

She managed to remain strong in the face of his open smiles and friendly chatter (since when did a guy talk her ears off?) all the way up until she realized he wasn’t really talking to her anymore aside from the occasional polite ‘good morning’ or ‘excuse me’. And then she realized she’d made a horrible mistake.

Somehow she managed to acquire a few of his close friends as friends of her own during a short period of time, and she’d never been so thankful for such a thing in her life as she was that evening when she and the resident diva, a voluptuous redhead who was a vocal powerhouse, sat in her room, on her bed, both dressed in flowing summer dresses with their legs tucked beneath them, trying to come up with a way for Nina to apologize.

“I don’t know why you don’t just write him a note. It’s not like he’s gonna bite your head off for it!” Desiree proclaimed straightforwardly with extravagant flicks of her wrists to get her point across.

Nina shook her head vehemently. They’d been over this already. She needed something bigger than a note to show that she was sincere because she’d been quite a jerk to him, when all he’d tried to do was be her friend.

It needs to be something more than that, she wrote in her notebook. Not over the top or flashy, just something that will drive home the fact that I’m really, truly sorry for treating him the way I have.

She flipped the notebook around so Desiree could read it and waited for her answer. After a few more minutes filled with Desiree chewing her bottom lip and fiddling with her corkscrew curls they were no closer to coming up with anything than when they started.

“I got nothin’, sweetcakes,” Desiree said in her thick southern drawl. “I’m sorry.”

Nina blew out a frustrated breath, upsetting her soft bangs from where they fell in her face.

“Wait a second!” Desiree said suddenly, startling Nina into dropping her notebook and causing her heart rate to spike. She glared at Desiree and slid off the bed to retrieve the bound sheets of paper. “I think I know what you can do!”

Nina arched her brow lazily and gestured with her hands for Desiree to elaborate.

Grinning hugely, Desiree said, “Why don’t you write him a song? That would work, right?”

Nina pursed her lips as she thought about it, then sighed and shook her head. Not for this, she hastily wrote.

Desiree frowned, perfectly sculpted brows dipping low as she scanned over the short sentence. She looked at Nina, green eyes searching. “Well why not?”

Nina looked away, shaking her head, not wanting to expose her childish feelings; that she was jealous of Xander’s singing ability, and that she felt that giving him a song, her song, would only be admitting defeat and giving up a part of herself.

She set pen to paper once more. It just won’t.

She heard Desiree sigh and felt her shift on the bed. “Then I don’t know what you’re gonna do, sugar.”

Desiree scooted off the bed then, retrieving her shoes and slipping them on as she crossed the room to the door. She paused with her hand on the knob looked back at Nina. “Why don’t you stop by the rehearsal room tonight? We’re throwing a surprise party for Laina and it might get your spirits up enough for you to figure out that something special you’re looking for.”

Nina smiled in thanks and nodded.

Desiree returned her smile. “Great,” she said and left. As soon as the door shut behind her, Nina flopped back on the bed with a sigh and flung her arm over her eyes, blocking the soft light coming in from the window. Why was she putting so much effort into coming up with a special apology for a guy she didn’t even care about?

* * *

At 7:30 on the dot, Nina walked into one of the smaller rehearsal rooms on campus with her heart beating an erratic rhythm in her chest and a slight feeling of queasiness in her stomach. In the hours she had to herself before getting ready for the party she flip flopped through ideas and still hadn’t managed to come up with anything, and so here she was intending to spend the evening of her friend’s party thinking up a unique way to apologize. Not fun.

By the looks of it, the party had just slipped into full blown ‘go’ even though it was just a small gathering of people. There was like, fifteen people tops, but that made sense given Laina’s dislike for over the top gatherings. She had a problem with crowds–unless she was performing, then she was just hunky dory.

Nina sucked in a calming breath and walked over to where everyone was gathered around the birthday girl, hoping her smile looked genuine even though she didn’t feel her best. She slipped past Gregory and Victoria, ducked under Torri’s arm and tapped Laina on the shoulder. The shorter girl turned around and gave a high pitched squeal of delight when she saw Nina, throwing her arms around Nina’s shoulders and hugging her tight. For someone so dainty and petite, she sure was strong, Nina thought, not for the first time.

“Nina-bina! I’m so glad you came!” Laina said happily, letting up on her death grip. Nina grinned and took a slight step back, pulling a small box wrapped in silver and tied with a burgundy bow from behind her where she’d hid it while maneuvering through the press of bodies, and held it up with a dramatic flourish.

Laina gasped and pressed her fingers to her mouth, brown eyes sparkling with delight as she gazed upon the prettily wrapped gift. “Is that really for me?” she asked.

Nina giggled noiselessly and nodded, handing over the gift. Laina took it, handling it like it would turn to dust if she touched it too hard, and Nina watched with a smile on her face as she slid the little bow off and removed the lid. Inside was a platinum necklace. Attached to the delicate chain was an even more delicate looking butterfly of frosty looking white gold. Laina was speechless as she extracted the gift from its bed of softest satin, which had been Nina’s plan.

“Oh, Nina, you shouldn’t have,” Laina breathed, eyes glued to the necklace.

Nina waved her hand and pulled from her purse a smaller notepad she carried with her just for these purposes, and hastily scrawled on the unlined paper, I wanted to.

Laina didn’t seem to have anything to say to that and was just about to release the clasp in order to put it on, but Xander stepped in from seemingly out of nowhere and took the delicate chain between his fingers. “Allow me, pretty girl,” he said easily, lips spread in a grin.

Nina felt her heart stutter in her chest and every bit of breath she had currently held in her lungs left her in a silent rush. She hadn’t expected him to be here, which was why she thought it would be okay to show up in the first place. But Desiree had known. Cheeks flushing darkly, Nina’s eyes moved over faces quickly until she found the redhead standing a little out of the way with Gregory. Their eyes met and Nina glared at her. Desiree, the little minx, just grinned and gave her a wink.

