Surprise isn’t the right word for the look on Nuria’s face when she enters the boys’ dorm. She drops her backpack and a plastic bag full of clothes before marching in further, a combination of appreciation and awe duking it out for control of her demeanor. She settles on the latter once she’s directly underneath a twenty-five-pound weight plate hanging from a wire in the center of a network of other wires tied to the foot of the four beds around the phoenix. The four wires are connected via thinner but just as strong cables. A pair of t-spikes drilled into the ceiling hold the setup in place.
“How did you do all of this?” Nuria asks, her jealousy rising. She’s always wanted a similar jungle gym at home, but her mother always shut her down.
Koren walks into the room with a swagger. “Didn’t take much to convince Zathony. We put this up last month.”
“But school hadn’t even started yet.”
“Not for you all, but I didn’t show up until the tail end of last semester. Zathony and Marmagar were kind enough to let me use the break to catch up.”
“Why not just wait till this month to start as a freshman?”
“I did offer that option to them, and they were keen to take it. However, the headmaster said that my spot was held thanks to another student’s family’s donation, and that if I wanted to take advantage that they couldn’t say no.”
Ah, so he’s the one who was missing last year.
“They- okay, Zathony- weren’t happy at first, I soon showed them I wasn’t here to waste this opportunity. I aced every assignment they threw my way!” Koren runs toward Nuria, then hops onto the wires and perches into a crouch gracefully. “After that, Zathony was a tad grouchy, but only because I’m unstumpable.”
“No, I meant unstumpable. Unable to be stumped.”
“Oh, yeah?” Nuria skips backward, then races toward him. She lands on the wire and lowers onto it like a seat. Koren holds his balance the entire time with a boasting smirk. “Not bad, Koren.”
“Now, it’s my turn. See if I can stay on.”
“You sure? It’s not as easy as it looks. I train my balance on these wires every day. What happens if you fall?”
“Birds land on their feet, remember?”
Never! Nuria screams to herself a few seconds later, massaging her chin gingerly.
“Tried to tell yah,” Koren teases.
“Yeah, well, I can still fly,” Nuria pouts.
“That you can.” Koren crouches down next to Nuria. “So, you used to be in this, class, right?”
“Sure was. And…it was pretty fun while it lasted.” She almost loses herself in unprecedented nostalgia when she sees a question leaking from Koren’s wide eyes. “Why?”
“What’s Syl’s deal? Why would he choose to stay with girls?”
“Isn’t that what you’re doing now, too?”
“Correction, you’re staying with me. Don’t forget the loophole.”
“Ah, my mistake.” Nuria looks back toward the cable setup and frowns. “You practice on those daily, right?”
“It’s probably too big a distraction for him. He’s an artist. He may need a quieter environment, I’m guessing.”
“Artist, huh? Is he any good?”
“He’s a perfectionist, so yeah. And you haven’t asked him this because…”
Koren shrugs. “I never had the chance. From day two onward, he was with the girls. And those two seem closed off.”
They seemed pretty open when I met them. Why not treat Koren the same?
“You don’t have to think about it so hard, yah know. I’m not that bothered by it.”
The phoenix stops massaging her chin. “Why not?”
Koren looks away for a brief moment, eyes staring at the floorboards. “Do you wanna see the other cool thing Zathony included this year?”
Obvious deflection is obvious, but whatever.
“Lead the way.”
And lead he does, straight to the first-floor foyer. On the opposite side of the spiraling staircase is a door that would blend in with the dark walls if not for its vermillion frame. Down a moderate slope of steps and through one more dark door is a fully-equipped fitness center. There are racks for dumbbells and weight plates (minus one), four treadmills, a variety of resistance machines, a few pull up bars, a dented cinderblock in the shape of a punching bag behind an area cordoned off with caution tape, and no shortage of floor to ceiling mirrors. But even more than all of that, Nuria truly appreciates that the color palette down here doesn’t match the rest of the house, consisting mostly of white and blue hues.
“But the school already has a gym. Why would he put this down here?”
“Beats me, but I’m not complaining. Ah, and it looks like Tyra finally got a new stone installed.”
“Oh, yeah. The last one was in pieces after just a couple of days. The caution tape is for us to know the minimum safe distance to avoid the debris she dislodges with her punches.”
Nuria scoffs. “Please, she’s not that strong.”
“You’ll just have to see it for yourself, I guess,” Koren says as he moves to the treadmills. “Up for a run?”
