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STORY HERO VERSUS THE BEACH BULLIES (part 1)

Leif and Scott had both taken part in a swimming competition in Los Angeles. My friend Leif, an expert swimmer, narrowly beat Scott in a freestyle race that Scott, with his superb physique, had expected to win. It riled him, so he quickly thought up a way to get revenge ...

I was standing by the pool beside long-haired blond Leif, my hand on his shoulder as I congratulated him on his win. Standing close to Leif, gazing at him, touching him -- I was never happier than when doing that. I dreamed of doing more than that, but ... well, I wasn’t sure yet ... Then Scott, the water still glistening on his magnificent chest, sauntered up and offered Leif his hand. Leif, with an unsuspecting good-natured grin, shook it warmly. 'Hi there, Scott! Good race!' he said.

'Say, Leif, you're not a bad swimmer!' replied Scott. 'You've come a long way since the days when you used to get your face rubbed in the sand by the other guys on the beach!'

Leif's grin faded to bewilderment. 'What d'you mean?' he said. 'No one ever rubbed my face in the sand!'

'Well, there's always a first time!' sneered Scott. 'How about you and me having a little friendly tussle, to see who comes off best on dry land?'

'Hey, man,' said Leif, smiling again and putting a friendly hand on Scott's arm, 'it was just a friendly swimming race, let's not ...'

'You scared, huh?' sneered Scott, shaking off Leif's hand. 'That figures! A long-haired sissy like you ...'

'OK, you're on!' said Leif, his eyes blazing. 'Let's meet on the beach -- tomorrow morning!'

This was just the reaction that Scott had planned for. 'OK, but we'll need some rules. No eye gouging, no ball squeezing or low blows, just a good old-fashioned backyard brawl on the sand. Whichever of us gets the other one face down in the sand wins a round. We can have a two-minute break between rounds. The winner of three rounds wins the fight. And your friend here can be the referee! Meet me at dawn tomorrow by that old pier down past Lenny's diner. No one will be around then to disturb us.'

'That's fine!' said Leif, glaring fiercely at Scott. With a sly smile, Scott ambled off. I saw him whisper to a friend of his, who glanced towards Leif and me with an expression I didn't much like.

'Hey, are you sure ...?' I said.

'Don't worry, Nick, I've been learning judo!' said Leif. 'Scott thinks he's tough, and but he's got a surprise coming. And he chose you to referee -- that means he plans to fight fair, even though he's an arrogant jerk. I'll pick you up early tomorrow, so we can be at the beach at dawn.'

2. The rendezvous

The pier where Scott and Leif were to meet jutted out from an unappetizing stretch of sea-front, occupied mostly by boarded-up and derelict buildings. Concrete steps led down on to the beach, about eight feet below the level of the road and the pier, which was supported on wooden piles. There would certainly be few people to disturb us at dawn on a Sunday morning. So when we drove up to the rendezvous I was surprised to see six or seven people in a cluster on the beach. One of them was Scott, who waved and said 'Hi there, ref!' as I got out of the car. Another was the guy that I had seen Scott talking to the day before. The others were tough-looking guys dressed in various combinations of leather and denim and military camouflage gear. Still, there was nothing in our agreement that prevented Scott from bringing supporters along to watch the fight.

Scott was wearing nothing but tight blue speedos. Leif quickly undressed to reveal speedos too, red in color. Leif had just turned eighteen, but with his smooth boyish good looks he could still pass for sixteen. He was slender but athletic, with an eye-catching physique. He did not spend hours working out in the gym, but he was a versatile sportsman (a horseman as well as a swimmer), and he had a body to match. One's eye was inevitably drawn first to his luxuriant honey-blond hair, spilling down over his shoulders; but then one noticed the curves of his chest, his taut flanks, his slim waist and the smooth contours of his belly, all with the perfect proportions of a work of art. By contrast, Scott's body looked more like a sleek, efficient machine. He had obviously been using weights to build up his arms and chest. He flexed his biceps ostentatiously while Leif and I walked down the steps on to the beach. Even more noticeable were Scott's aggressively bulging pectoral muscles and his six-pack abs, hard beneath his darkly tanned skin.

