In the year after Suba had confronted Villard at his salle, most things hadn't changed much. Suba kept his assumed name, his girlfriend, and quite a few of his students. They presented the duel as a fencing demonstration gone wrong, and the police hadn't even gotten involved. The main thing that had changed was Suba's location. Obviously he wasn't welcome in Villard's salle anymore.
Suba's new club was small, sure, but that just made it cozy. He shared the studio with a yoga instructor, an aikido dojo, and a jazz dance troupe, but he still had it booked for classes every other night from 6-9 and lessons on the weekend. It was fun.
"Advance, retreat. Advance lunge." Suba ran his eye along the small line of students, noting weak lunges and small improvements. "Recover. Two minute break."
Tanos, Johnson, and the new kids scattered to find water, but Erin walked up to Suba with a determined look.
"What's up?" he asked.
"So, there's a NAC in Virginia next month." Erin sounded like she'd been thinking about this for a while. "It'd be a good opportunity to compete, and I was wondering-"
"Isn't that in Richmond?" Suba scratched at his beard. "That's pretty far."
"Like six hours." Erin shrugged. "It's the last NAC before Nationals, and I'd really like to qualify."
"Sure, I can understand that." Erin was getting better - she might even do well at a NAC. Suba glanced over at the rest of the fencers, arguing about something to do with Johnson's water bottle. "Hey, we should get a group together, make a trip of it. I'll donate my coaching time, and Rachel has a mini-van."
Erin's face lit up, and she turned toward the group. "Tanos! Johnson! We're going to a NAC!"
"I don't have time to go to a NAC," began Johnson, and Tanos elbowed him in the side.
"Take a couple days off work," she advised. "You wanna be C-rated forever?"
"We'll talk about it later." Suba glanced at the clock. "Come on, everyone, pair up for drills."
In the year since Suba had attacked Villard in his own salle, absolutely nothing had changed. Oh, they'd lost a few beginning fencers to Suba's new so-called fencing club, but that was hardly something to be concerned about. Villard surveyed his salle, packed with elite fencers, all of them standing to attention. He smiled, which made a couple of the closer fencers nervous.
"The Virginia NAC is in a month," he announced. "You are all, of course, encouraged to go."
The salle buzzed with conversation for a moment, and then Villard held up a hand. Silence fell like a swordstroke.
"However," he continued, "I only have time to coach three epee fencers and three foilists. Mister Gallagher will also be attending, and can coach three sabreurs. Those nine fencers can only be the best of the best, and they must also pay for their own transportation and hotel costs, and those of the coaches. Understood?"
No one said anything. Villard nodded.
"I know your rankings within the salle. I will be setting bouts today to decide who makes the cut. First bout, Trebor and Hobbs. Second bout, Tatiana and Calder. Third bout-"
Soon the salle filled with the clang of blade against blade, and Villard watched each and every movement.
He already knew who would be going, of course. But you had to give hope of success to the mediocre fencers, and induce fear of failure in the good fencers. Otherwise they would all stagnate.
Eight AM on the Thursday morning before the NAC, Erin was standing outside of her apartment building with her fencing bag, a backpack, and a yawn. She hadn't been waiting more than five minutes when a mini-van rolled up and honked cheerfully at her.
Suba popped out of the front passenger's door. "Here, let me help you put that stuff in the back. You're the last one - we already got Tanos and Johnson."
"Who's driving?" asked Erin. "Please tell me you didn't let Tanos drive."
"Well, it's Rachel's car," said Suba, and slid open the back door.
"Hi," said the woman in the driver's seat. "I'm Rachel, and you must be Erin. Great to meet you."
"Oh, uh." Erin climbed into the car and tried to figure out what the right response was to meeting your coach's girlfriend. "Thanks for driving."
"It sounds really exciting." Rachel waited to pull back out into the street until Erin was settled in the middle, in-between Tanos and Johnson. "I've been telling Max that we ought to take a road trip somewhere, and this seemed like a great opportunity. I'm looking forward to seeing Max work."
"I won't be doing much," said Suba. "You're driving, they're fencing, and I'll just be giving advice."
Rachel smiled at him. "I'm sure you'll be doing more than that. Alright, everybody! It's a long drive, so I hope you all like ABBA. I brought all of my tapes."
"Sounds great," said Tanos, looking uncertain. Johnson looked horrified.
"ABBA?" he muttered, not loud enough to be heard up front. "What about my Boyz II Men mixtape?"
Tanos tried to elbow him, which didn't work very well because Erin was in the way.
The nine lucky fencers were gathered out front of Villard's salle at 8.30 sharp. Trebor stood with Hobbs and Tatiana - he didn't like them much, but they were better than the foilists and the sabreurs. At least they fenced the right weapon.
"We're fencing each other in the finals, right, Trebor?" Hobbs grinned at him. More of a snarl, but whatever.
"If you make it that far," said Trebor. Yeah, there was the snarl. Hobbs looked like he wanted to punch Trebor in the face, so Trebor folded his arms and smiled, daring him to try.
"Yeah, yeah." Tatiana rolled her eyes. "And I bet you've both got three-foot dicks that drag on the floor. I hope you guys get knocked out in the semi-finals."
"Big talk for someone who's never made it out of the eight," said Trebor, and he was pretty sure Tatiana would have punched him if Villard and Gallagher hadn't driven up.
