Charthur was frustrated. No one was putting up a good fight today. What was their problem? She had found herself descending on one tiger after the next, savagely tearing into them, not one able to turn aside her blows. And now everyone seemed to be avoiding her? No getting around it, she was pissed. Everyone and everything was turning out to be a disappointment.
Oh, well. If there was only one way to scratch that itch, so be it. Even if it meant seeing him again.
She emerged onto a plaza. There, taking cover in the shadow cast where a stall leaned up against a wall, was Nim. He hadn’t spotted her yet — he was occupied trying to subtly peek around the corner without giving away his hiding spot. She headed over and tapped him on the shoulder, startling him. He whipped around and gaped at her.
“Time is short; quick, report,” she ordered him.
He opened his mouth, shock still plastered on his face. He closed his mouth again and raised one digit. After taking a moment, he managed, “Jasmaby, right? He’s… he’s in the fashion district. Northern hub.”
Charthur nodded at him, and turned to leave. Wait. There was… there had been something she was supposed to remember. Nim would know what it was. She turned back, caught his fist in one hand, then used the other to snag his elbow and maneuver him face-first into the nearby wall. With his arm still captured, it was simple work to bend him over, then throw a knee into his gut, before bringing an elbow down on the back of his head to finish it.
She crouched by where he had fallen. “Hey, Nim,” she said, “Let me quickly ask…” she snapped her fingers. Other team! Nim’s on the other team this time. That was what I needed to remember.
“I remember!” she told him. “Back to my task!” She stood up and left her roommate groaning on the ground.
The fashion district. It had to be the fashion district, didn’t it? Was Jasmaby doing this on purpose? Was he leveraging Charthur’s shame at this point? The thought curdled Charthur’s blood. What a cheap, shitty tactic.
You don’t know that he’s doing it on purpose, Charthur tried to assure herself. But another voice chimed in: Which means maybe he’s just oblivious. Maybe he doesn’t even know. Why would you assume he gives a shit about you?
Charthur stopped. Was there a point to doing this, again? She gripped her sickles more tightly. As desperately as she had wanted to, she hadn’t managed to claw her feelings about him out of her head, whether to get them down on paper or simply be rid of them. The urge… the need, not even to impress him or win his respect, but to simply force him to pay attention to her was as strong as ever. Days past, humiliations came and went, and still they ate at her, clouding her head.
But what was the point of facing him like this? Did she have a plan? No. Why should she? Every plan just fell to pieces anyway, leaving her embarrassed and frustrated. There was no point in trying to be sneaky, or clever, or nimble. No point in trying to be gracious, or humble, or polite. No point in trying to be eloquent, or evocative, or expressive. Whatever she planned, whatever she tried to be, it just blew up in her face. So why, she realized, was she just rushing in, bull-headed, as if eager to take whatever Jasmaby threw at… her…
Oh. Wait. Something had crossed her mind. That… was good.
It wasn’t actually “good,” and Charthur knew it. It didn’t even “make sense.” The actual word for it was “stupid.” “Insane,” perhaps. And, yes: “unpredictable.”
The word for it, she thought, is “Charthur.”
The cloud in her head cleared, and for the first time in a long time, Charthur felt like herself again.
Jasmaby was waiting for her, right in the center of the hub. Charthur felt it again, that same feeling as when she had first set eyes on him. That excitement; that feeling of new possibilities. She was smiling, she realized, and couldn’t stop. Her plan wasn’t guaranteed to work. Maybe it wasn’t even likely. It was almost certainly going to be a disaster. But what a glorious disaster!
Not hesitating, Charthur sprinted in. Jasmaby pointed a finger at her, sternly. Fireball after fireball descended from the air at the speeding tiger, but she made no effort to weave or dodge. Instead, she threw her sickles in front of her face, letting them take each impact. One fireball grazed her shoulder; another barely missed slamming into her leg. The steam from her melting sickles filled her nostrils and blinded her eyes, but on she raced regardless. When the last fireball was spent, she discarded the useless stumps to each side.
