STORM FRONT
By SFWriter
Copyright 1998 -- 2013 StormVerse.com, All rights reserved.

SF43b: ... For Glory

 

* * * * * * *

 

Strange. That’s what I’d call the way I feel today. Strange. I don’t know whether I feel depressed, excited, anxious, sad, nervous, whatever. I try not to think about Lucas today. Because if I think about him too much, then I will lose focus on what I need to focus on today. The Regionals. Today is the day I can defend my title and for the first time in the Regionals history, receive automatic entry into the Nationals. Perhaps that is why I feel nervous. There have been times in the past when I could’ve gone for the Nationals, but I was content to rule here. Now, I want more. Can I win?

Yes. Will I win?

At every other occasion that I have competed in either the District or Regionals Championships, I would’ve felt confident I could win. I would have said yes. But so much has happened this year. I lost Mom. I moved out of home. I got sick. My head is a mess right now and my body still isn’t running on all cylinders. However, if I am to have one deciding factor in my favor, it is my sheer will and determination to succeed. Often times that is what gets me past any of my opponents. The sheer will to not just persist or endure, but to achieve.

I deserve this victory. I have shed my blood for this sport. I have given my life. I have pushed myself to be as good as I can be, and still keep trying. I have achieved. I have earned the right to be here today.

“I deserve to win.” I said with my eyes closed as I knelt on the dojo floor, “This is my chance. This is it. It’s my time now.”

“Is it?” A very familiar voice said, interrupting my train of thought.

I opened my eyes to see Marty Lee standing at the entrance. He stepped to the edge of the mat and bowed towards me. I gave him a slight nod as I stood up with an annoyed expression.

“What are you doing here?” I asked with irritation, “I thought I locked the door after me.”

“You forget.” Marty Lee smiled as he held up his keys, “I’m the number one ... while you’re away. And technically, you aren’t officially back, are you?”

“I’ll take those.” I said as I snatched the keys from him, “But thanks for keeping the seat warm for me.”

“And there I was just starting to like it.”

“Win today and you can have the keys back.”

“It takes more than one win to earn your position here, Storm. You’ll always have that position as long as you’re here.” Marty Lee said sincerely, “It’s been ... a learning experience for me though. Having so many people depend on me or look to me for guidance and leadership.”

“Kinda makes you feel like you need to be a better person, huh?”

“It does. It’s been a privilege.”

“Thank you for taking care of this place. For helping Sensei.” I said as I patted his shoulder, “I think at the very least, this officially makes you number two. You already were, but ... I think you know what I mean. You’re the closest thing to a VC this place will ever have. And whether I like it or not, if one of you do beat me today, you will be number one here. But for now, you’re still second.”

“Well ... I think for the first time, I don’t mind being second.”

I smiled at Marty Lee, sincerely and surprised. I could tell that he’d changed. That he had learned from this experience as much as the students. I wasn’t comfortable at first with leaving him in charge, but I knew he was the next highest ranked. In the end, it worked out for the best. From what I’ve heard, he performed as well as I would have. No complaints were made to Sensei by any of the students. If anything ever happened to me, or I were to leave, or heaven forbid, he beat me today; he’d make a good number one.

“I never thought I’d say this, but ... I’m starting to like you. You’re doing real good, Marty Lee. Now what do you say we get in a bit of early training. Don’t suppose you have the time handy?”

“It was just after six when I got out of the car.”

“Ok, we’ll go till 7am.”

I stood directly opposite Marty Lee and assumed a parallel kata position. We began moving ourselves in unison. We’d done this so many times, we could read each other’s next move. It made me wonder how we would fare if we both made it into the final today. I was tempted for us to spar, but thought today was the worst day for that. We needed to keep ourselves nice and limber for the Regionals.

Marty Lee seemed distracted today though. Maybe it’s because of what’s happening between Lucas and I. So far this morning we’d completely avoided the issue, which I was glad for. But I think there’s more to it than that. He’s a bit slower than usual. A bit hesitant. Not as sharp as he usually is. If he keeps this up, he won’t make it to the semis, let alone the final.

“What’s wrong, Marty?” I asked with a smirk as I stepped back, “You’re slow today. Of all days, you’re slow today.”

“I’m ... pacing myself.” He said before he looked at me strangely, “Wait a minute. Did you just call me Marty?”

“Slip of the tongue. Won’t happen again. So what’s bothering you? I hope it isn’t any of this shit with Ashley or Lucas. That’s got nothing to do with you as far as I’m concerned. You and I are cool.”

Marty Lee’s face seemed to strain at my comments. Not exactly the reaction I was expecting. He turned away from me for a moment before he finally looked back.

“Thanks, Storm.” Marty Lee said with a sigh, “But that’s not it.”

“So what is it?”

“I’m not sure I can tell you. I thought I could ... but ...”

He was interrupted by my cell phone buzzing me a reminder. It was already after seven. Time for breakfast before I head over to the SuperDome. Marty Lee would have to wait.

“Sorry, I’d love to hear it, but ...” I began to say before I saw how anxious Marty Lee was.

Anxious is not a look Marty Lee wears very often. Though he has become a lot less guarded than he used to be. Maybe I should just wait a minute and listen. Won’t kill me.

“Sorry, go ahead.” I said apologetically, “Tell me.”

“Maybe today isn’t the best day.” Marty Lee said with a small smile, “It can wait.”

“Are you sure?” I asked as I squeezed his shoulder, “I’m all ears.”

“No. I’m sure. But thanks, Storm. You’re a good fr... a good guy. Today we have other things to focus on. Like me taking your title.” Marty Lee said with a half smirk.

“Stand in line, Buddy.” I said with a wink, “You’re not the first to try me, you won’t be the last. There’s a reason I’ve held this title for so long.”

“Good luck, Storm.” Marty Lee said extending his hand, “I mean that. If I beat you, it’ll be fair and square.”

I shook his hand and we shared a nod of respect. Who would have ever thought that after all this time, Marty Lee and I were going to face off. And who would have ever thought that when we did finally face off, it would be with respect rather than rage? Not me. But I’m glad.

 

* * * * * * *

 

“Wake up, faggot!” Billy said as he shoved Brad, “Mr. Barrett called and asked if you could go and help him at the yard this morning.”

Brad opened his eyes groggily and grimaced at his younger brother. He shoved Billy away and sat up. The memory of the night before came flooding back into his head. He got a headache just thinking about it. He didn’t want to go into the yard because he knew Josh would be there, but he also didn’t want to let Mr. Barrett down. And in all honesty, his family needed the extra money.

“Brad, I want your bike so I can go to the lake.” Billy demanded, “We’re gonna meet some girls.”

“No, I need it for work.” Brad said as he stretched his arms up.

“But I want it!”

“I need it more than you do. You should get a job too. You’re old enough.”

“I bet Mr. Barrett wouldn’t want you to go in if he knew what I know.” Billy taunted, “Josh hates you because you’re a faggot. That’s why everyone hates you! Cocksucker!”

“Get lost.” Brad yawned as he shoved Billy out of his room, “Now get out so I can get ready for work.”

“Didn’t you hear me?” Billy started to say before Brad grabbed him by the face and threw him backwards.

“I heard you. I just don’t care. Whatever it is, it’s too early in the morning. Go away.” Brad said as he shut the door.

“I’ll get you!” Billy yelled from outside Brad’s room, “You’ll see!”

 

* * * * * * *

 

A cool breeze blew across Lake Herren and onto the beach, sending a chill up Carl’s spine. He walked along the beach with his feet wading through the water. His mind was lost in thought, preoccupied and inattentive.

Rivulets of water washed down his chest and seemed to chill in the crisp morning air. He didn’t seem to care. In his mind, he knew there were more important things to think about. In all his life, he had never imagined that he would be in this position. That he would be forced to face a situation that was literally life changing.

“Hey, Honey.”

Carl smiled instinctively and turned his head back to the beach. At first he thought the voice was Claire’s, but he soon discovered the voice belonged to a girl he’d never seen before. She stood with another girl that Carl assumed was a friend. Carl wasn’t blind, or stupid, and he knew the girl wasn’t just saying hello for the hell of it. She was your typical blonde beauty, who could have easily passed off as someone on the cheer squad. In fact, Carl believed he had seen the girl before, he just couldn’t pick where. All he knew is it wasn’t in Merlow.

“Can I help you?” Carl asked.

“You play for Merlow High, don’t you?” The girl asked, “Carl, is it?”

“I do. Have we met before?”

“No, but I’ve seen you play. I’m in the cheer squad for Braxton East. You’re a good player.” The girl smiled, “And cute too.”

Carl wondered why these sort of things only happened when he wasn’t available. He couldn’t help but blush at the girl’s obvious interest in him. Even though he had no intention of doing anything with her, it was nice to be appreciated.

“We’re having some fun out on the lake tonight with a group of friends. I don’t suppose you’d like to come?”

Carl pondered the girl’s invitation, but only so he could find a way to let her down easy. He had a feeling that if he took up the girl’s offer, he might finally get some action. The way she scanned her eyes over his body, he had no doubt of her intentions.

“Sorry, I have plans.” Carl said with a small nod, “If you’ll excuse me, I have to find my girlfriend.”

With that statement, Carl left the girls standing stunned and ran onto the beach. His eyes immediately scanned for Claire, and it wasn’t long before he found her standing barely ten meters from him. She had a smile on her face as if she’d witnessed the whole encounter. The smile quickly faded from Carl’s face though as he stared at Claire. Was she really his?

Standing in a simple two piece swimsuit, the most unassuming he could see on the beach, she still seemed the most stunning girl in sight. More than that, her face glistened at him with a sincerity that always made him melt. His heart skipped a few beats just looking at her. Then the stark realization came that she was actually his.

He realized looking at her, that he felt for her more than she knew. Claire seemed puzzled by his demeanor, almost troubled. She walked up to him tentatively and gently put her hand to his cheek.

“How can you do that?” Claire asked.

“Do what?” Carl asked confused.

“Look at me like I’m the only thing in the world worth looking at. “

“You are, Princess.” Carl smiled.

“Listen, I’ll understand if you want to go. I ... don’t think you should be a part of this. You sho...”

Claire was interrupted by the sudden smashing of Carl’s lips upon hers. He held her face in his hands as he kissed her with a fervor. He kissed her with so much passion and intensity that she felt her breath slip away from her. Carl bit gently on her lower lip and soon the pair were making out oblivious to anyone around them. He slipped his hands to her waist and pulled her body to his. Finally after feeling as though he’d finally gotten his point across, he ended their kiss with a tender touch of her cheek. Claire seemed like a doe eyed deer, stuck in headlights. She was literally breathless as she looked up at him.

“I love you.” Carl whispered.

“I ...” Claire began to say before Carl put his finger to her lips.

“You don’t have to say it. I just wanted you to know.” Carl smiled, “I love you. And I’m not going anywhere.”

 

* * * * * * *

 

Lucas stepped out of the shower and stood in front of the mirror. He wrapped a towel around his waist and began his morning ritual of washing up. He started brushing his teeth when he caught his own reflection. He stopped as his own eyes stared back at him. They seemed to frown at him. As if he were staring at another version of himself. His reflection seemed to shake his head in disappointment and almost anger.

“It’s your fault.” His reflection seemed to say, “You aren’t good enough for him anyway. You know that.”

Lucas’s own eyes began to well up before in a flash of anger he smashed his fist into the mirror. His face tensed in anger as he stared at the shattered mirror. It took him several moments to realize his fist was badly cut.

It was then that he heard a knock at the door. His heart jumped in his chest hoping it would be Storm. But inside, he knew it wouldn’t be. He decided to ignore the knock and instead began tending to his injured hand. Still the knock continued and Lucas finally decided to answer.

“Ok! I’m coming!” Lucas snapped impatiently.

He still felt as if he wanted to burst into tears. That or open himself a can of beer. Instead he went to his front door and opened it. He was about to open his mouth to dismiss the visitor when he realized who it was.

