Factions Chapter 3

Cat yelled their drink order across the bar to the bartender. The noise coupled with the bass pumping was so loud, it was hard to hear. Alex leaned against a stool and scanned the room, unable to stop herself. No sign of the guy from earlier. She swallowed back a twinge of disappointment and turned back to Cat just as she handed her a shot. Alex sniffed it. “What is it this time?”

Cat only smiled mysteriously, and said, “Drink up! You’ll like it, I promise.” They clinked shot glasses and tossed them back. Alex’s eyes bulged, then watered as the liquid burned down her throat. She grabbed for the iced drink Cat sat down on the bar and chased it. She managed to gasp out, “Geez, woman! Are you trying to kill me?”

Cat laughed. “Oh, come on. It wasn’t that bad.” She took a sip of her own drink and glanced around the room. She appeared not in the least disturbed by the liquid fire she just made them swallow.

Alex grumbled under her breath, “Guess I’m buying next time. You can’t be trusted.”

Cat threw her hair over her shoulder and laughed again as she started moving closer to the ring. “Deal!”

Alex narrowed her eyes at her back. Well-played, you little minx. Her lips quirked as she followed her friend, the warmth of the shot they just drank settling in the pit of her belly comfortably. They pushed and elbowed their way through the crowd, fighting for a spot up close. Alex had to stomp on a few feet along the way when a couple of the men got grabby, but for the most part, they made it without too much violence. The ring was still empty as they all waited for the fight to start. She scanned the room again, hoping maybe she just missed the guy from earlier.

Nope. Not here. Time to let it go.

  Cat placed a couple small bets. Alex placed a few too, but made them super conservative. She didn’t want to bet big money on unknowns, she didn’t have the cash to burn. Neither of the fighter’s names listed on the leaderboard rang any bells. One of the bookies yelled out, “Yo, Alex! C’mon, don’t you want to get in on this one? This fight is gonna be good!”

It was Fredie, taking bets that were out of her league, at least tonight. Fredie was a partial-shifter, as far as she knew. One of the nicer bookies, though not always on the up and up, unless it was in his favor. She couldn’t blame him for that, he had to make a living too. Theirs was a dog-eat-dog world since the Purge.

Alex shook her head and gave him a small smile. “Sorry, Fredie. Not this time. I don’t know either of those fighters. And no offense, but I don’t trust your opinion.” Alex grinned to soften her words, and Fredie just shrugged and grinned back, lifting two hands in the air. “Hey, can’t blame a guy for tryin’. I offered. Don’t come lookin’ for me when you mad ’cause you missed out.”

Cat snorted, catching the convo and interjecting, “Yeah, sure. No worries on that!” Alex elbowed her friend and shot her a look. Cat made a face and shrugged, crossing her eyes as she turned back to the ring. Alex stepped closer to her in the crush of bodies and gave a partial-shifter that smelled like—she sniffed and grimaced—wet dog, a glower. He stepped way too close for her liking.

The bell sounded, announcing the fight about to start. She peered around the shoulder of some behemoth guy that towered over her and tried to get a glimpse of the ring. She wanted to see who the unknown fighters were. She squeezed her small frame past the big man and scrunched up beside Cat, who’d managed to worm her way to the front.

She was pressed up against the ropes that circled the cage as she shouted and whistled through her fingers, oblivious to the annoying dog dude that kept trying to cozy up to her. Alex wasn’t though, and glared at him again. This time she growled a warning. She knew he heard her because he glared back, but grudgingly backed off.

For now, I guess. Geez.

Alex turned her attention back to the action as the crowd started to cheer. A massive hulk of a male, his body muscled and rock hard, strutted out. His head was shaved except a strip along the top that was spiked and dyed green and blue. Her eyes widened.

Yikes. Maybe I should have placed a bigger bet.

Cat nudged her shoulder, her mouth hanging open. Alex nodded and lifted her brows, a silent whistle on her lips. She didn’t recognize him, but by the way he moved as well as his sheer size, she suspected he was a bear shifter. Most likely a full-shifter, at that, given his speed and grace despite his paradoxically lumbering gait. No way to prove her theory of course, unless he shifted right in front of them all, but her instincts were usually spot on.

The only way to tell if someone was full-shifter was by witnessing them in their full animal form, or from a blood sample. But because they were so sought after by the NuGenesis Society, most had gotten pretty good at manipulating their abilities and fooling onlookers, herself included. Better the people around them think them weak and defunct, than know the truth. The noise around her was deafening as the crowd cheered and jeered, while Mr. Punk Hulk took a turn around the cage, his teeth bared and his lips sneering in a way that was sexy and terrifying, all at once. Cat fanned herself, and Alex shot her an amused look. She leaned over and spoke in her ear, “Down kitty. I’m pretty sure that’s one bear you don’t want to tangle with.” Cat just grinned and shot her a saucy look.

