Needless to say, he’ll stay away from me now.
Koren slams his head down on the table, hiding Nuria’s note underneath his forehead. He groans and ruffles the shaggy fur on the back of his head. He cracks his eyes open and peers at her message nervously.
Meet me at the fountain later.
Confusion drives the young man toward inaction. He’s always been fascinated BY Nuria, largely due to her initial reaction to him. Most of his “friends” he had prior to Four Hearts kept him at arm’s length in public. Aside from Parker, Nuria was the first (and first amongst his generation) to view him as a wonder and not an abomination. He knows she had other reasons for being with him nonstop but he had his reasons for allowing it. He wanted to soak up her wonder for all it was worth.
It helped that she’s so fun to be around. She’s smart she’s strong, and she’s so brave.
Recollections of him and Nuria during Star Derby practice, studying together, and being trapped by Liamria’s cage only increase his confusion. He understands why he likes her but can’t comprehend how and why she’s suddenly into him.
I’ve done nothing so special to earn her…affection. I didn’t even believe it was for me. I just…hoped it was.
“Why are you still here?” Syl asks, playing a videogame where he controls a blue cub to traverse a foresty maze. “Don’t you have a literal hot date to get to?”
“She didn’t list a time, and I need to unstump myself,” Koren explains. He rolls his face onto its side.
“Unstump isn’t a real word.”
“It’s the root word for unstumpable; unable to be stumped,” he says proudly, though his speech slurs since his cheek is pressed against the table.
Syl laughs. “Looks like Nuria’s breaking that streak. A shame, too. You word weirdos deserve each other.”
But I don’t deserve her.
“Koren, why you still here, man?” Devito asks after he bangs into the room, Norris on his heels. The two come bearing a horde of snacks.
“Unstumping myself,” he grumbles.
“That’s not a real w–”
“Root word for unstumpable. Unable to be stumped,” he replies hastily.
“Then what do you call this?” Norris drops his snacks and gestures at Koren’s mopey stance.
“You need to get a move on,” Devito says.
“Why? It may not even be what I think. Syl and I share a room. He thought it might be Carnya’s note. He’s still wearing the red sweatshirt, too.”
“Carnya already told us it wasn’t her before class but we chose to wear red anyway. Sutar and Barry saw us all in red and changed. Plus, Tyra didn’t wear red when ninety-nine percent of her wardrobe is red. That should tell you that she must’ve been in on it from the jump. And there is no denying that ear stroke was a signal. You’re stalling, Koren. Stop stalling.”
Koren lifts his head onto his hands but remains unconvinced. “How do you explain the others? Shuri? Rum? Lauron?”
Syl pauses his game. “Coincidence, plain and simple.”
Devito leans against the table. “Listen, Koren, you have a pretty girl throwing herself at you. If you don’t catch her, someone else will. Do you want someone else to catch her?”
Koren’s ears droop. “No…”
“Then it’s time to step up, fuzzball. She’s told you how to get her. It’s your job to show her that there’s nobody better for her than you! Thing is, you have to believe it to convince her. Can you convince her?” Norris says.
“Wait, hold on…” Syl hedges.
“The dating world is survival of the fittest, Koren. You can stand here twiddling your thumbs while she takes her attention elsewhere,” Devito says.
Norris cuts Syl off and says, “Go get her, fuzzball!” Beneath his breath, he whispers, “Before your rival makes his move.”
“Yeah!” Koren stands and shouts. A moment later his legs are on the verge of buckling. If he doesn’t move now, he knows getting up again will be too hard, so he lets his surge in confidence carry him onward. He doubles back for his katana, then bangs through the door.
I don’t know what he means by rival, but I’m not losing Nuria to anyone!
“There’s the man of the hour!” Carnya cheers. Some of the chocolate raisins in her hand litter the floor when she raises her fist.
“Pick those up, please,” Tyra says before rising and crossing to meet Koren at the doors. She straightens his black jacket and lowers his raised shoulders. “Breathe, Koren. Nothing has changed between you and Nuria except for the fact she’s capable of expressing her affection now. Be yourself. That’s what got her attention in the first place. Remember that,” she whispers.
