Something cold and wet prodded and breathed on her. Nike moaned. It was insistent. A wet tongue was applied liberally over her hand, then her arm, and eventually her face. Finally she gave in and opened her eyes. Sharp shooting pain ran across her body but chiefly over her forehead and arms.
“I'm not dead,” she muttered through cracked lips. Surprise didn't even begin to describe what she was feeling.
“You are not,” a nasally voice replied.
“Ross.” A statement not a question.
He grunted an affirmation and shifted into view.
“Why?” she asked. If the tables were turned, she would have finished him off even if she didn't have anyone she needed to protect. The question still stood.
Ross sighed, it was a sound miserable and exhausted. Nike levered herself into a sitting position, realising she was lying flat on her back in the living room. Muffled sounds of birds chirping outside were filtering in via the thin door. She pressed a hand against her amp. It was cold and inert.
Twice in two days, not good.
Burger licked her hand, reminding her he was still there. She scratched his ears absently. Ross looked over. Their eyes met.
“I don't want them to see. Tony—”
“Tiny,” she corrected albeit smugly.
He stared at her and said, “Tony, begged for you.”
“I owe him a debt then.”
“Where are they?” she asked, glancing about the house. It was really quiet.
“Out,” he exhaled through his mouth. “Begging.”
“At the Reds?” She cocked her head.
“It’s not safe.”
“I know,” he glared at her flatly. “But we need the credits.”
Silence lapsed between them. Eventually Nike pushed herself to her feet. She glanced about and saw her jacket and shoes she left at the basketball court nearby but not her pistol. She pulled them on and looked at Ross. His nose had ballooned to twice its normal size and breathing through the broken nose was next to impossible.
“I can fix that for you,” she said, pointing at his nose.
He looked at her warily.
“It will hurt but you will breathe better.”
He frowned, then winced at the motion. His jaw twitched and he sighed breathily. The eye bags and his slumped shoulders were indications of the sleepless night he had. And Nike was sure they didn't have access to food much less medi-gel. Ross was probably completely miserable before already. Nike could sympathise.
“All right, do you have an elevated flat platform?” she asked. “Like a bed or something?”
Ross gestured and she followed. He led her into one of the rooms. It was almost empty except for a thick mattress on the ground. “That will work, go lie down,” she instructed.
Ross hesitated but did as she asked. His eyes were wide as she approached. He couldn’t help scooting away from as she tried to lay hands on his nose. Nike stopped. She glared at him and he caught himself.
“I don’t want you to move your head after I start,” she said. “Can you do that?”
Ross nodded tightly.
“Do you need anything?” she asked. “Like a stick to bite?”
He shook his head. “Just get it done, stop delaying.”
“Brace yourself,” she ordered as she pinched the bridge of his nose lightly with one hand and searched for the loose piece of bone.
Ross hissed and winced, his fingers scratching at the mattress, but he kept his head still as promised. Satisfied with her examination, Nike looked at Ross, catching his eye.
She didn’t wait, she tugged. He trembled and shouted, “Fuck!”
From outside she heard a pair of feet racing inside. Burger was barking in a friendly manner. Nike trusted him to watch her back and she kept her hands on Ross’ nose.
“What are you doing!” someone behind shouted, judging by the voice it was Alex.
The kid really needs to take it down a notch.
Nike’s eyes met Ross’, she jerked her chin towards Alex and he nodded. An understanding passed between them.
“Ross!” Alex cried as she launched herself on Nike’s back.
She grunted, weathering the blows, but Ross was the one hissing in pain. Every blow against Nike’s back, her hands twitched. With Ross’ delicate broken nose literally in her hands, he wasn’t appreciating Alex’s protectiveness.
“Stop! Stop!” he yelled, high pitched and pained.
Nike sighed, her back already sore from sleeping on the hard floor. It didn’t appreciated the puny sized blows, they hurt.
“Ross, is she holding you hostage? Should I get her gun? I’ll shoot her this time,” Alex blurted before racing out of the room. “Tony isn’t here.”
“Oh fuck’s sake!” Nike cursed.
She took her hands off Ross and lunged herself forward. Her forward momentum sent both of them crashing against the wall. Nike caught the girl by the scruff of her shirt and hauled her to her feet. One hand against Alex's back, another twisting her arm up her back, she had no choice but to be steered by Nike. She marched the girl back towards the room. Ross was staggering out, concern written all over his face.
“Let her go,” he barked.
Nike rolled her eyes and pushed Alex towards Ross. “Keep her under control and away from the Reds. She won’t last a second with that temper.”