I couldn't help feeling nervous on Leif's behalf, despite what he had said about his judo skills. As if sensing my anxiety, Leif squeezed my shoulder and whispered: 'Don't worry, ref! Soon it'll be over and we'll be having breakfast at Denny's!' But I could tell he wasn't quite as confident as he has been the day before.

The two young men took position, facing each other about six feet apart, not far from the piles of the old pier. Scott's friends lounged against the concrete wall near the steps down which Leif and I had just come. As referee, I realized that it was up to me to start the proceedings. 'OK', I said, clearing my throat, 'you both know the rules. Let's make it a clean fight. Round one!'

3. Rounds 1 and 2

The two young athletes circled each other warily at first. Clearly Scott wanted to get in close so he could use his upper body strength against Leif. By contrast, Leif needed space to use his judo skills, so his plan was to wait for Scott to make the first move. 'Come on, pretty boy, what are you afraid of?' sneered Scott. 'Maybe it's not me whose afraid,' replied Leif quietly, poised and alert.

Leif's reply was perfectly calculated to enrage Scott. He charged at Leif, aiming to fling him to the ground. This was just what Leif wanted. Quickly he stepped aside and, somehow, it was Scott who found himself flying through the air under the impetus of his own charge. He ended up on his back in the sand, with arms and legs flailing uselessly. Leif stood with hands on hips as Scott got to his feet. In my head I yelled to Leif: 'Why let him recover like that?' But a moment later Leif's tactic made sense. Still more enraged, Scott charged even more wildly at Leif. This time Leif's judo skills had a different result: Scott landed face down. Leif quickly stepped astride him and, with a gentle push to the back of Scott's head, made sure that his face made contact with the sand.

'Round one to Leif!' I announced. Scott got to his feet. Spluttering and furious, he seemed for a moment about to charge Leif a third time. 'Two minutes break!' I reminded him, starting the timer on my watch. Scott slunk ruefully towards his friends, who glowered at Leif, muttering to one another.

'Not a bad start!' I said to Leif, as he sat on the sand beside me. 'Yeah, like I said', he replied, 'we'll soon be having breakfast!' I saw Scott whispering to a guy in a black bomber-jacket, who answered with a meaningful nod. Then there was an eerie silence for the remainder of the break. Scott and his friends glared at Leif and me. Leif, with real or pretended unconcern, gazed out towards the end of the pier, now lit by the newly risen sun. I tried to convince myself that Leif's judo skills would see him through.

'Get ready for round two!' I said, and Leif and Scott stood up. Scott's friends had moved to sit near the piles of pier, with Scott in front of them. Leif faced Scott, so as to have the concrete wall on his left and the steps behind him. 'Starting -- now!' I announced.

Immediately there was a yell from the guy in the bomber-jacket, whose eyes seemed to be focussed on something in the distance: 'Look out, Leif! Behind you!' Instinctively, Leif half-turned, just as Scott began his charge. At this crucial moment, Leif was off guard! Scott grabbed him round the waist, and trapped his right arm too. The yell had been a trick! 'Hey ...' I shouted. 'Shut up, ref!' was the immediate response from the menacing onlookers. What could I do? If I had tried to stop the round, I would have been ignored, or worse. All I could do was watch, and hope that Leif could recover the initiative.

Scott's hands were clasped in the small of Leif's back, and the tendons of Scott's neck stood out as his arms tightened around Leif's body. Under the skin of Leif's shoulder muscles rippled as he tried pull his arm free -- but without success. With his free left arm Leif was pushing Scott's head back -- but that too had no effect on Scott's vise-like encircling grip. Meanwhile, Leif's feet were slipped and stumbling unsteadily. Scott was pressing him backward, manoeuvring them both closer to the concrete steps. What I most feared had happened: they were in a position where Leif could no longer use his speed and judo skills to counter Scott's musclepower.

