Crandall sat on the mat-covered floor, his back to the wall. Ash’s leg was propped on his bent knees. Crandall pressed a cold compress against Ash’s ankle.
“How’s it feel to lose a match?” Crandall asked.
“I didn’t lose.” Ash watched Mike and Dragan spar in the center of the Pit. “This is just an injury time out.”
“Yeah, sure. Try that with the next vampire you find. ‘Excuse me, Fang, but I need an injury time out to put a brace on my fucked up ankle.’”
Ash rolled his eyes, but a laugh sneaked out. “I’ll be fine by morning.”
Crandall lifted the ice pack and prodded Ash’s ankle. Ash flinched and sucked in a sudden breath, hissing through his clenched teeth. “I think you should go to the hospital.”
“We heal fast.”
“Yeah.” Crandall frowned and replaced the ice pack.
“The swelling will be gone by morning; the tenderness by nightfall.”
They fell silent for several minutes. After Dragan dropped Mike to the mats, Mike limped over to where Crandall and Ash sat. “How you doing, man?”
Ash waved him off. “I’ll be okay.”
Mike shifted his gaze to Crandall, and his look softened, a tenderness Crandall knew Mike thought he hid shined in Mike’s eyes. “Your turn.”
Crandall smothered a smile. It was stupid, the way he felt like smiling whenever Mike looked at him like that. He knew Mike cared, and he did to – cared about Mike – so why’d he feel like a stupid airhead girl when Mike looked at him in that way that was only his?
“I’m done,” Crandall said. “Someone has to babysit this tough shit.”
“Go practice,” Ash said.
“I only came along because I needed to put you in your place. That’s done. I’m done.”
“You did not put me in my place.”
Crandall snorted, and looked up at Mike. “Don’t wear yourself out too soon.”
Mike pressed his lips together in a thin line, and then he shook his head and laughed. He turned around and headed back into the center of the Pit, still shaking his head.
“He’s still not comfortable with this,” Crandall said. “How can I make him just be himself? He’s so uptight about hiding, even here, when you and Dragon know. It’s fucking stupid.”
“You’ve never been in the closet?”
“What do you mean why? It bothers you that Mike is, but haven’t you ever, you know, hid your sexuality, or wanted to, or felt shamed by some jerk who thinks anyone not “normal” is bad or wrong?”
Crandall frowned. He couldn’t understand any of it. Ash spoke like it was common place. It seemed to be, the way some people talked, and the way the media treated anything not straight, white and upper-middle-class. But he still didn’t get it. People were who they were, and they shouldn’t hide it. That sort of shit is exhausting.
“Never?” Ash pushed.
Crandall shrugged. “My brother left, and I didn’t understand why at the time. I was pissed at him for leaving me with our father. But later, recently, I realized, maybe, he was gay. Or something. Something dad didn’t approve of anyway.” He shrugged again. The memories were fleeting and faded with time. One day Sam was there and the next he was never spoken of again.
“It sucks. Family should be the ones you can turn to for anything.”
Crandall studied Ash. Something in his voice tugged at Crandall. “Yeah,” he said. “Your family fucked up too?”
Ash laughed but Crandall could tell it was laced with wistful sadness. “No, just me.” He shook his head and sighed. “If my family had their way, I’d be in a pink dress and a white straight jacket.” When Crandall said nothing, Ash added, “So I don’t talk to them anymore.”
“Good. Doesn’t matter if they’re family, if they’re fucking stupid and mean, then you owe them nothing.”
“Exactly.” Ash nodded. He lifted his leg from Crandall’s lap and gingerly prodded his ankle.
“Ready to surrender and go to the hospital?”
“No, Crandall, I’m okay.” Ash stretched both legs out in front of him. “Just tired. You know how that goes. Always exhausted after our healing kicks in.”
Crandall thought about it as he watched Dragan lead Mike into letting his guard down. Crandall saw it coming before Mike did. Dragan feinted left and then bobbed to the right and swept Mike’s legs out from under him. Mike should’ve seen that coming; he had more experience than Crandall. Why was he missing those?