On days when he’s not on a supply run, Ace’s job is to teach the pups fighting. Or rather, to teach them combat—how to turn the scrappy pup fights they’re encouraged to have as soon as they can walk into something that can take down a skilled opponent.
Today the oldest group of pups have run through drills and a lesson or two and are all sparring in pairs on the padded mats of the training room, as he walks from pair to pair and keeps an eye out for gang-ups, dirty tricks and low blows, which happen with regularity.
He hears the guttural scream and the howl of pain from across the room, turns just in time to catch the last moment of the action. Cog, the biggest pup in the room, had been sparring with the war girl, except now he’s rolling off her, holding a hand to his bleeding face as she scrambles frantically to her feet and bolts out of the room.
“Oy! What are you lot on about?” It’s easy to make his voice boom out loud enough to silence all the chatter in the room.
Cog is sitting on the mats, his face a mix of fear and confusion, and as Ace approaches he can see the blood is from three deep fingernail scratches running down the war boy's cheek.
“I didn’t do nothing!” Cog’s mates are nodding in agreement, but Ace will be the judge of that. “Crazy smeg just went feral on me!”
Later, after he’s determined that Cog’s scratches are impressively deep for something made with fingernails, but will heal and haven’t damaged his eye, he goes looking for the war girl.
He tries not to show favorites, but he likes her quite a lot. She’s too old for a pup, really, but she’s hardworking and smart, a quick study at engines and not too proud to do road training with pups half her age. She rides a bike like she was born on one, and she’s a better shot with any ranged weapon you put in her hands than anyone he’s seen in his nearly-twelve-thousand days. And until today, she’s never been afraid to fight anyone he put her up against, making up for what she lacked in weight with speed and pure viciousness.
He knows just about every nook and cranny in the Citadel, and he finds her some time after dinner, wedged into an alcove in a back passageway, curled into an angry lump with her legs drawn up against her chest.
“Figured I’d find you sooner or later. Limited number of places to run around here.”
She wedges a little deeper into the alcove, glaring. He slides down on the floor next to her and stretches out his legs. She keeps her gaze fixed on him, as if she’s waiting for him to reach in and try to haul her out. He’s not remotely stupid enough to try that.
“Did he do something to you? Something not related to sparring?”
She’s silent and for a minute he’s not even sure she heard him. Then she mutters, “No.”
“What happened, then?”
“Enough nothing to be spending the night in a crevice, eh?”
She narrows her eyes at him, like she’s expecting this all to be some sort of trick and she just hasn’t figured out what kind yet.
“You don’t like being pinned down.” He’d seen enough of the scene to guess what the look of blind terror on her face was about.
She growls. “Do you?”
He can see her face close up with hard defensiveness, which means he was right. It’s not wise to admit a weakness.
“When is it a problem?”
She’s still glaring at him, and he can see her trying to work out what the point of this conversation is, and if it’s worth it to lie, and how. Finally she mutters, “Big guys. When it feels like I can’t get ‘em off me.”
“I didn’t mean to scratch him.”
“He’ll live. And he’ll probably have a shine scar and make up a mediocre story about how he got it.”
“I can’t control what I do when…when I get like that.” She is not so young, near six and a half thousand days, he thinks, but she suddenly seems small.
“Sure you can.”
She utters a grunt of disbelief.
“You get scared.” She grimaces in disgust at the word. “Fear ain’t all bad, though. Helps you stay alive. You just need to learn to control it so you can think.”
A snort that might be her version of laughter. “And how the hell do I do that?”
Ace shrugs. “Same as anything. You practice.”
There is no one in the sparring room this late at night, and it’s far enough from the bunks that no one will hear them.
He sees her stance shift as soon as she gets on the mats. It’s not something he taught her—someone had started training her in fighting from a young age. He wonders yet again about her life before the Citadel.
“Which is worse, on your back or face down?” he asks as they start to circle each other.
“Face down,” she answers without hesitation.
“We’ll work up to it, then.” He can teach her ways to get out of both, but that’s not the first lesson. “If you say stop, we stop.”
“Right.” They’ve discussed this on the walk over, and her tone says she doesn’t need the reminder, but he begs to differ.