As they approached the steps, I got a view of Leif's face. With a look of fierce anger, he was summoning all his strength in the effort to free himself. But then suddenly he let out a yelp of pain and his eyes glazed over. Scott had rammed Leif's left upper arm against the concrete steps. Leif's arm trembled and his pressure on Scott’s chin weakened. Now Scott was able to get his head upright, and I could see a malicious grin on his face. Then for a second time Leif's arm and shoulder were slammed against the sharp-edged concrete, under the weight of both their bodies. 'Aaaaggh ...!' Leif yelled, throwing his head back. His hair flopped down behind, exposing his neck and shoulders as well as his cheek. I saw the right side of his face, mouth open, brow furrowed, in agonized profile. His left hand slid away from Scott's chin and the injured arm dangled awkwardly, numbed by the double impact.

Scott let go of Leif. Leif collapsed on to his back, his face still contorted. With his right arm he clutched at his left shoulder. I could see the bruises there, already turning purple.

'Hey, he's hurt!' I shouted. 'So what?' was the answer from Scott's supporters. I looked on helpless as Leif writhed and gasped. Scott too stared down at Leif, his handsome face an implacable mask. Then he seized Leif's left ankle in both hands, lifted it high and twisted it, so as to lever Leif over on to his right side. From there, it was easy for Scott to flip the weakened Leif over on to his stomach. Leif's long hair flopped forward to touch the sand. Desperately he tried to push himself up -- but his left arm was still useless. He shook his head furiously in frustration. The best he could do, panting and gasping, was to support his upper body with his one good arm. But both Leif and Scott knew what would happen if Scott placed his full weight on Leif's right shoulder.

Scott crouched down beside Leif, savoring the moment. With mock concern, he put his hand on the back of Leif's neck, stroking his long hair, then tracing with his fingers Leif's topmost vertebrae. 'What's the matter, pretty boy?' said Scott. 'No judo tricks up your sleeve this time?' Then he stood up again, looking coolly down at Leif, and planted one foot on Leif's right shoulder blade. Slowly, slowly, he transferred his weight. I heard Leif groan in response to the pressure. His head drooped, so that his cascading locks concealed his face. Still, Leif resisted, his bent elbow quivering with the strain. But then Scott changed the direction of his pressure slightly. The heel of Leif's hand slipped in the sand, then slid away from him uncontrollably, making a furrow the length of his arm. Leif was at last face down, flat, motionless.

'Uhh ... Round two to Scott!' I stammered.

4. Rounds 3 and 4

As Scott sauntered back to sit with his friends, I helped Leif to sit up. 'Leif, your arm ...' I said, 'You can't go on!'

'I'm not quitting now!' was Leif's reply. 'If he wins, he wins, but I won't give him an excuse to call me a coward! Besides, I won't fall for that trick again.' He bent his left elbow tentatively and clenched his fist. 'That's better, I can move it a bit now. And it doesn't hurt too bad. No bones broken, anyhow.'

All the same, there were two big bruises. Leif couldn't help wincing when I prodded one of them gently. 'Don't worry,' he quickly reassured me, 'my arm's OK, really.' But I knew that a bruise like that would hurt worse before it got better.

When it was nearly time for the next round, the two fighters stood and faced each other again. To Scott's contemptuous smile Leif responded with a fierce glare, giving his injured arm a loose shake and making circling motions with his shoulder. 'OK, you creep, I'm ready for you', he said. At the word 'creep' Scott stiffened, just as I announced 'Round three starting -- now'.

Scott advanced on Leif and, as I had feared, at once made a grab for Leif’s injured arm. Leif had anticipated that too, and tried a judo throw. But this time it went awry, and both teens toppled on to the sand, grappling clumsily face to face. For a minute or more it was hard to see what exactly was going on in the tangle of arms and legs. There was nothing scientific about this back-yard-style brawling. They were wrestling and exchanging punches at close quarters. Sometimes the red speedos were on top, sometimes the blue. Then Leif somehow managed to land a harder-than-average blow on Scott's cheekbone, sending him into a daze. Scott, befuddled and shaking his head, ended up all fours on the sand, while Leif stood over him, his legs apart, hands confidently on hips, panting but smiling.

