Rex’s next bout, against a freshman Academy fencer with more enthusiasm than experience, ended with a 5-2 victory for the Bark Bay junior. Annie helped him unhook; Coach Dan joined them as Rex leaned down and released his cord, letting it retract into the reel.
“You two have a break this next bout.” Their middle-aged volunteer coach pointed his thumb past his right shoulder. “Let’s check on Rune.”
A few steps ahead of the others, Annie was stopped by one of the last statements she would have expected from her coach. “This is when having Myles really came in handy.”
“Myles?” The look on Annie’s face showed the memory of his brief, eventful return to practice last month bothered her greatly.
But her coach was clearly focusing on a memory from an earlier, more pleasant time, as he walked with Annie and Rex to Rune’s strip. “Myles was a leader, especially when the team was struggling. Always knew what to say to inspire, to motivate. He’d know what to say to Rune. I’ll talk to him, but I know back from my competition days, you take things differently from a teammate, a colleague, than you do a coach, an authority figure.” Rex felt his coach’s eyes focus on him. “You know what I mean?”
Rex nodded, as the three came upon Butch, standing outside of Rune’s strip. “Oh!” Butch pointed to his right. “Rune just hooked in, he’s about to start.” They watched the two fencers in front of them lunge at each other, colored lights on the scoring machine indicating a valid touch. The referee halted the action, declared that Rune had attacked first and had right of way, giving the point to Rune, who pumped his fist.
Rune continued to have success, scoring a second touch, a third. Rex heard his name called by the referee from his strip, turned and left with a nod towards Rune.
Jamie, the Academy fencer that Rex now faced, had been his opponent in foil at States last spring. He had escaped with a two-point victory back then (his last at States), but it soon became clear that Jamie had been practicing, and improving. Jamie persistently pressed the attack, and before Rex could figure out an effective counter strategy he had lost the bout, 5 – 2.
Rex returned to the other strip, but did not see Rune there. Or his coach, or any of his teammates. He looked around quickly, saw Rune sitting with Annie, Butch and The Bird, in the courtside area where the team had dropped their equipment.
“How’d that bout end up?” Rex said as he approached them. Rune looked up at him, while the rest of the team looked away.
“Lost, 5 – 3.” Rune looked down.
Rex blinked. Five straight. Holy crap. What would Myles say about this?
“He figured out I couldn’t defend a double-disengage.”
Rex cleared his throat. “It happens.” Pause. “Did you learn anything from the bout?”
Rune shrugged his shoulders.
Rex stared at him, then took a quick look at the others, sensed they had already had this conversation with Rune and were worn out from the effort of building his confidence, like a child frustrated at not being able to build a sand castle. Rex looked around for Coach Dan, when his desperation was suddenly relieved by an unlikely appearance.
“Hey there!” Rex glanced down at the legs of the Academy gal who had walked into their circle; seeing the name HARRIS, he recalled Jane’s first name. She beamed her smile down at Rune. “Rune, whom do you have next?”
“I dunno.” Rune’s indifference reverberated within the small circle of teens.
“Well let’s go find out!” And before any of the Bark Bay team members realized what Jane was doing, she had reached down and pulled Rune up by his arm, started walking him over to their referee, her grinning face radiating warmth.
Annie stood to return to her strip, called for Rune to check in with Coach Dan when he returned. Jane seemed amused — “Since when did you become assistant coach at Bark Bay, Annie?”
Annie shrugged. “Just looking out for my teammate, is all.” Feeling a need to reassure Annie, Rex joined Rune and Jane as they approached their referee.
Jane scanned the score sheet, identified Rune’s next opponent. She grasped his bicep with her hands. “You’re up against Tim next.” Tim Mzurek, senior Academy fencer. Rex was certain his teammate was looking at another shutout loss, and he saw in his friend’s face a similar grim assurance.
“Hey, do you know Ellie Fredrichs?” It appeared to Rex that Jane enjoyed her evident mastery of the unexpected.
“Yeah. Well, no, not really, I just know the name, from school.”
“Yes, she goes to Bark Bay. I’m her cousin, you know. Every few weeks our families get together for the weekend. Sometimes her family visits us, sometimes we go to her house.”
“How nice.” Rune suddenly seemed to recognize she was squeezing his right bicep.
“I’m spending the night there next Friday and Saturday. Do you know the Pizza Place?”
