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Ben couldn’t take his eyes off Lanie as she strode calmly toward Jake. The expression on her face struck a strange chord in him. It was a look he had never seen her give anyone. An expression of awe, and admiration. The slightest hint of uncertainty, maybe even fear.
Respect, he realized. Lanie respected this man.
In his quiet, sullen way, Jake seemed to return the approbation. Two warriors acknowledging each other. Even though he knew from gossip that Lanie hadn’t been able to beat him in even one full-contact spar. Obviously, she was nowhere near his equal. But that didn’t stop him from recognizing what skill she did have.
Jake did most of the talking as he led Lanie through various patterns. For fifteen minutes they progressed from basic footwork, to blows and blocks, then kicks.
“This is worse case scenario,” Lanie explained as she blocked a slow-motion kick to the head with her forearm. “The goal is to never let it get to close-quarters. But this is a good foundation for working with knives and stuff, and it’s always good to know how to defend yourself in an emergency when nothing else is available.”
Jake nodded, squaring off with Lanie again. “Okay, we’re going to show you at full speed now so you get a sense of how quickly everything can happen in a real fight. Lanie, you go ahead and advance on me.”
But she was already on him, before he’d even finished the sentence.
Ben was remembered watching Lanie with Ali. Except this time, Lanie was the one giving it everything she had, and Jake seemed to just barely break a sweat. Also, this was about five times faster, and ten times more savage, even without the big nasty sticks.
Ben’s brain could barely interpret what was going on. Lanie aimed punches and kicks at lightning speed. No matter what she did, Jake was already there with a block or a dodge. He kept moving backwards until finally, he neatly tripped her and she flew towards the ground. But she tucked herself into a roll. Effortlessly, she regained her footing, coming up in an unconcerned fighting stance. Jake also relaxed, even though he was already pretty chilled out. He only took a couple of deep breaths, then actually grinned at Lanie, who quirked her eyebrows back at him.
“You see,” he explained, wiping the back of his hand across his forehead. “Everything happens in an instant, and only with practice will you be able to anticipate your opponent’s moves and respond without wasting time thinking. If you’re in the defensive position, keep trying to block blows and get away until you either escape or get an offensive opportunity. Or, in my case, if your opponent pretends to give you an opportunity because you’re getting tired.”
Lanie rolled her eyes, but didn’t seem to mind the apparent falsehood. Jake didn’t seem to be making fun of her at all. He was laughing at himself.
“My turn,” she told him, and in the same millisecond he pounced, going from casual to lethal in a single blink. But she was no longer there.
Lanie was like some sort of graceful, violent ping-pong ball, bouncing from place to place as Jake pursued her. They seemed to stay aware of the imaginary ten-foot demonstration square, never letting even a finger pass through the invisible boundary. Every time it looked like Jake was about to close in on her, she slipped through his grasp like water. He seemed to work a little harder than when he had been defending himself against her.
After three minutes, they were still fighting. They paused once, for a half second. He smiled uncertainly at her, silently questioning when they were going to move on to the next part of the training demonstration, but she ignored him. So, he upped his game.
“Lanie – ” Ben heard Jake try to interrupt, but then she aimed a kick at his throat. From the look of astonishment on Jake’s face, she was really going off script, and it seemed like he just barely avoided the blow. For another second they paused again, and some sort of negotiation passed between them. Lanie was going on the offensive, now, and Jake would either fight, or let himself be pummeled.
Both of their faces closed off into expressionless masks, and they began again.
Lanie was clearly going through some sort of mental breakdown. And oh, was it something to behold. The violent dance of death was beautiful. Terrifying. And strangely intimate. Jealousy prodded Ben, in the same place where she’d poked her stick into his belly. It wasn’t that he wanted to be in Jake’s place right then. But just to share that closeness with her. To have her attention fully on him, acutely aware of every inch of his body and every move he made. Jake and Lanie seemed to read each other’s minds.
Mostly, now that she had goaded him into the fight, Lanie played defense. It was her strongest position, and was clearly wearing Jake down, even if very slowly. Occasionally, though, she took an opportunity to attack him back.
Then, she managed to somehow get up on his shoulders, her knees like a nutcracker on his head. Jake tried to grab her ankles but she backflipped off of him. It was then that Ben noticed she had managed to capture both his wrists when he had attempted to get a hold of her. She twisted violently in midair as she executed her flip. Landing with her feet planted firmly, she used her momentum to slam Jakes hands down to the ground. Bent backward, he had been forced to perform his own midair rotation or have his arms twisted in their sockets.
He landed facedown in the dirt at her feet, and she was already sitting on his neck, kneeling on his elbows and bracing her hands on his head.
The entire group stood stunned.
Lanie fought for air, her shoulders heaving. He was breathing hard too, moving her up and down on his back. Finally, he started to roll him off of her, but she did a neat roundoff that ended with her staring down at him. Kneeling, still panting, Jake stared up at her. They were both filthy, covered in sweat and dirt. Lanie’s bun was coming undone, strands trailing down her back and sticking up from the top of her head.
She broke out in the most radiant grin he had ever seen, as she reached down and pulled Jake to his feet.
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