“What the fuck is he doing?” I asked Peter, who was standing beside me on the outside of the cage, peering at the two fighters in the center too. “Watch his arm, Carlos!”
“I don’t know,” Peter replied to me a moment before yelling again. “Grab the leg! Grab the leg!”
He didn’t grab his leg. Or watch his arm.
I glanced down at my cellphone. Thirty seconds were left before the timer went off, signaling the end of the second round for Carlos’s training session with a fighter who had come to train with Peter for the winter. The guy was a light heavyweight named Sven Andersson from Iceland.
And he was kicking Carlos’s ass as Peter and I watched him make one stupid mistake after another.
Rookie mistakes, really. They weren’t even the kinds of mistakes that a person made when they were cocky. He was rushing and being impulsive. They weren’t fighting full-strength, but half or three-quarters could still cause a lot of damage. He was being straight-up stupid.
“Jesus Christ,” Peter muttered as the Sven guy landed a snap kick to Carlos’s face. He was wearing head protection, but we both jerked our heads back and winced at the sight of his skull taking that kind of impact. He was a douche for ratting me out to Noah—I was pretty sure it was him—but I didn’t want him to get his ass kicked during practice either. Peter and I had made faces at each other over the gap in their weight classes and skill levels, but we’d kept our mouths shut when both of them had insisted they wanted to spar.
I held my breath as Sven went for a really hard combo that left Carlos off-balance for a moment before they clashed together, grabbing one another. I glanced down at my phone again. Ten seconds left. “He’s not defending against the clinch at all,” I told Peter. “Keep your chin down!”
He didn’t keep his chin down, and Peter didn’t argue with me. Instead, Sven backed off, and Carlos rocked back on his heels as the other man landed a few more punches that I could tell were lighter than they had been before. Sven knew without a doubt he was winning… and had been the whole time.
The buzzing on my phone had me elbowing Peter who blew the buzzer we had to call time, and the two men in the cage separated.
I met Peter’s eyes, and we both made a face. Again.
He pressed his fingertip between his eyebrows.
I knew what he was going to ask me to do, and I was going to make him ask for it.
He still had his finger between his eyebrows as he aimed a dark brown iris at me. “Help him, please.”
It would be my pleasure and he knew it, so I just nodded at him and kicked my flip-flops off. I made my way up the steps and into the cage, watching Carlos as he crouched, trying to catch his breath. He looked exhausted.
But mostly, he looked pissed.
He’d lost his last fight a few days ago, and he was doing even shittier now. I’d be pissed too if I were him.
“Yoo-hoo,” I said quietly, ignoring the Sven guy sitting a few feet away, trying to catch his breath too.
Carlos glanced up immediately and panted out, “Yeah?”
I motioned for him to get up, and thankfully, he did, breathing hard the whole time. “What’s going on? What’s got you so distracted?” I asked as I crept forward.
He didn’t look even a little wary at my approach; he just looked irritated. I didn’t enjoy embarrassing people, but being hard was sometimes the only way to get across to someone. Especially when that someone had an ego and needed to see that they weren’t listening.
“Your technique has been shit, but being fast and aggressive usually makes up for it. But you know it isn’t always going to,” I told him bluntly.
The younger guy frowned. “My technique is shit now?”
“Your listening skills are shit. Your technique isn’t much better. There were at least three opportunities, that if you would have listened, you could have easily gotten him into a rear-naked choke or an armbar, but you didn’t listen when Peter and I were yelling. You were too focused on forcing the offensive instead of doing a little defense and then sneaking in there to get him.” I motioned toward the fence just behind him. “Back up real quick. Let me show you.”
He listened, fortunately, and went to stand so his back was to it. I stopped right in front of him and then took it even closer so that we were literally pressed completely together with one of my knees wedged in between both of his. I wasn’t wearing the stretchiest pants I owned, but I could still move in them. I always did a few squats before I bought bottoms to make sure they weren’t too constricting. I never knew when someone might ask me for help, or when I’d feel up for it.
“Right here,” I told him. “I’m you. You had him against the fence, you could have lifted your knee”—I showed him—“swiveled your hip”—I showed him that too—“and then….”
And then I threw him. Over my hip, quick as lightning, I threw him when he least expected it and scrambled back onto the floor before he realized what was happening. I grabbed his arm while he was still confused, wrapped my feet and legs around it like I had done it a thousand times before—because I had done it at least ten thousand times—and then pulled.
He tapped out so fast I’d swear I heard Peter snicker. And just as quickly as he slammed his palm across the surface of the cage, I let him go. I wasn’t there to hurt him.
Even though I had pulled more than a handful of shoulders out of sockets in my day.
Hurting people because they didn’t want to tap out wasn’t something I got a fucking kick out of, unlike some people I had known. Feeling ligaments and tendons being torn, especially with my history, was just… not for me. I liked to win but not by genuinely causing someone pain.
So I’d give it to Carlos for tapping as fast as he did.
Somewhere deep down inside, he still was thinking at least.
I squeezed his shoulder before getting up, taking in his wide-eyed stare at the rafters of the ceiling. “You know better. That shouldn’t have been so easy. Clear your head. Focus. Listen. You can do this. Just think.” And with that, I squeezed his shoulder one more time then walked back out, raising my eyebrows at Peter as playfully as possible once I was totally out. “I’m going to get water while you talk to your boy. Do you want some?” I asked Peter as I slid my flip-flops back on.
Peter was trying to hide a grin, but I knew it was there as his mouth pinched together and he shook his head and started over toward the steps I had just come down. Just as he was beside me on his way into the cage, he grinned and patted me on the shoulder. “You still got it, Len.”
Damn right, I did.
It was hard not to smile at his comment, because… it did make me feel good. Maybe I didn’t regret giving up judo for Mo—and for my fucking self—but it was nice to know I could still hang in there if I wanted to risk it. Not that what I’d done had been a risk because I had been in control, and I’d used my good shoulder.
I was still trying not to smile when I lifted my head and spotted the figure standing at the far end of the room closest to the entrance. I knew that haircut, but it was the height and that damn body that really struck me.
It was Jonah.
I had seen him every single day over the last four. At the gym either during or after his workout. He would come by my office if I didn’t see him on a trip to the main building. Just yesterday he had gone with me to Mo’s daycare again to pick her up and drop her off with Mr. Cooper, a family friend who babysat his granddaughter just like my own gramps did. And every single night, he would get to the house right around six—when I got home—and stay until Mo passed out.