In the sweltering bosom of the southern United States, nestled amongst cornfields, woods, and pig farms is the town of Faerun, a modest city where the rumor that a Hardee’s might soon be opening on Highway 412 is actually news. Ten years ago, the high school women’s basketball team won the state championship and people still talk about that game. It features two elementary schools, a handful of churches, two movie theatres, but most importantly, for some people in town anyway, a roller rink. The Adventure Zone Roller Rink and Arcade opened in 1979 and has been struggling ever since. There is really only one thing that keeps the doors to The Adventure Zone open, and that is roller derby.
Julia snapped her gum and pushed open the door of The Adventure Zone Roller Rink. The smell of the place greeted her like an old friend--not that it was a great smell, mostly feet and sweat and popcorn and wood polish, but it also smelled like home.
Ah, and here was her family now. Hurley came flying up to her, yelling something unintelligible, and punched her in the hip, which was about as high as she could reach.
Julia grinned and threw up her hands. “What?”
“I said, are you ready to beat the Felicity Wild Women? ”
“Hell yeah !” came a shout from across the rink. It was Killian, and she was flexing. Carey poked her head out of the door to the locker room, cackled at the sight of Killian, and fanned herself dramatically.
“Let’s go, let’s go, get your skates on, c’mon!” said Hurley, bounding her way over to their friends at the door. Julia strode after her.
The locker room was hardly anything more than a closet. Merle, the guy who owned The Adventure Zone, had cut some kind of party room in half to jerry-rig two locker rooms together. One was permanently theirs, but the nicer one was for visiting teams. Personally, Julia liked theirs, which was covered in old posters and photos from past seasons. Killian had gone in with her, so now everyone was there: Killian, who wore dresses every day, but none with sleeves because no sleeve could handle her biceps; Hurley, who was short and stocky and a ball of energy, and was currently doing a handstand on a bench just because she could; Carey, whose smallest motions were precise and quick and whose grin spelled trouble; Sloane, the car grease all over her arms making it look like the Korean tattoos on her arms were smudged, her lithe form slinking through the room; Noelle, chipper as always, fitting her prosthetic skating leg on single-handed, her prosthetic arm lying beside her on the bench; Taako, who was already in uniform and putting on illegal amounts of eyeliner; and Lucretia, arms crossed, observing them all with an expression of stone, though Julia did occasionally see the corners of her lips twitch.
“I’m just saying,” Carey was telling Noelle, “since they lost whats-her-face, the Wild Women haven’t had a single solid blocker.”
“Good blockers or no, they still don’t have any problem beating us, do they?” drawled Taako.
Julia swung her skates off her shoulder, popped open her locker--no use using the lock, it was broken--and pulled out the elements of her costume. Electric blue shorts and jersey, kneepads, elbow pads, long socks, and Julia’s personal touch, some ridiculous orange fishnets. “This time we’ll do it for sure. Right ladies?”
“Hell yeah!” returned the chorus, all but Lucretia.
“Don’t get overconfident,” said Lucretia, in her Coach Voice. “Taako’s right. This isn’t going to be an easy match. Especially with a new referee.”
Hurley fell out of her handstand and stuck the landing. “New ref? What happened to Merle’s guy?”
Lucretia shrugged. “It doesn’t matter for this bout, does it? I just want you all to be especially vigilant, understand? There’s no telling what this new guy will be like.”
“I heard there was a fire,” said Sloane, pulling back her long hair.
“Gundren’s dead ?” said Killian.
Sloane rolled her eyes. “I didn’t say he died . I said he was in a fire. I heard he was injured.”
“Hatchi matchi, that’ll mess up your day,” said Taako.
“Do we know anything about the new guy?” asked Carey.
“Word is that Avi knows him,” said Lucretia.
“If he’s Avi’s friend, then he can’t be that bad,” said Noelle. “Anyone’s better than Gundren.”
“Weelll, I wouldn’t be so sure,” said Julia, pulling her jersey over her head. “Avi’s friends with everyone. Even Gundren.”
“He’s already here,” said Sloane. “I saw him.”
