Hala has known many Dark type trainers in his day, friend and rival alike. No two are quite alike, but he has seen the similarities in them in the same way he sees himself in other Fighting trainers. There is a calmness; a dignity to them, their rough edges hidden in shadow.
And then there is the new kahuna of Ula’ula, who is not particularly dignified, and less ‘calm’ than ‘constantly exhausted’, with his rough edges out front as his first defense. He does not train Dark so much as he is Dark, in a feral way, and he fascinates Hala to distraction.
Hala never expected him to come back to the wrestling ring after the first half-joking invitation, but week after week, when their official business is done, he makes the offer and Nanu sighs and rolls his eyes and nods.
Week after week the smaller man winds up thrown to the mat, or pinned, depending on the form of the fight. And week after week, Hala feels his lean muscles strain or his arms give an abortive twitch as he stops himself from fighting back like one of his own meowth, with nails and teeth, and he wonders what a real fight would be like between them.
…then there’s the other thing.
“That man,” his wife murmurs to him, a few months in, “Wants to you to Bulldoze him through the mat.”
“Are you sure?”
“Mm-hmm.” Ahu gives him a sideways look. “Wasn’t it obvious?”
Hala clears his throat. It is not shame, exactly, they trust one another, and they share everything, but something about Nanu leaves him uncertain.
“Or were you too busy imagining Bulldozing him through the mat to notice?”
He chuckles ruefully and drops his gaze; he’s never been able to hide things from her. She courted him by challenge; he could strengthen his team’s defenses against her psychic types, but he could never guard himself from her piercing insight.
“A shame, I don’t think he looks at women at all. But he’s small for my tastes, anyway.” Her arms go around his stomach, and she leans up to kiss his downturned face.
He keeps the tacit permission in mind, but he’s not the man he was when they first married, when the fire between them was always on the line between nurturing and consuming their love. He knows now the difference between wanting a thing and needing it. He lives a life bound up with duty that he can’t complicate on a whim.
And it is a whim. And what little he knows about Nanu’s past and his tumultuous return to his home island is enough to guess that his attentions will be at the very least a complication to the other man, too.
Nanu strikes him as someone who doesn’t need any more complications, he confides to Ahu, and she agrees.
Weeks become months, and Hala invites Nanu to the ring, and Nanu rolls his eyes, and sighs, and comes.
Once Nanu shows up to a meeting with white blossoms in his silver hair and doesn’t actually notice until halfway through.
Once aware he bristles like a feral— well, the comparisons are too easy at this point— and starts combing out the gardenias with his fingers.
“Come now, you don’t look at me like that when I come in a little singed,” Hala scolds good naturedly, batting his hands away to extract the twining flowers a little more gently. It’s not as if Nanu is among people who don’t understand what it is to have the attention of a guardian.
“Yes, but you’re not allergic to being liked,” Olivia says.
He knows things have changed, but he still catches himself expecting Koa’s voice, and it’s that as much as the shrewd comment that has him withdrawing his fingers.
He likes Olivia, and he likes Nanu, but he’s been feeling very alone these past few weeks. Not so long ago he was the youngest Kahuna, under the tutelage of those who’d worked with his mother. A few weeks back, Koa handed the mantle to his successor; Olivia is Kahuna in her own right, standing on her own in these meetings. With Ama’s unexpected loss a month ago, Hala is the last of the old guard very suddenly.
Red eyes flicker up as if to say why have you stopped fixing it? and Nanu sees the expression on his face, and makes a soft ‘huh’ sound.
He says nothing, and Hala says nothing, but gets them back to business much more brusquely than usual.
Instead of his usual invitation, when the meeting is over, Hala leaves the two younger Kahunas and heads into the big house, seeking out the dark room where guests used to stay so often. They will not be empty forever— Iki town is too busy for that— but it is enough to make him wistful now. The gap between the way things are and the way things were feels unsurmountably wide.
He hears Ahu talking to someone a few rooms away, but when the conversation breaks and the floorboards creak to signal someone’s approach, it’s Nanu who comes slipping into the big guest room.
He takes a position next to the doorway where the contrast of the light from the main room against the dark makes him most invisible. He lurks like his own Sableye, just a red-eyed shadow.
“…don’t tell me you’re tired of kicking my ass across that ring, huh?”
“I enjoy competing with you!” Hala says, but feels weary as he says it. “But not tonight.”
“Hnn. I’m so used to you wringing me out once a week, I’m going to miss it if you cut me off now.”
That stirs a little warm ember in him. It’s… good to know that Nanu finds something in their weekly engagements, no matter how resigned he seems to the prospect.
