Welcome to our newest collab fic, Into The Ring! We've had so much fun writing it and we hop you guys will enjoy reading this as much as you did Trial By Fire (our last collab fic). TBF has no correlation whatsoever to ITR, this is not the sequel (the sequel is titled Circles of Hell and has not yet been written). That being said, if you haven't read our previous collab fic, Trial By Fire, it would make us very happy if you did! *promos*
This fic is set up a bit differently than TBF. Those of you who read it can recall that the three of us had separate "chunks" of the story (one of us wrote the beginning, another the middle, and the third wrote the ending). Into The Ring will not be following that format.
Instead, we've been doing the Round-Robin method.
What this means is that we are all writing together. As Snogfairy puts it, our writing is entirely mixed up. This means that every single paragraph you read might be written by a different person; sometimes it's whole pages, sometimes half, etc. It's one big mix. Writing like this has proven to be not only insanely fun but also very, very motivating, and we have written what we have so far (almost 200 pages) in less than a month. And we're so excited to share this fic with you that we just can't wait!
However, we must warn you that ITR will be rather dark (darker than TBF). There will be violence, gore, sex, implied but not graphic prostitution, and more. If you're uncomfortable with any of these themes, then this fic is not for you. This fic is rated M for very good reasons.
Other than that, we should be all good to go!
We'll be updating weekly (on Saturdays), so please look forward to the new chapters! These chapters will also be available on Tumblr. Also, any and all feedback is appreciated - we would love to hear your thoughts!
Enjoy, and welcome into the Ring...
rated: M for mature content
summary: In a world of underground fighting only the strong survive, abiding by the rules of kill or be killed. In the Ring, a feeble emotion like hope is all it takes to destroy you. And yet it exists– and those who hold onto it play a dangerous game. But once you enter into the Ring, it will never let you go.
"Fear is your best friend or your worst enemy. It's like fire. If you can control it, it can cook for you; it can heat your house. If you can't control it, it will burn everything around you and destroy you." - Mike Tyson
Down for the Count
a boxer being knocked down; the referee will count off ten seconds, the time allotted for the boxer to regain his feet or lose the fight.
For as long as he could remember, certain sounds, smells, and sensations had always been present. The scent of the sweat of exercise, or the heavy ringing of a thick brass bell to mark the end of a round. The feel of chalk under his nails to help keep his grip, and the slip of vinyl mats under bandaged feet. Even the skip of a jump rope was soothing, the leather cord whizzing through the air.
All those things were familiar. They always had been and perhaps always would be.
But now there were new sounds, new smells. New sensations.
Pain along with the tightness of fear clouded his mind and tainted the impressions he previously had associated with safety. No longer were the boxing gloves or sandbags a source of comfort. No longer did the ringing of a bell shoot a thrill of excitement in his young heart.
He was frightened and he wanted his daddy.
A boy, no older than ten, was shoved into a brittle looking steel cage. His eyes were wild with fear as he struggled against the man trying to lock him inside like an animal. Around his neck was a long white scarf, a scale like pattern decorated every inch of the fabric. It hung off the boy's shoulders, several sizes too large, the rough ends dragged onto the the floor of the cage. Pink hair was matted down onto his sweaty forehead.
Every ounce of the young boy was grimy and filthy, tracks of tan cut by tears were the only clean spots on his face. A smear of red was smudged on a round cheek, rubbed there from a second source. Dirty bandages were wrapped around his tiny palms, covering up healing burns and fresh scars.
When the boy tried to sit up and brace himself against the bars, a harsh kick was delivered to the metal, nearly smashing the child's fingers in the process. He recoiled back, drawing them protectively to his chest even as he glared bitterly at his captor. Even he knew better than to risk breaking a hand. He'd be useless then. Damaged goods.
He was already in trouble for getting hurt. Broken property was a liability.
"Stay in there until you remember to wait for Acnologia you stupid brat," another harsh kick rattled the bars of the cage, but the boy barely flinched.
Instead he watched the man sulk off, swearing under his breath over insubordinate kids. He stayed still, recovering from the beating he had gotten and the pain from his own impromptu training. Not moving seemed like the best course of action and his throbbing body seemed to agree.
