3.3: In Nature We Trust

With just one bite, the sides of Nuria’s mouth turn into snowy mountain peaks, connected by the frozen bridge of her teeth, her mile-wide smile expressing her satisfaction. She savors the mouthful before swallowing and wiping away the excess Colby jack cheese. Even as gently as she lowers the burrito to her plate, some of the ingredients spill out and mingle with the cheese drizzling down the sides and in front of her gargantuan bite. Shredded steak, dirty rice, green peppers, beans, and cilantro decorate the sea of cheese as an archipelago.

     “Hardly seems fair that you can teach and cook,” Nuria says lightly.

     “On the contrary,” Reddic says, sitting across from her at the dining table, “professors at FHA have to be extremely well-rounded individuals. At your last school, you probably had one teacher per subject. Here, every professor has to have a lock on not just the culture and nature of their race, but also the core subjects like math and science. This is an impressively difficult job to earn.”

     “Is that one of the arguments you made to your friends?” Nuria asks around a second bite.

     “Ah,” Reddic says around a bite of his own burrito, holding a hand before his mouth to conceal his chewing. “Are we exchanging stories already?”

     “Unless you’d like a silent lunch period?” Nuria says, goading him with a poked out lower lip and downturned eyebrows.

     Reddic dabs at his lips with a napkin, lowering his head in defeat shortly after. “Very well. However, your theory is quite the opposite. That argument was one they used to discourage me.”

     “Really?” Seems like this job was made for you,” Nuria states. “Can’t remember the last time, if any, that vocabulary was fun.”

     “I appreciate the vote of confidence, but honestly, I feel they’re a bit more validated than I hoped they would be. I wanted two students at the very least.” For a short moment, Reddic’s smile does waver, and Nuria is sure that’s what she saw this time. “Sorry,” he says when he notices her staring, “didn’t mean to drag down the mood. Perhaps your dryer lint story is the pick me up we need now.”

     Nuria groans, though with a grin on her face. “Might as well start with the worst for me, too.” Nuria takes another huge bite of her burrito, then sits up straight. “It was the first time I ever tried to dry my clothes with my fire powers. I wasn’t too good with control back then. I put too much oomph into the attempt and some of the fire fell into the lint tray. I barely made it upstairs before the dryer blew up.” When Reddic chuckles, she joins him, even if irritated a little at first. “And what’s worse is that I couldn’t pay for a replacement shirt because I had to buy us a new dryer.”

     “The best thing is that you weren’t hurt,” Reddic acknowledges. “Sometimes, when mistakes backfire, the repercussions are unavoidable.”

     “Which is why I was all in when my mom wanted me to practice. By the time our new dryer arrived, I had a handle of combustion. It took another couple of months to perfect my self-drying technique. I ran through a lot of t-shirts.”

     “The second best thing.”

     “The third best was that she showed me how to properly use a fire extinguisher, too.”

     Reddic points at her and winks. He covers up a second bite with his hand. “You’re quite the student, I see.”

     Nuria lifts her burrito, but hesitates upon hearing the compliment. “What do you mean?”

     “You’re still young, so take this lightly. Life is indiscriminate with the lessons it wishes to teach, in terms of frequency and intensity. From what I can tell, you comprehend those lessons well, and respond appropriately.” He laughs softly. “It’s not a quality I had at your age, that’s for sure.”

     “That a fact?” Nuria asks, this time goading him into speaking with a single raised eyebrow.

     “Hard-headed to a fault. I despised any authority that wasn’t my own. I was quick to resolve anything with my fists. Who you see now,” Reddic stands with arms outstretched, the sleeves of his dark dress shirt folded back just above his elbows, his double-breasted brown vest decorated with white buttons and dark pants all give Nuria the impression of a businessman, not a barbarian, “would be ashamed to fall back into those habits.”

     Nuria nods, but while accepting his words, her eyes are drawn to his, more specifically his right one. She’s never come across another soul with white eyes like hers, but something about his makes her want to apologize. She shakes the urge away and turns her attention to her meal. She hides her chewing with a raised hand as she asks, “Did your friends know you back then? If so, maybe they still see you that way?”

