A low, irritated groan left the lips of the prone–and still knocked silly–Eli Dresden from where she was laying on the floor. The cold cement felt good against her skin, better than just about anything else could–or, at least, it was until her phone started to ring. Without bothering to look to see who was calling, a calloused hand felt around on the wooden bench until she found the source of her annoyance and answered it with a low, rough-sounding, “What?”
“Oh my God, Eliza!” And just like that, she wished she had forgotten her phone at the hotel. Only one person got away with using her full first name anymore, and that person just so happened to be the only human being alive that could call her to heel. Such was a mother’s power, after all–and Angelica Dresden was one of the best at wielding that power. “Are you okay, honey? That man–”
“See?! I told you this would happen!” In the background, Eli could hear her brother’s crowing. Was it her, or did Elijah sound triumphant? “It’s not a game, and you’re gonna get killed if someone hits you like that again!”
“Not now, Elijah!” It was satisfying to hear the way her mother scolded her older brother, the brief moment of silence savored. Maybe it was how her bell was still rung from the lariat she ate from Clay Byrd, but Eli failed to realize that silence was just so Angelica could switch targets. “Honey, you need to come home tomorrow, go see Dr. Cooke.”
“Mom, he’s a kid doctor. I haven’t been…” God damn it, why was using her words so hard?! “Been a kid since I was twelve–”
“You’re always going to be my little girl, Eliza.” The matriarch’s voice was still soft and supportive on the surface, but Eli could hear the steel within that velvet glove assert itself when next Angelica spoke. “And right now, you’re going to listen to your mother and come home tomorrow. Am I understood?”
A resigned sigh left the blond, the sound more pained than any she had made during her match with Clay. “…yes ma’am.”
“I told you this isn’t fuckin’ necessary.”
“Yes it is, Eliza.”
“Don’t call me that or I’m just gonna open the door at the next intersection.” Would it be worth it to get hit head-on by a semi if it meant not having to hear her brother’s nagging again? The sweet escape of death was looking more and more enticing to Eli by the second. “You’re not–”
“Y’know what? You’re right–I’m not Mom, but I care about your wellbeing just as much as she does!” Elijah scowled to himself, his gaze remaining locked on the road. “Lord knows I care more about it than you do.”
Eli’s response to that particular line was to pointedly shove her earbuds into her ears and withdraw from the conversation–withdraw from her brother as much as she could.
If it wasn’t for him, she wouldn’t have had to come home in the first place and they both knew it.
Once Angelica had gotten a chance to see how banged up her only daughter wasn’t–thanks to Elijah, she had been all but convinced that Eliza would’ve been wheeled in with a wheelchair instead of just walking with some stiffness–the matriarch’s insistence on it being too dangerous for her to continue had died down considerably. After all, it had been her mother that saw (and saw to) the numerous bruises and scrapes and other injuries that Eli had weathered when she was in training for the Olympic qualifiers all those years ago. Seeing that she was just bruised and sore instead of suffering from the broken neck her brother had insisted she was secretly hiding had soothed Angelica’s nerves considerably… but even then?
Her mother had insisted on an appointment with Dr. DiCuccio to make sure all was well.
Had Angelica been the one to take her, Eli could’ve managed. Hell, she would’ve even weathered the silence of her father–not from disapproval, but just because Joseph Dresden was not much for talking when he was driving. And if Isaiah could’ve… well. If Isaiah was still around, then this probably wouldn’t have happened at all. He would’ve slapped Elijah upside the head, told him to drop it, and that would’ve been the end of it. But without that particular presence in the Dresden household–
Elijah yanked one of the earbuds from her ear. “Stop pouting like a child.”
The way her fist slammed into his chest in response not only shut him up, but it allowed her to reclaim the stolen bud and put it back into place for the rest of the ride. Eli knew, she just knew that he was seething and gathering himself for the next round of offense in his one-man campaign to see her wrestling career come to a premature end… and unfortunately, the moment that they pulled into the parking lot and called Dr. Diccucio’s office to check in?
“I’m allowed to come in with her, right? She’s had a lot of blows to the head lately, and I don’t think she’s in any condition to think clearly.” Elijah proved her right with that overly concerned tone, the worried brother schtick cranked right up to eleven. Judging by the way he was smirking, he was counting on their mother’s distaste of causing a scene–even if she was absent–to make his sister play along. “Eli’s just, she’s been taking on this really dangerous career path and I thought the doctor should tell–”
“Your name’s not on her file as a person we can share Eliza’s medical information with.” The flat, no-nonsense response from the secretary made Eli want to lean through the phone and kiss her. “Would you like me to add him to your file?”
