WARNING: CHILD FIGHT, ILLEGAL FIGHTING, PERIODS, MENSES
“Show time,” Scars grinned.
Nike’s jaw clenched. She looked at the domed enclosed fighting ring, a shimmering orange barrier separating inside from out. Her guts clenched. This can’t be happening.
“I have a lot riding on you, Nike,” Frank said. The smirk on his face was predatory and filled with anticipation. “Do well and you will get a cut of the winnings.”
“How much?” she countered instantly, her pacing halted.
“Keen on the profits huh?” Tenner said, licking his lips as he looked at her.
She angled her body away from him. Nike had no idea where they got the clothes. but they resembled the ones she seen fighters wore the last time. Tenner went to great lengths to find them. He made sure she knew.
“Here, wear this,” he said, handing them to her earlier.
“What is this?” she asked, a frown creasing her brow. She pulled a pair of too small, too tight black shorts and a shortened tank top from the bag.
Tenner’s olive skin flushed as he flashed her his teeth. She shifted from him, his grin verging on a leer. “These are compression shorts and a pair of sports bra.”
“Bras?” Nike cocked her head. “What are those for?”
The older boy frowned. “I… That’s…”
Words failed Tenner, somehow he flushed redder. Scars sniggered at his reaction. “Someone is embarrassed.”
“Do you want to explain it to her?” Tenner retorted. “How can she not know what are bras for?”
Cutter’s guffaw was loud and obnoxious. Even Frank was doubled over in glee.
“Why should I know about them?” Nike fired back, feeling like they were all laughing at her. Still she committed the words to memory so she could check up on them later. “Where am I supposed to learn about them?”
“But, you’re a girl!” Tenner exclaimed, as if it was answer enough.
Though the buzzing under her skin persisted, it was only an annoyance. Things were returning normal. Her rounds, her sneaking off to Meg’s. Even though she took care to ignore Burger if she was out in public, she could play with him while she was at Meg’s. The projector room was a safe haven for her. Watching movies of so many happy couples finding their happiness in each other and their families.
It was good, it was enough.
But Frank had to flip her world on its head. Instead of rounds, he puther in the front lines of raids. With each successful raid they ran, the more frustrated Frank got. She heard many a whispered argument between the boys.
“It has been more than a month,” Frank hissed. “She is supposed to be able to use her ability. She is supposed to use them.”
“I don’t know if this is how it works,” Cutter replied.
“Are you an expert suddenly?”
“No. Sorry, boss.” Cutter was back being a good little foot solider for Frank, no longer her ally. That week at Stitches was merely an anomaly.
Feet shuffled and furniture got pushed around. “Boss, the last time we saw her used her powers, she was scared and in danger,” Scars said meekly.
Frank grunted. “We take her on raids for this very purpose,” he growled.
“But she is good with her pistol and blade,” Tenner pointed out. “Maybe a little too good?”
Then silence. Nike breathed shallowly. What are they planning?
She didn’t find out because the others filed out without exchanging another word. She pretended to be listening to her music as she cleaned her pistol.
Just before the next raid, Frank took her aside. “Give me your pistol and blade,” he said.
“Why?” she asked, her heckles raised.
“We got new toys. I want to test those out,” he replied easily.
Frank pulled a brand new pistol and handed it to her. She had never seen the like before. It was blocky, it lacked the hammer she was used to and it was much heavier.
“This is a Kessler pistol from Hahne-Kedar,” Frank explained.
She examined the pistol and she couldn’t figure out where bullets went. Frank laughed. “This is new. It doesn’t run out of bullets.”
Her eyes went wide.
That night the raid started like they usually did. She would go in first and charm her way through, paving the way for the others. Frank had systemically took down all gangs smaller than theirs. But that day, they were moving onto bigger prey.
“That’s the target,” he said, pointing out the building to them.
Nike glanced at the words written on the building and she recognised them. A smirk tugged at her mouth as she read the words with pride. “Primary School.” she muttered. “It’s a school, a place of learning.”
“What did you say?” Scars asked, nudging her.
She shook her head. Frank looked at the others. “You know what to do?” he asked them.
They nodded and off she went.
The ploy was still working. Nobody rightly knew who was picking off the smaller gangs. The rumour mill at the Underbelly churned but nobody had caught on with their tactics. The Reds never took over the emptied spaces. New gangs formed to be raided when they were slightly successful. The Dowager kept silent, the Reds paid their tithe. Everything was fine.
Nike approached the base, making up excuses to get herself inside. The front door was sorted. All she needed to do was to stall for time. When the others got here, her job was done. The seconds ticked by. Her excuses were running thin and flimsy.
