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Gone Through Life White-Knuckled

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"Y'know," George comments, tending to Alanna's new black eye with the usual ice-filled towel, "I'm sure there are better ways to work through tension than gettin' in fights at my bar."

Alanna smirks. "Oh, definitely. I'm planning to explore another one after you close tonight."

He snorts. "Well, obviously, I won't be sayin' no to that. But apparently it's not enough."

"That's not it," she protests.

George waves it away. "I'm not heartbroken thinkin' I'm not enough to satisfy you or anythin'. Not worried about that at all. But pickin' fights isn't exactly the best way to deal with whatever else you're going through."

She opens her mouth, about to say she's not going through anything, and then shuts it. It's patently false, and George knows that better than anyone. And she has been getting into more fights. Most of them deserve it, but that's just an excuse. If someone's an asshole, George will kick them out. She doesn't have to start a brawl. "Did you have any suggestions?" she asks finally.

George smiles. "I was hopin' you'd see it my way. You used to do karate, right? Ever thought about pickin' it up again?"

"I wanted to when I got to college, but--" Alanna stops, a grin slowly spreading across her face. "I was afraid my father would find out."

He grins back. "Well, that sounds like a grave concern, to be sure."

"To be sure," she agrees solemnly.

He ruffles her hair. "Not that I don't enjoy watchin' you kick ass, mind. It's about my favorite thing. But I can't say as you're good for business."

She laughs. "Sorry I'm causing problems."

"Everywhere you go."

*

Buri has what Thayet likes to call some aggression to work out and Buri likes to call deep-seated rage issues. Either way, Alanna knows she goes to a mixed martial arts class three times a week, and she's delighted when Alanna wants to join her.

"Yeah, beginners are always welcome," she says. It's probably the most enthusiastic Alanna has ever seen her. Hitting things obviously brings out the best in Buri. "New people come in all the time. You're a little old to get started, but you did karate before, right?"

"It's been years," Alanna hedges. "These days I just get in bar fights. I might be losing George business."

"I would have thought getting rid of scumbags was a public service."

"Yeah, but I think he misses getting to do it himself."

Buri looks at her askance. "You're happy with him, aren't you? I wasn't expecting that."

Alanna's too surprised to bristle at the question. "You weren't?"

She shrugs. "I don't know. I never pictured you with someone like him. The only other person I knew you'd liked was Jonathan, and you have to admit they're pretty different. But you seem happy."

"I am happy," she agrees. "He's--better for me. Than someone like Jon would have been. I would have always been trying to be someone different for Jon, even if he didn't want me to be."

Buri nods. "I think I understand." She gives Alanna a stern look. "Just don't make a habit of it. We don't want to encourage stalking."

Alanna smiles. "I'll make sure he knows you don't approve."

The Shang Dojo is a small, industrial building, but as soon as Alanna goes in she can tell it's the real deal. A redheaded man is teaching a group of children the basics, and a few groups of mixed adults sparring in the other room. Buri takes her to the front desk and gets her signed up for the women's beginners' class. Buri is in intermediate, and assures Alanna she'll be promoted in no time.

"I've seen you fight," she says, grinning. "You're not that rusty."

"Brought us some new blood, Buri?" asks an older woman, coming up to the two of them with a smile. She extends her hand to Alanna. "I'm Eda Bell. It sounds like you just signed up for my class."

"Alanna," she says, shaking. "My boyfriend thinks I need to work through some aggression."

"And do you think that?"

Alanna looks around, feeling tension draining out of her shoulders, being replaced with anticipation. She's missed this.. "I think it's a good start."

*

The beginners' class is eight women, most of them in worse shape than Alanna. Eda Bell is patient and thorough, correcting stances and drilling everyone until the motions are second nature. Even though she's not hitting anything, Alanna finds the exercise helps. She used to go to the gym regularly, but she'd gotten busy enough during junior year that it fell to the wayside. Now it's obvious what a bad idea that was.

"I'm not sure you belong in the beginner class," someone comments as she packs up. Alanna glances over and sees the redheaded teacher from before.

"Well, it's my first time," she says.

"There's no way that's true."

"My first time here, anyway. I did karate when I was a kid. I had a brown belt. But MMA is a new style for me."

"Hm. And no fighting since the karate?"

She smirks. "Nothing sanctioned."

He laughs at that. "Is that where you got that shiner?"

She touches her eye; she'd already forgotten. "Might have been. But you should see the other guys."

"How many other guys were there?"

"Three."

He grins. "Liam Ironarm," he says, extending his hand. "Welcome to the dojo."

