John took the first punch hard against his forearms. Even though he blocked most of the damage effectively, he still felt his bones rattling from the impact. The big man's strength was obvious and, unlike in a videogame setup, just being strong didn't make him automatically slow. John kept his guard up and dodged frantically. John didn't see the point of bench pressing hundreds of kilos in the gym everyday. In this situation, with protein-laced fists whistling past his head every half second, he thought he ought to reconsider his position on that.
Laura faced her opponent, her eyes down. She didn't make eye contact with him, but let her periphery register his whole body, the relative positions of his limbs, the way his weight was positioned, the alignment of his feet, his balance, she watched him and circled him slowly, subconsciously logging all this information. She also watched, in snatches, John's fight. It was a blur of wild swinging fists and grunts of pain. Just so long as John didn't look like losing she'd leave him alone. But she had to keep an eye out, just in case.
We're meant to be working as a team now, so he's partly my responsibility. In the end, I'm going to have to do as tutor says... I should worry about my own opponent first. John seems fine for now. Focus, focus.
Thick-neck, as she thought of him, had a thick neck. She'd probably break her hand if she tried to punch him in the face. He had those kind of muscles that would definitely make it hard for her to knock him out, and at a guess he probably had a pretty dense bone structure as well. All in all, he would not be convenient to fight.
They mirrored each other, Laura pacing to her left, thick-neck following. They edged into the wider space of the refectory. The last diners were still loitering. Some left abruptly once they realised what was happening while other craned their necks from the seats to watch.
"She's the girl!"
"The famous one who got in a year early!"
"Is she challenging already?"
"Hey, get over here, there's a good fight going down!"
Sigh. Well, even if I had a chance of keeping under the radar before, it's completely gone now. Lets put the new plan into action then. First things first-
Laura seemed to sparkle just for a moment. It was the sort of instant which made onlookers all draw breath simultaneously, which they did. The air around her paused as she sprang off her left foot. The rubber on the soles of her shoes squealed on the floorboards. Her feet laid tender kisses on the ground as she moved. In two strides she fwipt across the distance between herself and thick-neck. She stepped in front of him, inches from his face, as if alighting from a bus, like a dewdrop on a blade of grass. He had barely moved except for his eyes to widen in surprise.
He got his hands up in time to absorb the impact. Her open palm slammed against his guard, fingertips dragging through the air like tongues on a whip. It was the same way she had hit John. Little more than a slap, but somehow her hand carried enough speed to thud into thick-neck's defence and set a deep ache in his muscles. Before he could recover she hit him again. Her right hand struck his left shoulder. He impact nudged him sideways and his arm went dead. He was struggling to marshal his thoughts, he must be at least 20 kilos heavier than her, she shouldn't be able to move him at all, but that strike... The pain wasn't a problem, his arm would recover in a second, but the fact that she'd let go two attacks like that before he could move at all, that was worrying. And also-
Looks like I'm going to have to go all out here. Sorry thick-neck, I don't have time to have too much fun.
Laura made eye contact with her opponent for an instant. Her eyes were clear as mirrors and glittering, brilliant, overflowing with not just focus, but excitement. More than her speed or her mobility, her eyes scared thick-neck no end.
But, he wasn't the kind of man who stayed scared for long. He skipped backwards to open up a distance between himself and Laura, nimble for his weight. In that moment of respite he formed a plan. No point worrying, no point strategising, it's too late for that. Use your strengths, bull through her. That'll have to do.
With that in mind, thick-neck launched his counterattack, pitting his advantage in weight and power against Laura's phantom-like movement. He charged her down, a wall of muscle, while she flickered through the air, her long hair trailing behind her like a veil or a cloak hanging from the shoulders of a ghost.
John grimaced, or was it a smile? His fist made that characteristic bone-on-bone sound as he punched the big man's cheek. It hurt his hand, it really did, but there had to be some damage done, there had to be. He swung wildly and viciously with his other hand to follow up. His opponent received the blow on his ribs and grunted but surged back with his own sally of punches. There was really no element of subtlety present, just two young men beating each other as hard as they could.
People had gathered to the refectory in numbers and were cheering, baying, booing, shouting encouragement, respectively. The noise around John was phenomenal. He had no idea who was on his side or not. He had no idea whether they were calling for him to die or to pull through, just that there were enough people calling "kill him" to fill a graveyard. And they were loving it. Somewhere in him, the showman who Laura had beaten into the ground stirred. He had best get his act together. He was going to win here and win spectacularly. His body was galvanised and he flew at his opponent faster, more fiercely.
The big man was bleeding from a cut on his forehead where John's fist had broken the skin. John took a rounded punch on the side of his mouth and staggered. He could feel his lip swelling, but he didn't care. He abandoned himself to the glorious cheering of the crowd. The more vigorously he attacked, the more they loved it. He threw himself wholly into battering his enemy and could tell the big man was starting to have doubts. His movements were just a little slower, he was just a little more defensive. Even so, he was tough. John lost himself in a bloody combat high and threw punch after punch after punch. Then, through the frenzy, he heard Laura.
