Chapter One: Cello
The soft sound of wind chimes greeted me as I entered the kitchen. The window was open, allowing a gentle breeze into the room, which rustled through the leaves of my father's newspaper and set the ceramic chimes into motion. I smiled vaguely, remembering the family holiday we had brought them back from. I had been six years old and it had been my first visit to Tokyo, that is, before we came to live here. We were visiting a popular historical Zen Temple, it's beautiful gardens alight with every shade of autumn. I had not been entirely enjoying Tokyo, but this small patch of green at the edge of the sprawling city has ever since been etched in my memory. I clearly remember the state of complete calm, a rarity in the restless city, quiet enough that I could hear the soothing notes of the furin wind chimes. The tiny little ceramic bells were hung from tree to tree, each with a thin strip of card strung below bearing some enlightening message. I had liked them so much that my mother asked another tourist to take a picture of us in front of them.
"Sure, I-" the woman had begun to say, taking the camera from her. But she had frozen with it in her hands as she looked up into my mother's face. "Are you Julia Heartilly? The model?"
"Yes, I am," my mother had said, smiling.
"And this is your daughter? She looks just like-" she said breathlessly, before looking at me properly, "I'm sure she'll grow up to look just like you!" She had then taken the picture while her husband ushered their young son out of the shot, and left with my mother's autograph. At the end of our tour of the temple gardens we bought three wind chimes of our own, which now hung from the handsome window frame in our kitchen. I withdrew from the memory, which had ended on a sour note. I had not grown up to look like my mother at all.
My father then looked up at me over his paper, having only just realised I was there.
"Good morning, beautiful girl," he said as I sat down next to him and pulled a bowl of cereal towards me. I smiled weakly in response to his daily greeting. How could he call me beautiful when he was married to my mother, the most famous model in Japan? My parents were both nearing forty; it showed in the corners of my father's eyes and in the flecks of grey through his dark hair, but my mother was still as radiant as she had ever been. She was very tall, even taller than my father when she wore heels, and held herself with a dignified grace. I am sure when people imagine Julia Heartilly's daughter they think of a miniature version of her, with defined cheekbones, glossy brown hair and those signature amber eyes. But I am my father through and through; the same heart-shaped face, dark hair and flushed cheeks. Not entirely unattractive, though woefully unremarkable in comparison to Japan's most renowned model. I looked back at the chimes, which were stirring again, and read the elegant characters on the card hanging from my little furin bell, 'beauty in unexpected places'. 'Unexpected' was the only part of the expression I could relate to, and it was about to be demonstrated to me once again.
The gentle melody of the chimes was suddenly joined by the intrusive electronic sound of the doorbell. My mother's voice called down the stairs, accompanied by the steady pattering of the shower.
"Rinoa, can you get that?"
I slid out of my seat and traipsed towards the hallway, nervously adjusting my hair as I approached the door. I tentatively pulled it open to reveal an excited-looking youth who, due to a bag of magazines slung over his shoulder, I assumed to be a paper boy.
"It wouldn't fit through the letter box," he said, waving this month's issue of Vogue in my face, "Is Miss Rinoa Heartilly around?" I knew he was lying about the letterbox, as the magazine had dropped onto the doormat every month since I was old enough to develop an interest in magazines. This was a rather weak excuse. He had obviously wanted to see for himself the unquestionable magnificence of the daughter of Julia Heartilly. I felt myself going red as I averted my gaze.
"I'm Rinoa Heartilly," I said timidly, and attempted to tug the magazine from his grasp. I was clearly not quite the vision of beauty he had been expecting. For a moment I thought he would not let the magazine go, as if convinced there had been some mistake.
"Oh," he said, looking at me blankly for a moment, before relinquishing his hold on it, "Here you go then." I was unexpected, just like the message hanging from my furin chime had said. A surprise to everyone who met me.
"Who was it?" asked my mother as she descended the flight of stairs in her bath robe. Even with her hair wrapped in a towel and her face bare she was stunning. I held out the magazine to her and she took it with an eyebrow raised.
