Kumite For Love
"Ready to go again, Peter?" Aiyana Amari said and took deep, re-energizing breaths.
Peter stroked a hand over his sweaty blond hair. His fair face was flushed and he pressed his lips in a straight line. Pained brown eyes stared at her from under arched brows. "We've been going for hours," he said. His voice bordered on whining.
"Come on, Pete. Don't get soft on me," she said and tightened her black belt.
Peter shook his head. "Aiyana, do you ever really listen to what you say?" He walked across the hardwood floor and drank from the fountain near the change rooms. At this late hour the few members who used the club were long gone.
Aiyana snorted and smoothed back a few wisps of hair that had fallen out of her ponytail. "Focus, Pete." She faced the mirrored wall and threw gloved punches through the air.
"Okay, okay. But don't go full-out. I don't feel like icing anything." Peter retrieved gloves from the floor and fastened them on. Aiyana practiced a few high kicks and then hopped on the balls of her feet.
"Get over here already. If you move any slower I'll miss my flight." Her voice echoed through the gym--her safe haven. Her father had established it when she was just a baby. The dojo had been her playground. She grew up watching her dad, the great sensei, teach martial arts. Everything was perfect until that horrible day, almost eleven years ago.
They stood across from each other and popped in their mouth guards. She tried not to laugh at his pout. Cute looks aside, he was lean, ripped and a worthy opponent. They locked eyes and their previous banter was replaced with silent concentration. They bowed and after a ready, set, go, began their match.
Aiyana immediately took the offence. Consecutively, she punched Peter in the chest then delivered a side kick to his mid-section. The fight ended in seconds.
"Yes!" Aiyana jumped in victory. "I'm ready for Japan, aren't I?"
Peter unfastened his gloves and tossed them back on the floor and spat out his mouth guard. "I've never seen anyone move as fast as you, Aiyana."
She punched him lightly on the shoulder. "Thanks, Pete." She turned, picked up a rope and started skipping.
"But, Aiyana, just because your offence is faster than most U.S. competitors doesn't mean it will be in Japan."
Aiyana stopped and dropped the rope. "What are you trying to do, Peter? Psyche me out?"
He winced. "Never. I just don't want you to be disappointed if you don't win. Aiyana, wait."
Not wanting to hear any more, she stomped into the change room. Her vision became clouded and she lost her balance. She shot her hands out and leaned on the vanity counter. Dehydration had probably set in, damn; she had been reckless by not having enough to drink. She took deep breaths and waited for the haze to clear. In the mirror she saw the vague outline of a dark-haired girl. Was she a champion or a dreamer? She pounded a fist on the laminate. No, stop. At this point there wasn't room for any doubt. She'd come too far and trained too hard.
The momentary dizziness dissipated. She reached down and grabbed her pre-packed knapsack and duffel bag from the floor and headed out through the deserted gym. She hadn't expected Peter to hang around. Her grumpiness over the past few weeks had finally driven him away.
Before exiting she paused and looked back.
I won't lose your gym, Dad.
She snapped off the lights and went outside. While standing under the large black and white AMARI'S DOJO sign, she locked the door.
She jumped. "Oh, Peter. You're still here?"
His shoulders slumped forward. "Yah. About what I said in there. I didn't say it to psyche you out or break your momentum or anything like that."
"I know, Pete. And you shouldn't be apologizing because you were right. I just have a lot going on in my head."
He nodded and leaned against the brick building. "Want a ride home?"
The dojo was located in a relatively busy part of downtown Akron and cars whooshed by steadily from both directions.
Aiyana shook her head. "I'm going straight to the airport."
"You already said bye to your mother?"
Tightness squeezed Aiyana's chest. "You could say that."
He leaned forward with his mouth slightly open and his eyes half closed. His minty, warm breath caressed her face. As his lips inched closer her body tensed and she turned her head. He stepped back and looked down. In the awkward moments that followed he plunged his hands into the pockets of his pants and jingled his keys.
"Peter, I'm so sorry. Call me stupid." She bit her bottom lip and wished she felt more than friendship for him.
He shifted his gaze from the concrete sidewalk to her eyes and forced a smile. "Hey, it's all right. You'd think I'd have gotten the message by now. Right? Well, have a great trip and knock'em down. And don't worry about the place--I've got it covered."
She stepped forward but stopped herself from hugging him. "Thanks for being the truest friend anyone could have."
He nodded. "No problem. Good-bye, Aiyana."
He walked away and her eyes moistened. Why did this good-bye feel so final? She punched numbers into her cell phone and waited. Minutes later a taxi squealed to a stop and she got in to catch a red-eye flight to Tokyo.