A chocolate bar. The wrapper peeking out from under a pile of rubble. Hands shaking from weakness and hunger, Victoria grabbed it, her heart swelling in relief when she saw it was unopened and sealed tight. Probably expired, but she’d stopped caring about such things ages ago.
She ripped the package open and pulled the wrapping back, taking a big bite and trying to eat slowly. She wanted to enjoy this, because it might be the last thing she’d eat for a while, and because it was chocolate. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had some.
A mouthful of warm water from her canteen helped wash the sugar down and she took another bite before sinking onto the ground, her back against the still-standing section of wall of what had probably been a convenience store. Every time she scoured the remnants of a shop or supermarket, she was always hopeful that there’d be something to eat. And every time disappointment was the only thing she left with. Other survivors had scavenged everything already, so finding anything was pure luck these days. And her luck was running thin, just like her legs and arms, so skinny sometimes she couldn’t believe they still worked. How much longer she could survive like this she wasn’t sure, traveling at dusk, hiding from gangs of mostly men who, she was positive, wanted only to hurt her. Capture her. Use her.
She shivered and took another bite of her chocolate bar. Rumor was that there were villages of people, nice people, or tolerable at least. Places where you could work to help the town run in exchange for food, however meager, and a bed to sleep at night.
It had been over two years since she’d had an actual bed, over five years since the bombs had ripped apart the United States. She’d been living in an apartment in Chicago with her two best friends when, with no warning, the world as they’d known it had exploded. Barely anyone survived, and those who did scared her. Their wild eyes and slinking posture—and guns, they almost all had weapons—let her know they’d do anything to survive. And she was just a commodity or something in their way.
She’d spent her first winter avoiding fallout, holed up with a group of women, most of them older, in a house with a fireplace. They spent hours in front of it, telling stories of how things had been before the war. Sometimes they sang songs, their voices lilting as the flames tossed shadows around the room. She’d thought maybe that would be okay. Maybe she could live like that. But infighting in the group began, and when one of the women killed another in her sleep, even after assuring Victoria that of course she wouldn’t do the same to her, Victoria knew it was time to move on.
Her second winter she’d spent with a guy she met traveling on foot. He said he loved her, and she liked him enough to stay with him for a while. But it was more out of necessity than true friendship, and his jokes stopped being funny in February. Even worse, he was possessive and angry, and more than once scared her enough to consider leaving. Once April began, she told him she needed to move on, and took off on her own again.
She was alone. And lonely. And starving.
She shoved the rest of the candy bar into her mouth, the sweetness almost too much after not eating for the past two days. Another drink from her canteen left it empty. She’d have to find a source of water later. And probably boil it first, which meant making a fire. And all she wanted to do was sleep. Her entire body ached, and she felt as though if she had a safe place where there was no chance of anything bad happening, she would sleep for a week straight. But the situation didn’t allow such luxuries.
With a sigh she got up and forced her legs to move. But within minutes the world seemed to be swirling in front of her. Stumbling, she tried to see straight, but her eyes refused to focus. Her legs were rubber, barely able to hold her up. Her backpack, which held the few possessions she owned, suddenly was heavier than a ton of bricks, dragging her down. Black dots swarmed in front of her face, and though she tried to blink them away, they grew bigger and bigger until all she saw was blackness. Her legs gave out, and she fell to the ground, losing consciousness as she did.
Her body bumped up and down, her back getting more and more bruised by the second. Her eyes flickered open, and she could see she was in the back of a pickup truck, lying on a thin blanket.
A truck. It was rare to see moving vehicles; many had been destroyed in the explosions, and those remaining didn’t run, as though something had happened to their electrical systems, rendering them inoperable. She looked up to see if she was alone. A figure crouched near her, cloaked and hooded in a brown garment, body and head obscured by the fabric.
“Hello?” Her voice was scratchy when she spoke and barely audible, even to her own ears, and the vehicle was loud as it bumped over the ground. The person next to her didn’t turn her way. She tried to get up, to prop herself up on her arms, but she felt so weak still, like her limbs were too heavy to operate.
She raised a trembling hand and reached out, gently pulling on the scratchy fabric of the person’s cape.
He whirled around and rose, hands raised, ready to both defend and attack. His eyes, under the shroud of fabric, were dark and angry, a deep brown that glinted with gold. Five o’clock shadow roughened his face, the contours of which were that much more pronounced because of the shade cast on it by his hood.