"I don't have time to read it now, I'll be late for my seminar," I said, gathering up my things. The one thing I had inherited from my mother was her enthusiasm for fashion, and it was Fashion Design I studied at the University of Tokyo. When I was younger I had wanted nothing more than to become a supermodel like my mother, but as the years passed and I failed to transform into the miniature Julia Heartilly that everyone had expected, the dream slowly died. The interest in fashion itself however, had remained. I may not have been naturally blessed with my mother's looks, but I knew how to dress well and how to use make up to enhance my otherwise plain features. And an advantage of my mother's commercial success was that I always had the best materials to work with. Today my skin gleamed under a thin coating of Chanel, my eyes were carefully defined with my favourite Lancôme shadows, liner and mascara. I was running late however, and the run-in with the paper boy had disorientated me. I rushed around, stuffing books haphazardly into my bag.
"Don't forget your cello!" my mother called from the hallway.
Unexpectedly, my face broke into a small smile. I had almost forgotten my cello. In my disquiet I had almost forgotten my primary source of contentment. I rushed to the living room, where my cello case was propped against the wall and complex sheets littered the coffee table. I slid 'Clash on the Big Bridge' by E.R. Gilgamesh into my bag and pulled my cello case onto my shoulders like a rucksack. I was temporarily distracted by my mother's voice, but looking up, I realised it was coming from the television.
"New Shu Uemura anti-wrinkle eye contour cream..." As if she had any wrinkles that needed contouring. I tore my eyes away from the advertisement and zipped up my bag. At the door my mother kissed me on the cheek. "...the art of beauty," her televised self finished.
"Have a good day, beautiful girl," she said, with a smile. Although I knew they were meant to be affectionate, the words went straight through me like ice cold water. I closed the door on the sound of tinkling chimes.
I was eighteen and in the spring of my first year of study. Coming from a rich family, I could have been driven to the university by a private chauffeur, but my parents were not so extravagant and I was glad of it. If I arrived in an expensive black car every morning then I'd only draw attention to myself, and I'm not sure I would be able to stand the disbelieving looks that would be cast when they learned I was Julia Heartilly's daughter. I recalled with anguish the first day of term, queued outside the seminar hall with excited whispers flying all around me.
"Did you hear that Julia Heartilly's daughter is in this class?"
"I know! But I can't see her anywhere...where is she?"
They were expecting to be able to recognise me instantly; surely I'd be the tallest, prettiest girl on the course, a spitting image of my mother and flocked by friends and admirers. Instead, I stood alone at the back of the queue, silently, with my head down. The moment could not be avoided forever I knew, and sure enough I was forced to endure the looks of astonishment as my name was called from the register.
"Rinoa Heartilly?" called my Professor, with a slight elevation in her voice that expressed curiosity. The students in the hall all looked around expectantly, waiting in anticipation for the daughter of Japan's top model to reveal herself.
"Yes, Professor," I said in the smallest of voices. I knew that I was blushing profusely and determinately avoided contact with the several pairs of eyes that were glued to me. How anti-climatic I have must have seemed to them. The whole class was hushed into stunned silence, until the Professor cleared her throat pointedly and continued down the list of names. I felt their eyes returning to me frequently throughout the lecture, 'An Introduction to Commercial Fashion, Culture, and Design,' but I never looked up from my notes. I was very glad when the lecture came to an end, and wondered disconsolately how I would endure this for three years. As I left I had caught fragments of conversations from my classmates.
"...not what I was expecting at all."
"I'd have thought Julia Heartilly's daughter would be practically royalty in the fashion world, but she looks so ordinary!"
"...nothing like her! Are you sure they don't just share the same name?"
Why was I putting myself through this? I had to remind myself that I did love fashion. Of course my parents were wary of my pursuing a career in this field, and frequently encouraged my cello practise. I was a truly virtuosic cellist; and to play made me feel like another person, confident and sure of myself. I had persevered with Music at school, but despite excelling in the practical side, I was never particular gifted with the theory, which would surely be essential in a Music degree. In spite of choosing to study fashion design at an advanced level, I could not have endured the constant failure to meet expectations without Samantha Soul.
I had immediately signed up to try out for the university orchestra, but since there was no music department within the University of Tokyo, numbers for auditionees were extremely low. Only four of us turned up; an keen-spirited blonde violinist, a intelligent-looking pianist, a tall boy with an clarinet and myself. Hardly an orchestra. The Professor in charge of running the orchestra was not present on our arrival, so I foresaw another awkward introduction while we waited.
"I'm Stella Nox Fleuret," said the violinist brightly. She exuded an air of confidence and determination, someone eager to prove herself.
