The next day was when the real training began.
“Wait,” I interrupt. “Before you go any further, can you take me home?” I ask.
Our lunch was finished, but we were still chatting in the restaurant.
“Sure. Is something wrong?”
“It’s nothing really. It’s just kinda messing with my head that it’s nighttime here. I’m still only halfway through my day.”
“And it’s wayyy to muggy. My hair is going to be a mess.”
Azzen laughs. He pulls out a hundred American dollars and sets it on the table, which I’m sure was way too much. Then he takes my hand and one swirly moment later, we’re in my home.
“Oh, I didn’t actually mean, ‘Home’ home. But I guess this is fine,” I say.
“You’ve always been impossible to please,” he teases.
And the next thing I know, we’re in the top seat or an enormous Ferris wheel.
“Is it okay to be doing that all the time?” I ask.
“I don’t see why not,” Azzen replies.
“Where are we now?”
“Boardwalk of New Orleans.”
Azzen puts his arm up and around me and I snuggle in. It just feels so natural. Maybe he cast a spell on me. I don’t really care.
“Okay,” I say. “Now I’m ready for more.”
When Azzen woke up and got breakfast, he didn’t see Fel, so he ate with the Rats. He still hadn’t figured out where she slept. Everyone else seemed to have to sleep together in the common room. He sat with a group of the bigger guys and older girls. One of the boys clapped him on the back.
“You’re one of us now,” the kid said.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Don’t say ‘yeah,’” the kid said. “Say ‘yes.’ And don’t say ‘noh,’ say ‘no.’ The Master hates Common. You got me?”
Azzen didn’t understand, but said, “yes,” anyways.
“I’m Morty,” the boy introduced himself. “Top of the Rats. You’ll know about me. I’m gonna be the next one to make it up to the Wolf Pack.”
“You aint top of nothing,” a hefty looking girl said. “If anyone moves up, it’ll be that damn Merca.”
“She aint going nowhere, Stupid!” a boy chided. “She likes it here.”
All the boys at the table laughed and the girls smirked. Azzen didn’t quite get the joke.
“Who?” he asked innocently.
“The Merca, Dummy,” Morty said.
“Merca?” Azzen asked.
“Yes. You don’t know what a Merca is?!” the talkative girl asked.
“No. Not really,” Azzen said.
“The Pria,” another boy said, as though that explained anything.
The lack of comprehension was apparent on Azzen’s face. The other kids stared at him like he was stupid.
“Fel,” one of them finally said.
“Oh,” Azzen replied. “She likes it here?”
The whole table burst out laughing, as though Azzen had made some hilarious joke.
“Bet you she does!” one choked out through his mirth.
“Definitely,” said Morty. “She tries to run like every night!”
Another chorus of laughter followed his comment. Azzen figured it must be funny to them that the catgirl obviously hated it here but couldn’t manage to escape.
“Ugh, cut it out,” one of the girls complained. “You shouldn’t talk about her. Just thinking about a Merca is enough to make you sick.”
Everybody laughed again, but Azzen suddenly wasn’t entertained. As they chuckled down their laughter, Azzen tried to change the subject.
“What’s the Wolf Pack?” he asked.
“The white shirts,” Morty explained. “To get there, you have to beat every Rat at the same time. And then the Master will give you white clothes and let you train with them.”
“Oh,” Azzen replied. “Everyone at the same time?”
“Yup,” Morty said proudly. “You can call out a challenge at any time, but if you do, you’ll probably just get your ass kicked. I’m the only one that ever tries. Everybody else knows they don’t stand a chance until I move up.”
“Quit acting tough, Morty. Last time you called a challenge, Fel kicked your ass before anyone else even took a swing.”
“I didn’t expect her to fight!” Morty shouted. “She usually just sits back and yells. She got lucky,” he declared and glared around, daring anyone to challenge his word.
“I thought you just said you fight everyone,” Azzen said. “Why wouldn’t you expect her to fight?”
“She just doesn’t,” Morty said defensively. “She’s class leader, so she thinks she’s too good to train with us. But she’s too scared to call a challenge.”
“Oh,” said Azzen, thinking about it. “Who are those guys with the fancy clothes?” he asked as they were finishing up their meals.
“Those are Dragons. Same concept as a Rat moving up to the Wolf Pack. If you beat the whole Wolf Pack, you get to be a Dragon. There are only three of them right now and they train together.”