“Says who? I like bears. I can work with bears.” She wiggled her brows, but shot the guy that smelled like wet dog a scathing look when he sidled up next to us again. “Way more attractive than dog, that’s for sure.” She sniffed and gave him her back, prompting a scowl of frustration before he finally slunk off, hopefully for good this time.

Alex shook her head and curved her lips. She should have known Cat was more aware of her surroundings than she seemed. She was a pistol, that one. Alex always naturally took on the role of caretaker with those she was close to, but Cat was no slouch. She was sharp and clever, and she didn’t take crap from anyone. It was one of the things Alex loved most about her.

What’s the word her mom always used to use? Plucky. She would have called Cat plucky. Alex felt a pang of sadness at the brief memory, but shook it off before it could take hold. The past was in the past. One day, she would get justice for her family. For now, the only thing that mattered was the present. She grunted when the crowd started going wild again. She was jostled by the jumping and moving bodies, and almost took an elbow to the face.

Crap!

Cat practically climbed over the ropes, whistling her head off. She twisted around, shot Alex an excited look, and motioned for her to climb up next to her. Alex pressed closer and lifted a foot onto the bottom rung to push herself up. She kept her head down as she concentrated on not missing her step. Pushing, she lifted herself up next to Cat and gripped the top rope tight. She lifted her eyes and looked across the ring. When she did, they locked with the smoldering gaze from earlier. Air left her lungs in a breathless whoosh.

It was him.

***

The tiny hairs on the back of her neck rose, and the room seemed to fade. She watched his lip curl, and swore she could hear the growl rumble in his throat again, despite the noise. This time he was dressed in silky looking black fight shorts that hung low on his hips. She felt an urge to fan herself, but resisted. His hands were wrapped in tape and gloved. Her gaze traveled up and down his body before she could help herself, then locked with his again. She thought she glimpsed a glimmer of amusement in his eyes, along with the faint glow she’d noticed flare earlier. Lean and cut, graceful power rippled with every movement he made.

Lawdy.

He was one of the fighters. That was why she didn’t see him earlier. He must have been in the back, prepping for the event. She bit her lip and had to drag her gaze away. Her hackles rose, despite the attraction. She didn’t like being coerced into anything, even by her own emotions or instincts. Self-control, self-discipline. They were both traits her parents taught her to value early in life, and she’d come to appreciate them even more dearly after the Purge and all the changes that happened with her and her brother. These days, she clung to them like a life raft.

It’s one of the reasons she rarely, if ever, got drunk. She didn’t like the loss of control. Not that it was easy to get her drunk anyway. With her newfound nature, she’d come to realize her metabolism worked differently. Alcohol didn’t hit her hard and fast the way it did when she was fully human. Not that she couldn’t get drunk, if she was really bent on it. But it took a lot. Didn’t stop Cat from trying though, plying them both with shots and cocktails every time they went out together. Cat enjoyed the feeling of being tipsy. Maybe because she was innately more free-spirited than Alex. Or maybe because she didn’t have control issues.

Who knows?

Besides, Alex also discovered the wicked hangover wasn’t worth it either. Think of the worst hangover from hell you’ve ever had, and multiply that by ten.

No thanks.

She bared her teeth at the forbidding stranger across the ring, to no effect. He just ran his gaze up and down her form in like manner, paying her tit for tat, and smirked. Her body burned every spot his eyes touched. Then he turned his attention back to the other fighter in the ring, and his entire demeanor changed. The smirk was gone, replaced by a fierce and feral glint in his eye. His jaw tightened and looked as though it was chiseled from rock. He flexed his muscles and bounced lightly on his feet. His opponent jeered back at him, and smacked his fists together. A cloud of powder flew into the air. Mr. Punk Hulk didn’t move as fast or as light on his feet, but he was still graceful, and intimidating as all heck.

They each strutted around the ring a couple of times, before taking their corners. Cat whistled between her fingers, pumping her fist, cheering and screaming with the crowd behind them. Alex locked arms with her friend so she wouldn’t fall, and settled in to watch the battle unfold, her eyes bright with excitement despite herself. She loved a good fight, even sometimes fought herself. She and her dad used to watch old Van Damme kickboxing movies when she was younger, and she never grew out the thrill of watching someone punch and kick and out-maneuver their opponent.

The buzzer blared, and the two men danced forward, touching gloves before falling back and circling each other, gazes sharp and wary as they looked for an opening. Mr. Punk Hulk moved in fast despite his size, and almost landed a mean right hook. But Tall, Dark, and Dangerous was faster. He ducked and parried, and then threw a kick that earned him a grunt of pain from his opponent. Cat screamed some choice epithets at Punk Hulk for not moving fast enough, and Alex had to laugh.