“Where?” Killian demanded.
Hurley had her skates on now; she darted toward the door. “Let’s go see!”
They caravanned out of the locker room to the rink’s back door, tucked between the regular rink and the banked derby track. Hurley got there first and poked her head outside. “Oh, yep, there he is. Where’d Avi find this guy?”
Carey poked her head out too. “Oh my god. What a weirdo.”
Taako stacked his head on top of Carey’s. “I dunno, he’s kinda cute.”
“Are you looking at the same guy I am?” said Carey, backing up to look at Taako.
“Whatever,” scoffed Taako. “You’re so gay you’d think Usher was a weirdo.”
“All right, fine.” Carey waved Julia over. “Julia, you’re straight, what do you think?”
They moved out of the way so Julia could see. She leaned her head against the doorframe.
The first thing she saw was the van. It was a Dodge van from the seventies with one of those airbrush paint jobs, except instead of space or a unicorn or something, all that was on this one was a giant woodcutting ax. The back bumper was half hanging off and the whole thing was covered in dings and scratches. The side door was open, and sitting on the edge of the van in a ref’s striped shirt was a Hispanic man probably best described with the phrase “Brick Shithouse.” He was putting kneepads on.
Julia fell away from the door snickering. “Oh my god .”
The others took their turns. “What’s with the van?” demanded Killian. “Who drives a car like that?”
“Maybe he lives in it,” said Carey.
“That bumper is really dangerous,” Noelle commented.
“All right, ladies. And Taako. That’s enough.” Lucretia herded them back toward the locker room. Julia lagged behind to get another look.
Taako was right, he was fairly good-looking, in a professional wrestler kind of way. His hair was short but not military short, and he had overlong sideburns. His kneepads were on now, and he was struggling with the straps of an elbow pad. She looked behind him, in the van. It seemed to be full of wooden chairs.
Julia must have made a noise or something, because he suddenly looked up.
“Hey,” he called out, “can you hold the door?”
Oh, goddammit, she was being creepy. Nothing for it now. She opened the door like she’d always meant to go outside. “Yeah, sure.”
He grabbed a pair of old, dirty skates by the laces and stood up. He was beefy and tall, though not quite as tall as Killian. From here she could see a scar over one eye, which cut a notch in one of his eyebrows. “Thanks.” He paused in the doorway and stuck out a hand, which she shook. “Magnus Burnsides. You a player?”
“Uh, yeah.” Julia tugged on her jersey. “Duh.”
“Hm.” He frowned, just a little, and went inside. Julia realized she’d just sassed the new ref.
Oh well. If he was anything like Gundren, it wouldn’t have made a difference. Julia ambled back to the locker room.
Magnus settled onto the outside edge of the track with a sigh. He didn’t understand it. He’d always had good cordial relationships with players before. New town, new folks, he guessed.
He untied his boots and started putting on his skates. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe he was just distracted, because god , she was beautiful. The sparkle of her brown eyes, the warm sepia brown of her skin, the black floral tattoo sleeve on her upper arm, and the relative softness of her hand--relative because his own hands were like tree bark--
“Stop,” he told himself, because of course she was hot like fresh pancakes, but he had a job to do.
“Stop what, sir?”
Magnus yelped and threw up his fists, but it was just a kid, hanging over the rail around the track. The kid didn’t flinch, he noticed. Magnus relaxed. “Oh. Sorry. You scared me.”
“Sorry, sir!” He smiled. The boy had ears too big for his head, only slightly mitigated by a mess of curly black hair and a pair of glasses that looked like they were for an adult. His face was covered in freckles. “Are you the new referee?”
“Yeah,” said Magnus, and scanned the stands. A couple of people were wandering in, but nobody close by. “Uh, are your parents here?”
“No, I came with Killian and Carey, sir. They’re playing tonight.”
“And they just left you out here?”
“I can’t be in the locker room while they’re changing, sir. That would be inappropriate.” He considered Magnus carefully. “Have you been a referee before, sir?”
“Not a head referee, but yeah,” Magnus said. The kid was cute, but Magnus had a strange feeling he was being interrogated.