Staying still for several minutes, the boy curled his burned fingers under his chin, wincing at the tenderness. They weren't bad, but it would mean he'd have to take the day off.
Acnologia wouldn't be happy.
The boy didn't have long to linger on that thought. The steps of approaching feet alerted him someone was seeking to keep him company. Lifting his head just enough to see who it was, the boy only sighed in relief at who was standing there.
"You really did it this time, Natsu," a tired voice broke the silence.
The boy, Natsu, leaned up and let out a horrible sounding croak and a surprisingly bright smile. "It was worth it, Zeref."
Natsu groaned around his throbbing jaw, a fresh bruise already beginning to form from the licking he had taken. His tongue felt too swollen for his mouth, but he relished the tender ache in his throat. It was proof he had finally achieved the next step in his training.
His dad had taught him before that it was one of the biggest steps to becoming a master of the fire dragonslayer style of fighting. His throat burned terribly, ash spilled against the back of his tongue and he felt blisters forming along the insides of his cheeks.
Pride pulsed through him. It might have hurt at first, but fire swallowing was all about discipline. All it took was enough practice and meditation and the flames would put themselves out.
"Perhaps, but the guards didn't seem to think so," Zeref sighed but knelt before Natsu's cage and undid the latch with clever fingers. He bent down before Natsu.
"They won't like you letting me out either..." Natsu crawled towards the opening and climbed out.
He was getting too cramped for the cage. Soon they would have to put him somewhere else. Especially if they wanted him usable.
"We need to treat those burns," Zeref replied, but helped to guide Natsu out. He braced the little boy's arm in his palm, careful not to jostle his injuries.
A twist of guilt pressed into Natsu's gut, reminding him that Zeref only had a limited amount of creams and muscle ointments to use for his disposal. He was using his portion on Natsu. Suddenly, he felt more ashamed for his impulsive actions than he had before when the guards had been beating on him.
Sensing Natsu beginning to pull away, Zeref's grip tightened around his wrist, gentle but firm in his hold.
"None of that now." Zeref held onto Natsu's arm, but reached around and deposited something blue and furry into the little boy's lap. "I managed to convince the Master to give him back to you."
The small bundle squirmed but let out an offended sounding 'mrow' when Natsu hesitated in picking it up. On the boy's lap was a small kitten. So tiny, it was considered a runt in its litter and would have been thrown into a gutter to die had Natsu not taken an immediate liking to him.
It seemed odd that something so fragile could live within the walls of the ring, but surprisingly enough he was not the only one. All of the captured children owned a small pet provided they shared a portion of their meal with the animal. To those who funded the ring, it was marketed to their sense of humanity as a sort of therapy tool for the child fighters.
Smoke screen and nothing more. The pets were just tools in a belt of weapons to use against their prisoners. The children would bond to the pets, and if they disobeyed orders or were willful - their pet would suffer for it.
"H-Happy!" Natsu's eyes went wide and immediately flung his free arm around his kitten. The cat made a cheerful sounding noise and vibrated its happiness in the crook of Natsu's throat.
He hadn't thought he would see Happy again after an incident involving another prisoner a few weeks ago. Some crazy brat that called himself Zancrow. That kid was adjusting a little too well to combat life. It was common knowledge he even killed his own cat.
Natsu had taken exception to that when Zancrow boasted he no longer had to share portions. He had killed his best friend, and to a boy who only saw the inside of a cage - that was intolerable.
He hadn't expected his own cat to be taken as punishment.
"How did you get him back?" Natsu's eyes watered, and he almost jerked in surprise when he realized Zeref had already finished bandaging one entire hand.
The older fighter gave Natsu a mysterious smile. "I have my ways."
"Aw, c'mon, Zeref! Tell me," Natsu whined, but switched his hands obediently when Zeref gestured for it.
"Can't your older brother keep some secrets to himself?" Zeref asked, traces of amusement lightening the dark mood surrounding the cages.
"No," Natsu huffed and folded his legs under his small body. He yelped and raised a hand to his nose when Zeref reached over and flicked it.
"Well, I hope you enjoy disappointment." Zeref nodded towards Natsu's nest of thin sheets spread over the floor of his cage. "Now get some rest. I hear you're training with Acnologia tomorrow."