Alex bared her teeth. Nike snorted, unimpressed. The girl grated on her nerves in a way she couldn’t explain. Burger was whining and licked her hand. Nike scratched his ear.
“Don’t touch him, he belongs to us!” Alex snapped.
Nike flicked her eyes at Ross. He groaned and pressed a finger against his temple. Alex detected the look and tried to grab Burger. The dog danced away, spooked by the movement. Her patience was paper thin and she needed to get back to base. “My pistol,” she said, hand out, palm up.
“No! It’s ours now!”
Nike’s green eyes flashed at Alex. Black hair and tanned skin, under fed, but she was so fucking head strong. “Girl, shut up.”
Alex growled as Ross put a restraining hand on her shoulder. “Alex, just cool it. You’re not making things better.”
Nike had no patience left. She thrust her hand out again. “Gun, now.”
“Alex, get it.”
The girl was prepared to protest again but Ross said, “She was helping me set my nose. She is not going to hurt us.” He kept his eyes trained on Nike, a question hovered between them. She gave him a short jerk of her head in affirmation. Nike just wanted to get her stuff and leave.
Alex returned, gun in hand, sullen expression permanently stuck on her face. She paused half way between Nike and Ross. Nike thrusted her hand in Alex’s direction. She shrank backwards. “Give it back,” Ross coaxed.
Alex didn’t move. Nike exchanged another look with Ross. He nodded his permission. Slowly she slid the pistol out of Alex’s unwilling hands. She checked it over. Everything looked fine. “Heat sink.”
Alex’s mouth grew pinched. Burger was winding his way between the three of them, worried eyes watching. “Come on, girl, don’t make me do this.”
She raised her head and her eyes flashed. “It’s not fair! You come into our home and hurt us, hurt Ross. We took care of you and you are not even giving us anything in return! Some champion you are!”
With that Alex flung the heat sink at Nike’s face and ran out. Nike caught the heatsink neatly with one hand and popped it into her pistol. Ross sighed before groaning. A tiny silver of guilt niggling its way into Nike’s chest.
I know I’m no hero but I’m not villain either.
Nike was having trouble reconciling her own self image with what Alex said. Tiny’s pair of scared eyes flashed across her mind and she grimaced. One final nod in Ross’ direction and her business was done. “Burger, come!” she barked.
The air was fresh as she stepped out of the dark home the four made a home. How they came together, why they stayed together, it all mattered not. She pushed it out of her mind and took off jogging. Burger loped along keeping pace easily.
There were no raids, no fights. The next one was still days away. Nike had nothing to do. Frank and Tenner had their heads together more than usual. Probably hatching some scheme or other, but she didn’t want to know. With Krycek loitering around the base she had taken to staying out as long as she could.
“So confident?” Krycek called out, his voice always raspy, always dry.
Nike cocked her head at him. She just had her shower and getting ready to head out. There were members on guard duty, but most of everyone else were still asleep.
Krycek was standing bare-chested, his burn scars showing, all sweaty and panting. “You don’t train?” he asked.
“That’s none of your fucking business.”
“Not really, if you lose. I’ll be top dog and reigning champion of the ring. You really should consider getting those biotic booster shots. The amount of power I have? It is amazing.”
Nike narrowed her eyes at him. “I’m not touching that stuff. I’ve seen what it can do. You’re fine as long as you get your hit. If you don’t, you’re nothing more than a mindless Red Sand fiend. And you’re nothing but a slave to it.”
Krycek laughed. “Then be the fucking best!”
“Like you?” she levelled a finger in his direction. “How you bested your way out of the Dowager’s team?”
He bared his teeth at her. “Shut your fucking trap bitch. You don’t know how the Dowager uses her people. She takes your life, your blood and your soul!”
Nike shrugged. She looked at his scars. Some were new, others very old. They had been with him since her first fight with him. Judging by the shape of the scars, fire was the only explanation. And that was obviously how his voice was damaged as well. She levelled a finger at him and asked, “What happened?”
At first he looked confusedly at her, then it dawned on him. He narrowed his eyes at her. “You don’t remember, do you? The fire.”
Cries, screams and a thud of a body hitting ground rang inside her head. She grunted, blinking hard. “What the fuck are you talking about, Krycek? What fire?”
“You walked away and left others to die and you don’t remember,” he laughed. “You don’t fucking remember. I guess we were nothing to you.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
He just laughed louder. Nike ground her teeth together. There was no talking to this guy. She snorted, walking away. “Keep your fucking secrets, I don’t care.”
