Rabu, 08 Februari 2017

Lunar Chronicles Deleted Scene #9

Daaan... ini dia part terakhir deleted scene dari serial novel The Lunar Chronicles...

Selamat membacaa...

SPOILER WARNING!!

***

From: Cress, 1st draft

Featuring: Cinder, Wolf, Scarlet, and Thorne (who was named Woods in this early draft)

Helpful set-up: As per my note above, this scene didn’t really fit anywhere into the story, so it’s a little difficult to place in the timeline of what ultimately happened. But, generally speaking – this would have taken place after Wolf and Scarlet joined the crew of the Rampion. Thorne is blind, but Cress is missing… I’m not entirely sure how they got separated from her, or where she is.

Not really important to this scene, but they also didn’t yet know who the Lunar Heir was… largely because, in those early drafts, *I* wasn’t sure who it was! I had arguments in my head for it being Cinder, Scarlet, or Cress, and had decided to figure it out for sure after the drafts were written.

* * *

*** PLEASE NOTE: I’m calling this scene PG-13, for language and suggestiveness. ***

“You know what this crew needs,” said Woods, dragging his spoon through the bowl of oatmeal, topped only with a bit of cinnamon, “is a cook.”

Cinder raised her eyebrow at him. His eyes were still unnerving to look at, their utter blankness filled her with pity.

“Well don’t look at me,” she said, then gasped.

Woods’s empty gaze shifted in her direction. “Hardy har har.”

“I didn’t mean that… I just… Anyway, I used to have to cook for my stepmother when the maid android was broken, and I always hated it. I’m not going to take it up again.”

“No, I wasn’t meaning you anyway,” said Woods. “You’re the mechanic. Scarlet is the pilot. I’m the captain. Wolf is… Wolf, but I can’t easily imagine him behind a stove.” He sighed. “Maybe we can put out an ad or something.”

“Fugitive pirate ship in search of chef? Excellent idea.”

“We wouldn’t put the ad in the newsscreens. Oh, nevermind.” He shoved another mouthful of the slop into his mouth. Cinder was glad to see that his hand-to-mouth coordination didn’t seem to be suffering any.

“I feel like we could use a doctor,” she said, stirring her own bowl of oatmeal. “Would have been handy today.”

“What other injuries did we suffer?” he asked, setting down the spoon and frowning in her direction.

SHE TELLS HIM THE INJURIES.

Woods grunted. “Yeah. A doctor would be nice, too. But I have a feeling it would be even harder to coerce a reputable doctor into joining us than a chef.”

“Maybe we can find a doctor who can cook.”

“Or a chef who knows first aid.”

“Is there any left?” said Scarlet, emerging from the hallway with Wolf following close behind her.

“Well there you two are,” said Woods. “Don’t you know Cinder slaved over this delicious oatmeal? And you let it go cold.”

“Actually,” said Scarlet, “I slaved over the oatmeal. I’m glad you think it’s delicious, captain.”

“I was lying,” he said, and devoured another spoonful.

Scarlet and Wolf sat down at the table recently released from confinement within one of the large wooden crates.

“You know what we really need,” said Cinder, “more than a cook or a doctor, is money. We’ve almost blown through our reserves already, and our food supply is fast dwindling to nothing but oats and rice.”

“At least they’re nutritious,” said Scarlet. She glanced at Wolf as he shoveled some oatmeal into his mouth, then smiled tight-lipped at her.

“Mmm,” he said sarcastically.

Glaring, she smacked him on the shoulder.

“All right,” said Woods. “If we’re stuck on finding the Lunar Heir and we’re stuck on finding Cress, then I concur, a good payday should be next priority. Brainstorming on quick ways to make some solid cash: Begin.”

Cinder glanced at Scarlet and Wolf. “Well… uh… given that we’re already fugitives, I guess we could steal something. But I only want to steal from bad people.”

“Of course. Because we’re honorable fugitives,” Woods said. “Next idea.”

“Wolf can earn us money,” Scarlet said, quietly, peering at Wolf from the corner of her eye.

Wolf nodded. “Gladly.”

