As a teenager, Val had always relished a good fight, whether it was in or out of the ring. Walking into the “Pathways to Health Fitness Center”, she felt a tingle of nerves dance along her fingertips. She wasn’t there for a fight, not yet, but the anticipation was starting to sing within her.
“It’s been awhile since I’ve been in the ring,” she said, glancing over at Lara who was holding the main door open for her.
“Don’t worry, it’s like falling off a bike,” Lara said, smirking at Val’s unaccustomed nervousness.
“Got it. Break her fists with my face. I can do that.”
A call to James for some mystical assistance would allow Val to do exactly that, but this was absolutely not a scenario where the Second Chance Club’s arcane resources were appropriate, or even desired.
“Just put on a good show,” Lara said, leading them past the reception desk with a wave at the woman behind the counter. “This is supposed to be a fun night for the girls who’ve been supporting us.”
“So knocking Sam’s champion out in the first thirty seconds isn’t the game plan then?” Val asked. Against most opponents, Val wouldn’t need even the weakest of the Club’s enchantments to make good on that boast. Sam was putting forward her best fighter though, so Val figured the fight would last at least a minute or so.
Her confidence would have been unusual in someone who’d been as injured as she was, as recently as she’d been. Physical therapy wasn’t a fast process, and there were often complications or long term effects that took years to sort out. Even just the loss of six months worth of muscle development would have held a lot of people back from thinking they could compete at the level they had previously. Her physical state wasn’t a problem for Val though.
“You know, I didn’t think to ask, but you are cleared for this right?” Lara said. “I mean, you look fine…”
“Thank you,” Val said with a smile.
“But I know you lie about that kind of thing all the time, Ms ‘I’ll go to the prom with a fractured rib’.”
“That was a one time thing,” Val said. “And yes, I passed my last physical with flying colors. I’m probably in better shape now than I was when I was kid.”
Lara led her past a room with high tech exercise bikes, and another where a spinning class was in session.
“You must have been working with a great medical team,” Lara said.
“I was. Still wasn’t fun mind you, but they were some of the best people in the country.”
The Club’s medical benefits were impressive by any measure, and that was before accounting for the magical treatment options they had occasional access to.
“How did you afford all that? I thought the Army kicked you out?” Lara asked.
“Honorably discharged.” Val correct her. “The costs were all part of my signing bonus with the Second Chance Club.”
“That’s a pretty sweet deal then,” Lara said. “What do they have you doing for it though?”
“Investigation, troubleshooting, and problem resolution for a diverse mix of clientele,” Val said. “Or at least that’s what the official job description says. Mostly, we just find ways to help people who are in trouble.”
“That sounds nice. Vague, but nice. How’d you find them?” Lara stopped before a door with the words “Employees Only” on it.
“They found me,” Val said, following Lara into the health center’s back office. “I was still in a coma at the time and they arranged for my transfer to the facility where I woke up.”
“Wait, so they hired you before you were even conscious enough to interview?”
“Better than that, I was on the payroll from the first week I was in therapy,” Val said. “Charlene, that’s our boss, came to see me once I was conscious for more than a few minutes at a time and made the job offer.”
“Like there was some chance that you’d turn it down?” Lara asked.
“Yeah, I was kind of scrambled at that point,” Val said. “Part of me was thinking that if I could just get better fast enough that the Army would take me back. The more I worked at it though, the more I found I didn’t really want to go back. Of course part of that was Charlene cheating too.”
“How did she cheat?” Lara asked.
“She wouldn’t let me answer yes or no until my neural exams came back with a clean bill of health. Coming out of the coma I had a bit of impairment in my speech and attention. While I was recuperating though, she sent over some of the casefiles that Anna and Tam were working on.”
“Anna and Tam are your coworkers?”
“Yeah, we’re the field team,” Val said. “JB kept filling me in on these great things they were doing though. Stuff like locating a lost boat that was carrying a major supply shipment meant for refugees in Jordan, or the one where they ran witness protection for someone testifying against a corrupt police chief. It was like every day JB would drop by with some awesome adventure the their team was working on.”
“Who’s JB?” Lara asked, leading Val to a door labeled ‘Samantha Cruz’. The door was open but the woman inside was on the phone so Lara paused outside and indicated to Val to wait.
“They’re our public liaison,” Val said. “They handle dealing with the people on the periphery of our cases. Law enforcement, caterers, supply clerks. I don’t know if JB has an endless pool of contacts or if they’re just phenomenal at making friends in an eyeblink but they save us about ten million headaches every time we go out to deal with a crisis of some sort.”
“Are they looking for a new job?” the woman behind the head desk, Sam, asked, putting her phone on the desk. “Cause god I could use someone like that today.”
“City inspector’s still making excuses to not come by?” Lara asked, leading Val into Sam’s office.
“What needs inspection?” Val asked.
“We had our new pool building put up two months ago, but the inspector won’t get out here and give us the CO that we need to open it up for public use,” Sam said.
“What’s his excuse this time?” Lara asked, picking up a pamphlet of papers from Sam’s desk.
