Left, left, spin, jump, stomp, drop…
Jo pounded out each step, keeping her movements short and clipped rather than long and graceful. These motions didn’t need to be pretty, but instead sharp.
Skip-step, skip-step, leap, dash to the right…
She could hear other students down the hall and in other rooms, but this small studio was reserved for private lessons. Fortunately, it gave her enough room to still leap and twirl as required. She had finished ballroom, and wanted to practice more what they had been working on in the hiphop class earlier. There was no pressing need – they had just been shown the new steps that day – but she had time to kill as she waited for Dirk to pick her up.
Something about Richard not wanting her to walk home alone after dark after gangsters tried to grab her. That had been weeks ago, but clearly it mattered little to her brother.
Nevermind that ‘dark’ happened by 6pm nowadays.
There was a sharp strike to the wood floors, and her head snapped around to the instructor. “Too pretty,” Liam Drover barked out. “Concentrate – you let your mind wander. You’re not doing ballroom right now, little girl, and you’re really not doing ballet. Sharpen your movements. You need to look relaxed. You know this, girl.”
“You know this, girl,” she repeated darkly under her breath, but forced her muscles to loosen, giving a half-slump to the movements. How was she possibly supposed to sharpen her movements and looked relaxed at the same time?
Once upon a time, the man had been a serious name in the industry, but that was several years and a major scandal ago. He had settled in south Brooklyn, opened up his little shop, and never looked back.
Or was never welcomed back. Take your pick.
No matter what he had done, he was an excellent teacher, and Richard had jumped all over the idea of getting her signed up under his tutelage. So twice a week, here she was, in a relatively small, nondescript school, as she danced her little heart out.
At least that was the plan.
Something about idle hands…
There was the occasional bark of command, but when she had finished the routine, she stood there stock-still, holding the last pose for several long beats. The low clap of applause drew her attention towards the door, brows raised. Drover had been on the opposite side of the room, so who-
Ah, her babysitter. Of course.
What else was she supposed to call the man?
She straightened from the pose, dropping arms to her sides as she got both feet properly beneath her. “How long you been there?” She was instantly suspicious. The man was like a cat. A giant, three-hundred pound cat. One that needed a bell hanging from his neck.
“Get your stuff,” he said instead, bobbing his head in greeting towards the now slack-jawed Drover.
“Jo, I don’t feel comfortable-”
Of course he didn’t feel comfortable with this. No matter how friendly the smile the giant man offered, he was still significantly larger than the dance instructor. Paying little heed to said discomfort, Jo had already grabbed her messenger bag, slinging it over her head and shoulder, and snatched up her jacket with the other hand. “He’s a family friend,” she called over her shoulder. “You can text Rich. Why’re you so late?”
The mountain didn’t so much as twitch away from the doorway, arching both brows at her expectantly, crossing his arms over his chest. It was a clear indication he wasn’t budging.
Whirling about, she continued to struggle into her jacket. “My apologies, Mr. Drover. Mr. Hamilton is a family friend and has agreed to pick me up when Rich can’t make it.”
There. That should make him happy.
A glance to the side proved to the contrary as the man still hadn’t moved. “Thank you for letting me stay late to practice?” she added, though it was more a question as to whether or not that was sufficient. The quirk of his lips showed she was on the right track, so she returned her full focus on the instructor. “I know you have a lot of other students you could be working with. Thank you.” It was bordering on sincere, and that finally seemed to be enough. He gave a sharp nod, pushing from the wall and heading out the door without another word.
Jo was on his heels, a terrier following after a mastiff.
Her jacket was perhaps two sizes too big, but she wound it tightly about herself as they stepped out into the chill of the December night. “I’m starving,” she chirped, skipping to keep up with him rather than breaking into a jog. “Can we grab a bite before we head home?”
His smile flashed at her, and he bobbed his head readily. “Of course,” he agreed readily. “Just have one stop first.”
She should’ve known something was up – he was never that agreeable.
Forty-five minutes later, she stood inside a gym. Sweat permeated the air itself, like most decent gyms. The only other one she’d been to in the area had been one specifically intended for public officials such as cops, firefighters, and local FBI. It was open and bright.
This was not.
The ceiling felt low, but that was likely because of the large number of bags dangling from it, set at regular intervals, leaving no doubt what kind of gym they were looking at. The large ring at the center might be the other indication. There was a small area for free-weights in one corner to the left of the ring, and to the right, a much larger section that was covered in floor mats.