     Reddic seats himself, shoulders fidgeting from more laughing. “You hit the nail on the head, Nuria. They–”

     His abrupt pause forces to Nuria to blink her confusion. The expression he gives her next seems positive, but the energy she just gleamed in his right eye is no longer present, nor is her urge to apologize. What was he about to say?

     “Well, we still have one story apiece to share, don’t we?” she says, hoping to get his cut short tale back out of him.

     “True, but there’s no need to rush anything on that score.”

     Nuria decides to test something. While holding the gaze of his right eye she says, “I suppose you have a point.” Even though it’s only for a second before his eyes close from a wide smile, the energy seems to have returned. In fact, from there the conversation gets back on track. The duo exchanges a couple more tales between jokes and burrito bites. Nuria just assumes whatever he was going to say when he froze may have been too personal, so she opts to respect his privacy. After she tells him about her almost victory in the Freshman Derby last year, he collects their plates, rinsing them, and placing both in the dishwasher.

     “Okay, those should be clean in time for dinner,” Reddic says. He whirls and claps his hands after activating the dishwasher. “In the meantime, we have our afternoon class to attend to. Go and change into something built for physical activity and meet me in the basement.”

     “Yes, sir!” Nuria shouts excitedly. Reliving the match she and Shuri had has her spirit ready for action., She exchanges her red t-shirt with the 3×3 grid, black jean shorts, and lightning bolt sneakers for a dark tank top with metallic slits over her shoulder blades and white jogging pants with black stripes down the sides. She opts out of shoes this time around, allowing her feet to fully bask in the cool feeling of the earthen floor. To her surprise, Reddic joins her beyond the glass wall in his businessman attire, the only difference being his shirt is now untucked.

     “Oh, are you not participating today?” Nuria queries.

     “I am, but all I have in my wardrobe are very similar articles of clothing. Rest assured, I can move perfectly well with these on. Now, allow me to explain the rules of this exercise.” Reddic moves into the center of the exercise mat. “This zone, the exercise mat, is mine. I cannot move outside of it. You alone are allowed to move around outside of it. Your objective for the next hour is simple.” The hem of his dress shirt shifts as a spotted tail curls around in front of him. “You either have to grab my tail with both hands or force me out of my zone.”

     Nuria sports a gamine grin and commences stretching her muscles. “And I have an entire hour to just do that? Easy-peasy.”

     “You think so, huh?” Reddic asks lightly. “Well, you may be right. Outside of this partial transformation, I don’t plan to use my powers. You, however, may use your flames and your wings to your heart’s content.”

     Nuria blinks. “How did you–”

     Reddic counts with his fingers as he lists his reasons. “Your avian dimension slits. Also, you went and grabbed your bag from the Vanusi luggage cart. And, you introduced yourself to me with your wings out, remember?”

     Nuria smacks herself mentally. No big deal. Doesn’t mean he knows I’m a phoenix. Stay calm, Nuria.

     “Must say, those aren’t your everyday coupling of powers.” Reddic shrugs. “Then again, I’m in the same boat. Being a leopard Vanusi and a Sulublei who can manipulate light is just as strange. In my opinion, at least.”

     Nuria looks Reddic is his right eye again, its hypnotic hold seemingly unbreakable. The urge she has now while staring into the wintry abyss is more affectionate than sorrowful. She sucks in a sharp breath and her wings pop out, pushing her a step forward. She banishes any feelings of embarrassment and looks up at Reddic with complete confidence.

     You came this far because your inner phoenix, so don’t chicken out now. I said I’m all in and I meant it. Plus, if he’s willing to share his powers, who am I to be stingy. Our queue must stay balanced.

     “You’ve seen my flames, but my wings are special.” Nuria imagines opening up her left hand so that her left wing unfurls all the way, exposing her sole bronze feather to Reddic. “I don’t know if you’ll understand this, but I’m a phoenix…and I’m definitely not your everyday Ibri.”

     She expects a thousand questions, a scoff, even straight-up ridicule, but Reddic simply smiles, as usual, betraying none of whatever’s on his mind. This time, his silence irks Nuria a little. I can’t get a consistent read on this guy at all. Nuria sighs gustily. Oh, well.

