Everything that Avis knew about fighting, she had learned from books and books about combat hadn’t ever been something that she’d found herself interested in. Like most things, her ability to recall details was directly dependent on how important she viewed the information. Names were, for the most part, unimportant and she lost track of those easily. Dates went even faster. The few things she’d read or watched with fights had bored her, so she’d made absolutely no effort to retain that information. Watching the fight unfolding before her now, however, digging into her prodigious memory for every scrap of knowledge about fights she’d ever accidentally gleaned, she found herself hoping.
The fight wasn’t going well for the woman. Her broken arm varied between a hindrance and an asset. At times, the woman used her cast to block an overhead blow or a wild hook. When she managed to get the plaster up in time, the man jerked his fists and feet back, howling in pain. At about the same frequency, though, the man would leave an apparent opening, but the woman couldn’t get the cast in motion quickly enough to take advantage of the opportunity. When that happened, the man laughed and showed all of his teeth in an entirely too-wide grin before leaping back on the attack.
The man was strange, too. Stranger than most people were, at any rate; Avis had no idea what constituted normalcy for mercenaries. What she did know was that she’d seen two versions of the tattooed man. There had been the calm, controlled force of nature who had pursued her after her escape from the manor house, giving orders and appearing undisturbed by the arrival of Devlin, Sarah, and the team of misfits they’d assembled to kidnap Avis away from her “protector.” That man had radiated threat like body heat. Waves of menace came off of his exposed skin, from the very tattoos themselves, in such density that Avis fancied she could actually see them.
That man was different from the animal that fought against the woman now. Where he had once held himself in a sort of rigid, inhuman control, he was now wild and furious. He gave up as many openings as he took advantage of, allowed himself to tank as many punches as he threw, and missed about as often as he actually connected. But, to Avis’ eyes, it just didn’t matter. He kept coming, snarling and actually foaming at the mouth, wading through the woman’s rain of blows and getting closer with every passing second.
Fear filled Avis. It wasn’t a completely unknown emotion, but it had grown unfamiliar over the years. Carefully, moving slowly enough that Neal could come with her, she began to shuffle away from the fight. Neither combatant seemed to notice her retreat; for both the man and the woman, there didn’t appear to be anyone else in the world.
“They aren’t paying attention to us,” Avis said to Neal. She kept her voice low on instinct, even though she suspected that yelling the words wouldn’t have drawn the attention of either fighter. “We can get away while they’re fighting.”
Neal coughed. Avis was positioned in such a way that she could hear the dangerous rattling sound in his chest as he spat out a mouthful of dark, nearly black blood. He swallowed another glob of blood before speaking. “Where? How?”
“I don’t know where,” Avis admitted, even though the admission frightened her nearly as much as the possibility of capture and her own eventual death. “But we can’t stay here.”
“Find us,” Neal rasped out. “He’ll find us.”
Neal didn’t need to clarify who he was. Either he was referring to Hill, who had employed both of them until their flight from the manor house, or he was talking about the tattooed man, in either of his personalities. Regardless of who Neal meant, the outcome would be the same.
Avis had a sudden intuition. She’d had those before and she typically ignored them. Intuition wasn’t predictable or orderly or neat. Sometimes it was right and, just as often, it could be woefully wrong.
An instant later, she realized that she couldn’t very well trust her grasp of facts, either. She had known, for instance, that Hill needed her services if he wanted to remain in control of the documents she encrypted and that he would never do anything that might endanger their tenuous “relationship.” And yet, he had fully intended to use her services – had tortured and threatened her friend, in fact, as a means of motivation – with the stated goal of discarding her as soon as she finished with the task.
She went against her natural inclinations and trusted her intuition. “You can’t help her fight,” she said.
Neal’s body stiffened and she knew she’d guessed correctly. “They…saved me,” he said in halting gasps. “Saved you. Can’t…let her fight…alone.”