"Is that French?" asked the other girl interestedly.
"Yes, my dad is French, and my mum is Japanese," Stella smiled approachably. This lead me to assume that her blonde hair was indeed natural.
"I see, so have you ever been to France then?" the dark-haired girl asked. I had been to Paris with my mother on a few occasions when I was younger, though nowadays I more frequently opted to stay at home for fear of appearing in magazines with her.
"Only twice..." Stella responded. I was glad that introductions had been lost amidst their conversation, if only it would last until the Professor arrived. I instead watched the boy assembling his champagne coloured clarinet, loosing track of the other conversation. The boy had carelessly swept brown hair and deep serious eyes, which were downcast and intent upon what he was doing. He had the stylish design of a lion's head etched into his case.
"I'm Tifa," said the brown-haired girl, bringing me out of my reverie. They looked politely at me and at the boy, who raised his head slowly.
"Squall Leonhart," he said, before returning his attention to his instrument.
"Rinoa Heartilly," I said without looking at them. I waited for the blank looks, even gasps, but this time it was I who was in for the surprise.
"Oh..." said Stella in realisation, "You look just like your father!" I looked up in spite of myself, amazed. I had never before been told I looked like my father, even though she was perfectly correct in saying so. People were always so preoccupied with how much I didn't look like my mother.
"My father?" I repeated, "You've met him?"
"Oh yes, a few times. My dad works with him," said Stella, seemingly thrilled by this coincidence. Slowly it dawned on me; my father was senior executive of Fleuret International. This girl was the heir to a multi-national firm!
"Heartilly..." said Tifa, frowning, "Why does that name sound familiar?" The boy shook his head, sardonically.
"Don't you own a television?" he said dryly.
"Yes, but I don't get to watch it that often. I work as a waitress in my parents' teashop," she replied, clearly less than impressed with the boy's tone.
"Heard of Julia Heartilly? The model?" he said, witheringly. Tifa bit her lip, trying to put a face to the name. I had never experienced an introduction like this before; it was oddly refreshing. To be recognised for my father, and then not at all.
At that moment we were interrupted by the arrival of the professor, who eyed us despairingly with a battered old music stand over his shoulder.
"Is this it? Just the four of you?" he asked with an air of despondency. We all nodded, instruments unpacked and ready. "Some orchestra! This is getting ridiculous, fewer and fewer students each year! I'm sorry, but it would be a waste of time to start an orchestra for just four students. If you're even any good, that is," he added insensitively. He stormed out of the hall, murmurs of 'waste of time', and 'lack of interest', echoing behind him.
"Well then," said the boy, turning on his heel irritably and following him through the door. My heart sank to the floor. I needed this, I needed the release of playing with other people. It was the only time I could take pride in myself, my source of comfort, enjoyment and expression.
"I can't believe this!" Stella whined, clearly as disappointed as I was.
"But I don't have my own piano! I always practised on the ones at school," said Tifa, her head hung miserably, "If I can't play here then I can't play at all!" The need to play was etched deeply into each of us, and we realised it then. I saw two girls as desperate to play as I was.
"The three of us...why don't we play together?" I said slowly.
It was this that spawned the musical trio, Samantha Soul. As it transpired, Stella was a talented violinist. Her control over her instrument was so precise that it was clear every nuance of sound it produced was of her own volition, and for a specifically desired effect. She could bring me to tears with her performance of 'Searching for Friends' by C. Chere. Tifa was a natural pianist, despite never having owned a piano herself. Apparently she had haunted the practise rooms of her high school at lunchtimes just for the chance to play. She was truly a prodigy, her knowledge of musical theory so extensive that she could play a sheet of music perfectly at a glance, no matter the complexity. I was delighted to discover that they were as equally impressed with my cello playing. Together we sounded exquisite. As polished as professionals with twice the age and experience yet as naturally complementary as the wind chimes that hung in my kitchen window. We met to practise three times a week in an empty Geology classroom on the third floor, and soon came to spend the rest of our free time together as well, particularly in Tifa's family tea shop.
"Rinoa! Watch where you're going!" called a familiar voice, snapping me out of my recollections. Now in the final semester of my first year, my feet carried me through the winding streets automatically, allowing my thoughts to wonder elsewhere. I looked to my right to see a bicycle heading right towards me and jumped out of it's way. Further proof that I was always too caught up in my own thoughts. Stella had often turned to me, as I fretted and worried aloud, to say, "Rinoa, you think too much." As the frantic pace of my heartbeat receded I finished crossing the alleyway between the library and the Lockhart Teashop.