“Oh ...” Lucas said in surprise.

“Hi.” Marcel said with a warm smile, “Did I come at a bad time?”

“Uhh ...”

Lucas began to speak but his face became awash with tears instead. He found the situation of being faced with Marcel a little too much to handle and his fa├žade broke down in an instant. Marcel’s face seemed to soften at Lucas’s state, with no sign of the judgment or anger that Lucas might have expected.

“I don’t think it’s such a good time, Dude.” Lucas said finally, “Umm ... sorry.”

“I know what happened.”

“How?” Lucas asked with his head down, “Did Storm tell you?”

“No. And it’s not important who told me. I just ... wanted you to know that I’m here. I’m still your friend. If you need anything, just call 1800 THE BEST.”

Lucas couldn’t help himself laughing at Marcel’s comment. It was the relief he needed to pull himself from his funk. He smiled at Marcel and motioned for him to come inside. Before Marcel finished stepping in, Lucas greeted him with a warm embrace.

“Thanks, Dude.” Lucas said sincerely, “You have a knack for catching me at times like this.”

“What are friends for?” Marcel replied as he returned the gesture, “It’s good to see you, Lucas.”

“I wish you had of told me you were coming back. I would’ve done the place up and made a meal for you.”

Marcel was about to respond when he pulled away and noticed Lucas’s hand was wrapped in a bloody bandage. He looked at Lucas with sudden concern as he took Lucas’s hand and studied it.

“What happened to your hand?” Marcel asked, “Did you and Storm fight?”

“Never, Dude. Never.” Lucas replied, “Not like that. I just ... had a run in with the mirror.”

“Was it giving you lip?”

“Something like that.” Lucas sighed, “Guess I didn’t like who was looking back at me. He looked like an idiot, so I hit him.”

“I’m not here to judge you. I was coming over to see you anyway before I found out. Storm told Carl and he told me.”

“Have you seen Storm yet?”

“Not yet. But I will. I just wanted to see how you were.”

“Why?” Lucas asked in surprise, “Why would you want to see how I am? I screwed up. I did what everyone expected me to do.”

“I never expected it, Lucas. Never.” Marcel sighed, “I won’t pretend I’m not disappointed, because it’s just such a waste. It’s a waste. That’s the only thing I can say right now.”

“I don’t have any big epiphanies for this, Dude. All I know is I screwed up. This is one thing Storm won’t ever be able to get past.”

“Yeah.” Marcel said with a small nod, “I think so.”

“I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do now.” Lucas said as fresh tears began to stream down his face, “It wasn’t long ago that I was planning our future. Our lives. I’d already worked out how we were going to fit kids into the picture and what their names would be. I saw us growing old together. I mean, growing old with a guy just seemed gross to me before. But now I can’t think of growing old with anyone else but him. I don’t want to be one of those people who grows old remembering what it was like to really love someone so much it hurt you inside when you didn’t have them near you. But now I’m gonna grow with some girl I love, but not as much as him. And I’ll remember what it was like to be with him. I don’t want to remember. I just want to be with him.”

Lucas felt himself become overwhelmed with tears. He sobbed with every breath, but wouldn’t let Marcel comfort him. He stepped back and sank into his armchair. His eyes were hollow and lost, filled with pain and sorrow.

“I have to figure out what I’m going to do with my life now that he’s not going to be part of it.” Lucas said with a cold realization.

“You can’t give up that easy. Not you. You never give up on him. I know you. You’re always waiting for him to come around.” Marcel said in surprise, “Just give him time. You didn’t mean to do it, did you? You were drunk, weren’t you?”

“It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter!” Lucas screamed angrily, “It doesn’t matter!”

Lucas stood up angry and walked straight into the kitchen. He returned to the lounge carrying a six pack of beer in his hand. He threw one to Marcel and was already guzzling down his first gulp before he sat down.

“Fuck it all. Fuck it all to hell.” Lucas seethed, “I don’t care. I don’t care.”

“What do you want me to do with this? Pour it down the sink or on your head?” Marcel asked with anger in his eyes.

“Do what you like, Dude.”

“I can’t believe you’re doing this.” Marcel said in disbelief, “Why are you giving up?”

“Because he deserves better!” Lucas yelled, “That’s why!”

“Do you really believe that?”

“I do now. Now if you don’t mind, I have an appointment with a six pack and I don’t want to be late.”

Marcel knew Lucas wasn’t interested in conversation anymore. He couldn’t believe Lucas’s attitude. It was so against his nature. Lucas never gave up on Storm. Yet right here before Marcel’s very own eyes, Lucas was giving up. Marcel was appropriately gobsmacked.

He turned to walk away from Lucas before he paused and turned his head. He looked at Lucas one more time, feeling sympathy for his friend, but unsure of how to help him. Perhaps that would change after a time.

“Dude ...” Lucas said, interrupting Marcel’s exit.

“Yes, Lucas?” Marcel replied with concern.

Lucas never said a word. At least not with his mouth. His face said it all though. Marcel knew by looking at him though that Lucas was grateful for his visit. Grateful and sorry at the same time. Marcel nodded mournfully at Lucas before finally he left.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Josh stared angrily out his father’s office window. The object of his angry stare was Brad. Brad was working away at cleaning one of the new cars in the yard. Josh wished Brad hadn’t come in. It would be easier to avoid him that way.

“Son, you don’t need to be here today.” Colin Barrett said as he entered the office, “Take off early so you can watch the big Regionals over at the SuperDome.”

“It’s ok, Sir.” Josh said shaking his head, “I can stay.”

“It’s a Saturday. This isn’t a request. Go on home. I can handle things here.”

“Very well, Sir.” Josh said dutifully as he stood up, “What about Brad?”

“I’ll send him home when he’s finished that row. You two can both go to the SuperDome. Support your friends.”

“We’ll see, Sir.” Josh nodded, “Is there anything I can do before I go?”

“No thank you, Son. Go on.”

“Bye, Sir. See you at home.”

Colin barely nodded at Josh before the phone started ringing. He waved at his son before he picked up the phone. He barely noticed out of the corner of his eye how Josh didn’t acknowledge Brad as he walked past. That seemed odd.

“Hello, Barrett Motors. Colin speaking. How can I help?” Colin said in a firm, yet friendly tone.

“Colin? This is Jeremiah Sisto.”

“Hello, Jeremiah. It’s been a while. What can I do for you?”

 

* * * * * * *

 

Glory. I wonder if that’s why I do this. If I’m honest with myself, is that why I compete? Why I’m standing here today in the center mat on the main floor of the Merlow SuperDome? I have to admit that part of it is. And for anyone who says otherwise is lying to themselves. But it isn’t all for the glory. It’s for the challenge. For the accomplishment. For the achievement of a dream, a goal. To push one’s self further than you have pushed before.

Tens upon tens of thousands are here today, and by the end I could very well have them screaming my name. My nerves are getting the better of me right now. I have competed in so many of these tournaments before. I have competed in front of thousands before. But never in Merlow, and never with the stakes so high. I am going to the nationals. It would be a failure of monumental proportions if I did not make it to the nationals at least once in my life. I have spent over a decade training myself for this moment. For this day. I will make it to the nationals. And all I have to do is retain my title.

Part of me wishes they had of introduced automatic qualifying last season. But I suppose it wouldn’t have made any difference except I would’ve been as nervous then as I am now. The anticipation is incredible. The excitement and buzz in the air is palpable. I close my eyes and let myself imagine victory. I envision myself holding my trophy above my head in front of a home crowd. Yes ..., I smell victory.

“And out last competitor ... hailing from the Takada Kai Dojo and the current Under 19 Open Champion, Daniel Marcus!” The announcer called out over the booming speaker system.

I step forward and take a bow. I get a bigger cheer than I expected. I can feel the butterflies rise up in my stomach. It’s like a rush when you have so many people calling your name. I have a grin on my face so large right now. I live for this shit. It’s in my blood. It’s in my bones. I realize now that there was no way in hell I was going to miss this. And in a way I am so glad that I only found out about Lucas a couple days ago. Because I couldn’t spend a whole lot of time feeling sorry for myself. I had to refocus myself onto defending my title and qualifying for the nationals. Wow ... I could go to the nationals. How cool is that?

I step back and join the line of 64 competitors vying for the top prize. Of the tournament entrants today, only four are officially representing Merlow. Dade, Wendell, Marty Lee, and myself. Some would say the odds are not in our favor for one of us to win, looking at the numbers. I’m not looking at the numbers. I’m looking at the talent. And as far as I’m concerned, we have the best team out there. And if I don’t win, I sure as hell hope one of the other three does. Today is the biggest day in Merlow’s sporting history. The biggest event we have ever held here. The first real test of the Merlow SuperDome. I want to retain for Merlow. I want to represent my hometown. I want to win.

“Good luck to all competitors. Fight hard, fight fair, and may the best man win!”

The line of competitors break from the mat to a raucous applause. I feel so pumped up right now. So charged and ready to get into it. I know it won’t be easy. Sudden death. Six matches total, if I make it all the way.

Dade, Marty Lee, and Wendell, all wander over to where I’m standing. We each have an expression of nervous anticipation. I’ve done this before many times, but it never gets any easier. Marty Lee seems excited, and in a hurry to kick some ass. Dade is nervous, which is to be expected, being his first time. Wendell is pretty cool about the whole thing. Which is no surprise since he’s an old veteran at this sort of thing.

“Takada Kai! Hands in!” I yell as the four of us huddle up.

We are competing as single entrants, but we are also competing for one another and for our dojo, as well as our hometown. It’s about more than just any one of us. We put an arm around the shoulder of the person to our left and put our right hands in the middle. My hand on the bottom and Marty Lee’s on the top.

“No matter what, we fight with honor. We fight clean. We lose with dignity, we win with grace. Let’s show them what Merlow is made of. Let’s do this. Three cheers!”

The four of us break up and everyone hugs each other, while wishing good luck. I gave Wendell a hug and then when it came time to hug Marty Lee, I stopped myself and smirked at him.

“Me hug you?” I said with a wink, “I don’t think so.”

“Shut up, Boss.” Marty Lee said as he hugged me and patted my back, “It’s tradition for the dojo, and I’m part of it. So wish me luck.”

“Good luck, Marty.” I said sincerely as I patted his back.

Marty Lee smiled with an appreciative nod. I think he knew that perhaps for the first time, we were venturing into a sincere friendship. Perhaps it would be Marty from now on. Perhaps.

“See you in the finals, Storm. And you don’t need luck.” Marty Lee said slapping me on the shoulder.

I noticed Marty Lee and Dade didn’t exactly share a hug. I’m not entirely surprised, but I was glad they at least shook hands and nudged shoulders. It’s tradition after all.

Finally it was time for Dade and I to hug. I looked at him proudly and wrapped him in a huge hug. I kissed his cheek as I squeezed him and he returned the gesture. I don’t care what’s happened in the past, I love Dade more than anything.

“I am so proud of you, Dade.”

“You are?” Dade asked as he leaned his head on my shoulder, “Really?”

“I am. And I’m not just talking about today. But I know you’re going to kick ass out there. And no matter what happens, I’m proud of you.” I said as I let him go and patted his shoulder.

“Even when I kick your ass?” Dade grinned, “I’m feeling pretty tight today. Even though you wore me out last night, Big boy.”

“You’re a sick little shit, ya know that?” I grinned back at him, “And my ass isn’t toast yet. I’m going for broke today.”

“I know that. You know I want you to win. I’ll be happy if I make it to the third round. Build up my ranking a little bit. I’m just glad I qualified to enter.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, Dade. You can do a lot better than you think. And that’s what scares me.” I said with a smirk, “But there are sixty other people out there who want the same thing as Takada Kai. I just hope one of us end up winning today.”

“How you holding up, Bro?” Dade asked sympathetically, “You doing ok?”