Natsu groaned and slunk back into his cage, his expression mutinous. "Argh! I hate him..."
Zeref's expression sharpened and he lifted a hand to hush the rebellious boy. They may not have been related by blood, but Zeref very much cared for Natsu like a little brother. The boy had more potential than the ring had seen in years. Not since Zeref himself was brought to the ring over a decade ago. Natsu had great things in store for him, if only he could quiet his mouth or his rebellious spirit.
"Acnologia is one of the few practitioners alive of your style that can actually teach you, Natsu. You will remember to respect him, and keep your voice down," Zeref hissed.
"Why are you even afraid of him? You're one of the pro fighters," Natsu mumbled around a mouthful of blue fur from his squirming friend. "It's not like you have a cat, and you even get your own room!"
Zeref sighed as he looked at the large green eyes staring at him from behind the bars. They were open and trusting. Not the eyes of a fighter. Not yet. But Zeref was sure to get him there.
One way or another.
"If you just did as you're told, you would get a room too," Zeref sighed with an air of aggravation. Natsu just stuck his tongue out.
Zeref made a frustrated sound and moved to stand up.
Only to stop when a small hand tugged on the pants leg of his sweats. Natsu was still looking stubborn, but his gaze was averted. Cheeks rosy, he mumbled something quiet under his breath.
Zeref smiled at his little brother and took his freshly bandaged hand in his.
"Goodnight, Natsu. Goodnight, Happy."
So Zeref left, unaware that in just a couple of hours, the course of their lives would change.
"Where should we put her?" a low voice grumbled, quiet enough to barely disturb the utterly silent room.
But Natsu was a very light sleeper. He always slept on the very edge of consciousness, sharp ears looking to catch voices that he knew were bad news.
This voice was bad news.
It belonged to one of the "muscle men", as the other fighters referred to them. Most of the muscle men were huge, brainless brutes meant to keep Natsu and the others in line. But this one in particular...he seemed to like hurting people.
He always gave that creepy smile when Natsu came back from a match, all busted to hell.
That smile never ceased to send a chilling shiver of warning down Natsu's spine. And even now, it wasn't something he could ignore.
Peeling one eye open, Natsu searched for the man with the mean voice.
He had to be sneaky about it, though, because if he was caught awake, he would get in trouble. And "trouble" usually consisted of rehabilitation - really, that just meant they'd beat the snot out of him - or worse, they would take away his cat again.
Happy was a comforting warm weight against Natsu's side.
Digging his grubby fingers into Happy's fur, Natsu located the muscle man.
He was a menacing shadow even in the dark, huge and imposing. Even the other kids in their cages, awake or asleep, could feel his presence and scooted away as far as they could manage. As if it might protect them.
"I dunno," answered the night guard around a yawn, leaning against the wall. "Toss her in one of the cages I guess."
The small, scared voice rang out like a crack.
And for the first time, Natsu noticed the little girl dangling from the muscle man's hands. He had a bruising grip on her tiny arm, lifting her up so she could barely touch the ground with her toes. Despite that, she was struggling with all her might, tugging and yanking.
"Let me go!" she demanded.
"Oh, shaddup," snarled the muscle man as he jerked her arm. He turned around, perusing the cages.
The tension in the air spiked as the other kids felt the sweep of his gaze.
Natsu could practically hear their voices. Please, please, don't come over here. Don't take my cat. He knew because his own thoughts echoed the sentiment, just a small never-ending murmur in the back of his head.
But, he knew the exact moment that the muscle man selected his cage.
And he dragged the little girl over, ignoring her kicking and screaming. She dug her bare heels into the ground but it didn't help - in fact it only served to make the cruel man laugh. When she tripped over the hem of her pretty nightgown, tried to bite his arm, his laughter grew - cold and brittle. Stopping at Natsu's cage, the muscle man opened the door and tossed the girl inside.
She tumbled with a yelp, the scent of fresh blood meeting Natsu's nose.
She'd skinned her knees.
The muscle man continued to laugh as he slammed the door to the cage closed and locked it. "Ye're feisty, little girl. I'd pay to see ya fight," he mused.