And that’s where they stood, facing off with what seemed to be the entire population of the gym.
Men and women alike, they looked as if the pair had interrupted some kind of great battle, or maybe it was just a solid workout. These were fighters with a few bodybuilders thrown in for good measure, all tall and well muscled. A couple were still breathing heavy and wearing the padded helmets for sparring, their fists wrapped but no gloves. No universal uniform, though they were all shirtless – the women wearing sports bras, the men just in their skin, and all wearing shorts.
It made her realize she was still wearing her dance clothes – yoga-capris and a long-sleeved shirt of vivid purple that hooked over her thumbs with the words “Dance is Life” scrawled proudly across the front in stylized print, the shadow of a couple waltzing along the bottom. Didn’t matter that her hair was currently a pale blue – she knew exactly what she looked like.
She cleared her throat lightly, leaning closer to Dirk, though without dragging her gaze from the bunch. “We’re not getting food here, right?” She was still missing what errand they were running that would bring them here.
“After,” Dirk vowed, though his attention was on the old man standing front and center. Their poses mimicked one another – feet shoulder-width apart, arms crossed over massive chests. Didn’t matter how gray the other man was or how much hair he had lost, Jo was left with the impression he could wipe the floor with everyone present.
Except for her own instructor, but then, she had a pretty good idea of Dirk’s skill-level, and one did not become (and subsequently survive) being an Army Ranger by being a pushover.
Jo grunted faintly, straightening again. Why had she let him convince her to leave her jacket in the car? She hadn’t felt quite this self-conscious in… ever, really, and she frowned to herself as she puzzled over that one.
“So this is your little badass?” the old man said at last, snapping her attention back to the here and now, both brows arching high. Did he just say…?
“I don’t think I’d go that far,” Dirk allowed, lips twisting in a smirk. His voice was a rumble, pitched low, threatening.
He was doing that on purpose.
The old man rolled one shoulder in a shrug. “We aren’t taking any newbies, Hamilton. If she’s not a badass, it’s going to be a waste of time for my kids to even bother trying to spar with her.”
“She’s my student,” as if that was all the assurance the other man should need. “We talked about this.”
“Yeah, but that’s before we saw her.” There was definitely a sneer on the other man’s face as he purposefully gave her a once-over. “You can’t be serious. My kids would eat her alive.”
Her blood pressure was starting to rise. Oh yeah, they were definitely talking about her, and the smirks on everyone’s faces screamed loud and clear that they agreed with their boss’s assessment of her. She wanted more than anything at that moment to wipe those expressions clear, and she felt herself growl.
Wow. What was that? Hunter must have been rubbing off on her more than she had thought!
She covered it by clearing her throat and bowing her head, but she felt the giant shifting next to her, and while she couldn’t be certain, she was pretty sure he was laughing at her. His meaty hand settled atop her head, ruffling her hair, and when she tilted her head to glare up at him, his full attention was focused on the other group.
“How about this: she beats yours kids, you let us start coming here for sparring matches.” His tone was so reasonable, as if this was the most common thing in world and they should simply acquiesces.
Wait, how many of these ‘kids’ did he say she would have to beat? And after three hours of dancing to boot? She felt a thrill of excitement shoot down her spine as she swung her gaze towards the lot, carefully schooling her features as she started counting. She wasn’t certain how good they were, but they all looked ready for a fight.
But they were nothing compared to her sparring partner over the past few weeks.
This was going to be awesome.
A woman stepped forward – a solid six inches taller than Jo, if not more and a good fifty pounds more, all muscle. “I’ll make quick work of it, Big B,” she assured the old man. “C’mon, little girl,” she beckoned Jo forward with her free hand. Already, the others on the mat were migrating to the sides.
So they were really doing this.
Jo forced her expression to remain blank as she watched everyone move out of the way, and she leaned closer to Dirk once more. His hand had slid from the top of her head to rest between her shoulder blades, and he guided her towards the mat. “So what’re the rules?” This time her voice was pitched softer.
“Don’t get your ass kicked,” and with that, he gave her a good shove onto the mat itself.
She stumbled forward the few steps, but caught her balance before landing square on her face. Wouldn’t that have been a darling follow up impression after the one she had already made? She glared back over her shoulder, corner of her mouth pulled upwards in a silent snarl before she looked back to her foe.
And up. And up.
The chick was taller than she appeared. Fantastic. The woman’s smile had turned cruel as she stared down at Jo, rolling her neck to gain a few soft pops as a result. “Scared, huh, little dancer-girl?” She was expecting her to run screaming as she lifted her hands in loose fists, sliding back into a boxing fighting stance.
