The stairs stretched on for what felt like forever. The metal steps resonated under our feet, sending jolts up my feet. I hadn’t realized that my knees were weak until one particular shake threatened to make my knees buckle under me. I grabbed the handrail, feeling the ache in my fingers and wrist. I swore I could feel the indentations of the gun imprinted on my hand, an invisible reminder of what I did.
It was out of necessity, I knew that. Everything leading up to this moment was out of necessity. Although I had hoped that Grandfather would show up miraculously and deliver his vengeance, I had a nagging sensation that it was up to me to take him down. I looked over at Dennis, Heathcliff, and Wolfgang, all steadily climbing up just a few steps ahead of me. I corrected myself: it was up to us to take him down.
The Dragon had entangled all of our lives into a convoluted mess, leading us on this whirlwind chase, hurting the people dear to us without worry or care. Charlie popped up into my mind, and knowing Terry and Terry’s medical expertise, I knew I was going to see his face again after all this. He’ll want to know what happened in the end, and I felt like it was only fitting to have a good ending.
“We’re here,” Dennis interrupted my thought, coming to a halt. In front of us was a bolt covered door, made of the same black metal as the interior of the submarine. There was no plaque denoting this room as the Dragon’s den, but the door felt foreboding, an unspoken warning written on it.
Wolfgang took a deep breath. “Well, are we ready?”
The others collectively took a step towards the door.
“Wait,” I blurted out, and they whirled around to face me, concern mapped out on their faces. I clenched my fist, trying to erase the ghosting feeling of the gun on my palm. “Try to not kill him. It isn’t necessary.”
There was a collective little sigh of relief.
“Well, we left our weapons downstairs,” pointed out Heathcliff.
“And he’s still kind of my dad,” said Wolfgang.
“Besides, we can still kick ass just fine like this,” Dennis said, hugging me to his side. “I know you’ve got our backs.”
“And you all have mine,” I added.
Dennis ruffled my hair and let me go. Stepping back, he did a little bow, his hand extending out in a flamboyant gesture. “Will you do the honour?”
I smiled at him. “I wouldn’t dream of anything else.” Reaching out, I grabbed the latch, and pushed the door open.
It was heavier than I had originally thought, creaking open with a laboured groan that reverberated down the staircase. It must’ve been built out of several layers of metal, intending to be bullet and sound-proof. Once it had opened just wide enough for us to slip through, we burst through into the den.
It was a large room, wood floors and delicate wallpaper covering the concrete. The lighting was soft, most of it coming from the lamps placed strategically around the room beside armchairs. Bookshelves and filing cabinets lined the majority of the walls, some of the bookshelves nearly reaching the ceiling. The one bare wall was the farthest from the door, marked only by a single desk and chair.
It all felt disjoint from the rest of building, as if someone was trying to replicate the feeling of coziness and comfort. Wolfgang’s eyes were wide as he took in the sight of the room, and he mouthed to himself something that looked like, “It’s the same as his study back home.”
Our observations were disturbed by the sound of quiet skidding. My eyes were drawn to the back of the room, where the Dragon sat, spinning his knife lazily on the wooden surface of his desk.
There was silence, only punctuated by the sound of the knife scraping and the Dragon’s fingers gently tapping the end of the knife each time it completed a turn.
After what seemed like an achingly long time, he finally looked up.
“Well, I should’ve expected it would’ve been you,” he said, not missing a beat with his knife.
“Who were you expecting instead?” I asked.
The Dragon sighed and stood up, walking to the front of his desk. “After all these years, I would think Damian would have the dignity to show up to the final showdown.”
I shook my head. “It’s not just about you and Grandfather any more.”
“Clearly,” mused the Dragon. He picked up the knife and started slowly pacing towards us. Although his eyes were downcast, I could still feel the concentrated, predatory aura oozing off of him. “You know, if you weren’t a North, I would’ve offered you a job with the League of Shadows here.”
“Well, thank goodness I am one,” I said, “saved you some time and disappointment.”
The Dragon didn’t reply, just barked out a sharp laugh. He stopped, only a few paces away.
Despite every urge to shrink defensively, I straightened up. “What are you waiting for?”
He looked up.
He dashed forward, quickly closing the distance between us. The blade was tucked on the inside of his wrist as he slashed in a sweeping arc towards us.
Ducking quickly, I heard the soft whistle of the knife cutting the air where my head used to be. The weapon needed to go, and quickly.
