I raised my arms in a defensive position, preparing for the attack just as he stepped towards me. He went for my head first so I pulled back, my hand deviating his past my shoulder. He attacked again, his fist aiming for my abdomen this time, but I interjected the move, grabbing onto his wrist and turning so I could twist his arm behind his back.
He let out a painful moan, so I paused, wondering whether I was using more force than I should have. He must have sensed my momentary hesitation because he kicked my supporting leg from underneath me, rendering me off balance just long enough for him to get rid of my lock and knock me on the ground. I fell on my back, a frustrated growl rising in my throat as I jumped to my feet a moment later.
I attacked in turn, aiming for his stomach as I knew he would parry me with his left hand. He did as expected, leaving his left side exposed. I took advantage of it, sending my foot flying, but I realized all too late that I had made a mistake. He wanted me to do this; he wanted me to think he was open for that blow. He caught my foot, a victorious smile forming on his full lips, and before I could even curse, he had forced me back on the ground, his knee pressing on my back to keep me down.
The audience I had forgotten about started cheering, and a second later, the pressure disappeared. I turned on my back, looking up at my rival who was now offering me a hand and an approving smile. He pulled me up, nodding at me before turning to the rest of the trainees.
"Now this is what I call an excellent match!" He laughed, and the small group cheered enthusiastically. I received a few taps on the back from those nearby and forced a smile at them, nodding thankfully. "If you ask me, Mia here can just as well replace me now," he shot me a glance, his eyes narrowing while his smile widened. Sweat was streaming down his face and neck, and I could hear his heart beating like crazy, which made me feel a bit better about myself. "One thing she should learn though, as should all of you," he paused, turning around as if to look at each and every person individually, "is to never underestimate your opponent. The moment you do, you give them the leverage they can use against you. Sometimes they might let you think you've won, or lead you to believe you're the stronger, the smarter, the one with the upper hand. Don’t get cocky. Be smart and stay safe."
He clapped his hands, bowing. We all did the same, which put an end to the last training session for the semester.
"I want to hear a nice warm applause for Mia here, please," he beckoned, and I moved awkwardly as the others shouted and whistled, clapping their hands as loud as they could. My eyes stopped on my two friends that were standing across from me – Grace in her cute sports shorts and top looked more like a model on a photoshoot rather than somebody who had tried to learn how to defend themselves; Oscar who was panting next to her was her complete opposite - his T-shirt was drenched in sweat as if he had been fighting non-stop for the last hour. "Alright, guys! Hit the showers!"
I was about to follow my friends out when Mark, the instructor, stopped me. I nodded for my friends to go, turning to face him.
"I wanted to have a word with you before you go," he said, bending down and grabbing his towel from the floor. He tossed me mine and as I slid it around my neck, he turned to face me. "I am beyond impressed with your fighting skills, Mia. And I still can't believe you've never been to a self-defense class before. Nobody had made me sweat so hard in my life. Not even my wife."
“That’s a weird thing to say,” I laughed, wiping my face, “but I’ll take it as a compliment.”
"It was meant to be a compliment," he nodded, his smile giving place to a serious expression. "But I am concerned about you. This passion, this aggression, and strength you show here. I can sense a lot of anger inside of you, and I don't want you to get consumed by it. It's not my place to ask and I probably would not do it if it was anyone else, but is everything alright with you? Is there something that you want to talk about?"
I stared at him for a moment, completely dumbfounded. It was almost funny when I thought about it. He was right – there was a lot of anger inside me, and that was why I needed those sessions. But that was by no means what scared me. He had no idea I could hear every beat of his heart, every breath he took, every word the others said in the changing rooms. He had no idea I could cross the room before he could blink or break his neck if I just felt like it. None of them knew that.
"I'm fine," I said, forcing a smile. "It's nothing I can't handle. This class gave me a place to channel those emotions. I'll miss it."
"I can't believe I’m saying it, but me too," he laughed, offering me a hand. "It was a pleasure fighting you, Amelia. Take care and don't forget – don't..."
"... underestimate your opponent," I finished instead, shaking his hand. "How can I? These words are imprinted on my skull since you won't stop repeating them."