The big man managed to land a few good hits as the fight continued, but it was clear who the better opponent was within the first 20 seconds. Tall, Dark, and Dangerous kicked and punched, blocked and parried, like he’d been doing it all his life. Maybe he had. Alex couldn’t help but be impressed with his skill and his uncanny ability to anticipate Punk Hulk’s every move. The Jaguar might not outweigh the bear shifter, but he more than made up for it with speed and instinct and sheer grace.

It was truly beautiful to watch, and Alex found herself held with rapt attention right up until the knock out. The bear shifter finally fell for good, his massive body landing with a thud and lying prone on the cage floor. The Jag shifter stood over him, his chest heaving, sweat and blood trailing down his back and ribs. The crowd went wild just as the buzzer sounded, and Cat erupted next to Alex again, her red hair flying wildly as she screamed and shouted. A tendril got caught on Alex’s lip and in her mouth. She spit it out as she rolled her eyes and shook her head.

She stepped down off the ropes and almost fell into someone right behind her. She sniffed, then growled, anger flaring to life. Wet dog. Again.

Seriously? This guy just won’t give it a rest.

She caught her balance and spun sharply, coming face to face with the annoying dog man. He reared back in surprise, his eyes widening. She didn’t give him time to react though, just grabbed him by his shirt and started shoving him through the thinning crowd, toward the hallway that lead to the locker rooms. At least there it was more private, with less likelihood of someone seeing her give the guy a lesson in manners. She shoved him through the door and followed right on his heels.

He slammed into the wall behind him, and Alex moved in relentlessly, shoving a knee into his groin and pinning him against the concrete with her arm to his throat. She tapped into her inner cat, using superhuman strength and partially shifting so she could bare her fangs at him. She hoped the two things combined would be enough to put the fear of God into him. Maybe then he’d back off the next time someone made it clear they weren’t interested.

Alex growled and her irises flared with the green glow she knew could possibly give away her status as full shifter, but she didn’t care. Dog man whimpered, his eyes bulging. He lifted his hands in a placating gesture and tried to speak around the throat full of elbow she was giving him. She let up the pressure, but only slightly.

“Please, lady. I’m sorry, I’ll back off. I was just tryin’ ta have a little fun, that’s all. I won’t mess with your friend no more, I swear.”

Alex growled in his face, not even bothering to use her words. Beads of sweat popped up on his brow, and she sniffed again as his wet dog smell became even stronger.

Yuck. I better back off before he pees himself and adds to the aroma.

She took a step back and released him abruptly. He sagged to the floor, clutching his junk and wheezing for air. She took a few deep breaths to bring her feline to heel, and regarded him with zero compassion. Finally, she spoke.

“The next time a lady makes it clear she’s not interested, take the hint pal.” She used her boot to lift his face so she could glare down at him. “Got it?”

He nodded, his head bobbing so fast she was surprised he didn’t get whiplash. He scrambled to his feet and started to back up, moving away from her. She followed, and he turned around fast, trying to run. She took the opportunity to shove her boot into his backside and gave him a little help and momentum. She almost laughed when he smacked into the wall again with a very canine sounding yelp in his hurry to escape. She shook her head.

Jerk. Serves you right.

Dog man fled, disappearing around the corner. Alex stood there for a few minutes to compose herself. Adrenaline was pumping and she knew that if she didn’t calm down, she might accidentally give herself away and catch the wrong kind of attention. Attention she was doing her best to avoid. She took one last deep breath, and looked up as she opened the door to go back into the main room and find Cat.

A mysterious figure stood for a moment, shrouded in the shadows. Then he turned and walked away, disappearing around the bend in the hall.

She frowned. Now who was that? 

She stepped through the door, back into the crowd to go find her friend. But something niggled at her brain and refused to leave her thoughts. Whoever it was, it almost looked like that guy from the cage.

Mr. Tall, Dark, and Dangerous.

But why would he just stand there and watch her, then walk away? She knew she wasn’t the only one that felt the sparks flying earlier. And she knew he could feel her inner Jag, the same as she could feel his. Why wouldn’t he just come over and try to speak to her?

She felt a frisson of unease snake along her spine, despite the attraction and intrigue. She knew she should probably just stay away from him completely, but curiosity was already getting the best of her. It didn’t make any sense, and there was nothing she loved more than unraveling things that didn’t make sense. But she couldn’t deny that it was more than just curiosity. She felt something when he looked at her earlier, and that feeling was like a drug. She wanted more.

She just hoped she didn’t end up regretting it.

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By C.B. Stone

C.B. Stone is author of the Unbelief trilogy, the Absence of Song trilogy, and more trilogy-like works. She also occasionally indulges in sushi and chocolate. OK, perhaps occasionally isn't the right word. Often? Every opportunity presented? ::ditches 3rd person voice:: Drat... OK, my name is C.B. Stone and I am a choc-o-holic and sushi addict. Feel better now? You know you're with me.

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