Tommy hits the heavy bag experimentally, right-left-right-left, simple body blows. He's definitely weaker on his left, even his knuckles feel weaker, though he hasn't been training with either one. The shock of the blows, even pulled, travels up to his shoulder and makes it notice. It's not pain, though, just sensation, and he puts more force into the next blows, tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap, until he's back in the rhythm he likes. Still half strength.
Brendan put everything he had into one fight; Tommy can't do that. He's got the next fight, and the next, and the next. A reputation, now, for being a hard mother-fucker--because that's what people thought it was when he kept fighting in the octagon, against Brendan. No one needs to know that it was because he couldn't stop fighting.
It's starting to feel good now, warmth spreading through his muscles. He's been doing the exercises prescribed by the physical therapist Brendan made him go to with something approaching religious fervor. Flexing with those pussy little bands, even those fatigued him.
But it worked, the shoulder feels strong and stable now, even if he is hyper aware of it. He starts dancing a little. His calves are tight too, but that's just because he's not loose yet. He'll get there; he'll get there, he won't have to take any more of Brendan's money, his fucking bribe money, his blood money. Guilt money.
The Marines couldn’t wait to get rid of him. There was a short court martial during which the lawyer, paid for by Brendan, said a few things, and Tommy got a medal and was med-boarded out. PTSD, they said. His lawyer explained that it was all about the military saving face, that a million kids who watched MMA had gone to their local recruiting offices after the tournament started, and they didn’t want him dishonorably discharged or worse. Everyone wanted to be like Tommy Riordan. Conlon. Especially people who’d never met him.
Tommy doesn’t want to think about that—eighteen-year-old kids, just like he’d been, becoming brothers, falling in love with the life, the hard work of it, the camaraderie, only to find out how little they mattered. HQ didn’t look where they dropped their bombs, and then some kid’s cradling what’s left of his brother, as he bleeds out from mangled limbs.
Brendan was there at the trial—hearing—whatever they called it. He wore a nice suit, nothing he could have afforded before the fight.
Before the fight. Tommy had started thinking of it like that, one of the dividing lines in his life. Before he left with his mom, and after. Before she got cancer, and after. Her death and joining the corps is one line blurred together, a hazy year when he exorcised the pain with physical exhaustion and alcohol.
Brendan looked concerned and touched Tommy’s elbow gently, on the side that was still healing, as they walked to his car. “Hey man, you already dislocated my arm once,” said Tommy. He started to throw his shoulder into Brendan’s then stopped because the fucker still hurt. He should have done it anyway, because Brendan’s face went closed for a moment, a flash of guilt and pain and anger.
“Yeah, sorry,” said Brendan. He opened Tommy’s door for him.
“You can just drop me anywhere, man,” said Tommy.
“Yeah?” said Brendan. “Where are you going?”
“Dad’ll probably put me up for a while. Figure he still owes me. Plus I gotta—” He felt bad about that, Dad weaving around the hotel room, fallen soldiers everywhere, even though that’s what he’d been trying to do since he arrived in Pittsburgh. Prove he could get to Dad enough to push him there. Not that a drunk needed a reason to drink. “I gotta see how he’s doing.”
“Dad’s fine,” said Brendan. “I want—Tess said it would be okay if you stayed with us for a while. ‘Til your shoulder heals—or longer if you want.”
He knew already that he was going to do it—Brendan could be a whiny little bitch when he wanted to, plus he had that older brother thing. He was the one who knew what to do, the one who knew how to get smokes and girls and drinks when they were growing up. Tommy was going to do what Brendan wanted because it was what he wanted that too. Even with the gap between them, in that moment, with the sun shining through the windshield, the inside of the car starting to grow cool from the A/C, Tommy felt like maybe he deserved to be with Brendan and his family, not his father and the broken past.
“You can work out with Frank when you’re ready,” he said.
“I don’t wanna work out with Frank.” Tommy whined the name. “You work out with Frank.”
“I will. I am. But—Tommy, I’m done.”
“You’re on top, man,” said Tommy.
“That’s how I want to go out,” Brendan answered, sounding serene. He pulled onto the freeway. Clear roads and not a cloud in the sky. “Not like—fuck it—Jason Kendall?”
“He’s still catching for the, um, Royals,” said Tommy.
“Yeah, no way.”
“You, though . . .”
He did what chores he could around Brendan’s house, one handed. Met his nieces, who warmed to him faster than they should to a guy who looked like him. He planned to talk to them about that when they got older. After a week, Tess was willing to let him watch them when she ran errands.
After two weeks, Tommy’s shoulder felt well enough that he could go for a run with Brendan. He knew Brendan was taking it easy on him, but he didn’t mind. There was a thread of pain with each step, a cloud in a clear sky, telling him to be careful.
They ran around the development, past perfect little houses, with green grass and toys on the front lawn. The sort that could make him shake with anger if he thought about it, that people had this, that Brendan’s daughters had him and Tess, while Tommy had--whatever.
“I gotta go back to Dad soon,” said Tommy, when they stood in a cul de sac catching their breath. This one backed down over a small ravine. The development was a maze of them, swaths of asphalt, backing up on narrow strips of woods. Tommy felt exposed under the sky, on the broad, baking pavement.
“You don’t have to go anywhere,” said Brendan. “I--wasn’t sure sure how to tell you this. The money . . .”
Tommy waved that off. If It would piss him off if he thought about it. Of course Brendan needed the money too, but now Tommy was living on charity. Not for long. He was going to go back and train with his dad, enter some more fights, win money for Manny’s family.
He would win next time. No one else could have done that to him, what Brendan did. That was a big brother thing, all the way.
“Frank got ten percent as my agent. I’m sending a mil to your--was it Rosie? And you get a mil. If you want it.”
The world got far away. Tommy couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t hear anything besides rushing in his ears. Brendan shook him by the shoulder. “Did you hear me? Are you okay?”
Tommy shook him off. “You know what, fuck you, man. I’m not some kind of charity case, and neither is Pilar. That’s her name.”
“No, you asshole. You’re family. I don’t want you living with Dad unless you want to. I don’t want—I want you to be able to do whatever you want. You’re a great fighter. You could be a star.”
