Chapter 11 - Five Years

 

Art by SeoKanori. Check out her Tumblr, website and Patreon.

 

Warning: Unwanted advances from opposite gender

Nike’s arms hurt, her lungs were on fire, her head throbbed. There was nowhere she could feel pain that wasn’t screaming at her in some way.

Fuck.

Her opponent smirked, bloody teeth on full display. He was the Dowager’s latest acquisition, acquired from one of the smaller gangs. “That’s all you got? Not much of a champion are you?” he smirked.

“I didn’t win by mouthing off my opponent,” Nike retorted. She watched, wary that this was all a distraction. “I win by actually winning.”

“Tomorrow, it won’t be your name on their lips,” he declared, lifting his hands and pointing at the crowd.

The crowd roared. The stage was vibrated with its intensity. “Down with the champion, down with the champion,” the crowd chanted, feet stomping, hands clapping.

Shit. You can’t fucking please everyone.

His eyes glinted with satisfaction, his prize almost within reach. Nike knew that look, she had the same one on her face many a time. It was over confidence.

But he just might fucking beat me. Nike growled a noise of frustration. None of this shit. You’re the fucking champion, act the fucking part.

Though her strength was waning and her amp was burning, her only concession was releasing her hold on her biotics. If she didn’t watch it, she would glitch big time on stage. Fuck, anything but that. The thought sent shivers down her spine.

He wasn’t the toughest opponent she had met but Frank had been sending her out for daily fights. And the schedule was taking a toll. She sighed. It was the start of her successful run, a flawless record, that’s how the nickname came about. She liked the ring of it.

“Remember my name, you should know whose name to curse when you lose,” he taunted.

She laughed.

“Laugh it up, that hair mod will turn out to be a jinx for you,” he retorted, blushing. “Red ain’t going to be your lucky colour.”

“Fuck off, boy,” she growled. If it isn’t him, it’s someone else. On and fucking on about the hair.

Nike had gotten a hair mod at the start of her winning streak. And that started the whispers. “Red is her lucky colour. When you see red, you know you will lose,” or so it was said.

She just wanted hair that was red, hot flaming red. It cost her a good amount of credits. She even made sure to get it from Stitches, figuring he was a better bet than the ones hawking their wares down in the Underbelly. And suddenly the colour was irrevocable tied to her. If she lost now, she would never be able to live it down. Her reputation and winning streak was on the line.

He stuck two fingers into his mouth. His fingers jerked left and right. Eventually he grunted and pulled a tooth out of his mouth. “That’s all you can do, break a fucking tooth.”

Nike grimaced as he tossed the tooth in her direction. Music boomed overhead. The white enamel piece sailed in a parabola towards her.

You are a brick tied to me that’s dragging me down
Strike a match and I’ll burn you to the ground

The crowd’s chants echoed in her head. She glared. Shoulders hunched, amp flashed hot as she pulled at her biotics.

We are the jack-o-lanterns in July
Setting fire to the sky

The tooth hit the floor. Two bodies surged forward, both in a blue haze. Hurtling, barrelling, head on, fist first.

Here, here comes this rising tide so come on
Put on your war paint

Two forces clashed and the biotic energy snapped outwards like a mini nova. The crowd roared louder than ever for their chosen fighter as they battled for supremacy.


“Nike!”

Pain flashed across her face as her head rocked from left to right. She blinked and surged upright. The motion made her world spun. She promptly twisted and emptied her stomach. A thin thread of saliva connected her mouth to the small puddle of half digested food. Her throat burnt as she spat. Speckles of blood coloured the mess of yellow and brown.

“I lost?” she groaned, rolling away from the mess.

“How out of it are you? Of course you lost,” Scars spat. “Fuck, Frank is going to be pissed.”

Yeah, he is going to fucking pissed. She sat with her head between her knees, eyes squeezed shut as she prayed for the world to stop spinning. Fuck.

“I thought I had him,” she muttered. “What happened?”

“You guys knocked each other out with one of those flashy things you freaks do.”

She grunted, indicating she was still listening, eyes still resolutely shut. Shoes shuffled left and right somewhere to her left. It was Scars’ distinctive feet dragging gait.