“I’m glad to hear you say that, sir! Mr. Gundren wasn’t nearly so experienced.”
“You don’t have to call me sir, you can just call me Magnus.”
The kid smiled again. “Nice to meet you! I’m Angus McDonald.”
“Nice to meet you too, Angus.” Magnus finished tying up his skates. “Are you excited for the bout?”
“Sure am, sir! The Wild Women just got a new captain, and I’m curious about whether they’ve changed their blocking strategy.”
Magnus’ face broke into a surprised smile. “You know a lot about roller derby?”
Angus nodded solemnly. “I come to every bout.”
“Maybe you can be one of my volunteer refs tonight,” said Magnus, tightening the laces on his skates. He was supposed to pick two from the audience, which seemed ludicrous to him. Why wouldn’t they just hire more refs? Of course, looking at the state of this place, maybe the owner couldn’t afford it.
“No, sir! No reffing for me, sir. I can’t skate, and anyway, Mr. Highchurch said I’m not allowed.”
“Maybe someday, then,” said Magnus. He stood up and ruffled the kid’s hair. “If you’re here all the time, do you know who they usually pick?”
“Avi and Mr. Boyland, sir.”
“Hell, you know Avi? Uh--sorry. Heck.”
“You can swear in front of me,” Angus shrugged. “I’m pretty certain everyone knows Avi, sir.”
“Someone mention me?” Avi strolled up beside Angus, another man following behind. The other man was a white guy, and he was wearing those...surf pants? With the dropped crotch and the tight ankles. They were pink and green and yellow. And a beanie. This was in stark contrast to Avi, with his mullet and jeans and plain white t-shirt. Avi was quite a bit shorter and a shade more olive than Magnus and had finer features. Pakistani, he’d said. “Hiya, Magnus. Hey, kid, who’s the favorite tonight?”
“The Wild Women, unfortunately,” said Angus. “I’ve heard they’re taking a pretty subtle approach this season.”
“Hmm. Subtlety,” intoned the man with the surf pants. “Not the Bureau’s strong suit.”
Avi nudged the man. “Optimistic as always, eh bud? Magnus, this is my roommate Johann.”
Magnus stuck out a hand. “Pleasure.”
Johann shook it weakly. “Is it though?”
Johann shook his head, as if disappointed. “Avi says you just moved here from Neverwinter?”
“I did, yeah,” said Magnus. “Avi, thanks for getting me this gig.”
“Hey, I’m glad you could do it! You’re helping the team out too. No ref means they’d have to forfeit.” Avi pulled a flask out of his back pocket. “How’s the job hunt going? Still lugging your portfolio around in your car?”
Magnus laughed. “Afraid so.”
Avi offered him the flask, which he accepted. “You’ll figure it out soon.”
“Portfolio?” said Johann. “You an artist?”
“More of a craftsman. I’m a carpenter.”
Johann clenched his fist to his heart. “Sometimes to make the really good stuff, you gotta suffer.”
Magnus frowned. “I’d rather have a half-assed chair and a roof over my head.”
Avi chortled. “A chair for only half your ass?”
“Yeah!” Magnus burst out laughing. Even Johann cracked a smile.
“Sir, if you’re looking for a place to live, my neighbors just moved out,” Angus piped up. “The rent at Moonview is very inexpensive.”
“Really? How inexpensive we talking?”
Angus told him. He was impressed. “How do you know that?”
“I balance the checkbook for my grandpa.”
Avi spoke up. “I’m not sure, dude. Moonview’s kind of a dump.”
“It doesn’t matter if I can’t find a job anyway,” said Magnus. “It’d just be nice to have a shower somewhere other than the YMCA.”
“If you get too sick of it, you can shower at our place once in a while,” said Avi.
“Thanks, man.” Mangus was touched. He’d only known Avi for a few days and already he’d shown more kindness than most of Magnus’ old friends back in Neverwinter. “Hey, Ango here says you’ve been a volunteer ref before. Would you want to do that again?”
“I was hoping you’d ask,” said Avi.