“Like you never were,” Tommy spat.
“Right,” said Brendan, as though the words had no power to harm him, “like I never was. I know what that was in the ring. That was luck, that was fate. That was a sign, or whatever. I want to do the right thing. I want to own my house, be a teacher, send my kids to school. I don’t want you to be a fighter unless that’s what you want. Let me do this.”
“Let you buy your way out of your guilt.”
“If that’s how you want it to be, yes, then.”
“What about my guilt? How do I get to buy that back?”
“Oh, you’re admitting some fault now?” said Brendan, backing up.
So he was getting to Brendan, a little. “Yeah, man. All the fault in the world. As much fault as you want. It’s all me.”
“Fucking grow up, Tommy. Take the money, don’t take the money. Give 2 million to—Pilar if you want. Just—”
“Just . . . I don’t know. Be my brother. You’ve been great with the kids. They love you. Don’t—” Brendan laughed mirthlessly “—don’t be a stranger, okay?”
“I can’t stay with you no more,” said Tommy. “I gotta get my head straight.” He’d take a little bit of that dough to get a place, maybe. Brendan was probably right about Dad. Living with him would be a mistake. “I’ll—” he looked at Brendan’s chin, bristling with weekend stubble. Like Dad used to look all the time. Brendan always looked more like him than Tommy did. “I’ll borrow some—”
“Whatever,” said Brendan. “Race you back?”
Tommy tried to smile, but it didn’t really come. “Yeah, watch out.”
Brendan grinned a little at that. “Yeah, I’ll watch out. If you can catch me.”
Tommy took a different route back.
His hand twists stupidly on the next blow, and yes, there's the pain. Time to stop now. If he's smart.
No one ever accused him of that, when he was growing up. Brendan was the smart one, the one their mother saw herself in, even if he looked more like Dad. Tommy was the copy of his father, any fool could see that. Their mother saw that. Tommy went with her to prove her wrong. If he'd known what it would cost him, maybe he wouldn't have.
The lights flick on, and Tommy looks up. Brendan told him no one came to the gym before 11am, because Frank wasn’t a morning person, and definitely not a 6am person.
Fuck, Brendan probably set this up. He's been trying to fix up Tommy with Frank since last fight. “I don't want you training with Dad,” he said, more than once. Taking a pull on a beer and giving Tommy a side-eye that Tommy can't read.
“Don't put me between you,” Tommy spat the last time, when they drank beers on Brendan’s deck.
“He's old school. He's got you eating peanut butter sandwiches for crying out loud.”
“I like peanut butter,” said Tommy. Nothing wrong with that, not like the shit that Brendan eats, all chicken breasts and broccoli. Boring shit. He almost got in the car that he'd bought (with Brendan's money, don't forget) and drove back to Pittsburgh when Brendan got after him like that. Dad was probably keeping that shitty attic room warm for him. No doubt. Sitting and waiting and listening to Moby Dick, getting his two-week chit, his one month chit. Picking up the pieces that Tommy had shattered.
Yeah, he's not going back, but not because he’s gonna start training Frank. He turns, hoping to see one of the trainers, or maybe even Brendan, but Frank it is, silhouetted in the light from the open door.
“Brendan gave me a key,” Tommy calls out. Brendan is part owner of the gym now, even though Frank told him it was a bad plan. His brother is a sap.
“It's cool,” says Frank.
Tommy stops working and shakes out his hands. He’s going to fucking deal with this, because his brother is a pain in the ass. “Did he send you here?” he asks, squinting at Frank.
Frank runs his hands through his hair. “I swear he didn't. I couldn't sleep.” Frank wears sleeveless Underarmor shirts that show off his arms, lean and cut. Too lean for a pro, but perfect for his frame. The hair makes Tommy want to laugh, the cock’s comb shape of it, longer on top and shorter on the sides.
“Yeah,” says Tommy. “Me neither.”
“How's the shoulder?” Frank asks.
Tommy rolls his shoulder back, rolls his neck around. “Not bad,” he says. “Still feels like I gotta be careful, though.”
Tommy throws a couple more punches at the bag, working himself back into his rhythm.
“I can hear that you’re favoring it,” says Frank, with his eyes closed, and his head tipped slightly back. “Can you hear that? It's a lighter sound.”
Tommy can hear it, now that Frank mentioned it. He grits his teeth. He doesn't want to like Frank for any reason. Brendan talks about Frank like he's another brother, Brendan's alone. Frank can’t be, he hasn’t shared what Tommy and Brendan did.
“Try a few just on that side. I'll hold the bag.”
Tommy walks away, paces a circle around the bag and checks his wrappings. “I'm not training with you. You got your own guys.”
“Your brother said—”
“My brother doesn't know shit,” says Tommy. “He can stay the fuck out of my business.”
“Okay,” says Frank. He still sounds cool, and Tommy sounds like a whiny kid. He feels like a whiny kid too—he wants Frank to know why he's saying no. It’s not because he’s scared, or even that he doesn’t like Frank, although he doesn’t. Frank isn’t what fighting is about, except how he got into Brendan’s head and made him invincible.
It’s because he doesn't need a hand-out, and he doesn't need Beethoven. ESPN says he might be the second best fighter in the world and he got there the old fashioned way.
“Can I ask you a question?” says Frank.
“Don't see any way of stopping you.”
“You could leave,” Frank suggests.
Tommy just looks at him for a moment. “My brother half owns this place.”
“Yeah, and if I kicked you out, we’d fight about it for half a second, and he might ask me to give you another chance, but he and I agreed that it’s my gym, my decision.”
So they’ve talked about it. Here’s my fucked up brother, help him. Frank probably protested, I don’t want to deal with him. Tommy turns his back so he can start throwing kicks at the bag. Just light taps for now, to test his balance and flexibility. Neither are where he’d like them to be, especially with Frank watching.
“Why are you here?” Frank asks. “With your performance at Sparta, you could train at any gym in the country. You could make some agent very rich. Not as rich as you’ll be, though.”
“That why you’re talking to me? Why you haven’t already kicked me out?” He’s starting to warm to his kicks. He doesn’t have to hear Frank if he doesn’t want to.