"Now what would we do if our cellist got flattened?" said Tifa, with her daily greeting of a warm smile and tea in a paper cup. "No pun intended," she added, giggling. I never even understood her music related jokes when they were intended. I smiled back at her and took the ginseng tea as we continued along the road to the university.
"Did you get a good look at that cyclist?" she asked, sipping her jasmine infusion.
"No, I was too busy getting out of the way," I replied, "Who was it?" Tifa's face twisted into one of distaste, her lips pursed and her eyes narrowed in dislike.
"That Squall boy, you know, the one who was at the orchestra try-outs." I felt the heat rising in my face. I must have looked perfectly idiotic, drifting blindly through a busy street like an ill-nurtured child. I tried to expel from my mind the look of surprise I must have worn as I stumbled ungracefully out of his path.
"He's so cold and unapproachable. It's like he hates being around people!" she complained as we turned a corner and the university loomed into sight.
"Isn't he in your biochemistry class?" I asked, in what I hoped was a casual, unconcerned tone. Tifa's complaints about her less than friendly lab partner lasted until they reached the gates, where Stella was waiting for them.
"What's wrong with you, Tifa?" asked Stella as they drew closer to her. Tifa was still scowling darkly.
"Squall Leonhart," I answered, suppressing a smile at the mutinous look on Tifa's face.
If was for topics such as these, everyday trivialities, our lives outside the university and matters concerning the opposite sex, that made our friendship outside of Samantha Soul so essential. For some reason, through the duration of our many practise sessions we had never discussed anything but music. Perhaps it was because none of us had anyone outside of our group who understood the importance of music in our lives, to our survival. To that end, there was an unspoken agreement that time in practice sessions should not be wasted with idle conversation. We were serious about music.
After Squall Leonhart had been discussed at length I looked at my watch and saw that I only had five minutes until my lecture on the 1960's European fashion movement.
"See you at two o'clock then!" I said, separating from them in the direction of the Fashion and Textiles Prefecture, while Tifa headed for the Sciences Building and Stella the Business Centre.
"Oh, yes!" Stella called as the crowd of students parted us, "I have an idea I want to share with you both too!"
Musing over this, I hurried into my seminar hall and took my usual seat at the back of the class. Throughout the lecture my thoughts kept returning to whatever Stella's idea for Samantha Soul could be. I had to remind myself that unless I concentrated on what I was doing I would underperform in my coursework, and as I had already failed to meet expectations in my appearance, I hoped not to add academic failure to the list.
The lecture finished much sooner than I had expected however, too soon to go up to the Geology classroom. Instead I wandered out of my lecture hall and sat myself on the edge of the water fountain to enjoy an early lunch. I pulled out my serving of freshly rolled Norimaki sushi, including my favourites with the little pieces of cucumber inside them. I was just about to put one in my mouth when someone walked directly in front of me. I started as I realised it was Squall Leonhart, the boy Tifa so detested and who had nearly knocked me over this morning. I subsequently swallowed the sushi whole and began to choke. 'Why? Why!' I internally moaned as my eyes streamed. Squall Leonhart looked slightly alarmed and patted me awkwardly on the back as I managed to force the sushi down.
"Are you determined for me to kill you today?" he asked in an attempt to dispel the moment. I shook my head as my breathing returned to normal, though my face remained flushed, and not entirely from nearly choking to death. I cast around for something matter-of-fact to say to assert some suggestion of composure.
"Shouldn't you be in the science lab right now?" I asked.
"My lab-partner was being unreasonable," he said, looking sullen, "so I scheduled our assessment for next week instead to give her some time to cool off."
"You and Tifa had an assessment today?" I repeated, inwardly cursing my obliviousness to everyone's pressures but my own.
"Yeah, but don't worry. It comes easy to her, she'll be fine whenever she takes it," he said, turning to leave. I felt a flutter of guilt in my chest, guessing the subject of their disagreement. As he walked away I called out to him in an attempt to relieve my conflicted feelings.
"I'm sorry!" I shouted, "You know, for getting in your way this morning." He looked back fleetingly, before waving his hand in dismissal of my apology and leaving me feeling extremely foolish.