“How?” said Woods. “Don’t tell me you come from a rich family that I don’t know about.”

“I can fight,” Wolf said.

Cinder stared at him and Woods stared in his general direction.

“Is that code for something? Last I checked, fighting wasn’t an actual occupation. More like a hobby.”

“Street fighting,” said Scarlet. “He did it in Paris when we met. There’s a pretty big underground fighting ring in the city. I mean, there’s probably underground street fighting all over the world.”

“How does it work? In regards to the earning money part, not the knocking another guy out part.”

“I fight, you bet money on me, and I win,” said Wolf. “And then I get a cut of it, but mostly the money goes to the bidders.”

“Huh,” said Woods, his eyes turned down to the table. “That actually sounds like it might work.”

“He made over ___ thousand dollars in one fight once,” said Scarlet.

“Really?” said Cinder. “That’s amazing.”

“I thought of mentioning it before,” said Wolf, “but fighting… it does something to me. It makes me… something one might not want on their crew.”

“We’ve all seen you in your beastly glory,” said Woods, half-smiling. “And we haven’t thrown you off yet.”

“Yes, but… the line becomes thinner when I still look like a man.”

Scarlet settled a hand on Wolf’s wrist.

“I swear to only ask it of you in desperate times,” said Woods, pushing his chair back from the table. “And imagine that. All of the sudden, Wolf is the most useful person on this ship.”


*


They were in Paris for two days before Wolf was finally able to get news of the street fighting underground. The fight locations would change every day to keep the police from discovering them, so if a person was out of the loop for any extended period of time it could border on impossible to get back into it. But Wolf finally got a hint while sitting alone at the bar of a local Parisian dive while Woods, Scarlet, and Cinder watched on from a booth.

“Thank goodness,” Scarlet muttered when Wolf turned and winked at them.

“What? What is it?” said Woods, nursing a beer.

“Looks like he’s picked something up,” said Scarlet. “Finish your beer. We’re heading out.”

They met Wolf in the alley behind the bar, Woods hanging on Scarlet’s arm and grumbling about it every minute.

“What’d you hear?” Scarlet said.

“It’s in the warehouse district tonight,” Wolf answered, eyes flashing at Woods’s arm entwined around Scarlet’s, though he said nothing. “317A.”

“What time?” asked Woods.

“Ten-ish.”

“That late?”

“It’s already after nine,” said Cinder.

“Really?” Woods glowered up toward the sky. “It doesn’t feel like night.”

“We better go,” said Scarlet, taking Wolf’s elbow with her free hand. “If you think you’re ready.”

“I’m always ready,” he said, kissing her lips.

Woods grimaced. “I do wish you guys would stop doing that when I’m standing right here.”


*


They entered warehouse 317A together, Woods with his arm around Cinder and Wolf with his arm around Scarlet so that Woods wouldn’t feel weird. “Do I look like I can see?” he asked.

“Kind of,” said Cinder, glancing at him. “But tilt your head back a bit more and level out your gaze, otherwise you look shy and embarrassed to be seen with me.”

“Who would be embarrassed to be seen with a sexy cyborg like you?”

“Don’t make me take away your hearing, too.”

“Could you do that?”

“I don’t know. But I could try.”

They stopped just within the entrance. The warehouse was a hive of activity. The air pulsed with heat and noise and wreaked of sweat and dirt.

“Describe it to me,” said Woods.

Cinder inhaled a sharp breath and scanned the room. “There’s a big square platform in the center of the room with a fight going on,” she said. “Two big burly scary looking guys.”

“Scarier than Wolf?”

“Scruffier than Wolf. There’s probably about a hundred people watching, mostly men. No chairs. I see a couple women wandering around… I think they’re soliciting.”

A grin spread across Woods’s face. “Nice. Maybe you can pick us up some cash on the side.”

Cinder smacked Woods harshly on the back of his head with her robotic hand. He cried out in pain and rubbed at the spot. “I was just joking.”

“Oh, I think I see the guy collecting the money,” she said.

“All right, let’s get this over with. The noise is making me nervous. Wolf,” Woods turned in the direction he hoped Wolf and Scarlet were still standing, “your captain says: Go Forth and Fight.”

