"Watch out, Gary!"
The first punch landed squarely in Gary's stomach, doubling him over. The second connected with his jaw, practically lifting him off his feet. Gary stumbled back but kept his balance.
His attacker circled, fists raised. The smile on his face told everyone watching he had no plans to make this quick; he wanted to make Gary suffer.
Gary raised his own fists in front of his face defensively, but it did little to stop another vicious right hand, then a left. The blows propelled Gary's own fists into his face.
His attacker laughed, "Why are you hitting yourself, Gary?"
Punch. "Stop hitting yourself."
Punch. "Stop hitting yourself."
Gary stepped in for a punch of his own and was rewarded with a jab to his nose. At nearly twice his height, his opponent had too great a reach.
Gary went down to one knee and spit out a thick wad of saliva mixed with blood. The gathered crowd laughed, egging on the one-sided fight.
"Stop it, Stevie!" Ron cried. He struggled to get to his brother but was held tight by two older boys, who gripped his arms tightly.
Stevie ignored Ron and advanced on Gary. A big kid with greasy unwashed hair and ill-fitting clothes, Stevie was two grades ahead of Gary but had also been held back once. Ten-year-old Gary looked tiny by comparison.
A kick from Stevie's shoe sent a cloud of gritty, schoolyard sand into Gary's face, who sputtered and rubbed his eyes. Wasting no time, Stevie landed another blow that sent Gary to the ground, tearing his jeans.
"Not so tough now, eh? "Stevie asked (the question directed more to the group of 7th graders surrounding them).
Stevie was your stereotypical bully; mean, angry and jealous. His name-calling wasn't even that original, keeping to the classics about weight, eyesight or perceived sexual orientation. From his clothes, you could tell his family didn't have much, and from the bruises, love was also in short supply. Ron could almost feel sorry for him if he wasn't such a dick.
Typically, interactions with Stevie resulted in a single punch, followed by crying, followed by laughing. Punch. Cry. Laugh. That was the unspoken contract of the kids at Ron's school. Stevie got to feel strong; you got to feel humiliated.
But that day at lunch, Gary had different plans.
Ron, Gary and Carl had been living in Toronto for six months. Their father got a job working with their Uncle Brian in construction. It was a well-paying job that was also under the radar. Ron always thought it must have been difficult for his father, who had a Ph.D in acoustical engineering. He had even been a professor at Trinity College in Dublin before the Conclave forced him and his clan into hiding. Now, all he could do was manual labour jobs, paid in cash, to put food on the table.
Gary and Carl were finding the adjustment difficult. At 5, Ron didn't remember much of their life in the country. Life in the big city, with their postage stamp garden, was all he knew. His brothers had spent most of their childhood barely wearing clothes, running endlessly on the family farm. Now there were rules. Endless rules on how to walk, talk, dress and most importantly, how to live among the crush of millions of humans and not be discovered.
This was why Gary was taking a beating. To win was to be noticed and recognized as exceptional, which was the one thing he couldn't do. None of them could.
Surprisingly, Stevie never picked on their brother Carl. Ron guessed, like sharks, bullies recognized their own and stayed clear of one another.
Stevie liked to express himself in colourful language and did so particularly vibrantly as Gary rose to one knee, coins spilling out of the rip in his pocket onto the sandy ground. Stevie picked them up greedily.
As always, it was about money. Stevie liked to say he was protecting us from bigger bullies, not that anyone ever saw them. Usually, Gary would simply hand over what his mom had given him to buy lunch at the school cafeteria, but today was different. Today was Ron's first day of school, and Stevie wanted two donations. Gary refused.
"Next time, when I tell you to pay, you pay." Stevie said as he meticulously picked up every nickel and dime. "I'm not doing this for free."
Gary brushed the dirt away from his mouth with the back of his hand. "That's what your mother said."
Ron didn't know what that meant, but it did two things: It immediately redirected the seventh graders' laughter from Gary to Stevie, and, perhaps more importantly, it sent Stevie into a blind rage. He lunged at Gary wildly. Gary, however, didn't duck or flinch. Instead, he just calmly turned his body and grabbed Stevie's arm. Momentum carried Stevie over Gary, who stood up and effortlessly flipped Stevie over his shoulder. He landed on his back, air knocked out of him in an audible woosh. Then, and Ron was never sure it was calculated or the result of adrenaline, Gary, still holding Stevie's arm, pulled down in the opposite direction, snapping it at the elbow.
The other boys immediately released Ron. One even threw up. Then they ran in all directions, leaving Stevie screaming in the dirt.
Two other things happened that day. Stevie never bothered another student, and Ron's first day became his last as his family packed their things and moved.
The meeting hall was silent as Lycanon slowly circled Gary. Those in attendance had spread out to form a circle around them. Gary was frighteningly calm. Growing up, it was as if all the fear had gone to Ron and all the anger to Carl. With his clean-cut good looks, Gary never raised his voice and overreacted. He couldn't have been any cooler under pressure if he'd been chiselled from a block of ice.
Lycanon, by contrast, was a tangle of white fury. His body had scars, a testament to how many battles he'd fought. As a rule, werewolves healed all but the most catastrophic injuries between shifts. The magical energies that powered their transformation also dramatically increased their powers of regeneration. Lycanon's visible scars told a story with many unhappy endings - for his enemies.
"Shift, you coward!" Screamed Lycanon, beating the grassy floor with his enormous hands. Ritual combat between Alphas required both combatants to fight as full Faoladh. Anything else was considered dishonourable.
Gary didn't shift, but the opinion of the crowd did. Ron could smell it.
Emotions have a distinctive odour, and as Gary stood his ground, the rancid smell of mistrust was slowly being overpowered by the heady scent of respect and admiration.
Lycanon leaped forward, swinging his right arm, then his left. "I'll make you shift," he growled.
Gary avoided the first swing, quickly sidestepping to the right, but not the second. It caught him square in the stomach, the force lifting him off the floor. He landed hard but managed to roll to his feet, arms coming up defensively above his head.
Lycanon continued to circle, fangs bared in a lupine smile. Ron noted he had hit his brother with a closed fist, not slashed him with his claws, which would have cut Gary in half. No. It was plain to everyone the Living Legend had no intention of making this quick. He wanted his prey to suffer.
And suffer Gary did, as blows from Lycanon rained down on him. Not enough to kill, but enough to hurt, a lot.
"Nothing to say?" Growled Lycanon as another blow came down on Gary's shoulder, snapping it at the collar bone. "You who so easily use words like "coward," yet won't even defend yourself."
Gary collapsed to his knees, his left arm hanging limp at his side. Lycanon lifted his knee and tried to stomp him, but Gary rolled out of the way just in time.
To Ron, it looked like a cat playing with a mouse. Until it didn't.
Gary was taking a lot of punishment, but he was also starting to avoid more blows than he took. Ron recognized what he was doing. Through blood, broken bones and unimaginable pain, he was studying his opponent, looking for weaknesses. Something their father had taught them.