“That sounds like a draw,” she pointed out, pressing the heels of her palms against her temples.

“Since when the Dowager do draws?” Scars retorted. “She is the boss, she ruled you the loser.”

“So I fucking lost on a technicality?”

“Fuck should I know what is a technicality, the point is,” Scars growled, “you lost. Fuck, Frank is not going to be happy.”

Something stuck her back. Nike bit back a groan. Lifting her head, she cautiously opened her eyes. It was slightly better. Her guts had stopped cramping. Her hands groped for the item that stuck her. It was her jacket. She was still dressed in her fight attire — shorts and sports bra.

Gone was the flat chested, scrawny kid. She was taller, toned and better fed. Her body had matured, it decided to grow mounds of flesh on her chest that were irritating and in the way at the best of times, sore and painful at the worst of times. It also grew hair where there were usually none. Her limbs lean and wiry, her body lithe and no longer on the edge of starvation. Five years of weekly fights would do that. She feasted when she won, denied care when she lost. It made her hard, it made her tough, it made her mean. She learnt fast to never lose. The Reds rose in their standing. They got better territory that meant Frank was happy, the gang grew, but most of all it meant Nike was safe.

But not today. I’m not safe today.

She ignored the dread that was crawling up her throat. Her hands shook with exhaustion as she dragged her arms into the sleeves and zipped the jacket up. She didn’t need men ogling at these fucking mounds of flesh. She wasn’t in any real condition to fend them off.

“I’m not going to be the one to tell him,” Scars declared, continuing to pace. The pistol clipped to his belt flapping against his hip. “This is your fucking fault.”

She concentrated on dragging her satchel towards her. Her hands were shaking hard, she needed something sweet and soon. A fight always took a lot out of her. She ripped the wrapper off the energy drink she had packed. Without pausing for a breath, she drained the bottle. Her hands were steadier now. Though her head still pounding, her body was aching all over, cuts and gashes were all making themselves known, she was mostly in one piece.

Five years, I ought to have learn how to defend myself better.

A loud smack echoed loudly in the empty fight ring. Her opponent was also being slapped awake by his handler. Even across the ring, she could see the shakes of a fellow biotic drained. The bloody mouth she gave him was a red streak across his face, she had a corresponding cut across her knuckles from his teeth. The Dowager had a larger team supporting her fighter, but the stakes were higher. One too many failure and they’ll be out on the streets before they could blink.

Nike had been managing Frank’s expectations well until now. After all, she was his fighter, his enforcer and his golden fucking goose. He needed her as much as she needed him.

Scars hadn’t stop pacing, if anything he was getting more agitated as he wind himself up into a frenzy. Five years hadn’t improved his ability to handle stress. She kept him in her peripheral vision as she watched the other team.

Her opponent, looking more boy than man under the harsh lights, was shouting. “I need it. I need it now!”

It was a familiar scene. He wasn’t the only one that acted this way after a match. His handler slapped him. She flinched as the boy’s head whipped violently to one side. It didn’t stop his crazed begging. He was crying and desperate, snot and tears streaming down his face as he pleaded. “I can’t hold on. I’m sorry I lost. I’m sorry. I will be better the next time. I will beat her. I swear. Please, please, please!”

His eyes found hers across the ring. If hatred could be made physical, she’d be dead. His wasn’t the first pair that stared at her this way. Malice and enmity fuelled by the craving for Red Sand was unstoppable. Nike was one of the few fighters in the ring that didn’t use and the only one who won consistently without it.

“Give it to him,” she shouted, she didn’t need another biotic deciding she was the reason they were not getting their fix.

The baleful eyes vanished in an instant. “Yes, give me. Give it to me. I’ll tear the bitch limb from limb the next time.”

Wow, way to bite the person trying to help you.

The Dowager’s men growled menacingly while Scars hissed in her ears. “Why the fuck did you do that?”

“Don’t worry, Scars. “I am fucking friends with Ci Xi,” she replied, not bothering to keep her voice low.

The intake of breath from everyone else was unmistakable while the boy continued to claw at the handler’s legs for his fix.