His gaze fixed fast on Victoria’s for a few moments before his body relaxed, but only somewhat. He still looked like an animal about to pounce, always ready for action. To hunt. Or to protect.
She opened her mouth to begin asking questions—she had a lot—but the truck took a sudden turn. The man, as though expecting the movement, barely flinched, though Victoria bounced up and down extra hard. She winced as she landed, trying once again to sit up. This time she was successful, though her head spun as she finally got into an upright position.
The truck slowed, and Victoria could see through the truck’s cab that they were approaching a gated area. The man stood up in the back of the truck and waved up at the guard post, and within seconds the huge metal door, which appeared to be cobbled together out of various pieces of fencing and other material, swung open wide enough for the truck to enter.
As the truck pulled into the compound, people began to emerge from rustic structures, following them as they drove in. The driver stopped, and the man next to Victoria jumped up and opened the back of the truck.
“Supplies,” he shouted, pride in his voice.
The crowd let out a raucous cheer.
“Bring them to storage.”
“Got a new girl?” A bearded man with yellow teeth leered at Victoria.
She turned away quickly, feeling fear for the first time since she’d woken up in the back of the truck. Which was ridiculous, when she thought about it. She should have been scared from the second she discovered she was being driven to an unknown location with a man hidden in strange robes. But she hadn’t. Even though he’d seemed animalistic and tough, she’d had the distinct impression that he wouldn’t hurt her.
“I said, bring the supplies to storage.” The hooded man glared at the man who’d spoken, his voice low but fierce. There was more than a hint of warning in his words.
“Yes, sir.” Yellow Teeth slunk away, but not without a quick last look at Victoria, his watery eyes lingering a second too long.
Involuntarily she shivered. Where was she? What was going to happen to her? Was this one of those villages she’d heard about, where people all worked together to survive? Or was there some nefarious plot going on to use her before discarding her? And did it matter? She’d passed out from lack of food. How much longer could she have expected to stay alive on her own?
“Come.” The hooded man reached out a hand to her.
She huddled back into herself. “Where?”
“Well, out of the back of the truck, for starters.” The right side of his lips turned up in a half-grin.
“What are you going to do to me?”
“I was thinking you might want some food. And I don’t deliver. So you’ll have to come with me if you’re hungry.” He extended his hand again.
“Okay.” Still weak, Victoria crept forward, her small hand touching his rough, big one. He clasped his around her wrist and pulled her toward him.
At the edge of the truck, he lifted her without warning, like she weighed nothing, which was probably true lately. His hands were large and rough, grasping her waist without hesitation. She’d had so little human contact that she wasn’t used to being touched, especially with such command. And, strangely, her body reacted in curiosity, tingling at the warmth she felt through her worn-thin clothing.
But she didn’t know this man, and she needed to be careful. “Wait! Put me down!” Though she was aware she probably wouldn’t have been able to jump down on her own right now, being picked up felt strange and more than a little invasive.
“Just trying to help. You were passed out when I found you earlier, so I didn’t think you could stand, much less climb off the truck. Here you go.” He set her down.
Her feet hurt, and her legs were wobbly. Her hand pressed against her forehead as a wave of dizziness hit her.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake. Will you please let me help you?” He sighed, an exasperated sound.
“Please. Yes. I’m sorry.” She leaned into him as he put an arm around her, holding her up as she began to walk in the direction he led her.
“Luca. You sure about this one?” A man stepped out of the driver’s seat of the truck and walked with them. He wasn’t hooded like Luca, and he looked clean-cut. His arms were thick and tattooed, and his hair cut short. He had an almost military appearance, but there was something in his eyes as he looked Victoria up and down that made her skin crawl. “She looks like you could blow her over like a fucking feather.”
“She just needs some food. And then I’m sending her on her way.” Victoria could feel Luca’s body tense.
“Looks like she needs a fucking IV and antibiotics and deworming, you ask me.” The other man guffawed and spat into the dirt. “She’s not bad looking though. You get some meat on those bones, train her, she might bring in the crowds.”
“Maybe.” Luca’s voice had a forced casualness to it that made Victoria nervous.
And what was the training the other guy was talking about?
They reached a brick single-story building, and as Luca opened the door, the other man turned to Victoria and extended a beefy hand. “I’m Sarge. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He smirked, like his polite words were nothing more than a joke.