“Good luck with your next fight,” he laughed. “Maybe that red hair will be lucky the next time.”
Fuck the hair.
Krycek dangling some morsel of information, knowledge she was supposed to have, just made speaking to him unbearable. He was so smug, constantly taunting. All hopes of having a fellow biotic that wasn’t an opponent completely evaporated from her mind. Every conversation was provoking and demeaning. Tiny little words that chipped away at her ability to work with him.
It doesn’t matter. I’ve always been independent before. Nothing has changed. The lines have not shifted.
Gangs relied on Red Sand to keep their biotics in line. She was different, the only biotic that didn’t dosed on the stuff. Nike maintained her autonomy through her prowess of the ring. At the same time, Frank saw her as no threat. Krycek probably was dosed and then tossed when his usefulness ended. Biotics were nothing without their hit.
But I am different. I won’t be a fucking Red Sand fiend.
She couldn’t afford to slip. She needed to train, to be better and to maintain her grip in the ring. Nike walked out of the base and found Tiny waiting.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“Waiting for you,” Tiny replied. He looked at her meaningfully, then glanced at the members who were on guard duty.
Oh for fuck’s sake, this boy…
Her secret was out to four other strangers, unless she wanted to silence them permanently, she was going to have to keep them sweet. “Come on,” she said.
Tiny ran to keep up to her loping strides.
Don't you cry for the lost
She led him down the streets, passed Red Sand addict sprawled out on the ground, passed the many younger members of various gangs. Music rang from her omni-tool.
Smile for the living
Get what you need and give what you're given
Her flaming red hair and her brilliant green eyes was enough for most to know who she was. There were perks to being the Champion after all.
Life's for the living so live it
Or you're better off dead
“Your music is so old,” Tiny remarked.
Nike rolled her eyes. “Everyone is a critic. You can decide on the music when you get your own omni-tool.”
Tiny was like a tiny satellite that revolved around her. He ranged forward kicking at trash, he hung back when he got too far ahead, but he never ventured far. On and on, Nike walked. She came to her old place and stopped. Tiny looked at her curiously. “Why are we here?” he asked. “I figure you should just give me some more credits and I can take care of things.”
She levelled a flat stare at him. She might owe him, but she wasn’t about to let him step all over her. He shrank a little, chuckling nervously. His gaze remained light and happy. Nike wanted to keep his eyes that way.
She whistled sharply. For a moment nothing happened. Tiny opened his mouth ready to speak again. Then a responding bark came as claws scrapping against concrete. Burger poked his head out from among the cardboard debris and bounded over. His tail wagging furiously as he stood on his hind legs to lick her face. She knelt down and ruffled his fur, allowing him to give her all the doggy kisses he wanted. Tiny giggled and got his fair share of kisses too. Burger, once satisfied, trotted ahead of them.
Most of the journey was uneventful other than Old Miller spitting in her direction as she walked passed. “He is not nice!” Tiny declared.
On that, she agreed. The cinema stood dark. It was still too early. On and on they walked till they hit Midtown. Tiny’s eyes were wide as he took in the sights. The tram ran overhead, the happy family advertisement of Suncorp replaced by a couple smiling down at her, a ring in the girl’s hand. Nike looked once and ignored it. One day.
Tiny peppered her with questions. “Oh what is this? Is it edible? Maybe I can steal it?”
Nike answered most as best as she could, scanning stuff that she didn’t recognise herself. She wouldn’t be the barrier between anyone trying to learn. Knowledge and the means to gain knowledge was important. However it wasn’t the point of their trip to Midtown.
“Stay close,” she said.
Tiny’s eyes were wide as his attention darted from object to object. He barely heard her. She smiled. She had the same expression the first time she ventured here. Instead, she turned to Burger. “Watch him?”
The dog just jiggled his tail at her. She chuckled and waded into the crowd. She didn’t come here often enough for the shops to know her. Most of what she needed, she could get from the Underbelly. But Tiny was too young, too brash to make it a safe trip to somewhere as dangerous as the Underbelly. She didn’t want to make him a target for the Snatchers. Midtown’s stuff might be more expensive but the people were… well normal. She just had to watch out for assholes rather than murderers.
It took a while to get what she was looking for. Eventually Nike had a duffle bag full of supplies. She had long since lost sight of Tiny, but she was sure of Burger’s ability to keep the boy safe-ish. She was relying on a dog’s judgement of things, but Burger was more sensible than most humans anyway.