The Samantha Soul practise session was all that could have consoled me after this succession of humiliating events that had been my day thus far. So when Tifa and Stella entered the geology classroom I was already waiting for them, with the grand piano rolled out of the prep cupboard and the music stands erected. We had always wondered why a grand piano was hidden away in an Earth Sciences classroom cupboard. On asking the stooped little Geology Professor, we learned that it had belonged to him. He had brought it in to show his students the fascinating specimen of built-up cuprous oxide that had accumulated on the inside strings, as an example of oxidation. It had been too much effort for the tiny geologist to heave it back down three flights of stairs, so he had just left it in his store cupboard. Tifa said the mineral build-up had given the piano a pleasant muted quality, though quite frankly we could not tell the difference. The advantage of the Geology room was that it was sound-proofed to spare the rest of the university the repetitive sounds of their sediment sieves, and this made for good acoustics.
I was especially excited to see my friends today, as Stella had mentioned something of an idea.
"A website," she said, a familiar glint of ambition in her eyes.
"Website?" Tifa and I repeated blankly.
"All this time we've been playing for our own enjoyment," she began in her usual business-like tone, "but I think it's time we expanded, to start thinking about performance. The only one who even hears us play is Professor Takahara."
"And he's half deaf from all that time he spent in those columnar basalt caves in the Scottish Isles," Tifa added, giggling and forgetting that we never understood her science related comments.
"Anyway," said Stella pointedly, "This is our chance for success! If we can get noticed online then who knows how far we can take Samantha Soul?" She stared at both of us intensely, waiting for our responses.
"That's a great idea! Can I design it? And can we have a Twitter page and a YouTube account too?" asked Tifa animatedly.
"Of course!" said Stella, looking relieved and excited at Tifa's response. I looked away and bit my lip as Stella and Tifa became absorbed in ideas for the website. I had always avoided putting myself online; I didn't even have Facebook. What if someone saw our performances online and my name connected to them? Instead of praise for Samantha Soul, the comments section would be flooded with remarks about the daughter of Japan's top model. But on the other hand, I really loved to perform. It was the only time I ever felt pride and the will to present myself.
"On one condition," I said, and the other two fell silent, looking at me, "We don't use our real names. We use aliases." They did not speak for a moment, but then Stella's face broke into a smile and she clapped her hands together.
"Yes! That's perfect Rinoa! Aliases would add so much mystery and intrigue. That helps you know," said Stella, nodding sincerely. I thought perhaps Tifa understood my reasoning; she was looking at me curiously with a slight frown.
"Okay then, let's practise 'Clash on the Big Bridge' once more and then we'll film it for our first performance!" said Stella, pulling out a large camera and tripod. Stella's eagerness amused us greatly.
"You've already got the camera?" asked Tifa incredulously.
"Don't worry, it's HD ready," she replied, completely missing our amusement, "Poor quality will get us nowhere, and it looks so unprofessional." We settled into our positions and practised 'Clash on the Big Bridge' again. We had been going over this one for over a week and by now our harmonies had melded into auditory perfection. Not one of us could suppress a smile as we manoeuvred through the striking staccato notes and flowed seamlessly into the highly ornamented chorus.
"I guess we are ready to record," said Tifa reflectively, as the last notes of the sustain pedal dimmed into silence. Stella and I lowered our bows, which had ended in a flourish.
"Not quite!" said Stella, rushing over to her bag and withdrawing a small sequined make-up bag, "Last minute touch-ups!" she said, immediately unsheathing a stippled make-up brush and beginning to assault Tifa with finishing powder and a shimmery blush. Tifa coughed as she inhaled a cloud of powder and attempted to bat Stella off.
"Does it really matter what we look like?" Tifa asked doubtfully. A flutter of anxiety enveloped me at these words. Even under an alias I was still subject to criticism. It didn't matter to Stella and Tifa, not really. Stella with her long, blonde hair, elfish features and amethyst eyes, turned boys' heads wherever she went. And Tifa had that effortlessly pretty, natural look that gave the impression of keen intelligence. Before I had time to dwell any further on this Stella was tugging on my eyelashes with another coat of mascara.
"It's a HD camera, Tifa, it'll pick up every imperfection!" Stella insisted, before briefly touching up her own face.