‘Oh, Leif, why did I ever doubt you?' I thought to myself gleefully. 'I should never have urged you to quit!'

Leif grinned as he bent over Scott, ready to leap on top of him and squash him flat for victory in round three. ‘My turn now!’ he crowed. But he had waited a split-second too long. From his crouching posture, Scott suddenly catapulted himself upward, butting his head with a sharp crack against Leif's chin and landing a fist in Leif's midriff. Leif staggered backward and lost his balance, falling sideways.

Both teens now moved fast. Leif knew that he had to get back into the fight straight away, and in a second he was scrambling to his feet again. But Scott was faster. In that second Scott had got round behind Leif's back. Scott now used his left arm to put Leif in a headlock. Frowning furiously, Leif grabbed at Scott’s arm. But it was easy for Scott to jerk Leif off balance again, then, by leaning forward, to forced Leif down on to his knees. Then Scott yanked Leif backwards so he was sitting on his heels, with Scott kneeling behind him. Scott's impressively muscular left arm was tight around Leif's neck, half-choking him. My heart sank: in just two seconds, Scott had turned the tables!

Instinctively Leif brought up both hands to Scott's encircling arm in an effort to pull it away. But his left arm was still partly numb, and could do little. Clearly he would have to rely mainly on his right arm. But just as his right hand was about to seize Scott's left wrist, his own wrist was captured in the powerful grip of Scott's right hand.

With violent jerks, Leif tried to twist his right arm free. Scott frowned and bit his lip, revealing his surprise at Leif's strength. Yes! Leif did succeed in getting his arm free! But it was only for a split second. Before he could do anything with his free arm, Scott pounced like lightning to seize his wrist again, more securely this time.

A kind of arm-wrestling then began. While Leif struggled to free his right arm a second time, it became clear that Scott's aim was to force Leif's arm downwards and straighten it, then twist it up behind his back, in the classic immobilizing hold of the playground bully. The two teens' right arms trembled as they strained against each other. Leif was a fine athlete, and the swell of his biceps showed that in a contest of strength like this he would be no pushover. But he was hampered by the headlock, and Scott had much the more advantageous position. As the seconds passed, I watched Leif's arm being forced relentlessly lower.

Scott's left arm around Leif's neck was forcing Leif's chin up and twisting his head sideways, so that in order to see his own right arm Leif had to squint downward and rightward. He was breathing in quick shallow gasps and his lips were trembling. His chest was thrust forward. I could tell he was struggling to keep his torso rigid so as to be able resist Scott's merciless pressure. I looked down at Leif's taut belly and at his splayed legs, his knees pressing into the sand, the bulges of his calf muscles squeezed beneath his thighs ... If only I could just reach forward and put my hand on Leif's knee, if only with the the lightest reassuring touch I could encourage Leif in his struggle! But my neutrality as referee forbade it. I looked at Leif's quivering right arm with its straining muscles and whipcord tendons, and at his upward-curled clenched fist. I could tell that that was where every ounce of Leif's willpower and stamina was concentrated.

Leif's willpower and stamina, not to mention his courage -- would they be rewarded? Yes! Suddenly it seemed as if the impossible was happening! Leif was gradually managing to bend his right elbow again, apparently overcoming Scott's downward pressure. Could it be that, after all, Leif's arm was stronger than Scott's? Leif's deltoid and biceps were winning ... higher and higher ... Leif glanced quickly towards me, and I saw in his face a hint of a grin of triumph. It seemed now as if, with just one final effort, he would be able to wrench his arm free, seize Scott's left wrist and dislodge the headlock.

All this time I had been concentrating on Leif. Then I looked up at Scott. With horror I saw that his frown had been replaced by a smug grin. I realized then that Scott was still really in control. Allowing Leif to think that he might win this contest was just a cruel trick.

