This is the second installment of an ongoing story. If you missed the first part, I’d recommend that you start at the beginning.
“You ready to call it a day?”
I’d bent over to steady my myself. But it was as if this simple question was all I had needed to pluck just a little more life out of me. With my eyes to the floor, I took a calming breath and said, “Not quite.”
I then looked up at Darren and flashed a wicked smirk at him.
“What’s left?” he asked me.
“Let’s gear up and just… wail on each other.”
A grin that landed somewhere between proud and hungry crawled across his face. With a tip of his hat, he said, “Yes, ma’am.”
Though my kicks were starting to get a little sloppy, the ones that connected were still powerful, coaxing a modest oomph from Darren on contact with his chest protector. He got me pretty good a few times too, sneaking under my arm to score a sly point in the space just under my armpit.
The worst (or best) was when he struck me clean in the solar plexus with the shoelace side of his foot. Even through the protective gear, it left me deliciously blank, momentarily incapacitated, swimming around in a pool of temporary emptiness.
Darren laughed fiendishly as he bounced light on his feet around me, waiting for me to stand back upright. Meanwhile, I, folded over myself, waited for the light to return to my eyes so I might begin my search for any trace of the breath that he’d just knocked from my chest.
I exaggerated the delay, allowing it to serve as a bonus bout of recovery time. I couldn’t see him, but I knew his thumbs were hooked into the chest protector at his armpits as he watched me fake my way through this rest. I felt his skeptical gaze bore into the back of my head.
“Okay, princess,” he said, unconvinced by my act. “That’s enough. Let’s go.”
When I stood upright again, I was less dizzy and hungrier than ever for more. My heart was pounding, pushing hot blood to every dark corner of my body. His deadly eyes narrowed in on mine for confirmation. We reset our fighting stances, and I shrieked through Darren’s signal that our next round had begun.
I didn’t wait for him to give me something to react to. I brought my back leg up like a great axe, swinging it back down again in the vicinity of his forehead. I just barely missed his face, but I caught the sole of my foot on his chest. Darren stumbled backwards, but managed to regain his balance just before he fell to the floor. He lunged back with a flurry of roundhouse kicks to distract me from the volley’s big finale.
Then, Darren’s signature move: it all happened simultaneously—his front foot filled the space his back foot left on the mats as it tucked in close to his body and hooked up, around behind his body, like a scorpion tail clawing through the air in front of my face.
I took the slightest lean back at just the right moment. My eyelashes fluttered, blown by the near-lethal breeze of his foot narrowly missing my face. And my reactionary counter kick flew before he had both feet back on solid ground; I snagged a point just over his kidney. I cheered for myself and pumped my victorious fist in the air. He just shook his head, faux-disappointed in himself.
I never felt more godlike than when I could dominate the master.
Towards the end of our round, I had all the war wounds I could have hoped for in the form of bruises peppering my hips and forearms. Darren didn’t walk away unscathed either. He had gashes from my toenail on his cheek—“Jesus, woman! Where the hell was this beast hiding last year?”—and we were both so drenched in sweat beneath our protective gear, you would have thought we’d gotten ourselves caught in a thundershower.
Finally then, I was truly and utterly drained. I slumped over, palms on my thighs, elbows hyperextended to brace my upper body from collapsing in half, panting past my sandpaper tongue. Crooking my head up to one side to confirm his distance from me, I rose and threw one last cheeky kick. I missed terribly and playfully spun around, falling to the floor on my butt.
“Okay, okay,” I said, surrendering as he feigned a rushing advance. “Now I’m done.”
Darren helped me to my feet and untied the strings at the back of my chest protector before doing his own. His breath was hot, but it still cooled against the magma running beneath my skin when they mixed. As we both unraveled and peeled off our protective layers, the chill of the air licking my dampened torso sent a thermally-confused shiver through my limbs. I tugged the tie from my ponytail to let my hair fall loose, inviting the cooling air to weave between the strands.
“You know,” Darren said threw his arm around my neck, “if you would’ve fought like that in the ring, maybe you would have won more.” He pulled me into a playful headlock.
“Oh, whatever.” With his chest pressed to my cheek and his forearm to the knot of my throat, my words were stifled. It’s easy to revert right back to juvenile play-flirtation when you reunite with the people who only knew you when you were in that hormonally-charged adolescent phase of your life.
“Come on,” he said, releasing me from my friendly chokehold. “Let’s get you cooled down and stretched out.”
We jogged around the periphery of the studio, treading light over the mats to invite calmness into our aching joints, to cool the molten iron roiling beneath the surface. Heartbeats and breath rates gradually came down to rest in their cage, quieting more with every lap. I could smell the constant subtle cloud of Darren’s morning cigarettes sneak off him whenever we rounded a corner.