"You charmer!" said Tifa sardonically, her mouth curling into a smile as she rolled her eyes at me. I grimaced back, my apprehension tripled by Stella's words. Stella stepped through the tangle of music stands to the tripod and adjusted the camera focus, occasionally directing us into better positions for the optimal shot.
"Okay, let's do it!" she whispered, pressing the timer button and running into position with her violin held ready.
Our performance was as polished as ever; Stella particularly seemed to relish the chance to capture the moment. Tifa too played with a flair that only adrenaline could extract. I played as well as ever, but in my nerves highly conscious of the way I kept moving my head excessively, or how I managed to fumble with the sheets of music as I turned them. I had to keep reminding myself to concentrate on the music and calm down. I was too aware of the camera, too aware of myself and I was very glad when we reached the final cadence and decorative finish.
"That was great!" said Stella, jumping up and pushing the button to stop recording. Tifa nodded fervently as I let out a deep breath. Apparently I was the only one who hadn't enjoyed the pressure of being recorded. I felt so frustrated with myself. I wanted to perform, I wanted to show what I was capable of and enjoy it.
"Well, we've still got a few minutes before the Geology students arrive. What shall we practise?" Stella asked, sifting through her sheets. Slightly soothed at the idea of playing without the camera again, I pulled out a piece I'd been wanting to go over for a while.
"How about 'Blue Fields'?" I suggested. It was my favourite, contemplative yet stirring. It provoked feelings of neither happiness or sadness, but of pure, indefinable calm.
"Sure, okay," said Tifa amiably, as we all flicked through our sheets and placed 'Blue Fields' at the front of our stands. We had arranged all of our music ourselves, adding our own unique personality to these timeless pieces. As we played for our own enjoyment we would have had in no other way. Tifa had even scrupulously transcribed all of our improvised arrangements, alterations and personal twists into fully notated sheet music.
We paused for a moment, instruments raised like professionals, before Tifa began her introduction. I was much calmer now, the pressure of the being filmed lifted and Tifa's graceful, sustained notes washing over me like wind through tall perennial grass. She repeated her motif three times, each as reflective and beautiful as the last. Then Stella began to play, her tone measured and sweet as she carved out the focal melody. Neither of them were smiling this time, but composed and serious, savouring the sound. I joined Stella at the first cadence, my wistful peripheral melody enriching her long, held notes. As Stella moved the piece forward she closed her eyes, without even need of the written music; like me she could feel it in her bones. It was as if being lead by the hand, dreamlike, to no destination in particular but simply to take in every moment of the journey. Tifa's accompaniment then changed, the intervals between her harmonies creating tonal ambiguity. She balanced it with a return to the tonic note, a reflective pause and then a trickling descent into the second verse. This time I had the tune and I could feel the long, low notes of my cello travelling through my body, warming me. It seemed to join with the flow of my breath, in through my ears, coursing through my lungs and heart, and out again in the movement of my arms and fingertips. Stella's harmony, though simple and unassuming, added some indescribable depth to the sound, which had been withheld until this moment. The gentle, cradling motion of the piece was then pushed forwards by Tifa's decorative sequence of falling notes, bringing us serenely into the chorus.
When we had finished it was like emerging from meditation. We stood like statues as the last remnants of sound faded away into the ether, our bows still raised. We remained silent until the sounds of approaching students was discernible.
"Wow," said Tifa, the first to find her voice, "Isn't that only the second time we've performed this piece the whole way through?"
"I think so," I replied in a near whisper. I had come to realise over time that this was what my furin chime had been referring to. I may not have been beautiful, but I could create beauty with my bow. Beauty in unexpected places. It was slightly comforting. We hurried to pack away all of our instruments and the camera before the geologists arrived, laden with large volumes such as 'Understanding Earth' and 'A Guide to Magmatic Differentiation'. They stared at us curiously as we heaved the grand piano back into the prep room and tiptoed past them.
"Did you see the oxidation on that thing?" one of them asked me as we began down the corridor, "Fascinating, isn't it?"
As none of us had classes that afternoon we returned to Tifa's Teashop to begin the design and production of our new website. Mrs Lockhart forced cups of papaya and hibiscus tea into our hands as soon as we entered, turning to ask Tifa about her assessment. I swallowed a mouthful of scolding tea and began to cough.