But she wasn’t expecting a fight. Her stance was there, but she was too busy mocking Jo to expect any real response. “Maybe you should go change out of that shirt. I’d hate for you to get blood all over it.” Faint laughter echoed about the gym. “No one will judge you too harshly for knowing your-”
A quick strike to the throat – hand flat, palm down so that it was the fingertips which drove into the soft tissue – cut off the rest of that taunt. The woman’s eyes widened in surprise, her hands dropping to grip her neck, which opened up her center for the follow up punch with Jo’s left – a solid, straight forward punch direct to the solar plexus. The Amazon’s breath wooshed from her lungs, and her body doubled forward automatically.
Straight into the uppercut aimed at the jaw.
Aimed through the jaw, so that even after it connected, her hand continued on, grabbing hold of the woman’s opposite shoulder. Both hands had found their way there, and she pulled down even as her knee came up into her opponent’s stomach.
She was sent backwards, and while she was not down for the count, she was certainly down for the moment.
Adrenaline hummed through her veins as she took a few steps back, and her heart was thundering in her chest. Hands flexing at her sides, gaze ranging about the room, she let her grin flash into existence. “Who’s next?” she called cheerfully.
It was a building full of bullies.
Only she didn’t have to pull her punches with any of them. It was expected for her to give them all she had, though admittedly, they were going to return the favor.
Next fight was going to be harder – the first only went down so easily because she underestimated her. No one else was going to make that mistake.
A man stepped forward even as her first opponent crawled to the edge of the mat.
* * * * *
“I’m pretty sure I’m dying,” she bemoaned to the room at large. Despite her world being filled with pain, her agony was promptly ignored by all those present. Sprawled face-first on the couch, she lifted her head up enough to glare around the room.
Richard was in a nearby recliner, thumbing through a paper.
Hunter was seated cross-legged in the middle of the floor, mashing buttons on some fighting game.
Dirk was… actually, where was Dirk?
She pushed herself up further so she could peer over the back of the couch. There he was, visible in the kitchen, busying himself with cooking some or another. Whatever it was, it smelled amazing.
The one thing all three men had in common at the moment was their unified front of ignoring her. She groaned louder, projecting the sound towards the cause of all that pain – Dirk. Seeing the man stiffen and begin to turn, she let her arms give out so she dropped back out of sight.
A moment later, something cold was dropped onto the back of her head.
“Put that on your face,” the mountain rumbled from overhead. “It’ll minimize the bruising.” And just like that, he was gone again, returned to whatever he was grilling.
Jo flopped onto her back, eying the towel-wrapped bag of peas for a moment before dropping it onto her face as instructed. “I didn’t even know we had peas.” Oh, her world was pain! But the cold seeping into the swelling certainly helped.
“Does that mean you don’t want to go again.” Ah, so her brother had noticed!
Wait a tick.
She jerked the peas away from her face to glare at him. “Pardon?”
His newspaper dipped so he could arch a brow in her direction. “If you’re hurting so bad, does this mean you don’t want to go to the next fight?”
“Oh hell no! I’m in!”
“But if you’re in so much pain…”
She sat bolt upright, eyes wide, clutching the peas to her chest. “I haven’t had that much fun in ages,” she gushed, though promptly gripped her head as it spun, and she had a brief moment where she felt like she was about to tumble from the couch. “Seriously. You’ve got to let me go again!” She turned her attention back towards the kitchen. “Dirk! When is the next one? Is there another one? When can we go again?”
“Lay down, Josie. You look like you’re about to fall.” The newspaper had covered his face once more, and he flipped to the next page. “So why did we decide it was a good idea to let an entire gym beat the snot out of her?” he asked as if he were asking about the weather. “Besides the obvious.”
There was an ‘obvious’ answer to that? Jo stretched out with a groan, the peas finding their way to her face.
“A few reasons, actually. Besides the obvious.” Someone was going to have to explain what was so blasted ‘obvious’ about it. “She’s only been sparring with Kippy-”
“Hunter,” the man in question corrected.
At least Jo wasn’t the only one being ignored… “And frankly, she needs to get used to other styles. Fighting with multiple people will give her experience with that.” It sounded so simple.
“You expect my sister to get into more fights?”
“You expect her to stop?”
Silence hung in the air after that retort.
“I am right here,” Jo offered, voice slightly muffled by the towel.
Again, she was ignored.