"Alanna--" She fumbles over the last name. Trebond feels like lead in her mouth. like a lie. Olau doesn't feel much better. She's accepted Myles' offer, but she still doesn't feel settled about it. "Cooper," she finally says. "Alanna Cooper." George would get a kick out of it. She shakes his hand--firm, confident grip, but an easy smile. Alanna's pretty sure she'd lose a fight to him in short order. "Is your name actually Ironarm?"

"It's what I go by here," he says, which makes her feel better about lying herself. He can go by Liam Ironarm here, and she can go by Alanna Cooper. "So, you're a friend of Buri's?"

"Yeah, she's my roommate's girlfriend," says Alanna. "And we have our deep-seated rage issues in common."

He laughs. "Now, what do you have to rage about?"

"Don't get me started."

"Woman of mystery, I see." He nods his approval. "Well, Alanna of the Deep-Seated Rage, would you like to try sparring with me?"

"I think I'm pretty outmatched. But I never say no to a fight."

"That's what I like to hear."

She can tell Liam's holding back, going slow to gauge how she moves and what she's like, and that's fine. He could take her out in short order if he wanted to, but then he wouldn't get to see anything. He blocks her blow for blow, but doesn't make any of his own moves until later, striking out so quickly she can barely dodge.

They've got an audience by the time she finally says, panting, "Yield! Yield." She grins. "I know you could have taken me out any time you wanted to."

"But then I wouldn't have gotten to see you," he says. "I'm putting you in the intermediate class. I'll do ten minutes of basics with you before so you learn that too, but you have enough experience you shouldn't be wasting your time."

"You're the expert," Alanna says, but she can't keep a grin off her face. She's good at this. She's awesome.

He grabs a towel and wipes his face off. "I'm done for the day," he remarks. "Would you be interested in getting a drink?"

"Sure," says Alanna, grabbing her water bottle. "I was actually headed to the Dancing Dove anyway. I'd be happy to have company."

"Well then, lead the way."

*

On their way to the Dove, Alanna learns that Liam is twenty-four and has been studying martial arts almost his whole life. He's nationally ranked and nearly made it to the last summer Olympics in judo. She doesn't tell him as much about herself; so much of her life feels like an open wound right now, a raw spot she doesn't know how to patch. She tells him she's rising senior studying history, and she doesn't know what she wants to do with her life. It's true, but she still feels a little dishonest. Making new friends is a pain.

It's early, not even five yet, so the Dove is deserted except for George and Faithful. Faithful seems convinced that if he just meows at them long enough, they'll start understanding, and he's keeping up a steady stream of chatter at George. As soon as he spots Alanna, he jumps off the counter and runs over to talk to her instead, as if he expects she'll be able to translate.

She scoops him up with a smile. "Watch out, if you keep complaining, we won't let you come downstairs at all anymore."

Liam raises his eyebrows. "A friend of yours?"

"My cat, Faithful. And that's my boyfriend, George, behind the bar." George waves, looking amused.

"Ah."

"We decided he has to be an indoor cat," Alanna explains, going over to the bar and putting Faithful back down. "But the apartment is a little small, so he's allowed to hang out at the bar when it isn't too busy."

"Nice to have a little company," George remarks. "That wasn't a very good introduction, darlin'. I didn't even get his name."

"Oh! Sorry. George, this is Liam, he's an instructor at Buri's dojo."

Liam comes over and shakes George's hand, looking a little awkward. "Nice to meet you."

"Pleasure," says George. He looks like he's trying very hard not to laugh. Alanna feels like there's an entirely separate conversation happening, one she can't hear.

"What?" she snaps, glaring at George.

Now he does laugh. "She's not always good with social cues," he tells Liam. "We're workin' on it." Before Alanna can smack him, he says, "Did the nice boy ask if you wanted to get a drink, Alanna?"

"Yes," she says, still glaring.

"Most people askin' that are disappointed when you bring 'em to your boyfriend's bar."

It takes a minute, and then she turns bright red, turning to look at Liam. He's about as red as she is. No one's ever asked if she want to get a drink before. She thought he was just being friendly. They'd hit it off, it made sense he'd want to hang out. He is good looking, she supposes. She's not sure why he'd be asking her out, of all people, but she probably should have realized. "Oh," she says. "Sorry. I didn't think--"

George ruffles her hair. "No harm done. Right, Liam?"

Liam recovers enough to smile. "No harm done. I should have known I wouldn't be so lucky. All the good fighters are taken."

"Good recovery," says George. "Just for that, your first round's on the house. What can I get you?"