"John! John, for God's sake, help me!"
The crowd around Laura's fight was bigger, but much, much less noisy. She held them all in awe. They drew breath in time with her steps and movements. They rhythm of her fight was beautiful to behold. She swayed and around thick-neck's attacks, elusive as a summer butterfly in the wind. Her strikes were timed marvellously with his, always knocking him where he was unbalanced. As he stumbled away she would follow with two or three more attacks. The only thing that saved him was his overwhelming weight advantage. She couldn't take him straight off his feet so easily. She had to find the right opening.
Thick-neck wasn't stupid. He wanted to tackle her to the ground, she couldn't use her mobility in that situation. He could beat her in a groundfight. Anyway, he was used to scrumming with the rugby squad, so he was confident in that sort of ability. But there was no way he could overcommit himself to such a reckless attack. She'd never miss out on such an opportunity. But at the same time, he couldn't just keep trying to hit her. Everytime he tried to punch, he was stung by her hands whipping into his face, his neck, his gut. He had been lucky enough to avoid any fight-ending blows, but it was only a matter of time if this kept up. He made up his mind, all or nothing, he had to stake it on one big tackle.
He's going to charge me.
Laura's crisp perception saw him lowering his centre of gravity, angling his posture for a full-body tackle. The corner of her lip turned up. Again, just before he was able to reach her, she took a half step out of his reach and disappeared from his field of vision. Her crowd gasped. He tried desperately to turn his body to face her, just to find her before she could finish him. He knew this was his last chance. And so did Laura.
As he span himself off balance, she grabbed the back of his collar. He was wearing a shirt made of strong fabric and she used that to her advantage. Just as he reached the apex of his turn, just as he was about to regain his balance, she tugged him. He span completely back the other direction, and ran straight into her other hand. When she hit him he was so far off balance he was taken clean off the ground. Upside down, spinning, ears ringing from the blow, he hung in the air, arms flailing, his impact with the ground imminent. He did all he could do and made to grab onto something. His hand wrapped up a handful of long hair.
Laura felt her head pull back in slow motion. Oh. Maybe I really should cut my hair. I wonder... I might not be ok after this. Shit.
Laura hit the ground roughly a tenth of a second after thick-neck did. The crowd erupted, some with gasps, some with cheers. It truly was an excellent show. Her vision blurred for an instant after her head impacted the ground. Thick-neck was worse off, since his full weight had knocked the air out of him as he fell, and he suspected he'd fractured a rib, but he had the presence of mind to hold onto Laura's hair. Hold onto it and use it to pull her head back into a position for a chokehold.
He's going to choke me. I really won't be able to breathe if he gets that hold on me. And I can't fight my way out of it, he's too strong in this position. I have to-
"John! John!" Shit, shit, shit, pay attention! "John, for God's sake, help me!"
John had an instant to react. Ignore Laura and win his fight alone. Abandon Amos' plan, make a name for himself and fight alone. Win and fight and fight and win and fight alone.
Or save Laura.
Ahh fuck it.
John broke away from the big man, burst through the crowd surrounding his fight, knocking over a couple of onlookers as he went and made a beeline for Laura. Her opponent was pinning her on the ground and choking her. She was struggling against his grip but her strength was failing her. Even so, she never looked weak or feeble. Her fighting spirit made he look fierce even in a position of imminent defeat. Even though in a few seconds she'd probably be unconscious she wasn't going to give up, she wasn't going to lose her composure, and she wasn't going to give in until her last chance was gone. In the end, she really is a scary human being. John was glad that she was on his side.
Laura felt the bones of thick-neck's arms grinding against her windpipe. It made her want to cough, want to reflexively gag. Her air was going and she knew her field of vision would start to narrow soon. She couldn't reach his face to perform an emergency gouge or scratch or ear twist. All last-ditch options for defending herself were gone.
This is very, very, very bad. If John doesn't help me I'm really not going to be ok. Well, I could understand him leaving me. He was against the plan to start with and I did beat him pretty badly yesterday. Even with a loss like this I probably won't drop out or die. Probably. Hopefully. Hopeful-
Suddenly the room inverted itself and thick-neck's grip loosened. Laura sucked in a huge lungful of air and kicked out hard with her stomach muscles and hips, jerking free from the hold entirely. As she spun around she saw John peel thick-neck off her and launch a vicious punch into his jaw. He staggered but did not fall. John caught her eye.
"You best be thanking me! I leave the other guy up to you!" He turned his back on her and rained down his fists on thick-neck.
Huh, he did help me. He's not a bad guy after all... Still a cocky showoff, but I could ask for a worse teammate. And speaking of teamwork-
Laura turned her eyes on the big man, John's opponent, and now hers. He was really quite a lot taller than her, but she could use that to her advantage.