The little girl drew her scraped knees to her chest. She glared, her anger palpable. "Let me go," was all she repeated in a small voice that wavered.
"Can't do that. Yer daddy owes us a lotta money," he said with a grin. "And if he doesn't pay up, well, it looks like you and I'll get to have some fun."
A chill frosted the air.
Everyone knew what fun meant. Including the little girl, who recoiled and scrambled to the back of the cage. The bruises on her arms and legs told Natsu she had probably already gotten a taste of their idea of amusement. Her back collided hard with the bars, knocking the breath from her lungs, and she struggled to breathe.
The muscle man laughed that ugly laugh, rattling the cage, before finally leaving. And silence settled in the stale room once more.
The night guard huffed out a tired sigh, muttering under his breath. But eventually he too succumbed to the pull of sleep, leaning against the stone wall by the only entrance. His gun and flashlight were tucked securely into the tool belt around his waist.
Not much longer, and the only sounds in the room were those of quiet breathing, and the occasional cough. It could get rather cold down here, and the thin blankets provided to them did nothing to keep the cool out.
Natsu was unable to sleep, and it had little to do with the temperature.
He kept sneaking glances at the small form of the girl, crouching in the corner of their prison. Her sobbing had quieted down over time, but it was obvious - and not surprising in the least - that she was still in a state of utter pain and confusion.
Seeing her like this, even if she was a stranger - Natsu couldn't bear it.
And so, carefully as not to startle her, he crouched closer, keeping his voice down.
"Do your knees hurt?"
The little girl started at his question, picking her head up and blinking at him. Almost like she'd had no idea he had been there. She stared at him for a while with wide brown eyes, taking in his appearance.
He was filthy and bruised, cuts and blisters and burns littering every inch of his skin. And for some reason, the longer she stared, the more embarrassed Natsu felt.
Suddenly, he was very aware of all the grit embedded in his nails.
The little girl finally glanced down and scrubbed her clean face with the sleeve of her gossamer nightgown. "A little…" she whispered.
"I don't have bandages or anything," Natsu began hesitantly, "but Happy always makes me feel better."
Happy was the one good thing that the Ring had given him. Happy made everything hurt less.
Even now, purring happily by Natsu's side.
"Happy?" The girl frowned, curious.
And he tried to smile even though his mouth was sore and blistered. "Happy's my best friend," he proudly proclaimed as he scooped up the purring furball at his side and handed him over to the girl.
Happy gave a startled mewl, scrambling in her arms.
"A cat," she said with awe.
Carefully, she placed a hand on top of its little head, surprised when it calmed immediately. As she massaged the soft spot behind his ears, the cat called Happy began to purr, and for the first time since she had been thrown into the cage with Natsu, the hint of a smile ghosted across her face.
Natsu watched contently, feeling relief wash through him. He wasn't surprised. Happy was the best at comforting. He didn't know what he'd do without him.
The thought that he'd almost had to find out scared him all over again, even though Happy was now safely back by his side thanks to Zeref. You never knew for how long, really.
It had not been the first time they had taken Happy away - a child like Natsu, wild and impetuous, was a troublemaker by nature alone - but it had been the longest.
And so he watched the little cat purr with even more fondness than on a normal day, glad he had his best friend back, and glad that together they maybe could make their new friend feel a little more welcome. As welcome as you could feel down here, in the ring.
Her future didn't exactly look bright, he knew that. He knew that better than her, and he had no intention of scaring her with the harsh truth of her situation. Forever the optimist, Natsu refused to accept it himself.
He would do anything he could to help her.
Granted, it was not much, but he wouldn't be Natsu if he didn't try with all his might.
After a little while of silence between the two (and the constant comfort of Happy's soft purring), the girl lifted her head and sent a small smile in his direction. It was shy, but grateful, and Natsu returned it gladly.
"Thank you," she whispered at last, still clutching Happy against her side. Sliding a little closer, her large eyes fixed onto his properly, not shying away this time. "I'm L-"
Before she could finish her sentence, Natsu squished her cheeks with his hand to silence her, not minding the dirt that clung to his fingers. All that left her was a confused sound, her brows furrowing and temper flaring.
