Twist Your Lil’ Bobblehead Right Off
I stood against the wall, nursing a busted knuckle, watching my sensei try to recover. Daniel held a black belt, second dan, in hapkido, had a black belt in tae kwon do, and a black belt in tai chi—the combat martial art, not the pretty forms that hippies and old people do on beaches at sunrise. (Not that I had anything against pretty martial arts, hippies, or old people. I’d outlived all of the people who were alive when I was born, so I was old. Real old.)
Daniel hadn’t competed in years, however, believing that competition was for sissies and martial arts were for fighting and killing. He was probably a lot more dangerous than most people who did compete. And right now he was on his back on the practice mat, trying to figure out if his lungs still worked. It had been only about thirty seconds since I’d thrown him to the floor, knocking the breath out of him, but that can seem like a lot of time when you aren’t breathing.
“I’m not kissing him,” Eli Younger said, still gasping, sweat dripping off him onto the mat in little splats. My Beast and I had been sparring with both of them. Admittedly, it was a little too wound heavy to be just sparring, but testosterone and the urge to defeat the skinny girl were powerful motivators, keeping them coming back for more when they should have stayed down. And Beast had been having fun.
“Artificial respiration isn’t technically kissing,” I said, watching as Daniel fought back the natural panic of the air starved, arching his back, stretching his throat, trying to force open his airway.
“Still not kissing him. Sorry, bro,” Eli said, toeing Daniel’s shoulder. “Been nice knowin’ you.”
Daniel sucked in a breath that sounded like rubber bicycle tubing being stretched out by a couple of disgruntled sumo wrestlers. Strained. Very strained. Eli laughed. Faster than most humans can manage, Daniel whipped his arm around, his fist catching Eli on the outer knee joint. If Eli hadn’t already been bending into the direction of the hit, his knee would have buckled and Eli would have needed a brace or vamp blood to heal. Daniel was powerful, even flat on his back.
As it was, the guys rolled across each other like high school wrestlers, but punching and stabbing with fingers, kneeing below the belt. They separated, rolled to their feet, and engaged again. All I needed was popcorn and a beer and it would have been perfect. Delighted to sit this one out, I slid down the wall to the wood floor, my sweaty back to the wall, knees bent in a half lotus, and relaxed. The guys were really going at it, fists, kicks, sweat flinging, with a little blood mixed in. I had to wonder if something was bothering them, because this was starting to look real.
My sensei’s style was perfect for me, because I had always studied mixed disciplines and never went for any belt. I trained to stay alive, using a fast, violent amalgam of styles geared to the total annihilation of an attacker. My fighting style had best been described as dirty. Daniel and Eli, my partner in Yellowrock Securities, both fought dirty. I winced as Eli took a boxer’s blow straight to his chin and wobbled on his feet. But either he recovered fast or it was only a feint, because he kicked out, catching Daniel in the solar plexus. In fighters’ terms it wasn’t a low blow, but since I had just hit Sensei there, it wasn’t exactly sweet either.
Daniel skipped away, his breathing pained. I wondered whether he’d broken a rib.
The dojo was in the back room of a small jewelry store on St. Louis Street, the store specializing in faceted gems, vintage styles and settings, and real antique pieces. The dojo was down a narrow service alley, thirty inches wide, damp, and dim, and was open to the public only after store hours. I was one of a select few students Daniel saw during the day. I had my own key.
Eli took a fast series of punches to the ribs, bounced off a white-painted wall across from me and into the mirrored back wall. Daniel nearly got his boy parts crushed by a kick, but he jumped back, caught one of Eli’s ankles, and twisted it hard and fast, putting torqueing pressure on the knee. Eli was expecting the move and leaped off the floor into a twirl and kicked Daniel in the side of the neck with his other foot. They both went down. Daniel out for the count. Idiots. Eli was wheezing with pain. The hand he supported himself with had left a bloody print on the mirror.
The long room had hardwood floors, two white-painted walls—one now stained with blood—one mirrored wall (ditto), and one wall with French doors that looked out over a typical New Orleans–style enclosed courtyard planted with tropical and semitropical plants. Three cats, tails twitching, lounged on a low brick-stucco wall near the splashing fountain, which was designed in the fashion of a mountain stream, with the small pool at the bottom filled with plants. The cats, looking bored and hot, were watching the humans fight. The enclosed courtyard was surrounded by two- and three-story buildings and was overlooked by wrought-iron galleries dripping with potted vines and flowering plants. Sensei lived upstairs in one of the apartments, and he usually dropped down using a rappelling rope and climbing gear. I had a feeling he’d be going back up the hard way, one slow step at a time.
Since Daniel was rolling over, marginally awake, and it looked as if the fight was over, I shifted my weight and clapped slowly, the sound ringing brightly off the unadorned walls. “Danny boy, I think you got your butt beat,” I said.
“Maybe.” He winced as he rolled to his backside and stood upright, stretching muscles that had to have deep bruises. “But it took two of you. Tag team.” Daniel was average height, had muscles like rolls of barbed wire and a face no one would remember for two seconds. A man no one would notice.
Silent, working out the kinks, he walked around the room, bare feet solid, body as balanced as a walking tree, looking Eli and me over, considering.
I grinned at my partner and said, “Yeah, but I’m still holding back. A lot.”
“You are not holding back,” Daniel said, disbelief etching his face. “Seriously? Still?”
“Bro, she is absolutely still holding back.” Eli bent his injured knees, testing for damage that might need more than ice, elevation, anti-inflammatory meds, and time to heal. “When she really lets go, it’s nothing like human speed or human strength. She’d twist your lil’ bobblehead right off that skinny neck.”
I managed to keep the discomfort off my face. I still wasn’t used to part of the world knowing that I was a supernat, and was even less accustomed to hearing it spoken of like it was no big deal. It had been my secret for so long that it still felt like a big deal. But Eli was right. If I let go with Beast-strength and -speed, I could do some damage. Once he knew I’d been holding back, my training and sparring sessions with Daniel had changed. Now he pushed the normal human boundaries, trying to see what my limits were. There were two problems with that: I didn’t really know what my boundaries were, especially with the newfound ability to fold or bubble time, and my limits seemed to be changing now that my Beast and I had soul-bonded.