THE ENERGY OF THE ROOM WAS THE exact opposite of the way I felt. The excitement was electric, but it jump started my nerves. Thankfully no one seemed to notice or care. All the focus was on the cage in the middle of the room, waiting on the last round to start.
“It must get annoying, everyone always wanting his attention.” Leona leaned in to speak in my ear, nodding across the room to where Gage was talking with a group of guys while waiting on the fight.
“It’s only at events like this. Otherwise he’s left alone mostly.” And typically he’d dismiss the people to come to my side. But tonight, he was avoiding me. He had been avoiding me all day.
He’d been silent when I told him about Rusnak, and then he demanded I tell him exactly what happened, word for word. And I did. I told him everything while he sat stone still. He had me repeat it three times. Three times, and each time he didn’t react, and his blank response scared me. I knew the outward calm was masking a storm inside. When I was done talking, and he still hadn’t questioned or budged, I moved to touch him, and that broke his cover.
I raised to my knees, scooting across the bed to where he sat on the edge, covers bunching under me. Reaching my hand out, I touched his bare shoulder, and his muscles hardened under my palm.
“Gage? Say something.”
The way he looked at me then, the anger burning in his eyes, made me hesitate. But I pushed through and brought my other hand to his shoulder, intending to wrap my arms around him, pull my own reassurance from him, and give him some in return.
But he jerked away and stood up, turning to face me. My eyes dropped to his hands, they were balled into fists, knuckles white from the strain. He moved one up, inhaling like he was about to breathe fire, and then he dropped the hand back down. His jaw was clenched so tight, I was surprised he could speak. “You. Should. Have. Told. Me.”
I scrambled off the bed to face him, ready to apologize. “I just did. I wanted to tell you, but—”
“Stop.” His fist lifted again as he bit out his command.
I flinched back. In my mind, I was certain he wouldn’t use it on me, but my body had its own reaction.
He took a step back and dropped his fist, closing his eyes. “I can’t fucking talk to you right now.”
The disgust oozing from his words was a glue holding me in place. I stood there as he turned and stormed out of the room into the sitting area of our hotel suite.
His anger caused tremors to start in my muscles, but when he came back in the room and dressed, those tremors increased to painful bone quakes.
“Where are you going?” I was near panic, or maybe beyond it, because I grabbed him when he tried to walk away.
He jerked his forearm from my grasp with a growl, and the look he shot me was worse than if he had shoved me away. But him leaving, without speaking, without telling me what he was doing or where he was going, felt like he had used the fist his hand was still balled into.
“Maybe you should go over there? I don’t think he’s seen us yet. Maybe he doesn’t know where our seats are,” Leona spoke up as Gage sat down in the front row to the side of where we were with the guys who had intercepted him when he entered the arena.
“I’ll just text him.” I pulled out my phone, fingers hovering over the screen as I reread his last text message from last night.
That had been his one word response, and he hadn’t even been able to speak it to me. The hotel had a gym, and after hours of him being gone, I checked without being seen, and he was there on the treadmill when I snuck a peek. With that knowledge, I went back to the room and tried to sleep. He came back in sometime later and slept on the couch.
This morning, he still wouldn’t talk. He dropped me off with Leona and left with Dexter to prepare for the fight. This was the first time I’ve seen him since.
I texted him our seat numbers, but he knew them, I knew he did. He always knew where I was. He made it a point to know. That couldn’t have changed, not over this. He just needed time, I kept reassuring myself.
He slid his phone from his pocket, glanced at his screen, and put it away, not even bothering to look around or acknowledge my message as the two fighters came back to the center of the cage, starting their third and final round.
Dexter would be the next fight, and I tried to put all other thoughts away. Leona cringed as one man picked up the other around the waist and dropped him onto the mat, landing on top of him. Then it was hard to see who had the upper hand as they both were tangled in each other’s arms, bodies rocking as each tried to gain leverage.
“Oh man, Dexter better not let himself get stuck in a wrestling match.” She rose to her feet, with the rest of the crowd, as the man on the bottom flipped the man on top of him, sending his knee into his sides over and over.