"Take care," he said with a smile, patting me on the shoulder and walking away. I stayed back for a minute, all alone in the bright gym, twisting the towel in my hands. Eventually, I decided that I shouldn't keep Grace and Oscar waiting and hit the showers, getting dressed in my work clothes. I let my hair dry by itself, applying just a tiny bit of makeup since if Grace saw me completely natural she would probably force her makeup skills on me in the hallway.
As expected, they were waiting for me in the hall, sitting impatiently in one of the sofas with their backs to the dressing rooms. Grace was typing something on her phone while Oscar was lying with his head on the backrest, his eyes locking on me the moment I walked out of the door.
"Whoa, is this what all bartenders wear?" He asked, turning to look at me. I grimaced as I looked down at the tight black dress he was referring to. "I suddenly feel like drinking."
"New dress-code," I explained, adjusting the dress at the chest since it was tighter than the clothes I usually wore and it was a bit hard to breathe in. "New boss, new rules. I think the guy is just a pervert."
"I like it," Grace joined in, sliding her phone in her purse. She jumped on her feet, narrowing her eyes at me. "I can fix that hair, though."
"No time," I said, nodding towards the door. "I have to get to work."
"How about we come for drinks later?" Grace's smile widened, and she turned to Oscar for support. "We all have a reason to celebrate. Oscar nailed his medical exams. One more semester and he'll be our proud doctor friend." Oscar blushed as Grace grabbed him by the arm. "I passed my exams so you're looking at a future lawyer. And you, Mia, I heard that you'll be included in the annual art exhibition of the faculty. That's my girl!"
"Well, we have a private party tonight so..." I murmured just to hear Grace let out an exasperated sigh. "What? Some people have to work to keep the roof over their heads!" I mouthed and Grace rolled her eyes in response.
"That's because you insist on doing everything the hard way. We could have become roommates a long time ago, but no, Miss Independent had to do everything by herself. As if you have something to prove..." She muttered, throwing her hands in the air. She was right, even though she didn't know it - I had to prove something to somebody. I had to prove that I could be a normal, hard-working, and independent human being who didn't need her family to make decisions for her and tell her how to live her life and what to do. I had left that behind, along with all the problems and happy memories. Now it was up to me to deal with all the struggles I was going through. I had made my choice and if I started regretting it even for a second, I knew I was going to give in and go back.
The other reason was that I still needed to change once or twice a month, and I wasn’t sure how I would be able to hide it from Grace. She was a human, and the chances of her understanding my predicament were slim. Besides, I couldn’t risk her freaking out or telling someone or I’d have to leave everything and disappear. Or silence her, which I could never do.
"I need to get going or I'll be late," I said as Grace was releasing another heavy sigh, pushing back her dark hair so she could apply another layer of lipstick on her already full, glossy lips.
"Do you want me to give you a ride?" Oscar offered, and I smiled gratefully, nodding. I followed him to his car, waving Grace goodbye before she could whine some more on how unfair it was that nobody wanted to get insanely drunk with her. I let Oscar open the door for me as he usually did and slid into the passenger seat. The vibration of my phone in my pocket made me take it out, only to notice I had thirty-six missed calls on top of the ones I kept ignoring all day. I didn't even have to check the caller.
I disregarded them, sliding the phone back into my bag. By that time Oscar was done with his belt and was starting the engine. We didn't talk on our way to Inferno and it was kind of awkward, almost making me regret not taking the bus. Oscar was a nice guy - kind, and funny in a sweet, awkward way and I loved spending time with him and Grace but ever since that night a couple of weeks ago where got drunk and made out, he'd been acting all weird and it was unnerving. It was almost as if he didn't know what to do or was scared to take any action at all. He was nothing like Caleb.
"So," Oscar said a few blocks from Inferno, taking me out of my dangerous thoughts, "I feel like I owe you an apology." His words caught me off guard and I frowned. He glanced at me over his glasses. "I've been acting a bit weird lately. I just didn't know if you... if that night..."
"It's fine. We were both drunk."
"No, no, that's not it," he said, trying to look at me again, but turning his attention back to the road almost immediately. "I... I wasn't drunk. And I am not sorry about it."
"Oh," was the only thing I managed to say. I didn't know what else to add. I suspected as much, of course, I wasn't blind after all, but I honestly couldn't believe he'd find the confidence to admit it. It made me feel... nothing. I just stared at the road, realizing that there wasn't even the feeling of anticipation or dread of going out with him. I had gone out with other men before and some of them did make me feel something, but... they were not Caleb.