“She’s going to lose,” Avis said insistently. As she spoke the words, a sound like cracking branches filled the air. She looked over and saw that the man was swinging a handgun like a club, battering mercilessly at the woman’s upraised arm. She was down on one knee now, teeth grimaced in pain as she attempted to withstand the brutal assault. The cast protecting her head was beginning to splinter under the repeated blows. Just when Avis thought that the next strike might be the one to split the cast asunder, the woman rolled out of the way at the last possible second and swept out one leg. Her intention must have been to trip up the man, but he saw the attack coming and stepped out of the way. The woman took advantage of the temporary respite and scrambled to her feet, pressing her own attack before the man had his feet fully underneath him again.
Neal struggled to detach himself from Avis. She noticed the instant that his bulk began to lighten against her shoulders and her legs started to strain a little less. “You can’t,” Avis insisted.
“But I – “
“You can’t,” Avis repeated, trying to sound authoritative and coming off as plaintive to her own ears.
She looked longingly in the direction of the distant front gate. No matter the stakes, Avis wasn’t an idiot. The math was stark and undeniable: there was simply no way for a girl her size to carry a man of Neal’s weight across the intervening distance with anything resembling speed. If the tattooed man won, and it was looking increasingly as though that was a foregone conclusion, he would have plenty of time to chase them down and drag both Avis and Neal back to the estate. Running now would only ensure that, when he captured them, Avis would be too tired to mount any sort of defense.
Avis eased Neal to the ground, propping him against the outer wall of the estate’s mansion and started to look around for other ways to escape. She did not share his feeling of responsibility or debt to the thieves who had “saved” her. They needed to use her skills, just as Hill did; their only saving grace was how refreshingly upfront Devlin and Sarah had been about their intentions.
No…Avis shook her head slowly. No, that wasn’t right. While they did need her to decrypt the files they’d managed to steal from the manor house, neither Devlin or Sarah had given off the same ruthless vibe that she’d felt from Hill or the malevolence that she felt from the tattooed man.
Intuition again, then. Another unquantifiable feeling that had no basis in observable fact, no roots in any sort of cause and effect relationship that she could name. Her short time around the thieves and Neal must have rubbed off on her.
She watched the fight unfold while she thought. The short woman continued to attack, switching from jabs to kicks and back again, trying her best to take full advantage of her temporary advantage. In any other fight, Avis suspected that the ferocity of the woman’s attacks would be enough to turn the tide. In this contest, however, the tattooed man fought like a man possessed. When the woman’s foot connected with the outside of the man’s knee, he grunted and twisted his weight to absorb the impact. Then, moving with the speed of a snake, both of his hands darted down in a blur of motion and grasped at her foot. The woman pulled the limb back before the tattooed man could grab hold, but the motion robbed her of balance. She toppled backwards and the cast smashed against a protruding root. It cracked even further, so that Avis could actually see through a wide split in the plaster. The woman bit back her scream of pain, rolled with her momentum, and sprang back to her feet just in time to lean away from another of the man’s wild haymakers.
“You can’t win this,” the tattooed man howled, premature triumph dripping from his now-rough voice. “Everything you know I taught you, Thorn! Every trick, every technique, every little move you could think about trying…I put all of those thoughts there!”
A chill went down Avis’ spine. She’d been listening to the conversation between the woman and the tattooed man and she thought she’d managed to piece together some of their past, although nowhere near enough that she would have hazarded any sort of guesses. The idea that the woman was fighting a losing battle against her own mentor, however, was obvious enough that it didn’t require any further explanation.
Neal laid a weak hand on Avis’ shoulder and shook her. “You…you can…get…” A series of wet coughs interrupted him and he folded in on himself, groaning as he slid lower.
Avis understood what he meant. In his condition, Neal would slow her down. If she tried to save him, she would only end up dooming both of them. But she was small, fast, and motivated. With all of the commotion happening inside the estate, courtesy of Devlin and his team, it was possible that she might be able to slip through the weakened guard at the front gate without arousing too much suspicion.
In fact, as she thought more, she knew that she could do it. She knew more about Hill’s complement of hired guns than anyone, Hill included. He scrimped on finances whenever possible and, if the documents she’d only recently finished decrypting for Devlin and company, he’d used too many of his men on the distraction with the cars moving around London proper. She could get away, but…but that would require leaving Neal in her wake.