“You know… my friend.” He watches Nanu draw back from the word. Yes: allergic to being liked. “Seeing you play by the rules is very edifying. Just once, though, I think I’d like to see you play to win.”
Nanu immediately shakes his head. “I can’t win.”
“I don’t believe that.”
A pale finger held up: “All right. I might be able to. But not without hurting you.” Nanu looks him up and down, not with a man’s eye but with an opponent’s. “And if we open up that door, I still don’t like my chances much.”
“Try,” he challenges, stubborn, caught up with the idea of a real fight now— something a bit dangerous, something foolish and stupid that will keep him from feeling like the grandfather that he is, the old sage he became when he wasn’t looking.
Nanu gives him a considering look.
And then he kicks the door shut, and Hala has a second to blink into the darkness and try to get his night vision back before an ankle hooks behind his left knee and a carefully angled pull send him crashing to the floor.
He lashes out without thinking, catches Nanu’s leg and hauls him along; the smaller man falls, but twists in his arm and contrives to come down knee first into his side.
Hala grabs blindly, finds a bony shoulder, and rolls them both, using his weight to slam Nanu to the wooden slats — Nanu digs his fingers into a point just below his elbow that makes his whole arm tingle with a painful shock, and wriggles out of his grip.
They fight gracelessly, keeping the fight away from the beds and toward the far wall by unspoken agreement. Neither of them is trying to hurt the other, that’s not the objective, but neither shies away from hurt either.
Hala isn’t sure what the objective actually is, come to it, and he doesn’t think Nanu knows either— there are no rules to this strange catfight, just a scrabble for a second of dominance here, a second of dominance there, and Nanu is an infuriating little bastard who won’t be held still or pinned down and the banked old wildfire in Hala rises to the challenge.
Nanu is trying to pin Hala’s arm to his side with a leg lock, and Hala simply lifts a little and drops onto his chest shoulder-first; Nanu wheezes, paralyzed for a second and then staying frozen when Hala gets his arm free and pins him with his forearm pressing into Nanu’s slender neck.
“Yield?” Hala pants. His skin is hot and tingling with the exertion, the rush of adrenaline; his hair falls around his face, tie lost minutes agao, the first time Nanu resorted to pulling hair.
Nanu mutters something, unintelligible as he strains for air.
“Do you yield?”
Hala leans down to hear better and realizes what a foolish idea that is as Nanu surges up under him, and he feels the snap of teeth next to his ear and then a stiff tongue jabbing just behind it into a little cluster of nerves he is particularly sensitive to.
His grip breaks and Nanu writhes painfully under him. gets bony knees against his chest and throws, rolls him off and makes an effort to get astride him that devolves into a slump on top of him.
“I should mention your wife gave me some tips,” he wheezes.
“I can see that!” The nerves all up and down his neck are still tingling pleasantly.
“You… feeling… better?”
“Yes.” Realization. “…You wanted to make me feel better?”
“There’s only room for one depressed old bastard around here,” Nanu objects, desperately trying to regain face. “I’m just consolidating my position.”
Hala can’t hide the gentle smile on his face. He reaches up to stroke a shadow on Nanu’s jaw that is probably going to be a bruise sooner rather than later. The other man’s pale skin is flushed up in patches with the exertion; Hala likes the effect.
“Don’t mention it. Ever.”
Hala laughs at that and the haunted expression on his friend’s face as if his world will crumble if he’s caught being a caring person, and Nanu gives that half-a-smile, as if half his face is too tired to join in.
“You should stay here. Tonight.”
“What, on the floor?”
“If you like,” Hala says, looping an arm around his waist.
Nanu stares at him, and the fading flush of his skin darkens again.
“I don’t think that’s a-“
And Hala stops him from finishing by leaning up and kissing him.
It goes on for a while; Nanu sags into his grip and lazily mouths at his lips, running his thin fingers through Hala’s loose mane of hair.
When they part, Nanu’s eyes are so heavy they’re just slits, just a smear of blood red under his lids. “Now come on. That’s a dirty trick, for a fighting type.”
“Oh, I’m sure you have dirtier ones to teach me.” Hala kisses his neck, sweeping his mustache across the sensitive skin and making him snort. “Stay.”
“Shit.” Nanu runs a hand over his face, showing his uneven teeth to the warm darkness of the guest room.“Okay. Sure.”
As Hala pulls himself up to sit, feeling the hard-earned bruises and the contented ache of a close fight, he hears his friend mutter something about ‘type weaknesses,’ and it’s so petulant and sullen that he has to kiss him again.