I shook my head, banishing all thoughts of him. He had been invading my mind more frequently as of late, and that wasn’t good. Thinking about him would only remind me of our happy times together, then inevitably bring those heartbreaking memories of our last moments together before I left.
"So... I was thinking. I would like, if you want, of course, to go out and grab dinner. Or coffee. Like a date. What do you think?" He shot me another hopeful glance, and I realized I felt bad for him. He deserved to find someone who would be at least half as nervous and excited as he was at the moment. And that someone wasn’t me.
I had to lay him off gently though, or our friendship might be in jeopardy.
"Sure," I said, smiling indulgently. A bright smile bloomed on his face and I hurried to unbuckle my seatbelt and get out of the car. "See you later," I said, waving goodbye and turning my back on him. At the door of Inferno, I stopped. A distantly familiar scent tickled my sense, and I looked around, sniffing the air. I didn’t see anyone suspicious or familiar anywhere nearby, and the scent was at least a few hours old, so I probably didn’t have anything to worry about.
I pulled the door and stepped in, making my way through the dark corridor towards the back room. I nodded at two of the bodyguards who were sitting at the empty bar, but they barely regarded me with a glance.
I found three of the waitresses adjusting their short, skin-tight dresses and suppressed my scowl. Even Grace would not allow herself such a revealing outfit, and she was pretty confident with her body. But I guessed being a waitress at a nightclub came with certain expectations. And damn, those girls made some amazing tips.
They shot me silent, condescending glances, then left without a word. I was glad that my dress was at least much looser than theirs and reached well past the middle of my thighs; also, thankfully, it did not look as if my breasts were going to fall out, unlike theirs.
I ran my fingers through my hair a few times to get it in order and made my way towards the bar, eyes quickly expecting anything the previous shift might have left for me to do. The bodyguards had disappeared somewhere while the waitresses were fussing around the tables, adjusting chairs, and pretending to be productive. I took a deep breath, mentally preparing myself for the night.
This was my life now, and it was good. It was normal and simple. This was what I wanted, what I chose. I was not going back, I told myself again, like a prayer I kept repeating every day to strengthen my resolve. And it helped to keep me in check so far.
The night from there went in a blur. Focused on the bottles and the drinks in front of me, I moved swiftly as I prepared the orders to serve the ones that came straight to the bar. I made no effort to remember faces or names and the music was too loud for conversations or pleasantries for which I was glad. I had no time to stop and think for anything different from double whiskey, neat; Long Island, strong; two Martinis, dry and so on, and so on.
It was past four when I caught the scent again, this time coming from within the club. It was almost indistinguishable among the mixture of sweat, perfumes, and alcohol, but my senses were stronger than a human's and in such rare moments, I was glad for that. I frowned, looking around the half-empty bar.
"I'm taking a break," I told Cole, the other bartender, and he nodded as he handed a drink to the absolutely hammered girl in front of him. He was getting greedy again. Despite her generous tips, he would be lucky if she didn't throw up all over the bar in the next ten minutes. He should have cut her off a long time ago.
I left the safety of the bar, joining the crowd in search of the scent again. It kept appearing and disappearing, almost as if the source was moving to confuse me. I frowned, narrowing my eyes and pushing away the extended hands of a man beckoning me to join him on the dance floor. My nose caught the smell again, stronger than before, and I followed it towards the back exit, stepping into the chilly night air and taking a deep breath. I looked around the back alley only to find it empty. But the smell was fresh.
I knew I wasn't supposed to do it in the open, but I tensed, forcing my vision to strengthen so that I could see every tiny detail in the dead of the night. My ears could pick up water dripping at the end of the alley, my nose could depict every different scent coming from the dumpster nearby and I almost gagged at the stench; and my eyes now took in the shadow of the pickup truck that I hadn't noticed at first. Just as I was about to step closer to check on it, the headlights came to life, blinding me completely for a few seconds. I raised my hands to shield my eyes, and I heard the doors opening, two pairs of feet hitting the ground.
I waited in anticipation, giving myself time to adjust to the brightness. The two strangers finally stepped forward where I could see them better. While my eyes were still adjusting, one of them spoke, confirming my suspicions.
"Well, hello there, little sister. Long time no see."