It wasn’t Mulder’s idea of a great night out, but they dragged him along anyway.
Ringo had been the one to suggest going, and for once Melvin had agreed. John seemed impartial and rolled with what they were saying. Fox, however, wasn’t too keen on it. No, not at all. They had pored over movies on TV and at the cinema - nothing. None of them felt like going out to eat, but if they didn’t go out it was collectively presumed they would all die of boredom. It didn’t seem to leave them many more options.
“I just don’t see why,” Mulder huffed. He looked from Ringo to Frohike to John. They stopped talking and turned to him, looking almost as though another head had sprouted from his shoulders. “Since when have you guys been into brawling and street fighting? In fact, when have any of you cared about any variety of sport?” Ringo Langly - who, like the other two, preferred to be addressed by his last name - grinned and tapped his nose.
“Ever since it was two hot girls battling it out instead of two sweaty, half-naked dudes?" Ringo said. He made it sound like he was stating the obvious. "It's so cool, Mulder. You'll like it when you get there, I promise."
Mulder glanced up at his friends, who were already rushing to throw their coats on, and dredged up a faint smile. Their enthusiasm was definitely… something. He looked back at the pamphlet, all torn and dog-eared from some sort of excessive reference which he preferred not to consider. “Got what it takes?” was slapped at the top of the paper in vibrant red writing. He continued down the page, skimming through the information. “The Combat Zone proudly presents...Fight-And-Fantasy REDUX!...Old and new acts every week...sign up if you think you’ve got what it takes...winner wins $500, losers win a broken nose...$10 a ticket. The more the merrier.” Mulder shook his head. At least Frohike had promised to pay for his ticket.
"You coming?" Byers was waiting by the door. His peach-fuzz whiskers and cold-pinkened nose almost gave him the appearance of a rodent. Even that couldn't bring a real smile to Mulder's face, but he tried nonetheless.
"It's not like I've got anything better to do," he shrugged. "I mean, how bad can it be?"
He had rapid growth spurts to thank for his ability to avoid bullying (or anything beyond teasing and under-the-breath comments); since the age of fourteen Mulder’s height had almost protected him from harm. At six foot, he stood taller than his three friends – he took a moment to reflect on how sad those words sounded in his head – and in being tall he had always felt a sense of protection and security.
Upon walking into the dingy bar, Mulder was overwhelmed with an immediate urge to leave. The dim lighting and mass of crowds made his chest tighten; it was no easy feat sidling through the thick hoards to find somewhere to sit. He was painfully aware of the way these crowds swamped him in size and age - they were the youngest around by far. The crowds must have been in their early thirties at the youngest, drifting into the forties, fifties at the latest. Most of them were large, angry-looking men with long, graying ponytails and intricate sleeves of tattoos snaking up their arms. Mulder’s friends smiled and excused their way past the bar, completely oblivious to the leers they were receiving as they shuffled into a tiny booth with a surprisingly fair view of what was supposedly the ‘ring’. The ‘ring’ itself was a rickety wire cage that snaked all the way up to the ceiling, the sides concealed by thick velvety curtains that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a theater. Maybe that’s what this place used to be, Mulder thought, staring around absently. Kind of small, but…
“One of my favorites is on tonight,” Langly said, leaning over the table with a shit-eating grin. Mulder barely nodded in response. His friends meant well, but he simply wasn't feeling it. In fact, he was still recovering from the miniature panic attack that had assaulted him upon entering the bar. “She’s called the Phoenix. Just wait ‘til you see her, Mulder. She’s amazing. Nobody knows who she is, or where she came from. That’s why they call her that - she just rose out of nowhere, like out of the ashes, or something. We’ve heard that even the managers and coaches have no idea who she really is.”
“She’s hot, too,” Frohike agrees, sipping on his drink. “Wait until she comes on, she’s got a body like you’ll never believe.” Mulder rolled his eyes, a gentle huff of laughter breaking between his lips. The mention of cute girls made this entire idea seem a little less ridiculous, though he wasn’t willing to admit that to anybody just yet. He wasn’t exactly pleased with the idea of them beating the crap out of each other. It seemed like a ridiculous concept. Seriously, what was the point? Was it worth the lewd, drunken stares of creepy old men and the cat-calling that belonged on a scale of ‘gross’ to ‘just plain repulsive’?
“Ladies and gentlemen!” The widespread clamor of everybody yelling over each other dwindled into eager murmuring as a voice boomed out of the tinny speakers. Mulder opened his mouth but Langley elbowed him into silence, his eyes rooted to the spindly cage. He looked around; everybody was hypnotized, under some sort of spell. A moment passed where he entertained the idea of witchcraft and laughed to himself. “It’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for, for tonight we have some wonderful people with us. We’ve got a vicious fight between the deadly Viper and her arch-rival Nemesis -” The audience cheered and clapped, drinking up the MC’s falsely-enthused voice. Mulder cringed. “Then we’ve got the Lion and the Wolf up against one another in the second round -” More whooping and hollering. Mulder couldn’t help but wonder if they all had the same sort of cheesy names. Talk about wannabe wrestlers. “And there’s plenty more where that came from folks, but I know what you’re all here for... The ultimate showdown between our much-loved killer queens - it’s the Phoenix and the Widow, fighting once again for the grand prize of $500!”