“You mean like with Lucas?”

“Yeah. Him. Everything.”

“Ok. Better than I thought.” I shrugged, “Maybe it hasn’t really hit yet. I don’t know. I’m glad I have today to distract me. How about you? Still thinking about Marcel?”

“Always, I guess. But it’s a dead horse, why beat it? I think it’s time for me to jump back over the fence and dance with the ladies again. How about you?”

“Maybe. Haven’t really thought about anyone really. Bit early for that, I think. I think I like the thought of you being with guys better than girls though. At least you can’t get a guy pregnant. You can jump back to the ladies when you’re 25, rich, and ready.” I said with a grin.

“Well, I’m pretty sure I know all the dabblers in Merlow, and none of them take my interest.”

“Not even Josh?”

“I dunno. I can’t see it. He’s hot, but I don’t know. He’s a great guy. I guess I’m just leaning back towards the ladies, you know?”

“I always had a feeling you would. Being such a manly man and all.” I smirked, “But then I think you’re just a sex fiend that you’ll go after anyone who’s offering.”

“I think more people have a bit of bi in them than they let on. I think it just varies. As for me, you’re right, I just follow my dick. But anyway, how did this conversation end up about sex?”

“With you, everything’s sex.” I said with a smile as I turned to walk away, “But as for today, I hope you kill ‘em out there. I love you.”

“Love you too, Bro.” Dade said sincerely, “Love you too.”

 

* * * * * * *

 

Josh did up the last buttons on his shirt and stood in front of the mirror. He looked himself over to make sure he was dressed ok. He planned to take his father’s advice and watch the Regionals. He headed out of his bedroom and into the lounge, where he was greeted by an unexpected sight. His father, who was supposed to be at work, was sitting down next to his mother and his younger sister.

“Sir, was there a problem at work?” Josh asked in surprise.

“Joshua, sit down.” Colin said as he motioned for Josh to have a seat.

Josh knew something was up. He could tell by his father’s tone. The way his mother was quiet and upset. Even Carly was unusually quiet. Something was definitely up. And Josh had the distinct impression it wasn’t good.

“Sir, is something wrong?” Josh asked nervously.

“Son, I received some ... no. I’m simply going to ask you straight. And I want you to remember that we are your parents and we will know if you are lying. We want the truth.”

“Sir?” Josh asked with an increasing amount of anxiety, “What’s wrong?”

Josh very rarely saw his father distressed or upset. It wasn’t in his father’s nature. But right now his father was slightly shaken, and definitely disturbed. His mother by comparison looked visibly petrified. That scared Josh. It scared him so much to know that his parents could be this upset and that he was the reason for it. He scanned his mind for a reason. A reason why his family could be gathered like this. A reason why his father would have rushed home from work in the middle of the day to speak to him. A reason why his father would worry that Josh would lie to him.

“Now ... we know you are a good man and a good son. We raised you well. And still ...” Colin said shaking his head in bewilderment, “Your mother and I did wonder, but when you began seeing Claire, we thought ...”

Josh felt a pang in the pit of his stomach. A pang that soon became a knot. A knot that quickly became an all encompassing source of sheer terror. Josh knew what his father was asking him. He knew somehow his secret was out.

“Joshua ...” Colin said almost forcing himself to say the words, “Are you ...”

“Yes, Father.” Josh said before he even realized what he had said, “I am.”

In that instant, Josh felt relief like he had never felt before in his life. The terror was still all encompassing, but the relief was something Josh could have never expected.

“I need you to say it.” Colin insisted, “We need you to say it. We need to hear it from you.”

“I’m ...” Josh began to say before his eyes started to water, “I’m ... gay. It’s true. I’m gay.”

And there it was again. Relief. Relief mixed with sheer agony and fear. One of the strangest combinations of feelings that Josh had felt in his life. Carly looked at him confused. As if she couldn’t and wouldn’t believe it. That look hurt Josh. He felt as though he’d let her down. When all he’d ever wanted was to protect her.

His mother Petra sat with her hand covering her mouth as she sobbed. She too seemed to be in disbelief. As though somehow she’d done something wrong. The more Josh saw from his younger sister and his mother, the more the relief was replaced with guilt. Finally he looked at his father. His father was the most in control. Although Josh knew his father was upset, he remained stoic on the outside. Colin comforted his wife, but his eyes remained fixed on his son.

Josh felt himself begin to waver. He felt his resolve begin to break. Tears laced their way down his cheeks. He tried as hard as he could to stop them so he wouldn’t look weak in front of his father, but they would not stop.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Father.”

“And this is who you are? You have no doubts?” Colin asked with piqued interest.

“It is, Sir. It is what I am, not who I am. I am still your son.” Josh said as stoically as he could, yet tears still fell, “I’m still Josh.”

“This is not ...” Colin said as he stood up, “We’ll need time. Give us time.”

“Yes, Father.”

Colin turned away from Josh and stared out the lounge window. He seemed to have already composed himself. Josh couldn’t help admiring his father. He should’ve expected this. He should’ve known his father would react on the favorable side of neutral. That was as much as Josh could hope for right now.

“I need to get back to work.” Colin said as he patted Josh’s shoulder, “We will try, but I will not lie to you. We are not happy. I am not happy. I had my suspicions. I guess deep down I already knew. I just hoped I was wrong. We still love you, Son. But ... this is not the life we wanted for you. How will you know marriage? How will you know the joy of bringing life into this world with a woman you love? Have you truly thought about all these things? I cannot ... no, not now. We need time. I need time, Joshua.”

Colin was trying to speak in as normal a voice as possible, but Josh knew his father was struggling. This was why he didn’t want his parents to know. He knew deep down that they would still love him, yet they would hurt for him as well. They would feel as though somehow they’d failed. It broke Josh’s heart to know he could ever have caused his parents pain.

“Yes, Sir.” Josh responded as his father squeezed his shoulder again.

Uncharacteristically, Josh shot his hand up over his father and held it there. This wasn’t how Barrett men interacted with each other. But Josh couldn’t fight the urge to show his father how much he loved him. Josh patted his father’s hand and looked up at him.

“Thank you, Father.”

And with that, Colin patted his wife’s shoulder and left the house. Josh was half glad the first part of this trial was over. Yet still he hadn’t heard a word from his mother or his sister. They still sat there staring at him.

“Mother?” Josh said nervously.

In a flash, Petra slapped Josh across the face so hard, his head snapped left. Josh was stunned more than anything else. He burst into tears with a sharp sob. His mother had never hit him in his life. Josh held his raw cheek as he looked at his mother. Carly sat with her mouth hanging open.

Josh could see his mother was shaking now. She stared at her hand in terror before she stood up and ran to her room screaming. As soon as she had left the room, Josh broke down into tears. He held his face in his hands and sobbed like he had never sobbed in his life. He felt angry at himself. He felt relief. He felt shame. He felt despair at seeing his mother so upset. He felt so many emotions that it just wore him down. Soon however he felt an arm across his shoulder and a head leaning on it.

“It’s ok, Joshy. She still loves you.” Carly said as she rubbed his back, “She just needs some time. She’ll come around.”

“She hates me. She hit me. She never did that before.” Josh sniffled as he looked at his sister, “I don’t want her to cry.”

“I know, Joshy. That’s why she loves you. That’s why we all love you.”

“You don’t hate me?”

“I don’t hate you. It’s just weird thinking about my big brother kissing other guys ... ewww.” Carly said as she shook her head, “And people at church ... that’s going to be weird.”

“Maybe I’ll have to stay home from now on.”

“Why? Who cares if a church loves you? We only care if god loves you.”

“Do you think he does?” Josh asked as if his little sister had all the answers.

“Umm ... I’ll have to ask him. But I’m sure he’d say yes.” Carly said before she turned her nose up at Josh, “Wait a minute, ask him yourself. Just because you’re gay, doesn’t mean you can’t pray. You can do that.”

Josh contemplated his sister’s reaction. He contemplated his entire family’s reaction. In a way it wasn’t as bad as he expected, yet in some ways it was his worst nightmare being realized. He wondered whether his life would ever be the same after this. He wondered whether his father would ever look at him the same way. Whether his mother would come to accept him.

He still couldn’t believe how suddenly this had all come to pass. His father had only found out in the space of time it took Josh to get home from work. How?

Josh turned to his younger sister with a confused expression on his face. He remembered his father saying he’d heard some news, but not from whom. Perhaps Carly would know.

“Carly, how did you find out about me?”

“Dad said Brad’s father told him. He said you kissed Brad last night outside the megaplex. That is so gross. And it’s not fair too. I thought Brad was going to marry me one day.”

“He’s too old for you.”

“Maybe now, but soon I’ll be old enough and it won’t matter!” Carly said with a wide smile.

“Wait a minute ... Jeremiah Sisto told Dad?” Josh asked in horror, “Does he think Brad and I are ...”

“Yeah.”

“Oh no ... Brad ...”

 

* * * * * * *

 

“Nice win, Boss.” Wendell said as he patted me on the back, “It’s good to see you back out there again.”

“Thanks, Wendell. How are we doing out there?” I asked as I lay down on the physio table.

Wendell lay down on the table opposite me before we both started getting worked over. I was holding up pretty well, but there was still a lot of competition left yet. This was the first chance I had to see how the rest of Takada Kai’s competitors were going. I was hoping to see Dade’s last fight, but it just didn’t work out.

“Dade had a tight one out there in the last round, but he pulled off the last point with a step in sweep.”

“I taught him that.” I said with a proud smile, “How about you?”

“I’m still in. But I’ve got Sven from White Swan coming up. I’ll need a miracle to take him down. You know, after all these years, he still has your number.”

“And yet he never calls.” I said with a smirk, “How about Marty Lee?”

“Oh him ...”

“What?” I asked curiously, “Is he out?”

“Hell no, Boss. He’s won all his matches so far without dropping a point.”

“Do you hear that?” I asked as I nodded a thank you to our team physio.

“Hear what, Storm?”

“It’s the sound of me losing my title to a certain Mr. Miller.”

I smiled at Wendell as I slipped my Gi back on and jumped off the table. I knew the only way Marty Lee and I would meet is if we both made it to the finals. I have the sinking suspicion that he is going to get there. The only question is, will I?

 

* * * * * * *

 

Brad walked home, shuffling his feet as he thought about his encounter with Josh the night before. Josh had barely said a word to him today. Brad had a terrible sense of foreboding. He had the terrible feeling that perhaps he’d gone too far this time. Perhaps he’d pushed Josh more than Josh wanted to be pushed.

“I just thought I was helping.” Brad said to himself.

Brad wondered if he’d cost himself his friendship with Josh. All he wanted to do was help. But in the process he found his own feelings becoming confused. Perhaps causing him to do things he normally wouldn’t. On one hand, he’d never entertained the idea of being with another guy sexually or romantically. At least not before Josh. Even then he wondered if because his hormones were in overdrive, that perhaps they were driving his lust. Perhaps making it easier for him to be intimate with Josh. Brad still found himself thinking about girls all the time. Yet he wasn’t repulsed by two guys being together either. Did that make him like Josh? He didn’t think so. Yet he was still confused.

On the other hand however, Josh wasn’t just his friend, he was also a fantastic guy. Someone Brad had come to admire, respect, and if he was being honest with himself, someone he loved. What if the only way he could really help Josh come out of his shell, was to give him everything he needed? What if the only way to help Josh was to actually be with him? Maybe that would give Josh the reason he needed to accept himself. But could he do that? Would it be that difficult? Would it be real enough to make them both happy, if even just for a while?

“Oh man, you are so gonna die. Pop’s gonna kill you.” Said an all too familiar voice.

Brad raised his head and saw his brother Billy sitting on the pavement outside their house. Billy seemed to gloat at Brad, yet he also seemed anxious. Brad thought Billy reminded him too much of himself at that age. And Brad didn’t think that was a good thing.

“What?” Brad asked confused.