“Yes, sir,” Wolf said, pulling Scarlet with him toward the crowd.

But they had not gone ten feet before someone yelled, “It’s him!”

And within moments, the crowd’s attention had largely turned from the continuing fight to Wolf and Scarlet and there was a general cheer of “Wolf’s back!” and “It’s that guy who beat Hunter!”

Scarlet clutched Wolf’s arm as those nearby turned and leered at them. “They barely knew you before,” she said. “That one fight made you a celebrity?”

“Looks like it,” he muttered, drawing her protectively against him. “Hunter had been undefeated.”

“Wolf man, we missed you,” said a complete stranger, swatting Wolf on the back. “Are you fighting tonight?”

“Yes,” he answered, turning away from the man. He lowered his lips toward Scarlet’s ear. “We need to change our plan,” he whispered to her.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m not the underdog anymore. They’re all going to expect me to win.”

“So?”

“So you can’t make money if everyone’s bidding on the same guy.”

Her eyes widened in understanding and she turned her gaze toward the fight platform just as one of the men was knocked to the ground, nose spurting blood.

“Then what do we do?”

“Tell Woods to bet on the other guy, whoever he is.”

“What?”

“I’ll throw the fight.”

She gaped at him. “But you’ll get hurt.”

A lopsided grin crossed his face, as if amused at her concerned. “Not bad,” he said. “I’ll be in control the whole time, it will just look like I lose. And Woods will be the only one who bids on the underdog, or one of few. It’s the only way.”

Scarlet was frowning, so Wolf craned his head and kissed her neck, ignoring the catcalls that jeered them. Or maybe basking in them. “I’ll be fine,” he murmured. “Go back to Woods and Cinder.”

“Okay,” she said back to him. “Be careful.”

Wolf had little fear of letting her go and, true to suspicion, a path opened up before her as she headed back to the captain. They’d seen him mark his territory, and no one who had seen the fight between him and Hunter would dare attempt to snatch her away from him.

Grinning, he turned back to the stranger who had greeted him before, who was now staring at him with wide-eyed appreciation.

“Nice,” the guy said.

“Anyone here worth fighting?” Wolf asked, eyes darting around the room.

“Hunter hasn’t been here all week,” said the guy. “But there is some new kid who’s a lot of talk. Had a good couple of fight the last few nights. They call him Thorn.”

Wolf nodded. “That’ll do.”


*


“What’s going on now?” Woods asked when Scarlet greeted them near the back of the crowd.

“They’re putting Wolf’s name up on the board,” said Cinder. “Looks like he’s fighting some guy called Thorn.”

“Doesn’t anybody have a normal name in the underground?”

“Not really,” said Scarlet. “We need go to put our money in.”

“For Thorn?”

“Yes.”

Woods grunted. “Man, this is a bad time to go blind. I’d love to see some wimpy kid beat the crap out of Wolf. It would just be too funny.”

Cinder led Woods toward the man taking the bets—a large guy with a big gut who wore a belt of pouches around his waist, each pouch bulging with paper money.

“There he is,” said Scarlet. “That must be Thorn.”

She and Cinder looked up at the fighter who had climbed up on the platform.

“He doesn’t look too wimpy,” said Cinder.

Woods sighed. “Details, please.”

“A little shorter than Wolf, but his muscles are just as big,” said Cinder.

“They are not just as big,” Scarlet said with a snort. “Wolf is just better proportioned.”

“Fine, whatever. Anyway, the guy has spiky blonde hair and… kind of a baby face, really.”

Woods rolled his eye. “And we really have to bet on that guy?”

“Well I would hate to see Wolf throw this for nothing.”

Woods sighed. “All right. Are we there yet? I feel like we just walked a mile.”

“Your sense of perception is off. And the crowd is really tight around the bet taker. It’ll take a minute.”

“Scarlet, count the money,” Woods said, passing a handful of bills to her. “You two need to make sure we don’t get shorted.”

Scarlet took the money, but her gaze was glued to the stage as Wolf climbed up to the platform. The crowd burst into applause and jeers, but it was the opponent’s, Thorn’s, reaction that intrigued her most.