“Victoria Davis.” She took his hand, trying not to pull it away too quickly, even though his grip was tight and sweaty.
“I’m sure I’ll see you soon. If you’ll excuse me, I need to go check on my girls.” He let go of her hand and took a step back, looking her up and down again. Then, with a slight bow of his head, he turned and stalked away.
Victoria breathed out a sigh of relief, then looked quickly at Luca, hoping he hadn’t heard.
“Sarge can be a lot if you’re not used to him.” He raised an eyebrow apologetically at her.
“Yeah,” she murmured.
“I guess I didn’t officially introduce myself. I’m Luca.” He pushed the hood off, revealing a head of thick, wavy dark brown hair. Revealing that he was totally and undeniably gorgeous. Which, Victoria realized, shouldn’t be the first thing she thought about in this situation. But it was true, and she found herself blushing.
“Victoria.” The gold glints in his eyes sparkled as he said her name, and he grinned at her, a real smile this time. “Let’s get you something to eat.” And with that, he opened the door and she followed him inside.
“I can’t believe you have food. Like real, actual food.” For the first time in months, Victoria’s stomach was full, and she sat back in her chair. She’d had some roast meat, with crusty homemade bread, and a salad on the side. A hot cup of coffee was waiting, and she picked up the mug, wrapping her hands around it and taking a long sip.
“How have you been surviving?” Luca pushed his chair back from the table and eyed her curiously.
“Traveling. Mostly at dusk and dawn. Staying out of view mostly. It’s been getting harder and harder to find food, though, lately. Scavengers have picked through everything. And I don’t have equipment to hunt or anything. Not that I’d know what to do with something if I caught it.”
He nodded. “There’s safety in groups.”
“Like this one?”
He shrugged and looked away for a moment. “Yeah. Others too.”
“So what? Do you guys grow all your own crops? And hunt? And make clothes? How does it all work?” Now that she didn’t feel like she was about to fall over and die, she had a million questions.
Luca hadn’t eaten, but he’d served himself a mug of coffee, and he picked it up, holding it for a few seconds before setting it down without drinking. “We trade. There are five other villages like ours, all within a few miles of each other. Each village has a specialty. One farms and cans. One makes clothing. Another hunts. One works on mechanical stuff. Cars. Electronics, though there aren’t many generators working, but they’re trying to figure that out. The last one’s specialty is building. Structures, houses, stuff like that.”
“And what do you guys do here?”
Luca stared at her for a few long seconds before answering. “We provide entertainment.” There was something reserved in his voice, like he didn’t want to admit what he’d just said.
Victoria tilted her head. “Entertainment? What kind?”
He cleared his throat. “I think it would be better if I showed you. Tonight? Or are you too tired? You can rest if you’d like.”
“No, I’m not too tired.” She was, actually. Part of her wanted nothing more than a bed to sleep in for ages. But she was too curious about this village, about these people. And it had been so long since she’d felt safe, or relatively safe. Like she could rest without feeling like there was a target on her back.
“Well, then.” He rubbed his stubbled jaw with one hand. “I’m going to introduce you to Ruby, who’ll show you where you can clean up, and she’ll get you some clothes.”
“Are you saying there’s something wrong with what I’m wearing?” Victoria winked at Luca as she gestured at her ripped gray hoodie, stained with weeks of dirt and grime, and her torn-up jeans that honestly were only held together by white frayed strands of denim. She hadn’t seen a mirror in ages, but she didn’t want to know what her hair looked like. It used to be thick and shiny, back when shampoo and indoor plumbing existed. Now? She kept it back in a long braid and she couldn’t even remember the last time she’d washed it. In fact, now that she thought of it, she must look disgusting. She turned away, embarrassed for the first time.
But Luca laughed, his eyes crinkling. “You look great, Victoria. The way you smell, on the other hand…” He winked back.
Victoria scowled at him, but she couldn’t help grinning. It had been ages since she’d joked around with another person.
Like her name might indicate, Ruby had long, curly dark red hair, a color that clearly wasn’t natural. Her eyes were outlined in dark black, her lashes long and thick. Lipstick, something Victoria hadn’t even thought about in years, decorated her mouth. She smiled brightly and took Victoria’s hand.
Victoria glanced back at Luca, who smiled encouragingly, and let Ruby pull her toward a low, long building.
