Taylor's Time!


This sucks.

No, no, not the story. That's good, of course!

But this is probably the last chapter of Safe Now we're gonna see!

Taylor's nearly done with it, which means she's gonna do some pre-edits and then send it to Adam to get edited all the way through and then it's gonna be a Real Thing!

Wow.

But that brings me back - this sucks! No more Avan and whats-her-name (which Taylor STILL hasn't told me!)


- Kendra



Chapter Nine


Avan kissed me before heading into the octagon, his lips dry and tense. I couldn't remember the last time he'd had a drink, so I picked up the water bottle Kaine had given us.


"Avan!" I called over the roaring crowd.


Avan took the bottle from my hand and tipped it back, his cheeks swelling with water. He spat out most of it, and swallowed what little was left.


I remembered something he’d said once and understood. "Ever been punched in the gut with a stomach full of water?" I winced at the memory, my hand on my empty stomach. Avan was already in the cage before he could see. The door was locked. The fight was on.


Avan's opponent was thin and lanky, much like him. This is a good thing, I thought


As soon as the fight started, I knew I was wrong.


Avan was slowing. His strikes were weak. He stumbled getting up after being taken down.


As if on cue, my stomach ached and rumbled audibly. Niether Avan nor I had eaten in more than a week. As if realizing the situation, my body rebelled. I felt how weak I'd become, how my knees trembled under my weight, how my body seemed enveloped with fatigue. I was dizzy and nauseous, and I was just standing.


Avan was in constant motion, exerting what energy he had left. He wouldn't last much longer. Soon, he wouldn't be able to fight. Avan's will was strong, but starvation was stronger. Low blood pressure didn't care about will. Hunger and weakness would ultimately bring him down. I swallowed a hungry breath and watched Avan carefully.


He was down, his legs wrapped around his opponent. His skin was already dripping with sweat, despite being only minutes into the first round. I wrung my hands. My palms were slippery and clammy. I watched Avan be punched again and again in the head and face. His nose bled.


"Get up, Avan!" I yelled.


He hadn't heard me. The crowd was too loud. He stayed there, on the ground, and took the beating. Blood was smeared on his cheeks, his opponent's fists slipping in the mess of red that streamed from Avan's nose and mouth.


"Come on, Avan," I whispered, clasping my hands. "What are you doing?"


Finally, Avan locked his arms around his opponent's neck and head. He twisted his body and brought the guy down onto his back. In seconds, they'd traded positions, Avan on top, punching and hitting, and his opponent struggling helplessly beneath him. Minutes later, Avan had the man in a choke hold and the man tapped out.


The second round was a flurry of fists and blood. It ended quickly after Avan was knocked down again, his opponent trapping him in an ankle lock. Unable to break free, Avan held out as long as he could, gritting his teeth and burying his face into the canvas as if it was sand. When he finally tapped out, his ankle had been twisted to the point where I was sure something had torn or broken.


By the start of the third round, he was limping. Within seconds, he was on his back again. He kicked his opponent off of him and rose on unsteady legs. He swayed on his feet and fell forward, dizzy and disoriented. He stayed where he was, on his hands and knees, and let his opponent bring him down once more. After several punches, his opponent backed off.


Avan got up, steadying himself by grabbing the metal of the cage behind him. He panted, exhausted, desperate, defeated. His eyebrows descended on his eyes. His stance changed, left hip back. His eyes narrowed onto his opponent. The young man was distracted, looking into the crowd, gloating instead of staying focused. He was an amateur. Avan let go of the cage, swaying just a little, before delivering one final blow: a kick to the head.


That's what finally brought his opponent down. He didn't get up. I rushed back up to the cage door, cheering, but Avan was distracted, watching with worried eyes. He crouched over him as Kaine pushed past me and unlocked the cage.


"He's not waking up!" Avan said.


Kaine grabbed Avan by the arm and the sheer brutality made my blood run hot.


"Let's go, Gutierrez!"


Kaine forced Avan to his feet. As Kaine pulled him out of the octagon, and down the stairs, Avan looked over his shoulder. The man still hadn't moved. I heard Avan draw in his breath.


"No… No!"


He fought against Kaine, squirming out of his grasp, and leapt onto the cage, climbing over the edge and falling back into the ring.


The other men rushed past me, opened the door to the cage, and grabbed Avan, Kaine following close behind. He tried fighting them off, but the last bit of adrenaline, the surge that got him up and over the cage, had run its course.


Another man held me back, pinning my arms. The way Avan peered at Kaine through his tousled hair was eerie, his shoulders low, his knees bent, his face bloodied. This was more than exhaustion that consumed him. This was pure anger. The calmness in his voice made the hair on my arms stand at attention.


"I'm not leaving until he wakes up."


Kaine stared him, stared until I was sure I could feel Avan seething with rage.


"Fine!"


He looked tawords me and snapped his fingers. For a second, I didn't know what he wanted, then I saw the water bottle and made the connection. I stumbled into the cage and Kaine took the bottle from my hands. He walked to where the young man lay. Slowly, he poured out the water, poured it over the man's face until he coughed and came to.


"Happy?"


Kaine threw the half empty bottle to the floor and gestured for the men to let Avan go. When the man released him, Avan slumped to the floor. He covered his eyes and curled forward, his head on his knees.

#


Avan limped to the bathroom as soon as we entered the basement. He ran the sink and splashed cold water onto his hair and face. When he came out, the blood was gone. He fell back on the bed with a sigh. I sat beside him, trying desperately to make sense of his reaction. The silence stretched until I couldn’t stand it any longer.


"What happened back there?"


"Don't worry about it," he said.


He sounded flustered, like my question annoyed him.


"I've just never seen you… freak out like that before."


He made a noise, caught between a sigh and a groan.


"I won," he said. "Isn't that what matters?"


I reached for his swollen ankle. He jerked his foot away. I grunted softly and tried to smooth out the edge of iron in my words.


"Just let me see."


He kept his knee bent.


"Avan, I'm trying to help. If we talked about what happened, I could-"


He grabbed at his hair and snapped at me.


"Just drop it!"


I flinched. Avan had never raised his voice to me before. After a few moments of silence, he looked guiltily at me. His voice was softer now, more gentle, though the sharpness was still there.


"Just leave it alone, please. I'm exhausted."


He rolled away from me, his head on his arm. I lay beside him and rubbed his shoulder. His muscles, his whole body, tensed at my touch.


He sniffed. He was crying, or at least, close to crying, because his nose was runny. I could hear it. I turned over and rested my head against the pillow. In my head, the incident replayed over and over, Avan leaping onto the cage, sinking to the floor, curling in defeat. But he had won. It didn't make sense. I shook my head, too tired, too confused to make sense of it now.


I reached a hand behind me. My fingers rested on Avan's hip. After a while, I felt his hand. His fingers closed around mine. His grip was stiff, evidence of his anger, but it was enough. Even he knew this wasn't the time to be distant. We were all we had in this crazy, terrible, fucked up new life of ours.



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