She’d be in range soon. Jasmaby was staring her down, teeth gritted, arms raised. Charthur could almost hear his thoughts — would it be a pounce? A feint? An ice blast? Go on, thought Charthur, you’ll never guess. All Jasmaby had to do was see it coming, whatever it was, and he’d be able to counter it, as he had so many times before. But this was different.
Pouncing range came and went. Ice blast range. She was right outside melee. Jasmaby had guessed, but too late! He desperately launched a punch, landing dead-center on Charthur’s forehead, resulting in a crack that echoed off the walls of the marketplace.
Charthur’s head exploded in agony. Her legs, stopped in their tracks, shuddered beneath her. Darkness encroached on her vision, her body suddenly heavy. A perfect shot. Enough to drop any tiger in one shot.
Charthur’s smile hadn’t faded. She braced her legs, and pushed.
Jasmaby was caught off-guard. He had expected his blow to take Charthur out of the fight, and certainly, it would. Just not yet. Not ready for the sudden surge, Jasmaby’s fist yielded to Charthur’s forehead. His elbow bent.
That’s it, thought Charthur. I’ve WON.
Suddenly inside Jasmaby’s defenses, Charthur hooked Jasmaby’s bent arm with her own and yanked, pulling Jasmaby down to her level. His long, beautiful throat was right in front of Charthur’s face. Her other paw was pulled back, claws extended, ready to swipe. It’s MINE, she thought, MINE!!
As her hand swept forward, she glanced upwards, victorious, into Jasmaby’s face —
He was looking at her. There was still the fury of battle on his face, but — yes, undeniably there, that look of fear, vulnerability. Not like she had seen on the magazine covers; that was a pale imitation. This was real. This was the true Jasmaby. This — how many people had ever gotten to see this?
Charthur started at it, in awe. Charthur took it in, every detail. Charthur… had been doing something, a second ago…
Jasmaby’s other fist had made it into position.
Goddamnit. Kill me, thought Charthur. As if obeying her request, Jasmaby nailed her on the chin with an uppercut, lifting her up off her feet. The fresh pain slammed into the consciousness-crushing agony from the first impact. Together, they made a very good argument for oblivion.
Jasmaby’s expression stuck in Charthur’s mind. It was a good image to pass out to.
Charthur flipped, feet swinging around over her head in a backflip. No, she had decided, and it had been as simple as that. She landed neatly, ready to strike.
It was a magical moment. At this range, with Charthur just landing and Jasmaby still caught in the follow-through of his strike, there was no defense. Charthur’s legs bent beneath her, preparing to leap. Vulnerable, off-guard, all each of them could do was swing. Charthur pulled her fist back. There was no hope of dodging, blocking or parrying: each of them would land their attack. Jasmaby’s fist twisted in preparation to strike. Charthur was half-dead on her feet already, but Jasmaby wasn’t built to take a blow like this. Charthur’s whole body tensed, the moment before the moment. There was only one possible outcome. Double knockout.
It’s going to be beautiful, Charthur thought. She looked into Jasmaby’s eyes, drinking in the rage and the fear. I’m so lucky!
The two tigers swung.
The sound of the impact, Charthur learned later, was audible from the neighboring districts.
At that particular moment, thought, there was only one thought on her mind.
It was a detail. A simple detail, but one that Charthur wanted to make a mental note of. It had escaped her attention before, so she felt it was important to capture it now. Sometimes, it was the little details that turned out to be the most important.
Ah, She thought. Jasmaby’s limbs are longer than mine.
Charthur’s fist hung pitiably in the air, an inch from its intended target.
How sad, how tragic. To extend yourself so far; yet remain unmet.
She took a step back, peeling Jasmaby’s fist off the bridge of her nose. She wobbled on her feet. She was breathing heavily. It was interesting, the feeling like there was no air to breathe. She noticed Jasmaby was breathing hard too. Huh.
She looked up at Jasmaby’s face. The anger was gone. The fear, too. Jasmaby’s face was placid once more. Was there a note of concern? Huh.
Charthur swayed from side to side. There was that feeling again: That feeling like she had forgotten something. She looked down and off to the side, trying to remember, but the hurt echoing through her skull proved impossible to think around. Huh. She looked back to Jasmaby, desperately. He would help her remember, right?
