Despite his best efforts, Rakim’s fears around his Irshad’s ongoing holy war against the flames continued to grow. “Do... Do you think you’re going to be a firefighter for the rest of your life, mother?” Her countenance darkened a bit at this.
“I know it’s not easy for you, my son.” After all, if fire won, even only once, where would he turn? What would he be to do? “You’re growing into a full, young adult man, aren’t you?” He couldn’t deny as much. “And I taught you how to fight, and how to fly, did I not?” He nodded in assent.
“You did, mother.” This was not something all mothers taught their sons, he gathered. “That’s because I trust you, Rakim – I trust you to be independent.” She was going somewhere with this, it seemed like. “Sometimes, giving someone a choice means they won’t make the choice you want. I worry about you too, you know.”
He gulped. “I know.” He carried the worry he’d caused her with him. He wasn’t about to forget. “I try to take every precaution in my job. I’m never out there alone. The others are always there with me.” He shook his head. “It’s just such a risk you’re taking every time. It’s hard for me not to think about.”
She put her hand on his shoulder. “We all take risks, my son. When you’ll have to take risks of your own, you’ll want me to understand, won’t you?” He thought of Ogun, of the dates that he’d gone on with him so far, of the ones yet to come, of what they had not yet done, but were thinking of doing. She’d always known him a little too well.
“I don’t take it lightly, if that means anything. You remember the Sufi poetry I read you about those who seek God are like a moth being drawn to the flame?” He did. “You also said that ‘trying to explain God to a mortal is like trying to explain the sun to a bat.’” He had seen the sun, himself, but he still understood the metaphor for what it was.
“That’s right. On some level, it’s just a metaphor – it doesn’t have to be a literal flame. In my case it just so happens to be. But when I go into the light, Rakim... It’s like walking into the sun. I’m not telling you to be reckless. Calculated risks, yes, but, it’s often a risk to help others. People take risks for things they believe in, you know? They take risks for things that mean something to them.”
He sighed. He hated it when she was right.
It was getting to be time for his third date with Ogun. It was almost the end of fasting month, but not quite. Rakim always strove to remain chaste during fasting month as much as he could, even though he’d grown to find it increasingly difficult as the years had gone by. He also knew what the third date typically represented in the West, which didn’t make his struggle any easier.
The chimera had been a good host and, it turned out, a good dancer, and the bat was already becoming more attracted to him the third time they met. He always had a lot of extra energy during fasting month that he didn’t know quite what to do with. He became so consumed with his training that he’d actually ended up gaining most of his new belts during fasting month.
He got the sense that, if he made the first move, Ogun would have gone along with him for sure. If Ogun had made the first move, he wondered if he’d have had to have come up with some excuse to put things off, or simply told him it was because of fasting month. He didn’t want to seem disinterested or fun-hating and miss out on an opportunity that he craved more and more, but he also didn’t want to be with someone who expected him to give up his beliefs.
Frustrated with the timing – why had he started dating someone so near to the beginning of fasting month, why? Because he didn’t really believe that it would work out anyway, he reminded himself – he looked for other ways to burn off all of his extra energy. Much as he’d enjoyed gaming with Ogun before, he asked the chimera if they could return to the Bolgia that night. At first, Ogun seemed uncertain.
“Well, that kind of depends...” The bat tilted his head at him. “On what?” The ram head picked up where the lion had had left off. “Tonight at the Bolgia is a little different than last time. It’s more than just a nightclub, it has, like, different functions at different times of the week.” Rakim was a bit let down.
“So there’s no dancing tonight?” Dancing burned a lot of energy. “Well, sometimes the Bolgia has regular dancing like we went to, but it also has contests, performances, concerts, demonstrations...” the dragon head continued. “Tonight’s a fight night. I don’t know if you’d be into that though,” the snake head said, almost apologetically.
“Oh, would I ever!” he answered excitedly. “Really?” Ogun seemed surprised. “Well, they don’t kill each other or anything, right?” He stuck his lion tongue out. “I’d never take you somewhere like that,” he assured his guest. “That’s one of the few things people there can’t do. They kind of turn the center stage into a ring and fight it out, though. You’re sure you really want to go?” his dragon head reiterated, just to be sure.