He’s never understood why Tyra’s always been able to soothe his overactive nerves, most notably whenever Nuria’s involved. Whether it be covering for his inability to confess his own feelings or during battles against The Pure, she never fails to be one of his safety nets. He grips his katana’s hilt tightly.
She and Nuria are such strong people. Pillars that support the rest of us. I need to be a pillar, too.
He now notices the rest of their class gathered in the courtyard, no doubt that most are curious about Nuria’s earlier demonstration. Most try to act like they’re not but the Ohaida group is a bit clearer. A couple of their members appear agitated, but the angle of their expressions confuses Koren as to whom they’re aimed at. However, he sees the reflections of Tyra and Carnya watching him leave with cheer. That cheer gives him the courage he needs to step through the front doors.
When a chilly breeze slams into him, nearly strong enough to knock him onto his butt, he thanks his lucky stars that he hasn’t gotten a haircut yet. Still, he zips up his jacket and jogs over to the fountain to stray warm. He soon finds himself breathless but not because of his jogging.
The light from the moon and stars refracts off the fountain water, creating a dazzling backdrop for Nuria. Her back is to Koren but the refracted light illuminates the contours of her milk chocolate skin, red skirt, and sienna hair. Her braid is slung over her shoulder, catching attention from the light as well. Her hands are clasped behind her back as she twirls, eyes glued on the Stark statue.
She’s so beautiful! I can’t believe that’s the first time I’ve even thought that.
Before he potentially ruins things, he makes sure to burn this image of Nuria into his brain.
Okay, Koren, here goes nothing.
“Lovely late, nice. It’s dress sorry. I’m Nuria…hey.” He facepalms, embarrassed that he let every single sentence come out wrong without stopping himself once. He only looks up when Nuria laughs, a strangely positive energy behind it.
“Too. Look thanks not, you’re. Late nice and you,” she says with slow precision, choosing her word order strategically.
Koren grins, a bit more at ease. He closes the distance between them. “What I wanted to say was “Hey, Nuria. Sorry, I’m late. Nice dress, it’s lovely”.”
Nuria giggles some more and then tugs at her skirt nervously. “I figured. I was saying “Thanks. You look nice, too. And you’re not late”.” She thumps her fist against her head. “I forgot to put a time on the note. And since I didn’t want to miss you…I’ve been out here a couple of hours.”
Koren tenses up. “Are you cold? Do you want my jacket?”
Nuria shakes her head. “To me, this is warm.”
Koren laughs. “Warm? This?”
“My scale’s been pretty distorted. I live in a desert back home. On some nights, the sand is still hotter than this. And then my last few months were my first experiences with snow.”
The phoenix nods. “I’ve lived in seriously hot and seriously cold. Compared to both, warm may be too generous for this weather.”
“How’d you like the snow?”
Nuria snorts, her mirth unimpeded by the scar running through her lips. “Once I got the initial shock over with, it was nice. And then I learned about snowball fights. No different from sand fights, really.”
“I can’t speak for sand, but I love a good snowball fight,” Koren says. “My brothers and I had them all the time. Every. Single. Winter. But I’ll introduce them to sand fights now.”
Nuria eyes him curiously. “Wait, where do you live that has sand and snow?”
Koren blinks twice. “Oh, guess I forgot to tell you. My family and I moved to Avhava Beach. Plenty of sand. Very little- no…no snow, actually.”
Nuria facepalms. “You did tell me before. I remember now. One of your brothers is dating your boss now.”
Koren wags a finger. “She’s not my boss any more. Just! She’s not just my boss any more.” He hefts his katana. “She’s also my full-fledged Ohaida instructor!”
“So, she bonded with a weapon at long last?”
“Yep! To pay her back for helping me, my parents spent a small fortune on weapon cache deliveries for her. It took almost five months but she’s now partnered with a pair of nunchucks.” Koren laughs when hysterically when he remembers the week his brother, Kolton, had a black eye because he thought her hard-earned skill was natural. He calms down in a moment. “Sorry, just remembered something silly.”
