Speero Dojo was a quiet, unassuming dojo in downtown Southtown, run by a quiet, unassuming hauke who could quietly and unassumingly break your collarbone with a single strike from the back of his feathery wrist. Though, that was only if you somehow managed to unsettle Keet Speero from his usual state of focus and zen. Tito didn’t see Keet in that state just yet; he was too busy seeing the plush mat after Keet sent him flying to meet it for the fourth time this whiptail session. Tito panted and took a moment to catch his breath. His slim, tight body felt like it was going to catch fire. His uncle just cracked his wrists and got back into fighting position again, his prosthetic tail dangling from his waist.
“Are you alright? You seem slower than normal today,” Keet said. He bounced from one clawed foot to another as Tito got back up.
“I’m okay,” Tito said, getting back into the forward stance.
“I smell powder on your breath,” Keet said, cracking his knuckles. “You shouldn’t smoke before you come here.” Keet didn’t seem to be winded from the continual takedowns he was delivering Tito. There was a hint of sweat from his forehead-feathers, but otherwise, he was still bristling with energy.
“It calms me down,” Tito said, swiping at Keet, who leaned away from the attack.
“It will impact your reflexes,” Keet said, swiping right back, hitting Tito on the shoulder. Tito winced before he feinted forward, following it up with a whip of his tail to Keet’s upper body. Keet blocked the attack with his elbow while his prosthetic tail collided with Tito’s side, making Tito gasp in pain. He stepped back and grasped his side, breathing heavy.
“Could…be worse,” Tito said. “At least I don’t skip out on my lessons, like Dad.”
“Indeed,” Keet said between blocks. “He thinks he can charm his way past anybody, instead of raising his defenses against a threat. His scars say otherwise.” Tito looked down at his own, fit torso. There were a couple of scratches and scars, but it was nothing compared to what his father’s body boasted.
“He was always more of talker than a scrapper,” Tito said, stretching out his calves. He ran back towards Keet and went for a diagonal strike; Keet feinted back and struck at Tito’s open side, but Tito blocked and went for an upper strike, hitting Keet’s shoulder hard. Tito followed the strike up with a quick slap of his tail across Keet’s other side, making him reel back. Keet massaged his shoulder and smiled.
“I’d argue that you’re the opposite,” he said. “Though your form is still poor.”
“What am I doing wrong? I’m just reacting to what you’re doing.”
“Your reflexes are the least of your concerns,” Keet said, walking towards Tito. “It’s your technique that has me concerned. Get into position again.” Tito did so, but Keet patted on Tito’s shoulder. “Keep your back straight. Don’t slouch.” Keet looked right at Tito. “And watch your opponent’s eyes,” Keet continued. “They will tell you their story. Their priorities, their hopes, their goals for the bout. The eyes speak for the rest of the body.”
“What do my eyes say?”
“They say that they need to be closed, perhaps after some good tea.”
“No chance,” Tito said, cracking his knuckles. “Not until I get a workout in.” Keet shook his head as he got back into position.
“At least Otto knew when to stop,” Keet said. They moved towards each other. Tito threw in two swipes, which Keet leaned away from. Keet went for Tito’s open spot, his shoulders; Tito fell to the ground again, his shoulders smarting anew. Tito breathed deep in and out, his heart pounding. Keet stood over Tito with his arms folded.
“You will never progress with the same approach,”
“I will begin the tea,” Keet said. Tito threw his head up and continued to gasp as Keet walked away. Tito lay on the floor of the dojo, rolling his head on the hard, cool surface. He closed his eyes, his head swirling with aches and pains. He lay there for a moment more before he felt foot-talons poking his side. He opened his eyes to see his step-sister, Rook. She had her hands on her hips.
“Had a good lesson?” she asked.
“Good as it could ever get,” Tito said. “Your dad’s unstoppable.”
“Maybe in the ring, but everywhere else? I’d argue there’s some weak spots.”
“Help me get up…” Tito said with a groan.
Tito rinsed off and headed with Rook to a sitting room near the dojo’s main hall. Tito settled himself onto one of the a floor-seat in front of a low table while Rook squatted on a perch nearby. Shelooked while Rook squatted on a small, traditional perch. pleased with herself.
“What’s got you all smiley?” Tito asked.
“Aced a test!” she said with a smile.
“Minerology II. Soon, I think I’ll know more about rocks than Meon Ku.”
“I dunno if your dad would appreciate hearing that you’d know more about rocks than his main discipline.”
“Hey, as long as my grades are good, he’s happy.” She sighed. “It’s better than the baseline.”
“What’d’you mean?” Tito asked. Rook laid her head down on the table.
“With the solar cycle shifting, a lot of people are coming to take classes,” she said. “But once it’s gonna get dark out sooner, people are gonna want to stay in for longer, so they might not come by.”
“The streets around here’ve got those solar-lights, right?”
“They’re only ever good when they work. Sometimes they start flickering and it’s like a light-show right outside of your window. I have to wear a mask to sleep, some nights.”