“Isn’t that really just less people to practice with?” Azzen asked, seeing obvious flaws in the system. “And if all the Rats get better at the same time, isn’t it possible that they could all be better than the guys in the Wolf Pack, without ever actually advancing?”
The boys eyed him suspiciously.
“What are you talking about?” one asked.
“That’s just stupid,” another said.
Azzen didn’t argue, but he thought it made sense.
The Rats filed outside and lined up in the yard. Several of them began stretching while the others just chatted and joked around. Azzen hung around with Morty for a few minutes until Fel joined them all in the yard.
Morty called everyone to attention by shouting “FORM UP!”
All of the Rats fell into organized ranks and Azzen joined them, trying not to stand out. Fel walked to the front of the pack and without any ado, began blandly calling names.
Each kid repeated their name as it was called. Azzen did the same when Fel called his out at the end of the list.
After that, the catgirl lead the group in a series of stretches and light warm-up exercises. Jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups, and a few other calisthenics that Azzen had never done before. All were simple enough and he was able to copy the form of the kids around him. After that, Fel paired them up in twos or threes. Azzen was teamed with Morty and another big boy. From there, they began practicing proper punches, footwork, and form.
Azzen learned a lot that day. He learned how to hold his body and found his balance. While Fel gave general instructions from the front, Morty was able to assist Azzen and their other partner with the subtler details.
“Hold your back straighter,” he said. “Don’t lean forward so much. You need to be able to move backwards just as quickly as you can move forward.”
Azzen straightened his back while keeping his feet in the diagonal position that Fel had shown.
“Your feet don’t need to be that wide,” Morty said. “Square them with your shoulders. Try to find the spacing that feels comfortable.”
Azzen shifted his feet slightly.
“Now bend your knees a little. You want to be light on your feet.”
“Okay,” Azzen said, bending his knees.
“But stay on the balls of your feet.”
“Oh,” Azzen said. “My feet have balls?”
Morty laughed. “Yes. You know that jutting bone right behind your big toe. Get used to holding your weight on that, not your heels. Even when we’re not training, start walking on your balls. It’ll help you react quicker because you can move in any direction from there without having to shift your weight first.”
“Gotcha,” Azzen replied.
Morty smacked him on the head. “Don’t talk like that.”
Azzen thought the talking rule was dumb, but didn’t complain.
“Now show me how you punch,” Morty said.
Fel had given demonstrations and Azzen tried his best to emulate how she had looked and gave focus to the main points she had brought up. But according to Morty…
“No, you’re doing it all wrong.”
Azzen didn’t thought he’d done it ALL wrong.
“First of all, when Fel said that swiveling your ankle gives you more range, she didn’t mean just let it flop all flimsy. Your punch starts at your foot.”
“What do you mean?”
Morty demonstrated, taking a stance and throwing a slow square punch. Azzen saw what he meant just by watching closely, but he let Morty explain what he was anyways.
“You see how I stay on the ball of my foot and that allows my heel to twist around and let my body forward more? Well, it’s not just to gain range. I’m actually pushing off the ground with my foot. I plant the ball firmly and push from it. The ankle swivel will follow naturally. My punch starts at my foot, flows through my legs, through the twist in my abs, all the way through my back and chest and shoulder. And all that power is focused into my arm and then explodes out of my fist.”
Morty reasserted his stance then threw a full powerful punch. This time at his top speed. Azzen was impressed by how fast the big guy’s whole body moved. It seemed more like a quick twitch of his entire form; not the elaborate hulking swing of a boxer.
“How do you move that fast?” Azzen asked.
“Just practice,” Morty said. “It’s muscle memory. At first, you’ll have to focus on having the punch travel through your whole body, but once you get used to it, everything will occur in sequence, perfectly, and nearly at once.”
“Okay,” Azzen said, taking his stance again.
“Remember,” said Morty. “Start from your toes, explode with your fist, and use every muscle in-between.”
Azzen did as he was told. Pushed from the ball of his foot, shoved with his legs, twisted with his body, and punched with his arm. When he did, he could feel how much more powerful the hit would have been. He realized that before, his punches had pulled his body, but now, his body was pushing his punches, In fact, he had so much force that it carried him off balance and he stumbled forward a little.
Morty chuckled and said, “Not bad, not bad. Focus on keeping your center of balance and slow it down a little bit. Your muscles are actually trained better if you do things in slow motion, rather than trying to do it fast.”