“Been watching you fight.”
“Yeah?” She’s got that look she gets when she’s ready for action, head lowered and jaw clenched. He stands easy, relaxed; he’ll be ready if she comes at him.
“You got all the right ideas. Hit ‘em hard and fast, before they know to take you seriously. Use their weight against them. Use weapons when you got ‘em. And when that don’t work, fight dirty. That’ll do nine times outta ten. This is for the other one.”
He takes a quick step forward and she skitters back reflexively, out of reach. She’s tall and long-limbed and fast, but he has half a head and easily a full body weight on her.
“Come on, now. Ain’t hide and seek.”
She licks her lips, angry (she’s always angry) but hesitant. “How hard can I fight you?”
He chuckles. “Hard as you want. I can take it.”
“I might hurt you.”
He knows it’s more confession than intimidation, an admission of lack of control, but he thinks it can’t hurt to goad her; she seems to work that way. So he gives her a crooked smile and shoots back, “You might try.”
She lunges. He steps into her attack and deflects it easily, hooks a leg and brings her down on the mat so quickly he can see the shock of it on her face, follows her down and sits on her hips, holding her down with a forearm against her chest.
She has all the right instincts, going for his face and throat, trying to startle and unbalance him. A hand whips out and misses him by a whisper as he jerks his head back.
He gets ahold of both her wrists and pins her arms down on either side of her head and that’s what gets a reaction. She growls like a trapped animal and twists and kicks underneath him, breath coming in panicky gasps. Fear makes her strong—strong enough he has to work to hold her down—but it’s all reflex and no direction, and when he looks in her eyes she’s not even there; she’s somewhere else entirely. He’s seen that look on war boys who’ve seen too many battles and too many entrances to Valhalla that were not their own.
“Hey.” He shifts so he can hold her arm down with an elbow and have a hand free to tap her on the face—not a slap, really, just enough to get her attention. “Come back here. You’re safe.” Her breath is coming in whooping, desperate gasps now, but he can see her fighting to bring herself back to the present.
“Control your breathing. Slow it down.” She squeezes her eyes shut and twists her face away, and she’s shaking so hard underneath him he almost lets her up right there, but he can see her trying to do it, and he wants to know if she can.
It takes a long time for her to force her breathing back to normal, in through her nose and out through her mouth in a shaky stream, but she gets there. When she’s completely still he releases her hands and she just lies there on the mat, exhausted.
“See? You can do it.”
He climbs off her and lets her pull herself into a sitting position, giving her some space. She’s covered in sweat and half her paint has rubbed off on the mat in the struggle.
He stands up and watches her take a few deep breaths, run a hand over the fuzz on her head, still trembling slightly. He can’t tell what she’s thinking.
“If that’s enough for tonight, we can—”
“No.” That clench in her jaw is back. “Again.”
He smiles to himself as he holds out a hand to help her up. She’s stubborn. It’s another thing he likes about her.
This time he lets her scrap with him for a minute, build up some adrenaline before he rolls them and lands on top of her chest, legs pinning her arms and a hand on her collarbone, not quite a choke but close enough to make her think about it. She still loses herself to that reflexive spasm of terror, but she calms herself down in half the time.
The third time, he lies on top of her, and he can feel her seize up when he gets his legs in between hers to stop her from kneeing him in the groin, and it takes her almost as long as the first time to calm down. But then she snarls and almost gets a headbutt to connect before he jumps back, and the look in her eyes is different, focused and furious, like she is ready to fucking kill him. She’s starting to figure it out, how to grab hold of the fear and direct it, shape it into something lethal.
“Good,” he says as he rolls to his feet. She scrambles up unassisted, that intense look still in her eyes. “Again?” She gives a single nod and launches right into another attack.
When she can reliably keep calm in three or four different positions, he starts showing her things. How to use the momentum of a roll to push someone off, or be the one who lands on top. How to break the thumb of someone who’s trying to choke you. (Her hands aren’t strong enough to actually do it yet; he shows her the motion, and explains how she can strengthen her grip by finding things to climb and squeezing a bit of old tire when she has a spare minute.) How to hook her legs around someone on top of her and choke them. (She takes to that one a little too quickly.)