“Thank you, Xander. You’re such a gentleman,” Laina said with a little giggle.

“Always for you,” Xander replied, winking at Laina.

She’d seen them act cute towards one another countless times before, that was just how they were, but for some reason, seeing it this time made Nina…sad.

“Isn’t Nina just the sweetest for getting it for me?”

Xander glanced over at her, the look in his hazel eyes indiscernible, but his expression was deceptively blank. “Yeah. The sweetest.”

And Nina lost it. Tears sprang to her eyes and she couldn’t blink hard or fast enough to keep them away. She gave Laina a watery smile at best and hurried away. As she strode across the carpeted floor, her lips trembled as she let the tears fall as they would. No one could see, no one could hear. She would be fine until she got back to her dorm.

A firm hand landing on her shoulder stopped her before she got there, though. She wiped away the tears from her face and glanced over her shoulder to see who it was, even though she had a sinking suspicion she already knew.

“Hey,” Xander said softly, proving her right. “What happened back there?”

Nina bit her lip hard to keep from crying even harder and shook her head, hands automatically searching for her notepad, but she couldn’t find it. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to walk away, but Xander’s hand on her arm held her firm.

“I understand sign language, you know.” He said it teasingly but it just made Nina feel that much more wretched, because no, she didn’t know that. She’d been too busy acting like he didn’t exist to pay attention to anything he’d said or done.

She shook her head again, refusing to look at him.

“Come on, now,” he said quietly, tilting her face up with his thumb and index finger. Nina felt the touch all the way to her toes and prayed he didn’t notice the pink tinge no doubt dusted across the bridge of her nose and over her cheeks. “Why is my gorgeous songbird crying?”

Nina’s eyes widened considerably. Since when did he call her that? When had he given her a nickname? She jerked away suddenly, tears all dried up now, and heart pounding for a different reason entirely.

She took a deep breath, wet her lips, and crossed her arms in front of her in a shy gesture. After only a second’s hesitation, she signed, I wanted to apologize.

He arched a golden brow. “Oh? For what?”

Nina decided it would be best to just get it all out there, so she continued in a flurry of hand movements. For being mean to you. For ignoring you and everything. I’m sorry. I’ll understand if you don’t forgive me, but I just wanted you to know that I feel badly for the way I acted. And…and it’ll never happen again.

He was silent for a bit, just long enough to have Nina metaphorically squirming in her shoes. Then he spoke. “I have to admit to being curious as to why you ignored me all this time, so before I let you off the hook, will you tell me why?”

Nina winced. She should have known he wouldn’t let it go at that. It’s kind of a long story.

He shrugged. “I have time.”

She nibbled her bottom lip and felt an inexplicable urge to smile. Come back to my room with me? I’ll fix us some tea and I’ll explain there.

He grinned. “Sure.”

She smiled back and they walked back to her dorm room where she fixed the promised tea and told him the whole sordid story of that little thing called jealousy. He didn’t seem to think his voice was that big a deal and she assured him that yes, yes it was, especially to her. Especially since she couldn’t sing anymore and had to rely on an instrument to create music.

Anyway, the point is that I acted like a child and I’m sorry. She said as the story drew to a close.

Xander paused for a heartbeat and a breath, then said, “You know…you were forgiven the whole time.”

She blushed. He chuckled. “But that doesn’t mean the explanation wasn’t appreciated.”

Nina scrunched up her nose and stuck her tongue out at him. He thanked her for the tea and left soon after. Nina fell asleep feeling lighter somehow. And the next day was almost like it was in the beginning, only she didn’t ignore him.

As the days and weeks went on they became closer. She found out he knew sign language because he had a cousin who was mute, too. He wanted to sing because he couldn’t see not singing as being any sort of a choice, and he was thankful every single moment for his health.

Life became hectic as exams came up, and then finals, and Nina was a nervous wreck. She had to come up with her final piece in less than a week and was so not even close to being finished with the composition.

Xander found her alone in one of the comp. labs a little after midnight one night. Her eyes were ringed with dark circles and puffy with exhaustion.

“Would you smack me if I said you were starting to resemble a zombie?”

She just cocked her head a little to the side and let her mouth drop open, giving him a dull look. “I guess not,” he said with a chuckle and sat down beside her on the piano bench.

“Having trouble?”

She nodded and agitatedly ran her fingers through her hair.

“Play it for me. We’ll find the problem before the night is through, trust me.”

She sighed and went through the same tired motions of the song as she had for the past five hours.

Xander stopped her suddenly, pointing to the notes she’d written out. “There’s your problem I think. It’s just a little too fast. And I think the key should be higher. What do you think?” he asked, glancing over at her. She shrugged, letting him know she’d give it a try. After adjusting the notes and timing both on paper and in her head, she played through it again.

It sounded better. She felt a wave of relief wash over her and suddenly she wasn’t as tired.

They went through it a few more times, adjusting here and there, tweaking this and that, before deciding it was as finished as it was gonna be for the night.

As they walked to the door together, side by side, Nina stopped him with a hand to his wrist. He turned just a bit and looked down at her, the slightest crease of a frown appearing between his eyes. “Is something the matter?”

She shook her head, feeling lightheaded…but she needed to do this. She raised up on her tiptoes and placed a soft, quick kiss to his parted lips, then, without giving him a chance to stop her or ask her what that had been about, she hurried away, her heart pounding in her chest, a million thoughts running through her head at once, but the one that stood out the most was the possibility that she’d just found her voice.

Because when Xander was around, she could sing again.

(c) Brianna Somersham