“I saw you tw...” Billy began to say before he saw his father at the door.

“Get inside.” Jeremiah said with a gruff scowl.

Brad had seen that expression on his father’s face many times before. And none of those times were particularly pleasant. He could see the way his father’s eyes seemed to seethe at him. There was anger undeniable. It was almost enough to make Brad turn and run right now. But Brad had no reason to think of why his father would be angry at him.

Brad walked inside, but wasn’t particularly worried about his father. He figured it was just something to do with Billy. Yet as he arrived in the lounge, his heart began to race for all the wrong reasons. Clasped firmly in his father’s hands was a well worn leather belt.

It had been a long time since Brad had received the belt from his father. Brad had almost come to believe he was too old to get it now. Yet he had the sinking suspicion that he was about to get the belt. And get it with a vengeance.

Jeremiah made the slightest nod for Brad to come to him. Brad hesitated but did as his father ordered. Brad could see the rage in his father’s eyes. His father clenched his fist and smacked it with the leather belt, making Brad shiver with fear.

“You’ve got five seconds to tell me you didn’t kiss that boy like your brother said.” Jeremiah said as he held the belt to his side.

Brad hesitated, because he knew either way he was about to take a beating from his father. If he lied, his father would know it. If he told the truth, his father would probably kill him. In the end, he was so stunned that he didn’t say anything.

Jeremiah’s free hand shot up and smacked Brad across the face so hard that Brad stumbled. Before he had a chance to regain his footing, the leather belt cracked across the other side of Brad’s face. Brad let out a scream of agony as he felt the belt tear at his cheek.

“Tell me the truth, Boy!” Jeremiah yelled as he held Brad by the back of his collar.

Brad moaned, struggling to catch his breath. Right now he was more shocked than in real pain, but he knew that would change if he didn’t try and calm his father down. He could feel trickles of blood run down his face as he looked up at his father.

“Please ... you don’t unders...” Brad began to say.

Brad was cut off by the crack of the belt against his cheek again. Brad tried not to cry, but he felt the sting on his face throughout his whole body. Tears fell freely as his father grabbed his chin and forced Brad to look him in the eye. Jeremiah spoke to Brad with an almost cool detachment.

“Well, boy?”

Brad knew there was no escaping the truth now or a beating. He just hoped it would be over soon. He didn’t have the heart left in him now to try and save himself. He simply nodded dejectedly.

“Yes, Father. I did.” Brad sighed in defeat.

Brad knew there were few things worse in this world to his father than being a homosexual. His father considered it an abomination against god of the worst kind. The only thing worse in his father’s mind was being a Muslim. Brad waited for the next blow to come. He did not have to wait long. Jeremiah’s closed fist came down on Brad’s jaw. It was the first of many. Jeremiah let loose on Brad with a flurry of hard slaps and solid punches. Brad felt blood rise up in his throat, but he could barely notice it before he felt his head being slammed into the wall. Finally, Jeremiah threw Brad to the floor. Instinctively Brad turned on his stomach to shield his face. His father came down on him with a swift rage, cracking the belt down on Brad’s hands and arms.

Brad felt his father grab his shirt collar and with one mighty pull, he ripped it off. The shirt tightened at his neck, choking him before his father pulled it clean away. Brad felt the belt rain down on his exposed back. He screamed out as the belt ripped at his skin. The belt was only interrupted by his father kicking him wherever he could. Finally, Brad let out a blood curdling scream. It was one of the last screams he had left in him.

“Stop it, Pop!” Billy yelled, “Please!”

Brad knew if he didn’t do something soon, his father might very well kill him. He felt himself begin to convulse as he struggled to drag himself along the floor. He could see Billy crying as he pleaded for Jeremiah to leave Brad alone.

“I didn’t raise no faggot! Your Momma would turn in her grave if she knew her son was a dirty little deviant! I’ll beat it out of you!” Jeremiah said before he kicked Brad hard in the chest, “There’s no faggot in my blood, Boy!”

Jeremiah’s rage was relentless. Even as a winded Brad could barely move, he rained down on Brad with a flurry of belt lashes. Brad’s back was streaked in his own blood. Billy stood helplessly sobbing as he looked first at his brother and then at his father.

“Please ...” Brad gasped.

“No more, Pop! You’re killing him!” Billy yelled.

It was then that Billy felt he had no choice but to act. He’d never defied his father before, but he knew if he didn’t do something, Brad would get seriously hurt or worse. So Billy put himself between Brad and his father.

As hurt as Brad was, he knew exactly what his brother was doing. This one act made him realize that deep down his brother did love him. It gave Brad the flash of inspiration he needed to pull himself to his feet.

“Brad, run!” Billy screamed as he struggled to hold his father back.

Brad could barely focus, and he stumbled as he stepped toward the door. He knew this was probably the only chance he’d have to get away. He ran for the door as fast as his shaky legs would carry him.

He wasn’t fast enough. As brave as Billy was, he was no match for Jeremiah. Jeremiah tossed him aside with one hard slap. He then ran and caught Brad just as he made it to the front door.

Jeremiah grabbed Brad by the back of the head and slammed it through the front door glass. He threw Brad back into the opposite wall, before he hooked him in the head with a king hit. Brad’s head snapped back with a sickening crack. He fell to the ground instantly.

Still Jeremiah didn’t stop. He stomped Brad’s back and legs. He kicked him over and over, such was the rage still burning inside him. It was only when he realized Brad was no longer struggling, that he relented. When Jeremiah finally stopped his assault, Brad’s body was motionless.

Billy crawled to his brother’s side as Jeremiah calmly stepped over Brad’s limp body. Jeremiah calmly wiped the blood from his hands as he sat down at the kitchen table. His eyes still seemed to seethe with anger as he pulled a packet of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. He casually lit himself a smoke and let out a sigh. He looked at Billy crying over Brad’s motionless body. It seemed to only irritate him more.

“Tidy up this mess, Boy.” Jeremiah said with a calm detachment, “And make me some lunch. I’m hungry after all that.”

 

* * * * * * *

 

Marty Lee stepped off the mat with a determined spring. He felt confident. He could smell victory. He had yet to be challenged to a point where he thought he might lose. Yet he knew that the further along the tournament he went, the tougher the competition would be.

“Hey, Mary.” Dade said with a cheeky smirk as he nudged Marty Lee, “Nice wins.”

“Dade.” Marty Lee said with a smirk of his own, “I see you’re doing quite well out there. Surprise, surprise ... not.”

“Wendell just got knocked out by Sven from White Swan. So it’s just us three left now. I’m surprised I’m still in there.”

“I’m not.” Marty Lee said with a serious tone, “The only reason you’re not better, is because you hold yourself back. You’ve been taught by Sensei, Storm, and me. You teach juniors because you have the skill necessary to teach. That in itself says enough. But you’re afraid to beat him. You’re afraid to fight as good as you know you can. You don’t want to beat him, because you don’t want to hurt him. But tell me something, are you doing yourself or him any favors by holding back?”

Dade seemed to consider Marty Lee’s comment seriously. His eyes narrowed with worry and his brow furrowed. He turned his eyes toward the center mat where Storm was currently mid match. He could see his brother dismantling his competitor with the finesse expected from someone of Storm’s caliber. And yet Dade knew his brother like no one else in the world knew him. He knew his strengths, and his weaknesses.

“But of course none of this matters because to get to Storm, you’ll need to make it to the finals. That’s the way the draw is. It could be an interesting match to see. But to make it to the finals, you need to win your semi finals. And if you make it to the semi finals, you’re up against me. And you willnot beat me.”

Dade raised his eyebrows with a slight amusement in his face. He smiled at Marty Lee and nodded. Dade appreciated Marty Lee’s frankness. Marty Lee was right on all counts. And Dade always knew that the day would come when he would one day face Storm. It was one of the reasons he took a break from the dojo and concentrated on other sports. But ever since he and Sarah rejoined, the thought sat in his mind. What would happen if one day he beat his brother?

“Well, first I’ll need to make it to the semis and then I’ll need to beat you. So I don’t think it’s much of a possibility for me to face Storm.” Dade said with a weak laugh.

“Fuck.” Marty Lee said suddenly.

“What?”

“You’re gunning for a win today, aren’t you?” Marty Lee said concerned, “Of all days, you choose today to give it everything you’ve got?”

Dade didn’t answer Marty Lee. His silence was enough of an answer. Marty Lee nodded his head in understanding and adjusted his gi. His steely eyes gave Dade no mistake of their intention.

“Then I’ll see you in the semis. But you better bring your A game, because anything less will send you off the mat and straight to hospital.” Marty Lee said with the hint of anger in his voice, “And just for the record ... there is a difference between me beating Storm and you beating Storm. For me, it’s not personal. It’s just business. You should at least give Storm the benefit of telling him how much you want to beat him. How personal it is for you.”

And with that cutting comment spoken, Marty Lee left Dade on his own. Dade, however, was not going to let Marty Lee’s comment slide without getting his own two cents in. He grabbed Marty Lee by the collar and spun him around so their eyes were locked.

“Listen up, Freak. You forget how well I know you. You talk to me about being honest? How honest are you? If Storm only knew the shit you’ve done. And I’m only talking about the things I do know about. What else have you got hidden in that fucked up head of yours? Who else have you hurt? What else have you done? You’re not honest. I look at you and see a coward. You hide so much. I can see it in your eyes.” Dade said with contempt, “Storm’s a fool to trust you. I’d call Lucas a fool to trust you, but we all know he’s already a fool.”

“Look who’s talking.”

“I hope to hell I make it to the semis, because I’m going to enjoy kicking the hell out of your ass finally.” Dade said as he walked off.

Marty Lee stood with his pride wounded and a scowl on his face. Yet as Dade walked away from him, he felt a lump in his throat. Marty Lee knew Dade was right. How could he get anyone to trust him if he wasn’t completely honest with them?

“Damn you, Dade.” Marty Lee growled under his breath, “Damn you.”

 

* * * * * * *

 

“You don’t have to be here.” Claire said as she squeezed Carl’s hand, “You shouldn’t have to be.”

“I’m still your guy, aren’t I?” Carl asked with a warm smile, “I have to be here.”

“Thank you.” Claire said as she leaned forward and gave Carl a quick kiss, “Wish me luck.”

“You won’t need it. It’ll be fine.”

Carl reassured Claire with another brief kiss. He smiled at her before she left his side and entered the Takada Kai training Area. As soon as she left his sight, the smile fell from his face. He let out an uncharacteristic sigh of anxiety.

“Carl.” Marcel said, surprising Carl.

“Hey.” Carl said with a friendly nod, “I knew you’d be around here somewhere. You seen Storm yet?”

“No.”

“Dade?”

“Not yet.” Marcel said with barely a nod of acknowledgment, “I’ll wait my turn.”

Carl had been around Marcel enough to know what he was like. As stoic and unreceptive as Marcel could seem to people who didn’t know him, Carl knew otherwise. That’s just how Marcel was.

“Still full of conversation then.” Carl said with a grin.

“Only when it comes to you.” Marcel said with a wry smile, “How is she?”

“She’s ok. Thanks for talking to her yesterday. Guess you’re the closest thing to Sarah for her right now.”

“Are you ok with all this?”

“Me?” Carl said in surprise, “I’m fine. What do I have to complain about? She’s the one who has to go through all of this. Not me, not Dade. All he did was ...”

 

* * * * * * *

 

“Fuck me.” Dade said as he stumbled backwards.

“No, Dade. I think it was me you ... did that to.” Claire said as tears still streamed down her face, “I’m so sorry.”

“Holy shit.” Dade said in disbelief, his eyes filling with tears, “This can’t be happening. I’m too young. You’re class president. One night ... that’s all it took? Are you sure?”

“Dade, I’m pregnant. There’s no maybe about it.” Claire said becoming somewhat agitated, “Do you think this is easy for me?”