She made no mistake this time. She dodged his punches and slipped into his blind spot, clamping her arms around his jaw and neck from behind as she went. With a sharp twist of her hips, she reversed all his momentum and whipped him off his feet. Before he could hit the ground she hit him clear in the face. The impact combined, his head bouncing off the floor just after her hand had struck him downwards. The double strike rattled his brain in its skull. He went out like a light. Knocked out cold.
The crowd went ballistic. Whoops and cheers and fanatic chanting. They were rabid with excitement.
Laura felt a hand on her shoulder, it was John.
"I guess we're teammates now then."
She slapped him. But not hard, not like she was really fighting. He looked completely aghast.
"If you had just agreed to the plan in the first place instead of being such a premadonna about it we wouldn't have even gotten into this mess." She dressed him down sharply, but quickly showed a smile.
"But, you did save me, so I think I owe you for that. And you're not half as useless as I first thought."
John gaped at her. He wasn't sure if he was being complimented or put down, wasn't sure if he should be outraged or thankful.
"If we stick together, you might even learn how to really fight and stop showing off." She smirked at him. She was filled with relief and pleasure and satisfaction. Deep down, she really loved the thrill of going all out. Even though it was at least mentally if not physically exhausting, it was deep, content sort of exhaustion.
The crowd was dispersing, full of chatter.
"That was so awesome!"
"Did you see how she moved?"
"He really hammered that other guy after-"
"When she slammed him on the ground I thought he was dead for sure!"
John still hadn't said a word. He would be a good deal more physically tired than she was, what with his fighting style. She grabbed his sleeve and pulled him.
"Come on, let's go."
They were in the JCR. They were the last there and the bar had closed. They had been the centre of attention all evening and people they'd never met in college before had been buying them drinks and congratulating them and asking them to tell the story of the fight. They were both hot and flustered and in good spirits.
"You were an arse out there. I'm amazed you even got in with a fighting style like that. You look like an animal." Laura was draped on a sofa with a half empty glass of white on the floor by her hand. She picked it up and took a mouthful.
"Sorry for thinking that hitting my opponent was a good idea! It's not like your method is any more complex. All you do is dodge dodge dodge then smack people off their feet." John was lying on another sofa opposite her. He had finished three quarters of his pint but was nursing the last dregs.
"And? I didn't take a single hit today. Your face is a wreck!"
It was true, John's lip had swollen magnificently and he had bruising under his right eye. Not to mention the bruises all down his arms and hidden under his shirt.
"You almost got choked out, I didn't need saving." John swigged at his beer smugly, emptying his glass.
"Oh pscht, everyone with half a brain knows that anyone can get unlucky in a fight. Besides I already bought you a drink as thanks so you can shut up about that now."
"Oh, I think that's worth more than one drink, don't you?" John raised an eyebrow.
Laura rolled her eyes. He's such a moron.
"Fine, I'll buy you another some other time, happy?"
There was a pause as she took another mouthful of her wine. It was crisp and fruity, lingering on the palate.
"Y'know I said you were like a murderer the other day?" said John.
Oh, where's he going with this? Laura pricked up her interest.
"Yeah, I think I'm going to revise my opinion to just a sadist."
"Excuse me, what?" Laura sputtered.
"When you fought me you were completely cold. But today you weren't. Or rather, you had the same cold focus, but you also had something more on top of it. You weren't just fighting the same way you did against me. You were fighting and really loving it."
Was he watching that closely? I'm surprised he noticed anything outside his own fight at all. Was he actually looking out for me as well?
"When I saw how you moved I stopped watching you, I thought you'd have no problem at all. But even from that first moment, it was like you were shining. Everything around you became charged and quiet, it was like seeing lightning strike just before the rain starts falling in a storm. To tell the truth, the way you fight really is beautiful."
He'd never say something like that if he wasn't drunk. What an ass. Laura still smiled at the compliment though.
"So, only someone who is a true sadist could enjoy hurting other people that much. I mean, even I was afraid you'd killed that guy when you finished him with that slam."
"Oh, fuck off, he was fine, just a concussion. Don't you start embellishing the stories too, we've already got ourselves a ridiculous reputation without you being a prick about it." Laura finished the rest of her wine in one.
So much for him being nice. Ahh, that is good wine.
John stretched and rolled himself off the sofa, turning neatly into a standing position.
"Well, I'm going back to my room, you coming?"
"Yeah, go ahead, I'll see you tomorrow. I'll be up in a minute." Laura got up and wandered off to the girl's toilets.
John climbed the darkened stairwell to his floor and headed towards his room.
He stuck the key in the lock then-
It was a low voice, raspy with tiredness and thick-sounding. As if it was speaking through swollen lips and painkillers or other medication. It was also an angry voice.
John turned and saw the big man, the rowing crew boy from earlier, the one who had challenged him.
He was holding a knife.
Shit. Thought John.