“He looks terrified,” said Scarlet.

“Well wouldn’t you?” said Woods.

“Yeah, but…” Scarlet chewed her lip and caught Cinder’s concerned gaze. “I have a bad feeling about this.”

“What?” said Woods. “You don’t really think Wolf’s going to get hurt, do you?”

“No, not about that. I actually… I don’t know. He needs to at least make it look believable, right? Do you think it’s possible that he won’t be able to throw this fight?”

Woods laughed. “You mean you think this kid might crumble even from a few fake throws?”

“If Wolf knows how to fake a throw,” said Cinder. “Look, the guy is free now. Let’s go.”

Scarlet quickly flipped through the money in her hand and slipped half of it into Woods’s hand and the rest into his pocket. “I wouldn’t bet it all this fight,” she said.

“You sure? Wolf said—”

“I know, but… honestly, I don’t think Wolf has any idea how terrified some of these fighters are of him. He still underestimates himself, after everything.”

Woods nodded. “Okay, Cinder, we’re up.”

[change: Scarlet keeps half of the money in private]

As expected, the bet taker looked at Woods and Cinder as if they were insane when they put their money down on Thorn as opposed to the reigning champion, but he didn’t argue. Cinder watched as he counted the money and wrote it down in his ledger and then turned quickly away from them.

“Here we go,” she muttered into Woods’s arms. “Do you want a first row seat so you can see all the action, captain?”

“Very funny, mechanic. Where’d Scarlet go?”

Cinder peered around and saw Scarlet loitering off the edge of the crowd, twirling a lock of hair around her finger. “Not far,” she told Woods and dragged him grumpily back through the crowd, just as a bell sounded and the fight began.

The crowd exploded in an uproar. Scarlet, wide-eyed, chewed on her knuckle and said nothing as Cinder and Woods approached her and turned to watch the fight.

“What’s going on?” said Woods.

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing. They’re both just standing there.”

“Standing standing or crouched-ready-to-fight standing?”

“Honestly, Woods, I’m not a sports broadcaster.”

“And I’m not used to being blind, but sometimes we all have to do things we’re uncomfortable with, right?”

Cinder rolled her eyes. “They look ready to fight,” she said. “Wolf looks calm and Thorn looks like he’s about to wet himself.”

“That’s better.”

“I wish Wolf could at least pretend to look nervous,” said Scarlet. “He’s not going to be very convincing at this rate.”

“Are they fighting yet?”

“No. It seems like they’re both waiting for the other to make the first move.”

The crowd was quickly becoming frustrated with the lack of action, and even Wolf seemed mildly irritated with his opponent. With an obvious sigh, he pulled himself to full height and gestured at Thorn. A “your turn” gesture.

“Wolf is trying to goad him into taking the first hit,” said Cinder. “But…” She chuckled ironically. “Thorn just shook his head.”

The crowd burst into laughter and harsh name-calling.

“Egad,” Woods said. “I knew he was a wuss. What kind of a name is Thorn, anyway?” [Future Marissa says: BWAHAHAHAHA.]

On the platform, Wolf let his shoulder fall for a moment, then pulled his hands roughly through his wild dark hair. A glance out at the crowd was filled with hopeless confusion, until his eyes met Scarlet. She gave him a small smile and jerked her head toward the stationary opponent.

“What’s going on now?” Woods said.

“Still nothing,” Cinder growled. “I’ll tell you when something—oh!”

“What? What oh?”

“Wolf just hit him!”

“Hit him? Where? How hard? Why?”

“I didn’t even see him move,” she gasped.

“Details, Cinder!”

“He hit him in the face,” she said. “And Thorn does not appear to be getting back up.”

Woods slowly turned to face her. “Are you telling me that Wolf just… won?”

“It would appear that way.”

Woods cursed.

“It’s okay,” said Scarlet, digging the rest of the money out of her pocket and shoving it into Woods’s hand. “We’ll make it back. Just think how many people are bound to bet on him now for the next fight.”

“If there is a next fight,” said Woods. “Does it look like anybody is lining up to fight him?”