She looked at Neal where he lay, beaten and bloodied. The only reason Hill hadn’t killed him out of hand before was so that he could be used as leverage. If she got away, there wouldn’t be any logical reason not to shoot him and be done with it. Avis would probably be able to slip away into obscurity, using her talents as necessary to secure some sort of lifestyle for herself, but that life would be stained by the knowledge that she’d let someone – several someones, she forced herself to admit – to die in her place.
Avis asked herself if she could do it. She’d left people in the past, usually before they had a chance to do the same to her. Neal was…different. He had sought out a friendship with her in the early days of her time at the manor house, when she’d still been mostly feral from her time on the streets. And he had stuck by her through those days, until she’d warmed slightly to his constant, irritating presence and his incessant need to explain away her tantrums and outbursts. When Devlin had come to the manor house, pretending to be the very real agents who had shown up after him, Neal had gone far beyond the bounds of duty and friendship by trying to actually sneak her out of the manor house, despite knowing that capture would make the simple attempt tantamount to a death sentence.
He had stuck by her. Avis didn’t know that she’d be capable of leaving him, even at his own insistence; if she found the will to do that, she knew that she would never truly be able to look at herself in the mirror again.
And then there was the matter of Devlin, Sarah, and their team. Avis was trying not to think about them, but they worked their way into her head, nonetheless. They had kidnapped her because they needed her…except, no, that wasn’t quite right. They had, in fact, intentionally sabotaged their own plan in order to rescue her. If not for the accidental reveal of Sarah’s tablet, they would never have known that Avis was the key to their decryption problem.
More than that, they were here, in the flesh. What possible reason did they have for coming here, now? She’d finished decrypting most of the information that they’d managed to steal from the manor house. Neal wasn’t of any use to them. Yet Devlin had still shown up, sneaking into Hill’s estate despite the general state of lockdown, and had actually tasked his personal bodyguard to keep both of them safe. The same bodyguard that, even now, was limping away from the tattooed man leering over her.
“Don’t worry, Thorn,” the tattooed man said. “I’m not going to hurt you. Nothing that you can’t heal from, at least. You’ll have to be in fighting condition if you want to make sure that the others will accept you back.”
His personality had changed again. The shift must have happened while Avis had been considering her options. Now, there was no remnant of uncontrolled, animal fury in the tattooed man’s face. He looked calm and composed. His heavy breathing and the slight limp on his left side were the only indications that he’d been in a fight at all.
There was fear in the short woman’s eyes, blind and unreasoning. The emotion pierced through Avis’ indecision and reached straight to the very core of her being, where that same fear had hidden since her earliest memories. Avis saw a glint of something familiar in the woman’s eyes, mingled with an unformed thought that tickled at the back of her thoughts.
The woman closed her eyes and grit her teeth. The tattooed man stepped closer, bearing his teeth in a fierce, angry grimace. The woman’s eyes snapped open and she lashed out with another sweeping kick, aimed high at the man’s right knee. Avis was looking directly at the two of them and she could barely track the speed of the attack. The tattooed man had no such problem. He lifted his entire leg up off the ground, displaying an insane level of flexibility for someone who had previously claimed illness, and moved to bring the heel of his foot down on the woman’s head.
The woman completed the sweep and, pivoting with the force of the attack, continued in a full rotation and came up off of the ground. She extended her broken arm at just the right moment – Avis didn’t know very much about ballistics or physics, but she understood the simple equation of ‘mass times acceleration’ – and the cast on her arm smashed into the side of the tattooed man’s head with literally bone shattering force. The cast exploded into chips and shards of plaster with the force of impact.
Both the tattooed man and the woman roared in pain, but it was the tattooed man who went down. The woman threw her head back and let out a scream of triumph or agony. Avis wasn’t sure which. The woman limped a step or two away, as her uninjured hand went behind her back and, a moment later, came back into sight holding a small handgun. Standing over the tattooed man, the woman pointed the gun directly at his head. “You taught me everything you know,” she said. “I learned a few things on my own.”
He looked up at her from the ground and smiled with a mouthful of bloody teeth. “That’s what I wanted to see,” he said. Avis blinked in confusion. The tattooed man shouldn’t be able to speak and he certainly shouldn’t’ have the look of self-satisfaction on his face. “A return to form, instead of all this half-assed protection nonsense. So, what are you going to do now, Thorn?”
