Downtime is something I've been getting increasingly less of with these Hidden Wars still raging on. It was now mid-September, and I've jumped out of an exploding plane, horseback rode against 15 motorcycle riding terrorists and saved like three presidents in one week. All of which has probably been explained at great length by our lovely author. Combine all that with school starting back up for Lily, and a little r and r may be just what the licensed medical practitioner ordered. And I mean that literally as for once in our near two years of partnership Sarah was the one to propose what we did with our free time. At first, I wanted to know why, but considering the conversations we've had recently (all of which started by her), I realized she might need this more than me. I can tell this whole bounty situation is starting to drive her crazy. That didn't stop the very mention of her activity from making me cringe, though.
People in Titan have often put up the question of who would win in a fight between us. We've never put the most thought into it, answering with either a snide remark or blatant disinterest. Friendship aside, we've always kind of found it to be a moot argument. No fight is ever really clear cut, especially when it comes to us, the only thing we can control is ourselves. We took everything we learned and used the styles that fit us till we were experts. I'm the tank, and she is the assassin; it's as simple as that. If we were both in full suit and armor, I'm pretty sure I could win, but when it comes down to bare-knuckle brawls, it's a completely different story. That distinction became all the more clear as I'm thrown back onto the sparring mat for the umpteenth time. And as I picked myself back up for the umpteenth, Sarah decided to spout out her words of wisdom.
"I keep telling you James, all that power isn't going to any good if your opponents can simply read you like a book."
That was a question I also got to hear a lot of. People in the past have said I'm too talented for my good, or I don't live up to my potential. Hell, some people have even said that I should actually run for the leader of Titan, and to this day I, still disagree. It took me way too long to realize in my heart of hearts I just wanted to help people, to lift them instead of tearing them down. I just don't think the spotlight was made for me. That didn't mean that I didn't put 110% in my role either. So with both overworked frustration and competitive resolve swirling in mind. I made my claim.
"I do what I need to get the job done, Sarah; I don't think that there is anything wrong with that."
"I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with that James, but I don't think it's going to be enough. It's getting tougher out there, and our enemies are getting stronger. We need to get stronger, and we need to get it now," she said in a grave tone.
"Trust me, Sarah, you're plenty strong as it is, maybe a change of perspective is what you need."
With the course of the conversation now mine, I decided to take my sparring gear off on my way to the bench. Once I collected my thoughts, I made my proclamation.
"Okay, knowing you, I'm guessing that when you're talking about our "enemies," you mean you're still rattled over your fights with Echo and Kai, right?"
Sarah's stoic composure cracked as she admitted the truth.
"Yeah, but what are you getting at?"
"From what I could tell, the only similarity that 2 share is that they personally know your fighting style. Which may mean your biggest weakness is probably that you're too good at your own job."
My train of thought was interrupted by Sarah's perplexed look.
"Look what I mean is that when it comes to a fight, you can be sort of predictable too. If you were fighting a zombie, what would you?"
"I would shoot it in the head."
"Exactly, you wouldn't even try to beat it to death with its own left foot now would you because..."
"That wouldn't be the best move?"
"Which means that it would be the very last thing anyone would expect and can lead to a follow up later."
Sarah's eyes narrowed at my proposal but soon started to waver in logical confusion.
"Let me guess; you think you need a demonstration?"
"No, but I think you're going to give one anyway," she said in her familiar deadpan tone.
"Oh, Sarah, you know me so well."
With Sarah taking the bait hook line and sinker, I proposed a challenge that I knew would lead to my victory. The Paladin might have been well versed in the underworld, but she still had a lot to learn about the sacred world of the Titan bet.
On the surface, James' bet was simple on the surface, both of us would fight in a circle like ring for 10 rounds. First one to get to 6 knockouts from said ring wins. Loser basically follows whatever demand the winner makes. A part of me hated the thought, but after the past few days with Kai, James' nonsense was a welcome distraction. I don't why, but ever since that fight, my body and mind felt completely on fire, like a faulty projector. Which is probably why when James came back the next morning, I was fully prepared and raring to go. On his arrival, my eyes fixated on his body, checking to see if any movement would give him away, but it didn't. Instead, James got his sparring gear in his usual casual demeanor as he took a sip from his signature stainless steel water bottle before entering the ring. And as the seconds rolled by at a seemingly endless crawl, all of my gnawing thoughts finally focused together, as if combat was the only way I could find any peace.
When my time truly came, I tried to hold on to the feeling as much as possible as my body commanded more speed than it ever had before! Using this momentum, I won 5 rounds in quick succession, getting more powerful with each win. Though that was more James' fault as with each loss, he seemed to drink more and more of that mysterious bottle. By the 6th round, James was nothing more than a barely standing heap. With anticipation grasping my heart, I instantly aimed for a surprise elbow to finish him off! Surprisingly James did not attempt to block instead of taking the full force of the attack! As James started to stumble himself out of the ring seemingly, James, in a surprising amount of clarity, grabbed ahold of my gear to give me an unexpected headbutt!