Nuria snorts again. “You’re silly.”
She steps into the fountain and sits on the edge. She stretches her legs forward and sighs appreciatively. “That’s the good stuff.”
Koren can’t help but smile to see her happy. He kicks off his boots and rolls his pants up to his knees, then joins her in the fountain.
“It’s not too cold for you?” she asks, concern abundantly clear.
“I’m good. No worries.”
She accepts his reply and relaxes.
“So, why’d you choose the fountain to meet? Aren’t your special places on campus all, you know, on higher ground?” he asks, hoping his questions aren’t rude.
Nuria takes a deep breath, then says, “They’re special for the wrong reasons. I go high to retreat from the stresses in my life. But…I don’t want to retreat from you.”
Koren smiles uncontrollably. He still can’t fathom why she values him but he accepts that she does. “Yeah, I get that.”
For a time, they just sit in blissful silence, enjoying the fountain and the brilliantly lit night sky. Although, Koren wants to speak again but doesn’t know what subject to broach this time.
He’s jostled to the side when Nuria’s wing plows into his shoulder.
“Sorry, sorry. I was trying really hard to only summon one wing and my body had a fit,” Nuria explains.
Oh, no! She’s bored! She’s gonna leave now! Quick, Koren, say so–
She carefully folds both wings behind her back, then eases them both forward, making a slight barrier around her torso. “It’s high time that we honor our oldest deal. I touched your ears, earlier, so my feathers are all yours.”
Koren’s fur coat hides his rosy cheeks but the tops of his ears heat up, too. He slowly inches his hand closer, the sheen from the moonlight making her feathers glow faintly. As alluring as he finds her wings, he reveres them also. He brushes the surface of her wings slightly, careful not to pluck or nick a single one. He feels the heat they emanate and wholly understands why Nuria isn’t cold.
Does…does her whole body feel like this?
“So…do you like them?”
He withdraws his hand, the returning chill biting into his flesh through his fur. “They were warm, like lightbulbs. And they felt light but strong at the same time. Like my katana.”
Nuria furls her wings behind her but doesn’t absorb them, then holds out her hand. “Can I hold it?”
Koren almost smacks Nuria in the face he throws it so fast, all too eager to oblige. Nuria catches it without fail regardless. She inspects the hilt and sheath first, studying the white and emerald embroidery like it was her homework. The sheath is decorated with white stripes at the top and the base. She slides the sheath off and marvels at the expertly crafted katana. She plays around with the positioning to line up the glint from the moonlight at the tip.
“I like doing that, too,” Koren admits.
Nuria holds the katana in front of her, the blade vertically erect. “You know, I’ve never held an Ohaida’s weapon before. It feels…alive. Like it has a faint heartbeat. Do you feel that?” Nuria replaces the sheath and returns the katana.
Koren lays it across his lap. “All the time but for me, it’s not faint at all. It’s a constant, heavy thrumming. Well, it’s heavy on occasion. Right now, umm…” Koren swallows and turns to Nuria, meeting her wintry gaze with determination and courage he only now recognizes, “my heart’s beating much harder.”
Nuria straightens her posture gradually. “Yeah…mine too.”
Koren’s muscles are locked by panic when Nuria starts to lean closer. His first kiss is seconds away and he’s entirely unprepared. His first crush is one thing but Nuria’s the most amazing girl he’s ever met. He isn’t confident that he’s worthy of her.
Oh, just look at her, Koren. She’s not the one who needs convincing. You are!
Even though his heart races and his katana falls from his lap, the young man takes the reins of his muscles from his panic. He leans forward.
Another cold wind blasts Koren, this one strong enough to knock him clear into the fountain water.
Nuria stops herself from falling onto her face and laughs. “If it wasn’t you, it would be me. Don’t worry. We can try again.”
Koren climbs out of the fountain, his fur sopping wet and stringy as a result. He steps past Nuria, clutching his katana fiercely. “It’ll have to wait.”