“You could go to Arizona and be with your buddy's widow,” Frank continues. “Maybe take her out, see if she wants you as a substitute.”
Tommy, of course, lunges at him, and Frank redirects his attack down to the ground, turning him almost gently so he falls on his good shoulder. Smug bastard.
“Brendan says you're some kind of fucking Jedi master,” says Tommy, getting back up. “So why you trying to get me to hit you?”
Frank paces a few steps. “Because you wanted to. I thought I’d get that over with.”
“It isn’t like that,” says Tommy. He pokes Frank in the shoulder. “Don’t fucking talk about her that way.”
“Please.” Frank rolls his eyes. Some fucking Zen master. “Do you want to fight again?”
“Yes,” says Tommy. He can't think about the why. He's always been fighting, his whole life. It’s what his body knows how to do.
“Good,” says Frank, nodding. “I want you to join the regular classes. Or find somewhere else to train.” At Tommy's look, he tilts his head. “You can't just fight yourself.”
Tommy goes, more out of curiosity than anything else. Classes, sure, like he’s some housewife, stopping in between shopping and picking up the kids from daycare. (There are a couple classes like that. Tommy watches Frank with them once or twice. He displays the same even patience with them as he does with his contenders, like their progress matters just as much to him.)
Tommy sometimes sparred with the guys at Colt’s gym, usually when they had something to prove. He doesn’t remember those fights as much as he remembers how he felt afterward. Drained, peaceful. He slept like he was dead after them.
He wears sweats and a skully to practices. All the other guys wear Underarmor and Lululemon. What kind of guy would put on something called that?
He finds out two minutes later when one of them clips him and down he goes.
“Hey,” says Frank. “Break him in slow.”
"Don’t gotta go easy on me, Coach," says Tommy.
He gets this guy on the next round, remembering just in time to pull his punches, that they're sparring.
“You're still favoring your shoulder,” says Frank. “Bernie, go for that side.”
Fuck you, Tommy thinks, as Bernie does, making him block with that arm until each impact sends sparks up it, little explosions of pain that make his shoulder ache and then go numb. Each time he picks up his arm to make a block, it doesn't go up quite as high, and none of his talking to it helps.
“Stop, and ice it. You're done for the day,” says Frank after a few minutes.
Tommy gets an icepack and sits in a chair by the side of the ring, watching the other fighters do their thing. He’s better than most of these guys, but not all of them, not yet. Maybe he’s meaner—that worked at Sparta, it might work here.
But that's why he doesn’t belong here. He can’t be mean, cruel like he has to, under Frank’s eyes, too much like Brendan’s. Expecting too much.
Frank comes over to him while his fighters are drilling on the heavy bags. “Everyone saw that fight,” he says in a low voice. “They’re going to expect you to be weak on that side. I want you to be stronger. Anyone who tries it will suffer for it.”
“You want me to pretend I’m still weak?”
Frank's grin is a little wicked. “That's exactly right. Not with these guys, but when you get in the ring again.”
“You're not like what Brendan said,” says Tommy, thumbing the side of his mouth. He'll have a bruise there tomorrow, from where he got clocked. He likes the feeling of it, tender skin, too aware, but not yet hurting.
“What did Brendan say?” Frank asks, voice suddenly wary.
“I dunno. Like you were some Art of War bullshit expert.”
“You're the one who’s been to war, Tommy,” says Frank. Then he stands and goes back to his fighters.
Frank’s gym smells wrong, too much like cleaning supplies, too little like sweat and leather. Home, or what passes for it here in Philly smells like stale Mac and Cheese and dirty gym socks. The shag carpet might have once been orange; now it's faded to some puked up yellow. The windows are dirty, leaving even the rooms with windows in perpetual twilight.
The furniture came with the place. He rents month to month. Brendan wrinkles his nose when Tommy finally lets him come over.
“Hey, it's mine,” says Tommy. And Brendan is gentleman enough not to argue that it was his money paying for it. They still don’t talk about that. Tommy will win it back, pay him back. For himself and Pilar.
“Come over for Sunday dinners. You know Tess does a nice job, and the kids have been missing you.”
He goes the next time, thinking right when he's ringing the doorbell that an adult would probably have brought a hostess gift or something. Tess hugs him at the door, a quick squeeze. Brendan gives him a longer hug than since he’s been back, and Tommy wants to back away. He bought this goodwill by accepting Brendan’s money, at least for now. Accepting Frank.
And Frank’s here too, in the kitchen, tasting red sauce from a wooden spoon. He smiles when he sees Tommy, big and a little fake, like this is some kind of set up.
Tommy looks daggers at Brendan, who smiles and shrugs innocently. “Guess since you’re training there now . . .”
It’s not as weird having Frank as he thought, though, because Frank talks, and Tommy doesn't have to. He doesn’t want to talk—it’s good just to be here. Good if he’ll let it be, Frank and his family, and Tommy’s not on the outside. Frank does the talking, and Tommy does the eating and listening to the stories. It’s almost easier that way. Every time Tommy’s reminded of a memory, it goes someplace he doesn’t want to be.
After dinner, Tommy carries the girls to bed, one slung over each shoulder. They tell him about their days, still too young to separate fantasy from reality, sing song voices talking about horses and fairies and teachers and the other girls as if they’re all part of the same world. He listens to their breathing for a while before going downstairs and helping Tess clean up the dishes.
“No, you shoo. Go into the den. With the men.” She hits him with her hip. Tommy ducks his head obediently.
Frank isn’t drinking, but Brendan is, his gestures wide and expansive. He’s talking about how both he and Tommy used to wrestle. How Dad always knew Tommy was the better one, but for once Brendan doesn’t sound jealous. Well, a big purse will do that for you. But it's not just that. Brendan almost sounds relieved even that he doesn't have to fight anymore. Now it really can be just Tommy’s.
And Frank watches Brendan. Tommy saw them together at the gym sometimes, but he never saw this because Frank always looks kind of dopey, with those kind brown eyes and the cockatoo haircut. Frank looks all dopey and it's not from drinking.