“Are you sure it’s mine?” Dade asked as he fell back into a seat behind him, “I’m going to be a ... a father?”

“For the last time, Dade. I’ve only ever been with one guy. And that’s you. I haven’t even slept with Carl. I slipped up once ... I can’t believe this is happening either. My parents don’t know. Only Jacob and Carl. Marcel. That’s it.”

“Wait a minute. Marcel?” Dade asked in surprise, “How the hell does he know? And why am I the last to find out?”

“I was afraid to tell you. Jacob’s my twin. He was the first person I told. He was with me when I found out. Carl’s my boyfriend. And Marcel ... well, he was just there when I needed someone. He’s here in Merlow, you know.”

“No, I don’t. But then that’s no surprise. I’ll bet Storm knows he’s back though. That’s usually how it works.” Dade snarled.

“No. Storm doesn’t know. And is that really important right now?”

“I can’t believe this is happening. What are we going to do?” Dade asked dumbstruck, “I’m not ready for this. Are you?”

“I don’t have an option.” Claire said as she wiped her eyes, “But you do, Dade. You know me. I can’t have an abortion. I made a mistake and I will live with it. Your Mom did it, and look what she still did with her life. I am going to have this baby. But you don’t have to have this baby. You can walk away today. We won’t speak of this again. I won’t tell anyone this baby is yours. I can do this on my own. And I will if I have to.”

Dade held his head in his hands and broke down in tears. He let out a sob so audible that Claire worried he would be heard outside the room. He couldn’t believe how much the words ‘I’m pregnant’ could change his life. He felt a wave of emotions so strong, confusing, overwhelming. He could barely think straight.

Dade thought of his mother and what she would think of what he’d done. How he’d let her down so much since her death. He thought of how Storm would react. Storm had always told him to be careful because their mother didn’t want them to make the same mistakes she did when she was their age. And now he’d gone and done that very thing less than a year after her death.

Dade thought of how this would affect his future. What people in Merlow would think of him. He thought of how much his life would change now that he had a baby to think about. Would he have to quit school and get a job? Would Claire have to quit school? Would both their dreams be shattered? Would their baby know a family or would it be raised in a broken home? Would he stand by Claire or take this opportunity to run?

 

* * * * * * *

 

“Break!” Calls the referee.

I turn to see three of the corner flags are raised. Shit, that’s just great. That’s a majority rule to give Sven the point. 2-1 to me now.

I’ve fought him before. I’ve beaten him before. But he only seems to get better every time I fight him. I knew next to Marty Lee he’d be my biggest threat. Yet all I have to do is beat him and I’m in the finals. I’m that much closer to retaining my title and going to the nationals. I wish he’d make it easy on me though, he’s making me work like a dog for every point.

We touch knuckles and move back into position. Sven comes at me hard and aggressive, knowing that I only need one point to win this match. He throws a three punch juggle at my head, which I quickly step out of and counter with a sweep. He hits the mat hard on his back and I go for a succession of heel kicks to his sternum. None of my kicks connect as he rolls away and onto his knees.

He barely gets to his feet before I’m back at him with a series of mid kicks. I thought I would’ve had the advantage with him still being on his knees. My overconfidence proved to be my undoing. I forget that Sven and I have fought before and he knows my strategies. I’ve beaten him with this attack before and he isn’t going to let it happen again. He grabs my foot mid kick and follows with a forearm thrust into my midsection. He hit me so hard and fast, that the pain didn’t register at first. All I remember is hearing ‘break’, before I stepped back instinctively.

I couldn’t help doubling over as I felt that familiar shooting pain in my stomach hit me like a freight train. I knew he’d hit me harder than anyone else had today. And he’d hit me in one of the two places I’d tried hardest to protect today. My head and my stomach. I felt blood rise up in my throat, but forced it back down. I didn’t want to risk the match being ended because I’d been hurt. I gritted my teeth and assumed a ready stance. It took all my strength not to show how much pain I was in. I knew I had to end this match fast to give myself a chance to recover for the finals.

Sven came at me hard again, probably sensing that he’d scored a great hit on me in the last round. As soon as he was within range, I hit a butterfly kick to his left. He blocked it, which is what I was counting on. He grabbed one of my legs with both of his hands, and I immediately used the other leg to hit the back of his knees. The momentum was enough to take him to the ground. I spun out of his grip and continued the roll to spin my torso over him horizontally. It was one of my signature moves, I call it a rising tempest. The last part of the move requires my elbow hitting him square in the sternum while in mid air, and landing on the other side of him.

“Winner!” Yelled the referee, “Daniel Marcus, representing Takada Kai Dojo!”

I guess that means my elbow hit. I win. I’m going to the finals! I’m relieved more than anything else. Relieved that match is over. I know he’s hurt me though. It could cost me in the next match.

“Storm, you still fight like a bitch.” Sven said as he helped me to my feet, “But you still be the best bitch I ever fight.”

“Thanks ... I think.” I said with a confused smile.

We stood at our ends of the mat and ended with the normal formalities. Bowing to each other, the referee, and the judges. Normally, I would have rushed to shake Sven’s hand, but the best I could do was hobble. Besides the pain in my stomach, I realize that Sven must have jerked my foot during my butterfly deception.

I’m not angry at him though. He doesn’t fight dirty. He just fights hard. I’ve always enjoyed our encounters. And it’s tradition between us to exchange gi’s at the end of our fights. Because it’s usually in the finals. But I don’t think we’ll be doing that today. I still have one more match left.

“You will win now. Because Sven only get beat by the best.” Sven said as he shook my hand hard, “Don’t make me look like bigger fool and lose. You win. Understand? I cheer for you. Sven cheer for you.”

“Well ... you be sure and thank Sven for me.” I said with an impish smile.

“Here. It’s tradition.” Sven said as he took off his gi and gave it to me, “You keep yours for final. But you take mine for trophy.”

I nodded gratefully and walked, or more like hobbled off the mat. As the day wore on, there were less matches on the main floor. That meant the crowds cheers were becoming more focused. Call me bias, but I think my cheers were louder than Sven’s. I wonder what they’ll be like for the finals. More than that, I wonder who I’ll be fighting in the finals. Besides me, of course.

“You did it, Boss! You’re in the finals!” Wendell yelled as he patted me on the back, “I knew you could beat him. It’s going to be a Takada Kai final!”

“What?” I asked in surprise, “What do you mean? Dade made it to the semis?”

“He sure did. He’s fighting Marty Lee next. They both won their quarter final matches. Who do you think will win?”

Suddenly, the prospect of fighting Dade was becoming more and more of a possibility. I knew he was good, but ... I guess even I didn’t think he’d get this far. He’s not like Marty Lee or me. He doesn’t breathe it like we do. He is a natural athlete though. Still, I can’t believe I could be facing him in the finals. What if he beat me?

“Boss?” Wendell asked.

“Sorry, I was just thinking. I need to do something, Wendell. I’ll talk to you later, ok?”

I walked off toward the training rooms when I saw a surprising face. The last person I expected to see here today. Walking out of our training rooms and right up to me.

“Blondie?” I said, “What are you doing here?”

He looked up with a surprised expression of his own. He smiled at me and I returned the gesture. If there was ever a day when I was glad to see him, today is one of the greatest. It had only been a few days since we’d seen each other, but so much had happened since then that it seemed like longer.

“Hey, Buddy.” Marcel said as he wrapped his arms around me, “I was trying to lay low until after the finals.”

I gave him a huge hug and let out a relieved sigh. I’m so happy to see him. I feel like now I can actually fall apart and know someone will be there to pick me up. I’m sure he probably knows about Lucas by now. But I know this isn’t the time or place for me to start letting Lucas’s indiscretions hit me. I have a match to win.

“How are you?” Marcel asked as he put his hand under my chin, “You holding up ok?”

“Ehh ... I’m still handsome, so I can’t complain.” I said with a weak smile, “I’m fine. Really. I’m just glad to see you.”

“I couldn’t miss your big day. And ... Dade and I needed to say some things to each other. In person. You know?”

“Yeah. How’d it go?”

“Could’ve gone better. I’m sorry I hurt him, Storm. I didn’t mean to. But ... I get the feeling I was a one time thing for him. Just a phase, so to speak.” Marcel said with a weak smile of his own, “I think it’s for the best. And maybe we’ll be friends again sometime. I hope so.”

“Maybe I should talk to him.” I said with a sigh, “How long are you here for?”

“Till tonight. I was hoping you and I could do something after the tournament.”

“It’s a date.” I shrugged, “I better go see how my brother’s doing.”

“Ok ...” Marcel said with an averting eye, “I’ll be around if you need me.”

“I know.” I said as I squeezed his arm, “I know.”

I smiled at him and headed toward the training rooms. I was glad Marcel was here in Merlow. It made me feel a little more centered. That’s just how it is with me and him. We’ve known each other that long.

I took a deep breath as I entered our training rooms and found Dade pacing back and forth. The look on his face was a mixture of anger and confusion. Maybe I’m a little lost here, but is that just because of Marcel? My gut says otherwise.

At first he seemed happy to see me. His eyes lit up, but quickly regained that lost and confused look. Then the anger came again and it almost seemed directed at me, which was the last thing I expected. But then, I guess I’ve never been as trusting of Dade as I used to be. Because he’s turned on me in the past. I just hope I’m wrong.

“Dade, are you ok?” I asked sincerely, “Is it Marcel? Something else?”

“Why don’t you ask him your fucking self?” Dade snapped at me.

“What?”

“Hasn’t he told you everything already? Isn’t that what you two do?”

“No.” I said defensively.

“I don’t care. We never had a chance to begin with. Not when he always runs off to you whenever something goes wrong.”

“We’re friends. That’s what friends do.”

“Bullshit. Why don’t you two just fuck already?” Dade cried, his eyes still filled with tears, “It has always been about you. Especially with him.”

“What the hell are you on about? Is there something I’m missing here?” I said raising my voice, becoming increasingly frustrated with Dade’s attitude.

“I fucked up. I fucked up so bad, Storm.” Dade sobbed, “Mom would be so angry with me. She’d be so disappointed.”

Ok, this isn’t Marcel. It can’t be. Why would Mom be angry? Why would she be disappointed?

“What, Dade? What happened?”

“Fuck you! You don’t get to tell me shit anymore. You don’t care! It shouldn’t have been this way.” Dade said as if he were talking more to himself, than me, “It shouldn’t have. Oh god, what have I done?”

“Tell me what happened?” I insisted.

“So you can tell me what a fuck up I am?” Dade said with a hard stare, “Give you one more reason to look down on me like you’re the fucking mantis? Like I need anymore of a reason to feel fucking inferior to you? Marcel? Mom? Now this? Fuck you! I am so sick ...”

Tears began streaming down my face. Yet they were silent. I didn’t cry out loud, I didn’t sob, I didn’t say a word. My tears were silent. They were still. They were tears of remorse and sorrow. Sadness for the fate Dade was bringing down on both of us. Did Dade realize what he was doing right now?

“I am so ... sick ... of being you. A wannabe you. Second ... to you. Everything always about you. Mom’s golden boy. Daddy’s favorite son. Merlow High’s favorite. Leader of the ‘Pack’. Marcel loves you. He’s just too stubborn and you’re too stupid to see it. Maybe the best thing you can do is leave that fuck up of a human being you call a boyfriend, and get with the best guy out there.” Dade said bitterly, “But before you do that ... I am going to make sure that people never call me Storm’s little brother ... again. From now on, you’ll be Dade’s older brother. Starting from today, I’m number one.”

My sadness was quickly replaced by anger. Anger and frustration. I told Dade. I warned him. I wouldn’t let him do this to me again. I wouldn’t let him turn on me and get away with it. His disregard for us, for my feelings, is inexcusable. I can barely contain the anger I feel right now. I don’t care what’s happened to him, he’s gone too far. That old Storm anger was taking over me. Before I even realized what I was doing, I slapped him so hard his face was red.

“Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?” I said as I grabbed him by the collar, “I let you get away with this shit before. But I told you, never again. You push me and I will push you back. You cross this line again ... and that’s it. Do ... you ... understand?”

And then he did it. He answered me. He answered me with a flying fist. I caught his fist in my hand and squeezed it, while my eyes bored into his.

“I take that as a yes.” I said with bitter tears in my eyes.

I wanted to smash him right there. Beat some sense into him. And I almost did. My fists were ready, but before they had a chance to fly, Wendell got between us.

“Boss, what the hell are you doing?” Wendell yelled as he pulled me away.

“You’ve got issues, Dade. But you chose the wrong fucking day to turn on me. Fuck you, you selfish shit!” I cried angrily, “Just remember, you started this. And today we’re gonna finish it. I dare you to beat Marty Lee. I dare you!”

 

* * * * * * *

 

Claire sat in the stall of one of the many women’s bathrooms inside Merlow SuperDome. This in itself was not an unusual thing. What was unusual was the fact that Carl was kneeling beside her with his arm around her shoulder, comforting her. The fact that he was in the middle of a women’s bathroom seemed to be the last thing on his mind. His complete attention was locked on Claire. She hadn’t said a word to him since she’d spoken to Dade, all she’d done was cry.

“Princess, please talk to me. What did he say to you? Did he hurt you?” Carl asked in a gentle voice.

“No.”

“What is it, Baby? Whatever happens, I’m here. You know that.”

“How can you say that?” Claire asked frustrated, “You don’t know what you’re saying. How could you look at this baby knowing it isn’t yours?”

“Princess, people do it every day. It won’t just be his baby. It’ll be your baby. I love you. I want to be with you. I want to do this.”

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea. I can’t ask you to do this with me. I have to do this on my own.”

“No.” Carl said defiantly, “No, you don’t. And you’re not going to. We’ve been through this. I’ll tell the whole world the baby’s mine if that’s what it takes. It will be mine anyway. Because I’m staying with you. Ok?”

“Why?” Claire asked confused, “You’re throwing your life away. I don’t want you to. I couldn’t live with that.”

“Listen, let’s not talk about this now. You’re upset. You just need to take it easy for a while. I just wanna make sure you’re ok. We can talk about this later.”

Carl rubbed Claire’s back and kissed her lips with a sincerity shared only by those who feel love in their veins. His only desire now was to ease Claire’s pain and make her happy. He’d waited too long to have her, just to lose her after a few months. Being with her was one of the most exciting and frightening feelings he had ever experienced. He’d never felt this way about anyone or anything before.

His fingers eased their way down to the small of her back. He kissed her cheek and pulled her closer to him. His lips moved further down her neck Her tears subsided and her breathing slowed as he continued to adorn her with soft caresses and gentle kisses.

“Better?” Carl asked, beginning to feel a little hot under the collar.

“Better.” Claire nodded with a grateful smile, “Thank you.”

“Anything for you, Princess.” Carl smiled as Claire wrapped her arms around his neck, “Anything.”

 

* * * * * * *

 

I did it. I made it to the finals. I have the opportunity to become a Regionals Champion again. I have the chance to go to the Nationals and become the best in the country. This next fight could very well change my life. Yet I honestly don’t know if I have a victory in me. My body is screaming at me louder than it ever has in the past. Not to mention that my last two matches were damn brutal. And my last run in with Dade has just left me drained. Drained and confused.

More than any of that though, is knowing that my last match will be against Marty Lee or Dade. No matter who wins, I’m screwed. I can’t believe Dade made it this far. Or maybe I can. He’s always wanted to beat me. And I knew he held back what he really knew, so I wouldn’t feel threatened. And as for Marty Lee, he seems to be well in control today. He’s just walked through the competition. He isn’t number two at the dojo for nothing. And after my year, he could very well take that step to number one today.

I know in my heart that I can win this if I really want to. I think I find my spirit is lacking though. I didn’t expect Dade to turn on me like that. What could have made him so upset? Was it just Marcel? I don’t think so. But this time, I’m not going to bother finding out. I told him I wouldn’t let him do this again. And I won’t.

“There it is.” I said to myself.

That familiar rise of anger that gave me the push I needed to continue. Part of me hopes it is Dade so I can finally kick his ass and end this shit. At least I have more time than them to have a break and get ready.

The anger inside me is laced with sadness though. I truly feel that I’m losing my brother. Our relationship has been so fragmented since Mom’s death, before then if I’m being honest. But her death seemed to just make things worse.

I can’t help feeling that maybe I could’ve just forced Dade to come clean with me. Or just grab him and hold him till he stops fighting me. I could’ve been the big brother who just broke through his immature shit. I could’ve been the bigger man. But just like today he chose to turn on me, I chose to give up. I’m tired of trying. I’m tired of caring. I’m just tired.

“Where are you, Mom?” I asked in a shaky voice, “Can you hear me?”

I feel like curling into a ball and crying, but instead I just cry. I still miss her so much it hurts me to think about her. And days like today when all I want is my Mom to tell me it’s gonna be ok. But she’s not, and that’s why I’m so lost.

Now it’s starting to hit me, and I’m trying hard to hold it back. To hold back the tears that I know will come because of Lucas, and because of Dade. I thought I could hold out till after the tournament was over. But I can’t. I can’t.

And so I cry. Cry like a lost little baby looking for it’s mother. Waiting for an angel to come and hold me. Waiting for an angel to come and tell me it’s going to be ok. My hands dig into the wooden slabs of the bench seat as I sob.

My heart aches so much that I can feel it. I clench my teeth as I look in every direction, waiting for some kind of direction. Some kind of sign. Some kind of anything.

I think of my life. I think of my Mom. I think of Dade. I think of Lucas. I think of my friends, who have become my family. The Pack. I think of school. I think of love. I think of loss. I think of the way my life used to be. And I wish it could be that way again. I wish so much that it could be that way again.

I let out an angst filled cry, hoping that finally my angel will come and save me. That it won’t hurt anymore. That I won’t want to cry. That I won’t be lost anymore. But my angel is gone. And for the first time in my life, I am alone. It’s so cold here. So cold.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Marty Lee paced back and forth on the center mat. He could hear the crowd chanting for the match to begin. He felt butterflies surge up in his stomach. A rare thing indeed for him. He looked up into the crowd and was surprised to see Lucas standing next to the rail on the first level deck. Lucas’s eyes were vacant and dejected, and Marty Lee couldn’t help feeling sorry for his guardian. That sorrow he felt soon became guilt. That guilt formed a knot in his stomach. A knot that burned like fire. A knot that only grew in intensity when he looked over at his opponent, Dade Marcus.

“Damn you, Dade.” Marty Lee muttered to himself, “And damn me too.”

At that moment Marty Lee made a promise to himself that today he would finally come clean. He would reveal the last of his sins to those he had sinned against. Nerves overwhelmed him and he forced himself to close his eyes to focus his thoughts.

“Fighters, are you ready?” The referee called.

Marty Lee’s eyes opened and he zeroed in on Dade. In an instant all emotion vanished from his face. He assumed an open stance, taunting Dade with his lack of defense. He goaded Dade with his cool arrogance.

“Show me what you got, Marcus.” Marty Lee beckoned, “I’m ready.”

“You’ll get it, alright.” Dade snickered back, “Get it and then some.”

“Ready!” The referee yelled, “Fight!”

 

* * * * * * *

 

“You look like you just got laid.” I said with a small smile as Carl walked into my changing room, “Mr. Right doin’ the job again?”

“Always.” Carl said with a warm smile, “I just ... had the feeling you might need a friend.”

“Is Mr. Right offering?”

“No.” Carl grinned, “This boy doesn’t curve, I’m afraid. But seriously, I thought you might need your boy.”

“Nah.” I said with a shrug, “I’m fine.”

“Liar.” Carl said as he sat down beside me, “I heard what happened with Dade. You’ve sure had it rought lately, haven’t you? Man, I wish ... hey, why don’t you come live with me? My parents love you. They’ll try and convert you back to the straight and narrow of course, straight being the operative word. But don’t hold that against them.”

“I don’t think so, Carl.”

I wasn’t really much in the mood for talking. I was really just sitting here waiting for the inevitable. Normally I relish tournaments like this, but today I couldn’t wait to get it over and done with. I knew Carl meant well, but I was past the point of caring anymore. And I think it showed in the lack of emotion in any of my responses to him.

“It’ll be ok, Stormy one.” Carl said reassuringly.

He put his hand on my shoulder and shuffled me closer to him. He put his hand on the side of my head and forced me to lay it on the side of his shoulder. Then he surprised me by kissing my forehead. If I closed my eyes, I could’ve sworn it was Mike. But Carl’s close enough.

“No matter what happens, Storm. Win or lose. It’ll be ok. Lucas, Dade, it’ll all disappear before you know it.” Carl said as he rubbed my arm, “But if I know you as well as I think I do, none of that matters anymore. Does it?”

“No.”

“Thought so.” Carl said with a disappointed sigh.

Carl had always been just outside the pack. The only other person who had come close was Brad really. But that was a long time ago. Yet Carl had probably been one of my closest friends outside of the pack, and he was genuine. He’d proven it on more than one occasion, but I hadn’t always given him due credit. I wish I had of.

“I should probably get ready.” I said as I patted his leg and stood up, “It’s time.”

“Ok.” Carl said as he stood up.

There was an awkward silence between us for a moment. Carl was pretty much reminding me that I wasn’t on my own and that I was still his best friend. Yet I wasn’t really reciprocating the warm fuzzies that he was offering. I guess I’m just drained.

There was also an unspoken knowledge between us. He did know me better than he let on, and right now he knew exactly what I was thinking. He knew about me and Lucas before I told him anything. He knew I was sick when I didn’t say anything. And now he knew that I was ...

“Storm ...” Carl said interrupting my thoughts.

He surprised me with a huge hug. He almost lifted me off my feet. I sometimes forget how strong he is. I get the distinct impression that he values my friendship more than I realize. For the life of me, I have no idea why. All I know is I’m grateful, and I return the hug with as much exuberance as him.

“Take care out there, ok?” Carl said with a shaky voice.

I knew he wasn’t just referring to the impending match. And I know that no matter what, he’ll still be here when I need him, if I need him. That’s one thing I’m grateful for.

“Thank you.” I said with a grateful smile, “You’re still my boy.”

“I know.” Carl said with a smile, “Just don’t keep me hanging too long, ok? I might have to start talking to Marty Lee.”

“Don’t mention him to me right now. I’m trying not to think about him. I had a little run in with him just before you came in. Seems he had a few things he needed to get off his chest. I don’t know what it is with people today. But he’ll get his soon enough.” I said before I realized Carl didn’t have a clue what I was talking about, “Sorry. I was just thinking out loud.”

I began changing myself into my match gear, feeling a rush of anxiety as I thought about the impending match. I also didn’t want to make eye contact with Carl. I’d done enough crying today I think, and I didn’t want a reason to start up again.

“Well, I’ll leave you to it then. Call me, ok?” Carl said as he patted my back, “Good luck. And umm ... I love ya, Buddy.”

“Ditto.” I said sincerely as I caught his hand and squeezed it, “I mean, I love you too, Bud.”

I felt a lump in my throat as I turned my eyes away from Carl and continued changing. I felt myself tinge with emotion, but managed to check myself before I started up again. When I turned back to the door, Carl was gone. Now it’s time. Time to go out there and compete in the greatest fight in my life.

 

* * * * * * *

 

“Ladies and Gentleman! Welcome to the final round of this years Regional Championships! After 32 outstanding bouts, we have our two finalists. The winner of this bout not only becomes our Regional Champion, he also receives an automatic entry into the Under 19 Nationals! Our first finalist is the current champion, defending his title. Hailing from Takada Kai Dojo in Merlow of the Greater Merlow District, Daniel ‘Storm’ Marcus!”