So, this is the rival Norris mentioned.
“Because I didn’t fall. I was pushed,” Koren explains hotly. His gaze is fixed on the perpetrator, another young man with swords in tow.
Nuria turns and opens her eyes wide. “Shuri? What are you doing here?”
“Yeah, this has nothing to do with you,” Koren shouts, shivering from his soaked fur.
“That’s where you’re wrong. This has everything to do with me.” Shuri marches closer. “I was Nuria’s friend first, and I’m not letting you jump ahead of me.”
“And how are you gonna stop me? Another cold air blast? The breeze that hit me on the way out of the dorm was you, wasn’t it?”
“I’d have done more but I thought you’d just chicken out again!”
“What?!” Koren growls.
Nuria climbs out of the fountain and gets in front of Koren. “Hey, hey, calm down. We’ll get things back on track in a second, okay? Let me handle this.”
Koren doesn’t loosen the grip on his sword but nods anyway.
“Good. I’d rather talk to you, anyway,” Shuri says.
“Shuri,” Nuria says lowly, “I want you to leave.”
“What? Why? Because of him? I’m the one who told you how I felt first!”
“That’s right! You’re not the only one after Nuria! Tell him!”
“You like this guy?” Koren asks hotly.
“Okay, why should that matter? And no, I–”
“See, kitten, it’s not just you!”
“Shuri, shut up!” Nuria shouts.
“Who’re you calling a “kitten”?!”
“Koren, I said calm down!” Nuria says.
“Sorry, but I couldn’t think of any word for pathetic to call you!”
“That’s enough, Shuri!”
“Says the clown who couldn’t stop a single one of my plays in Star Derby!” Koren hefts his katana and takes a step forward. “Beat it before I embarrass you again!”
“Koren, you need to–”
“I dare you to try! You’d never be able to beat me in a sword fight! You’re child’s play! Someone of your caliber is not someone who deserves Nuria!”
Koren’s blinded by two beams of red light, his vision returning alongside a flood of rage.
I am what Nuria deserves! She’s mine! I’m no amateur! Parker taught me well! I’ll show you who’s the kitten!
Koren tosses his sheath aside and charges Shuri in one fluid motion.
“Koren, no! Stop!” Nuria pleads.
“That katana’s nothing against my swords!” Shuri taunts, unsheathing his own blades.
Koren’s lateral thrust is blocked by Shuri’s left sword. He wraps his tail around Shuri’s right hilt, rips the left sword away, then kicks him in his chest, his tail robbing the right sword away. He tosses it onto the ground behind him.
“At least I still have my sword!”
Shuri groans and fumes as he rises, red veins retreating from his irises. He holds out his hands and his twin swords return to his grasp.
“You were saying?”
“A true Ohaida never loses grip of their weapon in battle!”
“A true Ohaida can engage in battle without needing to hold their weapons! But what’s a freak like you know!”
Koren’s heartbeat and the thrumming of his katana synchronize and get stronger.
…a freak like you know!
…a freak like you…
When he’s blinded by red light again, he welcomes the anger without question. He hears Nuria’s pleas for the fight to stop but she sounds miles away. And that’s more, Koren, doesn’t want to stop. He parries a double downward thrust from Shuri in the air, angling his katana to divert the twin blades. He kicks high and trips Shuri in midair. While his opponent is down, Koren pounces, ready to seize victory over his prey. He aims his katana at Shuri’s torso. He doesn’t care that Shuri recovers and moves to strike him with his twin swords.
“I said knock it off!” Nuria shrieks as she punches Koren’s jaw to knock his attack off course. At the same time, a large liquid hand restrains and drags Shuri away.
Koren coughs as he wipes his bloody lip, the anger he just felt evaporating in an instant. He looks up slowly to evaluate his situation. Shuri glares lethally at him while restrained by Stark, the officer and gathered faculty furious. However. No expression hurts him more than Nuria’s. She looks at him with sheer disappointment until she turns away, unable to maintain eye contact.
I was right… I don’t deserve her. I just proved it.
