Chapter Six

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The gym is buzzing when we get there. Dillon follows me into the change room and manoeuvres her afro into a high ponytail. She looks posh in a matching blue-and-grey tank top and leggings, put together in a way that I can never manage. I know that I look almost shapeless in an oversized t-shirt and pair of sweats. My French braid, which lets the baby hairs on either side of my face escape, makes me look like a ratty school girl.

"Jewellery off," I tell Dillon as I lace up my boxing shoes. I nod towards my locker. "You can toss your bag in there."

I grab my wraps and mouth guard before leading her out onto the floor. "I'm going to show you how to throw the basic punches and you can practice them while we warm up, and then you can just watch the sparring."

"Sounds fun," she says, though her tone doesn't match her words. I toss her a jump rope from the equipment room and we join the chorus of women already skipping in front of the mirrors.

"Like this," I tell her, showing her the way to shift her weight from foot to foot as she skips. After a couple rounds, I wrap up her hands and mine and show her how to get into her stance and throw the one and the two.

"Wide legs, knee's bent, so you're like a tripod. You want to be as balanced as you can so that no one can knock you over," I say, pushing her shoulder for emphasis.

Evidently, I push too hard and she falls onto her butt. She grins up at me. "Guess I needed wider legs, huh?"

We work the basic punches for a while until the girls around us start gearing up. "I should start getting ready. If you go stand over by Reiner, he'll explain everything that's going on," I say, pointing her over to the far side of the ring.

I strap myself into an old, slightly damp headgear and pop in my mouth guard before switching out my bag gloves for sparring ones. One of the women ties a rope from one end of the ring to the other to split it in two. Her name's Bonnie, I think, and she's lead a bunch of these female sparring sessions. She's got flaming red hair piled into a bun that sticks out the top of her headgear, a distinctive feature.

"Melissa, get in with me," she calls. Her voice is hoarse, but this isn't new. She's a coach, too, and I saw her scream so loud at one of her fighters' matches that her voice gave out halfway through the fight. "Tank, Rowan, you guys beside us."

I climb into the ring opposite to Tank, whose real name I don't know but whose fights I've seen enough of to know she's the real deal. I sparred her once, when I was just starting out, and even though she was taking it easy on me, I could hardly last a single round. She's in her thirties and built of solid muscle, with dark skin and dreads pulled back from her face.

Reiner and Dillon are at the side of the ring watching me. Reiner reminds me, "Chin in, hands up, and keep busy."

I bounce around a few times, loosening up, and then the bell rings. My hands come up to my face and I step into my stance, coming forward to meet Tank in the middle of our ring. Right away, she starts jabbing at me and I keep just back enough to avoid getting hit. I wait until I see my opening, slip her jab, and then throw a hook to her ribs. Then the fight really begins.

The thing about guys is that, when they fight, they dance around a lot. Three quarters of the round is them just moving in circles around each other, trying to tire the other out. Girls don't do that. We go in right away, vicious and ready for blood.

Tank gets a couple hooks in to the sides of my head but I manage to jab around her and catch her off guard with a straight right. She reels back, flying against the rope, before turning back to me and smiling. Her mouth guard is designed to look like cartoon teeth and it's a little hilarious.

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