The bat grinned toothily. “Absolutely! I’ve been training since I was a kid, you know? I’d love to see what some other fighters have been up to for all that time, I haven’t met a lot.” This piqued Ogun’s curiosity. “How did you first start training, then?” his ram head asked him. “My mother taught me everything I know,” he explained. Ogun seemed impressed. “Your mother sounds like something else! I’d like to meet her someday,” his snake head said admiringly. For the first time, Rakim looked at Ogun’s dragon maw with new eyes.
He was a fire-breather.
The bat had never really thought of him as someone who literally breathed fire.
He was still privately negotiating what the implications of dating a fire-breather for a man whose mother was a firefighter could possibly have been when they reached the Bolgia all over again. Inside, most of the floor around the center stage that had been turned into a ring had been converted into a seating area, with seats placed on all four sides of it facing it so that everyone in them could follow the fight easily enough. Smoke rose to the darkened ceiling, only wisps of it visible in the light that shone on the ring.
People chatted, betted and elbowed each other while the fighters strove to impress spectators with their skill as much as they could. The Bolgia was supposed to be a place that most so-called ‘normal’ people didn’t even know about, a place where strangeness was taken for granted that was to be a safe haven for freaks of every stripe, and the fight’s audience certainly seemed to confirm that. He saw a cockatrice and a manticore rubbing elbows with a hydra and a naga, and think nothing of it. He and Ogun were unlikely to stand out like sore thumbs.
They sat and watched a red fish spar with an otter. The otter’s reflexes were clearly top-notch, and he seemed to react to her movements almost instinctively, but the red fish seemed determined not to be deterred nonetheless. Her resolve to break through his defenses remained steadfast and she continued relentlessly matching him move for move until she finally managed to catch him off-guard and send him out of the ring with a look of stunned disbelief on his face.
“Wow, I’ve never seen Bridges lose!” Ogun seemed to already know people there. Rakim hoped he’d introduce him to some of them later on. “What about her?” he asked the chimera. “She’s won about two thirds, three quarters of the fights I’ve seen her in. She’s pretty good, but I didn’t think she was Bridges good,” his dragon head exclaimed. “He’s got, like, souped-up reflexes, I don’t know if you noticed. He says his body ‘does its own thing’ and ‘protects’ him, he just sits back and lets it. It usually does just that.” At that point the bat came to a decision.
“I’d like to fight her.”
Ogun hadn’t seen that coming. “Can I do that? Am I allowed to do that?” He couldn’t help but worry about the bat – he didn’t want him to get hurt, and for it to have been his fault for having brought him to the Bolgia and put him in harm’s way in the first place. Then again, he also didn’t want to make Rakim think that he thought of him as any less of a man than Bridges was. He didn’t want to damage the bat’s confidence by holding him back.
“Yeah! If you want. I mean, are you sure you’re up for it?” Rakim felt so much energy bouncing around inside him that he was desperate to spend some of it. He couldn’t stand the thought of spending the evening watching other people move around a lot while sitting still himself. “If it’s not rude of me, yeah!” He didn’t want to go through life as an onlooker. He wanted to be a participant.
“All you have to do is go up there while she’s still up there, then.” She stood with her arms spread, facing the crowd near the ropes in a different directions successively, inviting anyone else to come up to face her. “Just don’t bet more than you’re prepared to lose.” Since no one else seemed to have been challenging her, Rakim stood up. “I won’t.” He walked into the aisle and, to the crowd’s cheers, made his way to the ring as Ogun shook his heads in disbelief. The bat’s build was relatively light, and the fish seemed physically stronger than he was.
Would he measure up to her, or end up regretting having tried his luck?
She looked him up and down as he ducked under the rope while climbing up on the ring, and he looked at her carefully as he seamlessly sank into his own fighting stance. The bullies who had made his childhood hell had long since no longer posed a challenge to him, but this was to be nothing like it. There was no enmity between the red fish and Rakim. It was the first time he was going to get to fight someone for fun, not because he had to, and he was looking forward to it.
As she slowly walked around him her serious, vaguely scornful expression melted into a sly grin, almost lowering his guard before she came at him. She opened with a series of hooks and backhands designed to vary the directions they were coming from in an unpredictable pattern enough to break through his attempts at stopping them from reaching him. His forearms circled inward and outward back and forth, parrying every strike with one arm while attacking with his other arm before alternating between them again, his arms as naturally following the movement of her arms as debris would have followed the water’s surface while buffeted by the waves.