“So this is the dorm where Luca’s girls live. And Luca said you could stay here while you’re visiting the village. We have a bed for you, and I already got it all ready.”
“Okay,” murmured Victoria, as they neared the dorm. She wondered what Ruby meant by ‘Luca’s girls’ but, overwhelmed by everything, held off on asking at the moment.
Ruby opened the door and they were in a long room with beds lining one wall. Next to each bed was a dresser and nightstand, and curtains hung to section off private spaces for each girl.
“The bathroom’s here,” said Ruby as they got to the end of the row of beds. “We have one shower, and you have to be quick because otherwise the water pressure gets really low for the next person. The entire plumbing system in our village needs work, but most people don’t even have working showers these days, so I’ll take a short cold shower, right?”
“Right.” A shower. Victoria hadn’t dreamed she’d actually have one again. Like, ever again.
“So,” continued Ruby, “why don’t you go ahead and shower. I’ll let you get cleaned up, and I’ll lend you some clothes. You’re so skinny, but I bet I can find something for you to wear.”
“This is… thank you.” Victoria’s eyes stung, tears threatening to fall. It had been so long since someone had been this kind to her.
“Oh, honey.” Ruby folded her arms around Victoria. “I know what it’s like to be out there on your own. Trust me. All of us do. In here isn’t perfect. But at least we know where our next meal is coming from, you know? Here, let me grab you a towel and some clothes, all right?” Ruby rummaged around in one of her dresser drawers and pulled out a clean towel and a few items of clothing. As she handed them over, Victoria noticed a series of colorful bruises on Ruby’s arms.
“Did you get hurt? Are you all right?”
“Oh. It’s nothing.” Ruby waved her hand in the air dismissively. “We’re all pretty banged up around here.”
“Our… I’m not supposed to tell you. I think Luca wants to show you instead. I’m not sure why. I guess maybe because it sounds worse than it is?”
Victoria frowned, but she was too tired and eager to clean up to argue. Even a cold shower would be better than being as grimy as she’d been for so long now. “Thank you for all this.” She held up the stack of clothes and towel.
“No problem.” Ruby grinned, her smile as genuine as any Victoria had ever seen.
It felt good to clean up, to feel actual water streaming down on her instead of trying to wash herself in puddles of questionably sanitary liquid. But she was cognizant of the fact that the shower wouldn’t run for long, so she hurried, covering her hair and body in the bottle of Pantene—which smelled so good after being so dirty for so long—and rinsing off.
The towel Ruby had given her was thin but clean, and she dried off, then slipped into the clothes she’d been given—black underwear and bra, a pair of jeans, and a low-cut red blouse. There was a mirror in the dorm room, and Victoria stood in front of it. She hadn’t seen her own image in months, probably, and it was almost surreal now to look at her reflection. She touched her wet hair, hardly believing it was hers, so long since she hadn’t cut it in forever. She’d lost a lot of weight from having to scavenge for food, and she could clearly see her clavicle. Though her arms and legs were covered in clothing, it was obvious her limbs were thinner than they’d ever been. Even her face was thin, her cheekbones sticking out like a high-end fashion model.
But she was clean. And the clothes felt good on her. Warm and comforting.
“You clean up well.” Ruby grinned at Victoria. “So, you’ll be sleeping here.” She pointed to a bed at the end of the row. The curtain that separated her bed from the next was actually a child’s bedsheet with the alphabet on it, she saw from closer inspection, and gave the semblance of privacy, though it was merely an illusion. There was little if any privacy in this dorm room. But it was safe. And she’d have a bed to sleep in. Right now? It felt like a luxury hotel.
A flurry of voices sounded at the door. “The girls are here! I’ll introduce you.”
For some reason, Victoria felt a flutter of nerves. She’d always been outgoing and confident, but right now she wasn’t on her own territory. She was somewhere foreign, a place with rules and standards and social norms she knew nothing about. “Great,” she said quietly.
The door opened and four women in their twenties rushed in, talking loudly though they stopped abruptly the second they saw Victoria.
“You’re new.” One of the women stepped forward and tilted her head as she looked Victoria up and down. “You belong to Luca?” She pulled her thick black hair back into a ponytail and secured it with a scrunchie from around her wrist. Her voice was calm, but her eyes were critical. Judging. And not very happy about what she was seeing.
