Chapter Fourteen: ghosts and broken bones
Aeon Neil + Ruarí Savage
Word Count: 1,404
He rose early to begin training, not allowing Hawthorne to wake Rory. He wanted a little time to think; in fact, he had been so restless that he’d slept less than an hour – perhaps it had escalated to a need for time to think. He pulled his torso upward, his knees looped over a bar hanging a few feet away from the wall. He had never really been counting how many repetitions he’d been doing, but he simply continued on. He held position until he could feel his muscles tremble hard enough to hurt, and let his torso roll downward again.
Hawthorne was sitting on the far side of the training room, eating a muffin and drinking a cup of coffee. He held a newspaper up in front of him, but even without glancing at him Aeon knew Hawthorne was not reading the paper at all. He was watching every move Aeon made, and he had been since the very moment Aeon began to stretch over an hour before.
He grew restless with his activity and dropped onto the ground with an easy roll of his body. Aeon was not an intimidatingly structured man, but he was lean and agile and silent. Even as his hundred and ninety-six pounds hit the floor, there was no sound.
“How about some sparring, Aeon? It seems simple exercise is not engaging enough for you this morning,” Hawthorne said, folding his paper and setting it on a small table nearby. He sipped from his mug of coffee and continued as if he’d never paused, “Or do you always do three hundred curls in eight and a half minutes?”
“I’m a little restless today,” Aeon answered, knowing that Hawthorne would leave the statement as it was. “Some sparring might be nice.”
Hawthorne nodded and stood up, finishing off what remained in his cup and slipping off his shoes. “Why don’t you grab the gloves and we’ll get started, then?”
It took no time at all for Hawthorne to begin handing Aeon his ass, figuratively speaking. At first, Aeon managed a few respectable blows – but within minutes, Hawthorne was doing laps around him, landing blow after sickening blow, until Aeon was dizzy and tired and frustrated, and very, very sore. He paused for just a moment, then, but it was too long.
The pain was astounding. He’d never been punched so hard in his life. He felt bone crack and the vibrations of it exploded from his jawline straight into his eyes, stabbing at his skull to get at his brain. His vision went white with the agony of it; his ears rang and rang and rang. Instinctively, he stepped back and Hawthorne swung around him to kick his feet from under him. The back of his head smacked into the floor and the world went dark.
She didn’t care that her tone was accusing. She stood with her feet planted hip-width apart, her arms crossed over her chest, scowling at Hawthorne who sat on a stool in the training room, casually reading the newspaper and eating what appeared to be his second muffin of the morning. Unless the empty wrapper beside him had been Aeon’s, in which case, the politely puzzled expression on Hawthorne’s face was a ruse.
Suspicion welled up within her instantly, but she choked it back.
“He will be joining us after lunch,” Hawthorne said, smiling at her as if she weren’t trying to catch him doing something villainous. “Are you prepared to begin your training? Radek seems to believe I am running behind schedule.”
“Did something happen to Aeon that he can’t train with us now?”
“I’m certain he will tell you all about it, dear,” Hawthorne said, wiping his mouth clean with his napkin. “Now, how would you like to begin? Have you stretched?”
Hawthorne was a quiet man, and this fact was only accentuated in the training room. He observed unobtrusively, offering instruction now and again but always in a soft voice and never with inflection. He stood behind her, his calloused fingers grazing her lower spine as he said, “Straighten your back and your balance will improve.”
Instead of having her focus on offensive tactics, as she had expected him to, Hawthorne had her focus on defensive tactics. He taught her to roll out of range, to throw her torso back without losing balance to dodge an upper cut. He encouraged her to move fluidly, as a dancer around her opponent, to never linger in one spot long enough to be trapped.
He’d already said it so often that every time her foot touched the ground, she heard his voice in her head, saying, “Float.”
The motions became so easy for her that as they sparred, the fight became a dance – his body turning to land a blow as hers wrapped languidly around him to avoid it. Time seemed to slow just to suit her. Her body contorted in ways she had never thought possible. Soon, she was a whisper of motion, a ghost – appearing and vanishing; seeming tangible only to slip out of range at the last moment.
Hawthorne yanked the Velcro straps open on his gloves and tossed them to the middle of the mat. “I need a drink,” he said with a smile, careful to hide his panting. He wiped sweat from his forehead with a towel and took a moment to study her before he stepped off the mat in search of the small fridge beside his stool and table. He tossed her a bottle of water and said, “You’re doing very well, Ruarí. We sparred for nearly an hour and I wasn’t able to touch you.”
“Was it that long?” That was a surprise, she thought, turning to find the clock. He was right – they’d begun at eleven -oh-four and it was just cresting noon as she watched. She didn’t even feel winded.
“What do you say we grab some lunch and see what Seres has been up to?”
“All right,” she said, having only a vague knowledge that lunch had meant something to her not long ago; but the adrenalin coursing through her offered her no hints. She freshened up and changed clothes and Hawthorne waited in the hall for her. When he offered her his arm, she took it, and the gesture was comfortable. They walked in silence to the dining room.
Aeon sat at the small dining table, his eyes fixed on the view beyond the window. His face was bruised and he gingerly spooned soup into his mouth. His entire face ached, but the pain was dramatically less than it had been, and for that he was grateful. The medical officer told him his broken jaw would heal itself in another day or two, as long as he returned to the healing baths for an hour at the end of each day. The baths smelled of antiseptic and eucalyptus, and it was awful, but to heal a broken bone in three days was a feat and he was determined not to complain. He heard the door open behind him but did not turn around.
“Aeon! Where have you been all morning?”
It was the sound of her voice that made him turn to look; unconsciously his eyes sought her out for themselves. He smiled but it hurt. “Didn’t Hawthorne tell you he broke my jaw this morning? Then he knocked me out.”
What he saw, then, was the most glorious thing he had ever witnessed in her life. Rage cut through her eyes like lightning and she spun to face Hawthorne, whom she’d been arm in arm with a mere instant before, with so much fury that her voice was acidic when she spoke. “You did this to him?”
“I did,” Hawthorne said, and despite the wrath being projected upon him, he chuckled as if she were a kitten growling at a lion. He added, “The boy needs to learn to fight.”
“I don’t think you breaking his jaw is going to do him any good!”
Aeon crinkled his forehead as he observed the argument happening before him. About him. He frowned, and said, “Rory, it’s fine. Hawthorne’s right. I have to be able to take a beating if I’m going to get back up after one in the arena.”
She knew she’d lost the argument but the anger did not fade from her expression for a long time.