The fight had enough action to hold my attention, and I tried to stay focused on it, but as the men continued to roll around the ring, getting side punches and jabs in, my eyes cut away to Gage. He was standing with that same group, but now he had one of the oversized foam beer cups in his hands, gulping it down.
The round ended, and both men dropped their hold on the other and rose to their feet, breathing heavy and red faced from exertion and hits. I’m pretty sure the one in the green shorts would be called winner, but it was close.
Gage nodded at whatever the man next to him was saying, and then his gaze landed on me, striking me still. He lifted his drink, and his head inclined towards me in acknowledgement. The side of his lip curled in the smallest sneer, but then it was blocked by his cup as he tilted it back, drinking deep.
Leona was talking to the others in our group, no one I knew. Aliya had to work, and Jase sat at the far end of the row. But I turned towards her, pretending to be interested in her conversation when all I wanted to do was pull Gage from this place and make him talk to me.
“You think so, right?” Leona blinked at me, waiting for an answer.
“I’m not saying he doesn’t have a chance, but come on, he hasn’t been at this very long. He knows boxing, but his opponent is all jiu jitsu. If Dex is taken to the ground, he’s lost his advantage.”
I leaned past Leona to the boy running his mouth. “Why don’t you keep your theories to yourself, and let’s just see what he does.” To Leona I said, “Dexter’s set. You know how those boys are, he’s not taking a fight he’s not confident on.”
Her smile was bright as she grabbed my hand with a bubbly laugh. “That may be Gage, but Dexter does stuff just to say he can. He’s wild, but I love him.” She shrugged. “It’s only fifteen minutes anyways, it can’t be that bad, even if it doesn’t go his way.”
A voice blared from the speakers around us, announcing Dexter. A group of men came from the arena side door, swinging rags to pump up the crowd. And the crowd was on its feet, roaring in the dark. Dexter came out, the spotlight showing off his bright smile and swagger as he walked to the low beat of the rap song playing. As he neared our seats, he kissed the tips of his fingers, sending each one to Leona, one hand and then the next. Outside of the octagon, he paused, bending slightly to brush off his bare knees and arms with vigor and jumping up when he was done. His entourage fell back with some sort of chant. They took the empty seats near the ring, and he jogged up the steps, busting into the cage. He bounced on his toes and waved to the crowd. He looked like he was about to go to a party, not a fight.
Leona was right, Dexter was nothing like Gage.
Gage. I peeked to where he was, but could barely see him with the lights turned down.
The other fighter was announced and entered in to an Irish rock song. He stalked around the ring in red shorts with a large crown tattoo on his back, and he refused to tap gloves with Dexter prior to the fight. But Dexter’s smile didn’t falter at the insult, if anything, it increased, and he tapped his own fists together, saying something to the man.
Dexter’s feet were quick when the round started, and he danced around his opponent. The man jabbed at Dexter but was unable to connect as Dexter kept weaving. Then he lunged towards Dex and wrapped his arms around his waist.
Dexter swung his arm low, hitting the man several times in his side, and then he brought his knee up and the man released him and backed up, wiping his brow.
Dexter stepped forward, fists just as quick as his feet, and hit him with a right, then left. The man tried to retaliate, swinging and missing as Dexter hooked him in the jaw. The man spun with the force of his own miss and Dexter’s fist slammed him to the mat. Dexter dropped to his knees, not letting up on his punches.
I rose to my feet to get a better view.
Dexter kept swinging, hitting him over and over across the cheek in the same spot. Then the man tapped out, and Dexter popped to his feet, big smile still spread across his face. I don’t think it had ever left.
The arena was on its feet, cheering and horns blaring.
Leona was screaming next to me, all her words running together. “That’s-my-mother-fucking-man-can’t-nobody-mess-with-him-hell-yeah-baby.” She shoved the boy to her left. “See. What did I tell you?” She let out some noise that sounded like a roar. “My man.” Her fists were flying. “My man.” Then she was on me, shaking me, hugging me, tackling me. “Ahh. He did it. I knew he could. But man, he did it.”
I couldn’t help but laugh, and it felt good. “He did.” I let her continue to rock me for a moment, and then her arms fell away.
“Well, our boy did it.” A man stepped beside me, his hand on Leona’s shoulder.
She smiled at him, but reigned in her overflow of excitement. “I knew he would. So what’s next?”