He saw it often enough in the Corps especially when they were out in the desert. It’s not gay if it’s your buddy’s hand, and the nearest girl, if there is one, wears camo and smells worse than you. But it’s a little gay if you looked at your buddy like Frank is looking at Brendan now.
He wonders if Brendan ever saw it. Frank’s not married, never talks about girls, never talks about much of anything besides the gym. Tommy’s been thinking of it as some kind of warrior purity. Some of the guys in the corps went in for that kind of denial, but that’s not Frank’s story.
He doesn’t mean for it to change anything. Frank is still a pretty good coach for now—weird, but good. He watches Frank closer. Frank’s so patient, like nothing’s ever gone seriously wrong for him. Nothing except wanting something he can’t have.
Frank’s been keeping his Beethoven bullshit away from Tommy, but after that dinner he lays it on. He has Tommy drilling slowly against him, holding up the targets. “Feel the music, Tommy,” he says, just like he says to all the other fighters. That’s probably what he said to Brendan when they whispered forehead to forehead.
Tommy feels it alright, he feels the lights too, the AC blasting like the too-hot-too-cold air of the arena in Atlantic City. He couldn’t believe it when Brendan dislocated his shoulder. He still has nightmares about the joint popping out. Frank told him to do that. He was supposed to stop. They’re brothers.
He throws down his gloves and leaves the ring, Frank calling after him.
He gets in his car and starts driving west. He makes it in under five hours, ringing his Dad’s bell as the sun dips below the horizon. The air is starting to get cold. It’s been three months since he saw his Dad. He wonders now if Brendan kept him away after the fight, when Tommy was in custody, and later during the court martial. Or maybe he stayed away on his own.
He rings again when he doesn’t hear footsteps, and sits to wait. He can’t remember now when his dad went to his meetings. Or maybe he’s not going now.
His dad pulls up in that shitty car a half hour later. Tommy doesn’t have any booze to keep him warm this time. Frank’s been keeping him off that stuff, and anyway, he’d stopped earlier, when he started training. One drink would probably make him pass out now.
“Tommy,” he says, not sounding too pleased. He sounds sober, though.
“Hi Dad,” says Tommy.
“Brendan kick you out?” he asks.
“I came to see you, Dad.”
“I . . .” Paddy looks at the ground. “I’ll apologize as many times as you want,” he says. “But I . . . my sponsor says . . . I can’t have you around if you’re going to . . .”
“You’re blaming me?” Tommy asks.
“No,” says Paddy. “It was my doing, and I need to keep my life—clear. So it doesn’t happen again.”
“You cut people out? Just like that.”
Paddy nods slowly. “Cut out all my old drinking buddies. It’s crueler to you to have you here and drink than to have you gone and not.”
The words don’t sound like stuff his dad would say. Probably more of what his sponsor told him. How to ditch your son. Hell if he’s going to apologize. “You’re not even gonna let me in? I drove all the way from Philly.”
Paddy shakes his head. “I need some more time, Tommy,” he says. He turns his back to Tommy to unlock the door to his house. After the click of the lock he hesitates a long moment. Tommy’s sure he’s going to turn around, invite him in, stop being this new kind of asshole. He doesn’t though. He opens the door, and shuts it quietly behind him. The light goes on in the kitchen, in the back of the house.
Tommy gets in his car and waits for a while. An hour passes. The sky darkens from deep blue to black.
The guys will still be at the gym. Maybe he should stop in. Mad Dog won’t want to see him, but Colt might.
He thinks of Frank without meaning to, what Frank would tell him about his dad. Frank always has some wise words, as if letting go, and taking a deep breath are so easy. Sometimes nothing is harder. Tommy unclenches his hands on the steering wheel. He breathes. Frank would tell him some bullshit about what his dad needs. Frank is all about clearing out bad influences, and that’s what Tommy is.
Fuck it. He made it here in under five hours. He can get back to Philly in even less time.
He doesn’t get pulled over, although he should have been. He’s shaking when he gets back, too long without food or water. He should go home and sleep, but instead he goes back to the gym and lets himself in. No music now. He grabs a bottle of water, drinks it down and keeps refilling it until he feels like he can’t hold any more.
He’s trying to decide how to burn off the jittery energy that’s making his teeth chatter when a light flicks on in the office area. Frank comes out and leans on the door frame, crossing his arms.
“You want to talk about it?” he asks.
Tommy shakes his head.
“Good, me neither.”
Frank stands in the doorway, face shadowed until Tommy asks, “You live here or something?”
“Feels like it sometimes,” says Frank. “Hey, I got something for you, after you left.” He walks through the darkened room, pivoting his hips around weight racks in the dark. “Get in the ring. You’re going to finish what you started this morning.”
Tommy already has his gloves on. He climbs under the ropes. He’s grateful, and he doesn’t want to be. This is what he needs—a do-over. Put the rest of today out of his head. Drown it in Beethoven or whatever the hell Frank wants.
He doesn’t recognize it at first. It’s not Beethoven, but there’s a violin. A fiddle. And a bodhran, beating out the time like a heartbeat. It’s a reel, an Irish reel, one Tommy recognizes from long ago, a melody with a mix of bravado and tragedy.
Pittsburgh still had a few real Irish pubs when he was growing up, brown, welcoming places where they held sessions on Sunday afternoons. Paddy took his boys there, before his drinking got bad enough he wanted to do it at home. He set up at the corner of the bar, and Tommy and Brendan ran around the place, picking up billiard balls and darts when they fell, getting under foot, and listening to the music. This music. The music of Paddy when he was young and strong and charismatic, the dad all the other boys wanted to have, the one with the strongest arm, the loudest laugh, the best stories.
“Listen to the music,” says Frank. He sounds different than he did this morning, no longer cajoling Tommy along. Tommy can hardly see his face in the dark, just the shapes of the targets he holds up. Tommy’s listening.
“Now, stay light, stay calm. Follow the music.”
Tommy follows, tapping his gloves on the targets. He looks at Frank’s chin to see if he’s going to move them. He doesn’t, not at first, just braces himself and letting Tommy do his thing, but then he starts to move, forward and back, and Tommy adjusts with him. With this music, it’s like dancing.