Before the Dragon recovered from his swing, I lunged towards him, grabbing his wrist and trying to jam it back. Heathcliff slipped behind him and swiftly hooked his arm around the Dragon’s neck as the other two tried to ram at him.
The Dragon’s leg kicked out and sent Dennis flying backwards. He landed with a slam against a bookshelf, which groaned in response and started tipping, spilling books with little thuds. Wolfgang sprinted over and braced himself against the bookshelf, straining against it as Dennis caught his breath.
Taking advantage of the distraction, the Dragon snapped his head backwards, meeting Heathcliff’s with a resounding crack. Heathcliff’s arm slipped from his neck as he fell, dazed.
I lost my grasp on the Dragon’s wrist as he twisted it, slipping out and immediately back on the offensive. The silver of the knife glinted softly in the lamp light as it glanced before my face. We encircled each other, alternating between quick paces and slow, meticulous steps. Each jab and slash a little closer than the last, we danced around the room.
Suddenly, he was pushing forward to corner me, and I felt the wood of the desk and chair behind my back. Grabbing the chair, I swung out at him, and was met by the jarring sensation of being stopped mid-swing. He wrenched the chair out of my hand and threw it to the side as I hopped over the desk, hearing the cracking of the chair breaking.
Scrambling backwards to regain my space, I felt my foot catch on something and I was falling backwards, straight onto Heathcliff.
I rolled to catch my fall, and saw the Dragon quickly advancing behind me. Lashing out, I felt my legs hook onto his, and I pulled hard. There was a grunt as he hit the floor, and as soon as I felt his weight shift off of my legs, I turned and lunged forwards, trying to pin down his wrist.
He jerked forward and knocked his shoulder into me, sending us rolling. I tried shifting our uneven momentum so that I would land on top, but he was grabbing and pulling and pushing me down. I blindly retaliated, trying to find the weak spots as the world spun around us.
Pain crawled up my scalp as he grabbed hold of my hair and yanked hard. In the one breath it took for me to yelp in surprise, I was pinned to the ground, and the same glint in the Dragon’s eye was matched by the knife being raised up, aimed at my chest.
I raised my arm up in defense when the weight of the Dragon was lifted. Looking up, I saw Dennis and Wolfgang grappling with him, trying to restrain his movement while staying away from the blade.
I scrambled up and grabbed the Dragon’s wrist, sharply bending it backwards, and the knife fell with a clatter as the Dragon howled in pain.
I didn’t have time to think about kicking away the knife before my breath was knocked out of my lungs as the Dragon drove his knee upwards into my chest. My vision faded black for a moment, and in the next, something connected to the side of my face.
From impact, it felt like thunder had struck my upper jaw. The sting blossomed from there, ringing in my ears and sending me backwards. I hadn’t even felt myself land on the floor, only realizing it when I shook my vision clear and saw the ceiling.
“Are you ok?” someone asked, and I turned my head to see Heathcliff.
“Just…give me a moment,” I managed to breathe out.
“Your lip is bleeding!”
Carefully tracing my finger along my lower lip, I felt warm liquid, and pulled back to see the unmistakable red of blood.
“Better my lips than anything else,” I muttered. I looked back over at Heathcliff. “How are you?”
“I’m-“ he started, but we were interrupted by a loud slam. I sat up slowly and saw the Dragon’s back as he leaned over the desk, accompanied by the flailing legs of Dennis and Wolfgang.
The rush of adrenaline replaced the buzz of pain as I quickly stood up.
Sprinting forward, I jumped and grabbed the Dragon into a choking headlock. He let go of Dennis’s and Wolfgang’s neck, and they rolled off the desk, gasping for breath.
Hands were immediately on me, trying to latch onto something that could pull me off. Instead, I dug my knees deeper into the Dragon’s side, tightening my grip around his neck.
Spinning around like a tiger chasing its tail, he quickly backed up, and I felt the metal handle of a filing cabinet slam into my hip.
I quickly let go, and the Dragon spun around, wildly looking around the room as paper rained down around us. Straightening back up, I met his fevered glance, and rolled my shoulders back in defiance.
His fist reached out again, but this time, I caught it.
Sidestepping out of the way, my forearm nudged his punch sideways into a large circle. My hand followed, twisting around so we ended up with the back of our wrists together and mirrored stances.
The Dragon wasted no time in advancing. His free hand was swinging at me, and he let the momentum carry towards me. Meeting his punch with my other hand, I let him push forward, steering us into the middle of the room.