Scarlet blinked at Cinder, and then turned to face Wolf, who was standing on the platform with arms folded, looking cranky despite his clear win as Thorn was dragged from the stage. Around them, the crowd pulsed and thrived and cheered, though there was an undercurrent of disappointment.

Everyone had been hoping for a much bigger spectacle.

“Anyone else?” yelled Wolf to the crowd, opening his arms wide in an invitation. “Who else wants to fight? Come on.”

“Do I hear Wolf yelling?” Woods asked, turning his head left to right and back in confusion.

“Yes,” said Cinder. “He’s trying to get someone else to come up and fight him.”

“And is anyone going?”

“It doesn’t look like it,” she said, scanning the audience. The few men lingering in the crowd who had clearly come there with the purpose of fighting were now loitering back away from the platform, avoiding eye contact with the champion.

“Great,” said Woods. “And this idea had so much potential, too.”

“There’s street fighting all over the world,” said Scarlet. “We just need to go somewhere where they don’t know him.”

Scattered members of the crowd had started to boo now, not at Wolf but at the terrified fighters trying to hide themselves among them.

Cinder gulped and pulled herself to full height. “I’m going up,” she said.

Scarlet and Woods both turned to her. “What?”

“I’m going up. I’m going to go fight him.”

Scarlet gaped. “Are you insane?”

“He’s going to throw it, isn’t he?”

“Yeah… after he hits you a few times.”

“I can take getting hit a few times.”

Exasperated, Scarlet gestured at Thorn, still slumped in a corner. “That guy is twice your size and he couldn’t handle it.”

“And,” said Woods, “how do you intend to win? It’s all fist fighting. They won’t let you use your fancy hand toys.”

“Well good thing one of my fists is made of metal, right?” she said, stepping away from Woods and letting Scarlet take her place at his side. “Just bet the rest on me,” she said. “And trust Wolf.”

“Hit him hard!” Scarlet called after her.

Woods was staring blankly in her direction. “You realize you just gave her permission to hit your boyfriend?”

Scarlet shrugged. “She’s going to have to. If anyone believes this is staged, we are all dead.”

Woods sighed and crumpled the bills up in his hand. “Do you think she’s ever hit anybody in her entire life?”

“I don’t know… but didn’t she once try to kill the king of the Eastern Commonwealth?”

Woods grunted. “Yeah, but… I don’t think she tried to kill him in hand-to-hand combat.”


*


Cinder pushed her way through the crowd with her heart hammering painfully at her chest. She had a strong feeling that if the lock on her magic hadn’t been previously removed, the anxiety filling every nerve of her body would have been more than enough to set off a shock of unbelievably agonizing pain in her lower back.

But as she didn’t have the mysterious pain to worry about, it was only the un-mysterious pain she was trying to brace herself for.

Utter embarrassment and some hard hits to the face.

Some of the men in the crowd turned appreciative, smug smiles on her as she passed, but it was not until she was pulling herself onto the platform that she garnered much attention.

Upon hearing the crowd burst into excited, uncontrollable laughter, Wolf turned around. His eyes widened in shock as Cinder drew herself up to standing, desperately trying to ignore the gut-busting laughs and offensive catcalls and whistles that filled the hot warehouse.

Wolf looked out at the crowd, stunned, and then tried to laugh along with them as if he, too, thought this was some sort of practical joke, but the laugh never reached his gaze.

Another man clambered onto the platform and bent his head toward Cinder. “What are you doing?” the man asked.

“I’m going to fight him,” she said.

The man chuckled, but Cinder’s icy glare silenced the laugh.

“But you’re… you’re…”

“Female?”

“Yes! He’s gonna tear you apart.”

“Well then,” she said, flashing a flirtatious smile at him, “I guess you’d better put your money on him, hadn’t you?”

The man scratched behind his ear. “Are you crazy?”

“Are there rules that say a woman cannot compete?”

“Well… no, but—”

“Then I want to fight him,” she said. “So put my name up on that big board of yours and start taking some damn bets.”

The man opened his mouth as if to object again, glanced back at Wolf—who shrugged at him—and then returned his gaze to her. “Are you sure?”