He must have caught a whiff of it too and was reminded that it was about time for the next one. As usual, he left me to suck on a tobacco dart while I carried on through my cool down rituals.
By the time Darren returned, I was laying on the floor, leaving me-sized sweat angels on the mats as I ran through a series of twists and stretches.
“Here, let me,” he offered. He took the strap I was using to facilitate a hamstring stretch right out of my hands.
I tapped my fingers on my belly while I waited, foot in the air until he came down to my level. As if he were preparing to make a bold and foolish declaration, he got down on one knee and nestled himself between my scissored legs. I rested my floating ankle on his shoulder, which provided a gentle, deepening sweetness to my stretch.
I caught his eyes sweep over the length of my body before looking past towards the innocent obscurity of the wall. It was subtle, but noteworthy because I’d never known him to steal such a glance before.
Though my heart skipped a couple of beats, I chalked it up to imagination and pushed my leg back into his shoulder, hugging my thigh muscles tight around my femur as I reminded myself to breathe. He leaned in, stretching me even deeper as I released the contraction on my exhale. My knee reached closer and closer to my face on every breath out until I could nearly kiss it. His torso was getting closer and closer to mine in the process.
There was no mistaking the intrigue on his face the next time his gaze skirted over me; I was looking that time to make sure. I simply smiled when we locked eyes because I didn’t know what to say yet. The unexpected look on such a familiar face was a little jarring in ways I realized I didn’t mind, and the supporting warmth of his palm on the meat of my calf was both comforting and electrifying.
Darren grinned to himself, and I caught it before he could erase it from his face.
“What?” I asked.
“I… Never mind,” he said, talking more to the floor over my shoulders than me. “It’s nothing.”
“Oh, come on.” I wiggled the leg still in his grip to egg him on. “Tell me. What?”
“Nothing,” he insisted. And then, as he released the hold on my extended leg, he finally conceded: “You’re just a little bendier than I remember, that’s all.”
This exchange marked the shift from hamstring stretch to hips. Darren folded my floating leg in, guiding my bent knee in towards my chest. Then, with me twisting at the waist, he folded my knee over towards my opposite shoulder. My exhale grew more strained as he added a slight pressure from his palm to my thigh to encourage my knee closer to the floor. It created a deep, juicy stretch into the outside of my hip, but it was also quite intense. Darren noticed the slight crunching around the corners of my eyes at the end of my exhale.
“Your hips are still tight as ever though.”
“Getting old, I guess.”
Darren scoffed, feigning offense. The age jokes had always been a classic part of our banter.
He dug the heel of his palm deep into the space between my glutes as he continued to lean in and pull my hip open; I closed my eyes and breathed even deeper, welcoming the direct line of nurturing energy that passed from his hands into me. His steady downward pressure built and built… until the tangle of tension finally gave way and unraveled.
“There is it,” he said, pulling back and rubbing small reassuring circles around the point of release. In that position, all I could do was relax and breathe, let the medicine of the stretch do its job. I watched him as he worked and sensed his rising internal dilemma. He avoided my gaze completely, stubbornly focused on his own hands then.
The silence grew heavier around us as he repeated the technique on my left side. Now I was the one stealing glances, deliberately and without shame. I traced the angles of his face, the proud aquiline ridge of his sharp beak, the way his dark hair curled from the sweat and licked at the nape of his neck. I lost track of the stretches entirely; I breathed him in, inviting him into the open spaces he was creating in my hips. Darren instinctively breathed with me as he pushed me through another satisfying release.
“Seriously though, we miss having you around here,” he said. It felt like the response to a lengthy conversation that I didn’t realize we’d been having. I scoffed at him, but I felt the weight of the air in the room shift again as I reached for my water bottle on the floor next to me. “I miss having you around,” he repeated, almost to himself, as he pulled away to surrender me from his hold.
There had always been a certain degree of sexual tension in the training hall. We had been a bunch of young, predominantly women in the throes of our first foray into sexuality with our new “adult” bodies. Hormones all over the place and the every possible locker-room joke that could go along with them. (Yes, girls can be loud-mouthed horndogs too.) We were hardcore athletes, spending way too much time together, sweating up a storm in close quarters, turbocharging our bodies with adrenaline on an extremely regular basis.
Though Darren joked around with us to a point, he always kept a respectable distance. But this moment was different. And I wasn’t a kid anymore.
The room was thick with body heat, and sweat, and anticipation in the blinking echo of his very serious statement:
I miss having you…