Fucking Red Sand.

Scars didn’t wait. He hoisted her roughly to her feet, ignoring her yelp of pain or her struggles to pull her arm free. He all but dragged her off the ring. Nike stumbled along to keep from tripping. They made their way towards the pre-fight prep rooms. He pushed her against the nearest wall. Her arms thrown out to blunt the impact.

“What the hell, Scars?” she demanded as she braced herself against it to stay on her feet.

“Fuck Nike, you’re in enough trouble as it is why do you have to antagonise them?” he growled, tossing the satchel at her feet. “I am not going to be the one who will tell Frank. You lose, it’s your responsibility.”

Nike snorted. “Like it is your responsibility to tell him when I win?”

His eyes blazed as he grabbed the front of her jacket and pulled her close. “What about it, yeah?” he hissed. “I remembered the kid that cried about her first period. You are still that girl, don’t you forget that!” His gaze softened, turning from anger to lust in an instant. “Unless…” he said suggestively, his eyes roving towards her chest where the zipper rest between her fucking fat mounds. “You could get on your knees and blow me. I’ll be happy to report the loss in your stead,” Scars offered.

His hand on her jacket relaxed as he grinned, anticipation and desire overwrote his mind. His hand hovered reaching towards her chest as Nike gritted her teeth. Her limbs were heavy and they were more anchors than extensions of her body. But revulsion curled her lips as she growled, shoving him into the crowd gathering around them, “Fuck off Scars. You are not man enough to touch me.”

The crowd laughed, pushing him back towards her. His fair and still unblemished skin reddened brilliantly even as the bulge at his crotch grew. His hand neither retreated nor advanced while he sneered. “And what the fuck can you do about it, girl?” His eyes raked over her form lecherously making she edged away.

Nike eyed the crowd, most of them ogled, some of them eager for the impending fight. Some of them recognised her, she could see the fingers pointing at her hair. Again with the fucking hair. Those that did pulled their friends away. There was more than a few whispers of “she is a biotics, we should get out of here.”

She grinned and pulled at the tattered remains of her biotics. “This!” She flared blue and with a snap of her hand, she pressed a single finger against his chest. Nothing happened. He flicked his eyes at her and laughed. “What is this?” This is—”

He flew backwards, taking some innocent bystanders with him, like a horse kicked him in the chest. With a solid thump, he collided against the wall ten metres baxk. He landed awkwardly and screeched. Nike rolled her eyes. A bump and he was groaning like he was stabbed. She folded her arms across her chest and glared.

“Fuck you, Nike. Keep your pussy. Nobody wants it anyway. I was going to do you a favour and make you a woman. No fucking way. You’re fucked, bitch!”

“A couple more ‘fucks’ from your mouth won’t get you anywhere to getting fucked,” Nike retorted.

But the coward didn’t bother replying even as the crowd laughed at his expense. He stalked off. Her head was pounding harder than before. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that.

But she gritted her teeth and glowered at the crowd. “Show’s fucking over. What the fuck do you want to see? Someone’s volunteering to be the next one?” she demanded.

The crowd seemed to shrink back as one before quickly dispersing. Nike hid her grimace, her amp flared hot from that ill-advised biotic show. It was burning skin and flesh. Vaguely she wondered if it was BBQ she was smelling or the scent of her flesh being cooked from the inside out. Please don’t glitch, just don’t

Gritting her teeth she grabbed her satchel and shuffled out the Underbelly with a stick of cigarette stuck between her lips, puffs of smoke trailing after her.


Five years was a long time.

Five years since her first fight. Five years since her body decided she suddenly was a woman. Five years that proved Stitches’ warnings true. When it came to Frank she knew where she stood, the Golden Goose but at the same time the target of his ire.

The others were varying degrees of comrades. Cutter, she got along well, a shared love of blades and all manner of sharp objects was the way they bonded. That and a shared cigarette from time to time. Scars and Tenner had never looked at her the same after she came into her womanhood. And that just made her skin crawled. While Scars was merely creepy and sometimes too stupid for his own good, Tenner was always ready with his words to put her and the others down because they were mere muscle and brawn. But lines were drawn and they were clear. Nike kept within them. And she kept them all happy by winning=.