Villard was in his sports car with the top up, and Gallagher in a big van with a "Number 1 Dad" bumper sticker. Villard rolled down his window.
"Gear in the van. This car fits three passengers, the van will fit the rest. You can decide who's riding where."
The fencers glanced at each other as they stowed their bags. On the one hand, three of them could ride in a gorgeous sports car. On the other hand, they'd have to ride with the Maestro, who probably thought bathroom breaks were for the weak.
One of the foilists tentatively stepped toward the van doors.
"Watch out for any sticky patches," said Gallagher. "I think one of my kids was sick in here last week."
The epee fencers moved as one toward Villard's car.
"Car rules," said Villard, as soon as Trebor opened the front passenger's door. "I keep a clean car, and it's going to remain that way. That means wipe off your shoes before you get in, Hobbs. If anyone's carsick, I'm leaving you at the side of the road. No eating in the car. No smoking. If you smoke you're out of the salle, anyway, that's not a habit for an athlete."
"We got it, we won't mess up your car." Hobbs slid into the back with Tatiana.
"Can we listen to my Nirvana tape?" asked Tatiana.
Villard smiled like a snake - scaly and with the possibility that he was about to unhinge his jaw. He flipped on the radio.
"This is Bob Edward with NPR's Morning Edition," said the radio. "The War in Bosnia continues, and we have our own-"
"I think that's a no," said Trebor. Tatiana kicked the back of his chair.
"No roughhousing," said Villard, and turned the radio volume up as they pulled into the street.
Around noon Rachel drove through a McDonald's just south of Baltimore, and Suba passed around fries and Big Macs to eat during the drive. Erin had one of those chocolate shakes that tasted like sugar and glue and perfection.
Rachel had a whole box of ABBA tapes. She was singing along to Dancing Queen, Suba taking up the previously unknown baritone part. Johnson looked like he was going to strangle someone, possibly himself.
"I think my brain is going to melt out my ears," he hissed. "I hope it happens soon."
"I like Dancing Queen," whispered Tanos. "Erin, elbow him for me."
Erin sucked on her shake and tried to pretend that she couldn't hear them. Any of them.
Suba tried a high note and his voice didn't crack so much as shatter.
By the fourth time the news update rolled around, Trebor knew as much as he'd ever wanted to about the Bosnian War and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. They'd listened to Morning Edition and the Diane Rehm Show in complete silence - Villard had instituted a new car rule against talking over the radio. But now that they were getting further south the station was dissolving into static and Trebor was holding out hope for a change.
"I've still got my Nirvana tape," said Tatiana. "If you're interested."
Villard flipped through a couple stations, frowning. Static, static, country music, static-
"-can't deny, that when a girl walks in with an itty bitty waist and a round thing in your face, you get-"
"I love this song," said Hobbs. "Leave it for a sec."
Villard flipped to another station.
"That song's so dumb," sniffed Tatiana. "Have you seen the music video?"
"Only fifty times," said Hobbs. "It's great."
"It's probably the most of a woman he's ever seen," said Trebor, unable to pass up the opening.
Villard glanced at Trebor, then at Tatiana and Hobbs in the rear-view mirror. "If you spent as much time thinking about fencing as you spend thinking about music and women - or men - you would all be world champions by now."
The epee fencers thought about this.
"I can't spend my entire life in training," muttered Tatiana. "I have to spend some time doing other things."
"Don't tell the Maestro that," muttered Hobbs.
Villard flipped the stations again.
"This is Fresh Air; I'm Terry Gross," said the radio. "My guest today is Gore Vidal-"
None of the fencers groaned - they were too well-disciplined and terrified of their Maestro for that. But they all slumped a little in their seats.
"Are we going to stop for lunch soon?" asked Trebor.
"Only a couple hours until we get to Richmond," said Villard. "You can eat then."
"I am not vitriolic," said Gore Vidal. "I am savage."
Trebor closed his eyes and tried to fall asleep as Terry Gross laughed.
The minivan made it to Richmond in the late afternoon. They checked into the hotel, picked up some dinner, and then spent the rest of the day trying to repair equipment. Wires and weapons and tools trickled from the beds to the carpets.
"I don't know if I have any working bodycords," said Johnson. "I swear these were fine when we left."
"Bodycords are easy to fix." Tanos stared moodily at a bent epee. "I'm not going to be able to do anything about this."
"Maybe we can ease it straight," said Erin. "Hey, Suba-"
Tanos held a finger up to her lips, and Johnson shook his head. Erin looked over to the second bed, where Suba and Rachel were huddled over a pile of broken bodycords and a tester box.
"You just strip the wires like this," said Suba. "Then screw the ends back into the prongs - here, let me help."
Rachel smiled at him as Suba covered her hand and helped her turn the screwdriver, then she leaned in and kissed Suba's nose. Tanos made a small awwing noise, and Johnson mimed gagging. Erin tried to shush them and to stop looking at Rachel and Suba - she wasn't particularly successful at either one.
Suba seemed to realize that everyone had stopped talking and was staring at him. He straightened up, looking sheepish. "We need to decide on rooms," he said. "We've got two - I guess we could put the girls in one room, and the guys in the other, or-"
"Why don't you and Rachel take the other room," said Erin, quickly. "The rest of us don't mind sharing this one."
"If you're sure," said Rachel.
"Definitely," said Tanos.