“I don’t belong to anyone.” Victoria wasn’t about to let this woman intimidate her. And she didn’t belong to anyone. That wasn’t even a concept she understood.
“Well, you can’t be one of Sarge’s girls. If you were, you’d be in the other dorm.”
“She’s just visiting, Marla. Give her a break.” Ruby rolled her eyes at Marla.
“If she’s just visiting, how long is she staying? Because we definitely don’t need any permanent additions around here. It’s hard enough making money as it is.” Marla crossed her arms over her chest.
“I don’t know…” Ruby glanced at Victoria. “Did Luca say how long you could stay?” She turned back to Marla. “Look. I don’t know the arrangement. Just be nice, okay? And actually, we could use some permanent additions. We’re all getting hurt without enough time to heal.” She rubbed her forearm idly.
Marla shrugged as she narrowed her eyes at Victoria. “You don’t get in my way and I won’t get in yours. Got it?”
Though she was fuming inside, Victoria forced herself to simply nod. “Got it.” How dare this person speak to her like that? But she knew it wouldn’t do any good to make an enemy on her first day. And the truth was, she had no idea how long she’d be staying. So it only made sense to be as easy to get along with as possible.
“Wait.” Marla took a step closer. “Your hair is wet. Ruby, did you let her take a shower? Ugh. Now there won’t be enough water for me to wash up before tonight.” She stormed past Victoria and into the bathroom, but as she was passing, Victoria noticed that, under her perfectly applied makeup, the remnant of a bruise shone through. It was a purplish bloom on her right cheekbone, and it looked like it had probably hurt. Or maybe still did.
The other girls introduced themselves: Petek, Jolie, and Sonya. They were all pretty and seemed much nicer than Marla, at least for the few minutes Victoria talked to them. But they, too, said they needed to get ready and were off, opening and shutting dresser drawers and crowding into the bathroom where Marla was still complaining loudly about not having enough water.
“It’s my night off tonight,” explained Ruby. “Come on. I’ll bring you to Luca. He said he wanted to see you after you got cleaned up.”
It was already dark outside, and the village looked vastly different from the way it had when Victoria first arrived. Torches lit the way along the paths between buildings, and there was a low hum of voices and raucous laughter. The mood was excited and happy, the air filled with the sound of people enjoying themselves.
“Come on.” Ruby took her hand and led her down a dirt path closer and closer to the noise and activity, until they arrived outside a makeshift stadium, with seats built up on risers in a circle. It was packed with people, mostly men but women too, drinking from mugs and plastic cups, talking and laughing as though they were at a party.
Booths flanked the perimeter of the stadium, at which people appeared to be selling things, mostly beer and food from the looks of it. A man at one station was filling up cups and mugs from a keg. “It’s bring your own receptacle around here,” explained Ruby.
“And how do people pay? Is money still a thing?”
“Gold. It always goes back to gold. Or services, but it’s up to each vendor to decide whether he or she will accept services as payment. Like, you can offer to teach someone’s kid how to sew in exchange for free beer at, say, five events. Or whatever.”
The smell of grilled meat drifted their way, and despite the fact that Victoria had eaten her fill earlier, her stomach growled. A woman in what amounted to rags was cooking skewers of meat over an open fire and selling them. Another booth was run by what appeared to be a family, a man and woman and two children, selling baked goods. Buns and small cakes and tiny loaves of bread.
“Hungry?” Ruby glanced at Victoria, who hoped her stomach growling hadn’t been that loud.
“Yeah, sort of. But I don’t, you know, have any gold. Or anything to trade.”
“I’ll get you something. Luca’s girls eat for free.” She shrugged and hit up the old woman cooking meat, returning with a skewer she handed to Victoria.
“Thanks so much. I can’t believe I’m still hungry after eating so much earlier.”
“It takes a long time for your body to catch up. Trust me. I was ravenous for weeks after I first came here.” Ruby walked down the path that led into the outdoor stadium, passing the rows of seats at the back until they were near the center, where, on a raised stage, a large chain-link cage waited. It was maybe twenty by twenty feet, with what looked like a padlocked door, also made of fencing material, on one side.
Victoria stared at the cage. Was Marla going to fight in there? It seemed more and more like that’s what was going to happen. Or would it be some sort of torrid dance or show? Maybe a strip tease? Is that what Luca had meant by entertainment earlier? She had no idea what to expect.
“There’s Luca.” Ruby pointed.