There's still some awkwardness to get past, but once they start talking martial arts, it's easy. At least it is until Jon shows up around seven.

"Alanna!" he exclaims, draping himself over her shoulders like a human backpack. He's definitely been pre-gaming. "I missed you! It's been too long."

"It's been four days. It would have been two if you'd actually made it to Daine's birthday, instead of lying in a ditch somewhere." It's not an exaggeration; Jon had sent a snapchat at eight-thirty of Raoul and part of his own foot lying by the side of the road with the caption, we live in this ditch now, tell daine hbd. Daine said it was the best present she'd ever gotten.

"Too long," Jon says. "Hi, George. Hi--Thom?"

"Oh my god," says Alanna. "You're a mess, Jon Conte. Liam, Jon. Jon, Liam. Liam's a teacher from Buri's dojo."

"I thought you looked very muscular and tan," Jon says. He reaches his arm right across Alanna's face to shake Liam's hand; Alanna bites him. She's not sure he even notices. "Nice to meet you."

"Jon Conte?" he asks, raising his eyebrows at Alanna. "Quite the company you keep."

"He followed me home one day," she says, with a sigh. "And now I can't get rid of him."

"Once you feed me I don't go away," Jon agrees. "That's why George can't get rid of me either. He works at a bar. He always has food."

"Now, if you'd told me all I had to do to get rid of you was quit, I would've done it ages ago," George teases. "Where's your better half, Jon?"

"Early meeting tomorrow," Jon says, with an exaggerated sigh. "It's like he doesn't even want to have drunk sex tonight."

"I have something early too, actually," says Liam, sounding a little strange. "I'd better take off. It was nice to meet all of you. I'll see you on Wednesday, Alanna?"

"Wednesday," Alanna agrees, frowning. George is right, she's not great at social cues, but even she can tell something's a little off about this. "Night, Liam."

He takes off and Jon takes his vacated seat. George gives him a glass of water, because George is secretly a mother hen. It makes Alanna smile, and she forgets the weirdness of Liam leaving. Who cares, really? She's got great friends. If Liam doesn't end up another one of them, it's his loss.

*

Daine calls the next day to ask if Alanna's free for dinner. The request feels oddly formal, but she's pretty sure she's not missing any vital social cues with this one. It's not like Daine is asking her out. Alanna's pretty sure about that one.

They meet up at Daine's friend's vegetarian diner, and Daine fidgets through ordering before she finally says, "I need your advice." Alanna tries not to wince, but she must, because Daine says, "You'll be fine!"

"I thought you and Numair were together now. Why do you need advice? Is it career advice? I can't give that either."

Daine blushes. "It's about, um--sex."

"Oh."

"We haven't had any yet."

"Well, it's only been a few days," Alanna says. Sex is easier than relationships; she feels like she's pretty good at sex. "I don't think that's a red flag."

"But I want to be," Daine huffs. "He's the one who thinks he should be chivalrous. And I'm tired of waiting! And I know he's been waiting longer than I have, so he should be too. But he thinks if we do it now then he's--" she waves. "I don't know. He thinks I need time to adjust or something. I think he has a checklist of relationship steps, and we haven't gotten to sex yet. That would be like him."

"Not having sex isn't a problem I've ever had," Alanna muses. All she had was sex with Jon, and she and George hooked up before they were even dating. "Did you just tell him you were ready?"

"I told him it wouldn't be the first time, and that just made him sad."

"Sad?"

Daine bites her lip. "I told him I did it once just to see what it was like, and it didn't mean anything. So now he thinks this time has to really mean something. Be special. And I don't care! I don't want rose petals on the bed or a fancy meal first or anything. It's going to be special because it's going to be with him."

Alanna smiles. "Did you tell him that?"

"Yes. And he said I was sweet and kissed me on the forehead." She huffs. "I thought boys always wanted sex."

Alanna clucks her tongue. "Have you tried just taking your clothes off?" she asks. She's not an expert or anything, but she doubts Numair really has that much self control. He hadn't even made it to midnight before he kissed Daine; she won ten bucks off George for that one. "It's not exactly fancy, but I bet it would get the job done." She looks at Daine. "You're happy, though? It's going well, aside from this?"

Daine's smile is delighted and love-struck. It's easy to forget how young she is, but in that moment she looks all of sixteen, flushed with the excitement of her first boyfriend. It makes Alanna feel twisted up with pride. Numair better not screw this up. "I really like him," she says. "I never thought he'd be interested in someone like me."

"I'm pretty sure he feels the same way," Alanna says, putting her hand on Daine's.

"Yeah, I know. It's fair wonderful."