Suba kept putting bodycords together, smiling to himself and to Rachel and occasionally trading kisses. The three fencers tried not to look. It was sweet, sure, but still uncomfortable to watch.
"Maybe they'll get it out of their system tonight," muttered Johnson.
"Nah." Tanos stared at her bent epee some more. "They'll be necking in between bouts. Bet you five bucks that they both show up in the morning with hickeys."
Erin tried really hard to concentrate on wiring her third weapon and not imagine Suba with a hickey. He was her coach - she didn't like to think of him as an actual person with actual-person desires.
Rachel stood up, looking a little flustered. "Max, I think we ought to move to the other room."
"Right," said Suba. "Right. Remember, you three, check-in for women's epee opens at seven and I want us at the convention center by six thirty to warm up. Make sure to get some sleep."
Erin nodded and watched her coach hurry out of the room with his girlfriend. They were giggling. This was terrible.
"Where's the other room?" asked Tanos.
"Right next door." Johnson pointed to the wall next to the beds.
"I'm going to turn on the TV," said Erin. She switched it on, flipped around until she got MTV.
It was showing a really bizarre music video. A banana wobbled on the screen, followed by a pair of rotating lemons.
"A word to the thick soul sisters, I wanna get with you," rapped Sir Mix-A-Lot. "I won't cuss or hit you. But I gotta be straight when I say I wanna-"
"This song is so dumb," said Tanos. "I thought MTV wasn't playing the music video anymore."
There was a creaking noise from the next room, then some particularly loud giggles. Then a quieter, rhythmic creaking noise.
Erin was pretty sure that Johnson was blushing. She grabbed the remote and turned up the volume.
"Turn around!" shouted Sir Mix-A-Lot. "Stick it out! Even white boys got to shout, baby got back!"
"Can we change the channel?" asked Tanos.
"Just straighten your epee," said Erin. "It'll be over in a couple of minutes."
"We talking about the video, or the-" Johnson jerked a thumb at the wall.
"We are never talking about that," said Erin, firmly.
Villard stopped at a Church's Chicken once they were only a couple miles from the hotel.
Trebor had never imagined Villard eating fast food. He'd never imagined Villard eating at all, but now that he thought about it, he would have figured that Villard survived on protein shakes and dinners at five-star restaurants.
Instead, Villard was sitting calmly on a plastic bench, carefully picking the fried breading off of his chicken before he ate it.
"We'll meet up with Mister Gallagher after lunch," he said. "Fix weapons at the hotel, and move epee gear into my car. I want you three asleep by nine at the very latest - women's epee check-in is at seven, and I want all of you there to warm up with Tatiana. We leave the hotel at six."
Trebor and the others ate their chicken and fries in silence. It was typical of Villard to have such a carefully planned schedule, and they knew from experience that complaining about the nine PM curfew would get them nowhere.
"We're dividing the rooms by weapon," continued Villard. "Men's foil isn't until ten, and women's sabre is at noon - they'll be leaving the hotel with Mister Gallagher around eight."
"I have to room with these guys?" Tatiana raised an eyebrow.
"You're all adults." Villard made one of those small smiles that didn't quite fit his face. "If gender's an issue, I suppose we can-"
"I'll deal," said Tatiana. "They just better shower tonight. Six hours in a car together was six hours too many."
"You're breaking my heart." Trebor clasped his hands to his chest. "We're the ones working out with you, even though we don't fence until tomorrow."
"And I'm the one sticking around for a whole extra day, even though I'll be done fencing." Tatiana shrugged.
"Training on your off day will make you stronger," said Villard. "For every day you miss training, there's someone out there working hard and getting better than you."
"Yeah, why don't you stay at the hotel tomorrow, Trebor," said Hobbs. "I'll pick up the slack for you."
"And your heart is actually more to the left," said Tatiana.
"I was just saying," muttered Trebor, dropping his hands from his chest entirely.
Villard pulled into the convention center parking at 6.25. He and his students unloaded the car and made their way to the competition.
At 6.30, Rachel pulled up to the curb and let Suba and his students out with their gear before she drove off to find a good parking space.
At 6.35, Erin put her bag down in a corner and realized that the guy sitting five feet away was Jim Trebor. She must have made some kind of noise, because in the next moment he was looking up.
Trebor's eyes widened, then narrowed. "What are you doing here?"
"I'll give you three guesses," said Erin. She looked around, spotted Hobbs and Tatiana. "The Maestro isn't here, is he?"
"Of course he is." Trebor stood up - he was in trackpants, with only one sock on. "What about your janitor?"
"My coach," corrected Erin. "Shit! We've gotta keep them apart."
"Might be too late." Trebor nodded at the center of the convention center, where Erin could just make out Villard and Suba standing across from each other, their arms folded.
Erin broke into a run.
Trebor chased after her. "They can be civil, can't they?"
"Trebor, the last time they saw each other they had a sword fight and we had to call anambulance."
"Yeah, but the Maestro didn't press charges."
"Only because the Maestro thinks getting stabbed builds character." Erin slowed to a walk as they got close to the coaches. "Let's hope neither of them want to build character today, okay?"
Villard stared at Suba, or whatever his real name was. He could feel his hands shaking, and he crossed his arms to hide them. Suba crossed his own arms, mirroring Villard.
Neither of them said a word. Around them was the panicked chatter of a fencing competition about the start, but Villard thought he could hear every breath that Suba took.