Jasmaby had managed to steady his breathing somewhat. He met her gaze. The two tigers took a moment to just stand there, regarding each other. Then, with as sweet a voice as anyone had ever used for her, he offered: “Fall down.”
Yes, that was it. Grateful, she gave Jasmaby a wan smile before going limp.
Charthur had woken up without a thought in her head. She felt blank. She was facing a decision, but needed to go through the process of forming an opinion about it first.
It was the same thing, she told herself. Jasmaby had wiped the floor with her. She hadn’t landed a single blow. Same old story.
It was different, she told herself. That moment they shared… there was something there. There had to be.
Charthur stopped and steadied herself against a wall. Or not, she thought. She wanted there to be something there. That was the problem. She had held onto that hope for this long. And now, at last, she had managed to express it. The next time they met… if it was there, there would be no denying it. Not even Jasmaby could ignore it.
Unless it wasn’t there.
Charthur felt ill. This was it. She could go to the fashion district right now and find out, or… or for once, just once in her life, back off. Retreat. Shield that tiny bit of hope. Forever.
Or she could charge in, once more! Put herself into the open, once more. Take one last chance! Take a risk, one more time. If they were ever going to find out that they shared something, it was going to have to be now. This was her opportunity. It was the opening she had been waiting for!
Charthur, head heavy, turned and started to walk home.
If she had been watching where she’d been going, she might have avoided bumping into Jasmaby, coming around a corner the other way.
“Oh!” Jasmaby said. Charthur felt her mouth go dry. She noted, with some relief, that Jasmaby was by himself today. She tried to recover. Greeting word. Two syllables. Come on, think, think.
“Hello,” said Jasmaby. Damn, he’s good. “Uh,” Jasmaby reached up to touch the back of his neck. “How are you? On your feet again?”
Charthur sucked in a big breath of air. The words scrambled to escape her, but she snagged each one in turn and strung them together, one after the other, putting together a sentence as one threads beads on a necklace. “Good!” she started. Yes! “Congrats, you won.” This was good stuff. “You bested me; nicely done.” Success!
Charthur had hoped Jasmaby would have something to say about this, but it wasn’t to be. Instead, he cocked his head to one side again. One hand rose to rest on his face, as he gazed as Charthur, considering her. There was a pause, as if he was weighing his options, before finally asking: “Why do you talk in such the weirdest of ways?”
Charthur breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t the politest way she had ever heard it phrased, but it was certainly a common enough question. Charthur had a few explanations worked out, and had practiced them until they were rote. All she had to do was pick one and reel it off. And if she could string together two non-embarrassing things to say, who knows? Anything was possible after that!
No need to complicate this. She decided on an easy version, a simple six-liner about ease and grace, ABABAB rhyme scheme. She took a deep breath and spoke it:
“The words are… tangled, in my head. The need to speak them comes with dread. My thoughts, I’m scared to have them said: So distraction from the fear instead. Rules to ensure I don’t stray, My feelings I must not betray. A rhyming scheme comes into play, To limit me; what I might say. Restricted to a simple choice: The only way to find my voice.”
That wasn’t the poem. What the hell was that.
What the hell was that?! Did I just say that?? Why the hell did I just say any of that?!
Charthur swayed slightly. This wasn’t happening. I couldn’t have just… why, why, WHY, why did I have to, why do I always have to, why can’t I just
Jasmaby’s expression had changed. There was something new on it. The magazine covers, pinned to Charthur’s wall, flashed into her mind. Was there a hint of gentleness there? Could it be… pity? It made her uneasy to see.
“That’s…” Jasmaby started, and paused. Charthur’s paws were rising: not driven by the need to lash out, as she had experienced before, but simply to hide her face. Please, thought Charthur. Please be nice. Just, once, be nice to me. Just this once. She could feel herself getting smaller, and willed the tears to stay out of her eyes. You don’t have to like me. You really don’t. Just… please… can’t you please be nice, just this once?
“That’s…” Jasmaby finished his thought: “… really sad.”
She corrected an early thought. It couldn’t have been pity on Jasmaby’s face.
It must’ve been disgust.
part 7 by opa-opa!—glitchedpuppet