The woman’s hand quivered slightly. She said nothing.
“You’ve only got two options,” the tattooed man said. Holding one hand to the shattered ruin of his cheek bone, he forced himself to his feet. He made no move to rush the woman and she kept her gun pointed, more or less, at his face. “Either you kill me, a defeated and dying man, and prove that you’re the same killer I made you into. Or you let me go and I make it my mission to hunt down everyone you use to lie to yourself. One way or another, you will understand who you really are, Thorn. It’s up to you how many people have to die before that happens.”
The woman’s glare intensified but, aside from that, she didn’t move a muscle.
“Still so indecisive,” the man taunted. “Why I don’t make the decision a little easier for you?”
Several things happened so quickly and so close to each other that, to Avis, it seemed like everything happened in the same eye blink. A sound, distant but rapidly drawing nearer, reached her ears, carried by a soft breeze. The tattooed man moved with a speed that seemed impossible, considering the injury he’d just suffered, pivoting and reaching for some hidden weapon that Avis couldn’t see. The woman’s gun tracked the movement and her index finger twitched infinitesimally closer to the trigger. Neal sucked in a sharp breath.
Avis knew what was going to happen. She could see it as clearly in her mind as if it were unfolding in real time in front of her. The tattooed man wouldn’t shoot the woman; he wanted her alive for some reason. In his mind, his targets were and always had been Avis and Neal. If the two of them were dead, the tattooed man believed that the woman would see things his way. To that end, he was willing to sacrifice his own life. He was certainly willing to kill two obstacles, which Avis and Neal most assuredly qualified as.
Avis’ intuition mixed with that nascent idea in the back of her mind and she was in motion before she realized it. Neal made a strangled cry behind her. She pushed it out of her mind and focused. The tattooed man turned his gaze away from Neal and focused on Avis instead. The gun in his hand followed suit. Avis was coming in low, using her childlike height as an advantage for the first time, and poured on as much speed as she possibly could. It was going to be close, her instincts told her, even though she wasn’t quite sure what would happen if she were wrong. About a foot away from the two, she leapt, turning her body into a spear and…
She crashed into the woman, just below her ribs. Avis didn’t weigh enough to actually move her, but the surprise of her action coupled with the simple expedient of momentum was enough that the woman was forced to stumble back several steps. The tattooed man stopped himself from squeezing the trigger, when he realized that doing so stood the possibility of harming the woman.
The tattooed man sucked at his teeth. “Do you see now, Thorn? These sheep will always protect themselves first, even if it means sacrificing the weak and wounded for a few more seconds of – “
The black Suzuki careening across the greens, roaring as loudly as its relatively small engine could manage, interrupted the tattooed man before he could finish that thought.
Avis hadn’t consciously done the math, but her subconscious had recognized the sound and calculated the Doppler effect as closely as such a thing could be done. The timing of her tackle had pushed the woman out of the car’s path by scant inches. The Suzuki headed straight for the tattooed man who, as soon as he realized that he was square in the vehicle’s path, attempted to jump away. As soon as he was airborne and incapable of further dodges, the driver of the Suzuki whipped the car into a fishtail. At that speed, the earlier equation of mass times acceleration now yielded considerably higher forces. The rear of the car connected squarely with the tattooed man’s torso and sent him flying back into the estate.
Instead of hitting one of the walls – an impact that would almost certainly have killed him – the tattooed man flew into and through one of the large plate windows on the first floor of the estate. Avis waited with baited breath as the car smoked and coughed for the man to return. After a few seconds, she allowed herself to breath. Whatever he was, the tattooed man did have limits.
The woman looked down at Avis, up to the Suzuki, down at Avis again, and then finally let her eyes rest on the car. “What? How?” She asked. “Who?”
Avis didn’t have answers to any of those questions, but the third was answered a moment later. The driver’s side door of the Suzuki swung open and a dark skinned man flashed a set of perfect, straight white teeth at them. The expression didn’t conceal the fear and anxiety on his brow; if anything, it was accentuated by the emotions he was so clearly trying to hide.
“Sarah left the comms open,” the dark skinned driver said, as if that explained anything. “Did, uh…did anyone need a ride?”