Win and you’re safe. Just win. Just never stop winning.

Well, that didn’t happened today. She stopped, one hand clinging onto the links of the fence outside the base. She hawked up blood and spat, a cut on her tongue the cause of her troubles. before limping on as best she could. The gate was within sight. She sighed. There was always a couple of kids hanging around the perimeter, too young for the Reds, but Frank and the others never failed to find uses for them. One didn’t need to pay tithe for freelancers after all.

As Nike approached, one kid hurried over. He had been hanging around for the past couple of weeks. “Champion! Did you win? Did you keep your winning streak?”

Another sigh escaped her lips, she was too tired these high-energy kids. “Kid,” the word felt like it weighed at a ton.

“Tony,” the boy replied. “My name is Tony.”

“No it’s not,” Nike retorted, leaning heavily against the gate, the look outs watching the excharge. “It’s Tiny.”

The boy was torn between annoyance having been made fun of and the thrill of the attention he wanted. In the end, the novelty of speaking with the Champion seemed to win out. “Oh man, I got to tell the others. I got a nickname from the Champion!”

Oh fuck, what have I done?

“Do you need help, do you need anything?” Tiny asked, bouncing around her. “You’re bleeding. I can help fetch some medi-gel.” The boy jumped and darted about like his pants was on fire. Nike trudged into the base, she had no patience for him.

“Boy!” she barked.

He snapped to attention, his eyes shiny and wide.

Eager, he is so fucking eager. And young. You were young once she reminded herself. But not like this. I actually had a sense of self preservation. But if he stuck with you, he would get protection from the others, her brain helpfully supplied. Fuck, I’m talking to myself. I must have taken a harder blow to the head than I expected.

Nike dug around in her satchel and pulled a credit chit out. She scanned it with her omni-tool. 30 credits the display blinked at her. A couple of taps later, the credit chit held a balance of 100 credits. Enough for a couple of days or for a couple of kids if he’d share. “Here,” she tossed the chit at him.

Tiny snatched it out of the air.

“Do you have somewhere to sleep?” she asked.

He nodded.

“Safe?”

Another nod.

“All right, keep the chit safe.”

“Come on, Champion I’ve been living on the streets, I know how to keep myself safe,” he retorted.

Confident little shit. She shook her head as the boy took off with a laugh. His mission accomplished.

I must be a fucking sap if I’m starting to hand out credit chits. Ok, no more decision making till I get some sleep.

She turned towards the base and dread was clutching at her chest again. A loss was never taken lightly. What was the good of a fighter if they lost? Having the moniker of Champion meant Nike had more to live up to. She reached up and touched the bulge at the base of her skull, it was still warm to the touch. The amp laid underneath her skin, connected to the implant that was linked straight to her brain stem. At least that was what the extranet told her. It worked and it worked well but she could never use it for extended periods. Overuse only meant glitching. The mere contact of touch on her amp sent shooting pain up her head. Hissing, she squeezed her eyes shut.

“Nike, is that you?”

She jerked her head up. She couldn’t afford a show of weakness among the Reds, especially with the new members. Despite how much her muscles and bones protested, she straightened her spine and squared her shoulders.

It was Cutter. She sagged a little. “You look like shit,” he stated, standing with his hands on his hips, making no move to help her.

“I feel like shit,” she admitted, pushing off from the gate and started limping inside.

“Do you need Stitches?” he asked as he walked next to her, scratching at the thick bush he called a beard that covered his cheeks and chin.

Nike was expected to stand and fall on her own two feet. She was 15, she had been pulling her own weight since she joined, more so after she started winning regularly. Yes, they operated in a bigger capacity. With the Dowager expected a higher cut, her winings from the ring contributed a significant part of the Reds’ operational costs. All of this was explained to her by Tenner when she wanted a larger cut of her winnings.

“Nah, I just need some medi-gel, a shower, a shit ton of food and eight hours in the sack.”

“After you report to Frank, yeah?”

She didn’t reply. She had hoped to put it off as long as she could. “He isn’t in, is he?” she asked lightly.