"So," said Suba, at last. "How are you?"
"I never wanted to see you again," said Villard.
"Not an answer to my question, but okay," said Suba. "I thought we settled this. We saluted."
"I was suffering from blood loss," said Villard. "I had to get twenty stitches. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get blood out of hardwood floors?"
"Yes," said Suba, not as lightly as he meant to. "At least you got closure on your father's death."
"That was not closure." Villard's hands stopped shaking. "You stand here, you tell me that fight was meant to be closure?"
"It was meant to teach you something." Suba bared his teeth. "I thought you'd learned the lesson, but I guess-"
"Fights don't teach anything," snapped Villard. He didn't remember moving, but suddenly he was much closer to Suba, staring into his eyes. "They just show you who's stronger, who wants to live more-"
"You're saying I'm stronger?" asked Suba.
"You did not win that fight." Villard reached out and fisted his hand in Suba's jacket.
"I remember it differently." Suba grabbed Villard's wrist.
"Maestro!" chirped Erin Clavelli. "How are you?"
Villard let go of Suba's jacket, Suba let go of his wrist, and the rest of the world started existing again. Villard turned his head and saw Clavelli standing with Trebor, the rest of the students trying to hurry toward them without looking like they were hurrying.
"Just fine," he said, and smiled. Trebor flinched.
"That's great." Clavelli smiled back, looking strained. "Is Mister Gallagher here? I should say hi-"
"Mister Gallagher will be along shortly." Villard looked away from Clavelli as Tatiana walked up. "Tatiana, you need to check your mask and body cords."
"Registration hasn't opened yet," said Tatiana.
"Then you should be running. Five laps around the hall, now."
Tatiana hesitated, looking at Hobbs and Trebor, then back at Villard. He raised his eyebrows.
She shrugged, then started jogging.
Villard turned his attention to his other students. "Trebor, Hobbs, keep her company. And pay attention to the time."
Trebor and Hobbs didn't hesitate, just started running. There was some chatter as Trebor remembered he wasn't wearing any shoes and Hobbs started making fun of him, but that soon faded into the distance.
"You three should warm up too," said Suba. He didn't look away from Villard, just gestured at his students. "Go and stretch."
"We can stretch here," said Tanos.
"I want to hear how everything is at the old club," said Johnson.
"Or you can come with us," said Clavelli. "Right, Coach?"
"Go and stretch," said Suba, with enough emphasis that his students just seemed to fade away.
And then it was just the two of them again. Villard took a step back - sometimes you had to retreat to get into the best position.
"I don't want to talk to you while we're here," he said.
"Sure, if that's how you want it." Suba shrugged.
Villard started to say something else, but stopped himself before he could decide what. Finally, he just walked away, leaving Suba staring at his back.
"Can we stop running and get my shoes?" asked Trebor.
"Not a chance." Hobbs grinned and picked up the pace. "Hey, what do you think the deal is with Suba and the Maestro?"
"Guy wrecked our club," said Tatiana. "He's a nut."
"They're both nuts," said Trebor. "But damn good fencers."
Tatiana and Hobbs nodded, solemnly. Trebor took advantage of the rare moment of agreement to make a break for his shoes.
On the other side of the gym, Erin stretched a leg out and lowered her head to her knee, feeling the stretch along her hamstring and thigh.
"I heard," said Tanos, "that Suba killed Villard's father and Villard swore revenge."
"That's ridiculous." Erin switched legs. "Suba would be in prison."
"I heard he was in prison," said Johnson.
"Yeah?" Erin straightened up. "Where do you guys hear all this stuff?"
"That one's from the man himself." Johnson popped his knuckles, stretching his hands. "I was talking about a buddy of mine who got busted for weed, and Suba was like, I was in prison once. And I was like, what for? And he said, I killed a man. Just like that."
"Jesus," said Tanos. "Seriously?"
"He must have been screwing with you," said Erin. "Must have."
"He's a really good fencer, though," said Erin. That seemed like the most important thing.
Pools were fine - Tatiana was in one pool, Erin in another, and Tanos in a third. Villard and Suba never got near each other. It was when the bout committee posted the direct elimination table that the problems began.
Trebor stared at the table, following lines. "Tatiana, you're fencing Tanos in the eight."
"She'll never make it to the eight," said Tatiana. "She'll be lucky if she makes it to the sixteen."
Tatiana and Trebor both jumped as Villard's hands landed on their shoulders.
"Never," he said, in a deafening whisper, "underestimate your opponent."
"She's not my opponent," said Tatiana. "I've got a bye, and then I'm fencing Gina Davies in the thirty-two."
"Good. That gives us time to work on your strategy." Villard steered them around, then pushed them ahead toward their pile of gear. "Trebor, work with her on a parry six drill while I get my fencing jacket. Tanos always leaves herself open on a six parry."
"I said I'm fencing Gina Davies," called Tatiana at Villard's back.
"I don't think he cares," said Trebor, and put his mask on.
"Hey," said Tanos, after she'd beat her first opponent and made it into the thirty-two, "if I win two more bouts, I'll be fencing Tatiana."
"Don't think about that," said Suba. "Think about your next bout. Who's your opponent?"
"Lady with the orange socks." Tanos pointed. "Something Lee."
"Watch how she moves. Is she stiff? Is she too loose? Think about how you fenced in the last bout, and what you can change. Don't get ahead of yourself."