I made it. I made it to the finals. I’m standing on the center mat after a long, grueling day of competition. The whole crowd filling the Merlow Super Dome is fixed on me now. The air is absolutely electric. Call me confident, but I knew I’d make it here. This is my life. I’ve been doing this for over a decade. This is what I’ve worked for. A shot at the nationals. So why do I feel like I’ve already lost? And why do I feel beaten when I should be relishing this moment?

I wish I’d never come back. I wish I’d never left. I don’t know what to think anymore. I’m lost. Next to Mom dying, these are probably two of the worst days of my life. All I have is my rage now. It’s gotten me this far today. And now I face the source of much of my anger. Finally, we put an end to an underlying feud that’s consumed us for more than a year. I should’ve ended this a long time ago. It shouldn’t have come to this. But he wanted this as much as I did, though for different reasons. I want to win because this is what I’ve worked for. He wants to win ... because he wants to be better than I am.

It shouldn’t be this way. This is my fault somehow. I could’ve prevented this, I’m sure of it. All of it. I didn’t. Now I’m not sure whether I can finish this the way I want to. Because I know there’s more on the line here than the Regionals Championship or a shot at the Nationals. Yet now there’s no turning back. This is it.

“And his opponent, also hailing from the Takada Kai Dojo ... Dade Marcus!”

He made it. Dade and I will fight for the right to be the best. He wants my title, and he wants the right to challenge at the Nationals. I’ve worked too hard to lay down and give it to him. I’ve bled this sport. I’ve lived and breathed it for most of my life. I’ve proven myself time and time again. I’ve earned this.

Sensei told me before our match to keep it clean. He didn’t want this match to cause friction in mine and Dade’s relationship. Little did he know we’re already way past friction. The more I think about it, I realize this match had to happen. It was destined to happen.

My eyes met Dade’s and for a moment I sensed hesitation in his eyes. I didn’t care anymore. I met his gaze with one of cold, steely determination.

We step toward each other without breaking our stare down. My cool resolve only increased the closer we got to one another. In front of thousands, Dade and I were going to finally end this feud that he created. He forced this. Today we would finish it.

“Game on, Little brother.” I said bitterly as we touched hands, “Here’s your one chance to destroy the last dream I have. Take it if you’re better.”

Dade didn’t say a word. He just gulped nervously. I think he’s only just realizing just what this match means, and not just for our martial arts careers either. He’s having second thoughts, I can tell. He can be hot headed at first and blow up, but then afterwards he’d regret whatever it was he had done. I used to be that way, but not so much anymore. It’s just tough shit for Dade that I don’t care if he’s having second thoughts. It’s time to deal.

“Fight!” Yells the referee.

I moved straight into a defensive guard. I’ll make Dade do the work. He wants a point, he can come and take it from me. Showing that he was far from the amateur I believed he was though, he did exactly the same thing. We both had a defensive guard while we circled one another, staying out of striking distance.

I kept my left arm protecting my mid section, and my right arm open. Dade knew me better than any other fighter today. Even if he didn’t see my match with Sven, he might have an idea that my midsection was a weak spot. I’d like to think he wouldn’t try to exploit it, but I guess if all bets are off, they’re off.

Finally Dade came at me with a quick barrage of straight punches. I moved back and blocked each punch as they came at me. Dade was faster than I expected, but still easy enough to handle at the moment. He finished his assault with an instep crescent kick. I countered with a step in of my own, stepping inside his left leg and elbowing him hard in the sternum.

The hit was enough to knock him off his feet, and I walked away before the referee even called break. I’ve been doing this so long though, that I knew I’d scored a point. Sure enough the flags went up from all four judges.

“Break!” Called the referee.

I kept my back to Dade until the referee signaled for us to start again. My arrogance served only to irritate Dade, which is exactly what I wanted. He came at me again with even more intensity than the last time. He launched a succession of stiff heel kicks at me, which forced me once again to retreat. I found myself becoming increasingly angry as Dade continued to assault me with a myriad of kick combinations. So I did something I have never done in an official match.

I broke through one of his blocks with a stiff punch, which he predictably jumped back from. I stepped in with a standing sweep, using his backwards momentum to shove him hard to the mat. As soon as he was flat on the ground I kicked him hard towards his chest. Only I knew he’d be leaning forward in an attempt to get up. I made it look like an accident when my heel connected with his nose, but it wasn’t. It’s something I have never done in a tournament before. Not intentionally.

“Break!” Called the referee immediately, “One point deduction on Daniel Marcus for illegal hit!”

“You get that one for free.” I said standing over Dade, “Now what do you say we stop fucking around and turn this shit up.”

“Fuck you.” He spat as he wiped the blood from his face.

“I’d say that would be incest, but then you are a half breed, aren’t you?” I said with petty indignation, “So what would that make it?”

That seemed to be all the inspiration Dade needed. As I walked away, I could still feel the anger seething in him. Trainers quickly tended to his nose, but he brushed them off angrily. Once again I kept my back to him, but this time I felt different about this match. I knew that I’d pushed Dade to the point now where he’d give me everything he’s got. And I wouldn’t want to win with him giving anything less.

I take a moment to reflect over how Dade and I got to this point. I know now beyond a shadow of a doubt, we’re done. This is it for us. We won’t ever look at each other the same way again. When I turn back to face him, he finally has his game face on. He’s pissed and ready to fight. He still has a streak of blood under his nose as his eyes throw daggers at me.

I lower my posture and for the first time in this match, assume a full guard stance. It’s a show of both respect and a sign that we’re taking this fight to a new level. Dade’s stance is full an aggressive, with both arms in a ready position. It’s time, little brother.

“Fight!”

 

* * * * * * *

 

“Point to Marcus, Daniel!” Called the announcer over the loud speakers.

“This is so wrong.” Lucas said with concern.

He stood next to the rails, looking at the center mat below. He contemplated getting a floor seat, but found a higher vantage point suited him more. And hopefully Storm would not be able to see him. He didn’t want to cause his mate any more distress than he already had.

“Who are we supposed to cheer for?” Claire asked as she stood beside Lucas.

Carl and Marcel were as enthralled in the action as Lucas and Claire. The four were glued to the spectacle below, watching with intent as Storm and Dade traded blow for blow. The action was furious and filled with emotion.

“We cheer for no one. Because they’ll both lose, no matter who wins.” Marcel said ominously.

“Screw that. I’m cheering for my boy.” Carl said as he yelled, “Go, Storm! Kick his ass!”

“Carl!” Claire said with a scowl.

“What? You don’t seriously expect me to cheer for that other guy?”

“That other guy has a name.”

“Yeah, it should be dick.” Carl muttered under his breath, “As in, he should know how to keep it in his pants.”

“Quiet.” Lucas snapped, “Dade’s getting an advantage.”

“You shouldn’t be here.” Marcel whispered into Lucas’s ear, “You’re drunk.”

“I’m not drunk, Dude. I’m intoxicated.” Lucas smirked, “Now shut it. I’m watching this fight.”

Lucas’s heart jumped with every kick and punch. He wanted Storm to win, and every time Dade managed to land a hit, Lucas cringed inside. He just wanted the match to be over. Maybe then he could find some way to talk to Storm.

Marcel on the other hand was simply waiting for the battle to be over so he could be there to pick up the pieces. In some strange way, he was glad June wasn’t here to see this fight take place. He knew it was more than just a fight for the brothers. It was a sad fact that their relationship had only degenerated since June’s death. Something that would have broken her heart.

All four seemed to jump, cheer, and cringe with every move the brothers made. It seemed though that the longer the fight went on, the more Dade seemed to gain the upper hand. Both Lucas and Marcel shared a glance of knowledge, both fearing the same thing.

“I think he’s hurt.” Carl said, surprising both Lucas and Marcel, “I think he shouldn’t have entered.”

“Dude ...” Lucas said nervously, “Serious? I only arrived in time to see his last two fights. I think Sven took a lot out of him.”

“He is hurt.” Marcel said stoically, “But when has that ever stopped him.”

All the while, Claire was lost in her own little world. She was oblivious to the other three beside her. Her attention was focused squarely on Dade. She wondered whether the decision he made today was genuine. Would he have second thoughts once he’d become used to the fact that Claire was pregnant with his baby?

“Point to Marcus, Dade! Match is even at 1-1.”

“Damn.” Carl grimaced as he saw the flags go up for Dade, “Come on, Baby. You can beat him. You’re the best.”

“Dude, stop stealing my lines.” Lucas said with a slur in his voice, “He’s my baby.”

“Was your baby. Or did you forget that fact on your way to alcoholism?”

“Dude ...”

“Sorry.” Carl said sincerely, “I know it’s not for me to say anything. And I know you didn’t mean it. Can we just forget I said anything?”

“Dude ... sweet ...” Lucas nodded as he took a swig from his small jimmy bottle of bourbon, “No worries, too easy.”

Marcel looked at Lucas with a simmering anger and disappointment. Already he could see Lucas begin his descent into oblivion. He was trying his best not to judge Lucas, but he was also angry at him for cheating on Storm. In Marcel’s eyes, Storm was worthy of so much more than Lucas had given him with Ashley.

Marcel couldn’t help but feel for his best friend. Storm had been through so much lately. First Lucas, now Dade. And Marcel knew more than anyone else just how precarious Storm’s health really was. He didn’t want Storm’s pride to cost him more than just this match.

“Come on, Storm.” Marcel whispered, “Finish this before you hurt yourself.”

 

* * * * * * *

 

“Aahh!” I screamed as I drove my fist into Dade’s chest with all my might.

“Break!”

Sure enough, the flags went up in three corners. Enough to give me the point. I wanted a fight, and I got one. One of the hardest fights I’ve ever had. That last point was sheer will and luck, because Dade was matching me hit for counter. I was glad to win the point so I could finally have a reprieve. I could feel the match within my grasp. Just one more point. I just wanted this match to be over now, so I could rest.

“Point to Daniel Marcus!” Called the referee, “2-1 to Daniel Marcus! Fight!”

And again Dade and I were right back into it. I went for the quick kill and went in aggressively. I hit a left right jab, double side kick combo. Dade blocked all of my hits, which I expected, before I hit him with a low spinning sweep. The sweep connected and I went straight for a rising tempest.

As I spun my body in mid air, Dade thrust up with a flat kick right in my stomach. I was already in the motion of elbowing him when I felt the kick. I screamed as I crashed down onto the mat. Apparently only two flags had gone up, which I didn’t see at first because I was in too much agony. The match was still in action. I only realized this when I tried to stand up and Dade swept my taped up ankle with a stiff kick. Dade followed this up by spinning over me and hit me with a straight jab into my stomach again. Using a variation of my own rising tempest.

This time all the flags went up as I gasped for breath. I let out a guttural howl as shooting pain ripped from my stomach up through my body. I could barely see straight as I instinctively rolled into a ball in an effort to protect myself.

“Break!” Called the referee, “Point to Dade Marcus! 2-2!”

I stepped groggily to my feet as our trainers ran to my side. I could barely stand properly, the pain was so intense. I was hurt and they knew it. Tears of agony streamed down my face as I hobbled to the sideline. Sensei called for a time out and I was carried off the mat.

Eventually, I managed to control my pain to the point where I was only gritting my teeth, and not crying. I felt like a bitch for crying in public, but my body wasn’t giving me much choice. As soon as I was able I stood under my own volition and looked Sensei in the eye.

“I’m fine.” I said with a nod before I turned back to the mat.

If I didn’t know better, I’d almost say Dade felt concerned with the way he’s looking at me. But I do know better. He knew where I was weak and hit me with the intention of hurting me, and not just scoring a point. At least I know now how much he’s willing to do to win this match.

I gritted my teeth and sucked in all the pain I felt, turning it into anger and determination. I walked back onto the mat and out of the corner of my mind, spotted Lucas up on the first level deck. His was the last face I wanted to see right now.