Elijah’s smirk wavered, but he kept the syrupy-sweet tone intact. “Yes, she–”
“I asked her.” The rebuke was delivered with all the force of a thousand-yard-stare. “Miss Dresden?”
“No.” Her answer was immediate, Eliza’s tone firm as her head turned to glare into her brother’s eyes. ”No, do not add him.”
“Noted. You may come in, Miss Dresden.” As Elijah’s expression soured, Eliza finally found it in herself to smile as that final nail was hammered home in the coffin of this attempt to ruin what she had worked so hard for. “Alone.”
Two matches… two losses.
Like I’ve said time and time again–and like I’m gonna have to keep repeatin’ because I’m surrounded by dumbasses for the most part–I’m not fuckin’ stupid.
Bull-headed and too stubborn for my own good? Abso-fuckin’-lutely. Mouthy like I’m triple my size and undefeated in every match I’ve ever wrestled in spite of the contrary bein’ true? Absolutely. Embedded in the subconscious of ol; Sugartits like a tick since he just can’t keep my name outta’ his mouth anymore than he can Lee’s dick? Guilty as charged.
(If any of the ladies or gays ever wanna induce vomitin’ and you don’t have any Ipecac, just imagine Jace usin’ his thumb and forefinger to stroke the popcorn shrimp he calls a dick. It’s just as effective, and it’s free of charge! Y’ins can thank me later.)
Anyway, now that I’ve gone and accidentally made myself throw up dinner with that mental image… what was I saying?
Oh, right. Even if I’m a cute little blond, I’m not fuckin’ stupid.
Yes, I’ve taken both of my opponents off guard, greatly surpassing what either of them thought I was capable of to make them have to earn their wins. It’s harder to know who was bottom-dollar lazy offensive in how they talked about me–matter of fact, it’s like Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dumber tryin’ to tell who said what– but I shoved their words down their fuckin’ throats and that’s somethin’ that can’t ever be taken away from me. The problem, though, is that the point’s comin’ where it don’t matter if I make my opponents work their asses off to beat me if they always do in the end. Shit, I was already bein’ reduced to a stereotype before I even said a word or made an appearance on an episode of Refueled–and if that’s not a depressing thought, then I don’t know what is.
I knew going into this that I’d be up against that, and I’m not bitchin’ about the reality I’m facin’. It’d be like bitchin’ about being thrown around like a rag doll when I’m the smallest member of HOW’s roster by far–I know it’s gonna fuckin’ happen because physics. But I’m already being called ‘enhancement talent’ by the guy who’s at the top of the mountain when I’m only two matches in… and I’m not gonna sit here and say that it didn’t hurt to hear, because it did. Same as it sucked out loud when Cecilworth called me a ‘horny little girl’ like that’s all there is to me. Two of the men who are defining HOW right now and I’m invisible to them where it matters. Shit, and if that’s not bad enough, now I’m…bitchin’ about this right after I said I wasn’t gonna.
Fuck it. If everyone else around here’s allowed to be a hypocrite, then why the fuck can’t I have my turn?
Ain’t like I’m the one that keeps runnin’ my mouth every chance I get in spite of dismissin’ someone as not being worth their time… or like I’m the one that needs to face someone half their size with a quarter of their experience just to get a win so they can justify their undeserved image of bein’ Diet Dan Ryan. No, not Diet Dan Ryan–ordered offa Wish.com Dan Ryan. Gonna enjoy watchin’ Sutler stretch Clay like he’s made out of taffy just as much as I’m gonna laugh my ass off at Jace getting Soleplexed. Maybe this time, two eagles will land on Steve’s arms!
A girl can dream, can’t she?…after she’s made one thing abundantly fucking clear.
This ‘enhancement talent’ bullshit stops right here, right now.
I had the balls to do what no one else would in stepping into my first-ever match in HOW against a former multiple-time HOW World Champion. I coulda’ sat back and waited my turn like Mitch Quinlan did, but did I? No. Instead, I marched my happy ass right up to Jace and told him that I’d fuck him up and then fuck his girl afterward–and I did just that.
I also coulda’ minded my words, gone out of my way to not say anything that could be seen as rockin’ the boat, too, just like Mitch Quinlan did, but did I? No. Instead, I’ve gone out of my way to make damn sure that the men that I’m facin’ know full fucking well that I’m not gonna back down–and I’ve done exactly that. I’ve put the pedal not just to the metal, but I thrust that sumbitch through the floor and I haven’t looked back since.
…but that hasn’t been quite enough to get the job done, has it?