“Positive,” she hissed. “Now would you leave so I can… strategize?”

He inhaled a deep breath. “All right. If you insist,” he said. “What name should I put up for you?”

“Cyborg.”

“We already have a Cyborg.”

“What? Is he a real cyborg?”

“Um… no, I don’t think so, but he did get the name first.”

Cinder groaned and pulled a hand through her hair. “Fine. Um…” she glanced out at Woods and Scarlet, looking petrified on the edges of the crowd. “Assassin, then.”

“Assassin it is,” he said and, with another fearful glance at Wolf, scampered off the stage.

When the man was gone, Wolf approached her suspiciously. When they were toe to toe, he craned his head down, but did not touch her. “What the hell are you doing?”

“I’m your next opponent,” she said.

“Cinder, I don’t—”

“Just go with it, Wolf.”

She could see a twitch developing in his eyebrow, and sighed. “Look, you need to talk to the crowd. Get some of them to bet.”

“Am I supposed to lose this fight?” he asked incredulously.

“Yes.”

He drew away from her and looked purely horrified.

Cinder rolled her eyes and threw a left-handed punch at his jaw.

The crowd gasped and fell silent as Wolf stumbled back, gripping his jaw in shock.

The silence was almost immediately swallowed up by more laughter and cheers.

“Get them to bet,” she hissed at Wolf, then cast a shy looking shrug out at the audience. A glance at their companions showed Scarlet with both hands clasped over her mouth and Woods looking blankly around the crowd with his face contorted in frustrated confusion.

“All right then,” she heard Wolf grumble as he turned away from her and paced to the other end of the platform.

“The lady wants to fight,” he yelled out at the crowd, holding his open hands out. “And I never say no to a lady.” He cast a wink at Scarlet when he said this, but she was too shocked and petrified to look flattered.

The crowd was all hilarity again.

“So who are you all going to bet for?” Wolf said, pointing at the bet collector in the crowd. “If I hear of anyone, anyone putting their money up for her,” he gestured at Cinder with his thumb, “I’ll be coming for you next.”

Cinder tried her best to look cocky as the crowd reacted to Wolf’s jabs, but her gaze was mostly focused on Woods and a pale-faced Scarlet as she guided him toward the bet collector.

“Who hasn’t placed a bet?” Wolf called out to the audience. “Are you all gonna make this worth my time or not?”

With relief, Cinder saw that more and more people were heading toward the bet collector.

“I’m really scared right now,” Wolf said through a grin, “I just might get assassinated.”

Even Cinder laughed now, though it was a mixture of nerves on the fritz and an odd tickled feeling at seeing Wolf as the center of attention—he was normally so quiet.

The man who had taken Cinder’s fight name appeared again at the edge of the platform. “You two about ready?”

Wolf turned and raised an eyebrow at Cinder.

She gulped and pretended arrogance again. “You bet,” she said, flashing a thumbs up at the man.

His expression was pure pity as he turned away from them.

A moment later, a bell rang out somewhere near the stage.

Wolf instantly crouched down into his fighting pose.

Cinder stole a quick glance at Woods and Scarlet in the crowd, glad to see that they had placed their bets. Leaning on Scarlet’s arms, Woods was clearly straining to listen to her as she gave him the play-by-play.

They both looked worried.

“Hey, assassinator.”

She glanced back at Wolf and glared at him, settling a hand upon her hip, but he looked purely serious.

“Keep your eye on me, little girl,” he said, green eyes flashing. The insult was meant for the crowd, the look of concern was meant for her. “Time to focus.”

Cinder inhaled a deep breath and settled into her own fighting stance, trying to imitate Wolf. His mouth twitched in amusement and Cinder felt anger flare inside of her.

“What?” she snapped.

“Nothing,” he said. “You go first.”

She tried to find a zone where she could no longer hear the crowd, no longer see the endless amusement on their faces.

With a nod, she rushed toward Wolf and swung her fist at his face.

He dodged easily, grabbed her wrist, and threw her to her back on the platform.