As she turned to whistle for Burger, she heard a commotion somewhere among the throng of people. “Thief!” a woman shouted.
A high pitched shout forced her to move. Nike shoved and elbowed her way to the epicentre. As she burst through the barrier of humans, she emerged to find Tiny on the ground, Burger growling and a woman all red in the face ready to kick him. There was no thought, nobody touched one of hers. When did Tiny belong to me?
There was no need to resort to biotics or her pistol. She threw the duffle bag directly at the women. The weight was enough to plant her flat on her ass. Nike didn’t take her eyes off the woman as she asked, “What the fuck happened, Tiny?”
“I was just looking!” he wailed.
The woman snarled as she got to her feet. Kicking the bag as she stood, the bag barely budged. “He was not, he was going to steal.” she spat, “I know your type. Fucking slum kids, fouling up Midtown! You don’t belong here.”
Nike glanced at the gathering crowd to judge their mood. She was a biotic, but she wasn’t invincible. One lady was no problem, especially judging by her mannerisms. She was a normal. The entire crowd and maybe the Midtown police force, probably not. Burger stepped up to her flank and growled. The woman flinched but held her ground. Tiny got to his feet, patting his clothes down.
The crowd was still content to watch, mumbling amongst themselves. Nike risked a glance at Tiny.
“Are you hurt?”
He shook his head, his face all scrunched up in anger.
“Get away from me, you filthy dog!”
Nike whirled around in time to see the woman tried to take a foot to Burger. The dog danced out of the way. But she was pissed now. One hand reaching out, she yanked the woman towards her by her blouse. The woman yelped in fright. “You don’t get to fucking touch my dog,” she growled.
The woman struggled to free herself, but Nike’s grip was sure. Without any recourse, she hocked up a loogie and spat. The glob landed right on Nike’s cheek. “Ha, filth.” she laughed.
Tiny gasped. Nike saw red, hovering on the edge of snapping. Her eyes narrowed as she slowly wiped the sputum from her face. Her green eyes drilled into the haughty woman’s. She planted her soiled hand against the woman’s blouse and deliberately wiped it clean against the soft silky fabric. The woman shrieked.
Nike tugged at her core. Blue flames licked up her arm. The woman’s eyes widened, suddenly realising how precarious her situation was. “See this?” Nike asked.
The woman didn’t answer.
“This hand can send you to hell with just a single touch.”
The shaking Nike felt through her grip on the woman’s blouse was gratifying. Tiny stepped up next to her and laughed. “Fucker, serves you right. You’re going to pay! This is the Champion. She is the best!”
Not helping. Nike took a deep breath and focused her attention on the woman. “Apologise to my friend here,” she commanded.
“Help! Help! I need help! Please help me! There is a mutant here!” the woman shouted. “She will kill all of us!”
Nike gritted her teeth. This was exactly what she was trying to avoid. The crowd’s murmuring turned from curious and nosy to fearful and dangerous.
Time to go.
With a heavy shove, she pushed the woman down onto the ground. One hand snagged the handles of the duffle bag, the other wrapped around Tiny’s arm, Nike turned to go. The woman screamed, “She is going kill us!”
Burger snarled at the crowd. They were an opaque wall of humans that refused to let them passed. “Get out of the way!” Nike shouted, holding up her arm.
“Get her!” one shouted from among the crowd.
“We have to defend ourselves!” another screamed.
“Shit,” she spat before whispering to Tiny, “Do you have something to defend yourself with?”
He cowered behind her, eyeing the crowded worriedly. “No.”
Nike growled and pulled her blade from her sneakers. She flicked the blade open and handed it to Tiny, all the while keeping an eye on the people. “Make sure you point it at the right people and stay close this time.”
He nodded tightly. Burger snarled and snapped. The crowd moved, it was a barrier that flowed around them. It was impossible to get out of. One wrong move on her part, she would have a mob piling on her.
“Get her! Before she gets us!” the woman screamed, picking up a loose bit of concrete from the ground.
She was the first to cast the first stone. It stuck Nike on the shoulder. With the first, came the second. Nike knew there was no choice. She pulled a Barrier up around Burger and Tiny. The crowd surged forward. She hardened her Barrier, pouring more and more into it. Fists and feet hammered against it like rain against the exterior of a car. Every blow was one against her concentration, sending a tingle up her neck to her head.
Don’t glitch, don’t glitch.