There, indeed, was Luca. But instead of the layers of brown fabric he’d had on earlier, he was dressed in fitted jeans that looked like they’d been made just for him. They hugged his muscular thighs, clinging to him with every move he made as he stood, animatedly talking to Sarge. Luca’s thick dark brown leather belt matched his cowboy boots, and a stark white button-down shirt casually fit his chest, the top buttons unfastened to reveal just a hint of a sculpted chest. His dark, almost black hair, looked thick and soft in the lights from the torches, and for a moment Victoria had the strongest desire to run her hands through it.
Closer to the people in the crowds now, Victoria could see men and women in black shirts walking among the spectators, holding up their hands and shouting. “Bets! We’ve got Mistress Marla up against the newest to the lineup, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Buck. Only a few more minutes left to put gold on your favorite. Last chance.”
Spectators raised their arms, eager for a chance to bet their gold on one or the other of the women. It must be fighting.
There was something terrifying yet exciting about the action in the arena, something Victoria hadn’t felt in a long time. Sure, she’d been surviving on her own for a few years now, and if that wasn’t exciting then nothing was. But this? This was different. It was being part of a community, part of a group that was organized enough to have entertainment. To place bets and trade and fight. And she hadn’t been a part of anything in far too long.
“I think you’ll be getting a front row seat as Luca’s guest tonight.” Ruby spoke loudly to be heard over the crowd.
“And you?” Victoria turned to her.
“It’s my night off. I’m leaving and relaxing as soon as I drop you off.”
“What do you do to relax?”
“I read. I spend most of my earnings on books. And we’ve set up a pretty good book trade with the other villages, so getting new books is easy and usually free.”
“I used to love to read.” Victoria sighed, remembering how she’d spend hours on the couch on the weekends, before things had gone to hell. She’d lie there and read, stopping only to use the bathroom or get a snack or, in the evening, a glass of wine. After the bombs, she carried a beat-up copy of Man’s Search for Meaning around, just to have something to leaf through every once in a while, and if she ever came across a book in her travels she took it with her, leaving it behind only after she’d gone through it at least twice.
“I have a box of books under my bed. Help yourself any time, okay?” Ruby’s smile was sincere.
“Well.” A deep voice made Victoria spin around. Luca was beside her, looking down, his eyes gleaming brown and gold. “You clean up quite well.”
“As do you.” Victoria felt a blush rise up into her cheeks and hoped it was dark enough in the torch-lit stadium that he couldn’t tell.
“I told her the same thing!” Ruby laughed. “It’s amazing what a shower and clean clothes will do. Now, if you two will excuse me…”
“Get some rest.” Luca glanced at Ruby, and Victoria saw true compassion in his eyes.
“Let’s sit. Do you want something to drink?” With a hand in the middle of her upper back, Luca gently guided Victoria over to two open seats in the front row. His palm radiated warmth through the thin fabric of the red blouse she wore, and she wanted to lean back against his touch. It had been so long since she’d had physical human contact. More than that, it had been so long since she’d felt that surge of desire that, undeniably, she felt around him.
“No. I’m good. Ruby got me this, uh, food.” She waved the skewer of meat in the air awkwardly, realizing that the nerves she felt being around Luca had totally taken away her hunger.
“Ruby’s good. She’ll look after you while you’re here.” Was there a touch of concern or worry in Luca’s face?
“She seems nice. And I met some of the other girls. Marla and… I can’t even remember their names.”
“Marla’s… tough. But underneath it she’s all right. She’s on tonight. Speaking of which…” He guided Victoria to her seat. “I’ll be back.” With that he strode to the door on the cage, followed by Sarge, who was in a black suit. They both entered the cage and stood next to each other, turning to look at everyone.
Sarge raised his arms. “Welcome to another Fight Night!”
The crowd went wild, whistles and cheers filling the air.
“Tonight,” continued Sarge in a booming voice, “we have the marvelous Mistress Marla against Charlie Buck, our newest fighter. Last call to place bets starts now, and the fight begins in five minutes!” He bowed slightly, and the bet-takers began calling out once more.
Luca and Sarge bumped fists, then exited the cage smiling and talking to each other like old friends.
While Luca and Sarge talked in hushed voices, their heads together, she entertained herself for the next few minutes by watching the crowds, seeing how they were interacting, surprised at how many people were handing over gold, betting on the two girls who were about to fight.