Carefully trying to keep us in the open, I was caught off guard as he kicked out, clipping the side of my thigh as I dodged to the side. He let out a small snarl, staring at me with narrowed eyes and gritted teeth.
I closed my eyes.
“Flow with it,” I heard Grandfather’s voice echo in my mind, and I was back to the studio all those years ago, training.
There was a shift in weight as the Dragon attempted to jab towards my neck, and I took the momentum to move it a little to the side, feeling the movement breeze by.
There was a jerk as he leaned back and kicked out. Meeting his leg, I coaxed my knee under his and pushed forward. As he stumbled with the sudden weight shift backwards, I took the few steps forward to maintain the same distance between us as before.
“There is as much power in defense as there is in offense.”
Breathing out slowly, I opened my eyes.
Punch after punch, I guided them out of the way gently and back into a neutral position. Although the Dragon was more massive than I was, the shifts in momentum threw him off, sending him stumbling around.
Remaining silent, the only sounds that echoed around the room was his frustrated grunts, escalating into bellows of rage, like a bull never being able to catch the red cloth.
I glanced over at the other guys, who were slowly encircling us, preparing to tackle. Dennis mouthed a silent countdown.
“3, 2, 1-“
My hands were suddenly touching only air as the Dragon pulled an elaborate stunt, pulling and rolling away. I ran towards him, only to be greeted with the sight of the blade back in his hands, sweeping towards me.
I heard the air being cut. I felt a slight tug on a strand of hair, and watched as the tip floated to the ground, cut ever so cleanly.
Scrabbling backwards, I joined the others, carefully circling around the Dragon.
After standing up, the Dragon’s gaze was more focused, and his breathing more controlled. Silence reigned the room as he spun the knife in his hand, taking us in and making precise calculations.
Heathcliff and Dennis shifted in unease as Wolfgang clenched his fist. The Dragon controlled the room now, and we were waiting for the next move.
The door slammed open. The tension broke as the focus shifted towards the new person standing there.
He was a slightly rotund man, his face borderline jovial, if it wasn’t for the shade of raging red that coloured it. What little hair he had was frazzled, and singed by what looked like close gunfire. His dress clothes were askew, off-set by his somehow perfectly neat tie. A fanatical gleam was in his eyes as he focused his attention on the Dragon.
“You!” he shouted, waving around an accusatory finger.
The Dragon’s eyebrow quirked up. “Can this not wait a little longer?” he asked, gesturing towards us. “I’m a little busy.”
“No, this can’t wait!” the man exclaimed. “I’ve had enough of waiting! I’ve had enough of ridicule!”
“Now, now,” said the Dragon, “you’re as much a part of us as the rest of the League, why would we ridicule you-“
“And I’ve had enough of you!” finished the man. “You…you’re an incompetent leader! A heretic! A man of falsity and trickery and-“
The Dragon groaned. “First Mr. Wolf, and now you?”
The man straightened up, adjusting the collar of his shirt. “Mr. Wolf? Oh, no, Mr. Wolf would not be a good replacement at all,” he muttered, shaking his head slowly. “No, this group needs a new, refreshing take!” He puffed himself up.
Pausing, he glanced over at our group, as if preparing to make a largely important announcement.
“I, the Hippopotamus, will take charge of this group!”
There was silence, and then laughter. The Dragon was doubled over, wheezing.
The man, or rather, the Hippopotamus, looked indignant.
“Oh, you’ve really outdone yourself,” the Dragon said in between laughs. “I guess reptiles weren’t enough for you.”
Heathcliff looked over at me. “Is he a terrorist?” he asked quietly, and I nodded back in reply.
“This is the ridicule I was speaking about!” yelled the Hippopotamus, back to jabbing his finger at the Dragon. “This is the first thing that I’m going to change about this group, no one will be allowed to make fun of my names!”
He stood tall, filled with grandeurs of triumph, just as Heathcliff tackled him to the ground.
There were sounds of undignified grunts as Heathcliff struggled to pin down the flailing Hippopotamus. After a few moments, Heathcliff had sat down on top of him, putting his weight fully onto the Hippopotamus’s back and wrists.
The Dragon stood there and laughed, wiping away tears. “Oh yes, you’re clearly the best candidate as a leader, Mr. Hippopotamus, yes indeed,” he managed to choke out.
Dennis glanced down at the Dragon, then at me, and then back to him, silently asking whether to try attacking him.