She gritted her teeth, but still grinned through it, seeming grateful to be presented with a legitimate challenge. He quickly began lifting his knees over her kicks at his shins even while he continued to defend and attack from her rapidly switching arm strikes and parries, then began to counter with low kicks that she redirected with her shins of his own, also without taking his eyes off their arm game. She began to double some of her arm strikes, either by starting with an elbow then extending them or starting with a punch to continue with an elbow, forcing him to reinforce his parries into full blocks, keeping his arms so occupied that he almost didn’t block her knees.
This was fun!
He had no trouble believing she’d made a name for herself there. His mind had absolutely no chance to wander off into any other territory than the here and now. He needed every scrap of his full attention to even remotely have a chance of keeping up with her, and it was like a full-body stretch after having been cooped up for too long. After he parried a kick to his midsection and blocked a second one to his face, he moved his body out of the way of a third, spinning kick that made a chill go down his spine.
Her foot had been on fire.
What sorcery was this? Rakim had never seen anything like it outside of a video game. He had not believed that such things were possible. Was she using some kind of trick that he didn’t know about? Or had the laws of physics been different from what he’d believed that they’d been for his whole life until then? Whatever the answer was, it seemed a question that it would be best for him to devote more mental energy to when he wouldn’t have to focus on not getting fire kicked in the face.
This proved difficult. He feared fire so!
Steeling his resolve, he remembered his training and the advice he’d received about taking risks. This was just a fight like any other, he tried to tell himself. He redoubled his efforts not to get hit, weaving and dodging around her kicks with acrobatics that always seemed to push back the limits of what seemed like it should have been possible for him to do just a little bit further than expected. He was not to be outdone. What this did mean was that he was focusing completely on defense at the expense of offense.
As frustrated as she was that he’d have been successfully avoiding her kicks, she saw an opening to take advantage of that. Breaking the pattern of kicking and avoiding that he’d settled into, she abruptly broke the distance between them to yank him into a grapple. As much as he’d practiced trapping and locking as much as the other aspects of his training, the surprise factor gave her just that sliver of an edge that she needed. Just when it seemed as though he was about to successfully wriggle out of her grip, she picked him up, and threw him high over the ropes.
Just as she was getting ready to celebrate her victory over him, he opened his wings in midair and caught the wind in them as he gracefully back-flipped high above the ropes, borrowing the momentum of her throw to glide right back down at her. He tried to swoop down at her in a way that would have allowed him to push her out of the ring herself, but was forced to turn his flight path into a corkscrew dive around her, narrowly avoiding having her kick him right out of the sky. Flying between the ropes on the other side of her, he flew back upward and turned around in midair before finishing a front flip to his feet standing in front of her.
He turned around and back-flipped over her as she tried to sweep his legs after having dodged another of her high kicks. After he’d knelt and span into a reversed elbow strike she’d blocked, he raised his arm and his upward palm seemed like it was about to knock her on her back until she turned the movement into a backbend which then became a full-on handstand. Bringing her legs into an upside-down split, her fiery left foot shot forward while her right foot went back, so extended and well-targeted that dodging it forced him back into a back arch and backbend of his own.
Since his backbend forced him to look away from her, most fighters in his situation would have had no idea of what she may have been going to do next. Fortunately for Rakim, his hearing gave him a much better picture of what she was doing, even without needing to look at her. When she brought her flaming right foot back down into an axe kick in front of her, he brought his left hand up and to the floor on his right, going down on all four facing away from her at her side on her back.
Grabbing her left ankle – which was no longer on fire – with his left hand, he went on his own back next to her, lying down on her left arm, and extended his right arm over her neck to prevent her from getting up. Before she could understand what he was doing, he moved his right wing over her head so that it would encompass her head while being closed off to the crowd. Using his wing to direct sound like a speakerphone, he screeched a loud bat screech that, while it was tolerably audible to the audience, amplified the sound that he was producing while guiding it directly at her head.