The phoenix is slow to peel her gaze away from the cinderblock. She rotates her shoulders as she climbs onto the next treadmill in line. “I’m game.” She fires hers up to a warm-up speed of 2.5, then peers over at Koren’s and sees his starting speed matches. She feels good to be on par with the student Zathony labeled most gifted. However, Koren commences his warm-up… backwards. More power to him.
Once he moves away from his warm-up, he dials his speed straight to 3.5, maintaining his backward form. Nuria is no stranger to such speeds, but decides to go point-five higher. She resolves to maintain the higher speed, again going point-five higher when he copies her strategy. She waits for him to jump to 5.5, but the laser-focused expression on his face tells her he’s set at 4.5. She nearly chooses to stop escalating also, but while turning her eyes forward, they get caught on the cinderblock. The closer she looks, the more the dents resemble the size of Tyra’s fists.
Tyra can keep her stupid stone punching bags. I know she can’t handle these speeds! In fact…
Nuria dials her speed straight to 6.0, now intent on upstaging a ghost fueled by rage and insecurity. The longer she forces herself to maintain that speed, the harder it gets for her to regulate her breathing. Her body gets so hot that drops of sweat evaporate straight off her skin. A few fingers on her left hand ignite suddenly. She yelps and shakes her hands free of flames, but trips in the midst of her panic. The treadmill launches her straight for the dumbbell rack and she would’ve hit it if not for Koren’s timely intervention. One hand is against Nuria’s back, the other gripping the side of the rack.
“Easy goes it, Nuria. You don’t have to compete if you can’t handle it. I don’t want to turn you off to me, too.”
Nuria just stares at him, unsure of why he’s apologizing. “What just happened wasn’t because of you.”
Damn it, Nuria! Get it together!
“Is this a Tyra thing?” he asks. Nuria averts her cross gaze sharply. “Ah, it makes sense now. Carnya whispered a lot about the two of you, and the way you react to anything about Tyra is telling. The two of you are in the middle of an argument.”
Nuria clicks her tongue. “You were almost right. There is no middle anymore. The argument is over.”
Koren chuckles. “I’m not transformed, by the way.”
Nuria eyes him testily. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“When you first saw me, you said you’d never seen such a complete transformation. Transformations require a lot of morpu to achieve. And while I may be good, I’m not good enough to stay transformed 24/7.” After a pause, he adds, “Yet.”
“Then how do you explain the way you look?”
“I was born this way.”
Nuria blinks several times, having issues digesting that revelation. “That’s possible?”
“It’s extremely rare. I imagine as rare as making friends with a phoenix. But there are cases of Vanusi born in a semi-transformed state. My great-great-many more greats-grandfather was an Ibri like me. Half Vanusi and half Ohaida. Since him, our family tree has been fairly bare, genetically speaking.”
“Until you,” Nuria points out.
“There’s a word for it I think, but yeah, it was me. And growing up, all my older brothers were envious. They’d treat me like I was an aberration. Atavism! That’s the word! Sorry, back to the story. One day, I was fed up with them and called them out on it. As you can expect from brothers, we all got into a fight.”
“Hey, I have an older brother. We got- get- into it often enough.”
“Funny thing, though. Once the fight was over, we all just kind of mellowed out and actually talked. I didn’t make peace with all of them. I have five older brothers but only three apologized.”
“And then what happened?”
“With those three specifically, it was like the years of ill feelings never happened. I mean, we still fight, but definitely over nothing so serious these days.”
Nuria sees the warm memories playing inside Koren’s mind as his demeanor grows more tender. She hates to cut into it, but figures he was working on a point somewhere in all of that. “And you launched into that whole story to tell me…”
“You and Tyra need to fight. Exhaust your physical anxiety, and then end your argument. I guarantee it’ll work.”
“Then prove it,” Nuria challenges as she rises. “Tell Syl you want him back in the boys’ dorm.”
“You grew up with five brothers. Doesn’t take a mastermind to figure out you’re lonely in that room by yourself.”
“Then I guess we have a deal,” Koren says as he also stands.
Nuria gazes upon the dented cinderblock with a new frightened demeanor. If that’s what she can do to a solid chunk of rock with her fists, then I’m in real trouble.
The silence bears down on them as neither makes a move to the door. They lock gazes and identify fright in the other.
“I mean, there’s no need to rush.”
“No need,” Nuria parrots.
“I’ve got you as a roommate.”
“And I’m good with your daily trapeze acts.”
“I. Am. Good.”
They just stare at each other until the treadmill motors finally pierce the cloud of awkward silence.
“Back to running?”