Rachel walked up and kissed Suba on the cheek. "I brought you two some gatorade."
"Thanks," muttered Suba. "Where's Johnson? I need him to watch Tatiana's next bout."
"He's strip-coaching Erin," said Tanos, but Suba just walked away without even taking a gatorade. Tanos shrugged and snagged a blue-flavored one.
"Is he alright?" asked Rachel, frowning.
"Just stressed, I think." Tanos took a gulp of gatorade. "Can I ask you a question? Why was Suba ever in prison?"
"Max said he killed a man," said Rachel. "But that was a while ago. Now, how long before your next game?"
"I really didn't expect Tanos to make it this far," said Tatiana, once the eight was about to begin. "She's gotten better."
"Better than you?" asked Hobbs.
"No way." Tatiana tugged her glove on and walked over to the left side of the strip. "Trebor, get over here and hook me up."
Villard said nothing, staring down at the right of the strip where Tanos was hooking up.
"You got this, Tanos," said Johnson. "You already made it to the eight, you can take it all the way."
"You'll do great," said Rachel.
"Right." Tanos bounced up and down on her toes. "I can do it."
Suba patted Johnson on the back. "I'll take this bout," he said. "Go help Erin."
"Words of wisdom, coach?" asked Tanos.
Suba frowned, looking at Villard. "Watch your six."
The director rolled in - a man with a beard and a wheelchair. "Who wants to test first?" He brandished a weight.
The director checked the weapons and Tanos and Tatiana tested against each others' guards before saluting. Tatiana dipped her weapon, down-up-down in Villard's salute. Tanos described an s with her weapon.
"Very fancy," said the director. "En garde, please. Ready? Fence." He started his timer and the fencers stepped forward.
Tatiana scored on Tanos twice with a six parry before Tanos figured it out and tightened her guard. Then Tanos got a point when Tatiana tried it again and found Tanos ready with a counter-parry.
"Good adjustment," called Suba. "Change it up."
"Don't let her run the bout," said Villard, from the other end of the strip. "You control the tempo."
Tanos made a long lunge and scored, but Tatiana caught her arm on the way in and scored as well.
"Double touch," announced the director. "The score is three on my left, two on my right."
"What does it go to?" asked Rachel. "Five?"
"No, that was in pools. Now it goes to fifteen, with a break every three minutes." Suba stopped himself with a grunt as Tatiana made another touch. "Be patient, Tanos!"
"Make each touch yours," said Villard. "Reach out and take them."
Tatiana lunged, missed, parried Tanos' riposte, and retreated. The two fencers darted little jabs at each others' wrists, looking for an opening. Then Tanos ducked down, striking at Tatiana's foot and scoring.
"Great! Just right!" shouted Suba.
"No way," said Villard. "That was the floor."
"Touch right," said the director. "It's a grounded strip."
"Then it must have a bad spot," said Villard. "Can we test that?"
The director shrugged, and Tatiana prodded the strip with her epee. It didn't go off. Suba smiled, trying to look gracious, but mostly looking smug.
"No, it was in the center of the strip," said Villard. "More to the left-"
"Back on guard," said the director. "I'm upholding the touch."
Villard glared at him, then turned back to the bout. "Watch your footwork, Tatiana."
"Score is three all. Ready? Fence."
Tanos rushed at Tatiana, missed her lunge, and was hit by Tatiana as she passed.
"Touch left." The director held up a hand.
"No, no, no." Suba waved a hand. "Tanos was past, it was too late for a touch."
"It was a perfect touch," snapped Villard. "One smooth motion."
"Score is four on my left, three on my right," said the director, ignoring them.
"Time?" asked Suba.
The director checked his clock. "Fifteen seconds. Ready? Fence."
Tatiana and Tanos hesitated, taking steps back and forth as the last few seconds ticked away on the clock. Then Tatiana rushed at Tanos, scoring as the timer beeped.
"Too late," muttered Suba.
"Touch left," said the director.
"She scored with one second left on the clock," said Villard. "Beautiful, Tatiana."
"This is absurd," said Suba. "Rachel, can you believe this?"
"Absurd," said Rachel. She had absolutely no idea what was going on, but Tanos was down and Suba was unhappy, so she figured she shouldn't say that.
"Ready? Fence." The director started the timer and it beeped immediately. "Halt. One minute break."
Suba grabbed a bottle of gatorade and hurried over to Tanos.
"You're doing great," he said. "Nice adjustment with the parry six. Think about what else you can change - your speed is working for you, but you need to vary the tempo. Tatiana knows how you fence. Take advantage of that and make her think you're falling into a rhythm. Then strike when she's not expecting it. Got it?"
Tanos tried to gulp gatorade and nod at the same time.
"Be patient." Suba patted her on the back. "Wait for her to make the mistakes. Like I said, you're doing great."
About 40 feet away, Villard tossed a bottle of water at Tatiana.
"No gatorade?" Tatiana flicked her eyes at Tanos and Suba.
"Sugar saps your strength," said Villard. "You need to step it up. You should be six or seven points ahead by now. You're fencing lazy, slow, waiting for openings. You need to be aggressive. Don't be afraid to get rough, if you have to."
Tatiana took a sip of water and didn't look away from Tanos. "I'm doing my best," she said.
