Immediately, I stop. I avert my eyes and cross my arms over my chest. Suddenly, I’m overcome with an extreme self consciousness. He can always make me feel childish, even when he doesn’t say anything. The moment the water stops, I step into a clean set of overalls. I leave the shower room without looking back to see if Connor is still watching me. I can feel his eyes on the back of my neck. I continue rolling my shoulders while I head towards the stairs. I brace myself before entering the gym, knowing what to expect. The exercise machines have rusted and probably don’t even work anymore.
They were supposed to be replaced just last year. Cross is such an ass. I clench my fists, trying to calm myself down. The machines must have all been moved to the side years ago, leaving a ring in the center. The rock has been worn down, stained red by the blood that’s been shed here. The room is still empty, and I cross to the center of the circle. Bending down, I rest my fingertips on the red floor. I can feel the pain of the hundreds of inmates beaten bloody on this spot. If I try, I could probably feel the evidence of my own fights, the ones from other worlds;ll of the hurt can’t be limited to this one.
Could this be the centerpoint? The connection between the worlds? I always thought it would be the island or the tower, but- “Hey. ” I slowly stand and turn around to meet Kevin’s eyes. He only has one Skull with him, probably as a witness. I don’t say anything, just stand in the center of the bloody ring. I can feel all of my aching muscles, all of the weakness. I don’t know if I’ll last long in a real fight against him, and I don’t know if he knows that or not. I step back, to the far end of the ring. He steps into it, motioning for his buddy to stay back.
The boy at the door looks wary, unsure whether this is a good idea. This one must be smart enough to know that nothing is what it seems here. A few others show up, but the first keeps them from entering the room. That’s why he brought this one! The newcomers are forced to watch from the doorway. Kevin seems to be waiting for the crowd to grow, which I can appreciate. He wants a show. I’ll be sure to give him one, then. I put on an easy smile. Arrogant, self-assured. “So, big boy, you still think this is a good idea? ” He slips back into his own confidence along with me. Good.
This would have been exhausting if I’d had to hold his damn hand through the whole thing. “I’m pretty damn sure. Why? You having second thoughts? ” We’re slowly circling each other by now. I hope he’ll make the first move. I’m much better with defensive work than offensive. He gives himself away somehow. A subtle tensing, or a change of expression. He doesn’t pull his hand back, but I can still feel the punch coming. It takes all of my willpower not to act. I don’t move. The pain, when his fist connects with my gut, isn’t that awful. I still double over, though, and he slams his elbow into my spine. This one hurts.
I cry out, my mind racing for a way to salvage my pride and avoid obviously throwing the fight. The moment his hands leave me, he kicks me to the ground. This is good, I tell myself. I stay down, feigning groans of pain. The boys outside are cheering. I can hear Kevin approaching me. Slowly, calmly. He stops. Now. I slam my hand against the ground, kicking out to sweep his feet out from under him. My momentum brings me stumbling to my feet. I turn, but don’t strike him. I’m not going to kick him when he’s down. I wait for him to scramble to his feet, then I punch him in the nose, grasp his shoulder with my other hand, and meet his eyes.
When he realizes what I’m about to do, his eyes widen and he starts to twist away. He’s too late, though. I swing my knee up to kick him between the legs. I shove him roughly to the ground and watch him fall. He’ll recover quickly, and it’s his choice whether this continues or not. I will not kick him while he’s down. He comes up again, his stance still awkward. His nose is bleeding, but he does nothing to stem it. I shrug, smiling. “Haven’t you had enough yet? ” He grunts in response and rushes me. It’s sloppy, and I could easily trip him. Instead, I sidestep and push him square in the back.
His momentum along with my help throws him out of the ring and onto the ground again. He gives me no choice because he refuses to actually fight. I stride to him and plant my foot on his back. I lean down, whispering loud enough for the crowd to hear. “This is the last time I’m going to leave you alone when you fall. Let’s go, get up. Stop holding back. ” I clench my fists, then loosen them. This is the choice I’ve made. This is the way it needs to go. I just hope it’s the right thing to do. The moment I move my foot, he jumps up swinging. I block it and counter with an uppercut to the stomach.
