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Quality Time

When I emerged from the locker room dressed in the grey yoga pants and pale pink tank top Dodge had suggested I wear in lieu of actual workout clothes, there was a large Hispanic looking man in black running shorts and a baggy t-shirt pacing nervously along the long edge of the blue matted area that I assumed was used for wrestling and the likes. I assumed, as I crossed the space adjusting the just a smidge too small sports bra I’d dredged up from my bottom drawer this morning, that this must be Kurtis. I’d have the same troubled expression and twitchy movements had a man like Derek commanded me to meet him in a place reserved for fighting out of the blue. The knowledge that he could beat me into oblivion was clear in my mind. Yet another reason for insisting we have a chaperone.

I snapped the bra strap into place one last time, resigned to the fact that it wasn’t going to sit exactly right, and dropped my hands to my side as I approached. “Kurtis?” I enquired, stepping onto the mat.

His head snapped up at the sound of his name, worried gaze finding mine in less than a second. “Yes?” Seeing a woman walk toward him in the gym clearly wasn’t what he’d expected, because when I came within five feet of him he asked, “Can I help you?”

“Beatrix Cooper,” I greeted, holding out a hand to shake. “I work in the office. Sniffed your caramel latte. And I’m also the reason Derek called you down here today. We needed an extra person for my self defence lesson so that I can observe exactly what it is I’m supposed to be doing. I hope you don’t mind.”

Kurtis’s shoulders, which had apparently been tense up until that moment, sagged with relief and he actually took a moment to shake out his limbs. His arms looked like jelly as they swung around the trunk of his body, almost as if they had detached themselves from their sockets. It was rather a strange reaction, or at least one that I had never witnessed before, but I couldn’t very well judge him for it. We’d only just met. I didn’t know anything about him. “Thank God,” he murmured. “I thought he’d found out about the protein shake I nicked from his packet in the fridge.” He stilled, appearing much more at ease and whispered conspiratorially, “Derek has been known to show no mercy.”

“How so?”

“Tony shot him by accident once,” Kurtis explained. “Barely clipped his shoulder, mind. Just a graze, really. Derek beat the shit out of him the next day. Broke a rib or two at the very least. Tony was out of commission for a month.”

“Stop telling horror stories, and start stretching, Kurtis,” Derek’s voice boomed across the gym. “And I already knew about the protein shake, I just chose to give you a reprieve, since it’s your first offence. Tony made one mistake too many before I called him to the mats.”

Suddenly, I wasn’t feeling all that good about being down here for an hour of physical contact with a man who was apparently very capable of breaking people. Between his strength and my inability to maintain balance, this was likely to end with an unintentional fist to the head. I cast my mind back to physical education in school, recalling all the times I’d accidentally head butted my classmates. Or tried to catch a ball and ended up on my arse in the grass. The bad news was I was no more coordinated now than I was then. The good news? No one appeared to have a camera phone at the ready to record my failures.

“Ready to start, Bea?” Derek asked, snapping me out of my thoughts as he closed the distance between us. “Just follow me in some simple stretches to start off; I don’t want you to injure yourself.”

My eyes rolled of their own accord, displaying their opinion on his words. Chances were, even if I was all stretched and limber, I’d be in pain and possibly bleeding by the end of the lesson anyway. It was a wonder I hadn’t managed to fall on my face or break my ankle when Dodge had insisted I jog with him. Now Derek was expecting the miracle.

I followed his movements anyway, easily mimicking the stretches he showed, despite how inflexible I had always been. It was the toe touching thing all over again. Not only could I now touch my toes without a problem, I could also balance on one foot as I pulled the other foot up behind me to meet my buttock. I was thrilled with my new found flexibility, however, the two near-strangers I was with, just accepted it as fact. As a result, I had to squash the happy dance threatening to burst forth. How weird would it be to start dancing gleefully during stretches?

Once we were all suitably stretched, Derek had me stand about ten feet away while he explained the keys to overpowering an opponent that was bigger than me. It was just like the videos I’d watched on the internet last night, and I found myself tuning out his voice in favour of blankly staring at his moving lips. I must not have been too subtle, though, because the next thing I knew, Derek was punching Kurtis in the gut, cutting off a peel of laughter with a loud oof.

“What the hell was that?!” I exclaimed, blinking rapidly as I stumbled a few steps backwards.

“You weren’t paying attention,” Derek informed me, shaking out his hand as he returned to his natural relaxed state. “This isn’t going to work if you just stare at me while I’m lecturing.”

“Is he okay?” I asked, alarmed by the pallor that had come over Kurtis’s face as he bent double at the waist, audibly gasping for air.