I’m not gonna sit here and lie through my teeth about knowing exactly why things haven’t gone my way. I know the how, obviously, but why? That’s a question for the philosophers–somethin’ I gather that you think yourself to be, Mitch. At the very least, you do your damndest to sound like one when you’re not takin’ us through your life story like it oughta’ matter to us. You walk alongside the angels, you’re the Fool Saint… pfffft. I’d call you a bullshitter even if I wasn’t an atheist because any man that lays claim to bein’ righteous that way is always, always tryin’ to fool somebody. And you know the real funny part about that?
Even though I’ve never set foot in a church for service in my entire life, I know that when someone compares themselves to angels, they don’t know dick about what angels actually are.
Sure, a lot of the morons that thump their bibles have the pretty pictures of angels in their houses–you know the ones, right? Shit, I bet you’ve got more than a few yourself. With the flowing blond hair and the pretty features and the white, feathery wings that look like they were borrowed off of a dove. Actual angels look like Lovecraftian Horrors, thousands of eyes and flames and rings of flesh and metal entangled together. Why the fuck do you think that the Bible has them saying ‘Do not be afraid?’ It’s because they’re meant to be terrifying soldiers of God, not Abercrombie and Fitch-lookin’ models to gently take you by the hand and lead you along.
And while I’m callin’ bullshit on your bullshit, I’ll lay money that you puckered up those lips plenty to sweet-talk the fans into buyin’ into your schtick and tryin’ real hard to be a male version of Pollyanna. Lord knows you tried doin’ it to Bobby.
Not that it helped you much.
At least callin’ yourself a fool’s accurate. I guess that’s the grain of truth, huh? The one little fact at the base of the delusion you’re tryin’ to get everyone to nod along like we haven’t seen it before. Maybe I’m just the wrong audience for you, Mitch. It’s wholly possible that if I was younger and a little less wise to the ways of the world, I’d be kissin’ your ass and sayin’ all the right things you’re hopin’ I’d say. But things are different for little girls than they are for little boys, and I don’t just mean that girls get dollies and boys get action figures.
Just because my dick isn’t attached to me and takes four batteries to do its tricks, I’m slotted into being less than. I’m expected to be pretty and silent, to somehow magically know what each and every man around me wants me to be and then to become that to suit what they want. From birth, the world expects me to be dainty and delicate, to be fragile, to need to be rescued and to apologize for having the audacity to be a woman in a man’s world–for existing, especially if I dare to want to have a thought or a feeling for myself that some man didn’t tell me to have.
I deserve to occupy space. I deserve to occupy time. I deserve to exist however I see fit. It’s not up to my brother or my family or my old coaches or, Hell, anyone here to decide if I belong here, if the danger’s too much–any of that shit. I was silent once, and what it cost me… you know what? No.
I’m not going to trot out my life story like you did, Mitch, in order to justify deservin’ to be here. I don’t need to go that extra step, pay yet another price just for being a woman. I’ve paid my dues on that front, and I’m not givin’ another red cent. So save your pretty little condescending words for someone who wants to hear them, Mitch. Better yet? Don’t even bother using them at all because you’re in the wrong place for them. No one here needs savin’–not the fans, not anyone on the roster, and sure as fuck not me. And yes, I’m includin’ you in that middle group since you signed the dotted line same as everyone else. You knew what you were gettin’ into.
Good fuckin’ luck tryin’ to get out of it.
“So HOW’s doctors cleared you to compete?” Dr Kayla DiCuccio looked up from her clipboard to where Eli sat, gray eyes warm in spite of her patient’s nervous energy. Eli had never been able to sit still for more than a few seconds, not even when she first came into the office at the age of twelve. Watching the blond’s leg bounce just the same as it did when she was small brought a faint smile to her face, but it never got too prominent. It never did, in the younger woman’s experience.
“Yep.” Eli nodded, gaze intent upon one of the few medical professionals she actually respected as she tried to read the doctor. Unfortunately, she wasn’t having much luck… so back to conversation she went. “They said they’d be faxing over their records. Did you get them?”
“Mm-huh.” Dr. DiCuccio’s gaze shifted back to the handheld tablet that had taken the place of most of the paper charting, a hand rising to absently adjust the glasses that had gotten thicker over the years. “Gotta hand it to’em–HOW’s got their stuff together on that front. Considering the wear and tear the talent goes through over there, I can’t say I’m surprised.”
Another nod led into silence that Kayla probably felt perfectly comfortable with, but for Eli? It was unbearable, so unsurprisingly she was the one to crack first. “So you’ve sent Mom the e-mail telling her that I’m fine?”