Leif could not see Scott's face, but he noticed the change in mine. What...? His smile of triumph turned to an anxious frown. A moment later, Scott shifted his body just slightly so that more of its weight bore down on to Leif's flexed forearm.

Oh, my poor Leif! The sudden extra pressure affected him like a sledgehammer blow. Leif's punished muscles could bear no more. In two rapid shuddering jerks his arm was forced straight. Leif's right arm was now pinioned behind his back, even more useless than his bruised left arm. He let out a groan. Around his navel his skin creased, as all the tautness went out of his abs. His body slumped limply in acknowledgement of Scott's sudden complete dominance.

'OK, boy', whispered Scott, his mouth close to Leif's ear, 'I haven't forgotten you called me a creep, and now I've got you where I could hurt you real bad. But you're lucky I'm feeling kind. I'll pay you back in the next round instead!' So saying, he let go of Leif's arm, withdrew the headlock, and pushed flat on to the sand the long-haired teen's unresisting body.

'Round three to Scott', I announced in a dejected murmur. Scott's friends whooped and cheered. Scott stood up and strutted back towards them, punching the air. 'Hey, ref,' shouted Scott, 'why not make this a five-minute break? Your friend looks like he needs a rest -- not that it'll help him any!'

'OK', I said, 'and -- uh -- could you let him have some water, please?' I had seen Scott slurping water from a bottle that one of his friends had brought, and I realized that that was something that Leif and I had forgotten, not thinking that this would develop into so arduous a battle.

'Sure, why not?' said Scott, bringing over the bottle. 'He'll need some water, because the next round may last a while!' I shivered at the sound of those words.

Leif struggled to a sitting position and gulped down the water greedily. I used some of it to wash sand off his face ... his face, strangely calm, as if he could see the inevitable outcome of this contest but was ready to face it. 'Now will you give up?' I asked desperately, already knowing what the answer would be.

'No!' said Leif fiercely. 'I told you before why not! Besides, I've still got some new judo throws I can use. If you want to help, you could give me some massage.' So, for the rest of the five minutes, I squeezed and kneaded Leif's shoulder and arm muscles. He winced once or twice as I touched the bruises, but when I paused he said 'Keep it up! It's doing me good.' I tried hard to believe him.

As round four began, neither teen spoke. Leif had his back to the pier. He met Scott's hard stare with an expression of proud defiance. Scott and I were both equally convinced that this would be the end of the fight. But Leif had a surprise for both of us, as well as perhaps for himself.

Scott clearly thought that Leif was too weakened now to use judo tactics successfully. He charged at Leif in the way he had in the first round, obviously hoping to dominate him quickly and resume the promised punishment. This time, Leif crouched almost to the ground just as Scott made contact. Somehow Scott found himself flying over Leif's body. The pier was close, and as Scott landed on all fours his head collided with one of the wooden piles. He gave a grunt more of surprise than of pain -- this wasn't supposed to happen! As Scott rubbed his head, Leif jumped on to his back -- and before Scott could react, Leif had pressed his face into the sand for a second time.

I heard myself saying 'Round four to Leif!', but I could hardly believe my own words. Scott's friends gaped in silence. Scott let out a roar of frustration. He rolled over and stood up. Slowly he turned to Leif with an icy, thin-lipped glare, saying 'You've done yourself no favors, pretty boy! I was going to let you off without hurting you too much -- but you don't deserve no mercy now!'

5. Round 5 -- but not the end

I was torn between delight and dread. I was delighted at Leif's prowess in leveling the score at two rounds each, but I couldn't help thinking that his win in round four was a lucky fluke, and I dreaded what Scott might do to him in round five. There was no talk now of an extended break. In two minutes, Leif would be facing Scott again. I continued to massage Leif's shoulders and arms while Scott and his friends whispered to one another and glared at us. The guy in the T-shirt was idly digging a hole in the sand ...

'Prepare for round five!' I announced. 'Starting -- now!'