Derek slapped a hand on his back once, twice, three times, the thuds resounding dully and accompanied by coughs and sputtering. As his hand came down a fourth time, Kurtis quickly ducked out from under it, narrowly avoiding yet another impact.

“I’m fine,” he wheezed, holding up a hand to ward off any subsequent attempts to help him breathe. He took a few deep pulls of air, hands braced on knees as he stared down at the floor. Out of concern for his well being, I stayed quiet, keeping a close eye on him as the colour slowly returned to his face. “Perhaps it would be more engaging for Miss Cooper if we skipped the lecture and went straight to the physical demonstrations,” he suggested, straightening once more with a strained look in his eyes. Something told me he wasn’t looking forward to being the demo dummy for this little expedition. Not that I could blame him, he’d already been winded by a fist to the diaphragm and we’d barely started. One could only imagine what else was in store for him before the hour was up.

“Excellent idea,” I said quickly. “How exactly are we going to work this?”

Derek was all business now, having finished glaring at Kurtis. “You stand there. Kurtis will attack me, I’ll deflect. We explain what happened. You try,” he rattled off efficiently, and without even pausing to let it sink in he turned to Kurtis spreading his arms in the universal sign for “Come at me, bro.” A gesture that was rather redundant, given that Kurtis had already launched himself at him, a fist flying out to connect with the shoulder. Derek’s arm came up, brushing it away as if it were a little more than a fly. He then proceeded to grab Kurtis’s forearm in both hands and twist so that Kurtis landed flat on his back.

Just as I suspected would happen, I felt overwhelmed by the speed of their encounter. There was no way I could possibly replicate either of their actions successfully. Derek and Kurtis were evenly matched size wise, though Derek appeared to have more muscle mass. They were also both obviously well acquainted with defence and fighting techniques. I, on the other hand, was a good head and a half shorter than the pair and the strongest muscle I possessed was probably my tongue. I listened carefully as they explained the approaches and quick decisions they made, but it was all going straight over my head.

When Derek dragged me over to stand in his place, he and Kurtis guided me through the movements they had made, giving useful hints and tips to make the defence more suitable for my size and strength. We went through it what must have been a dozen times with absolutely no force behind any of the actions so that I could familiarise myself with the movements and internalise them. I was feeling a little better about the whole situation when Derek instructed Kurtis to step back and go for real.

In the next second, his fist was flying at me, reaching speeds I’m sure I can only reach in a motorised vehicle. I watched it approach with a kind of detached bewilderment, the majority of my brain either hightailing it out of there, or standing in stunned immobility. One small section, hidden in the back, however, was replaying Derek’s actions from the original demonstration, slowing them down and isolating them, like going through a film frame by frame. Slowed down like this, I felt the same as I had about the back flip last night. I had to try it.

At the last possible moment, my hand shot out of its own accord and knocked Kurtis’s fist away before grabbing and twisting his arm. Just like Derek. While I was aware that I was carrying out the actions I’d witnessed the detachment of my thoughts from my body – as if they were two entirely separate entities – cast everything in a haze until finally I was stood over Kurtis’s prone form.

“Woah,” I breathed. My fingers were still curled around his forearm as I found it impossible to ease my grip. They were frozen in the same surprise that held my coherent thoughts captive. “Did I just do that?” I asked of no one in particular.

Kurtis winced as he slowly pulled his arm from my grasp. “Yep,” he groaned weakly. “Ten out of ten for execution.”

“I didn’t hurt you did I?” I asked worriedly, my gaze glued to him as he gingerly got to his feet and took a few half steps away.

He met my gaze solemnly and nodded. “You did,” he informed me, a hand on his side. “But it’s okay. It’s what you were supposed to do.”

“The point of this exercise is for you to learn how to injure and disable an assailant,” Derek put in, reminding me of his presence. I cut my eyes to him at the accusing quality to his voice. “I thought you’d never had any kind of defence training,” he said, stalking closer. His eyes were glinting, throwing poison daggers of anger straight at me. Did he think I’d played him?

“I haven’t,” I assured him, backing up as he began to enter my personal space bubble.

“Never in my life have I seen a newbie pull off that kind of manoeuvre first attempt,” he seethed. Every muscle in his body tensed, winding up. I had no idea what he was intending to do, but as he lunged forward, arm extended menacingly, I recalled one of the other clips I’d wtched on my computer. In it a man had flipped backwards, kicking his opponent in the chest in the process. I already knew I could do a back flip, so all I had to do was work in the kick. It couldn’t be that hard, right?

Time slowed as the film reel in my mind once again went frame by frame letting me take special note of each and every tiny movement. I was aware of Derek, still coming toward me and then I was in the air. Pressure on my legs as I made contact with his chest. A moment upside down. And my feet were back on the ground. It felt like an age had passed since I’d recalled the clip, but as I crouched on the mat, catching my breath I noted the stunned expressions on the men’s faces.