The room was filled with ear-splitting screams and shouts. Most people were desperately hollering in the Phoenix’s honor, although there was a scattered undertone of people screaming ‘Widow!’ hysterically. Mulder wondered if he’d even be able to make it to the final fight without taking a couple of painkillers in the bathroom, or just straight-up walking out. His head throbbed and a dull pain had started to bloom in his temples.
“Is it always this loud?” he yelled into Frohike’s ear, who also happened to be whistling and cheering on the Phoenix. He nodded, patting his friend’s shoulder and laughing. Mulder held his face in his hands, only capable of looking out at the stage through the cracks in his fingers. It was probably for the best if he stayed that way for the whole night.
“Our first fighters of the night are new to the ring, so be nice,” the MC teased through the speakers. Everyone roared with laughter. Mulder’s eye twitched. He introduced them slowly, bringing up fabricated backstories and leaving everyone hanging as he called out their names. “Iiiiiiiiit’s... Storm!” and “Heeeeeeeeeere she is: it’s Athena!”
Mulder watched them both saunter into their corners, throwing furtive looks to the crowd and blowing kisses at nobody in particular. His three friends lapped this performance right up, their tongues practically hanging out of their mouths. He raised his eyebrows and sunk further back into the leather seating. Jeez, was all that seemed to run through his head. Jeez, jeez, jeez.
The fights came and went without provoking anything but boredom. It suited his friends, who designated him as the one to buy more cans of Coke and Sprite from the bar. This didn’t improve his mood in the slightest, for he needed to push past all the tough bikers to get to the bar, which was tended by a man with a permanent scowl fixed onto his face. He gave off a very strong ‘convict’ vibe.
As much as he wanted to leave, he lingered. Perhaps it was out of politeness. Nah, screw politeness, there was something else. Maybe he'd been a little too harsh on the guys, maybe he was making a big deal over nothing. Maybe something good would come up somewhere.
He really hoped so.
The evening dragged on and the acts were all the same; cute, flirty girls with feisty attitudes and beefy men with cocky smiles and bulging muscles. Blood was spilled on more than a few occasions and hastily wiped away in the intervals between brawls. Lion spat out a piece of broken tooth into the audience mid-fight and it landed at Langley’s feet. Mulder wasn’t a particularly sensitive person but he drew the line after watching Viper’s nose break and seeing her getting carried off the stage screaming and wailing for help. He picked up his jacket and nodded at his friends. They immediately looked disheartened.
“What’s the matter, Mulder?” Langly asked. “The Phoenix is about to come on! Don’t you want to see what all the fuss is about?”
“Not particularly,” he muttered, shrugging his coat on. “It was great guys, but I think I’ve had enough gore for one day. I’m actually surprised you three survive in a place like this.”
They had the dignity to look offended.
“Sit down,” Frohike insists. “Trust me. She’s way hotter than Lion and Viper - hotter than them combined.”
Well now I definitely want to stay. The voice of reason in his head was thick with cynicism, yet against his better judgment, he sat back down. It was difficult to ignore the stupid MC bigging the girls up and delving into their non-existent stories, but he did a pretty good job of blocking it all out. His focus slipped halfway through the introduction, however, and he found himself listening in on snippets from the Phoenix’s backstory. She swanned out of nowhere – out of the ashes, as Langly said. Young, fiery, not to be messed with. He rolled his eyes, muttered something like 'are you serious?'. No one heard. The roars of her fans were deafening as she was introduced into the cage.
Mulder squinted, waiting for her to appear so he could see what all the fuss was about. This had better be worth it, he complained internally. He leaned forward, his head resting on his knuckles.
An ear-spitting blare of music blasted from the cheap speakers, and a figure walked onstage.
There she was. The Phoenix.
The first thing he noticed about her was that she carried herself differently to the other fighters. She didn’t flaunt, she didn’t have any flair or glamor or anything that marked her as something of a show-off. She walked like she meant business - like she knew what she was doing. He found himself impressed, for some reason, and shifted in his seat so he was sitting up a little straighter. The second thing he noticed was that she didn’t need to prove her sexuality to the audience, not deliberately at least. Her legs were dressed in skin-tight leather, accentuating every curve of her lower half, yet watching her felt wrong, somehow. It felt almost obscene. He found his face flushing, though no one could see for the only lights were those illuminating her arena - and it definitely was hers. She had her audience hanging onto her every movement. She was wearing a tight black vest too, but he tried to skim past for the sake of keeping some illusion of being a gentleman. Then he remembered that they weren’t the only ones in the room and felt stupid. He didn’t look anyway; his shirt wasn't long enough to pull over his lap.
The only thing missing was a face, an identity. She was looking away from the audience; all he could see was a burst of flame which just so happened to be her cropped red hair. As though reading his mind she turned suddenly and abruptly. The only glitzy part about her was the glitter dashed against her cheeks and lips; it sparkled under the lighting like embers.
No wonder they called her the Phoenix. She didn’t just look like fire, she was fire; she was a burning flame, passion, desire, life itself. Mulder found himself captivated, suddenly enthralled by the idea of street-fighting so long as she was involved. She had pulled him into the most wonderful inferno imaginable and he never wanted to leave, only to be surrounded by everything she represented.
He was gaping. When he noticed he regained control of his slack jaw and closed his mouth in a futile attempt to maintain composure. Of course, the others had already noticed but they had also fallen into her trap. They were gazing at her like they couldn’t believe their own eyes. Mulder pinched himself. This is not a dream.
He may or may not have been in love, in a wonderfully starstruck kind of way, and decided that the combat zone wasn't so bad after all.