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With a round kick landing squarely against his chest, Mitch staggered backwards and dropped to his knees on the dojo mats. He had only a second to look up before the heel of a foot connected square with his face, sending him falling on his back, defeated. His opponent stood victorious in front of him, glaring down with a sharp smirk that belied the disappointment he felt for how easy this win had come by. Just once, he wished the others would give him a real challenge.

 

"Return."

 

Hawk glanced over his shoulder at his Sensei at hearing the command and did as he was told, returning to the sidelines to stand beside Tory while Mitch picked himself off the floor and did the same, getting back to attention on the other side of Kevin.

 

Sensei Kreese strolled down the row of students, eyeing them all like a drill sergeant scrutinized his soldiers. "You tell me you're giving me better than your best, but all I see is the most pathetic pack of pussies I ever had the misfortunate to lay eyes on. And I won't tolerate pussies in my dojo."

 

His putdowns could be as harsh as Sensei Lawrence's ever were, but between the two Senseis they were all used to them by now. And the tone in which he delivered them couldn't have been more different from their previous teacher's. Sensei Kreese owned his every word, his every movement with a cool countenance, like he was fully aware of the fact that he was the OG badass. And what respect his students owed him.

 

Once he stood in front of Hawk, Sensei Kreese looked back down the row he'd just walked by. "How long are you going to let Hawk wipe the floor with you before you step up?" he asked. Hawk swelled at that praise, his smirk returning to curl the corner of his mouth. It was nice, being at the center of positive attention for a change.

 

Sensei Kreese continued, giving his closing lesson for the day. He explained that while their real training under his oversight was often harsh and unforgiving, it served the important purpose of preparing them for survival. Sooner or later, they would face their enemies again on the street. And he would not train them to be merciful when their enemies showed them no mercy in return. They'd seen for themselves what the consequences of showing mercy had been.

 

Once more, the message was simple to understand: Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy. Black words on a white wall, as it should be.

 

As life went on under Cobra Kai's new management, one truth had become crystal clear. Sensei Kreese expected the same things from every one of his students: unbending respect; unshakeable loyalty; and, above all else, unquestioning obedience. In return, he would give them strength, confidence, and power. He would make them winners.

 

Once practice wrapped up, Hawk walked to where everyone crowded near the benches to grab their belongings. There, he caught Tory's eyes lingering on him. He couldn't place the expression on her face, the way her nose crinkled and her brows furrowed together hard, like she was deep in her thoughts. "What?" he asked, questioning that look of hers before taking a swig from his water bottle.

 

Tory shook her head, reaching down to slip on her tennis shoes. "Nothing."

 

"Kickass match against Red, by the way," Hawk said, putting the bottle back in his bag. Then, with a shaky laugh, he added, "Heh, I think you actually made him cry with that punch. A few inches lower, and he would've been bawlin'."

 

"Thanks," replied Tory, sliding the strap of her bag over her shoulder. Hawk waited a moment, hoping maybe she'd compliment him for his fight, too. But she said nothing else. A frown fleeted over Hawk’s face, but he didn't make another remark on it.

 

Tory was their second-best fighter in the new Cobra Kai for the foreseeable future, at least until Miguel came back; whenever that was. Hawk thought she should have been taking more of a lead with that being the case, but Sensei Kreese did not expect the same things from her that he did from him. Maybe because she was a girl.

 

But Tory rarely spoke up in class anyways, so it wasn't like she would have contributed much in leading by example. Sure, she trained harder than most of the others, but now she always seemed to have her guard up. She didn't relax anymore, the way she'd done when Miguel and Aisha were around.

 

Hawk wondered why. Did she still think they all secretly blamed her for what happened to Miguel? Nobody in Cobra Kai held it against her for starting the school fight, she'd acted like a true Cobra should have in that situation. They knew who the real enemies were. Robby had been the one to kick Miguel over the rail, even after he'd been shown mercy. And Sensei Lawrence had been the one to teach Miguel to show mercy in the first place.

 

Reaching between the two of them to grab his bag from the bench, Mitch rubbed his sore jaw with his other hand. "Geez, would it kill you to take it down a notch in these matches?" he grumbled to Hawk.

 

"You heard Sensei," replied Hawk with a mean-spirited snort. "We don't train to be merciful here, Ass-face."

 

"I know," mumbled Mitch, "but shit, man, I'm pretty sure you almost chipped my tooth that time."