“You ever gonna dance with me for real?” Tommy asks. He wants to see it, Frank fighting. He wonders what Frank was like as a fighter, with those long limbs, that fluid grace. He probably wasn’t fast enough, but he would have been beautiful.
“Right now I could take you,” says Frank, a smile in his voice that Tommy can’t see in the shadows.
“Yeah, I’d like to see that.” This feels good.
Frank takes off the pads and pulls on a pair of gloves. “You want lights?” he asks.
He doesn’t want to, even though the dark is probably an advantage for Frank. There’s something magical about this, with the bluish streetlights the only illumination. Hunger makes his vision sparkle and pop.
It’s still a dance for the first few seconds. Frank takes some shots that Tommy can dodge. Frank knows his moves, though, especially with the music still playing, guiding their steps. Tommy comes in fast and hard, welcoming the anger that floods in, at his father, this fucking music, and then Frank’s got him in an arm bar, pressure on his throat. Tommy struggles, but it only gets him closer to the mat, more of Frank’s weight pressing down on his windpipe, one leg hooked around Tommy’s so he’s trapped between letting Frank destroy his knee or choke him out.
He contemplates it, seeing how far Frank’s willing to go. He can feel the effort in Frank’s muscles, the beginning of a shake. “If this was a fight, the round would be over, and you would have lost the points,” says Frank, applying a fraction more pressure.
Tommy tries to say something, and realizes he doesn’t have the breath, so he taps out where he can reach, on the back of Frank’s neck. Frank sprawls over him for a few breaths after he lets go. He’s breathing hard—at least Tommy made him work for it.
Suddenly Tommy is very aware of Frank’s body across his, the places where their skin is touching. The way Frank smells, something spicy on his skin, and the gym smell of leather and sweat. It’s crazy—he’s crazy, hungry and tired and pissed off—he turns his head and brushes his lips across Frank’s and before waiting to see how he responds, pulls him closer.
He has plenty of time to think about it later, playing it back like the memory of a lost fight. There’s a moment when Frank’s surprised, unmoving. There’s a moment when Frank kisses him back, hard and aggressive. And then comes the moment when Frank puts his hand on Tommy’s chest and pushes him carefully away.
“Tommy,” he says, voice weary. “This is not happening.”
“You wish it was Brendan here, not me, don’t you?” Tommy asks.
“No,” says Frank. He doesn’t sound like Tommy wanted him to, not defensive at all.
“Does he know?” Tommy asks.
“They’re perfect together, aren’t they? Tess and Brendan?”
The music’s still playing, a slower song now, the fiddle drawing out the notes like sobs. “Yes,” says Tommy.
“We’re done now,” says Frank. “Good workout.”
Tommy leans on his thighs, light-headed for a moment. He’s ready to pass out from hunger, everything drained out of him. He’s not paying enough attention to see Frank suddenly in his personal space again, face close. “Listen to me, Tommy. Don’t you ever walk out of one of my practices again. I’m going to give you the name of a sports psychologist and you’re going to talk to her. Me and Brendan—it’s nothing—not anymore, and whatever it is, it’s none of your business.”
“I’m not my brother,” Tommy mutters.
“Believe me, I know that,” says Frank.
They train. For months Frank won’t even let Tommy think about any fights except the ones in the gym. He doesn’t give Tommy any reason to think he remembers that moment between them either. He’s perfectly professional and affectionate—the way he is with everyone else.
He has Tommy spar with the best fighters in his gym. Stephon, a new kid named Leo. They're good. Tommy gets better. There’s a moment when Frank seems to realize that Tommy is the best. It’s subtle, but Frank, for all his touchy-feely, “let’s all be friends and brothers” vibe is drawn to the best. And Brendan. Tommy can't quite figure that. Except he can. Brendan burns bright, Brendan is hard to say no to.
Tommy isn’t bright like that, and people have been saying no to him his whole life. His busted shoulder is strong now; he works that side harder—it’s his left so he's not used to it, after a lifetime of dominating with his right. Now he can dominate with both.
He sees the sports shrink Frank sends him too. Dr. Zea. She’s a good-looking woman that Tommy somehow has no interest in fucking. And that’s not even because of Frank, it’s because of the way she looks into him, direct and kind. Something he can’t slide out of. Most of the time he doesn’t talk about much, but it’s good to know someone in this town who isn’t all bound up with Brendan. “You feel like running away, you come here first,” she tells him. “I’ll make time for you.”
She makes him promise, and sometimes that’s all that keeps him in Philly, the fact that he’d have to tell her first. For some reason it’s a promise he doesn’t want to break.
There’s some static in the fight world after Sparta that even Frank can’t keep out of the locker room gossip. Everyone knows that Brendan is not the king of that world. It was luck and heart, and a gorgeous story that someone is already making a web documentary about. The brothers. They're focusing on Brendan right now, while the story is still new. Tommy’s gonna be in the shadows. He's not quite sure how they'll play it—is he the adversary? The story is focusing on Brendan, and it’s better that way. Tommy doesn't want to talk to the cameras.
The other static is like a mosquito compared to that, but it’s there. Mad Dog Grimes wants to fight again, this time in a longer format fight. He wants a third beat down, Frank tells Tommy.
Tommy grins a little. Yeah, he does. There are people out there who might be tougher than him. Mad Dog isn't one of them.
The MMA world is tolerantly amused. The announcers try to make it a big thing. There is the obligatory posturing, the back and forth, will they-won't they. Tommy says, through Frank, that it's not worth his time.
Mad Dog says, without any intermediary, that Tommy got tuned up at Sparta, and no one knows if he still has what it takes.
Tommy says, in his first televised comments, that he wasn't the only one who got tuned up at Sparta.
So they set a date, Valentine's day in Miami.
Mad Dog’s been fighting since then, dominating in the lesser fights that happen every weekend at arenas around the state. Frank watches videos of them with Tommy, identifying weaknesses that Tommy knew by feel before, even if he couldn't name them.
He thinks maybe there’s some dark, painful part of him that’s sleeping now, that he needed to defeat Mad Dog before. He asks Dr. Zea if she thinks he needs it to fight.