"Then your best isn't good enough," said Villard. "Do better. I want you fencing in the finals - don't get bogged down in the eight like this."
The timer beeped. "En garde, please," said the director. The fencers saluted him and put on their masks as their coaches moved away.
Tatiana and Tanos traded a couple touches, and Villard and Suba kept shouting. Rachel put a hand on Suba's arm, which he shook off, and Trebor and Hobbs resisted an urge to apologize to the ref for their coach.
"The score is eight on my left, five on my right," said the director. "Ready? Fence."
Tatiana took a slow step forward, then accelerated. She missed with her lunge and then nearly crashed into Tanos. Tanos yelped, and Tatiana struck straight down and hit her in the leg.
"Touch left," said the director.
"Corps-a-corps!" shouted Suba. "They were practically falling over."
"Their shoulders didn't touch," said Villard. "Do it again, Tatiana, but don't miss the first attack."
The bout began again, both of the fencers moving more cautiously than before.
"Shoulders didn't touch," muttered Suba. "Shoulders didn't touch, he says."
"Well, they didn't," said Rachel. "Does that matter?"
"Technically, yes," said Suba. "But you saw Tatiana crash into Tanos. Did that look right? He's teaching these kids to be killers."
Tatiana misjudged her distance, and Tanos landed a touch on her shoulder.
"Nine on my left, six on my right." The director's finger hovered over the timer button. "Ready?"
"Stop reacting," called Villard. "Make her react to you."
Tatiana nodded. When the director called the next touch, she didn't hesitate, just rushed at Tanos. Tatiana scored, but her momentum carried her forward until she knocked Tanos over.
"Halt," said the director, and hesitated.
"Come on!" shouted Suba, even louder than he had been before. "What the hell was that?"
"Your fencer was too close," said Villard. "She practically walked into it."
"Your fencer tried to bash Tanos' head in!" Suba waved a hand, then waved both hands in case one hadn't gotten the point across.
"Sorry." Tatiana offered a hand to help Tanos up.
"I'm fine," said Tanos.
"Yellow card to my left," said the director, holding up a rectangle of yellow plastic. "Jostling. The last touch is annulled."
"Yellow card!" shouted Suba and Villard as one.
"That was Tatiana's touch," said Villard. "It wasn't her fault that Tanos tripped."
"Tripped?" Suba snorted. "Tanos should get a penalty touch - that was fencing with brutality, red card!"
"First instance of touch made with brutality is also a yellow card," said the director.
"Believe me," said Suba. "That was not the first instance."
"Don't drag in ancient history." Villard rolled his eyes. "This was obviously accidental."
"This is exactly what happened when Erin and Trebor fenced!" Suba took a step toward Villard. "That was no accident, and this isn't either."
"Hey, that was an accident," snapped Trebor. "I would never hurt-"
"Shut up, shut up," hissed Hobbs. "Don't get in the middle of this. There's going to be another duel to the death in a few minutes."
The coaches were ignoring Trebor anyway. Suba was still talking, getting closer and closer to Villard while Rachel tried ineffectually to distract him. "This is a pattern in your coaching," he said, "and-"
"What, that I teach my students to make actions instead of being passive?" Villard leaned into Suba, tapped a finger on his chest. "You're lucky the director hasn't called non-combativity on Tanos."
"Gentlemen," said the director, but Suba and Villard didn't even look at him.
"I'll show you non-combativity," growled Suba.
"That makes no sense as a threat," said Villard.
"Gentlemen, you're delaying the bout," said the director.
Suba grabbed Villard by his jacket, and Villard froze in place. His expression was familiar to everyone who had been at the salle about an hour before the ambulances had to be called. This was how Villard had looked when he was at the top of the stairs, gazing down at Suba splayed on the ground - he looked like he was ready to take a life, and glory in it. Hobbs and Trebor took a few steps back; Rachel took a step forward. On the strip, Tatiana and Tanos put their epees behind their backs, trying to remove any kind of weapon from their coaches' sight.
The director reached into his jacket pocket, shuffled through a few rectangles of colored plastic.
"Go ahead." Suba glared at Villard. "Make an action."
Villard looked down at where Suba was gripping his jacket. "Remove your hand," he said. "Unless you'd prefer to lose some fingers."
"Black card, gentlemen," said the director, holding it up. "I'm going to ask you to leave the convention center."
This broke through. Villard and Suba both turned to look, Suba's eyes widening as Villard's eyes narrowed.
"Black card?" said Suba.
"For what?" demanded Villard.
"Disrupting the bout, refusing to attend to the director, conduct unbecoming the sport, take your pick." The director tucked the card back into his pocket. "Or don't. But get out, and I don't want to see you for the rest of the day."
"Seriously?" Suba let go of Villard's jacket. "Look, Mister, I'm just trying to coach-"
Villard ran his hands down his jacket, smoothing the creases. Then he turned on his heel and walked away. Trebor ran after him, leaving Hobbs and Tatiana chattering at each other in panicked tones. Suba stopped talking to watch Villard go, his mouth a little open.
"And you too," said the director. "Get. I want to finish this bout."
"I think you'd better, Max," said Rachel.
"Yeah." Suba rubbed the back of his neck. "Uh, sorry. Sorry, everyone. Rachel, you take over, okay?"