Leif clearly saw his best chance was to keep low, as in the previous round, but this time Scott moved cautiously, and gave Leif nothing to exploit. So it was Leif who moved in on Scott, hoping to get him down with a kind of rugby tackle. But he didn't move quickly enough to get his arms securely around Scott's legs. Instead, Scott brought his knee up sharply, hitting Leif hard in the forehead. Then a hefty push from Scott's left foot sent Leif sprawling on his back.

'Not a good start,' I thought to myself grimly. But what were Scott's tactics? Instead of moving in on Leif, he waited calmly for him to get up, then grabbed him round the waist, as in the second round. This time neither of Leif's arms was trapped, and he gripped Scott's elbows, apparently in an attempt to throw him, but without success. Meanwhile, Scott was pushing Leif backwards -- again a repeat of round two. Fortunately they were nowhere near the concrete steps this time. But suddenly Leif lurched and let out a cry of pain. When Scott let go of him, Leif's right leg seemed to crumple, dumping him awkwardly on his side. What had happened? Then I realized ... that hole in the sand! Leif had stepped backward into it, losing his balance. What's worse, he seemed to have twisted something, for as he tried to get up his leg crumpled again, and he sat on the sand nursing an evidently painful ankle.

'Ah, poor guy!' said Scott, hands on hips. 'Tell you what, ref -- let's have an extra five-minute break, so Leif can recover. And I've an idea. He's not going to be so quick on his feet now, with that sprain. So it's a good thing my friends and I brought along some boxing gloves! Well-padded ones! We can finish off with a stand-up fistfight, and if we wear these gloves no one's face will get damaged. After all, you wouldn't want to give up now, would you, Leif?' Saying this, Scott gave Leif a patronizing pat on the shoulder.

'You're dead right I won't give up!' said Leif. I was furious but helpless. It was all so obviously planned to prolong Leif's ordeal. But I had no hope of persuading Leif to quit now. Besides, Scott had a point -- with gloves, Leif seemed likely to get hurt less than in a bare-knuckle brawl.

For five minutes, I did my best with Leif's ankle, massaging the ominous swelling. But Leif seemed sure that it was nothing worse than a sprain. 'Don't worry -- I know a bit about boxing. Scott has to stay in range if he wants to win, and if he's in range I can hurt him!' Once again I found myself admiring Leif's courage, even if his confident words had a hollow ring.

At the end of five minutes, I announced the resumption of round five, and the two teens faced each other anew for the sixth time. The boxing bout began with some exploratory sparring. As they circled and jabbed (Leif limping but mobile), it was an opportunity to compare again their two bodies. My earlier comparisons -- Leif a perfectly proportioned work of art, Scott a sleek efficient machine -- seemed still apt. Scott had no surplus fat, and in his compact torso the superb muscles were evident, yet without the ugly hard definition of a weightlifter's physique. By contrast, Leif's body had a kind of softness. under his skin, the color of pale honey, were muscles that were nicely developed but by no means overdeveloped for an eighteen-year-old.

Leif's injured left arm put him at an obvious disadvantage. But, quite apart from that, as their jabs turned into more serious punches, I couldn't blind myself to the fact that, when a work of art and a machine collide, it is the work of art that is likely to come off worse. Both Scott and Leif had boxing skills (Leif hadn't been boasting idly), and the two were only a few weeks apart in age, yet, because of the difference in their build, it was as if Leif was pitted against not a fellow teenager but a tough twenty-something. His wavy locks showcased his speed and agility as they swung heavily to and fro. ('Wow -- his ankle must hurt, but he's not letting it slow him down!' I thought to myself.) Yet constantly he was distracted by having to brush hair away from his eyes.

Leif was certainly landing punches on Scott, but I could tell that these were having less effect than the ones he was receiving in return. I could also tell that, although Leif was giving his all, Scott was holding back. As I feared, Scott wasn't interested in ending the fight quickly. Exploiting Leif's refusal to quit, Scott would be happy to carry on until Leif collapsed with exhaustion.

Minutes passed. Then another thought struck me. In real boxing, the fighters have frequent rests between rounds. But this fistfight was occupying one continous round!

