- Chapter 1: Blood on the Mat -
"Hey Steve, clean that blood up off the mat. It's grossing me out and a bunch of the parents were pissed last time the kid's class found that tooth in the heavy bag. I don't need any more of that shit, ESPECIALLY on a day like today."
Steve Millman looked up from the mop he was wringing and gazed at his master. Iron Puma was sprawled out in the Laz-E Boy he'd dubbed the "Throne from Game of Thrones" with a wet dishrag over his eyes. Millman had seen Iron Puma in this state before and once again, as he had many times before, cursed Fate for making a man so immensely gifted in the martial arts and yet so flawed that he couldn't help himself from that one, single temptation - Mike's Hard Lemonade. Millman shook his head and chuckled softly as he resumed cleaning up the pool of strawberry pineapple-infused vomit that had greeted him this morning when he opened Iron Puma Martial Arts. Classic Iron Puma.
He'd get to the blood soon enough but he didn't want to interrupt the fighters who were currently engaged in intense sparring in the training area. Reggie Carmichael and Blake Fishouse were two of the young up-and-comers that Iron Puma had taken under his wing. He'd found them one day trying to steal his car from the Walmart parking lot and despite being outnumbered and pretty wasted for 2:00 PM on a Wednesday, Iron Puma had things well under control. He'd subdued Reggie with a one-handed RNC and knocked out Fishouse with the 12-pack of Mike's Hard Lemonade: Spring Break Seasonal that he'd been carrying. Rather than turn the youths over to police, Iron Puma had instead brought them to his school and made them his newest students. His only condition was that they each pay him $500 each to keep him quiet or he'd immediately go to the cops and say they were drug dealers in addition to car thieves. Despite being only 14 and 16, the pair had come up with the money (probably from selling drugs) and had become permanent fixtures in the school ever since.
Millman watched intently as Reggie posted in Blake's guard and began raining hammerfists onto his face and head as the latter fighter desperately tried to gain wrist control. Millman winced as cuts and bruises started to sprout on Blake's face. His first fight was only three days away and his head just wasn't in the game! Millman knew that the best way to prep for a fight was to train 100%, 7 days a week for months on end, never relenting for a moment. That was the best way to keep your warrior momentum and it was the first rule Iron Puma ingrained in all his students. For whatever reason, Blake seemed to be trying to conserve his energy and focus on technique in the final 72 hours before fight time. Millman glanced at his master and decided he could handle this teachable moment himself. "Hey guys, hold it there for a second so I can show you something." Reggie slowly released his grip on Blake's hair and pulled his knee up off of the Blake's groin. "Great job Reggie, really loved the intensity. Why don't you grab a couple of those expired Powerades we found outside that abandoned 7-11 while I talk to Blake a bit?" Reggie nodded and walked over to rummage through the torn garbage bag they used as a refrigerator.
Millman sat down next to Blake and helped him hold a handful of paper towels up to the multiple cuts that were now bleeding freely across his nose and cheek bones. "Pretty intense stuff, right? Not like that flash mobbing all the kids are doing lately, huh?" Millman asked, ruffling Blake's hair good-naturedly until a clump came off in his hand. Blake nodded and was quiet as he collected his thoughts. Or at least that's what Millman thought he was doing. Between all of the bloody paper towels it was pretty tough to read body language, especially the face part of the body. Millman wiped the hair from his hands and turned to Blake, preparing himself to give the tough love speech that Iron Puma had given him when he was a new student struggling to learn the path of the warrior. "Look Blake, you look like a real asshole out there. It's pretty embarassing to have to share a school with someone who's complete shit so you either need to get a whole lot better real fast or do the unselfish thing and go kill yourself." Millman gave Blake a double thumbs up and left him to process the life lesson he'd just been blessed with.
Picking up the mop again, Millman realized his message had been completely off-base and hurried back over to Blake. "Hey, I'm sorry man. I just realized that after I called you an asshole and told you you're shit, I gave you a thumbs up. But you didn't see it because of all the paper towels, so consider this your verbal thumbs up, alright?" Giving the double thumbs up again (this time with an impish wink), Millman started mopping up the blood pool that was on the mat, now substantially bigger than it had been two minutes before. Blake stood up and started staggering in the direction of the bathroom, taking several breaks to catch his ragged breath and wipe ineffectually at the giant blood stain that was covering most of the front of his shirt and arms.
"Steve." Millman turned, surprised that Iron Puma was still awake although his eyes were still covered by the dish towel. He normally fell asleep right away when on the Throne, especially when he was wearing his recovery Zubaz. Had he been listening the whole time? Millman couldn't imagine his master had heard the conversation, what with the boom box above the Laz-E Boy pumping out "Always On Time" on loop at a pretty high decibel.
Millman didn't get the chance to ask. Without a word and without moving anything else, Iron Puma raised both hands. And extended both thumbs straight up.