"Gentlemen." Lt. Harrelson addressed his pre-caffeinated team. "We have a surprise for you this morning." He rubbed his hands together in anticipation.
Dominic Luca glanced at his watch as he cleared the stairs, drawn to the little table with the coffee pot. "Already, Lieutenant?" Dom frowned, finding the pot empty and sparkling clean.
"What's up, Lieutenant?" Jim Street asked, leaning against his desk, strategically placed directly in front of the coffee table.
Harrelson waited until TJ McCabe and Sgt. Deke Kay joined the group. Although, Deke, his second-in-command, already knew what was coming.
"Very shortly we will load up and head to the Academy for some CQT." Letting that settle in for a moment, he continued, "The only weapons allowed are those God gave you."
"Ooh, yeah," Dom said. He faked a few quick punches at Jim. "Who do we get to beat up this time?"
"Well, that's just it." Harrelson began pacing between the rows of desks. "Since you guys don't really have any competition locally, we're trying intra-squad training."
Harrelson raised his hands to quiet the expected boasting and chest thumping. "I need you to remember this is Training. Close Quarters Training. Limit yourselves to about sixty percent. We don't need to decommission anyone."
"You want us to pull punches?" TJ asked.
Harrelson sighed. Not that he hadn't expected this. "In a manner of speaking, yes. I want to concentrate on technique." He let them quibble amongst themselves for a moment. "As an incentive, Deke will referee and judge each match. Grand prize is a bout with yours truly."
The silence was thick enough to chew.
"You mean," Dom said, his street-Italian accent very apparent. "That we'll fight each other, in turn, and the winner takes on you?"
Harrelson's ego enjoyed the incredulity that he heard in Luca's voice. "That's right."
"I was holding my own until his elbow came out of nowhere," Dom said, wincing as he probed the 'mouse' puffing under his left eye.
"Well, I definitely had the upper hand until his head busted my lip." TJ pulled the blood-speckled towel away and fingered his swelling lip.
"Sorry guys, but injury is an automatic out." Deke pushed the towel against TJ's oozing lip. "This'll be over soon and we can all get back to Olympic and get some coffee."
"I don't know how quick it's going to be," TJ said. "Jim's really pouring it on."
"You gotta admit, Jim's a pretty even match physically to the Lieutenant," Dom added.
Deke shook his head. "Youth," he muttered. "Jim's strong, sure, but he doesn't stand a chance against Hondo's experience. Not even close."
"Well, Jim did just have two tough matches. The Lieutenant is fresh," TJ said, hedging to Harrelson's side. "I say the Lieutenant wins, but it'll be closer than you think."
"Jim'll stay close," Dom agreed. "But, I think Deke's right-on about the experience factor."
Jim Street felt the adrenaline rushing through his veins like ice. Flush with two victories, of sorts, over his teammates, he now stared into his commander's intense eyes. Swallowing the last of his fear at facing off with Hondo Harrelson, he centered himself on the task before him. Just a man, he told himself repeatedly, like a mantra. Just like any other …
The combatants warily circled each other. The wounded sideline duo called support to both sides. Deke hovered discreetly, wondering if he would be able to keep this under control if egos got out of hand.
Harrelson started, tackling Jim in a bull rush. Rolling with the momentum, Jim separated and jumped back to his feet. His attempted foot sweep was caught and a scramble ensued.
Deke ran in blowing his whistle as each had a headlock on the other, both faces turning beet red. TJ and Dom ran over and helped Deke pull the interlocked pair apart.
Circling again, Harrelson twisted in for a shoulder roll. Jim levered his hips and pulled Harrelson down from behind. Another scramble and Harrelson escaped with a barely controlled chop to Jim's neck. Deke, TJ, and Dom came forward, but Harrelson motioned them away and gave Jim the chance to get on his feet.
Coughing and drenched with sweat from this and the two previous matches, Jim circled. He rushed this time, catching Harrelson in the chest and driving him back against the padded wall. Jim's forearm inched toward Harrelson's throat.
Catching a glint in Jim's eye as the younger man pressed his advantage; Harrelson reached out and pushed against Jim's face with much more than sixty-percent strength. As Jim's arm closed in on his windpipe, Harrelson's instincts took over. Without conscious thought, his left knee jerked up. Mild surprise registered as he felt Jim shift to the right at the same instant. Then his knee caught purchase, hard, near Jim's chest. Harrelson heard the air rush out of the Jim's lungs and saw his eyes widen with pain and defeat. Harrelson stepped aside as Jim thumped to the floor.
Knowing it would take Jim a couple of painful minutes to get his breath back, he held the others back with a raised hand. Having to heave for his own breath, Harrelson bent over with his hands on his knees, inhaling and exhaling deeply. Sweat dripped onto the floor off his face. He had to give the young buck credit; he hadn't had a challenge like that for some time.
Concerned that Jim hadn't moved yet. Harrelson stepped away and motioned Deke in. With hands on his hips, Harrelson walked over to the water fountain on the far wall of the training room. He felt that Jim might be a little embarrassed to get up with him standing so close. Leaning against the far wall, he watched. Jim had his knees under him now, but his head was still on the floor. TJ and Dom joined to help Jim to his feet. Finally standing, Jim turned with his back to the wall, now facing Harrelson from across the room. Guilt washed through Harrelson when he saw Jim's pale, sweaty face, his eyes dull and unfocused.
