I see the strike coming at me a split second before it connects with my skull. My head snaps back from the force, the crowd’s hollers resonating like a muffled cry in the distance. It was a good punch―lightning quick with enough impact to knock most guys on their asses. But I’m not most guys.
You hit me, I’m only going to hit you harder.
My right hand shoots up, blocking and smacking away the kick gunning for my ribs. I pivot out of the way, again and again, avoiding Easton’s arms and legs as they come at me. He’s fast, strong, with a six inch reach advantage. But he’s too eager to take me out and not pacing himself like he should. Already he’s breathing hard and it’s just the start of the second round.
I take my time to figure him out, planning each move, searching for that opening I need. Do I take a few bashes because of it? Sure. It’s part of the job. But believe it or not, it’s part of the job I look forward to.
Those punches and kicks remind me that I still feel, that I’m still human. And that for now, I’m still alive.
“Oh!” some drunk behind me yells when my uppercut finds Easton’s chin.
He staggers back, swiping the blood oozing from his lip, yet he keeps his grin. He’s trying to make like it was a lucky shot. That it won’t happen again.
Like me, Easton needs to win this match. And if he does, he’ll move up to the top ten, making him a contender for the UFC Lightweight title.
Talent aside, the guy’s a raging asshole and so are the idiots in his training camp. They’ve been trash-talking since the moment I agreed to this match. I didn’t really care and laughed most of it off until they got personal and took it a step too far.
Again he nails me in the head. It’s not as hard as it was last time, which tells me he’s getting tired. Does it hurt? I guess.
But let’s say I’m a guy who’s used to pain.
Easton grins. He thinks I’m afraid of him. He thinks he has me where he wants me. But fear is an emotion I don’t allow myself to entertain. Fear gets you hurt and rips you apart till you think there’s nothing left.
I dodge out of reach. He scowls and takes another swing. This one gets close enough to my jaw to whip a breeze across my skin.
“Finn,” my brother Killian barks from the side. “Take him out now.”
He’s worried about me. So is my family. But now’s not the time to think about them. I keep my hands up as I edge away, letting Easton think I’m backing down, that I’m tired and need to catch my breath.
I sidestep when he lunges forward, avoiding his next swing and using the momentum to drop my head and nail him in the temple with a roundhouse kick.
Like I said, Easton’s fast.
Too bad for him I’m a little bit faster.
The kick is my signature move, as natural for me as the next breath. He goes down like I planned. But in the Octagon you don’t stop just because your opponent collapses like timber. You charge forward. You show him what you’re made of. You prove just how tough you are.
That muffled screaming isn’t so muffled anymore. The crowd loses their shit as I pounce, my blows nailing Easton in the face until the ref’s arms hook beneath mine as he hauls me off. I back away, my fists up. I already know I won.
I should do a back flip or some crazy shit to incite the crowd. This is it. My time has come to own it. But the good things aren’t as great as they can be. Not with the memories that haunt me. And not with the anger they stir.
Killian rushes in as the medic wipes down my face. I’m bleeding from the punch Easton caught me with at the beginning of the round. I didn’t think it was that bad, but the way the ringside medic is pressing the towel against my head clues me in that the bleeding isn’t stopping like it should.
“I’m going to have to stitch you up, Fury,” he mumbles.
“I figured,” I tell him.
Kill pats my back. “Good job.”
Maybe he believes it, but I don’t miss the concern in his voice. He thinks I took too many unnecessary hits. I can’t really argue, seeing how it’s true.
He doesn’t understand that I don’t feel those strikes the way I should. Hell, I don’t think I’ve felt anything the way I should in a long time. Not like I used to. I try to tell myself that maybe that’s a good thing. That numbness is better than pain. But I’m not so convinced anymore, and neither is my family. I try to shrug it off like I’m fine. Except given the way they’ve been eyeing me, I’m not fooling anyone.
I’m scaring everyone around me. It sucks. I don’t want them scared, but I don’t know how to stop it.
“The referee has called a stop to this match at two-minutes and forty-nine seconds into the second round,” the announcer begins. “The winner by TKO, Finn ‘The Fury’ O’Brien.”