I looked at my watch and saw that the two had been boxing continuously for four minutes already. When I looked back at the two fighters, they were circling around each other, fists raised, pausing before the next flurry of punches. Leif's eyes were fixed on Scott with a kind of desperate intensity. Strands of hair, sweaty and sand-clogged, now clung to Leif's shoulders and neck. From near his right eyebrow, a gleaming bead of moisture traced a path down his cheek and dripped off his chin. Leif lunged forward, swinging with his left fist at Scott's right flank. But Scott swerved and parried, so that the blow slid harmlessly past his right elbow. Leif followed up with his right fist, putting all his body weight behind a haymaker aimed at Scott's left cheek. If that wild swing had made contact ...! But Scott had foreseen it and ducked, so that Leif's arm scythed empty air.

Losing his balace, Leif lurched into Scott. I had a view of Leif's back at this point. All that held him upright was Scott's arms round his slim waist, just above his neat buttocks in the tight red speedos -- supporting him almost caressingly, it seemed to me. Leif's shoulders were slumped, his head sagging on to Scott's left shoulder.

My eyes were caught by the red leather of Leif's two gloved fists. His left fist dangled limp, and on his upper arm I saw clearly the two purple bruises. His right fist groped waveringly towards Scott, then came to rest on Scott's chest. It was as if Leif knew he ought to use it but no longer knew how. I turned my head away ...

I turned my head away, but although I could avoid seeing what happened next, I couldn’t avoid hearing it. The sound of feet in the soft sand, of panting and grunting, but above all the steady regular fusillade of thuds. I prayed that those thuds were made by Leif’s fists landing on Scott, but I knew only too well that it was the other way around. I looked back again ... Rivulets of sweat were pouring down Leif's face and body. His breathing was loud and irregular, and he seemed to be having difficulty keeping his eyes focussed. The punches that he was swinging at Scott were becoming increasingly wild and most of them missed entirely, whereas his own chest, ribs, and belly were suffering a measured but steady pounding. Meanwhile Scott, though sweating too, seemed to be deliberately neglecting opportunities for a knock-out blow.

'Hey!' I yelled. 'It's time for a break!'

The two of them turned towards me, side by side. Scott's body was scarcely blemished. He seemed calm and collected, as if pausing during an only moderately

strenuous workout. He let his arms dangle for a moment, then raised his fists again and began to punch the air, jigging from foot to foot. By contrast, the bruises and grazes on Leif's left arm were all too visible, and on his torso and arms there were also red blotches that confirmed the power of Scott's fists. Leif's chest heaved as he gasped for breath. In his face I could still see the determination that I so admired, but now it was mixed with desperation.

'It's not in the rules, ref,' replied Scott. 'Still, this Adonis has guts, I'll say that. Had enough, kid?' he asked, turning to Leif. He pulled of his right glove and put his hand on Leif's sweaty shoulder. Then, with a sly smile towards me, he let his hand wander down over the left side of Leif's chest, his palm coming to rest over Leif's nipple while his fingers brushed Leif’s upper arm, as if he were appraising his opponent's pectoral muscle. I gritted my teeth -- furious at Scott's condescension, yet envious of what he was feeling ...

Just the weight of Scott's arm pressing lightly against him was enough now to make Leif's slender body sway. Leif peered blearily at Scott but didn't answer. I wondered to myself whether he was too dazed even to comprehend the question. But then I saw Leif's eyes, and knew at once that it was pride, not incomprehension, that kept him silent.

Scott gave Leif's nipple a gentle squeeze with his fingers, then turned that caressing hand into a fist. I shuddered ... But still Scott kept up the game of ironic admiration. With his fist he tapped lightly the little hollow in the middle of Leif's chest. 'You're a good swimmer, kid. Pity you're not quite tough enough for this ...'

'Don't patronize him, you creep!' I yelled.

Scott turned sharply and glared at me. 'OK, let's finish it,' he said in a hard, cold voice. He drew back his ungloved fist and punched Leif's unprotected abs, dead center, just below his ribcage.