Her legs wriggling in a way that made them seem like she was pedaling on an invisible bicycle, she frantically tapped on the ground with her right arm. He stopped immediately, not wanting to do any permanent damage to her hearing over a simple sparring match. His heart was racing as they stood back up, and the raccoon referee approached him to lift his arm over his head.
He almost couldn’t believe it. He didn’t think he’d been going to win, well, he hoped he would, but he didn’t think he’d really been going to. Yet there he was! She raised her finger at him as the crowd cheered. “Don’t get cocky, boy. I’ll get you next time, you’ll see” she told him. He simply nodded. “Yes, I think you will.” A mongoose helped her off the ring – they seemed to be boyfriend and girlfriend, but he wasn’t sure. She seemed a little disoriented but mostly okay.
She’d called him ‘boy’! He was privately excited about that. It was sort of validating.
“Wow, you did great!” It wasn’t that Ogun hadn’t believed Rakim when he’d said he could fight, but he was clearly impressed to have seen him win. “That was incredible! Let’s do it again let’s do it again,” he laughed. “Whoa, you really want to?” Rakim stuck out his tongue at him. “Nah, not this time. I’ve never done this before! I’m going to stay on a high note for now.” It was about the middle of the night by then. “You wanna go get something to eat?” He’d finally spent the energy he’d wanted to by then – he was up for going out to get some of it back. “Sure!”
Ogun paused, and thought about their options for a moment. “Well, I don’t know. I’m trying to think of somewhere that’s still open in the middle of the night. We could always go back to my place and I could try to slap something together if you want.” Oh God, Rakim thought, if we go back to his place when I’m still all pumped up like this, I’m going to have a very hard time putting things off until next time, aren’t I...
“Well... There’s technically another option, but I’m not sure I should bring it up.” This got the bat’s interest. “What is it?” Ogun stuck his ram tongue out. “The only restaurant I know that’s open at this hour is a shawarma place downtown.” Rakim wasn’t sure he understood. “You don’t like shawarmas?” Ogun seemed embarrassed. “Well, I didn’t want to... I didn’t want to seem like I’d assume you like shawarmas just because you’re a bat!” he finally admitted. Rakim laughed. “They’re great, though, aren’t they?” The chimera seemed incrementally less tense. “We can go. It’ll be a new experience for me – I’ve never been to it, if you can believe that” he added, tongue-in-cheek.
“So you really liked tonight?” Ogun asked as Rakim enthusiastically chomped down on his falafel. “Oh yeah!” the bat somehow responded through his chewing. “It made me feel like I was a character from a video game, only for a moment.” Ogun smiled. “I’m glad. I like that you like acting things out from video games,” he added. “We’re usually brought up to be afraid of acting out the wrong ones, not to try to act out the right ones.” Rakim shook his head. “I don’t know what I’d be if I’d grown up without video games,” he said. “With the other kids at school the way they were, having games to turn to probably saved my life, to be honest.”
Ogun nodded his four heads pensively in response. He could relate.
“You know, when I was a kid, I used to want to be like an RPG character,” his snake head started off. “I’d have all these friends, we’d all have special powers, and we’d travel the world killing monsters and saving the world, you know?” The bat nodded while chewing. “So when I grew up and it turned out life wasn’t like that, at first I felt vaguely ripped off for a while. I didn’t give a shit about flying cars, I wanted my RPG life, you know?” Rakim encouraged him to continue.
“I started meeting people online, often far away from me. Too far to travel the world with them. They didn’t seem to have any special powers, but they were friends, you know? And they were sad. They were so sad. On most days it felt like the world was trying to kill them. So I had to keep putting off and putting aside my thoughts of a great big quest that would finally prove everything longer and longer, and just stay with them and listen to them, to try to keep the world from killing them, because I didn’t want to have to live without them.”
Rakim had completely forgotten about his food by then.
“Eventually, I realized I did have my RPG life after all,” he said, no longer as self-conscious as he usually was about talking too much for the time being. “It was the inner demons of my friends that were the monsters I killed. It was their lives that were the world I was saving, and my life that was the world that they were saving as well. It’s the battle against despair that’s the real adventure in life... It’s those of us who fight it for each other who are the real heroes.”
At this, Rakim got up off his chair, and kissed Ogun’s dragon head right on the mouth.