“At least you don’t have an uncle who still sort of lives at home.” Tito sighed. “I just wish he would come into the apartment somewhere other than the window.”
“Can’t he just come in through the door?”
“He says it’s just a habit. I wanna know when he ever had a practical reason to do that. Maybe it just makes him feel like he’s back in the game.”
“He used to be a spy, you know. At least, that’s what he said. His uniform’s in my closet, if you can believe it.”
“I would’ve never thought that,” she said, smirking. “I would’v’e thought he was just a junkie.”
“That’s, like, a tenth of Kitso,” Tito said, smiling back at her. “The other 90% is murky to me, even after knowing him for most of my life.”
“Reminds me of my real mom,” Rook said with a frown. “I’m glad I don’t have to visit her anymore.”
“Didn’t go over well?”
“She always seemed too focused on making me…different? Like, she does the same thing as my dad, but he’s a lot more zen about it. She’s still with the Imperial forces, and wanted me to join her. Dad told me I didn’t have to do anything she said; once I got older, I didn’t have to visit anymore. Still, it makes me wonder; what if I went with her. What does she think now?” Tito yawned, tipping his head back.
“I think we could both use some good tea,” he said. And with that, Keet entered the room with three tea cups on an ornate platter.
“I thought you’d be here,” Keet said, settling the tea-tray down with care.
“Me or her?” Tito asked.
“If you were gone, then my lessons would have failed,” Keet replied. “The fact that you stayed means that its settling in.”
“I never really had a choice,” Rook said with a smile. “Though, his turnover’s higher than mine.”
“You teach for four months; I teach for life,” Keet said, blowing on his tea.
“I’ll be around more often with my remote lessons,” Rook said. “As long as I can get good GIN signal, I can pretty much get my Galactic Standard degree from my bedroom.”
“Just point the camera away from your laundry piles,” Keet said, sipping his tea.
“Are you learning anything you can’t learn at the Academy?” Tito asked.
“All they teach at the Academy is how to salute and what queens did what,” Rook sighed. “How did the song go? It was…Egah and Tigah, and Tigah the Two, and Algen the Mighty, and…”
“Mezhal the True,” Tito continued. “And Zeja the Second and Tigah the Fifth–”
“And Pulskha the Thoughtful, all knew her fist,” Keet interjected. “I haven’t thought of that song in years…”
“Agh, now it’s stuck in my head,” Tito said. “Do they have songs for the different types of rock formations in your geo-class, Rook?”
“We have our own mnemonics,” she nodded. “They never get that silly.”
“Maybe I should take a remote class,” Tito said, staring at the ceiling. “I wish I wasn’t so busy, though.”
“At least you got today off,” Rook said.
“I wish it was for a better reason,” Tito groaned. “And tomorrow I gotta train a new guy…”
“It won’t be so bad,” Rook said, patting Tito’s shoulder. “They’ll fit in just fine.”
“Even if they’re a blassnaught?” Tito said. Rook drew back, glancing at her dad.
“Well…that’s…I’m sure it won’t be that big of a deal,” she concluded. “Just…be careful.” An uncomfortable silence followed.
“This reminds me of a blassnaught I once faced in battle,” Kitso said, closing his eyes. “I cannot recall the name, but he towered over me in his bare feet and wrappings, his chest out like he was going to hug me to death. He kept trying to grab me as I tried to sweep his legs, which he kept wide-apart. In the end, I had to use his own stature against him, making him crash to the ground. It shows that for all the strength one can amass, without balance, you’re most at risk to fall.”
“How would I improve my balance, then?” Tito asked, scratching his cheek.
“It takes more than standing well on two feet,” Keet said, standing up. “I’ll see you next lesson.” He exited the room; when Tito saw him move out of earshot, he grinned at Rook.
“He’s just a big bag of metaphors, ain’t he?” Tito cracked.
“He’s just trying to be a teacher,” Rook said. “He can’t really turn that off.”
“I’m surprised it hasn’t turned off his students,” Tito said, wincing as he got up from his seat. “I feel like my own body’s gonna shut off with all the shit he puts me through. Takes me an extra second to react to him, even when he’s holding back for the lesson.”
“Just sleep it off,” Rook said, punching Tito’s shoulder lightly. “You’ve got a lot to deal with lately, and that’s probably affecting your performance.” Tito felt tempted to counter the punch, but he let it hit him, his arms limp at his sides.
“Among other things,” Tito replied, coughing a couple of times. “I’m gonna go and take a nap.”
“If you want to get back into practice, I can spar with you between classes.”
“You’re gonna wear that fake tail?” Tito said with a smile. “It doesn’t even move on its own.”
“If that’s what it takes,” Rook replied, her hands on her hips. Tito raised his hand in a tired goodbye.
“It’ll take a lot more than that,” he said as he left through the back entrance.
Ray’s fur stood straight up as he stared at Tito and Otto. Ray started to rub at his temples, sitting down on the living room couch in the late hour.
“Ooh, this is a bad idea…” Ray muttered. “We’ve had a gaur work at the restaurant before, but a blassnaught?”
