In Which Champions Battle, pt 1
My heart stopped. Everything snapped into motion -- my fangs came out, and my claws, I stiffened and became more alert instantly. Suddenly, the alley felt narrower and more isolated than before. “Wh-what?” I tried to keep the disbelief, the stammer, out of my voice; it didn’t quite work. “How do you know?” But I already knew. Deep down, I’d known. “Was I right? Have you spoken to Tyrone?”
“Yes.” In a second Adam was so close I could have sensed him with my eyes closed, slamming his palms into the wall beside me. “He told me you were going to challenge me.”
“Challenge you?” I echoed. “No! Why in the hell would you believe that?”
“Why would I believe it, you say, well, why wouldn’t I? Do you know just how much of a ruckus you’ve stirred since you walked into the Rose and...and hell, the very first thing you did was challenge me at my own games! Everyone knows your name now, and no one has the first clue who you are, really. Those are the people who start coups, or contrive to start them anyway.”
“Look, I’m sure I’ve stirred a ruckus, and I’m sure I’ve probably been a bother to you,” I said, because there was no point in disagreeing, “and I apologize for that. My people and I, we’ll do whatever we can to pay you back. But I would never challenge you, I swear! I only came here at all because I need your help!”
Then, I did the last thing I’d ever thought I would do, to anyone: I knelt. I pulled the ring I’d been concealing from my pocket, dropped it on the ground, and sank slowly onto one knee with hands outstretched, trying to look as nonthreatening and -- though I loathed to say it -- submissive as I could. “I need your help,” I said, “and that was all I ever wanted. I swear.”
He hesitated. He paced left and right, yellow eyes meeting mine. Then he growled. “I don’t believe you,” he said.
I forced myself to look at the pavement, inching my hand closer to the ring. Adam was leaning over me now, I could tell. “Get up,” he snarled. I didn’t get up. He grabbed my jacket, jerking me to my feet and backwards. “I said get up!”
“I won’t draw first,” I said. “I told you, I don’t want to fight you. But I will, if I have to.”
I thought I saw him hesitate. “You have to. And so do I.”
Another thing I never wanted to do: running away. But I found myself doing that, too: pushing open the door and scrambling back to the restaurant without once looking behind me. I didn’t have to look -- I could hear him just behind, I could feel him coming after me.
The bartender shirked back, ducking for cover under his shelves, when we crashed through the door. “You might want to get out!” I shouted at him. “Thought you ought to know!” He crawled through the kitchen doors and disappeared, definitely for the best. I jumped on one of the tables, leaving mere inches between the wall and my back, seconds before Adam barreled through the door.
“Come on, Adam!” I called desperately. “There’s no need for this!”
He only roared in reply, running at me and forcing me to jump to the next table. My foot hit the edge, and I slipped, crashing painfully down between the table and the booth. Containers of pepper, sugar, and salt spilled everywhere. I pushed myself away from the table, rolling when I hit the floor.
I couldn’t get up in time; Adam grabbed fistfuls of my jacket, pulling me up. He was in full in-between form now, and so was I. “Don’t call me Adam,” he said. “Not anymore.”
Struggling to move, I grabbed him by the arms, yanking him backwards with me into the bar. The bartender yelped loudly from inside the kitchen as glass shattered. He flipped me over, and tiny bits of glass got caught in my clothes, none of them piercing my skin. “Seriously!” I called again into the kitchen. “You need to get out of the restaurant right now!”
“You’re breaking my place!” he complained loudly, but he went for the door.
Adam jumped over after me, landing a foot on my chest. I jumped, using my elbows to push myself up, and raised my fists. “Come on, Dark,” I said, one last attempt. “Don’t do this.”
“Wasn’t me who challenged,” he grunted.
“I didn’t -- oof!” His fist made the acquaintance of my face before I could finish that final protest. My head snapped to the side and I reeled from the unexpected blow. “Alright, then, if that’s how it has to be....” Dodging his next blow, I struck back with a one-two to the jaw and the ribcage. He caught one before it could reach his jaw -- two, however, struck home, knocking him briefly off balance.
But Adam recovered quickly. He gripped my shoulders again, shoved me backwards, and I hit the bar with a crash and another shattering of glass. His hands wrapped around the base of my neck, cutting off my air. I struggled to no avail, and quickly began seeing spots. I brought my knees up and then my feet down, hitting his legs in two spots. With the time that bought me, I managed to land an elbow to his face, roll away and climb back over the bar.
There was nowhere this fight could go while we were trapped inside the Crescent. If Dark insisted on a real fight, I could give it to him, but not in here. I’d have to be outside, in an open environment. In the city streets. That wake-up call you were wondering about? I thought ruefully. Here it comes.
I ran for the door, recklessly crashing through it onto the street. Two people were walking on the sidewalk just outside, and one shrieked loudly when they saw Adam and I bursting from the restaurant. I turned to them. “This isn’t a great time, guys.”