Cinder stared up at the warehouse ceiling, gasping for breath. A moment later, Wolf’s large hand appeared in her eyesight. She took it and allowed him to pull her to her feet, but she could not pretend not to be annoyed.

“All right,” Wolf said. “Pay attention. Two fists.” He balled his hands into fists and showed them to her. “Keep them up in front of your face at all times. That’s how you protect yourself. Throw from the shoulder. The most important thing is following through. Don’t aim for my face, aim for a foot beyond my face. Got it?”

Cinder’s jaw had fallen open and she cast a stunned glance out at the crowd, practically rolling with laughter. “What the hell are you doing?” she hissed.

“Making this look at least somewhat believable,” he said.

“Can I kick? Or is that against the rules?”

“No, you can kick, too,” said Wolf, lowering his fists.

Frustration etched into her features, Cinder pulled a hand through her hair and stepped a few feet away from Wolf to gather her wits.

She balled her fists and held them before her face as Wolf had shown her, ignoring the teases of the crowd. Then she inhaled a deep breath, dropped her right fist, spun on her foot and sent her titanium foot soaring at Wolf’s head.

It clocked him on the ear.

In the crowd’s sudden disbelieving silence, Wolf stumbled and fell back, clutching the side of his head.

A sense of pride welling in her heart, Cinder approached Wolf, flexing her fingers, but the cockiness was gone in an instant when Wolf whipped his arm toward the back of her knees and sent her falling to the platform with a squeal

Cinder cursed and quickly pushed her way back onto her feet.

Wolf, back on his feet as well, was grinning. “Not a bad roundhouse, Assassinator,” he said. For emphasis, he gently touched the side of his head again and ran his tongue along his front canine teeth. Then he said, quieter, “I’m going to hit you now.”

Cinder glared at him. “Are you really supposed to tell—”

Her words were interrupted by a gasp as Wolf’s fist hit her stomach. She hunched over his extended arm, struggling to breathe.

“Next time,” he muttered into her ear, “block.”

Cinder nodded and stumbled back from him. Wolf used her recovery period to turn away and spend a moment riling the crowd.

Setting her jaw, Cinder pulled her leg up again for a front push kick to Wolf’s back.

He grunted and fell to his knees.

Regaining her balance, Cinder followed it with another roundhouse to his head, this time with her right, human foot.

It connected, but Wolf, less surprised now, took only a minute to jump to his feet and turn back toward her. He shook his head and bit back a laugh, then fell into another fight stance.

“Good,” he said, though it was almost more like a growl. “Ready?”

Without waiting for a response, he pounced, aiming a write hook at Cinder’s face.

She raised her left, metal hand, easily blocking the punch this time, but within seconds a clang resounded in her head as Wolf’s left hook contacted her jaw.

She cried out stumbled back, but, with an angry shake of her head, she quickly sprung back to him and aimed a few hooks at his face, too.

Wolf blocked the first two.

The third he let through and Cinder grunted as her metal fist crunched against Wolf’s eye.

The crowd was a mixture of cheers and boos.

Cheers—such an entertaining fight had not been witnessed in ages.

Boos—they’d all put money on Wolf, expecting little competition.

Cinder was glad to think that some of them might actually be a bit worried about the outcome of this fight, and their bets.

Cinder turned her attention back to Wolf, who had his face hidden from the audience as he pretended to nurse his aching face, but beneath the big hand he was grinning at her.

He winked.

Cinder bit down on the inside of her cheek, but it was not enough to keep a laugh from escaping her.

Maybe it would be interpreted by the crowd as a maniacal laugh, though.

Wolf sunk again into his fighting stance.

Hot and sweating, but filled with adrenaline, Cinder mimicked the action, flexing her hands a few times before making the awkward fists.

Wolf’s gaze dropped momentarily to Cinder’s left foot, a flicker of his focus almost imperceptible.

Her nod was equally invisible to the jeering crowd pressing in all around them.

Wolf moved first. Fast, but not his fastest. Strong, but not his strongest.

But no one else would know.

He ducked low and aimed a fist for her side.

Cinder whipped her hand down, catching the punch with her forearm and was able to use the momentum to send her metal knee into Wolf’s ribcage.