Azzen grinned. Although the Master might not teach him anything, Morty seemed pretty good, and learning to fight could be fun. He thought he saw Fel eying him from the other side of the group, but tried to focus on his own form, instead of hers.
Azzen practiced his punching for a while, while Morty focused on helping the other kid, who was working on high kicks. He switched up his stance every now and then, learning to strike with both arms.
While the kids practiced, Fel walked around inspecting them here and there. Giving them tips or scolding them for being lazy. She would usually wait a few moments before stepping in and correcting some minute error, but when she came to Azzen, she immediately tore into him.
The girl grabbed his elbows that were sticking out and yanked them down.
“You’re fighting, not flying,” she said. “Keep your elbows down. Protect your chest.”
Then she pulled his wrists more outward. “Keep your hands away from your face or you’ll get them shoved into your nose. NO! Don’t drop them low! Just hold them out farther. Lower your chin or I‘ll punch you in the neck.”
She kicked his back foot so it pointed more forward. “Make a ‘V,’ not an ‘L,’” she said. “AND KEEP YOUR BACK STRAIGHT,” she yelled in his ear. In the midst of all the corrections, Azzen had slouched forward.
“Now punch,” she ordered.
Azzen did as he was told, keeping his form and remembering everything Morty had told him. In his head, he thought he did everything perfectly.
But Fel just sighed. “Useless,” she said and walked away.
Azzen turned to Morty in bewilderment. “What did I do wrong?”
Morty grinned at him. “Nothing wrong. That was perfect, actually. She just doesn’t want you getting a big head. Wants you to keep practicing.”
“Oh,” Azzen said, not so sure.
“You’re a quick learner,” Morty complimented. “Keep training your muscles to punch like that one you just did. Remember the things Fel pointed out, and you’ll be calling out challenges in no time.”
Re-encouraged, Azzen took his stance and practiced his slow punches. As he thought he was getting it, he began to slowly increase his speed, but every time he did…
“Slow down,” Morty would say. “This is your first day. You’re doing good, but if you try to go fast, you’ll start to get sloppy. Your lucky to be new cuz I means you don‘t have ant bad habits. If you try to show off, you‘ll form them.”
So Azzen slowed down, and focused on doing everything exactly right, using every muscle in his body from the balls of his feet to the triceps of his arm.
After Fel called out that they had ten more minutes until lunch, Morty told Azzen to try putting it all together and punch fast. Azzen gladly obliged, throwing what he thought were several perfect, precise, powerful, punches.
“Not bad,” Morty said. “You really do learn fast. I’ve got one more thing to add though. I didn’t tell you before because you needed to go slow. One trick to punching… it mostly for the jab, but can be applied to most anything… Instead of trying to push your fist forward with your muscles, just try snapping your elbow inward as fast as you can. Snap your elbow in so that your arm pops straight. Like this.”
Morty took two quick jabs in the blink of an eye.
“Whoa,” Azzen said. Then he tried it, jabbing by snapping his elbow in, rather than pushing his fist out. It worked easily, surprising the boy with how fast his punch was. “Haha, cool!” he exclaimed.
“Don’t overdo it,” Morty warned. “If you’re too strong, you’ll pop your elbow out. And you’ll notice as your practicing that your elbows will start to hurt. Give them time to heal. Work your body up a little at a time. You don’t want to injure yourself. But at the same time, no pain, no gain, right?” he winked.
Fel announced that training was over and that they could all go get lunch. Azzen followed the Rats inside and ate some more mush. Once again, he felt the revitalizing effects of the food, though this time he didn’t need it as much.
As we’re sitting in the Ferris wheel, I try a jab like Azzen described in his story.
“Huh, cool,” I say.
“I know, right?” he laughs. “That’s everyone’s reaction.”
“I didn’t know I could punch that fast.”
“Nah, you slow. You was way faster back then.”
“Let’s get off this thing,” I say. “My butt’s falling asleep.”
Azzen yawns and stretches wide. “Alright,” he agrees. “Do you actually mind if I take you home? I’m pretty tired. I was up all night catching stardust.”
“Oh,” I say. I’m a little disappointed, but I hide it in my voice. “Yeah, that’s fine.”
“Thanks,” he says and pulls me close to his chest.
The mist swirls around us and a moment later, we’re back in my kitchen.
“Where do you sleep at night?” I ask.
“I have a place,” he says.
We stare at each other, lingering for just one moment too long.
“Well, I should go,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say. “Will I see you tomorrow?”
“Yah,” he says. “Goodbye Fel.”