They got the point -- they turned and very quickly walked in the other direction.
“You think you can win this, Jackson?” Dark yelled. “I’ve got the homefield advantage, you know. I know this area, you don’t.”
“I know,” I yelled back. “I’ll manage somehow.” I lunged forward, closing the gap between us myself, and brought my knee into his stomach. He keeled over for a split second, coming back up with both hands in front of him; his claws slashed through my chin as he knocked me backwards.
First blood belonged to Dark.
I ignored the pain in my jaw and the taste of copper on my lips. We went at it again, fighting dirty with fists and claws, with all of our power. Goddammit, he was strong, probably even stronger than me. I could stave off his attacks for a while, but Adam wasn’t Mark. Mark was easy to defeat -- he had been inexperienced, newly bitten with no idea of his own power. Adam, on the other hand, was a powerful Alpha. I was an Alpha too, but I was also younger and less experienced. Experience mattered more than status.
Fighting in the city, too, was an entirely different beast than fighting in the woods or in a small-town school parking lot. All around us, dogs barked, drivers at red lights stared until it was time to drive off again, and local diners, shoppers, and evening-strollers gaped openmouthed and many pulled out their phones to document the brawl. Sooner or later, one of them would notify the authorities.
Everything blurs together in a fight, both in the moment and in the memory after. I couldn’t say how long it had been or when it happened, or when anything happened, but it couldn’t have been long before I drew his blood. He growled, and I knew there was no getting out of it now. Even if by some miracle the fight ended with both of us intact, I had both confessed to deceiving Dark and taken up arms against him, injuring him. I didn’t know the Code as well as I should, but I was pretty certain he could throw me out of his territory for that.
I smelled incoming rain, mixing with a myriad of other smells. I caught a couple of glances at the sky, noticing that the cloud cover had made it completely black. Not a star to be seen. Taking advantage of that, I ran through the streets looking for the darkest alleys and empty buildings to hide in, yet another way to even the playing field.
Thunder broke through the ringing in my ears; off in the distance, a stripe of lightning appeared against the cloudiness. I’m sure Adam and I both looked monstrous, our hair being whipped around by the wind, our eyes and teeth flashing, with lightning and thunder rolling in the background. Even as the rain began to fall, the crowd gawking at us only grew larger, cameras flashing, excited and panicked voices buzzing.
The rain got in my eyes, briefly impairing my vision, and Adam’s next strike knocked me over completely. Someone among the onlookers screamed when they saw that. Another brave soul rushed to my aid, asking if I was okay and trying to help me up -- bad idea. Dark roared at them, slashing the air, and the onlooker stumbled back in terror. If the public wasn’t sure of the situation before, they certainly were now.
I started hollering at the crowd to move back. “Get out of my way! Get out of my way, move! Move!” They weren’t objecting, and many in fact had already begun to clear out before I opened my mouth.
Through the parting crowd, I could see my destination: a storefront with empty windows and a padlocked loop of chain around the door. I ran for that door, throwing my full strength at it so the chain broke. It was fully dark inside, dusty, and empty, with nothing to hide behind. On the other hand, there was also nothing to get in the way, so pros and cons, I guess.
With no proper hiding places, the dark was my friend. I pressed my back against the wall, moving for the darkest corners, trying to put as much space between me and Adam as I could. He would chase me inside in a matter of seconds, I knew, and I had to be ready.
Adam watched Jackson disappearing into the deserted building, and his heart skipped a frightened beat. Involuntarily, his hand went to the lining of his jacket, to the front pocket of his jeans. He still had Tyrone’s bullet, and had obtained a small-caliber gun before he left.
Seeing the shock, betrayal, all the emotions in her eyes when he called her challenger had made it hard to fight. She fought back, of course, but it was clear as a bell that she was doing so reluctantly. The fighting fever was slowly coming over them both, but deep down he just wanted it to be over.
It was dishonorable. It was a horrible crime. If he did it, he’d never be able to face his people, to face his innocent and unaware wife, in the same way again.
Any way it happens, Adam, you’ll never be able to face them again. But you’re doing this for them. They’ll never know, but you are.
Maybe Tyrone was right -- a thought he’d been having a disturbing amount lately. Maybe it would be easier just to pull a trigger than to do it with his own hands.
He pulled the vial from his pocket, clutching it in a closed fist. The eyes of onlookers burned into him, and he knew better than to pull out a gun around them. He turned, baring his teeth, and shouted at the top of his lungs, “Lycanthrope’s business! You can all back away now!”
This particular crowd was wise enough to back away. Once they saw his teeth, in fact, they all but ran away. Of course he would never actually hurt any of them, but it was for the best that they didn’t know that.
Adam held his breath, reached for the gun, and followed Jackson into the building.