With my senses already enhanced, my nose was overcome with the stench of alcohol. This stench messes up my focus so bad that I couldn't even try to defend against James, lifting me up and throwing me out of the ring! To add to the pain, gravity soon claimed my body as I crashed back down to earth with an impactful thud. In a strained breath, I got back up to see that the James I knew was once again consumed by drink. In honor of his temporary victory, my partner had this to say.
"If you thought I was just going to let you have an easy win, you've got another thing coming, Sarah! Because from here on out, you're going to have to be at 100% to beat me!"
Before I could even say crap and a half in anger, I decided to follow my "teachers" example and embrace the chaos. With my focus long gone, I entered back in the ring with my new mindset.
"Be careful what you wish for James, cause I promise you're about to regret it!"
Once the next round started, it was James who took the offense, starting with a weak swing of the arm. In response, I kept my body in a tight dodge to prepare for the next strike. But I don't think anything would have prepared for what James did next. Without any inhibition, James swung his left arm in a whip-like motion. From any other fighter, it would've been a sloppy strike, but with James' momentum and strength, it felt like a bullwhip! Using Gliding Leaf, I was able to safely make it to the edge of the stage in a crouched position. Like an impatient Lion, James soon came at me with a low roundhouse! In instinctive haste, I grabbed his kick and rolled through the motion locking the leg down with all my strength!
I thought I had him played, but my partner, in spiteful pettiness, slapped my mask so hard that I couldn't see anything! Using those last few seconds, he got me out of the ring with a playground-like shove! My body once again felt the familiar touch of the mat, a relationship that I hoped I wouldn't become familiar with. Like most things decisions in my life, this turned bad as the next three rounds, I didn't fare too well. With the score all tied up and the sting of defeat so close I can almost taste it my mind once again erupted in a series of violent visions. I remember how painfully easy it seemed, to almost dying at the hand of a man I considered a friend. How painfully easy it seemed to just slip away into the next life. I don't know whether it not it was the bounty or the painful flashbacks, but I was livid that I had made such a choice in the first place. Before I even became the Paladin, I had fought, and I survived against every odd put in front of me. And after that pathetic display with Kai, I now know that if I'm going to die, I'm going out at 100%.
With my new creed, my focus was once again maintained as I entered the final round. When the countdown finally started, the two of use collided in a clash for all ages! In this new state of mind, I kept track of dozens of lighting fast strikes from both me and James. Too bad for him, I already adapted to his style. Almost automatically, James tightened his guard against an elbow that aimed straight to his face, but this merely a distraction to follow up with an unplanned sweep. With the giant of a man about to fall, I thought this would be the end, but in a surprising amount of athletics, he flipped out of the way of any follow-up, I could muster. But with my body already excited, I still made my way towards him at breakneck speed! James tried to go for a poke in the eye, but following his example, I flipped over him to deliver a definitive chop over his shoulder! Aggravatingly enough, James countered with a block of his own, in fact parrying it away to leave me wide open! But this once again is a part of the plan as I employed another one of the techniques I learned from Unity: Whirlwind throw! With someone as strong as James, I usually couldn't do it, but in this new state, I knew I could do it. Using both speed and strength, I attempted to throw him out of the ring! But James still kept the advantage as he kept hold of my gear as we were both sent flying out of the ring!
Next thing I know, James had me in the mother of all bear hugs as he said in a mockingly happy tone.
The last sight I saw was James having his right foot stick inside the ring as my body soon started to ease into utter exhaustion.
Next time I woke up, both James and I were stuck on medical beds covered in curtains. With my limited senses, all I could do was hear the pitter-patter of machinery. Almost coincidentally, the curtains opened up to see a middle-aged relieved Asian man with glasses and a tablet. I was almost about to say something, but he had already interjected.
"You're not the first people who've been hurt by a Titan bet, and unfortunately, you won't be the last, '' he said as he turned away to the sound of another oncoming patient.
After that, James woke up a couple of minutes later with a smug look on his face.
“I hate to be the one to kick a woman while she’s down but I guess now is as good a time as any to collect my winnings.”
My body shuddered in pain at the thought of what his devilish mind could produce. But in a surprising twist James decided to do something different.
“From now on we will be engaged in an endless battle of bets that will never end and you my dear Sarah will decide what bet we’ll do next. No more sparring, I think both of us have had way too much of that.”
In a sense of building awe, I had to ask one final question.
“Do you even think we’ll get the chance to do this again?”
In response James had only this to say.
“Course, it’s not like we’re going anywhere anytime soon right?”
With James' subtle answer giving me so much hope, all I could do was give an equally subtle answer.
“Yeah, I guess you're very much right.”