*

"Cooper, huh," Liam says, flat, when Alanna arrives at the Shang dojo on Wednesday.

She winces. Anyone who knows anything about celebrity gossip could put it together, once they met Jon. "It's what I go by here," she says, meeting his eyes defiantly.

"And why is that?"

"Because I'm not a Trebond anymore. And I haven't decided what I am yet."

"You should have told me."

"Why?" she asks. "I barely know you."

Liam runs his hand through his hair. He looks more frustrated than she'd expect. "You're a Trebond. You hang out with a Conte."

Alanna bristles. "I'm not a Trebond anymore," she repeats. "My father's made that clear. And what does it matter?"

"You can't stop being the person you were raised as," says Liam. "And I don't have the best history with people raised like you were. You try something like this for a while on a whim. Living like the rest of us. Trying out stupid hobbies, going to dive bars." His smile is cruel. "Dating dive bartenders. You try it, and you get tired of it and leave."

Alanna sees red and lunges, ready to strike him. But he's faster than she is. "You don't say a thing about George," she snarls, dropping into ready position for another fight. If that's how he wants to play, she's game. "Not a fucking word."

He stares back at her for a moment that stretches, like he's thinking about fighting her too. But he doesn't; he deflates, all the cruelty going out of him in a rush. Suddenly, he just looks tired. "You're right. That was--I was out of line."

Alanna takes deep breaths, trying to calm herself down. Her fingers are itching. "You don't know a thing about it," she says coldly, straightening up.

He looks at her for a long minute. "Maybe I don't."

She goes to Eda's class again, even though she should be in Liam's. She can't look at him right now. Whatever's there, whatever happened, it's clearly not really about her. He clearly has some issues, those are his business. But she's not going to let him take them out on her.

She still spends an hour going after one of their punching bags after class, until she stops feeling like marching into the Dancing Dove and starting a goddamn brawl.

She's not surprised to find Liam waiting for her when she leaves the dojo, but she doesn't say anything to him, just keeps walking and lets him follow.

"I'm sorry," he says. "I was way out of line."

"You were."

He lets out a long breath. "I--there was a girl."

Alanna snorts. "You don't say."

"Her father wanted her to learn self-defense, she came and took classes. We were--I thought it was love."

"I don't care." He looks mildly scandalized, and she shrugs. "We all have sob stories. I'm finding it hard to care much about yours right now."

To her surprise, he laughs. "You know, you're right. There's no reason you should care."

She cracks a smile, reluctant. "So, her father didn't approve, and she broke your heart?"

"I was going to be more dramatic about it."

"Well, a rich kid broke my heart once too," she says. "You don't see me complaining about it."

*

"Do you still--" Alanna starts. George is making dinner--roasted chicken, because despite his protests, he's secretly a good cook. The kitchen smells like home. He glances back at her, and she lets out a huff of breath. "Do you still care that I'm rich?"

"You're not rich."

"That I was, then."

"I never cared." She glares at him, and he relents. "It was never about you bein' rich, Alanna. It's about you bein' the type of girl who can do whatever she wants. You're goin' to graduate and take on the whole world. I'm proud as anythin'. I can't wait. But I'm goin' to get a bar someday. That's what I'm lookin' forward to."

"So, it does bother you."

He comes over to where she's sitting on the counter top, slotting himself between her legs for a long kiss. "Not so long as you take me with you." He rests his forehead against hers. "What's botherin' you?"

"Liam. I--lied about my name yesterday. I don't feel like a Trebond anymore, if I ever did. He found out, because of Jon I guess, and he's got--unresolved issues. With the rich and powerful." She shrugs. "We had a fight, he was an ass, but I think we're okay now. But it reminded me you worry about it too."

"Nah," says George. "Not really. You play for keeps, Alanna. Anyone can see that."

"He said it was just a rich-kid phase," she mutters. "Dating a bartender. I wanted to kill him for a second."

"Defendin' my honor, huh?" George says. "I'm flattered, darlin'."

That makes her smile. "You want flattery? I told him my name was Alanna Cooper."

She's expecting him to laugh, maybe tease her, but he's quiet, and when she looks up to meet his eyes there's some emotion in them so deep that it's almost frightening. "It's got a nice ring to it," he says, trying for casual, but his voice is rough.

She licks her lips. It hasn't been very long. She knows that, intellectually. They've been together for almost two months, and that's nothing, really. But it's like George said, she plays for keeps. Once she's made up her mind, it's made up.

She winds her arms around his neck and pulls him down to kiss him again. "I've heard worse," she says, and it must be the right thing, because she can feel him grin against her lips.