She turns the question back on him, of course. He knows the answer is yes. He knows that anyone he asks will tell him no.
“Are you going to pick some walk-on music?” Frank asks.
Tommy shakes his head. "I don't do that."
“Yeah, and that made you stand out last time. Now someone else is going to do it, and then everyone’s going to try to look tough by not having music, by being a bigger asshole in the ring, and walking out without saying ‘good fight’ or anything. That's not going to be you, not if you want to train with me.”
“Man,” says Tommy, “you talk a lot.”
Frank's lips quirk. “That's another thing,” he says. “You gotta talk to the press. You don't have to say much, and I know you won't, but answer a few questions. Be gracious.”
“What’s that mean?” Tommy asks. But after six months training together, Frank sees through his big dumb guy bullshit, and just smiles.
Miami isn’t quite as big a circus as Sparta was, but he’s the hottest thing there. Frank takes a lot of the questions, while Tommy stands there feeling trapped in his suit, the tie cinched around his neck. Next time he won’t wear one, like Frank.
Some of the questions he can’t get away from. The reporters ask stupid, personal things, like “What was it like to fight your brother?”
“Painful,” says Tommy.
They want more details. “I lost, right?” Tommy says.
They want to know how he feels about fighting Mad Dog Grimes. He knows how to answer those. “Dunno what it’s gonna take for him to realize I beat him the last two times,” he says, tilting his head.
He can't watch it later, when Frank wants him to. They have a suite. Brendan and Tess and the kids are down the hall. They’re going up to Orlando after it’s over. A Disney Princess vacation.
Tess is excited, brimming with smiles and a cheerleader energy that Tommy can’t help but smile at. She loves the fight game, Tommy can see that now, and loves it more when it’s not her husband getting pummeled. She kisses him on the cheek before the fight.
He wears his customary all black. No “soul of a lion” bullshit. If people want to know who his trainer is, there’s Frank, with his peacock hair and his graphic tees, as much of celebrity as Tommy.
When he walks out the music starts. He told Frank to pick what he wanted. He expected Beethoven, Frank’s love. It doesn’t matter, he tells himself. Instead it’s Frankie Gavin, playing that Irish reel, the one that Frank never played again after that night in the gym. After that night, Tommy had to dance to Beethoven, like all of Frank’s other puppets. Tommy tries not to listen to it. He should be angry, but he can’t get there, not the way he needs to, the way Frank probably intended. He doesn't know what to call this mood. Optimism? He’s calm.
Mad Dog snaps at him in the ring and makes sure his fists are on top when they touch gloves. It’s bullshit posturing, and Tommy doesn't care. It doesn’t matter. What matters is what comes next. Tommy empties his mind. His body knows how to do this.
He comes out fast and aggressive. His first punch glances off Mad Dog’s head. He’s used to steamrolling his opponents. Shock and awe, he calls it to himself. Ground and pound, really, with bulk and speed behind it. But somehow he’s not as fast as he was last time.
Mad Dog lands a punch, then a second one. It’s okay, Tommy can take it. As long as Mad Dog doesn't get a hold on him like Brendan did, it will be okay. And Mad Dog’s a striker.
The first round ends inconclusively. Frank's saying something in the corner, something he sounds serious about Tommy listening to, but Tommy's not hearing it. Not when he's fighting for real.
The next round is a little more Tommy’s. He keeps Mad Dog dancing back, but he never gets in close enough. He should have this guy. Stephon and Leo from Frank’s gym are so much better than him. Mad Dog is just too fast, getting away in that millisecond that makes the difference between a solid punch and a glancing blow, one that does as much damage to Tommy’s rhythm as it does to Mad Dog’s head.
The first bout has to be decided on points, and the points go, barely, to Mad Dog. This tournament is structured so all the match ups have three bouts, best two of three. Now Tommy needs to win the next two, on consecutive days.
Tommy wants to stamp out, but he feels Frank’s eyes pinning him there thinking at him: don't be an asshole, Tommy, be good for the sport. Unspoken, always, but understood is also: be good for me, my brand. Frank's self-centeredness is one of the things that Tommy’s gotten to like about him. Fighters come and go—Frank’s pull in this world is undeniable. So he gives Mad Dog a nod, at least. Mad Dog jerks his chin up, showing who won.
Tommy’s going to punch the smug off his face tomorrow. When he walks out of the ring, he’s cursing the unfair judges.
“You’re not in it,” says Frank.
“If I’m not, it’s your fault,” Tommy answers.
“No it's not.” Unflappable Frank. Tommy can’t even land a punch out here. “You used to fight with anger, and that was it. Anger and toughness and it was going to get you killed.”
“You don’t know that,” he mutters.
“I do. You might have faced someone who wasn’t your brother. I’m glad it just took a dislocated shoulder.”
Frank really does talk too much. Tommy makes a chatterbox motion with his hand.
“You're a brat, you know that?” says Frank.
Tommy smiles at him, without warmth, but without anger either. It’s impossible to fight with Frank if he doesn’t want to. “Younger brother,” says Tommy.
Frank hangs his head for a moment and smiles ruefully. “You're going to do better tomorrow, I'm sure of it.”
Yeah, yeah, coach talk. Tommy spends some time wandering around the floor and watching the other fighters. He remembers when the marines used to be like this for him. Well, not like this. Like it is for some of the other fighters here. They have friends. They hang out with their buddies from their gyms and talk about whose doing what, whose good, who's bad, who's going to bang what chick after the day is over. Who's so fucked they're getting drunk tonight. It's a party and a battle in one. The corps used to feel like that. Men in the trenches together. Now he’s standing apart, and not just because he’s a legend.
He has a Frank-approved dinner with Brendan and Tess that night. A steak with nothing on it, and steamed vegetables. A potato for energy tomorrow. He wants butter and sour cream. He wants a drink. He wants a pill or seven and to forget.
Some things were easier when he was the guy who always had a chip on his shoulder. He knew who he was then, knew that he could make everyone hate him, or fear him. Now he's the big, quiet guy who lost a fight today. Now his anger is muted and he doesn’t have anything to replace it with.
Frank knocks on the door to Tommy’s room, after dinner, when Tommy’s still up, flipping through channels.