“What are you doing here exactly?” one of them asked her, her eyes bloodshot and angry. “Are you here to steal from us, girl?”
“If you’re not, why are you not coming in?” a man sneered, sniffing as if he had a cold.
“Cat got your tongue, girl?” another asked.
Nike tried to back away from them. Where the fucking hell are they? “I just want to hang out here?” she replied weakly.
A fourth person circled to her back. She shifted, trying to put all of them in front of her. In her distraction to keep him in her view, she showed her back to the others.
“Hey!” one of them shouted, “she is armed.”
Then all hell broke loose. Arms stretched towards her, ready to grab and subdued. Nike was faster, she had expected this. She went for her brand spanking new pistol. Two hands on the grip and she pulled the trigger.
It clicked. And nothing happened.
A chill ran down her spine. Why isn’t it firing? She pulled and pulled and pulled. It wasn’t firing. The people’s faces went from fear to glee.
“You are messing with the wrong people, girl!”
Fists plummeted and legs kicked. She screamed and struggled, her hair got yanked and her clothes pulled. Pain was the catalyst, fear and anger spurred her on. There was a pulling from her core and then she flared, bright and blue.
The shape of her magic - No, biotics. - was stronger, more brilliant than before. Suddenly it was easy, too easy. She could almost see its form in her mind. But she had no idea what she was doing, all she knew was she wanted them to back off.
And she just Pushed
The energy was released in a single explosive blast. The lights in the concourse shattered, the double door blown off its hinges and the four who hurt her slammed against walls. As quickly as the power came, it dissipated.
Nike was drained. She panted and fell to her knees.
It didn’t take long before the others walked in. She could sense their slack jaw awe in the silence.
And that led her to the fighting ring, dressed in a black sports bra and a pair of black compression shorts. She clenched her fists to keep them from shaking. “Nike,” Frank called from the other side of the orange barrier.
She looked at him. Her view of him was all tinted a bright orange. “Don’t disappoint me,” he said, his eyes hard despite the grin on his face.
Her jaw tightened, Nike cracked her knuckles, popping each in turn slow and deliberate. She nodded but she hadn’t forgotten what he had done. However, standing in a cage moments before her debut fight, she had more important things to worry about. With a grunt, she pushed everything out of her mind. Instead, she looked at the shimmering barrier that bisected the ring. There was a boy her age standing across from her.
Something about him tickled the back of her mind. He was shirtless, dressed in a similar black shorts like her. His chest had a patch of red, leathery skin running up his left shoulder. His hair was so blonde, it looked white.
I remember you!
It was the boy from the fight she witnessed during her first visit to the Underbelly. He fought and lost. Regardless, he was a veteran of the ring and of his abilities. She tracked the boy’s movements as he bounced on his feet, working his limbs loose. She took a deep breath and mimicked him, not knowing what else to do.
The cheering crowd, the curious stares and the screaming bookies, all of it was overwhelming. It was near impossible to ease her own nervousness. She spotted Tenner gesturing at a bookie, hands pointing and waving as they spoke. Then, a chime sounded. She could barely hear over the chaos.
She remembered Frank’s instructions.
“Give the bitch her bow,” he said, pointing at the window where she was supposed to bow to. “I will take her seat one day. Today is merely the start of a new era for the Reds. And you, my girl, is my golden goose.”
I’m a girl, not a damn bird.
She turned to face the window, keeping the boy in her periphery vision. The window was tinted black one moment and clear the next. A pair of sharp, calculating eyes looked down on them. Her eyes met the Dowager’s for a split second. Nike swore Cixi’s lips quirked upwards a little. Before she could process that little break in her almost bored expression, the boy started bowing. And she hastily followed suit.
Nike turned to face the boy. His blue eyes were dull and lifeless before, but had hardened when his eyes met hers. He bared his teeth at her. It was more than an eagerness to fight, underneath was sheer desperation. She licked her dry lips. He kept his eyes trained on her as they bowed to each other. The spot where her amp and implant laid under her skin tingled uncomfortably.
Time seemed to slow as she bought her fists up in a bad facsimile of the kung-fu movies she had watched in preparation for the fight. The house lights powered down, plunging the arena into darkness. A series of strong spot lights aimed at the ring, bathing the cage in orange and white.
Nike’s heart slammed hard against her chest. The roar of the crowd faded and disappeared. Music started blaring through the speakers.
*The time will come, when you will have to rise
The barrier shimmered and fell.
Above the best, and prove yourself
The boy let out a roar and rushed towards her.
Your spirit never dies
She froze. Shit. Air rushed out of her lungs as he crashed into her, elbow against her jaw.
