{two}

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Alessandra hunched over, gathering much-needed air into her lungs. She looked around in the dark. She had a headstart, but not by much. Time to figure out her options. Stay here? Keep going toward the trees and unfamiliar terrain? Find somewhere in between?

She wiped the salty sweat from her eyes, crept into the shadows, then scanned the area again. Her heart pounded. A stitch of pain in her side wobbled her knees. She'd run too fast too soon. No matter. As long as she avoided him and bought some extra time, it would work.

A twig cracked behind her. Alessandra tried to move. But a pair of strong hands grabbed her by the throat. She didn't scream but jammed her elbow into his stomach. The warm air from his exhale hit her neck. Next came a headbutt from her. A slight pain registered in the back of her head. His left hand loosened. Alessandra grabbed his forearm and twisted. He swung her around.

She got into her fighting stance. Looked around. Nothing behind him. She threw a left hook. He blocked then tried a right hand. She blocked it with her left arm. A right jab to the chest by her. He caught the end of it. He sent a left to her face. Alessandra winced and moved lower.

She delivered a kick to his groin. He got the brunt of it; groaned and staggered back a step. She attempted another kick. His jab to her gut stopped it. Her raised leg took most of the hit. This back and forth wasn't working.

Alessandra knew he wanted to tire her out. Get her in a position to have her by the neck again. Her breathing got erratic. The musk of dirt and sweat filled the air. There had to be a way to end this. She would find it.

"Give it up." The man threw a jab.

"No way." She ducked another punch.

He had five inches on her. After a little over a minute, she had an opening. Her lungs burned, but she landed the next right to his sternum. He hunched over. She lifted her knee. He caught it and pushed her back. She regained her balance. He lunged for her. They grappled on the ground until she was on top of him. Alessandra landed two punches to his face and then poked him in the eye.

"Okay, enough," her trainer, Lee Miles finally said between gulps of air. "That's good for now."

"You think so?" Alessandra put her hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath.

The man nodded in response. "Much better this time." He got up and blinked as he reached a hand out to her.

"I still fought too long." Alessandra dragged herself up and looked at him. "You okay?"

"I'll live." Lee blinked some more.

"What did I do wrong?" Alessandra asked.

"Cut right to the chase, eh? Give yourself some credit. It's only your third week."

She crossed her arms instead, finally able to resume normal breathing. "That doesn't help me."

"Okay, okay, I'll tell you." The man held his hands up. "The hook you threw before my right hand would've worked better as an uppercut. Those are more tricky to defend. They also force your opponent to go lower to get away from it."

"Got it." Alessandra frowned.

"Also when you were on top of me you could've peppered me with punches. The eye poke works best when you're still fighting for position."

Alessandra remained silent while she walked to the gym with Lee. How had she messed this up so much?

"I'll do better next time," she said once they were inside.

The trainer placed a hand on her shoulder. "You're not going to get everything right. You're still starting out. Don't be so hard on yourself."

Easier said than done. Alessandra had that trait down to a science. These past two years at forensics hadn't helped. "Thanks."

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