“Different how?” Crandall asked.
Ash sat back against the matted wall. “I’m living as a man. That’s who I am. The only thing I’m hiding is my biological defect, and that’s no one’s business unless they’re looking to get naked with me.” Crandall grimaced and Ash said, “And, at the same time, I agree with that naked goal.”
“I don’t want to picture you naked,” Crandall grumbled.
“Because we’re friends, or because I’m broken?”
Crandall scowled at the floor, and then shrugged and looked up at Ash. Ash faced the other way, and Crandall didn’t understand why, or his question. “Because we’re fucking friends,” Crandall said as if it was the stupidest question with the most obvious answer. “I already knew you weren’t as perfect as you think you are.”
Ash faced Crandall, confusion on his face.
“Oh, was that a secret too?” Crandall snorted. He rolled his eyes and pushed himself onto his feet. He was about to head for the locker room when Ash startled him with a laugh.
“You really don’t hold back, do you?” Ash said in sudden revelation. He rose to his feet in one fluid motion. “I had figured the abrasion was a defensive mechanism, but it’s just… you.”
Crandall shrugged. It was true; what more was there to say on the matter.
“One of these days you’re going to out Mike.”
“Nah, though it’s tempting to do so and blame my mouth.” Crandall frowned at Ash’s feet. “Mike’s different. He’d get over it, maybe even be happier for it, but I can’t make that choice for him.”
“That’s big of you.”
“Don’t get pretentious again. We’re finally getting along.”
Ash held up his hands in surrender. “You’re right.”
“So instead, help me convince him to stop worrying about what everyone else thinks.”
“Oh no, I’m not getting in the middle of that.”
“In the middle of what?” Crandall and Ash spun around. Mike stood at the edge of the Pit, looking down at them. Before they could answer his first question, Mike asked, “You two done, or can I join you?”
Ash relaxed, and said, “If you’re not worn out from that yoga class.”
Mike sighed. “I think I pulled a muscle trying to dodge Dottie and Michelle.”
Ash laughed and motioned for Mike to join them. Crandall slipped past him as Mike stepped through the Pit door.
“Where are you going?” Mike asked.
“I need to think,” he said. “Start without me.” He waved a hand in a go-on gesture, and then ducked out of the room.
Mike turned to face Ash. “Anything I should know about?”
“He’s anxious about your run in with Judas last night.”
“Am not!” Crandall called from the door. “And fuck you.”
Ash waited until he left the room, and then said, “I get the impression he doesn’t exaggerate?”
Mike shook his head. “Why?”
“Ah, yeah,” Mike took a deep breath, sighed, and then shook his head. “I don’t know what we’re going to do about this mess. We’re going to have to take him completely by surprise, and I’m not so sure that’s even possible at this point.”
“What about the vampire with a crush on your man?”
“The one he treated like dirt, who then told us off and stormed away?”
“Ouch.” Ash tossed his towel aside and gestured toward the center of the Pit. “Blow off some steam?”
Mike nodded. He pulled the elastic from his hair, and used his fingers to comb back what had fallen loose during class. Once his ponytail hung down his back again, Mike moved into the middle of the circle, and Ash joined him, already dropping into his favorite stance.
For several minutes, the only sounds in the room were the rush of breaths and the sharp slaps of hits and blocks. Once they were both breathing heavy, and sweating profusely, Ash spoke. “So how are you and Crandall doing?” he asked.
“Besides that vampire shit last night?”
Ash worked a shrug into a block and then went on the offensive with several combinations strung together until he had Mike up against the wall. Then he said, “Sure. You’re still all lovey-dovey?”
Mike tensed and dropped an arm just enough for Ash to get in a good hit, doubling Mike over. He backed off, but kept his arms up and his gaze focused on Mike’s torso, prepared for a counter attack.
Once Mike found his breath and voice again, he said, “I wouldn’t say lovey-dovey ever fit. What’d he say?”
“Nothing much,” Ash said. He started to circle to his right as Mike eased away from the wall, ready to fight again.
“C’mon, man, you had to have a reason for asking that.”
“I know you’re a couple now. It’s what friends talk about.” He stepped forward, but Mike anticipated his move, so Ash backed up again, looking for another opening.
“We’re good,” Mike said.
“Are you sure?” As the question had its intended effect, and Mike hesitated to think about the meaning behind it, Ash rushed in with a flurry of blows that pushed Mike backwards until he had to side step to avoid being trapped. As he did, Ash lashed out, tripping Mike and following him to the ground.
With one arm over Mike’s windpipe, freezing him without choking him, Ash said, “Got’cha.” He eased backward and rose to his feet. “Keep your mind in the fight, Mike. You know that. Come on, let’s try again.” He offered Mike a hand, and wondered what worries Mike had about Crandall’s love.