This was something completely different from the raids. There, she had weapons, the boys and the element of surprise. In the ring, against a foe far more experienced than herself, she had nothing.
The boy didn’t press his advantage. Instead he stood and gave her space. Is he toying with me? She cupped her throbbing jaw, tears threatening to spill down her face. She glanced over her shoulder, trying to look for the others, but the darkened house lights meant she saw nothing but the pitch black.
Fists up, standing again, she let out a roar to psych herself up. Her voice was thin and high. She grimaced in embarrassment when he laughed. Her gut clenched tighter and the pain spread to her lower abdomen. Ignoring it, she reached inwards. The dark energy lay coiled and ready. It leapt eagerly at her call. She wrapped it around herself. Blue flames flared bright and eye-searing.
“Fight! Fight! Fight!” the crowd chanted.
She drew herself up. The roaring audience bolstered her confidence. With a Push against the cage behind her, she launched herself forward. Her fist leading the way. It connected against his torso. Fists flew, kicks landed, blows exchanged. Nike could barely figure out where she started, where he ended.
Pain seized her body as suddenly she was held aloft. “What?” she managed before even her throat froze.
She was floating in a nebulous blue cloud. In the absence of more strikes, her body was making its protests known. Blood was flowing from a gash on her forehead. Instead of dripping onto the floor, it floated next to her.
The boy glared at her, his face swollen and cut in places. He kept his body hunched as if straightening was impossible. One hand pressed against his side. She would have smirked if she wasn’t in such a strange predicament.
I didn’t know biotics can do this too.
“No more games!” the boy yelled, his voice hoarse and raspy, as if he smoked ten packs a day.
As abruptly she was yanked into the air, she fell. All she managed was a tiny scream before she landed on the floor, hard. Agony flashed across her side as air rushed from her lungs. She lay on her back gasping.
The boy advanced, teeth bared and fist drawn back. It flashed blue and came down. Panic forced her to move despite the spreading pain across her ribs. She rolled. And the fist slammed into the space her head had occupied. Fists and feet chased her, faster and faster. But there was only so much room in the ring. This was a losing battle. She was getting lightheaded. Her ribs hurt too much to take deep breaths. Her limbs were lead.
“Don’t disappoint me.” Frank’s voice echoed in her head. Stitches’ warning flashed across her mind. I don’t want to lose! I can’t lose!
Nike dug deep, summoning the dregs of her energy. Her amp throbbed and seared painfully in protest. With a growl, she launched herself at him. Her back hunched, her arms wrapped around his mid-section. She Pushed them clean across the ring. The air roared in her ears. What was seconds felt like minutes. He struggled and twisted. But her grip shifted to match. Nike locked her hands on his arm forcing it to stick out in an awkward angle. With a crash, they slammed against a column that generated the barrier.
Nike heard an audible crack. The boy screamed.
His arm was bent in an unnatural manner. She scrambled away from him, hand pressing against her ribs. Her lungs heaved as she stumbled to her feet. Blood, spit and sweat coated her body. She stared, mouth agape. He cradled his arm, shrieking in his raspy voice. As she tried to process what had happened, the crowd cheered. It drowned out all thought.
As the house lights snapped on, she realised she had won. The fight was over.
Her eyes searched for the others and found them hugging and jumping. One section on each side of the cage fizzled out. People from both teams entered. One in victory, the other in defeat. Nike stared as the boy was dragged off the ring by his handler.
She had no time for pity because Cutter hoisted her onto his shoulders. The crowd roared louder, chasing away all pain, doubts and fear. But deep inside, Nike knew. It was luck that she won. She was losing and completely outclassed. She should have lost.
Frank looked at her. He was sucking on a lollipop and he reached up to tousle her hair. “Good girl,” he said.
Despite her ribs, she bent and took the lollipop out of his mouth and popped it into hers. With a smirk she asked, “So what is my cut?”
That day, everyone learnt her name. And it was celebrated. Hordes of people roared, “Nike! Nike! Nike!”
Cutter hoisted her up and down. Despite the motion sending shooting pain up her chest, she had the widest grin plastered on her face. Her arms held up high and everyone’s acclamation rocked the Underbelly.
By the time she was back at the base, Nike was drained while the boys were riding on a high. Cutter and Scars were discussing how they were going to use their earnings, while Frank counted their winnings. Her stomach rumbled angrily as she trudged slowly behind them. In the end, she eschewed a shower, or even eating, and collapsed into her sleeping bag. Back pressed against the wall, she was snoring not a minute later.
Nike missed the knowing nod between Frank and Tenner.
