The lure was irresistible. Spike stood at the line glaring through half-lidded eyes at Sensei. The ache between his shoulder blades from the day before pulled mercilessly. But he sank down into the challenge, each breath renewing the agony into a fresh blade.
Sensei stood calmly. "You have the option not to try."
"Tsh!" Spike's hands pumped into fists. There was no way that was gonna happen.
"If you wish to court another lesson, proceed when ready."
The plan he'd devised so meticulously overnight ran through his head one more time. It was a gamble. But hey, that was just his nature. This felt like a more physical version of trying a trick shot on the pool table for the first time. If he had the angle right, this could work. If he had it wrong, Sensei would leave another mark on his flesh as payment for his folly.
So be it.
Taking a deep breath, Spike charged and sprang, coming down over Sensei in a high kick. The expression read to him as though Sensei thought, This again? He reached out and closed his fingers around Spike's ankle.
Exactly what Spike had hoped he would do. Piking in, Spike clamped both hands around Sensei's wrist as he continued on the posture for the throw. Sensei released his ankle, but of course that did nothing for the grip Spike stubbornly held! The shock registered in Sensei's wide as Spike's legs flew up and outward, now he was trapped in an uncompensated ballast that carried him well over his center of balance. There was no way, for even the sensei, to shift the mass in time.
Boy and teacher went over as Spike kept a death-grip on the wrist. Spike landed hard on his back, slammed down by the overhead whiplash. His breath forced from his lungs in a single expulsion.
But still he hung on, trembling for all he was worth, rasping in a harsh breath against the welling pain.
Sensei lay there, staring at the ceiling. "You realize … with how you landed that leaves you at a disadvantage. In a real fight you would be dead."
"This isn't a … real fight." Spike winced as he tried to shift. The fire in his back intensified. He gritted his teeth. "That wasn't in the challenge, the landing. Only getting you down … which I did."
As Spike let go, Sensei shifted and sat up, rubbing his chin. "You are correct. And considering the knot I put in your back yesterday you should have been in too much pain to perform such a move. And yet … you did."
Spike panted a few breaths, opening one eye he fixed Sensei with a dead stare. "Pain? Walking three miles through twisted dog infested alleys on a gashed open leg is real pain. This … this is nothing." He hated that the tightness in jaw betrayed the bluff. He really couldn't get up.
Carefully Sensei picked him up. Each motion lit a fresh fire between his shoulder blades. "Let's just undo this, since the lesson is now complete." In a strange grip, Sensei pressed deep into the middle of the mass. A crackle and a pop later and Spike could breathe again. The pain rapidly abating.
Of all the sadistic things to do!
Sensei released him. "Stretch a bit, it will relieve the rest of it."
Shifting his shoulders, Spike found his full range of motion had been restored. Now only a slight ache remained in the center.
"That was a remarkable tactic you devised. One I have not seen before. Tell me, did you come up with that yourself?"
Spike nodded, still moving the once seized joints. Now that was a trick he wanted to learn. How to do that and undo it.
"It nearly worked. Though, as it is, the landing leaves you in a bad position." He held up a hand. "However, if you were to time the pike release earlier you would have the same effect but afford yourself time to land on your feet. Either that, or twist out of the pike, that would bring you down into an attack stance."
Visualizing it, Spike nodded. The flow could work.
"Let's try this again, only with a target closer to your height. Gable, step out here."
Gable balked. "Sensei … but … what about the lesson order. He's skip—"
Sensei held up a hand. "Get out here. You have the timing of the ankle grab needed. That's what I want you to do. As Spike comes down, grab his ankle and move into an overhead throw."
Glancing at Spike, Gable stepped to the line, a grumble left his throat. A glint of something in his eyes, hard to read. Resentment? Disgust? Fear?
Sensei placed a hand on Spike's shoulder. "How is your back?"
"It's fine now. Hardly hurts." That wasn't a lie or an exaggeration. To his own unexpressed shock he barely felt what moments ago was a crippling pain.
"Good. Ok, I want you to do the same approach with Gable. This time when you come out of the pike, twist at an angle, away from his core. Feet to the mat when you land."
Gable glared at him, hands at the ready for a high ankle grab. Sinking down, Spike took a few deep breaths, running the adjusted scenario in his head, trying to imagine how each motion would feel. Just as he had done leaning back in that windowsill the other night.
Once he had it, with a hop step he launched himself at Gable. Fingers clamped down on his ankle clearly committed to the throw. In fact it felt to Spike like Gable intended to compensate for the weight shift. Spike piked into it, clamping on Gable's wrist. This time, when his ankle was free, Spike twisted the layout taking Gable along for the ride with him. It wasn't perfect. It wasn't quite fast enough in the turn, but he landed on a foot and a knee this time instead of his back. Gable, on the other hand, writhed beneath the pin.
Spike released the grip, but even as Sensei spoke he caught the advantage. "Better. Even from here there is a number of options. For Gable's sake we won't do it again." The boy glared over his shoulder as he climbed to his feet, scorn in his eyes. "During this afternoon's meditation I want you to reflect on this technique. Focus on balance and its many applications. We'll see what you come up with tomorrow."
With a bow, Spike took his leave toward the edge of the mat. Sensei caught him before he knelt down. "Spike, I truly didn't expect you to have solved this that quickly. Nor in such an unusual way."
He lifted a shoulder and let it drop. "It's all about topspin."
Sensei wasn't the only one awash in confusion.
Still standing, Spike gestured like he was holding a pool cue. "A ball spins and transfers the spin in different ways depending on how you hit it. Middle, high, low; they all behave differently. So I figured all this would take was an angle you weren't expecting."