 

"So what?" Hawk retorted, his face pinching in irritation as he recalled the time Aisha had chipped his tooth the day Sensei Lawrence ordered her to un-flinch the class. It left him with no pity to extend to Mitch. The other boy needed to get with the program and toughen up already. "Deal with it."

 

Mitch gave him a look, squinting his eyes and shaking his head. Then he turned and walked away, muttering something that sounded like "fucking asshole" under his breath while he made his way to the door. Hawk made a mental note to make him pay for that remark next practice.

 

But for the time being, Hawk turned to Tory again and asked her, "Anyway, you wanna do some one-on-one? I could show you a couple new moves I've been working on. Y'know, for when we get our rematch against Miyagi-Do."

 

Tory's features hardened. Her cheeks flushed pink, and she twisted her lips as she crossed her arms over her chest. Her voice sounded tense when she spoke up and told him in no uncertain terms, "Look, just so we're on the same page, I'm not interested. Miguel is still…." She trailed off, eyes drifting down to glance at the floor. She was fighting hard not to look vulnerable, Hawk could tell.

 

Blinking in silent confusion for a minute, it then sunk in for Hawk what Tory was saying. "I didn't mean it that way. It’s just that you’re the only one in this class of shitbreaths who can actually keep up," he explained, feeling his ears burn. Did she think he'd been trying to put moves on her all this time?

 

Not that he'd never taken notice of her since she joined the dojo. He had eyes, after all. If he hadn't been with Moon at the time, and if Miguel didn't strike first, Hawk might have made a move. But even though things were up in the air, and had gotten muddled since Miguel kissed Sam, Hawk assumed Tory was still Miguel's girlfriend. According to the Bro Code, that made her off-limits.

 

Besides, it wasn't like he was so desperate as to hit on his best friend's girl, especially when Miguel was in the hospital. He could get any chick in school he wanted. For real. Once Cobra Kai's reputation repaired in the Valley, he'd be well on his way to getting a full cycle of girlfriends.

 

Tory sighed and uncrossed her arms from their defensive stance, reaching one hand up to brush some loose strands of hair behind her ear. "Sorry," she apologized, softer this time. "But I really can't stay. I'm supposed to meet up with one of my girlfriends soon. Maybe some other time."

 

Hawk rolled his shoulders, telling himself not to let her rebuff get under his skin. "Yeah. Maybe later. No prob."

 

He didn't know why he was trying to get her to warm up again. Maybe it was because she was the closest company he had to Miguel. She was the only other one in the dojo who understood. Perhaps he hoped that they might be able to bond over that, because there was no way he could open up to the other guys about what he was feeling. He had to be tougher than that, for the sake of Cobra Kai. But he still wanted companionship and assumed Tory might as well. Girls were always franker with their feelings, after all.

 

Perhaps he'd been wrong. Maybe she was the type who dealt with her problems on her own. Or maybe that's what her girlfriends were for. Maybe she would've been more receptive if he'd been Aisha instead.

 

Without another word, Tory walked passed him. Hawk watched until the door closed behind her, jingling the bells as she exited the building. The last stragglers soon followed behind her, and Hawk was left behind, alone in the dojo. Good. That was how he liked it lately.

 

Turning on his feet, he trudged to the back room, making his way over to the practice dummy. With each step, he could feel himself winding up, in the way the muscles between his shoulder-blades tensed, he could feel the anger boiling the blood in his veins by the time he reached his target. He didn't hesitate for a second to start whaling into it.

 

With grunts of aggression driving out of him with each hit, he pounded his fists over and over into the dummy's face. With each strike, he imagined he was assailing one of his enemies instead. He thought about how he never got an opportunity to get his revenge on Kyler, and how good it would feel to give him a bloody lip. Next, he was pummeling Demetri's nerdy mug, repaying him for all the humiliation he'd put him through with his roast. Then Robby got his turn, Hawk daydreaming about how pleased he would be to leave him with a matching set of black eyes if given the chance.

 

Throwing one particularly incensed blow, he even visualized himself taking a swing at Sensei Lawrence.

 

"If you don't watch your form, you'll bust your knuckles before you ever break your opponent's nose."

 

Hawk ceased his angry strikes, his shoulders rising and falling with his heavy breaths as he looked across the room to see Sensei Kreese leaning against the doorframe. His instructor stared at him hard, his arms crossed and his eyes keen, studying him as he sometimes did whenever Hawk stayed behind after class to practice by himself. He was glad Sensei Kreese didn't object to him doing it, and he was thankful for the old man's observations.