The crowd screams and pumps their fists in the air when my hand is raised. I take the few seconds to thank my sponsors, my camp, and my brother. It’s what I’m supposed to do despite the fog clouding my senses. I wish that disconnect had something to do with all the hits I took, but deep down I know that it doesn’t.
I’m back in the locker room before I know it, getting stitched up. Too many people are talking at once. God, I barely hear their questions or my responses. But they’re there and somehow I make it through.
“I’m worried about you, Finnie,” Kill says when everyone piles out.
“Don’t. I’m not drinking tonight. I’m headed home,” I assure him.
“That’s not what I mean,” he says. He’s sitting on a folding chair, his arms resting against his muscular legs. “I think you need to talk to someone.”
I stretch out my arms. By now they’re so tight, they pull against the bones. “I am. I’m talking to you.”
I don’t have to see him to know he’s shaking his head, or that he’s looking sad, disappointed, and maybe something else, too. “I’m not who you should be speaking to,” he says. “Not for what’s going on in your head.”
“You’re enough,” I say, even though I know it’s no longer true.
“Finn,” he begins.
I don’t wait for him to finish, leaving the changing area and heading toward the showers. “Go find Sofia and Wren,” I call over my shoulder as I strip out of my shirt. “See if they’re up for some dinner.”
I don’t remember peeling the rest of my clothes off. That numbness I’ve been feeling too much lately claims me like a mist until it fully engulfs me. Fuck. It’s like I’ve stopped living, even though for the most part, I think I’m still alive.
I lean against the tile with my arms spread, allowing the water to beat against my back. It’s too hot. I should turn it down, but I don’t bother. Eventually, like everything else, the sensation fades.
I’m not sure how long I’m in that position. A few seconds? A few minutes? But then Easton and his trainer, Yefim, are suddenly there. “You got lucky, O’Brien,” Yefim calls out, taunting me with his thick eastern European accent.
Shit. Like all the trash talk before the fight wasn’t enough.
“Did you hear me, you pussy?” he fires back when I don’t answer. “Did you hear me, you goddamn coward?”
Coward? Fuck you. It’s what I think, but not what I say, focusing instead on the streams of water that gather along my feet before they swirl into the drain.
It doesn’t help. The rage that’s building, the one I only manage to barely keep in? It stirs in my gut like a heavy pot filled with hate, sin, and all the curses my Ma would still beat my ass for saying.
“What’re you doing?” Yefim asks.
His voice is closer, he’s drawing near. It doesn’t matter that I’m standing here naked. He wants to be next to me. I shudder, that feeling I keep buried drilling its way up.
“I know about you,” Yefim says, not bothering to keep his voice low. “But everyone knows, don’t they? Even if you don’t want them to.”
My body shakes a little more, but it’s not from the cooling water. It’s from his words and all that anger they trigger. Don’t do it. Don’t go there.
“You like to keep it a secret. Don’t you, pussy?”
Yefim laughs when I keep my trap shut. He thinks I’m backing down, just like Easton did before his face met the mat. “He’s crying,” he calls out to Easton. “What? Not so tough now?”
That’s where he’s dead wrong. Every muscle I’ve conditioned serves a purpose―to take down those who fuck with me. And right now, Yefim is seriously fucking with me.
“You like to pretend that it’s girls you like, don’t you?” he says. “But that’s not true, is it? Oh, no, that’s not true at all . . .”
I raise my chin, knowing that someone’s not leaving without bleeding and that I’ve bled enough tonight.
Yefim kicks at my calf. “What? Nothing to say? Can’t speak without your boyfriend here?”
“Boyfriend?” Easton asks, laughing. “No fucking way.”
“Yes, way,” Yefim insists. “Didn’t you know this little pussy takes it up the ass―”
I punch him so hard, I feel his teeth crack against my knuckles. For someone with decades of boxing experience, he never saw me coming. But I see Easton flying at me out of the corner of my eye. I toss him over my shoulder, slamming him hard onto the ceramic tile floor. Like in the octagon, I throw myself on top of him, my fists colliding against his skin.
Voices rush forward, telling me to stop. A woman screams, but I don’t stop fighting off the bodies trying to grab me, breaking through the arms wrenching me back. I need to hit him―I need to feel my fists meeting his face―I need to feel something.
God damn it. I need to feel alive.
I don’t want the pain.
I don’t want the terror.
But once more, it’s all I feel.
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