“Yeah, but there was one more thing I wanted to talk to you about.” Putting the tablet aside, a high-heeled foot hooked around the middle of the wheeled stool whose twins likely occupied every doctor’s office in the history of ever as the doctor took a seat. When she leaned forward and placed her elbows upon her knees, Eli knew she was in for it. “Marge told me about how Elijah tried to strongarm his way into this appointment with you. What’s going on?”
“Oh, y’know… nothing special.” It took a considerable amount of the scant restraint that Eli was capable of to keep from rolling her eyes, a hand waving to dismissively wave about as if she were doing to so her brother’s face. “Just his usual misogynistic bullshit about how what I’m doing isn’t safe and how I need to pick something else to do and just–throw away not just the years I’ve spent busting my ass to train to be a wrestler, but the years and years of gymnastic training that–”
Dr. DiCuccio’s slender brows raised. “You’re still keeping up with that?”
“Well yeah. It’s what got me signed.” A pause; Eli’s gaze rose to the ceiling as she cupped her chin, her expression morphing into one of deep contemplation–okay, maybe make that medium-level concentration. ”Well, that and I think that Lee Best was still checkin’ out my ass in spite of actin’ like he’s blind.”
A huff of a laugh left the doctor as she shook her head. “Blindness isn’t an all or nothing sort of thing, Eli. It’s like range of motion–it exists in degrees.”
“…okay, fair point.” Eli grinned.
“But Elijah’s not trying to tell you how to live your life. I think he’s just worried about being left as an only child after what happened to Isaiah.” Kayla’s chin settled into the cup of her hand, making it a bit easier for her to hold the younger woman’s gaze. Even if Eli was sometimes not the best about remembering, the doctor was coming close to sixty. “Take your next opponent, for example–he’s a lot bigger than you, right?”
“Well no shit, Doc.” Eli snorted derisively, not quite managing to stifle the urge to roll her eyes this go-round. “Mitch isn’t special in that regard, though. Hell, none of my opponents are.”
A crisp, precise nod from the doctor. “And he’s stronger?”
“This is sounding Dick and Jane as Hell, but yes.” Eli’s leg kept bouncing even as she braced herself, sensing where the conversation was going.
“I don’t know much about this Mitch guy, but I’m sure he’s like anyone else you face in that the possibility exists that he can end your career, right?” And there it was–the question that Eli had known was coming since Kayla said that she had one more thing that she wanted to discuss. Had Elijah put her up to it? Hell, was anyone going to respect her choices at this rate?! As the blond turned that question over and over in her head, her leg went still, fingers curling inward to dig their tips into the denim of her cut-off shorts.
Ultimately, as much as she hated to do it… Eli had to nod.“Well yeah, but–”
“A freak accident already made your brother lose his brother. Clearly, he’s worried about that happening to you, too.” There was no ‘gotcha!’ tone to what Dr. DiCuccio said, no melodramatic clutching of the pearls that she wore around her neck–she was too dignified for that. Besides, Eli knew full well that there was no need to be all performative here, not when the truth was harsh enough as it was. All the same, though, the resentment that surged forth at how a man’s death was being weaponized to try to tell her how to live was too much to hold back.
To Hell with this.
“So I’m supposed to… do what, exactly? Keep letting Elijah make my mom have panic attacks so she makes me come home? Hire someone to punch him in the dick every time he tries to tell me that I’m not allowed to live my life unless I wrap myself in bubble wrap and lock myself in my room?” Raising a hand to prevent Dr. DiCuccio from asking the inevitable question of why in the Hell would she think of that as an option, the blond’s tone remained level enough… but there was no denying the anger in her tone, the bone-deep fury of having been forced to deal with something for far, far longer than she deserved to. “Look,I get it. I’m not sayin’ that he’s not allowed to be worried. I’m not that much of an asshole. But if he doesn’t learn that I refuse to live in fear just because he does, then he’s gonna lose his sister because there’s no room in my life for people who think they deserve to have more of a say about what I do with my body than I do.”
“I’m not saying–” The sigh that left the doctor was a familiar one, one she had heard countless times in the past. This time, though, it was Dr. DiCuccio that averted her eyes instead of Eli, the older woman backing down. After all, the blond couldn’t help but to think that Kayla had felt the same way at least once in her life–she had just capitulated in the end instead of holding fast until she got her way. “Just… try to be understanding, alright?”
“Tell him that and maybe I’ll think about it.” Scooting off the exam table, Eli’s tone was chilly where warmth had once been abundant. “We done here?”