 

"Yes, Sensei." Hawk glanced down at his knuckles. They were already red. He wouldn't be surprised if they bruised. He'd gotten too sloppy in his relentless aggression. That night he'd have to remember to give them an ice bath.

 

Eyeing the practice dummy Hawk had been taking out his frustrations on, Sensei Kreese tilted his head and inquired, "Something on your mind?"

 

Sensei Lawrence never would have asked him that. He wouldn't have cared. Sensei Kreese could be a hard man, but he at least didn't turn Hawk away. He was always there with advice. He'd protected Hawk after he vandalized Miyagi-Do. He'd been there for him after the school fight, with a sympathetic ear and a promise that he would never lose again. Hawk knew he could trust Sensei Kreese.

 

"Sensei, when are we going to make our move against Miyagi-Do?" asked Hawk, his skin warming at the thought of getting his coveted rematch against the rival dojo. He'd spent so long fantasizing about it since Cobra Kai's devastating loss, and he was eager to strike. "We know where to find them. We could catch them off-guard so easy."

 

Hawk didn't understand what Sensei Kreese's strategy was. Officially, Mr. LaRusso had shut down the Miyagi-Do karate dojo. He tucked his tail between his legs and ran off like a coward. But his students remained at school; only Robby Keene was out of the picture, rotting as he was at that moment in juvie, where he belonged. With their Sensei having abandoned them, the others at Miyagi-Do were ripe to be crushed.

 

But Sensei Kreese held them back for now. Hawk hated it. He couldn't comprehend what his Sensei was waiting for, when they were so close to finishing the fight for good. It wasn't right that they at Cobra Kai had to go to school almost every day and be around their enemies without having the opportunity to make them pay for what they'd done to them.

 

Narrowing his eyes, Sensei Kreese responded, "What did I tell all of you before? No one touches the little prima donnas until I say so."

 

"But I'm ready now, Sensei!" The words flew out of Hawk's mouth before he could remember that no one argued with Sensei Kreese.

 

"Are you?" asked Sensei Kreese smoothly, a simple smile spreading over his face, and he got a gleam in his eye. He sounded amused, which confused Hawk, now that he had a second to reflect on his mistake.

 

He expected a sharp reprimand for forgetting his place, or an order to drop to the ground and give him fifty pushups on his knuckles, as would be appropriate. But his Sensei instead uncrossed his arms and walked closer, until he stood in front of him imposingly. Hawk bowed his head and tried to apologize. "Sensei, I'm sor-"

 

"Let's see how ready you are," said Sensei Kreese, cutting him off. "Hit me." For a second, Hawk remembered what happened the last time someone had given that demand, when Sensei Lawrence ordered Demetri to attack him, just before tossing his ass to the mats. It made Hawk hesitate. And his hesitation made Sensei Kreese chuckle under his breath. "What? Worried about hurting an old man?"

 

Was there a right answer to that question? "Uh, I…."

 

"Did I stutter?" demanded Sensei Kreese, his words carrying an edge to them as any amusement he'd carried before melted off like ice. "I told you, hit me."

 

A look of determination crossed Hawk's features, hardening his eyes. This was a test, he realized. Sensei Kreese wasn't messing around, was he? He needed to show his teacher what he was made of now, to show that his lessons had not been in vain. "Yes, Sensei," he said, getting into a fighting position.

 

"Good. Don't hold back," instructed Sensei Kreese, who didn't so much as put up a defensive stance, leaving himself wide open to attack. "No mercy."

 

Like Hawk needed reminding of that maxim. If any of them in the dojo understood the value of that truth, it was him.

 

He struck at his teacher with a straight punch, which Sensei Kreese pushed out of the way with ease. Hawk's reflexes moved him nimbly away before any expected counter-attack could hit, but Sensei Kreese remained where he stood, like some sort of impenetrable wall. Did his Sensei really expect him to go all-out against him? Because Hawk's mind raced with a dozen ways he might knock the old man down, but it left a bad taste in his mouth thinking about it.

 

He pushed ahead regardless, launching a round kick towards Sensei Kreese's face. But his instructor took two big steps backward, making him miss. Hawk recovered and circled around to kick him again, yet the result was the same, this time Sensei Kreese giving him a look of disappointment. It made Hawk's face burn in shame.