She’s much calmer with a skill to focus on, and she learns fast. The first time she gets out of his hold and scrambles to her feet she looks almost surprised at herself, but then there’s a flash in her eyes that might be joy and she demands, “Again.” She can’t do it every time, but she does it enough that she’s starting to feel confident.
He’s losing track of how many rounds they’ve gone. He has to admit that even he’s getting a bit tired, but now that she’s keyed up she seems inexhaustible, and her eyes are shining, and he hates to do the next part but he’s not here to make her think this is easy.
The next time she gets free, he grabs her ankle before she can get out of range and pulls her back down, hard, and in the second it takes for her to recover he gets on top of her and presses her into the mat face-down, and she snarls when she figures out what he’s doing.
“We can stop if you—”
“Like hell,” she spits out, and okay, then, if that’s how she wants to do it—
“Get out of it, then.”
She sure tries. She growls and fights, and he can feel her trying to do some of the things he’s shown her, but none of them work from this position. She’s got one arm trapped underneath her and he holds it in place with his weight on her shoulder, and when she tries to elbow him in the ribs he grabs the other arm and twists it up behind her back hard enough to make her howl. It’s mostly rage, frustration at being back in a vulnerable position after she’s started to feel confident, but there’s an edge of desperation to it. She’s bucking, trying to get her legs under her, and he uses his hips to push her back down which means his legs end up in between hers again and then she just snaps and thrashes and screams, awful, broken noises, and he actually backs off for a moment even though she hasn’t said stop because he’s not sure that she can say stop, but as soon as he moves she hisses, “No,” so he just keeps his weight on her as she twitches and jerks and makes terrible, animal sounds.
“Get out of it.”
“I can’t,” she wails, and finally she just lies still, defeated and shaking underneath him, breath coming in gasps.
“You’re right,” he says, not moving. “So what do you do if you can’t get out of it?”
“I lose.” Her voice is tiny.
“No. You wait.” He keeps a hold on the arm behind her back but sits up so his weight is off her chest. She lets out a shuddering gasp.
“You submit, and you wait for your opponent to let their guard down, and then you hit them as hard as you can. Understand?”
She makes a sound that could be a sob, except she’s not actually crying. “Right?” He gives a small tug on her arm to make sure she’s still with him.
“I can teach you everything I know, but you’re not going to win every fight, so you need to know this, too.”
She nods, her face still pressed against the mat. He lets go of the wrist he’s holding behind her back.
Her arm shoots back and she’s in perfect range of his crotch and she grabs and squeezes as hard as she can. He yelps and goes for her hand and his instinctive jerk forward gives her the inch of room she needs to scramble out from under his legs, landing a hard kick on his solar plexus on the way out.
He moans and curls up in a ball, gasping a blue streak of curses as she settles on the mat on her haunches, out of easy grabbing reach, eyes shocked and wide. She looks genuinely scared when he starts shaking, until she registers that he’s laughing.
“Fuck,” he gets out, because the laughter just makes everything hurt worse, but now that he’s started he can’t stop. “Suppose I walked right into that one.”
“Kinda.” He sees her mouth twitch, ever so slightly, and then she straight up giggles, and she tries to hide it behind her hand, and that somehow seems funny in itself and then it’s a lost cause and they’re both shaking with absurd, hysterical laughter until they’re out of breath.
She finally staggers to her feet, wiping her streaming eyes and smearing the very last of her paint, the strangest expression on her face. She looks exhausted but all the tension has drained from her shoulders. He realizes he’s never seen her look relaxed.
He groans and pushes himself onto his hands and knees. “You’re somethin’ else, war girl.” She gives him a half-smile and offers a hand to help him to his feet. “You’ll do all right.”
When he’s on his feet he notices she’s gone all serious again, her face working. “Thanks,” she mutters, not quite looking him in the eye.
He pats her on the shoulder, smearing paint, no idea whose anymore. “You’re a hell of a fighter. Be stupid to let a thing like that hold you back.” He hobbles out of the room, noting ruefully to himself that not one of his students has ever made him limp.