“Let's talk,” he says. Tommy nods. Frank sits next to him on the couch. It’s almost like being back in the ring, during a rest period, where he can hear Frank but not see him. “You’re mad at me right now,” says Frank.
Tommy rubs his forehead. “If I thought about it, I probably would be,” he says slowly.
Frank sighs. “I know what's going on. You used to be the guy with the anger that could kill. When you looked at them you could already see through them to the next opponent.” He’s looking at Tommy, but Tommy just stares at the orange-toned infomercial on the muted TV. Jewelry or something. “Now you don’t know who you are.”
“You really are some kind of Jedi Mind-Fuck,” says Tommy, half admiringly.
“Yes I am,” Frank answers, unfazed. “Why are you here?”
“Earn money. Pay Brendan back.”
“That's it? Then you're fired as my client,” says Frank. He says it gently. This is just another coaching script for him. How many other fighters has he sat here with, asking these same questions? “Why are you really here? Is it the punishment in the ring, is it proving you can be the best? Is it the other guys being part of the team? You barely talk to anyone at the gym."
“Yeah, I know. You don't talk much at all.”
“Hey, you just interrupted me.”
"Deal with it.” He puts his fingers on Tommy’s chin and turns Tommy to face him. “What is it? Figure that out, and you can’t lose. That’s what Brendan had the day he beat you."
That’s a punch in the gut. Tommy wrenches his chin away. “What do you think, Mr. Jedi Mind-fuck, why should I be fighting? You have all the answers.”
“This one is for you to figure out.” He runs his hand through his hair. “But you need to get there fast, so I’ll help. What was your first fight like? Tell me about it.”
Fuck talking. This is why he likes to fight.
He thinks back to wrestling matches, and before the scraps kids in the neighborhood. It wasn't a nice place where they grew up, and both him and Brendan were small for their age. He couldn't have been older than seven the first time he got into it with an older kid. Can’t remember what it about anymore, just some kid who knew their dad coached fighters, a kid who wanted to prove something.
He gave Tommy a bloody nose. Tommy blacked his eye. Then the kid got a hold of him and they were on the ground together, the kid’s knee in Tommy's stomach, forcing the air out, until he cried uncle or tapped out, or whatever the playground ritual used to be. He doesn’t remember.
What he does remember is his father, patiently showing him how to fold his hand into a fist so he wouldn’t break any fingers, getting down a dusty book of wrestling holds and teaching Tommy what he could have done. When he fought Brendan in the ring, Brendan was the one with their father’s book spread open in his head, but that used to be Tommy. He loved it when he was still the little guy, and if he got the right hold, he could win. It was like a puzzle. He never used to be a strike fighter, not until he got his size and strength in the marines.
“I used to be a wrestler,” he tells Frank. He tells Frank the rest too. How the world stopped when his dad was training him, how he liked the puzzle of it, how he wanted to beat Theogenes’s record.
“I liked the beauty of it,” he says, feeling stupid, but maybe that’s something a guy like Frank can understand. It’s a hard, sweaty beauty, but it’s there, the moment of perfect concentration, of body and mind in unity in the intimacy of the fight.
“Do you still?” Frank asks.
“Mad Dog is an asshole,” says Tommy.
“Yes.” Frank nods. “He’s an asshole. An asshole who’s a faster striker than you. Get him on the ground next time.”
He’s the one who beats Mad Dog on points the next day. It’s a dance, but one that Tommy dominates, getting Mad Dog in some holds that aren’t good enough for him to tap out, but he can’t break them.
And Tommy knows he’s going to win the next fight. He wants it big and special and that’s what he gets, a ringing KO that pastes Mad Dog’s cheek to the mat before Tommy has a chance to get out of breath. Frank comes into the ring and pulls him in for a hug. Letting Tommy sweat all over him. Tommy honest-to-God grins, like he hasn't in a million years. Not since Manny was alive.
Fuck it, Manny would have liked this fight. He’s glad Mad Dog gave him a good game, made him work for it. On the ground, Mad Dog starts to come around again. Tommy helps him to his feet. He doesn't even try to shake Tommy off.
"I'll get you next time," he says, sounding a little murderous.
Tommy just smiles. He can’t stop it, he’s going to grin his face right off. It wasn’t the hardest fight he’s ever been in, or the easiest—it felt right. Like every step was choreographed. Like when he saw an interview with Cal Ripken and he said that when he was on a streak, the ball came toward him so slow, it was like a giant grapefruit. There's nothing except the ball, and all the time in the world to get the bat on it.
People are coming up to him, cameras flashing from all around. Tommy raises his fists and listens to the crowd go wild. There are still more men in uniform who turn out for him than usual. For once that doesn’t twist his gut.
They all go out to dinner, Frank, Tommy, Brendan and Tess. Frank recounts the fight and Brendan asks him about it, what he—Frank—was thinking, until Tommy throws his arms up in the air to shut them up. “I was the one fighting,” he says, stabbing his potatoes with extra force.
“Yeah, but Frank tells it better,” says Brendan.
“Maybe ‘cause no one ever lets me practice,” says Tommy. He doesn’t mind. Frank does tell it better; Tommy can’t really remember the details now, though every moment felt like crystal when he was in it. He sounds bigger when Frank tells it.
They drink too much, and get a dessert that Tommy has a bite of. After six months on the Frank diet, it tastes so sweet it makes his teeth hurt. They’re loud in the quiet hotel halls when they tramp back to their rooms.
“You did good today,” says Brendan when they get to their rooms.
“I know,” says Tommy. “You know, Dad doesn't want me around.”
“You want to be around him?”
“I dunno,” says Tommy. “Maybe. Maybe a little.”
Brendan frowns at him and presses his lips together. Tommy doesn’t know why he brought it up now, maybe because there’s no time to talk about it, not with Tess pulling Brendan into their room, a hungry look on her face.
When Tommy gets inside the door to his and Frank’s suite, he pulls Frank in and kisses him on the lips. He doesn't know what he's trying to do. There’s a moment without movement when their lips are pressed together, just like last time. Frank’s taste like that tiny, forbidden bite of dessert.