“Tokan wasn’t that bad of a guy,” Tito said, letting his sore body melt into the couch cushions. “He was just a bit…aggro?”
“That’s putting it lightly,” Rocky said, lying down upside-down on the couch cushion next to Ray, focusing on his phone. “He kept glaring at me any time we ran into each other.”
“That’s ‘cause you had your mobile in your face,” Otto said, folding his arms. “Like you do right now. What’s so important that you gotta look at it right now?”
“I talk to a lot of people,” Rocky said, “Tito, back me up.” Otto and Ray stared at Tito, who just stared back at them.
“Tokan wasn’t that bad” Tito said with a shrug. “He was just a little cramped back in the kitchen. He insisted working on the broth section. Dude could reach all the way across like three big pots, but people’d run into his arms all the time. I did that once and I almost fell on my ass.” Otto’s face scrunched up.
“Your longass tail woulda caught you,” he said, unfolding his arms and letting his hand brush across Ray’s. “As messed up as I am, my tail has saved my tail too many times.”
“Just don’t plan on falling any time soon,” Ray said, taking Otto’s hand. Otto smiled at him.
“Mind if I fall for you?” Otto asked. Ray laid his head on Otto’s shoulder and sighed.
“Anytime,” Ray said, closing his eyes. They looked comforted for the first time in the past couple of days. Tito sunk deeper into the couch.
“I guess we just gotta make a culture shift,” Tito said. “I just hope the waitstaff can adapt.”
“I’ll tell them ahead of time,” Ray said. “I just don’t want people peeking into our place and asking questions.”
“Won’t be the first time,” Otto said. “We’ve had a lot of drama in our little niche of the canyon.” He looked up at the stairs and saw a certain brother-in-law of his descend the stairs. “Speaking of drama…”
“Cap’n Otto!” Kitso said, grinning at Otto. “Got any coffee around?”
“You’re on an ocean of sand, sailor,” Otto said out of the corner of his mouth.
“I don’t get how you can drink coffee so late,” Ray said, looking with weary eyes at his brother. “You’re not in a bunker anymore.”
“I’d argue that we’re always at war…with ourselves,” Kitso said, scratching his feet on the carpet. “And you’re your own best watchman.”
“You sound like those quotes from school,” Rocky said, reorienting himself on the couch. “Isn’t that one from General–”
“Kreok,” Kitso interrupted. “Vanguard of the Red Rebellion. Don’t test me on history, I failed out of that module.”
“You failed out of a lot more than that,” Tito said. “What’re you doing up? Aren’t you hibernating?” Kitso looked sharply at Tito for the earlier quip.
“I’m gonna get some coffee and then I’m gonna meet a friend,” Kitso replied, smoothing his hair back. “Maybe have a little jam session. Maybe talk about some leads. Who knows! All I know is something good’s gonna happen and I’m gonna be there to enjoy it.”
“Just don’t slam the door when you come back,” Ray said.
“I can’t help it,” Kitso said, yawning. “Sometimes I just get a buncha vigor and it’s gotta go out somewhere.”
“How about you go out and get your own place?” Otto said, feigning a smile. “Then I won’t have to deal with finding your garbage hidden behind the couch.” Kitso shrugged as he sat down next to Rocky, propping his feet up on the table.
“I clean up behind the proverbial couch of our nation, thank you…very much,” Kitso trailed off, his eyes lidding briefly. “It’s the least I could do for the canyon where I was born, raised and whipped by drill instructors.”
“They had the right idea,” Otto said, glaring at Kitso. “Now, since you weren’t around for the brick-catastrophe, let’s review–”
“Tito told me about it already,” Kitso interrupted. “And I think it’s a dumb idea that you’re letting the guy in to work for you. Say all you want about accepting people, but he’s gonna be a magnet for the kind of people who have more than bricks.”
“You said earlier that it wouldn’t be a big deal,” Tito said.
“A small deal can grow into a big deal over time,” Kitso said. “Sometimes backwards. Look at Rocky. He was a big deal when he was born, now he’s still a shrimp.” Rocky glared at Kitso, but otherwise looked too tired to reply. Kitso leaned his head back and put his hands behind his head, closing his eyes. “And now I’m ready for a big nap. Don’t mind me…”
“Take your smelly feet off the table,” Ray said, looking uncomfortable. Kitso sighed and folded his legs under the table, leaning further back into the couch.
“Good luck with the new waiter-boy, brother,” Kitso said between another yawn. “Maybe I’ll come in for a bowl…and maybe some noodles, too.” Ray shifted in his seat, lying down on the couch.
“We’ll do our best,” Ray said. “That’s all we can do, right?” Otto nodded as he laid himself against his husband’s furry chest.
“We’ve gotta do our best evey day” Otto said, nuzzling against Ray. “Right, boys?” Rocky was already asleep, snoring lightly as he was draped across the couch. Tito just nodded, finding himself about ready to sleep. He got up from the couch, heading toward his room. It was going to be a very intriguing day tomorrow. And whatever happened, it’d be all on him.