Finally an attractive woman Victoria recognized from the dorm entered the arena. Jolie, thought Victoria, pleased to remember another name. Once more the crowds simmered down, waiting for what she had to say. “Ladies and gentlemen!” she began. “Welcome to Fight Night! We’re about to begin, and it’s my pleasure to bring out tonight’s fighters. First, trained by Luca Oliver, we have Mistress Marla!”
Marla appeared on one of the paths leading to the stage. Her sparkly black tank top glowed in the light from the torches surrounding the arena. Spandex shorts barely covered her ass, and her long hair was tied up into a high ponytail. Black marks on her cheekbones reminded Victoria of football players, but everything else about Marla was feminine, though tough.
Once on the stage, she put up her arms and turned in a slow circle while the crowd roared. Clearly she was a favorite.
Jolie, who was announcing tonight, spoke up again. “And from Sarge’s gym, we have newcomer Charlie Buck!”
From a different path another woman emerged. She was small and wiry, her thin arms nothing but muscle. A skintight one-piece outfit resembling what wrestlers used to wear showed off her spare body. The crowd cheered for her too, but not as loudly, and some distinct ‘boos’ could be heard mingled in with the applause. Clearly the audience didn’t like her as much. Maybe because she was new? Or did it have something to do with Luca versus Sarge? Victoria didn’t have much time to consider the possibilities, because Jolie appeared to be readying the two fighters for the match.
“The rules are simple. No weapons of any kind. No eye gouging or biting. Play till knockout or submission. Understood?” Jolie looked from one girl to the other.
“Understood,” both Marla and Charlie intoned, glaring at one another. But they reached out and shook hands.
“Wait for the go.” Jolie exited the cage, locking it behind her with a huge padlock, which made the crowds scream.
Luca took his seat next to Victoria, but he was more crouching than sitting, like he was ready to spring up at any second.
“Knockout or submission?” whispered Victoria.
“Until someone can’t get up or taps out. They fight till someone goes down and stays down.”
“Jesus,” she began, but Jolie blew a whistle, and the fight began.
Transfixed, she watched the two women circle around the cage, facing each other, feet quick and arms ready, almost like they were performing a choreographed dance. But you could tell just from watching that they were totally in tune with each other. One would step right, the other would match. One jerked left, so did the other.
It was probably only seconds but it felt like long minutes that they danced and evaded, eye contact more intense than anything Victoria had ever seen. And then Marla jolted her body, quicker than a wild cat, her open palm landing hard against Charlie’s ear.
Charlie’s eyes went wide in pain and surprise, but she held her ground, surging forward toward Marla instead of backing away, which, thought Victoria, would have been her own natural instinct. She wrapped her left arm around Marla’s neck, pulling her in tight, and brought her knee up to Marla’s stomach once, twice, a third time before Marla managed to break the grip and stumble a few steps back.
Again the two women circled each other, each breathing hard. Victoria could hear everything, could see the drops of sweat beading the women’s foreheads, could practically smell the adrenaline coursing through the air around them.
Marla slid forward quickly, landing a punch to Charlie’s throat, and Victoria could almost feel it, the pain, the seizing up, the difficulty breathing. She’d be down, wouldn’t she, after a hit like that? Or could she stay standing like Charlie was?
But it only lasted a second before Marla pounced again, knocking Charlie to the floor and straddling her, then holding her to the ground with her full weight, tight and hard so Charlie couldn’t get away. She pinned one of Charlie’s arms and was working on the other when Victoria saw Charlie reach down into her shorts and pull out a knife.
That wasn’t allowed, was it?
“Hey! Stop the fight!” Luca must have seen the knife too, because he was up in a flash, unlocking the padlock and jumping in, pulling Marla off of Charlie. Blood trickled down Marla’s side where she’d been cut, thin trails that were gaining momentum and volume.
“Jesus.” Victoria jumped up and climbed up onto the stage. Sarge was there too, Charlie’s knife in his hand, and a somewhat chagrined Charlie was sitting cross-legged on the floor while Luca yelled at Sarge. But Victoria didn’t stop to listen.
“Give me… I need a towel. Something!” she shouted, looking around in vain. “Crap,” she mumbled as she realized nobody was helping, and she pulled her red shirt up over her head so she was standing there in her bra.
