“You should be focused on us!” the man said, yanking me into him and restraining my arms in his. He held me in the direction of the woman who was grinning at me.
“I hope you don’t think I’ll take mercy on you because you’re involved with the Princess,” she taunted. “Because I don’t do mercy.”
Claws of ice formed between her knuckles, and she drew her fist back with every intent to impale me.
I tried to wriggle out of the man’s grasp, but I was firmly restrained in his constricting hold.
Damn it, I need to think fast!
The woman began to charge at me, and in a last second bit of desperation, I jumped, using my restrained condition to my advantage, and kicked the woman back into the crowd with both legs.
“Hey!” the man growled, pulling me back closer to him.
I knew it wouldn’t take long for the woman to recover, so I needed to free myself from the man’s grip quickly. Seeing no other choice, I threw my head back hard, headbutting him right in the nose. He yelled out in pain and released my arms immediately. Pain enveloped my skull too, however, and I stumbled forward onto my hands and knees.
“That little bastard broke my nose!” the man howled.
Still on the floor, I shook my head left and right, hoping to align my vision and stop seeing stars. The overwhelming pain and dizziness made it clear why headbutts are a last resort, and I cursed my luck for having to use such a reckless attack.
The sound of rushing footsteps shocked me back to my senses, and I looked up in time to find the woman about to gore me with her claws yet again. I stumbled around her, barely dodging that ugly outcome, and latched onto a sudden idea in my rattled brain.
“Get back here!” she demanded, spinning around to continue pursuing me.
I shoved my way through the crowd, and they parted for me. I presumed they did so because they didn’t want to catch claws in their flesh either. Once I got past them, I positioned myself against the wall and waited for the woman to get as close as possible. A moment before I would have been pierced, I rolled beneath her.
Just as I had hoped, she buried her claws in the wall, effectively trapping herself.
I didn’t get the chance to act on it, though, because the man had recovered and tossed me back into the ring. His hands were now outfitted with stone and his nose was most definitely broken.
“You see what you did to my face?! I’m gonna crush you for that, little man!”
I evaded two hefty swings from him and grabbed an empty cardboard box from the corner. I shoved the box onto the man’s head and got behind him. While he rushed to get the box off his head, I delivered a chop block to the back of his knee and brought him down to the floor. A glass bottle rolled out from the crowd, and I nabbed it in a hurry. Once he tossed the box off his head, I shattered the bottle over his skull, knocking him out.
“Hey, you’re getting pretty good at breaking things over people’s heads!” Eva shouted from the sidelines.
I steadied my unstable footing and replied, “not the time, Eva!”
The woman freed herself from the wall and launched at me, taking multiple swipes that connected and left painful slashes all over my arms.
“Can’t get away this time, can you?” she mocked me.
The more she sliced me, the cockier and more comfortable she became. The moment to strike was approaching, and I endured the pain until I found the opportunity I was waiting for.
She drew back her fist and thrust it forward again. “Take this!”
I sidestepped her attack, managing to barely avoid being run through but still suffering a painful gash. It didn’t matter, though, because I got exactly what I wanted. When she overcommitted her motion, I snatched her neck in a standing guillotine choke. She struggled initially, but quickly tapped out when she realized she wouldn’t be able to escape my clutch.
I released her from my hold and collapsed to the floor, gasping for air.
“No more. I’m done!” I cried.
Eva ran into the ring clapping and cheering. She knelt beside me and said, “woohoo! That was amazing Shinsuke!”
“I don’t feel amazing…”
“Come on, don’t lie there like a lump on a log! Up you go!” Eva helped me up and allowed me to lean on her.
The crowd eyeballed me in eerie silence before suddenly erupting into a loud cheer. Eva grinned and started a “Shinsuke” chant that the audience surprisingly joined in on.
“Thank you, thank you!” Eva said, hamming it up.
Isn’t the chant for me?
I shook my head and grumbled. “You’re insane, Eva.”
“And you love it~”
She forced me to take a bow, then took one of her own and led me back out into the street. She sat me down on the sidewalk and I began to collect my breath.
“You got a little banged up, but you did it!” she celebrated.
I dragged my fingers over the cuts on my arms and sucked in a breath. “Eva, why didn’t you tell me that this is what you were going to make me do today?
“You saw how you reacted when we got in there. If I had told you beforehand, you would have gotten too in your head about it. Sometimes you need to toss the baby bird out of the nest. And guess what, you flew. Even without magic, you won every fight.”
“I guess that might be true. But—”
“But nothing, Shinsuke,” she continued. “Look at what you accomplished tonight and stop worrying about what didn’t happen. I was also right about your hidden strength yet again.”
“Do I get to know what that is now?”
She giggled and shook her head. “Not if you haven’t noticed what it is for yourself. I’ll only tell you if you can beat Emil first.”
“All right, fine,” I conceded.
She skipped to a nearby vending machine and bought two cans of juice. She placed one in my hand and sat beside me.
“Don’t mention it. Consider it a reward. Gods, Shinsuke. I’m so proud of you and all the progress you’ve made.”
“Not like I had a choice,” I pointed out. A pang of pain shot through the back of my head, and I winced, catching her attention.
“You know, that headbutt wasn’t the most elegant move back there.”
“Are you deducting style points now?”
“Maybe~” she teased.
Without warning, Eva gripped the back of my neck. I flinched and she whispered, “shh, take it easy. Here.” She slowly slid her fingers upward, continuing until they were submerged in my hair against the back of my head, right where the pain nagged most. She began to massage gently and asked, “does that feel okay?”
“Y-yeah,” I stuttered.
Outside of a gentle breeze and distant passing cars, the only sound I could hear was the thumping of my heart echoing in my ears. With every soft graze of her fingertips against my scalp, I felt a jolt of electricity in my brain that traveled down my spine.
What is going on with me? Just say something. Anything!
“So,” I mumbled, awkwardly. “I was wondering about this for a bit. What do you want to do with your life? You know, in the future.”
She let out a small breath, the involuntary kind that follows a cynical smirk. “I don’t have a future, remember?”
“Isn’t your future one of the reasons I’m fighting in this gauntlet?"
“Yes, but even though I have the utmost faith that you’ll win this thing, asking me this question is asking me to dream. And I just don’t want to do that right now…I don’t want to get my hopes up.”
“I see. Sorry I asked.”
“Don’t be. I like that you’re curious about me,” she admitted. “Tell you what. If you can win this fight with Emil, I’ll tell you what I want to do with my life. And about your hidden strength, of course. Deal?”
“Great! Now, let’s drop this. You already have enough to think about right now. Let’s get you home so you can ice that head of yours.”
She helped me back to my feet and we began the walk back to my apartment together.
Quiet was the last word I would ever associate with Eva, but she didn’t say a single word as we walked, sipping our drinks in comfortable silence. Her blue eyes looked to be lost in a distant world, and I had no intention of pulling her away from it. It felt like we were both somewhere else, but peacefully together all the same.
She was right that I was curious about her. And as my list of reasons to win the dreaded fight with Emil grew, the desire to know what laid behind those distant blue eyes of hers resided somewhere near the top.
Thank you for reading! It won't be long now before the battle with Emil!