Cutter’s eyes met hers. Something strange flickered at the back of his brown eyes, something akin to pity. “He is in.”

Nike deflated.

“And he is not in a good mood.”

Fuck. She sighed. “All right, I’ll clean up and see him.”

“He wanted me to get you.”

“Aww, fuck,” she cursed. “Can’t I even get cleaned up?”

Cutter shrugged “He wants you now.”

She pulled the sleeves that gathered at her elbows down, covering the gashes and cuts she picked up from the fight. One cursory wipe of a sleeve over her face to clear it of any dried blood and sweat. Her hair was a mess, too short for a proper ponytail, too long to be kept effectively out of her face. There was nothing she could do to improve the news she was going to give. A loss was a loss after all. It didn’t matter how pretty the face the words are coming out of.

“Lead the way.”


Five years, the base had been steadily upgraded. The fence was mended, all ‘side entrances’ sealed. With more credits, they no longer had to share the communal sleeping space. More rooms and showers were restored. The inner circle got individual rooms with doors that locked. Not that it was much use in a gang which had some of the best lock pickers in the Slums. Nike, being one of the inner circle but the youngest, got the smallest room. She didn’t mind, she enjoyed the privacy especially when Scars and Tenner seemed to think she would let one or both of them take her eventually.

She tossed her satchel into her room and closed it. Shoulders drawn back, jaw set, ready as she would ever be for what was to come. Cutter led the way. Passed the communal sleeping area they used to sleep in, now shared among 20 other members that joined in the intervening years.

Frank kept the Reds small. He trusted Scars and Cutter to keep them in line. But in reality she was the unspoken threat if anyone stepped out of line. Biotics was after all basically magic. What they did hadn’t change. Protection money racket, defending their base from raids and raiding anyone else. The Reds grew in stature, in influence and power. All of these flew over Nike’s head. She didn’t know and she didn’t care to know. Her job as she saw it was to keep her head down and continue to rake in the credits. Her situation wasn’t fantastic, but it was familiar, the rules were clear. The fights were exhilarating, the cheering crowd that chanted her name made her blood sing. She was strong and powerful. In that space she was the queen and she ruled with her fists.

Cutter stopped right in front of the door. This door was, unlike the others, metal. He rapped his knuckles against it. It thumped solidly. There was a buzz and the magnetic lock was disengaged.

Paranoia, Nike would called it if she hadn’t defend their base against raids. With power and influence, came enemies. She had her own in the ring, Frank had his everywhere else. Cutter pushed the door opened and allowed her to enter first. All the better to prevent her from escaping, not that she would if she intended to keep her place in the Reds.

Starting over is not an option. Leaving is never possible. Being top dog is better than being prey.

Her sneakers squeaked a little against the floor. The door clanged shut up behind her. A chill ran down her spine. The first section was lined with rifles and pistols. All of them purchased from dealers beyond the Slums. All the better not pay the Dowager her due. Some of them old school, still using regular bullets. Others modern, those used heatsinks. The inner circle got the new stuff, the others got the old stuff. Nike’s own pistol was tucked in the small of her back at her waistband.

Beyond that was Tenner and his desk. It was dominated by a terminal the likes she had only seen in advertisements. He looked up as she approached. A pair of eyes raked her body, a flicker of lust made his lips curl. “I like that look on you, Nike. That red hair, man. It’s a thing.”

Nike rolled her green eyes, not deigning to give him a response. Fuck the hair. She never regretted a decision more. She wished she never had the idea in the first place, especially after Stitches told her the hair mod was a dud and was permanently stuck on red.

Tenner waited, hand stretched out towards her. He was expecting a credit chit that held their winnings. She shook her head. “I lost,” two words to explain the entire situation.

He frowned. “Fuck, Nike what’s wrong with you? You were winning. It’s an almost year long streak.”

“Hey, Tenner, if winning was so easy, why don’t you go fight?” she growled. “This shit is hard.”

“This is exactly what we keep you around for. Your losses are fucking with my plans. And you know what this means, don’t you?” Tenner spat.