Sweat beaded across her forehead. Her back hunched lower with every step she took. Tingling was quickly replaced by a pounding between her temples. Tiny clutched her right hand as she held out her left as a means to focus her biotics. Burger growled, saliva splattering. He turned and snapped at everyone, there wasn’t a single person to focus on. Nike knew she was strong with her biotics but she was only one person. After glitching twice recently, there was only so much she wanted to risk.
A roar louder than anything she heard before rippled through the market. The crowd screamed and many ran. Nike swore the ground shook. A krogan burst through the crowd. “What is going on?” he roared.
She panted, having fallen onto one knee from the effort of maintaining the Barrier. Her hand tightened on Tiny’s. “You ok?”
He nodded, but the hand that clutched her blade was white knuckled and shaking. Burger eyed krogan warily, he snarled warningly. Nike blinked and powered down the Barrier to ease her amp. It was getting dangerously hot again.
“What the hell is going on here?” the krogan demanded again.
Nike couldn’t help but stare. Decked out in yellow and slate grey armour, complete with what looked like tusks or bone of some creature decorating it, the krogan looked formidable. He was mostly tan with red tipped crests and he had some bone protrusion near his chin. She prayed he was an ally. I can’t handle him and the crowd.
The woman was torn between horror of a biotic and a korgan, and anger at being thwarted. Despite it all, she wasn’t stupid, she tried to melt into the background, making her escape. But Nike was not having it.
“Hey lady!” she shouted as she rushed forward, tugging on the woman’s blouse again. This time it ripped. “You don’t get to fuck off.”
The krogan levelled his yellow lizard like eyes at Nike. She straightened despite the difficulty. There was no telling which way he was leaning. Just because his disruption helped didn’t mean he was an ally.
“Kid, maybe you tell me what happened. That was a freighter full of pyjacks’ worth of trouble.”
Nike grinned. “Asshole happened.”
He snorted. “This is said asshole, I assume?”
“Bingo,” she said, jerking the woman to face the krogan.
He eyed the woman, shoving his face right into hers before doing the same to Nike. She stood her ground despite the significant height difference between them. “What do you need from her?” he rumbled.
“An apology to my friend there.” Nike pointed at Tiny.
Tiny pressed himself closer to Burger as the krogan turned to him. The krogan whirled around to stare at the remaining brave few. “Anyone got a problem?” he asked, pulling a strange weapon out from his holster. It wasn’t a gun and not quite a blade. It looked like a fancy club.
The others who were still watching retreated carefully as if backing away from a rabid dog. Pretty soon, it was only just the krogan, Nike, Tiny and the woman. And she was scared, judging by the tremble in her limbs. “Say you’re sorry,” the krogan said, almost gently.
The woman’s eyes darted between the krogan and Tiny. Nike maintained a tight grip on her. “Sss…” she started but her voice faded.
“You can do better than that, I’m sure.” Nike said sweetly. “Try harder.”
She pivoted so that the woman faced Tiny and waited. The krogan cleared his throat. The woman flinched. “Sorry, I’m sorry. Please let me go. I’m really sorry,” the words poured out of her in a flood.
Nike snorted and let go. The woman scrambled away, heedless of her shop. She sighed, wincing a little as she massaged the back of her neck. “Thanks for your help,” she said, as she hefted the duffle bag onto her shoulder.
The krogan laughed. “Kid, you’re a hoot.”
“Am I?” she replied easily now that the danger had passed.
Nike walked, herding Tiny and Burger in front of her, effectively putting herself between the krogan and the others. The krogan followed. His footsteps clomping loudly behind her. She stopped and the krogan did too. Nike frowned as she turned to face him. “What’s up?”
A chill ran down her spine. I fucking hope I didn’t trade one problem for another.
“I was figuring you owe me a favour.”
“Kid, I’ve been around the block. You were about to be plummeted to the afterlife just now.”
Nike pursued her lips. That much was true, but owing him a favour felt dangerous. “What do you need?” she asked carefully, the tension making her shoulders climb towards her ears.
“A guide, I’m looking for the Dowager and my employer helpfully provided fuck all.”
She let out the breath she was holding. “And you are so sure I can help?”
The krogan laughed. “I didn’t live centuries to read something so simple, so wrong.”
“I can do that,” she snorted as she started walking again.
“After I get rid of this,” she said as she gestured at the duffle she was holding. “What’s your name?”
“We don’t need names to do business,” the krogan replied sourly.
“I can’t keep calling you krogan, seems rude.”
For a while they walked in silence. Eventually he said, “Name’s Nakmor Drack.”
Nike grinned as she twisted her neck to look at him. “Welcome to the Slums, Drack.”
Lyrics taken from Life’s for the living by Passenger