I'd forgotten how venues for cage fighting made me feel. The smell of dried sweat from the night before, the dimmed lights like a theatre before the show, the seating almost close enough to reach out and touch the mesh that separates you from the semi naked guys kicking the crap out of each other fill my senses and I feel a numbed anxiety bubble in my chest. We might be here to get him out of fighting in illegal matches, but that old worry never fades. Countless memories of doing my best not to hide behind my hands or cheering Alex on til my throat gives out flood me.
I follow Alex into the building, his broad shoulders blocking a lot of my view as I trail close behind. His old leather jacket still fits, I notice, smiling to myself. He's had it since his eighteenth - one of two presents from me to him. The other was a pair of boxing gloves to replace his knackered second hand ones. He holds my hand despite walking single file through the narrow corridor, the cuff of the jacket rubbing on my own skin in a familiar motion.
At the end of the corridor, it breaks off to the right for dressing rooms, but that's not where Alex is headed. He knocks on the door to his left and lets himself in, not waiting for an answer. There's a cloud of smoke inside and Alex walks straight to the back of the room and opens a tiny window, ignoring his manager sat at the desk who, up til now, had been quite happy smoking and probably looking at porn on his laptop.
"Where've you been?" he asks irritably as Alex takes a seat opposite him.
"Pete, you remember you said you wouldn't live to see my last fight?" Alex rests his elbows on the desk, leaning in to steal the cigarette from Pete's thin lips as I sit down on one of the seats against the wall. He stubs it out in the already-full ashtray and puts one hand under his chin.
"Yeah. You're too fucking good at what you do to think of quitting. You're not are you?" Alex shrugs and smiles.
"In a manner of speaking. I want to fight professionally, y'know, legally. I'm sick of chasing tiny pay checks."
"Y'mean your doll over there's sick of lying about what you do with your life?" he says, waving a new cigarette at me before putting it to his lips. Alex steals that one, too and snaps it.
"Doll has a name, Pete," I remind him with a sigh. Not that he would remember. As an ex cage fighter, he has the build of a heavy weight champion, a nose that's trying to recede into his skull and probably next to no brain left for anything other than getting the best out of those on his payroll.
"Mmm," he grunts, half disregarding me. I roll my eyes, and press my lips together.
"He's not my doll anymore anyways," Alex mutters under his breath, "either way, I'm moving into the professional league whether you like it or not. Consider this my notice." Pete nods thoughtfully.
"How's about I get you in on the next big one in Bahia? Three grand cash prize and a guaranteed ticket to whatever fight you want after that, professional or not." Alex's face goes blank as he considers the offer. I shake my head. ‘Big one' equates to the real risk of being put in the intensive care unit, usually because he's no match for whoever's competing, and what's guaranteed to be a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat fight. Oh, and good sport for the bookies. Don't even get me started on how this shit isn't even illegal in Brazil. No rules, and usually, no gloves, either.
"Alex, you're quitting. You don't need a ‘big one' to get into the professional fights," I say, but my breath is wasted; I can see him mulling it over. He runs his tongue over the front of his teeth and opens his mouth to say something. Hesitating, he sits back and closes his mouth again, frowning.
"Who would I be up against?" he asks. Pete grins and taps something into his laptop before turning it to show Alex.
"Brody. He's relatively new, reminds me a lot of you." A sceptical look flickers across Alex's face as he looks at Brody's profile. I move myself so I can see the picture of this guy. He looks about the same height as Hadley - a good couple of inches shorter than me - stocky, and like he's spent his whole life working out. He doesn't look happy about having his picture taken, his arms crossed and a poorly hidden scowl lining his face.
"I don't fight hobbits, give me a real opponent," Alex laughs, turning the laptop back to Pete.
"I wouldn't laugh about this guy," Pete warns and I, personally, agree. I rest my chin on Alex's shoulder and turn his head so he's looking at me.
"Remember how people laughed when you came into the scene?" I mumble, "You'd be an idiot to laugh at him."
"Your doll's got a point," Pete smiles, turning the laptop back around to show us a video of this Brody guy in action.
"If you accept this fight, Alex, I will fucking kill you," I say as we walk back through the corridor. He offers me his hand and I slap it away. "I can't believe you're even considering it." He stays silent, knowing he's pissed me off, despite the good intentions. And if I don't kill him, Hadley might.