“I know the fellow that runs the gym,” Dirk continued on. There was the sound of cabinets opening and closing, something grabbed out of the fridge. “Challenge the gym, and it gives her a little more legitimacy.”
Hunter snorted. “Challenge the gym,” he muttered, though it was loud enough for her to hear it. “Is she a Pokemon trainer now?”
“Gives her another place to train – both of you,” Dirk added the last part, and Jo was pretty sure he was talking to Hunter. “And gives her more grounds to start joining tournaments.”
So that meant she really was going to get to fight more! Sweet! Jo thrust one fist into the air in victory.
There was another flip of page. “And the reason you let her get the hell beat out of her?”
“Because no matter how tired she is, she needs to learn to keep fighting. Think of it as a growing experience.” Whatever else Dirk had for an explanation was interrupted as music erupted from the center of the room, a fast-beat tune cutting through the air.
Game paused, he answered his phone with a perfunctory “Hunter.”
The corner of her towel was lifted so she could peek out. “Was that K-pop?” She was pretty sure it was some chick declaring herself to be the best at… something if her translation was correct.
One finger was held up in her direction, asking her to hold rather than swearing at her – it would’ve been a close call with Hunter as to which finger he was lifting in her direction. The man flinched from the phone, and Jo could hear the yelling even from her spot on the couch. Richard’s paper dipped again, and even Dirk wandered into the room.
Closing her eyes, Jo dropped the towel and rested an arm over her face.
“Pardon? Is she… How did… Oh.” Hunter fell silent, giving up as whoever was on the other line apparently had no intention of letting him complete a sentence. “No, she’s fi-” Before he could assure whoever was on the other side that she was fine and dandy, she heard the man choke. She peeked out from beneath the towel to see the man fighting a grin, though his gaze was fixed on her. Seeing her look at him, he gave an exaggerated roll of his eyes, holding up the one finger once more. Asking for patience. The towel settled back into place.
Hunter sighed. “Whatever you say,” he muttered. A brief pause. “Yessir,” followed more firmly.
She could hear the phone get tossed aside, and a moment later, the music from the fighting game resumed accompanied by the grunts and occasional “Haduken!”
“That sounded… exciting,” Richard drawled out, and Jo didn’t even have to look to know the paper had returned before his face.
“Hey, doll,” Hunter called. “Have any dreams last night you want to share with the class?”
She considered for a moment, folding hands on her stomach. “I didn’t have any nightmares,” she said at last. “Hey!” she sat up again, catching the towel and peas. “Maybe that’s the secret to no more nightmares? Just have to brawl until I’m too tired to move.”
“Or we could find something a tad bit healthier than that approach,” declared Richard’s newspaper in a tone which broached no argument.
“Or we could find something healthier,” Jo echoed darkly, returning to her back.
“I meant with Dong-Gu.”
Which would make a whole lot more sense now that Hunter said it. “I guess that works better when I’m exhausted, too,” she answered after a few beats. “Yeah, actually. I was wandering around that city-scape where I first met him, and I kept coming across these other wolves, but no Dong-Gu. Bam!” She clapped to punctuate the exclamation. “He was there. He seemed a bit off, started acting all weird.”
“He’s always weird,” Richard pointed out with a sigh. Didn’t matter that the fellow was literally on the other side of the planet, he still bothered her brother.
Though, considering he had sent the Hamiltons to stay with them and protect them, she could see why he would bother him so.
That, and any male under a certain age was likely to cause her brother’s hackles to rise…
“I meant more than usual. A bit disoriented, then suddenly, I don’t know…”
“Suddenly upset?” Hunter offered.
“Yeah. Like really upset.”
“Like he had just seen you covered in bruises?”
Oh. That might do it. Jo wrinkled her nose against the peas. That may have been it, but instead of answering, she pursed her lips to a thin line and locked her jaw. Suddenly, his reaction made a bit more sense.
Hunter sighed, and the game was paused. “Do me a favor then, won’t ya, dollface?” It was Hunter’s turn to drawl out the words. “Let’s just… not talk about getting into fights with that lot, hm? I’d rather avoid the angry phone calls.”
Something that smelled amazing drew close, and Jo peeked out from beneath the towel at the plate of grilled meat which had suddenly appeared before her. “Uh, sure?” But she was already reaching for her breakfast. Lunch. Brunch? “You are a god amongst men, Dirk.”
Another sigh from the middle of the room. “That’s as good as I’m gonna get,” he muttered as the game resumed.