It was not a particularly heavy blow, but heavy enough for the purpose. The effect on Leif was as if every sinew in his body was suddenly unnerved, directionless, like staunch troops whose resistance is undermined by the capture of their general. His gloved hands seemed to grope for support in empty air. For a second or two he managed to keep his head up. Scott stepped aside, if to allow us all a last clear view of Leif's torso while upright: those nipples, that navel, and the contours of the pale honey-colored flesh that framed them.

Leif's hair, spilling on to his shoulders like a magnificent waterfall, framed his oval face and his smooth neck as beautifully as ever. But now his mouth was gaping and, in those huge almond-shaped eyes, defiance had been replaced by a look of emptiness. I watched fascinated, aghast. A soft gurgling sound came from Leif’s throat as his head lolled towards his right shoulder. His right knee trembled, then both knees began to buckle. His whole body crumpled, toppling backwards and sideways. That beautiful work of art -- the desecration of it was complete now, or so I thought. What more damage could the cruel efficient machine do to it? Oh, little did I suspect ...

Leif now lay on his back, legs apart, his right arm stretched out to the side and his left arm bent above his head. A sudden ray of light through the clouds from the recently risen sun illuminated the delicate sculpture of his body. I noticed random things: blue veins under the white skin of his wrist, near where it emerged from the red glove; a mole on his right shoulder and another near his left nipple; in his armpit, a damp curl of hair from which gleaming sweat trickled. His face was turned to one side. His hair swirled around his head like the frame of a ravishing portrait. His closed eyes and slightly parted lips suggested not a defeated fighter but a calmly sleeping young god.

Scott knelt down beside Leif's head and lifted him a few inches by his shoulders. Leif's head tilted backwards, extending his handsome neck, so that his hair dangled into the sand. In the bright yellow light of the low sun, shadows emphasized the soft contours of Leif's throat contrasting with the firm outline of his jaw, once defiant but now defenceless ...

Leif's eyelids flickered and he seemed to become dimly aware of Scott looming above him. He blinked, frowned, then looked steadily up at Scott. We all knew what Scott had to do for an official win. Yet Leif’s gaze continued calm, unflinching.

'Scott, no!' I shouted. 'You've beaten him -- don't humiliate him any more!'

Scott looked thoughtfully at me for a second. Then a horrible smile spread over his face. ‘Say, you’ve given me an idea, Nick! I was gonna just finish him here and now. But he’s not a coward, I’ll say that, and he’s not a bad fighter ... a pity to let all that go to waste, when my buddies here would all enjoy, y’know ... practising on him. Whaddya say, guys?’

Scott’s thug friends replied eagerly. ‘Yeah, Scott, that would be so cool! Let’s see how much the pretty boy can take! Like Nicky here said -- humiliate him some more!’

‘Yeah, but he won’t give in easily, and that’s good! The fun will last ...’

‘Not here, though! We need to take him back to our place, let him recover a while, and then ... you see this, Leif? Huh?’ Leif was now propping himself groggily on his elbows. The muscular skinhead who was speaking leered evilly down at him, brandishing a big tattooed fist. Leif stared back up from under lowered brows, his lips slightly parted. Leif was grave, unflinching -- but I noticed that his own fists were clenched tight and his whole body was tense.

‘Nah, Mitch, we’ve each gotta just hurt him a little bit, y’know, not mess him up too bad. We want him to be still looking pretty when he’s groveling in front of us with the tears rolling down his cheeks ...’

I interrrupted in desperate panic: ‘No! You can’t! I won’t ...’

‘You won’t let us, is that it, Nicky?’ Scott sneered at me. ‘You’ll stop us, huh? You and who else? But I tell you what, you can come with us, and stay with your cute friend while he prepares himself for ... what’s in store! You can give him some massage -- or whatever --,’ (Scott snickered) ‘and help him tone up those muscles! So he can give my buds a good lesson in martial arts!’

[To be continued]

© Nick Cramer [antinous48 at yahoo.co.nz]

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