“Sit down,” she said to Marla, whose face had gone pale. She put her arm around the girl and helped her sit, then pressed the shirt against the wound. “I don’t think it’s deep, but I’m going to put pressure on it to stop the bleeding. You’re going to be fine, okay?”
“I… I don’t feel well.” Sweat beaded Marla’s forehead. “I’m really dizzy.”
“You’re fine. Just take a deep breath. In. Out.” Victoria focused on Marla’s eyes, making sure the girl was following her and taking deep breaths. “If you want to lie down, that’s fine.”
Luca knelt down next to them, stripping off his shirt and folding it up tight to put under Marla’s head. “We’ve got the medics coming. Thanks for acting so fast.”
“No problem.” Victoria kept the shirt pressed against Marla’s side.
“She broke the fucking rules,” moaned Marla. “No fucking weapons.”
“Glad to see you’re doing well enough to curse.” Luca grinned down at her.
“I thought you were going to work harder to make sure the rules were enforced!”
“I did. I do. Sarge and I both patted down you and Charlie before the match, remember?” Luca’s brow wrinkled, and his jaw tightened.
“So how did she have a knife on her then?” Marla shook her head. “It hurts, Luca, and now I won’t be able to compete for, what, like weeks?”
“I’ll make sure you get paid anyway,” he assured her. “Someone must have snuck the knife to Charlie after you guys were patted down. I’ll figure it out. Right now? We need to get you fixed up and rested. Yes?”
“Yes,” murmured Marla.
Two men and one woman, who Victoria assumed must be the medics Luca had mentioned, rushed in, carrying a makeshift stretcher built of wood with some folded towels on top. “We’ll take over,” said the woman kindly, kneeling down next to Victoria.
“Thanks. It looks like the bleeding’s slowed down a lot.” Victoria stood, realizing suddenly that not only was she standing in the middle of a stadium in a bra, but blood was smeared over her arms and chest and stomach.
The medics carried Marla out, and the crowd roared in applause for the fallen fighter. A woman from the crowd rushed up and crooked her finger for Victoria to come closer.
“What’s your name, dear? You did such a good job helping out just now!” she said.
The woman nodded, then headed back to her seat. But instead of sitting, she kept standing and turned to face the rest of the audience. “Victoria! Victoria!” she began to chant, and it slowly caught on until everyone was screaming Victoria’s name in unison.
How was she supposed to react? Luca looked still shocked by what had happened, but also like he needed to make the best of the situation. He smiled broadly and gestured toward Victoria, and the crowd went even more wild.
After a few seconds, he put up his arms to silence the people. “Our guest Victoria was quick thinking tonight, wasn’t she?”
Whistles and screams broke out, but Luca silenced them again.
“As you know, although we have few rules for Fight Night, the ones we have are strictly enforced. No weapons is one, and somehow Marla’s opponent snuck in a knife. It looks like Marla will be fine, but as specified in the guidelines, the win automatically goes to the fighter who is attacked in any unfair means, such as this. So the victor tonight is Marla!”
Now there was no stopping the crowd, since most of them had bet on Marla, and gold spoke louder than anything, it seemed to Victoria.
“Stop at the payout booth on your way home tonight to collect your winnings, if you were lucky enough to make the proper bet. Have a good night. See you Wednesday evening!” Luca bowed slightly, and the crowd began to dismiss itself, heading to the exit, some stopping for beer and food on the way, and lots making their way to the payout booth.
Victoria looked up at Luca. “So I, uh, need to go shower again. And get some clothes.” Her arms were still crossed over her chest in an attempt at dignity.
“I’m sorry about this.” Luca shook his head, his eyes intense and bright as they stared into hers. “It’s not usually like this, although…” His voice trailed off.
He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again. “Nothing. Can you find your way back to the dorms? I need to have a talk with Sarge.” He practically spit the name.
“Yeah. I can. I’ve basically been on my own for two years. I can take care of myself. Goodnight, Luca.”
He took her hands in his, squeezing them gently. “Goodnight, Victoria. Thank you for being my guest tonight. I promise tomorrow I’ll do something less… bloody… with you. If you’re up for it, that is.” He tilted up the corner of his mouth in a grin, undeniably sexy.
As if Victoria would say no. “I’d like that,” she stammered.
“Good.” He held her hands for a few moments more before letting go. “Be safe.”
Her stomach swirled with excitement and nerves as she headed to the path that led to the dorms.