Nuria waits outside Neth’s office, now dressed in a normal pair of clothes Tyra delivered. The angel offered to stay but Nuria didn’t want anyone else to see Koren and Shuri like this. She’d never seen either so angry before, and she hates that she was the cause of it.
Tyra tried to warn me. If I’d just been honest with Shuri before, he wouldn’t have interrupted us. And Koren and I…
Nuria sighs heavily.
Tonight wasn’t supposed to go this way. Two of my best friends weren’t supposed to fight. I was going to have my first kiss. I was supposed to… It doesn’t matter anymore. I keep trying just to fail. I’m pretty sure Shuri’s advice won’t help, either. I don’t want to push Rum so far that he shows me those red-eye veins.
The headmaster’s door opens at long last. The meeting lasted close to an hour. She expected (and hoped) that their weapons would be confiscated but the boys retain possession of them. Professors Zathony and Marmagar escort Koren away together. Nuria turns away when he faces her. She’s not ready to tackle the reminder of another failure from her past, having once already lost her cool during a fight, too. She knows talking about it doesn’t help, so she’ll let Koren simmer down on his own. As for Shuri, she keeps her head down until he and Professor Tameri leave. She may have chosen to protect him over Koren but she despises his interference tonight deeply.
“Nuria, you can come in now,” Stark says.
The phoenix somberly follows Stark inside and takes a seat as asked.
“You weren’t too hard on them, were you? The fight…it was my fault,” Nuria says.
“No, Nuria, it was not,” Neth says plainly. “You were involved, yes, but it was not your fault. We reviewed the footage of the incident as we scolded the boys. At every turn, you tried to keep things civil. The failure falls squarely onto the two of them.” Neth sighs through his nose. “But their punishments were not as extreme as I argued for. Professor Tameri came up with an alternative. However, Shuri was stripped of his V.I.P. ticket. He and Koren will serve half a month’s detention, serving their terms on alternating days. They’ve also been banned from Star Derby games for the remainder of the semester.”
“But what about me?” Nuria asks. “Where’s my punishment?”
“Nuria, I didn’t call you in here to punish you. I just wanted to see how you were feeling.”
“But the fight was my fault. I wasn’t clear enough when Shuri told me he liked me! I could’ve stopped the fight sooner! I could’ve saved–”
Nuria freezes momentarily, haunted by a blurry memory of crawling through the snow, blood dripping from her face and hands onto the frosty ground.
“I should be punished. I deserve to be.”
“Nuria, I will not be–”
Nuria screams as she stands, then races away.
“Nuria!” Stark calls.
“Just leave me alone!” Nuria shouts though she doesn’t bother checking to see if Stark listens. She expects she won’t.
Nobody listens to me! And nobody should! I don’t have any value, insight, or wisdom anyone should emulate! I crush everything I want to dust! Ibri House is nothing but a memory! My front-row crew is down to zero! I’m sure I’ll piss off Tyra and Reddic in time, too! Stark’s too busy these days, so it’s just a matter of time before she leaves again! My brother hates me! And I lost my only daughter!
Those thoughts and many similar ones run through her mind so much so that she comes close to drowning in her depression. She finds her salvation at the underground saltwater pool. She tracks Norris and flies over to where he surfaces.
“What do you want, girlie? I’m busy here,” he asks crossly.
Without a word of warning, Nuria takes his head in her hands and kisses him. When she pulls away, she asks, “Are you in or out? And I mean all the way?”
“Are you sure about this?” Norris asks after a few moments of thought.
“I know what I want and that’s all that matters.”
Norris smiles, all his teeth on display. “Then–”
Nuria slams him onto the floor and climbs on top of him. Each kiss, caress, and stroke allows the phoenix to purge her depression. Bit by bit, she hollows out the well of heartache within. Her foiled romance no longer signifies. The feud with her brother is done. The concert is just another day to come and go. And her time at Mount Handreau- she chooses to let it go. Not to cherish or anguish any longer. She leaves the pool refreshed but leaves Norris exhausted and gasping for air on his back.