 

Hawk struck his foot out again, only for Sensei Kreese to make a hard turn to dodge the hit. Backing up to put some distance between them, Hawk scrambled his mind to think fast about what he should do. If he could just land a hit, he was sure it wouldn't take much to bring his Sensei down; he was nearing eighty, after all, his stamina couldn't be that high. But first he would have to hit him.

 

Launching another punch, which Sensei Kreese smacked away again, Hawk turned around and tried elbowing his chin, but Sensei Kreese took another step back, flashing white teeth behind his smile as he did so, tauntingly. Hawk powered forward, flipping around to deliver his most forceful punch yet, aiming at his Sensei's chest to knock the wind out of him.

 

Sensei Kreese maneuvered to the side, avoiding the attack. One of his hands then shot out to grab Hawk's wrist, while the other gripped his opposite shoulder. With a harsh jerk, he twisted the boy around to wrench his arm behind his back. "You think you're ready just because you're at the top of the class?" he asked Hawk, twisting his arm tighter. "Well now your enemy has you. What are you going to do about it?"

 

Hawk nearly cried out at the pressure of his arm being pulled behind his back, but he clenched his jaw tight to stop it from coming out. He reminded himself that he couldn't panic. He stomped his heel down on Sensei Kreese's foot, but to no avail, as he only heard his Sensei chuckle under his breath again at such a feeble effort.

 

He attempted next to twist himself out of his hold, but Sensei Kreese only gripped his shoulder tighter and pulled his arm up farther, and this time Hawk did make a noise. His Sensei wouldn't pop his arm from his shoulder-blade, would he? "What are you waiting for?" demanded Sensei Kreese. "Remember, nobody wins by doing nothing. Do you want to end up like Diaz?"

 

All Hawk could think to do was instinctively reach over his shoulder with his free hand and rake it behind him blindly at Sensei Kreese's face, aiming for his eyes. "Trying to gouge out my eyes?" inquired Sensei Kreese, amusement returning to the inflection of his voice. "Not bad, but not good enough either. If this were a real fight, your enemy could already have pulled your arm out of your socket by now. Take your enemy down with you!"

 

The idea came to Hawk then, hearing those words. He moved his foot between Sensei Kreese's legs and locked it behind his left calf. He knew what he would have to do, and he dreaded the consequences. But Sensei Kreese was right. If he could take his enemy down with him, then to hell with dislocating his shoulder-blade. So, he clenched his jaw as tight as he could and reached his free hand back to grab a handful of Sensei Kreese's gi. Then he pulled his weight forward, trying his hardest to knock his Sensei off his footing by pushing against his opponent’s calf with his ankle.

 

He almost succeeded. Sensei Kreese leg was swept out from under him, but he caught himself at the last moment before he tripped and brought them both down. "That's more like it!" he praised, finally releasing Hawk's arm.

 

Hawk winced and rolled his sore shoulder back. It felt like the muscles there would be screaming at him if they could. He guessed he would be icing that area tonight, too.

 

Sensei Kreese crossed his arms again and stared at him, raising one eyebrow and noting, ”You say you're ready, but your problem is that you doubt your abilities. You could have ended that fight much sooner if you didn’t doubt yourself. What’s holding you back?"

 

Hawk looked hard at his Sensei, pondering over his question. What was holding him back? He wasn't aware he had been holding himself back at all. Hadn’t he always given every fight his all? Strike hard, as the motto went. But Sensei Kreese was an observant man. He saw something Hawk could not. "I don't know, Sensei," he answered.

 

The response amused Sensei Kreese again, judging by his faint, tight-lipped smile. “Did Sensei Lawrence ever talk about your potential with you?”

 

Shrugging, Hawk shook his head and admitted, “Not really.” Sensei Lawrence always pointed out when he wasn’t getting a move right, or when he wasn’t doing things his preferred way, but they’d never had a heart-to-heart chat about his own strengths.

 

“Not everyone has what it takes to fight like you did, kid,” remarked Sensei Kreese. “Most of them are still too chickenshit to take a big hit, too scared they’ll get hurt. Not you, though. You want to give it your all, don’t you? You’re willing to see the fight to the very end, even if it means going down with your enemy. And so long as the enemy goes down with you, you’ll never lose.”

 

Hawk perked at the way Sensei Kreese said that, and a small smile lit up his face, making him forget the soreness in his shoulder entirely.