While Kurtis maintained an upright position, his jaw was so slack I was sure it would hit the floor if it fropped any further. Derek, on the other hand, was sprawled on the floor, his straight arms wedging his upper body into an upright position as he gawked at me. Clearly it had been a matter of seconds since he’d lunged at me, or they might have been over their surprise by now.

“What do you call that?!” Derek practically yelled at me. He hoisted himself off the floor, his muscles bulging in the process and found myself allowing my knees to collapse so that I was now seated on the mat, my shoulders curved into a slump. There was no conceivable way to interpret his current mood as even vaguely happy, which, ultimately, did not bode well for me as far as I could tell.

“I don’t know,” I said quickly, string up into his rage filled face with wide eyes. “I saw it on YouTube last night and it was all I could think of when you lunged at me.” My voice sounded shrill, even to my own ears, and I just hoped I hadn’t burst his eardrums.

His forehead creased in a confused frown, and I thought he was about to tell me it was a load of bullshit, which I knew it wasn’t, but it was still a bizarre happenstance. Instead he turned to Kurtis and barked at him to leave. An awkward silence rang through the room after the door clicked quietly closed behind him. It was just me and Derek again. The exact circumstance I had hoped to avoid by insisting we have a third person present. Of course, when I’d contemplated the situation earlier, I hadn’t factored in a Derek this irate. Now, instead of kissing me without permission in an attempt to gain control of me, he was more likely to kill me.

I tried to avoid his gaze, looking elsewhere around the room – the treadmills, the weight machines, the punching bags – anywhere but at Derek. The scalding anger I would find there was not worth my sanity. I just knew he was going to rail at me and call me a liar. Unfortunately, I didn’t possess enough self control to not stare at him and my eyes were constantly drawn back to his heaving form as he stood over me with an air of intimidation.

“You need to start talking,” he fumed in a hushed voice. “Now.”

Fear had churned my innards like a fist gripping my organs and physically twisting them around. I’d never seen Derek so furious. In fact, I’d never seen anyone this furious. The closest was when Mr. McGregor, the high school principal, went off his nut at Dodge’s year twelve biology class for hiding the off cuts from their dissections in the back of the file cabinet in his office. It had taken him three days and a complete deconstruction of the furniture and vents before he found it, but which time the smell had permeated the entire administration building. He screamed so loud at them that you could hear it clear across the school.

Derek’s face was steadily turning red. The veins in his neck were popping out. His fists were clenching and unclenching at irregular intervals. If I didn’t speak up soon, I was pretty sure he was going to explode from the unrealised urge to maul me.

“What do you want me to say?”

“There’s something hinky going on,” he informed me. “First there’s Mr. Riley Walker’s surprise appearance. The fact that he knew your name before any of us were even officially introduced to him. His insistence on meeting with you privately. Your creeper comment earlier. Then there’s the fact your gay, roommate best friend breathes fire. And now you’re some kind of ninja?”

Crossing my legs, my neck craning back in an effort to make eye contact, I shook my head. “I still don’t know what you want to hear,” I said.

Surprising me, he sank to the floor in front of me, cross legged, his forearms braced on his knees. “I want you to tell me what in the world is going on in this company,” he beseeched, a lot of the anger of the previous second seeming to have disappeared. When I opened my mouth to protest, he held up a hand. “Don’t give that I don’t know crap. You know something and I need the information you have.”

No way was I giving up my information that easily. One moment he’s raging at me, the next he’s sitting down like he’s my best buddy and we’re going to swap secrets. Well, I know how these things work. He gets me to tell him all my secrets and then leaves me hanging. If he wanted me to share he’d have to give up something of his own. Trouble was I couldn’t think of anything I wanted or needed to know from him.

“I see how it is,” Derek said, interrupting my silent calculations. “You want to go tit for tat? Fine. What do you want? Whatever it is, it’s yours.”

“I can’t think of anything right now,” I admitted, frustrated with myself for the fact. You’d think I could at least think of one thing.

“How about I owe you one?” he suggested.

Was it me or was he leaning in even closer? He must really be desperate for what little information I could give him if he was willing to allow me that kind of power over him. I said nothing, staring at a scuff mark on the mat between us. He’d caused me so much grief in the past that I figured a little sweat time would do him good. I couldn’t make myself seem too eager to enter into this deal with him. I could feel his eyes drilling into the top of my head, willing me to accept his offer so he could finally get to the intelligence I was keeping from him.

“I’ll owe you two,” he offered, sounding like he was speaking through gritted teeth.

I was pretty sure his anger was rising again, so I lifted my head and extended my hand. “Deal,” I confirmed. “I’ll give you two pieces of information for two favours.”

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