He turned and walked toward the outer doors. He could hear the bout starting up again behind him, Rachel shouting things at Tanos like "be patient," and "keep calm," just like a natural or anyone who had listened to Suba coaching for more than five minutes. Ahead of him, Villard was telling Trebor to find Gallagher and tell him what was happening. And all around, the fencing competition buzzed on. Metal rang against metal, directors announced calls, and coaches shouted encouragement at their fencers.
The inner doors opened and then closed behind him, and the only noise was Villard's footsteps ahead. Another set of doors and they were outside.
It was a nice day, clear with a bit of a breeze. Villard sat down on a bench. Suba hesitated - there wasn't another bench nearby, and he thought Villard might strangle him if he sat down next to him. Finally Suba just leaned against the wall a few yards away.
"So," said Villard. "Pistols at dawn?"
Suba eyed him. "Are you joking? I honestly can't tell."
Villard shrugged. It probably was a joke - Suba decided to take it as one, since he wasn't allowed to handle firearms.
Suba stared up at the cloudless sky. "This was supposed to be a nice trip," he said. "Get my students some experience, get myself some time with Rachel. And now I'm stuck out here."
Villard didn't say anything, didn't even shrug this time. He looked like a statue cast in flesh, his eyes cold glass marbles.
"I don't understand why I can't leave you alone," continued Suba. "It's like there's something missing, like I want something from you-"
"You want closure," said Villard. "You did something terrible when you were young, and you paid for it, and now you want me to understand. To forgive you."
"Yes," said Suba, gratefully. "That's exactly it."
"I'm not going to forgive you." Villard looked straight into Suba's eyes. "I'm not going to understand and I'm not going to learn anything from my experiences. You paid for my father's murder, fine. I'm not interested in payment."
Suba slumped against the wall. "So what do we do?"
Villard smiled. "I was thinking about getting a restraining order."
"Christ." Suba put a hand over his face.
The convention center doors opened, and Gallagher leaned out. "Tatiana won her bout," he said. "Fifteen to nine. I've got two people in the foil sixteen that I'm supposed to be coaching, now that you've gotten yourselves kicked out, and instead I'm out here reporting epee results."
"Thank you, Mister Gallagher," said Villard. "Next time send Trebor or Hobbs."
"I wanted to make sure you two weren't killing each other." Gallagher walked over to the bench. "I won't yell at you, Maestro, since you happen to be my employer, but Max. What the hell were you thinking, Max?"
Suba looked through his fingers at Gallagher's extremely disappointed face. "I don't want to talk about it," he said.
Gallagher crossed his arms. "Look, just stay away from each other tomorrow. If Johnson has to fence Hobbs or Trebor, excuse yourselves and leave the coaching to someone else. If you're not careful, you'll get yourselves banned from Nationals too."
"We'll talk about it later," Villard waved a hand. "Get back to your job. Tell Tatiana to be careful with her footwork when she fences her next bout."
"Right, right." Gallagher turned to go.
"Danny!" called Suba. "Would you tell Tanos that she fenced well? And that- well, that I'm sorry."
"Sure," said Gallagher and opened the door. Suba and Villard could hear the competition again, just for a moment, before Gallagher disappeared inside and the door closed.
"Tatiana's a good fencer," said Suba.
"We'll see if she can beat Clavelli in the finals." Villard closed his eyes, in a slow blink that looked almost like he was starting to fall asleep. It was nearly one in the afternoon, Suba realized, and both of them were starting to tire after what could be obliquely referred to as an extremely active morning. Suba was starving.
Villard's stomach growled, as if it could sense Suba's thoughts. Villard didn't react to it at all, but Suba knew what he'd heard. He pushed himself away from the wall.
"There's a fish place down the street." Suba pointed. "I'm going to get lunch - you want me to pick something up for you?"
Villard looked at him suspiciously, and Suba added "I mean, if you don't mind telling people where I've gone if they come looking. I'll only be a couple minutes, and I won't poison the food."
Villard relaxed, just a little. His shoulders were still squared and his spine was still as straight as a ruler, but the skin around his eyes and mouth seemed less tense. "Get me some catfish," he said. "Extra tartar sauce."
It was probably a truce. Or at least a cease-fire. Suba tried to be satisfied with that.
Suba and his group left Richmond early Saturday afternoon.
Suba made it through a whole morning of coaching without getting black carded again, even though he couldn't look the director from the day before in the face. That was about the only success story. Erin had lost in semi-finals - so had Tatiana, though that wasn't exactly a consolation. Tanos, obviously, hadn't made it out of the 8. Rachel was still confused and upset about Suba's behavior on Friday. And Johnson had lost in the 32 by one touch in overtime.
Overall, it was not a happy mini-van. No one was singing along to the radio - the radio wasn't even on. Rachel had a hard set to her mouth, like she had locked her jaw to keep from complaining.
Suba twisted around to look at the back seat. Erin was toying with her third-place medal, looking proud and annoyed all at once. Tanos was staring straight up at the ceiling, one finger tapping on her knee. Johnson was looking out the window, arms crossed and a grimace on his face.
"You guys did great," said Suba.
Tanos laughed, like he was telling a joke.
"Seriously," insisted Suba. "Erin, third place is something to be really happy about. It's the highest you've ever placed."
"I could have done better." Erin flicked the medal with her finger, spinning it.
"One step at a time," said Suba. "Just think about how far you've come since last year, okay? The same goes for all of you. Tanos, you won your A yesterday. Johnson, I know you're not happy about today, but you fenced well against some tough people and you renewed your C. These are good results, not consolation prizes. I'm proud of all of you."