"I am beginning to understand what Mao saw in you."
Kneeling on the mat, Spike became steadily aware of the glances his direction. He marked them. Gable's ire made sense, considering he'd just been pinned. Anders flashed a half hidden grin. Kieran shifted back on his knees, putting a bit more distance between. The youngest, Lance, did the opposite, leaning forward, closer to Spike, awe in his eyes. These were the most pronounced out of the pack of boys, there were more. The last to catch Spike's attention was the venomous glare from Vicious, his white knuckled fists pressed into the mat. Those eyes locked onto him and remained in their disquieting gaze.
Sensei's prior words echoed through his mind, A fool provides his enemy a route of control. Be calm and still, suppress the fear where your enemy's reach does not extend.
He took a deep breath. Closed his eyes for a moment to refocus on the new mantra. Then, slow and sure, he reopened, resuming the unspoken staring contest. It seemed odd, after all, it's not like Spike had flipped Vicious. Just one of his buddies. So what was this kid's deal?
It reminded Spike of the gangs running around Deseado. A certain sense of loyalty. Where what affected one, affected the whole. And yet, that wasn't the right vibe, not quite.
The staring continued unabated until Sensei called Vicious to the line. He nearly gestured for Anders, but shook his head briefly before turning to Kade, this boy Spike would guess was closer to his own age older by maybe a year. But the quiet boy stepped to the line unshaken.
Sensei fixed Vicious with narrowed eyes. "Strike drill, as we did yesterday. But you have gotten used to my patterns. You will deliver what I call out. You and Kade will trade offense and defense. Vicious, this is not a full spar match. Your goal is not to break Kade. Just work on precision."
Spike noted a slow grin as Vicious sank down into a start posture. That wasn't the surprise. The surprise came from Sensei's eyes narrowing further. "I mean it." The grin flickered, and soured. "You are to hold back."
Call by call, Sensei barked out strike patterns. Vicious and Kade snapped into them in a back and forth trade. First Vicious on the offense, then Kade. It made sense, each had the chance to throw and receive. It was no illusion. Neither one held back. Kade flinched at the impact of a strike as forearm met forearm. His teeth gritted and he poured more into the return strike offered to Vicious.
In the back and forth Spike studied the nuances as surely as he would a mark for poker tells. Something was missing, something rather one-sided. Spike leaned a little closer, trying to make sense of it. Both boys were skilled, Vicious clearly the more aggressive of the two as he drove his fists harder into Kade. Before long, both had blossoms of blood on their knuckles. Proof this beat drove deeper than a drill. Sweat diluted blood drops on the floor.
Kade winced when his fist drove into Vicious's forearm. On the return strike … Vicious didn't. He drove through it.
Damn! That had to hurt. And adrenaline could mask a good deal, but still. This drill wasn't enough to create that kind of a rush. Not normally. No, there was something else going on. Pride? Ever since they first crossed paths, Spike knew that Vicious had a chip on his shoulder. Their first sparing match proved that. And now it seemed that every motion, every strike, was to show he was still on top.
Tsh, who cared. Well, apparently he did. All this was petty nonsense. Spike knelt by the side of the mat. He had a place here in this dojo, under master Yenrai.
His eyes roved up to the bells hanging down on the cord. This place of endless challenges. Something told him that regardless of progression, Sensei would continue to invent new things.
Ander's whisper broke through his thoughts, "What are you smiling about?"
"Huh?" Only then did he realize he had been.
Spike lay back on his bunk, the bag of light-fingered goods beside him. He chewed on a caramel, savoring the sweet flavor. Candy had been such a rare score in the slums. In the intermittent bustle in the dorm, he let his mind sort through the problem of the bell challenge. No matter how he turned it the solution was out of reach. He didn't even have to try it to know that the current strategies, the most obvious ones, would lead to flailing. When no one was looking, he'd stretched out on the floor and measured. There was no chance his arms or legs spread far enough, even in a splits, to hit both at the same time. That ignored the issue of jumping that high to begin with.
He heaved a sigh.
A hand pressed on the edge of the mattress, it creaked.
Spike glanced to the side to find Lance ducking down. This boy looked to be about eight years old. His nose twitched, eyes to the small pile of wax-wrapped caramels beside him. Longing in those eyes. True, they'd all eaten dinner. While the food was good, there was nothing to appease a sweet tooth. All the more reason when Spike discovered the forgotten jar he had taken a good handful.
The moment Lance noted he'd been spotted, he looked away.
Idly, Spike plucked one from the pile. "Here, s'not like I don't got plenty. More where these came from."
In the rapid tear of the wrapped, everyone knew. All eyes turned toward Lance as he popped the candy in his mouth and moaned with pleasure.
Spike rolled his eyes, hands cradling his head.
Soon he was swarmed by begging hands. So much for the tough boys. Even Gable stood there, an eagerness in his open hands. Wordlessly, Spike dropped one to each boy. The only one who didn't come across the room was Vicious. Though he did glare from across the room.
After the sunset and the room grew quiet, Spike lay in meditation, pondering both the throw and the bells. A shaft of light briefly cut across the floor before a door closed it mostly off.
Sitting up, Spike glimpsed the bathroom light on. Vicious's bed lie empty. Silent as possible, he creapt across the floor. No one else woke. Through the narrow crack in the doorway, Spike peered. Vicious yanked his sleep shirt over his head. Twisting around, he stared at the mirror. At first Spike wondered if the boy was truly that damn vain as he examined himself. But then … Vicious stiffened and whispered a curse.
In the mirror's reflection a deep black bruise on the back of his upper arm where Kade had directed many a strike.
Spike narrowed his eyes. Now that was odd.
See You Space Cowboy