Then he’s in it, pressing Tommy up against the door, tongue and mouth and hands engaged. Tommy’s wondered if Frank is ever out of control, if he's ever out of Jedi-Master mode, and this is it, Frank's hands under his t-shirt, his fingers warm.
“This is a bad idea, Tommy,” he says, voice low. Tommy could listen to Frank tell him anything in that calm voice he of his. He has listened, for six months. Listened to it drive him crazy.
“Don’t,” he says.
“Don't what?” Frank's hands are still on him. He hasn’t moved. He’s still sharing Tommy’s air.
"Don’t make me argue with you. You’re the one with all the words." He wraps his hand around the back of Frank’s head. “This is what I have.”
He kisses Frank again, and Frank’s kissing him back, hot and hungry. They only break so that Tommy can pull Frank’s shirt over his head, and press skin to skin together. He almost chokes from the feeling of it. He was wrapped more closely around Mad Dog earlier today, but this is Frank, and it’s not a fight, not the easy camaraderie of a hug, or an arm draped over his shoulders after a fight. It’s something he’s been craving so much his throat aches for wanting it.
“Tommy. This is a bad idea. I don’t—I don’t get involved with my fighters.”
“You don't get involved with anyone,” says Tommy, looking at Frank’s mouth. He moves his thumb so it traces Frank's jaw line. Frank closes his eyes.
“No. Think, Tommy. What does this do to the gym, to your fighting?”
“Why you gotta over-think it?”
Frank laughs. “That's what I do.”
“Try not to, just for a minute.” Tommy gets an inspiration. “It's already too late, you know?”
Frank laughs again, and this time it's a happier sound. “Yeah, I do know that.”
“So?” It’s ridiculous to stop now. Frank’s hands are moving on his back, his dick hard against Tommy’s, even as he tilts his head to deliver another reason. Fuck his reasons.
“Yeah,” he says, and pulls Tommy in. Now he’s kissing Tommy back for real. Tommy hadn't thought anything was missing before, but now he's feeling every inch of Frank's body pressed against him, still up against the wall. Full commitment.
Frank isn’t wearing track pants, for about the first time Tommy’s ever seen, so Tommy has to undo the belt, pull them down off his hips. He’s leaner and taller than most fighters, gorgeous and sculpted, and Tommy admires, now that he’s allowed to.
Frank traces Tommy’s lips with his thumb. “I thought about this,” he says. Tommy’s been listening to Frank’s voice, in his ear, in his head, and he’s never heard Frank sound like this. Wondering. Lustful. “A lot.”
“I know you did,” says Tommy, grinning. “I want to suck you off.”
“So do it,” says Frank.
So he does, with Frank’s hands roaming over his hair and shoulders. Frank doesn't say anything intelligible, just hisses of frustration when Tommy teases him along the edge and a drawn out groan when he comes. He pulls Tommy up for another kiss when it's done. Tommy’s mouth tastes like spunk. His stomach twists, suddenly he’s waiting for Frank to decide that yeah, this really is it now, no more.
There’s a million things he wants to say, things that will make him sound like a chick if he asks what it means or what happens next. He’s the one who dragged Frank into this and now he’s the one who wants some sort of commitment. Say you’ll still be my coach and I get to see you naked. Yeah, that will work.
“You can fuck me if you want,” he says, trying to sound like it doesn’t even matter.
Frank frowns his “I’m trying to be with you and understand you, but you’re making it difficult” frown. Tommy can translate this one because Frank uses it a lot around him. “Sounds like fun, but I can’t for a little while,” he says, stroking Tommy’s shoulder. “Can you think of anything else you want?”
Tommy shrugs. Frank looks disbelieving for a moment. Of course, Tommy couldn’t step outside himself even for an hour of sex. He would if he could, but running away hasn’t worked yet.
“Come on,” says Frank. His voice is soothing, his mouth is hot on Tommy’s neck. Frank’s thing might be talking, but he’s good at this too, gentling him with touch and breath, making Tommy’s anger disappear under a layer of sensation.
He’s hard in Frank’s hand, straining up into it. The heat of Frank’s mouth around him almost makes him shoot. He digs his nails into his leg so to keep himself off the ledge. Frank’s mouth is takes no prisoners—he drags an orgasm out of Tommy and as soon as the last wave of it is over, pushes a slicked up finger into him. “You still want to fuck?” he asks, the calmness in his voice sounding dangerous now.
It’s already on the painful side of pleasure, he’s too sensitive for comfort, but it’s what he wants, the mindlessness it will bring. Frank opens him up, relentlessly, telling Tommy when to breathe and relax, so he can’t help but obey.
He gets a short respite while Frank hunts up some condoms and lube. He’s half hard again. Gives himself a little tug, to look better, and then Frank’s pressing into him, filling him up so it feels like that’s what’s pressing the tears out of the corners of Tommy’s eyes. “Are you okay?” Frank asks.
“Look at me,” says Frank. He strokes his thumb along Tommy’s face. “Look at me.” Softer this time. Tommy opens his eyes. “Are you okay?” he asks again.
He is, he realizes. When he smiles, it feels fragile, but it’s real. And Frank’s concerned face is so fucking hot. “Yes,” he says. “Come on.”
Frank moves in him, looking at him so intently it feels like his gaze has weight, that Tommy can feel it trace over the ink on his skin as much as he can feel Frank inside him. They’re both half spent now, and it takes a long time. Tommy rolls Frank over so he’s on top when he finishes it, jacking off over Frank’s stomach.
He’s loose enough when he lies down next to Frank to ask, “So am I fired?” with only a little twinge of pain. He looks up at the ceiling. Where their shoulders touch is sticky with sweat.
“No,” says Frank. “Am I fired?”
“Nah,” says Tommy. “You’re a good coach.”
“And you’re a good fighter.”
Tommy swallows past the tightness in his throat. The backs of his knuckles are brushing Frank’s fingers. “Is this going to happen again?” he asks.
“Tommy . . .” says Frank. Tommy tenses for disappointment. Frank reaches over and turns Tommy’s face toward him. He’s smiling. “Come on. I gotta keep my best fighter happy.”