Head hanging, Harrelson headed for the shower. He hadn't meant to hurt Jim. It concerned him deeply that his defensive reaction had occurred automatically. It did not matter who the opponent was. He had asked his team to do something he couldn't do himself.
The pain, when Jim could feel again, was the worst he could remember. His limbs were still numb. The sips of air he managed sent piercing stabs through his left side. He'd wanted to bounce back up and go again, but that wasn't going to happen. Deke finally came over, but speech was not yet possible and he wasn't going to moan and groan. Clenching his teeth, he managed to get his knees under him. A wave of dizziness prevented him from going right to his feet. He rested his head on the floor until it passed.
TJ and Dom helped him to his feet. He brushed them off and turned to rest his back against the wall. The dizziness persisted and his eyes refused to focus. Sweet air filled his lungs again but sharp pain punctuated each breath.
"You all right, Jim?" Deke asked. "That was quite a blow you took."
Not trusting his voice, Jim nodded.
"Okay," Deke said calmly, "we're going to hit the showers." He motioned TJ and Dom to go and watched as they reluctantly back-stepped, keeping sight of Jim, then finally entering the locker room door.
"You collect yourself and get cleaned up." Deke took a step back. "Then we'll get out of here."
Jim nodded again. Once Deke disappeared behind the locker room door, Jim curled protectively around his left side. In a rage of frustration, he banged the wall with his right fist. He'd been so damn confident and what did it get him? Busted ribs, most likely. His stomach clenched and nausea sent him staggering for the trash can in the corner. He heaved his stomach's contents into the can, seeing spots in his vision with the effort.
Slowly, he made his way to the locker room. By the time he got his sweat soaked clothes off, all the others had left. After struggling through a quick shower and into his uniform, Jim's left side settled into a throbbing ache that took all of his efforts to palliate.
Everyone was quiet on the ride back to Olympic.
"How's he doing out there?" Harrelson asked Deke, taking the folder the sergeant held out.
Deke knew which 'he' Hondo meant. "Pale and a little sweaty. He's keeping his left arm tucked in tight to his side, rather protectively, if you know what I mean."
"Damn." Harrelson slammed the folder on this desk. He looked steadily at Deke. "I didn't mean to hurt him." His brow furrowed in concern. "Should I order him to the hospital?"
"We know it wasn't on purpose, Hondo – same as Dom's eye and TJ's lip." Deke sat in the chair in front of Harrelson's desk, feeling that this may take a while. "As for the hospital, I think it might be taken as adding insult to the injury if you order him. He'll go if he needs to."
"He thought he had me," Harrelson said, giving Deke a knowing look. "I could see it in his eyes."
"Hell, Hondo," Deke said. "I thought he had you."
Harrelson dropped his gaze to his lap. "I think I did, too." His gaze snapped back to Deke. "Kid's a real bull."
"But an untrained bull," Deke said.
"Not completely, just not enough – yet."
"Similarities again, Hondo?" Deke asked.
Harrelson got out of his chair and stared out at the team working at their desks. "How many rifles has he cleaned?"
Deke rose, knowing the meaningful conversation was done. "Three, Hondo. His full share. I checked them personally – spotless as usual. Just like the others.
"If I scheduled the obstacle course, he'd be out there," Harrelson said.
Deke nodded. "First in line. Probably with busted ribs."
Turning away, Harrelson returned to his chair. "I didn't mean it, dammit. It was an automatic response."
Suddenly feeling old, Harrelson rubbed his sore shoulder.
"Send them home at four," Harrelson told Deke. "We all could use a rest."
Jim figured he had a lot to do with the team being released early. He carefully timed changing his shirt until Dom was heading up the stairs. As quickly as he could, he swapped his uniform shirt with his civvy shirt, keeping the growing bruise under cover. A wave of dizziness paused him. He gulped air until it passed, slipped into his jacket, and climbed the stairs.
At home, he bypassed the kitchen due to his churning stomach. Instead, he went directly to his bedroom, curling protectively around his left side, and immediately fell asleep.
The buzzing sound changed to repeated raps, more buzzing.
Jim sat up, wincing. It was dark out now. He made his way to the door and pulled it open. Sheri stood in front of him, a scowl firmly etched on her face. She had on her flight attendant uniform dress. A buried memory kicked in his brain and he knew he was in trouble.
"You didn't pick me up at the airport, Jim," she said. She brushed past him, bumping his left side. A hiss escaped as he doubled-over.
"Jim?" Sheri's scowl was gone; concern quickly replacing it.
He held up his hand to stop her and slowly straightened. "Training incident this morning," he said.
Betty Harrelson entered the house after the boys. She noted the patio door open and smelled grill smoke. Curious, she stepped out and stared at her husband. "You're home early."
Dan turned and smiled. Betty looked more beautiful every day.
She approached Dan, studying his face. She touched his cheek. "What's wrong?"
Shaking his head, Dan said, "Can't pull anything over your eyes."
"No," she said, "and you'd better not be trying to. Spill it."
He pulled her close, hugging tightly. "I miscalculated," he whispered in her ear.
"Just about everyone." He released her.
"Training. Close Quarters," he said.
"Who on earth did you train against?"
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Us. Oursleves."
Shock registered on Betty's face. "Oh, no, Dan. What's the damage?"
Taking a deep breath, Dan said, "McCabe has a busted lip; Luca a black eye, and I may have cracked Street's ribs."
"You did all that?"
"No. The guys battled against each other. The spoils was a bout with me," he said.