“He says it’s against his values,” Sam said. “He’s claiming he shouldn’t have to authorize buildings for a use that he finds offensive.”
“It’s a pool,” Lara said, frowning.
“Yeah, but it’s about who owns the pool, and who would be using the pool,” Sam said, massaging her temples.
“Given me one second,” Val said and tapped out a quick text to JB.
A reply appeared a few seconds later. Anna and Tam were enjoying some time off too so things were slow at the Club.
Sam and Lara watched curiously as a few more texts went back and forth before Val looked up.
“Ok, looks like Brad Cosgrave, your previously assigned inspector is going to be sent for some diversity training which he was overdue for, and Inspector Sara Meltzer will be out tomorrow to verify your pool installation.”
“What? Really?” Sam asked.
“Yeah. I wasn’t kidding when I said JB knows everybody.” She smiled. Sometimes wins were easy to come by but it didn’t make them feel any less awesome.
“I would kiss you but my fiance is right here,” Sam said.
“Get in line, I might kiss her first!” Lara said.
“I have sworn off kissing engaged people,” Val said with a laugh. “Too many things get thrown at me when I do that.”
“Lara told me about that,” Sam said. “But that was more of a ‘failed to get engaged’ scenario wasn’t it?”
“I think we’re filing that under ‘it was messy’,” Val said. “But it’s nice to see that it seems to have worked out for the best.” She gestured to the two of them and the picture of domestic harmony they were already radiating, noting in particular the engagement rings that Lara and Sam both wore. Sam smiled broadly and stretched her hand out to give Val a better look at it.
“I suspect I don’t have to tell you how lucky I am to be wearing this?” she said.
“Your wife-to-be said pretty much the same thing about the one she’s got,” Val said, leaning back with a smile and taking the two women in. “So of course you’re going to start things out with a proxy war.”
“This surprises you?” Lara asked. “You’ve known me how long?”
“I have to confess, I have plans within plans here,” Sam said.
“Have a I mentioned that she’s really smart?” Lara said.
“What are you scheming?” Val asked.
She’d wondered if meeting Sam would be awkward, a fiance and an ex-lover don’t always make the best of impressions on each other, but Sam seemed secure enough in Lara’s affection and Val secure enough in having moved on that no cloud of jealousy boiled up between them. They were just two women who happened to care about the same person but in different ways.
“Lara says you’re good. After the fight, I need to hear what you think about the girl who’s getting into the ring for me,” Sam said.
“That sounds reasonable enough. What’s the catch?” Val asked.
“Oyenike Ladipo, have you heard of her?” Sam asked.
“Doesn’t ring a bell,” Val said, looking to Lara for a clue. Lara rolled her eyes in whatever the opposite of surprise was at Sam’s choice.
“Nike is going to be my champion for our bet,” Sam said. “She’s good. Really good. I want to encourage her to go for the nationals this year.”
“If she’s good shouldn’t she be shooting for that on her own?” Val asked.
“She’s got a few issues,” Sam said.
“Issues like what?”
“Like she’s never lost, so she’s got a huge chip on her shoulder and a terrible attitude towards competition,” Lara said.
“Maybe,” Sam said. “I think she’s got the makings of a great fighter, but I’m not a coach, and I’m certainly not a prize winning fighter myself.”
“So you’d like an expert opinion on whether she’ll be able to cope with the stress or wind up getting hurt?” Val asked.
“I’m more concerned whether she’ll hurt anyone else,” Sam said. “I don’t want to encourage her to go for something if she’s going to completely lose control.”
Val glanced over at Lara.
“And this is who I’m getting into the ring with?”
“She’ll be fine for this,” Sam said. “She knows this is a friendly bout, and that she’s supposed to put on a good show more than just knock you out.”
“Wait, she thinks she’s going to win this one?” Val asked.
“She’s in top shape, and she practices daily. No offense, but this will be your first time fighting since you recovered right? I know you were good back in the day but it sounds like you’re at least a little out of practice at the moment.”
“Yeah, this will be the first time I’ll be back in the ring,” she said with a smile that lingered from her laughter.
“If you’re not sure about it, I can ask one of the other girls,” Lara said. “If you get hurt, you know that your mother will kill me so damn hard, and I don’t really want to miss my wedding on account of being dead.”
“I’ll be fine,” Val said, still amused.
She hadn’t been in a ring since before she joined the Army. That was true. Fighting however? That was something she was in better shape for than she’d ever been. Her daily workout routine would put most heavy weights to shame, and she’d had the chance to work with some very gifted teachers as part of her rehabilitation. Charlene had seen potential in her and hadn’t been lax about providing opportunities for Val to develop that potential, both in the areas she was strong in and the ones where she was weak.
“So, how about a side wager,” Val suggested.
“What did you have in mind?” Lara asked, eyes narrowing in suspicion. She knew Val far too well to trust what was going to come next.
“If I lose, I’ll make sure Nike has travel and lodging accommodations all set up for the nationals,” Val said.
“And if you win?” Sam asked.
“I get the first dance with my-friend-the-bride at the reception.”