Tanos' smile looked less angry, now, and Erin had stopped fidgeting with her medal. Johnson hadn't looked away from the window, but the grimace had disappeared from his face. Suba turned to Rachel.
"I'm sorry about yesterday," he said. "I know this was going to be our fun weekend away. It won't happen again, I promise."
Rachel's mouth softened, and she patted Suba's cheek haphazardly without looking away from the road. "You can stop apologizing," she said. "Can we talk about this when we get home? I want to help, if you'll let me, but I can't do that and drive at the same time."
"Sure." Suba took her hand. "Let's put some music on."
"Not ABBA," said Johnson. It was the first thing he'd said since getting in the car. "Please, anything else."
"We can listen to the radio." Suba flipped through the channels until he landed on a classic rock station. The radio started playing a Chicago song - Suba didn't think the 80s were classic yet, but apparently anything older than 1990 was fair game.
"-after all that we've been through, I will make it up to you," sang Chicago. "I promise to-"
"Oh my god," said Suba.
"Are you okay?" asked Rachel.
"-and after all that's been said and done," sang Chicago, "you're just the part of me I can't let go-"
"This song is about me." Suba's eyes felt hot, and he had to blink. "It's about Villard, and-"
"-couldn't stand to be kept away," sang the radio, "just for the day, from your body-"
"Maybe not that part," said Suba.
"I think we really need to talk about this," said Rachel.
"No, uh," Suba hesitated, casting around for a distraction. "Hey, Erin, when's the next NAC?"
"July," said Erin. "But it's in Ohio, I don't know if we can make-"
"We should go, definitely." Suba beamed at all of them. "We'll call it a do-over. A no-drama competition."
"It's fencing," said Tanos. "There's always going to be drama."
Men's sabre finished in the early evening, and Villard and Gallagher loaded their fencers into the cars and set off for New York. They hadn't driven for more than five minutes before Villard began the competition post-mortem.
"Third place is good, Tatiana, but not what I expected from you. Mister Gallagher says that you were giving too much ground in the semi-finals."
"Maybe I wouldn't have," muttered Tatiana, "if my coach had been there."
"Only a poor fencer blames the circumstances," said Villard. "Success comes from within, not from without. Hobbs, you finished at the bottom of the eight today. Why is that?"
Hobbs rolled his eyes. "Because I got stomped by James Carpenter."
"And why is that?"
"Because he's an asshole who just pushes you down the strip until you're almost off and panicking and then hits you in the shoulder," said Hobbs. "Like an asshole."
"Because you let him control the tempo," corrected Villard. "We'll work on that. You have to be in charge of your own actions. Trebor, you took second place. Are you satisfied with that?"
"No," said Trebor. He wished he was sitting in back with Hobbs and Tatiana, where Villard couldn't see him as easily. He liked the legroom in the front seat, but not the scrutiny.
"What happened in the final?"
"He got stomped by that asshole Carpenter," volunteered Hobbs.
"I was asking Mister Trebor," said Villard.
Trebor felt like Hobbs had the right answer, but it wasn't an answer that Villard was happy with. "I wasn't in control of the tempo?" he hazarded.
"Your tempo was fine." Villard waved a hand. "Don't just echo me. What you needed was more confidence in your actions. You were holding back, not extending enough. You'll have to fix that in the future. Now, why don't you three think of five things you'd like to work on at practice-"
Trebor could see his immediate future - six hours of dissecting every piece of his performance today, heaping thousands of petty annoyances on top of his already tremendous frustration with his less-than-perfect finish. Trebor looked back at Tatiana and Hobbs, who looked about as happy about the conversation as Trebor felt.
"Maestro," said Trebor, in an attempt to change the subject, "what were you talking to that director about before we left?"
Villard's knuckles turned white around the steering wheel. "What director?"
"You know, the one in the chair."
"I was apologizing for my conduct yesterday," said Villard, stiffly. "And thanking him for being lenient. He could have banned me for the rest of the season."
The silence in the car was filled by rushing wind as they got onto the highway.
"What is it with you and Suba?" asked Hobbs. "You run over his dog or something?"
Villard's hands tightened even more around the steering wheel. Trebor turned to the back seat and mimed cutting his throat, while Tatiana glared at Hobbs. But the explosion they were expecting failed to appear. Instead, Villard made an impatient gesture and turned on the radio.
"Not NPR again," said Tatiana, fast like she couldn't help herself. "You owe us that much."
"I don't owe you a thing outside of fencing," said Villard. But after a moment he held out his hand. "Didn't you have a tape you wanted to listen to?"
Tatiana smiled like she had just won a fifteen to zero bout, and dug out her Nirvana tape.
Villard made a face at the mumbling lyrics in Teen Spirit, but after a while Trebor caught him humming along to Come As You Are.
"I can give you a copy if you want," said Tatiana.
"I think I've heard everything I need to," said Villard. "Keep thinking about your fencing. I want all of you to improve your places at the Ohio NAC."
"Is Suba going to that?" asked Hobbs.
"I don't see what that has to do with me," said Villard. Trebor had no idea how he managed to say that seriously.
"Five to one they get black carded for the rest of the season next time," muttered Hobbs, to Tatiana.
She didn't take the bet, which turned out to be just as well.