He grunted—she could not tell how much of the sound was faked.

Running on instinct, Cinder sent her fist at Wolf’s face again, but he blocked it, catching her fist in his crushing—but not really crushing—grip. He used his own force to spin her away to the right.

It looked flawless.

Anyone else, pushed away with the supposed force, would have tumbled to the platform.

But Cinder grasped at his lead, followed his cue, and allowed her body to spin full circle and swept her leg up.

Her aim was a little off, but Wolf’s lightning reflexes more than made up for it, so that his head was right in place when the top of her foot collided with the side of his it.

The platform shook when Wolf hit it and slid half way to the far side.

Cinder gaped at him, panting, the noise from the crowd slowly beginning to filter back into her consciousness. And above the noise, Scarlet’s terrified scream.

“Wolf!”

The referee hopped onto the stage and knelt beside Wolf’s body, checking for consciousness, before turning his stunned gaze to Cinder.

She stared back at him, first with nothing but her own mixture of shock and disbelief, and then worry.

She hadn’t actually hurt him, had she?

The man got to his feet and held up his arm to Cinder.

“Assassin wins!” he cried.

The crowd, stunned and quiet at first, soon grew into a ravenous crescendo.

No one had bet that much money on the fight, of course, everyone thinking it would be a landslide in Wolf’s favor. And so no one was too terrifically disappointed in the outcome. But everyone was thrilled that they had been there to witness the reigning champion defeated by a girl.

Cinder swiped at the film of sweat on her forehead, still looking down at Wolf, but he did not move.

But she could not go to him. It would be too suspicious.

So, stomach churning, she forced herself to turn away from him and flash a fake smile at the audience. She sought out Scarlet and Woods and found only Woods standing at the edge of the crowd, arms folded across his chest and attempting to look confident and suave and perfectly capable of seeing all the commotion that surrounded him.

Scarlet was not hard to spot—her cinnamon curls showed up like a firework amidst the dark and dirty crowd. She was hurrying through the crowd, shoving her way toward the stage.

She climbed onto the platform as Cinder descended. They did not make eye contact.

Trembling, Cinder hopped down into the midst of the thriving audience and made her way to Woods, but she was stopped by the bet collector.

Instant terror welled up inside of her, that he would recognize the spoof, that he would call them on their cheating.

But instead, he just nodded at her with utmost respect and admiration and handed her a stack of bills.

“Winner’s cut,” he said.

“Oh. Thanks,” she muttered, shoving the money into her pocket and hurrying past him.

“Captain, it’s me. Let’s get the hell out of here,” she said, grabbing Woods’s arm and dragging him toward the exit, praying that no one would make the connection between her and Woods and Scarlet and Wolf.

But no one had been paying her any attention prior to taking the stage. And no one had paid Woods any attention at all throughout the entire night.

“What’s going on?” Woods hissed at her, draping his arm over her shoulder to look like a proud, possessive boyfriend rather than a helpless invalid.

“Wolf’s unconscious,” she muttered back.

“Really unconscious or just pretend unconscious?”

“I don’t know. Scarlet’s with him. They’ll have to meet up with us,” she said, stealing a glance back as she pushed the door open for her and Woods.

Wolf was being carried off through the crowd on a stretcher, Scarlet at his side.

“Where do you think they take the injured ones?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” said Woods, “but Scarlet said she would meet us on the other side of the warehouse.”

Cinder nodded, her muscles tied into knots as she guided Woods out of the building and into the freezing, moonlit night. They walked slowly, Cinder trying to guide Woods as best as she could while her thoughts swam with terror and nerves.

But rounding the corner to the back of the warehouse, she froze.

“What? What is it?”

The relief was so strong that Cinder felt herself sagging against Woods for a change. “They’re already back here,” she breathed, beaming as Wolf and Scarlet spotted them and hurried toward them, their footsteps loud on the silent street. “Wolf! I didn’t… I’m so sorry!”

Wolf’s speed dropped to a walk and then a surprised pause.

“Sorry?” he asked, an amused grin spreading over his lips. “My dear Assassin, you don’t think you actually won that, do you?”

***


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