But mere hours later, Nike woke with a terrible cramps across her lower abdomen and a strange wetness between her legs. She sat up, her hand patting on the wet spot. There was the unmistakable scent of iron in the air. With a groan, she activated her omni-tool. Everything was washed over in an orange tint.
She frowned. There was definitely a wet patch. She unzipped the sleeping bag and there was a larger patch underneath. Her heart quickened. The mess was the worst between her legs. Her abdomen clenched harder. She couldn’t decided if her ribs hurt worse than her abdomen.
Maybe it is something else. I can’t be bleeding. I would know, right?
Her hand quivered as she reached to activate the torch function on her omni-tool. As soon as the light changed from orange to white, she screamed. Blood, everywhere. Red stained her shorts and sleeping bag. She was bleeding and it hurt so badly. Why?
This must be a dream, another nightmare. Wake up! Wake up!
Scars jolted awake but growled, “Go back to bed, Nike. It’s too early.”
Cutter merely rolled over in his sleeping bag, mumbling in his sleep. “Go back to bed!” Frank yelled sleepily.
“No, but…” she stammered, struggling to her feet. “I’m bleeding.”
“Bleeding?” Scars parroted groggily.
“Look!” she insisted.
He activated his own omni-tool and his eyes widened. “Boss, she is bleeding.”
She hunched over as pain radiated upwards. Should she remain standing? Should she sit? The idea of sitting in her own blood repulsed her. This was different from skinning her knees while practising with Cutter, or getting cut on a raid, this was unknown, strange and unexpected. She didn’t hear Frank getting to his feet, grumbling all the way.
Scars remained an arm’s length away while the others roused from their sleep. Frank added his light to the mix. She jerked her head up and stared at him. Her eyes imploring his for answers. Something, anything to tell her this was ok. Another stab of pain made her sink into a sitting position, drawing her knees to her chest.
“What is happening?” she asked, her voice breaking.
Nike felt fear before, when she had no food for days, the slow creeping kind of fear that wormed its way into her heart, casting doubt she would ever find something to eat. There was also the heart pounding, adrenaline rush of fear when she went on raids. This was different from those. This was confusion and panic that her body had betrayed her. The one thing that worked all the time had failed her.
“You’re sure you have no wound?” Scars asked.
Nike shook her head mutedly. Frank frowned and asked, “How old are you?”
She frowned, lower lip trembling. “What does it matter? I don’t know!”
“Is this coming from between your legs?”
“Yes, maybe, I don’t fucking know. What’s going on Frank? It hurts!”
He chuckled after a beat. “You’re just having your fucking period.”
She froze. There was a name to this thing that was happening. It made things better, having a name to the problem. But there was only one problem. “What is a period?”
Frank made a face. “It’s a thing… a function that girls have.”
“Does it stop? Does it stop hurting?” she asked, her questions coming fast and frantic. “What do I do? How do I stop it?”
For once, Frank was at a lost for words. He turned and looked at the others. They either shrugged or shook their heads in response. “There is nothing you can do,” he said eventually. “It will end when it ends. It can’t hurt that much. Go back to bed. It will be better in the morning.”
Without a word of comfort, Frank turned and went back to his sleeping bag. One by one, the others took their cue from him and did the same. Scars was the last still standing. Their eyes met.
“Scars,” she called softly, her eyes wide and scared.
He shook his head and muttered, “Sorry. I don’t know how to help.”
Nike stood alone in the dark. Her omni-tool casting the only light in the vast space. The lump in her throat grew and tears threatened to spill from her eyes. Her day of triumph was ending in the worst possible manner.
Her teeth caught her quivering lower lip and she left the base. Her pace was slow at first but as the motion warmed up her limbs, she went faster. Eventually she was running, alone, down the darkened streets of the Slums. Her pounding feet took her passed the crossroads and a familiar bark stopped her dead in her tracks.
“Burger?” she called out.
Nails scraped against asphalt. And a mutt with one floppy ear, one pointed ear stepped into the street. His nose twitched as he picked up the scent. She grimaced, knowing the stench was overpowering. Burger whined a little and approached. He remembered all the times she pushed him away and ignored him while they were on the streets.
“I’m sorry.” she whispered, kneeling down.
Burger approached her cautiously. Eventually he put his head against her neck and she wrapped her hands around his fur. “What do I do?” she whispered.
The mutt pulled his head from her grip and licked her face heedless of the streaming tears and snot. His tongue lolling out of his mouth as he trotted off a little distance away. He looked back at her, tail swaying lightly. Nike got to her feet and followed.
They walked and walked. It was only when the familiar building loomed into sight, Nike realised Burger was leading her to Meg’s.
Lyrics taken from Warriors by Imagine Dragons