I sauntered into the gym, and the boys seemed hesitant.
Tomorrow was the match against Boswell, who’d 3-O’d us last year, and Tommy Kitchener was out with serious chi depletion. He was our anchor, the last line of defense, and now I kept seeing that Freshman from Ryerson tomahawk grabbing him into the ground when I went to sleep at night.
I threw my duffel in the corner and walked to where the team stood, all of them in a circle at the center of the gym.
Coach kept looking between all of their downtrodden faces like he couldn’t believe it. “Come on boys. This isn’t that big a set back. We need to learn not to rely on Tommy anyway. This’ll help our starters hold the line.”
They all looked at each other frailly.
I adjusted my long blonde hair under my red baseball cap. I tied it back and stuffed it through the hole between the hat and its strap. I looked at all of them, knowing that coach was right. It was true Tommy often carried us. There was only one way to fix that.
“Let’s train,” I said.
I saw some of my brothers take deep breaths, others gave little nods of agreement.
Coach smiled. “Alright, let’s warm up with some singles. Carver, Stanhope, you’re up.”
I stepped into the circle as Stanhope did, both of us staring each other down with smirks on our faces.
Me and Stanhope always had interesting matches: he was more of a zoner, while I liked to get in there and lay on the pressure. I doubted it was a coincidence that coach matched us with contrasting styles.
I took off my Letterman jacket and he did the same, both of us tossing them aside. I arched my back low and raised my two fists in front of me, bouncing back and forth on the balls of my feet. Stanhope swung his arm gracefully in a wide circle, ending the movement balancing on his right foot.
“Three…” said Coach. “Two… One… Fight!”
Stanhope slammed his left foot down and thrust his raised hand forward, a blue fireball rocketing from his palm. I dodged left and felt the heat of the projectile on my cheek as it flew by.
I stayed nimble, moving back and forth as Stanhope pumped his arms, launching more projectiles. I crept closer and closer, refusing to let him control the space between us. But Stanhope was good at it, and he knew this was what it was all about. Make the opponent play your game, make them predictable and get those reads.
I played into his hand, relying too much on the same movements to dodge, and he did two rapid jabs that made it impossible for me to dodge both projectiles. I had no choice but to take the hit, raising my hand so that my forearm shielded my face. The blue fire impacted with my arm, it’s damage more concussive than flammable, and sent me skidding back several inches. The squeak of my chucks against the slick gym floor echoed out.
I knew most people thought we were just meatheads. Just a bunch of guys like the guys on any other sports team, except worse, because we didn’t pretend we weren’t looking for a fight. But they didn’t realize what went on in the space I was in right now, how not only were you expected to have a high level of technical skill in this sort of thing, you also needed the tactics. No one really thought about how once you made it here, once you had do deal with “spacies,” it essentially became a chess game where you had fractions within fractions of seconds to make a move.
It made me smile from under the brim of my cap. I didn’t need them to get it. I got it, Stanhope got it, all these guys and Coach got it. They understood that there was a mixture here, a game that encouraged us to be well rounded people, and encouraged us to be a family. We all understood that this was the thing that made us feel alive.
I lowered my arm and charged forward. Stanhope reacted exactly the way I was hoping and went high with one projectile and aimed the other toward my feet in case I went low.
I held my arm up as I had before, this time expending a bit of chi to completely absorb the hit and maintain momentum. I lept over the second fireball as it collided with the ground, sending out a blue shockwave. I was airborn, and Stanhope had committed hard to those attacks, so he was still in a position where he couldn’t recover.
I came down hard on his shoulder with an aerial axe kick which send him plumetting to the gym floor. He bounced up as I landed and I got in an uppercut to his gut, followed by a discharge of orange energy that I swept up from the ground to keep the bounce going, before spinning and elbowing him out of the arena.
He went sailing, and eventually skidded to a halt along the pristine gym floor, coming to a stop under the basketball hoop.
I turned and yelled, pumping both fists and screaming to the ceiling. “Woo!”
I saw Carver in the corner of my eye getting up and dusting himself off. He managed his energy well, as we all did, so what I’d done to him wasn’t enough to be life threatening. But it was enough for me to win.
“Damn Carver,” he said, sounding genuinely impressed. “This man’s a monster!”
The other guys started laughing in response, but I was on fire.
I flashed a grin at all of them, took off my cap and tossed it into the air as if I’d just graduated from fight club.