     “Never mind. I’m ready to start. Just remember,” Nuria goes and stands against the wall opposite her enigmatic professor, fully spreading her wings and kneeling into a takeoff position, “you said both my powers were allowed.”

     With all her might, the phoenix propels herself forward with a burst of flames from her feet. She sees Reddic prepare to defend himself. Instead of slamming into him as intended, she reverses her momentum with a beat of her wings. She leaps forward as soon as she touches down, kicking at him. Her advancing mix-up did little to confuse him, and Reddic swiftly sidesteps her attack. With her leg still extended mid-kick, she twirls and tries to strike him with her other one. With preternatural speed, Reddic hops over her leg, landing with the precision that comes with perfect balance.

     How’d he do that? Nuria thinks as she barely keeps herself from toppling over onto the floor.

     “Whoo,” Reddic says. “That was close.”

     Nuria smirks crossly. “Don’t go saying that. I haven’t even shown you my best moves yet.”

     “Oh? Then, what’s your next–”

     Nuria sprints forward and leaps into the air above Reddic. She comes down with an axe kick. Reddic steps directly beneath her and grabs the back of her calf, tossing her to the floor casually. She spins in midair with the hopes of landing on her feet, but slams down on her side instead. She rises quickly and lunges for his back, hands reaching for his tail. She curses when his tail weaves between her hands and tickles her nose. She sneezes when she hits the floor.

     “Care to try again?” Reddic teases as he offers a hand.

     Nuria declines and sits up and crosses her legs with her own power. She thumbs her chin, wings still unfurled. She imagines a grid in the space around her. While keeping Reddic stationery, she superimposes images of herself all around, trying to gauge the best angle to hit him from. He’s avoided front and back attempts, so I should try less direct advances. She smirks when she locates a good spot. Her grid vanishes as she rises.

     “Third time’s the charm?” Reddic asks.

     “Something like that.”

     Instead of engaging him straight away, Nuria races past Reddic. She watches him turn with her as she circles his zone. On her seventh lap, she skips back and then takes flight straight for him. She’s not perturbed by his sidestep, coming to expect his dodging. She employs her new tactic.

     Nuria somersaults in midair and plants her feet against the glass. She blasts toward Reddic with another spray of intense combustion. He sidesteps the follow-up, but Nuria repeats the somersault process, this time coming at him from a forty-five-degree angle. He dances around her attacks, but each time she ricochets off of a wall, the floor, or ceiling, she gets faster. The bouncing around slowly traps Reddic in the center on his zone, unable to move much without crashing into the springy phoenix. She dives for his back from a very tight angle from above his right shoulder. She narrowly misses her target when he simply hops into the air. She avoids crashing with one more mighty beat of her wings.  She raises her hands while forcing her body back into the air. Her fingers brush the fur of his tail when her back cramps up abruptly.

     Nuria cries out in pain when she sinks onto her knees. She massages her back after absorbing her wings into her body.

     “Are you okay?” Reddic asks, rushing to her side and kneeling.

     “Yeah, don’t worry. My back cramps sometimes when I stress out my wings.” Nuria looks up at Reddic with a sinister grin. “But it never lasts long!” Before Reddic can retreat, Nuria grabs his ankles and flips him on his back with all her might. The top of his head and shoulders slam against the earthen floor outside his zone. “Does that count?” she asks between deep breaths.

     Reddic sits up and laughs. “I can’t believe I let you lure me in like that.”

     “To be fair, while that was my plan, I waited until my back really did cramp up. Didn’t wanna risk you seeing through my bad acting. Plus, I knew I’d never catch your tail by chasing you. You’re too fast for me, plain and simple.” Nuria looks down with a dour countenance, ashamed to realize how weak she still is after months of intensive workouts.

     “I know it may not seem like it, but knowing your limits and how to bypass them is just as important as knowing your strengths and how to improve on them. And just from this past hour, I can tell you’re not aware of all your strengths as a phoenix.”

     Nuria blinks, stunned by his implication. “What do you know about phoenixes?”

     “A great deal more than most people,” Reddic announces as he stands. He extends his hand to Nuria. “Come with me and I’ll show you exactly what I mean.”

     Nuria doesn’t hesitate for a second. Her inner phoenix may trust Reddic, but even without that, there’s no way she’d pass this opportunity up.

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