“If he keeps putting on a show like that, he’ll make a name for himself quick.” Then the man turned towards me, and I recognized something familiar in him. “So what did you think? I know you’re a boxer too, but if you ever want to make a switch—”
“She won’t be doing that.” Gage was at my side, surprising me.
“And what about you then?” The man wasn’t as un-phased as his words tried to be. His eyes shifted as Gage stepped closer. “Your brother’s fight make you reconsider? He had fun out there. You could too. You really get a chance to show what you can do in the cage, not like the ring.”
“I’ve already told you, I’m not switching. So quit fucking asking. That’s your last warning.”
The round man put his hands up and I realized who he was, Phil Magnally, Dexter’s manager, and the guy who approached Gage in the club originally, before his goons threw out those accusations about Gage’s business.
“Whoa, I was just checking.” He tried to laugh it off. “Let’s keep this night about Dexter.”
Leona looked around, avoiding Gage who wasn’t laughing anything off. “Yeah, let’s focus on him. Speaking of which, can I go see him now, Phil? Where is he?”
“Sure thing, pretty lady.” He licked his lips in a nervous way and broke his gaze away from Gage, smiling at Leona. “Right this way.”
“We’ll go with you.” Gage nudged my back to get me to follow them out of the arena.
Leona told the others in the row she’d be back.
We walked down a gold and red hallway into a dressing room. Dexter pulled Leona into a bare chested hug first thing, and she clung to him, lips searching for his and speaking Spanish words in a sultry voice like they were alone.
I looked away, feeling like an intruder on their moment. I tried to look towards Gage, but he was already moving to the refrigerator, his back to me.
He cracked open a beer bottle and brought it to his lips.
“I’ll take one,” Dexter said, breaking away from Leona.
Gage opened another one and handed it over to Dexter. “You deserve it,” he spoke soft.
“I do, don’t I? That was awesome tonight.” He swept his eyes to me with a teasing grin. “I was fucking awesome, wasn’t I Rea?”
“I think your song said, you’re amazing,” I teased back, but I couldn’t deny his fight had pumped me up, and I itched to get back into it. I was jealous of the high I knew he felt.
“You did all right.” Gage tilted his beer back, not letting it show if he was teasing.
“Thanks.” Dexter threw a rag at him and downed his beer in two long pulls before tossing it in the trash bin. “So you all ready to party? We’ve got to do it up big tonight.”
“The cars are already waiting for you. Three, right? Since you’ve got so many damn friends? But I won’t be able to stay out that long. ”
I looked to Gage, unable to keep the question’s from my face.
“Oh,” Gage met my gaze right back, his lip curling in the way that made me brace myself against his attitude. “I wanted to tell you, but…” He shrugged and his direct look made it clear he was intentionally mimicking my words from last night. “Something’s come up, and I’ve got to take an early flight in the morning.”
My heart burst, and I couldn’t keep in my reaction. I hated making a scene, and I didn’t like others knowing we were fighting, but he wasn’t covering his anger towards me, and I couldn’t control my body. He was leaving in the morning? I couldn’t breathe and the room’s temperature dropped, making me shake.
“Gage, what the hell? You said this time you were going to stay. Come on man, what could be more important than me?” Dexter pressed his hand to his chest with an easy smile like he was teasing, but I saw in his eyes that he could read the tension between us.
Gage broke the staring contest we had going to look at his brother. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll still cover tonight. You’re taken care of.”
Leona pushed past Dexter first, spouting off what had to be insults in Spanish, but Dexter pulled her little body back.
“Fuck you man, don’t worry about it. I’ll cover it all myself.”
“Fine.” Gage walked out the door, not even looking back to see what I would do.
“You can come out with us,” Dexter spoke up.
“Yeah,” Leona pulled out of Dexter’s grasp. “Let him go be salty all on his own.”
“I—” My feet were already moving after him, without my permission. “I have to go see what’s going on. I’m sorry.” I paused at the door, holding the tears back. “Congratulations tonight, I really am sorry.”
“Don’t apologize for him,” Dexter said, stepping up to give me one of his hugs. “But call me later, let me know everything’s okay.”
I nodded and pulled away to walk out after Gage.