“Fuck.” I said to myself as I felt my resolve break in an instant.

Damn you, Lucas. I felt all the anger I was using to mask the pain disappear. Seeing Lucas had just shattered me. I don’t think I have enough fight in me to win this match. My body is screaming at me to give up, and now my spirit is too. But I can still win. I can win this and stick it to everyone here in Merlow who thinks I’m a has been.

I bow to the referee and at Dade. He assumes a ready position and so do I. This is the final point. Next point wins it all.

“Fight!” Yelled the referee.

I ran straight at Dade and leapt into the air. I thrust my right foot at his chest with an aerial 360 kick. He flipped out of the way and launched his own offensive at me as I landed on the ground and rolled away. I leaped up into a handspring, evading his kicks. I countered with my own butterfly kick, which he blocked and countered with his left arm. I evaded with a series of backflips as Dade charged after me.

Dade threw a haymaker at my midsection, while I was still coming out of a backflip. I managed to block just in time, but the momentum of his punch shoved my arm into my stomach. It also caused me to land solely on my taped up foot. I let out a grimace as pain shot up my leg and my stomach.

I knew I didn’t have much left in me. It was either now or never. I saw an opening as Dade prepared to deal a point hit to my chest. I stepped in to do a standing sweep and elbow his sternum at the same time. It would have worked, but my injured foot wouldn’t hold as I stood on it and used my good foot to sweep.

The hesitation caused by my foot buckling was enough. In that split second of me pausing the sweep, Dade kicked out my bad foot and sent me flying back with a snap kick into my own sternum. That one motion of moves took less than a few seconds to pull off for him, but for me it was a lifetime. It’s as if I could feel my title slowly slipping away from me.

I let out a gasp of frustration, and somehow hoped that my late attempt at a block had somehow negated his point. As I kicked to my feet, I knew however that I was wrong. All four flags were raised and the crowd had already burst into applause.

“Break!” Called the referee, “Winner! Dade Marcus!”

He did it. He beat me. Holy shit, he beat me.

“Winner with a 3-2 victory, hailing from Takada Kai Dojo right here in Merlow, Dade Marcus!” Boomed the loud speakers.

“Oh fuck.” I said as I gasped for breath.

I thought I was going to hyperventilate. I felt my breath rush out of me, and not because I was still in pain either. I’d lost the biggest fight of my life to my little brother. A person who only wanted to win so he could be better than me. I guess this means he is.

It took me a few moments to compose myself. I couldn’t hear over the crowd’s roar. So he’d beaten me. He did whatever it took to win, and good on him for it. I took a few deep breaths as two stray tears broke free from my eyes.

I’m not going to the nationals. I’m not going to be the Regionals champion anymore. I’m not going to be the best. I’m not the best. Dade is. And that’s the way it is. I just have to accept it.

I adjust my gi and turn back towards Dade as he stands there looking dumbstruck. If I can’t win with fire, I’ll lose with grace. I took my place opposite him and we both bowed to the referee. Then we turned to each other and bowed again. I stayed with my head down longer than I usually would have. Staring at the mat in contemplation. I know it’s pride, but I still have a hard time handling the fact that I lost my title to my little brother. I feel humiliated.

I finally raise my head and see Dade staring back at me. I nod at him before the floor is rushed with supporters. I take my old trophy off the official and walk back towards Dade with it. He’s being treated like a hero, and oddly enough it makes me proud.

“Congratulations, Dade.” I said with a small nod as I hand the trophy to him.

He takes the trophy from me in surprise and in an instant his eyes are confused and sad. He looks at me as if he’s only just realizing what this match was all about. But he knew before. He knew. Maybe he just realized that glory doesn’t taste so sweet after all.

I extended my hand to him and Dade looked at me for a moment, unsure of what to do. Eventually he took my hand and shook it. It was a brisk, formal handshake, but sincere on my part.

“I’m sorry for calling you a half breed. I just wanted you to bring your best, and you did. You are the best after all.” I said with a small smile, “You’re number one. Good luck at the nationals.”

“Storm ...” Dade began to say, but obviously he was speechless, “I’m sorry.”

He didn’t have a chance to say anything else as he was lifted off his feet by a group of supporters. I walked away from him with the distinct impression that I may not ever see him again. As angry and hurt as I am at him right now, I still wish him well. I know he’ll go far.

Now. Finally now I can let it out. My anger and disappointment at Lucas, Dade, everything. Now when I have nothing left to lose and have failed at proving whatever I could try to prove. I’ve lost my love, my brother, and my dreams. This place has nothing left for me.

I look up at the spot I saw Lucas before and sure enough, he is still there. We’re so far apart, but it’s as if all of Merlow SuperDome could be gone. All we can see is each other.

My mind flashes with thoughts of us together. Moments we’ve shared. Moments that will forever be a part of my psyche. A part of what makes me who I am. For better or worse, I loved him. And no matter how it ended, I know he loved me too.

From the necklace he gave me, to our first kiss at the train station. I can think of so many moments. So many good moments. And all of those moments bring tears to my eyes. I look at him with so much sadness in my eyes. I think for the first time since I found out he’d cheated on me, I’m finally showing him how hurt I am because of it.

Tears stream down my face as my eyes plead with him. My eyes beg him to tell me why he did it. Why didn’t he love me enough to say no? Why didn’t he love us enough? Why does my heart feel like it wants to die instead of feel this way?

Even from here, I can see him cry. Silently to himself, crying tears of regret and sorrow for what he’d done to me. To us. Wishing I could feel how sorry he was. I could feel it. I could feel how sorry he was, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough to keep me with him. It’s not enough to keep me here.

I don’t know where I belong, but I know it’s no longer here. It’s no longer here in Merlow. I have to find new dreams. Build new hopes. Perhaps even find another love. But most of all, I need to breathe. And I can’t do that here, because every breath will be filled with anguish. Mom, Lucas, Dade, Mike, Sarah, Marcel, my friends, the Nationals, everything. As long as I am here, every breath I take will be filled with those things. And I will be reminded of what I don’t have. Reminded of what once was and will never be again.

So to you Merlow, I say goodbye for now. I do not know when I might return, if I ever do. If ever I do return, I hope I am a stronger person than I am right now. Right now I’m lost, and I think to find myself, I need to look elsewhere.

I have no regrets. I am grateful for everything I have ever had in my life here. Being raised with Mike like a brother. Playing little league with Dade. Meeting the chubby kid in the playground when I was ten. Making out with Sarah. Meeting Lucas on a bus. Having the best mother I could ever ask for and losing her before I really had a chance to tell her that.

I walk to the entry tunnels, where my bags are sitting on the ground. I throw them over my shoulder and look back one last time. I look at Dade being congratulated by his peers. I look at Lucas up in the seats above. I see Marcel standing behind him, looking at me like an all knowing sage. I see Carl and Claire. I see it all and burn it into my mind. So I can take it with me, wherever I may go. Goodbye, Merlow.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Dade stood under the shower head, washing the dried blood from his face. He still couldn’t believe he’d won. He still couldn’t believe he’d beaten his brother. After all this time, he was finally number one.

As good as he felt though, he couldn’t help feeling guilty. Not simply because he’d won, but because of the way he’d won. And because his reasons for wanting to win were not honorable at all. He knew he’d hurt his brother in more ways than one, but it only began to sink in once their match was over. He’d turned on his own brother when he needed him most.

He rubbed his face as guilty tears washed down his face. The water was almost scolding hot, but he rubbed his arms as if he were chilled to the bone.

He jumped out of the shower and quickly threw a towel around his waist. He pulled his cell phone from his bag and dialed in Storm’s cell number. He waited anxiously for the phone to ring and was surprised when the phone rang in his very own bag.

Dade reached into his bag and pulled out a small satchel that he recognized as Storm’s. Inside the satchel was Storm’s phone, the master keys for the family home, and the keys for the dojo. Dade knew immediately the implication of his discovery. His brother had gone and didn’t want to be contacted. And to where, Dade knew he probably would not find out in the near future.

“Dade.” Marcel said as he entered the changing rooms, “Where’s Storm?”

“He’s gone.” Dade said bitterly as he slumped down on the bench, “He’s gone.”

“Where?”

“Somewhere only he knows.” Dade said as he held up the satchel, “I guess this bag means I’m number one now, huh?”

“Dade ...” Marcel said with a cool anger.

“Yeah?”

“Today has not been one of your better days.”

“I know.” Dade cried in frustration, “But he’ll come around, won’t he? He always does.”

“And that’s why this time he won’t. I’m ... disgusted with you. The way you’ve treated Claire and Storm today, and what do you get for that? A trophy. A shot at the nationals. A championship.” Marcel said as he turned to walk away, “You have no idea what you’ve done, do you? You got what you wanted, was it worth the glory?”

“He’ll come back. We’ll work it out.” Dade mumbled to himself more than Marcel, “We will. I’ll apologize. He’ll forgive me. He always does. I need him. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do now. Do you think he’s ok though? I think I hurt him in that last fight. I wanted to see, but ... he was gone. I don’t know where. Do you think he’s ok?”

“You don’t deserve him.” Marcel snapped as he stood in the doorway, “None of you do.”

 

* * * * * * *

 

Lucas walked inside his front door and slammed it shut behind him. He let out an angry cry as he walked inside his lounge and kicked the wall. He ran his hands through his hair in frustration. He couldn’t contain the anger he felt inside right now, he just wanted to smash everything. Instead he went straight to the fridge and pulled out a six pack of beer. He walked into the dining room and threw the cans on the table.

As he sat down, he found an envelope with his name sitting on the table. He picked it up and recognized Marty Lee’s handwriting. Lucas opened the letter at the same time as he popped open a can. His eyes scanned through the letter, and with every line an increasing look of rage and disappointment filled his face.

“You ... shit.” Lucas snapped angrily, “After all this time, you tell me now?”

Lucas tossed the letter into the air and closed his eyes. His hand formed a fist and the other held his can of beer to his mouth. He held the can up until it was empty.

“Well ... I guess it’s just you and me now.” Lucas cried as he looked at his can, “There’s nobody else left.”

 

* * * * * * *

 

Dade stood at the doorway of his brother’s room. It seemed so long ago now that it was full of life. Full of memories. There was nothing left now to show that it belonged to anyone. In fact, most of the house now was a shell of it’s former self. Dade leaned against the door frame and closed his eyes. He prayed that once he opened them, his brother would be there. Yet he opened them, and still the room was empty.

Dade let out a heart felt sigh and his eyebrows narrowed with pain. He turned away and walked to the top of the stairs. All at once he felt himself overwhelmed with a sense of loss and nostalgia. He looked down the stairs and saw his mother smiling up at him. Her angelic face brought Dade to tears, and even though he knew she wasn’t really there, he wished she’d never leave. Yet as quickly as he saw her image in his mind, she was gone again.

He stepped down the stairs and saw Mike and Sarah rushing past him. Mike carrying a laughing Sarah in days when she could smile without fear for the future. Both seemed happy to Dade as Mike carried Sarah downstairs and out the front door. They were soon followed by a wide eyed, grinning Marcel, calling out to Mike and Sarah to wait for him. A much lighter Marcel than the one he knew now. Dade hadn’t seen that Marcel for years.

Finally, Dade reached the bottom of the stairs and looked out the front door. There he saw his brother Storm standing at the doorway facing out towards the road. He had his favorite cap on, along with his backpack. As if he were just going to school. He looked back over his shoulder and smiled at Dade. He then turned away and walked out towards the front gate. His image faded from Dade’s mind before he reached the footpath.

Dade suddenly felt cold again. Cold and alone. He stood at the front doorway, looking out to the road. He hoped someone would come back and fill this house with life again. He had the sinking sensation that the house had lost too much of it’s soul, and that he alone could not bring it back to it’s former glory. It was an empty house. And the more Dade thought about it, the more he realized that he too was empty. Empty and alone.

 

* * * * * * *

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