"Oh," I croaked, as Stella patted me on the back. I had forgotten again, even after the encounter with Squall Leonhart. As soon as the idea of the website had been brought up my concerns had been solely inward; how self-centred I was.
"It got rescheduled for next week! That complete arse, Squall Leonhart, it's his fault! Did you know he almost ran Rinoa over this morning?"she complained. I decided against telling them about the sushi fiasco of a few hours ago, as it seemed inadvisable to add fuel to the fire. We sat down at one of the handsome little tables as Tifa ran to get her family's battered, run-down laptop, still criticizing Squall Leonhart over her shoulder to her mother. When she returned she rearranged the teacups to make room for the machine. The fan whirred in protest as she turned it on and logged in.
"So first we need to think about content, then design," she said purposefully. Even though all she had to work with was a rather slow Windows XP, Tifa's knowledge of computers was astounding. Like musical theory, Biology, Chemistry and Physics, computer programming came easily to her. Stella was full of ideas too and they whiled away the next few hours planning and programming until skeleton of a website had been created.
"So this is just a draft version really. The real thing will be much slicker," said Tifa, turning around the laptop for Stella and I to see.
"Wow, Tifa," I breathed. It was the smartest, prettiest thing I had ever seen. A midnight blue banner stretched neatly across the top and faded like textured glass into the main page.
"There will be a picture of us here," she said, gesturing to the empty space, but I was barely listening. The left of the banner read 'Samantha Soul' in an elegant font and in subscript 'the official website'. To the right, in small, formal all-caps were links to 'INFORMATION', 'MEDIA', 'BLOG', and 'EVENTS'. The background faded horizontally from indigo-blue to white, decorated with a beautiful design of white hibiscus flowers and their deep amaranthine hearts. She had even given us the aliases, Violin, Piano and Cello.
"So pretty..." said Stella, awed. She gesticulated madly to emphasise her approval, "The colour-scheme, the font, everything!"
"There's nothing on it yet though, it's all offline," Tifa replied, slightly abashed by our admiration of her work. Stella sat up straight, suddenly snapped out of her trance.
"There's one thing we can add," she said, reaching into her bag and withdrawing her video camera, " the video we recorded!"
Stella slipped the small memory card out of the camera and inserted it into the back of Tifa's computer. We all gathered round as a device window popped up and Tifa clicked 'Play files in Windows Media Player'. We all huddled round the screen, Stella and Tifa in excitement, while I waited in apprehension to see how ridiculous I would look. However, as it began to play, I immediately realised that something was amiss. Instead of Stella tapping the record button and stealthily sprinting into position, I saw her looking back at Tifa and myself,
"Well, we've still got a few minutes before the Geology students arrive. What shall we practise?" we heard Stella say, close to the camera and out of focus.
"How about 'Blue Fields'?" I replied, rustling through my music.
"Oh no," said the present Stella, "I must have pressed the wrong button, it only started recording after 'Clash on the Big Bridge', that was when I thought I was turning it off!" She let out a groan and tilted her head backwards, but I kept my eyes fixed on the screen. I looked so relaxed, completely unaware that my every movement was being recorded. And then we began to play and even Stella looked up, amazed at what she was hearing.
"Wow, the HD sound quality really does it justice," she said, wide eyed. Tifa shook her head disbelievingly.
"Forget about the sound quality, listen to us!" she gasped. I couldn't even speak to voice my amazement. We sounded breathtaking, the melodies of 'Blue Fields' as I'd never heard them before. Even some of the customers were looking around in interest, their tea forgotten. And then my verse arrived...
"Oh, Rinoa..." Tifa whispered, and I was startled to hear that her voice was slightly constricted. What was wrong? Had I made a mistake?
"You look beautiful!" said Stella in a hushed voice. I glanced from my emotional friends back to the video. For a moment I wondered if it was me I was watching. The past Rinoa had her eyes closed, deeply immersed in the notes her cello was producing. I watched her, stunned at my own appearance. My features were transformed, relaxed, and even beautiful. Perhaps it was because whenever I looked in a mirror my face was tense and full of self-deprecation, but I had never seen myself like this. I did not look like my mother, but I did not look unattractive at all.
Then the meaning of the message on my furin chime transformed in front of me. Music was not the source of my beauty, it was the key to it. Beauty that had always been there but concealed behind a mask of anxiety and low confidence. Watching this video, no-one would ever call me ordinary. Unexpected, perhaps.