He cringes, but he notices that both my my hands are occupied before I can really recover. He takes the opportunity to jab me in the throat. I stumble back, coughing. Fuck, that hurt. He takes full advantage of my distraction by decking me in the face. I’m seeing stars at this point. I quickly realize that I’m on the ground, and this confirms it: I’m screwed. I was still holding back, just as I meant to. My muscles aren’t responding, which makes it worse when his first strike lands on my gut. He kicks me five times. I think he’s saying something, but I can’t hear him at first.
I’ve gone limp by now. I’m done. The ringing in my ears diminishes before he finishes, and I can hear the crowd cheering. He nudges me onto my back, smirking. “Looks like you’re mine, sweetheart. ” He doesn’t wink. He doesn’t give me any sign. “What? No jokes? Nothing? ” He kicks me again and I flinch away. This boy has no self control, and he gets carried away so easily. Did I make the wrong choice? Should I have tried harder to win? I split my lips into a weak, bloody smile anyway. “You’re such an ass,” I mutter, just loud enough for him to hear. I don’t think I could speak louder if I tried.
His face twists into one of anger, and he moves to kick me again. “Kevin. ” The boy standing over me freezes, I slide my gaze over to see that Connor has pushed his way into the gym. Dominic stands behind him, horrified and pale. I note that Connor doesn’t look worried at all, which restores some of my faith in him. Worry only wastes time, especially in this case. “What do you want? ” The bloody boy demands without turning. “Don’t forget. ” Saying nothing more, he watches him steadily. Kevin slowly lowers his foot and steps away from me. Connor brushes past him and kneels at my side. “What did you do? I ask, cringing at the blood dripping from my mouth.
That’s not right. “I told him that he wouldn’t survive the week if you can’t stand at the end of this fight. ” He smiles and cups my cheek with one hand. I lean into it and sigh. “I have something to tell you,” I murmur, “It’s important. ” He shushes me before I can continue. “Later. You need to do a little more acting first. I know you threw the fight, and you’ll have to live with the consequences. Go be a hero, or something. ” He stands and walks away. He ushers the other Skulls out, but Kevin stays behind. Dominic hesitates, but ultimately follows Connor out.
Kevin paces near the door, and I watch him warily as I slowly sit up. My head spins and blood is still trickling down my chin, but I seem fine otherwise. I heave myself to my feet, swaying slightly. “Did you really throw the fight? ” I narrow my eyes, trying to focus on Kevin. He’s stopped pacing, and is now watching me. I wipe my mouth and stare at the blood on my hand. After a moment, I look back at him. “Yeah. I told you to stop holding back, but I still was. I’m still not sure if it was a good idea. ” I give him a tight smile. “Well, you still won. I hope you have fun with this.
It wouldn’t have been worth it, otherwise. ” He takes a step toward me, but I raise a hand and he stops. I chuckle weakly and rest the same hand on my midsection. Damn, I thought so. “Oh, shit,” I hiss, probing my awareness around my organs. “My liver is bleeding, hang on. ” Kevin watches in horrified fascination as I phase my hand into my abdomen. It takes a minute for me to find the rupture and run a healing finger over it. I slowly check for other damage I may have missed, but I don’t find anything. Everything is fine now. I pull my hand out and wipe most of the blood off on my overalls.
That’s crazy. ” I glance at Kevin, and he looks kind of sick. I shrug. “As long as I’m calm, I can do pretty much anything. ” I spit all of the extra blood out and wipe any remaining grossness off of my face with a sleeve. With this done, I stride forward to stop directly in front of Kevin. He’s taller than me. I put on a demure mask when I look up at him, reaching a hand out to cup his face. I catch a hint of a flinch, and smile. “It’s time for you to go brag about your victory and for me to slink back to my cell. I’ll be waiting there for your orders,” I pause, patting his cheek. “Sir. ”