THE FIRST PUNCH THREW ME OFF BALANCE, but the second drew blood, exploding my vision as I was slammed to the canvas. My jaw throbbed with every heartbeat; a burn spreading just under the skin. I pushed against the mat, lifting my body up, and ignored the pain.
The room around me split, blurred, and then came back into focus. Bright overhead lights shadowed everything beyond the red ropes surrounding the ring.
“Two…” The referee’s voice broke through the deafening buzz in my head.
Wiping my mouth with my gloved hand, the smear of blood didn't surprise me. She'd reopened the cut on my lip.
“Three…” He held three fingers in front of my face.
My vision tunneled on my opponent. She was standing with her arms in a V, playing up the crowd. That was her mistake.
My mistake had been looking towards Silas for guidance. I had been unsure of myself, and that got me hit. Twice. Now, I'd put my faith in my instincts. I rose to my feet, never taking my eyes off her.
The referee stepped in front of me, lips moving, but his voice never reached me. I sent him away with a nod.
Facing me, her smile dropped, along with her arms. She bounced around, hands up to strike or block, her eyes intent on me.
The sound of my steady breathing filled my head, the beat of my heart keeping time.
She jabbed, and I stepped back, avoiding the blow. She had expected that and followed it with a left hook.
I ducked and took a swing, landing a punch to her jaw. My arm vibrated down to my bones. Her head jerked up and back at an odd angle as she fell onto the ropes. Before she recovered, I lunged towards her, swinging my fists. Blow after blow connected with her body and head; the impact shook my muscles until they were numb.
The ring disappeared, and I was fighting back for all those times I couldn’t. I was no longer in control of my thoughts or actions. Each punch fueled another, and I didn’t want to stop. I couldn’t stop.
The referee forced himself between us, shoving me back. I knocked his arm out of the way, gaining control just before swinging at him. Stepping back, I sucked in ragged breaths and watched my opponent slide down the ropes, her body folding as she hit the canvas. The ref pushed my shoulders, nudging me further away before going to her side.
My senses returned, bit by bit, with each flick of the ref's finger as he counted. The sound in the room wavered. The referee returned to my side and raised my arm. I pulled my vision from the girl crumpled on the ground with a bloody nose as her team surrounded her.
Silas stood in the corner of the ring, his feet wide and his arms crossed. His dark face remained like stone. He hadn't moved from when I last looked to him, except now the side of his mouth tugged up. Meeting his gaze, I returned the small smile. He inclined his head towards me as a pair of hands came down on my shoulders.
Dexter was behind me, shaking me, congratulating me, and everything snapped back into the present. Sweat and the metallic tinge of blood burned my nose, and the bright lights blinded me.
Only then did I recall Silas’s instructions from earlier. “It’s all a show, and if you win, you have to put on another one. Make the crowd love you.”
I raised my hands towards the audience, but there wasn't one. I was the opening act; no one cared to watch the unknowns, especially the girls. But I had captured a few people’s attention and smiled to them. Then Dex was pulling me from the ring.
We wove between groups of people, making their way to their seats, to the little room we had claimed outside the gym. Dex hadn’t shut up yet. He was going on about the fight, swinging his fists in the air as he recounted it.
I stepped into the small room, my eyes adjusting from the bright lights, and froze, adrenaline spiking. Gage sat in the corner, wearing only his boxing shorts, as a girl massaged his bare shoulders. Even in dim lighting, the lines of muscle stood out on his tattoo-covered torso. He leaned forward in the chair, his thick forearms resting on his knees, and raised one dark eyebrow at me in question.
Dexter nudged me from behind, setting me on the path into the room. I found the nearest chair and sat, stunned from my fight, and yet a nervous energy was now pulsing under my skin from Gage’s presence.
I tried to resist peeking a glance at him, but couldn't. He rolled his head to the side, giving the girl's hands access to his neck, but his eyes locked on mine, unreadable and intense.
Dexter blocked my view, handing me ice wrapped in a rag. I pressed it to my cut lip, letting the sting focus me back on my fight. A fight I won. He stooped beside me on the balls of his feet and started to remove my gloves. He cut away the tape supporting my wrists and hands, his wide smile causing his eyes to wrinkle.
I returned the smile as realization hit. “I did it,” I breathed, stretching each hand while keeping the ice to my lip.
“Hell yeah, you did.” He laughed. “How do you feel, Rea? Anything besides that lip hurt?”
“Nah, the lip ain’t even bad. I feel great.” Laughing with him, I stood up, pulling the ice away; bright red blood spotted the rag. I walked over to the mirror to check out the damage.
A rumble of a laugh made me stop. "I heard you got hit." Gage's voice was deep and rough with disapproval.
All the adrenaline from the fight must not have worn off because for some stupid reason I stepped towards him with my chin raised. “Did you hear I won, too?”
“That’s one fight, a nobody at that, and she hit you. Twice. Don’t celebrate that. You need to train, and do, better.” He smirked and leaned back in the chair, pulling the girl behind him onto his lap. She landed on him with a giggle and he hooked his arms around her waist before looking back to me “Think about that. Now get out of here and let me get ready for my fight. Oh and you should stick around for it. Maybe you’ll learn something.”
All I could do was walk away. I knew better than to speak up in the first place. I was usually good at keeping my mouth shut. The bleachers surrounding the ring were full now, the noise adding to the energy of the room. Electric excitement filled the air, lighter than the oppressive fog that came from Gage.
Dexter followed behind me, and when the door closed, I turned towards him. “What time does Gage fight?”
His blue-gray eyes were soft as he looked down at me. “It won’t start for another hour at least; he’s the main fight. Let's get you changed in the locker room.” As he walked through the crowd of people, towards a back hallway, he turned to me. “Don’t take it personal. He’s harder on himself. I think he actually likes you… thinks you’ve got something.”
I half snorted. “Yeah, right.” I shook my head. “He’s right, though. It's my first fight, I shouldn’t be overly confident.” Because the one thing I knew was that whatever I had done in that ring, I wanted to do it again.
Alone in the locker room, I checked out the cut on my lip. It hadn’t reopened all the way, so I wouldn’t need new stitches. Shadows of bruises were still on my eye and chin, but there were no new ones from tonight.
I nodded to myself. Yeah, I wanted to fight again. Hitting back felt good. But I needed those guys out there to help me, more than they already had, because I didn’t want to just fight—I wanted to be good. No, I wanted to be the best.
I wouldn’t let anyone hit me again.