“Yeah.” Everybody in Bark Bay knew the Pizza Place. Hole-in-the-wall restaurant that had been in the town’s first strip mall, never moved after all of its neighbor businesses had relocated or folded. The food was mediocre but cheap, the beer cheaper. Ownership changed every few years; everybody in Bark Bay seemed to be related to someone who’s owned the Pizza Place at some point.
Rex wondered if Rune realized how odd it was for an Academy student, and one of the best fencers in the state, to be asking about the Pizza Place.
“Want to meet us there next Saturday?” Rex’s jaw dropped, but Rune seemed barely to register her question, as he began looking around desperately, his face relaxing upon seeing Annie suddenly return.
“Scoring machine’s messed up, they have to swap it — ” her explanation stopped upon seeing Jane’s hand on Rune’s bicep — “what’s going on?”
Rune coughs. “You know the Pizza Place, right?” Annie nods and shrugs. “We’ve been invited to go there Saturday night.” He pointed to Jane, and in his desperate look and quick nod in her direction Rex realized that Rune didn’t know her name.
Jane glared at him, confused. “We?”
“Ahhh . . . yeah, thought we should all go. I dunno, get the Academy and Bark Bay fencing teams together, have some fun.”
Annie looked at Rune with even more confusion than did Jane. “Why would the Academy go all the way to Bark Bay for pizza?”
“But — ” Rune looked desperate for some way out of this conversation ” — your cousin — ”
“She lives in Bark Bay, she’s never been to the Academy.”
“Right.” Rune swallowed. “Well — I think she likes pizza — ”
Annie starts waving her hands in front of her face, her ponytail wagging back and forth behind her head. “I’m outta here.” She turned, walked away.
Jane suddenly released her grasp on Rune’s bicep. “Mind telling me what that was all about?”
Rune stared at her blankly, and before Rex could step in and bail out his friend — “JANE!” Coach Gavvy’s voice rang above the murmur of noises in the field house. Jane turned her head in the direction of her coach’s voice, responded with a promise to be with her in a moment. Rune’s face relaxed.
Jane turned back to Rune before leaving. “Just think about it.”
Her smile dropped under the weight of her impatience. “Saturday? Pizza Place?”
“Oh. Yeah. Maybe. How about I — call you?”
Jane’s smile returns, but its former brilliance and warmth are absent. She folds her arms in front of her and leans back on her right leg, her lips squirming into a sarcastic grin.
Rex leaned down towards Rune. “Might want to ask what her phone number is.”
“Oh. Yeah, what’s — ” Jane cut him off, handing me a small piece of paper. The student equivalent of a business card, with her name, number, address, even the Academy shield on it. Rex wondered if the Academy fencers had secretaries too.
Rune looked up, began to thank Jane, but the girl in front of him wasn’t Jane; she was already gone, running off to where Coach Gavvy was waiting for her. The girl in front of Rune was Annie.
“Well?” Annie’s hands were folded across her chest.
“Well — what?”
Rune looked down at the small rectangular of stiff card stock in his hands. “Saturday. Huh. I dunno what I’m doing Saturday.”
Annie stamps her right foot on the green rubber mat of the field house floor. “Jesus Christ on a crutch, Rune.” Annie only swore when she was agitated. “Don’t you — ” And then she froze, her body becoming rigid and her face sticking in a wide-eyed glare, directly at Rune. Rex had never seen her like this before, never seen her not seem in complete control. She was a Hutchinson after all, from the wealthiest and most influential family in Bark Bay for generations, her father was likely going to be the town’s next state senator. Being in control is what the Hutchinsons had always been about. But she didn’t look like a Hutchinson now — she appeared dumbfounded, vulnerable, she looked . . . Rex wondered if Rune realized how beautiful she looked at that moment.
“Right.” She shook her had, regained her composure. “You don’t know what you’re doing Saturday.”
“Yeah, well I — ”
“Have to check with your parents, yes?”
Rune shrugged. “Yeah.”
Annie smiled. “Well, if you decide not to go to the Pizza Place with Jane, let me know, OK?”
“Sure.” Rune laughed, his face brightening suddently with hyperbolic enthusiasm. “Maybe I could call you!”
“That would be nice.” Annie pursed her lips, as Rune held up Jane’s business card. “And you don’t have to give me one of these things, because I already know your number!”
“I know.” Annie turned away slowly, and as she caught Rex’s eye on her way back to her strip, threw him a playful wink.