"Shh," he warned. "Maybe it's better if I don't know your name."
"Why?" the young girl asked after a pause, the look of confusion not leaving her face even as his hand did. Dirt stains decorated her cheeks, but she did not notice.
He shrugged. "They can use everything against you here. The less you know, the better."
"They…" she echoed, shivering. "Who are they?"
"They're… well," Natsu started, and then hesitated. Who were they?
He was a nine year old boy. The inner workings of the Ring, the politics and intrigues that kept it alive, they were a threat he knew by name, but nothing much else.
"There's the muscle men," he said, a little unsure, "and a master. And people who pay to see us fight."
It was a very simple explanation, a simple way to look at it, but in the end this was exactly what it was. Even a child understood that much.
"Will I have to fight?" the girl asked, suddenly sounding insanely scared.
"I… don't think so," he replied after a moment, biting his bottom lip as he pondered her question. "You're not trained. And they said they want your dad to pay for you, so they'll keep you here until he…"
Natsu stopped talking, his mind wrapping around what he was saying, and what it came up with made the words die on his lips.
They would keep her here until her dad paid. And then…?
The girl seemed to understand, though, if the way her lip wobbled was anything to go by. "Even if my daddy pays...they're probably not going to let me go, are they?" she asked in a small voice.
Natsu looked down at his dirty hands. "No, they won't."
The Ring never let anyone go.
The only way to escape...was to die. And judging by the solemn, empty look in the girl's dark brown eyes as she smoothed her hands through Happy's fur, she'd figured that out already.
"I...I don't want to stay here," she murmured after a little while. Her fingers clutched at Happy, who squeaked in protest. "I want to go home."
She would die if she stayed here. Feisty or not, she wasn't trained and she was too kind for the place. She would last all of two months before dying either in the ring, or because of intense "rehabilitation".
She would die…
Natsu didn't want that. He didn't want his new friend to die - he'd had to say goodbye to so many of his friends already.
So there was only one way to make sure that didn't happen…
"Don't worry," he told her in a low voice and touched her hand. "You're not gonna die."
The girl blinked at him. "I'm not?"
"No… Because I'm gonna get you outta here."
He could see the disbelief weighing heavy in her eyes. Already this place was changing her in ways no one could predict. But that was the way of the ring. One look at her fine nightgown and her clean, if messy, crown of golden hair was evidence enough. She came from a wealthy family. Whatever life she might have had before was now forever derailed.
Even if she escaped, there was a bit of innocence crushed from her eyes.
Natsu didn't know why he couldn't stand the thought of her being hurt anymore. He had been locked in the ring for a year already and had already changed so much just to survive. He swallowed around the tight knot of fear in his throat.
He couldn't let the same thing happen to her. He just couldn't.
"How?" her voice wavered, quiet with fear but trembling with hope. "If you could escape, why haven't you done it already?"
Natsu glanced around himself at the rows of still cages, all quiet and asleep. No doubt they were all so relieved they had been passed over. Natsu was still different from them, some of the kids having been in cages for years before getting moved out into the training quarters when they were old enough.
He reached out, pressing his burned fingers against the girl's soft, small hands. They were even tinier than his, clean of scars and grime. He pressed them against Happy's fur, and the kitten let out a vibrating purr.
"Because we didn't have each other before," Natsu's whispered declaration was earnest, and he could see how it sank into the girl. "They won't hurt you until they know if your dad will pay. So don't worry, you have some time."
In the back of his head, he could hear his father's voice. Igneel was a world class fighter. Natsu loved to see him fight on their small television. It only had one, sometimes two colors if it was shaken hard enough, but it was a memory he clung to. Igneel was a professional fighter, but he had no money.
Because he didn't believe their style was meant to be exploited for money. So all of his earnings went to keeping their lights on and funding a community gym for troubled kids.
Help anyone, Igneel would say, but especially those who can't protect themselves.
Natsu gripped onto the girl's wrists, determination flaring in his eyes. "I promise you. I'll help you escape."
"Thank you," her voice trembled around a watery smile.
We hope you enjoyed the prologue! Again, we'd love to hear your thoughts so don't be shy!
Next chapter! Chapter 1: Sanctioning Body