I nodded, and slowly kneeled down to pick up the remains of the chair lying at my feet.
Wolfgang and Dennis charged at the Dragon, who immediately reared up and blocked them, his hands around their wrists.
“You really think you can take advantage of me?” asked the Dragon, sounding maniacally amused. “You really think you can take me down?”
I swung the chair down, and felt the resounding, jarring crack as it met the Dragon’s head.
He crumpled down to the ground, the knife clattering out of his grasp.
“Well, that was easier than I thought,” grinned Dennis.
I wiggled my fingers, feeling the adrenaline rush recede, slowly being replaced with relief. Feeling the ache in my shoulders, I slowly relaxed them, and brought my hand up to my already bruising face.
“Don’t be quite at ease yet,” said a familiar voice, and I looked up to the door. There, bloody and bruised but smiling, stood Grandfather.
Fighting every urge to drop everything and hug him, I smirked. “Let me guess, you want me to tie him up?” I asked, nudging at the Dragon with my foot, who stirred a little.
Grandfather tilted his head. “Now, do you really have to ask me?”
Dennis fished something out of his pocket. “I’ve got some of this left over,” he said tossing the bundle towards me. It was the cord that Laura had given us before, and I knelt down, winding it around his wrist and securing it with several knots.
When I finished, I tossed the rest of the cord over to Heathcliff, who quickly restrained the still struggling Hippopotamus. I immediately walked over to Grandfather, alongside Dennis, and he grabbed the two of us, holding us tightly in his arms.
It had been so long since I felt this safe, this relaxed. Everything was falling back into place, a little roughly maybe, but it was happening.
“I’m glad you’re safe,” I said into Grandfather’s chest, and he eased out of the hug.
“I’m very proud of the both of you,” he rumbled, and looked over at Heathcliff and Wolfgang. “I’m proud of all of you.”
“Thanks, Mr. North!” replied Heathcliff. “It was quite the dastardly fight.”
Grandfather smiled. “I can tell, you all did well.” He looked over at Wolfgang. “It’s good to see you Wolfgang, it’s been many years.”
Wolfgang stiffened a little, awkwardly waving. “It’s good to see you too.”
“So, uh, Mr. North,” Heathcliff asked, “what do we do with these guys?”
Suddenly remembering, I pull back from Grandfather and Dennis. I look over at the prone figure of the Dragon and the still squirming Hippopotamus.
“Don’t worry about them,” Grandfather said, “we’ll get someone to pick them up soon.” He shrugged. “Besides, I think someone’s waiting for you outside.”
The guys’ faces all lit up.
“Thanks, Grandfather!” I exclaimed, pulling him in for another quick hug. “Don’t go anywhere soon without me, ok?” I muttered.
“Alright,” he whispered back.
Pulling at my hands, I was dragged out of the room and down the hallways by the guys, and I couldn’t even feel the exhaustion in my legs or lungs anymore.
We exited the building to the sound of rejoicing, with Laura’s men running and jumping around, on a high from the victory. The sun now lay low on the horizon, casting warm light and long shadows.
A familiar figure stood on the beach, looking out onto the ocean. He looked a little paler than usual, and his shoulder and chest were bandaged up, but he otherwise looked almost the same as the first time I met him.
I started running.
“Charlie!” I yelled, and he turned just as I barrelled into him with a hug. He froze up a little bit, then hugged me back with one arm.
Realizing why he hadn’t used his other arm, I pulled back hurriedly. “Sorry, did I knock into your shoulder?” I asked, gently patting his bandages.
He shook his head. “I’m all good.”
We were suddenly squished back together as the other three reached us, babbling and surrounding us in a large group hug. I couldn’t keep track of whose arms were whose, or who was talking to who.
“It’s so good to see you-“
“How are you-“
“What happened to you-“
“Doesn’t hurt too much-“
“Man, so many things happened-“
“You missed a lot-“
“I have so much to tell you-“
Suddenly, the group started to kilter, leaning dangerously over to the side. Someone’s foot slipped, and everyone was dragged down into a giant tangle of limbs and surprised yelps.
Lying in the sand, I felt laughter bubble up, the first time in what might have been days. We devolved into giggles as the feelings of relief and victory washed over us, as warm as the sun shining down on us.
“So?” Charlie asked as the laughter started to quiet down. “What happened?”
I sat up and looked over at the other three, and they smiled.
“Well,” I started, “it’s a bit of a long story.”