He stood, straightening to his full height. Carefully he re-positioned his glasses, chest puffing but Nike was unimpressed. She rushed up to him before Cutter could stop her. Her nose reached his chin as she tilted her head up to glare at him. Her chest mere centimetres away from his. She balled left hand and positioned it right under his jaw. His pulse throbbing visibly against his temple.

“Nike,” Cutter warned.

“Stay out of this, this is between me and four eyes,” she growled, not sparing Cutter a glance.

Neither was willing to back down as the seconds ticked by. “What are you going to do about it? You hide behind us, me. You’re hardly on the frontlines. You’re always safe. What do you know about risking your scrawny neck?”

Tenner’s eyes narrowed. He snorted. “Short-sighted, that’s what you are. All brawn, no brains. You’re too stupid to understand my plan, our plans.”

Nike bristled, taking another step forward, forcing Tenner to step back or risk her fist. “Say that again, I fucking dare you. Say I’m stupid one more fucking time.” The thought of punching the smirk off Tenner’s face was getting more appealing by the second.

I should just hit him anyway. What does it matter? I’m going to give Frank bad news already. It’s not like I can get into more trouble.

But he took another step back and folded his hands across his chest. A sneer curling his lips as he looked at her pityingly. “Stupid girl.”

Indignation and fury rose in her chest. “Fuck you Tenner! Fuck you!” She surged forward, ignoring all the aches and pain. It’ll be worth it. When I smash his face in he will never think I’m stupid again. What does he know? All numbers and tech, what the fuck does he know? I fucking had to teach myself everything!

Her arm drew back, but her forward swing was halted when a large hand wrapped around her arm. Cutter put his other arm around her neck and tightened. She coughed and struggled, furious.

“Leave me go!” she rasped.

Anger could only sustain her for so long. She was spent both physically and biotically. And even as pissed as she was, she wasn’t foolish enough to unleash her biotics in here of all places. Cutter didn’t speak. He went on tightening his hold around her throat. She coughed harder as her airway got crushed under his muscled arm. Her vision was rapidly tunnelling. Nike went limp, tapping her free hand on his arm. Cutter loosened his hold a fraction. “Are you calm enough? Got your head straight yet?” he rumbled.

She nodded gasping for air when he let her go. Nike bent forward, elbows on knees as she coughed. Tenner chuckled, but it was instantly terminated when Cutter growled. “Shut up, four-eyes. She isn’t wrong. You don’t know the risks we take. You don’t get to be all high and fucking mighty on us.”

Tenner spluttered. “You—”

Cutter bared his teeth and Tenner’s mouth clamped shut. Nike smirked, rubbing her throat to ease the pain. It was fucking worth it.

Knowing he was outnumbered, he spat, “Report to Frank. He is waiting.”

Nike sobered up immediately. he nudged her and she stumbled forward. As she stepped into Frank’s office, Cutter didn’t follow.

Frank’s grey eyes narrowing as soon as she stepped in. There was no doubt he had heard every word uttered outside. “So you lost?” he asked, his voice deceptively even and calm.

Nike knew his temper was barely held in check. The tension in the room was unmistakable. She had plenty of opportunities to see his cold fury up close and personal before. What she used to think of as protectiveness, she now knew was something far more dangerous. His cold gaze fell on her. She straightened, biting back the grimace as her body protested.

“Yeah.”

He sighed and rose to his feet. Nike stiffened, desperately seeking the comfort of having her biotics buzzing under her skin. It was her last line of defence. She clawed at her biotics and found the well dry, horribly dry.

He approached, all world weary and tired. Without warning, pain exploded across her cheek. Her head whipped to the side and back again. Frank looked at the rings on his hand. One of them was stained red. Nike pressed a hand against her cheeks. It came away red. One of his rings had raked a line across her face.

“Looks like I was right to add another fighter to the stable,” he remarked.

“What?” she frowned.

“Krycek,” Frank called, ignoring her.

A door off to the side opened and a teen entered. He was no older than she was. A head filled with hair so blonde it looked white. Nike stared at him and her eyes widened. “You.”

Krycek grinned. “Yes, me,” he rasped.

Lyrics Taken from The Phoenix from The Fall Out Boy