“Great! Um.” Magnus patted his pockets. “Merle said I was supposed to give you a whistle and a hat?”
“I know where they are.”
Magnus ducked under the rail of the track and carefully lowered himself to the ground. Avi waved him over to a cupboard built into the outside of the track, using the space underneath the slope of the bank.
Magnus glided after him and crouched expertly to reach into the cupboard. “So why is everyone so down on this old ref, anyway?”
“Who, Gundren?” Avi rubbed the back of his head. “I mean, he wasn’t a bad guy, but we’re pretty sure he forged his certification. He had no idea what he was doing.”
Magnus handed a striped baseball cap and a whistle up to Avi, and took one more of each for the other volunteer and another whistle for himself. “That’s stupid. Why didn’t the league kick him out?”
“It’s a small league,” Avi said. “We’re always short on refs, and players too sometimes. Last season the only reason the Bureau got to the second round of finals was because the Goldcliff Golddiggers had to forfeit.”
Magnus nodded thoughtfully and stood. “I’m glad I know. Maybe I can help.”
“You already are, dude,” said Avi.
The speakers in the rink crackled to life and started playing Devo. Avi looked up. “Hey, it’s starting! Boyland should be here soon, I’ll introduce you.”
The stands were filling up now, and Julia could feel the anticipation jumping in her gut. She and her team congregated around their bench, getting out last-minute jitters. Sloane was dabbing lavender oil on her temples. Hurley was spinning her helmet, which was emblazoned with two stickers shaped like ram’s horns, in her hands. Carey stretched. Killian stared at the floor. Noelle strapped on her arm. Taako was draped over the bench, examining his nails.
Julia took a deep breath and listened to the crowd. God, she lived for this.
Avi glided over to them. “What’s up, B.o.B.?”
The team chorused hello. Julia high-fived him. “Hey, Avi, what’s happening?”
Avi hooked a thumb over one shoulder. “The ref wants to talk to coaches and captains.”
Julia blinked. “Why?”
“One of those refs?” Lucretia nodded. “I’ve seen it before. Trying to get cozy with us?”
Avi shrugged. “Ask him, I guess.”
The two of them followed Avi to the spot between the two benches to wait for the ref. The Wild Women’s captain and coach met them on the way. Their captain smiled sweetly.
“Well hello, Julia.”
Julia rolled her eyes. “Lydia.”
“Looking lovely as ever, Lucretia,” said their coach.
“Save it, Edward,” Lucretia growled.
“You’re not still mad at us about last season, are you?” said Edward, his tone saccharine.
“You could have seriously injured Taako,” said Lucretia, her tone like granite.
“That wasn’t our fault,” Edward oozed. “Just a little bad luck.”
They were in earshot of the ref now, so they left off talking. What had he said his name was? Mango?
“I just wanted to introduce myself,” he said, looking them all in the eye. Julia frowned. Except her? “I’m Magnus Burnsides. I expect a good clean bout. Good luck to all of you.”
“Thank you,” said Edward, offering his hand. Magnus shook it, and then shook with Lucretia, and then Lydia. She let her hand linger and leaned in toward his face.
“I have to say, I like a man who takes charge.”
A puzzled look crossed his face. “Thank you.”
“Looking forward to playing around with you,” she said.
Julia turned on her heel and skated back to the bench. Any more and she would puke. Just like Lydia to pull something like that. If this guy was a buddy-buddy kind of ref he probably loved it.
Julia shook her head. No more of that. Time to focus. Time for the chant.
She took a deep breath and belted out, “Ladies, your attention please!”
All six players looked at each other and immediately started talking over each other as obnoxiously as they could manage. Julia smiled and let them go for a few seconds before she banged her fist down on the bench, which boomed. The players quit immediately.
“I hereby call this session to order. Who are we?”
“THE BUREAU OF BADASS!” her players shouted back.
“DAMN STRAIGHT. All rise for a word from the Director!”
They leapt to their feet, hands over their hearts. Lucretia narrowed her eyes, making them wait to see what she would say this time...
“Fuck ‘em up, girls.”
The team dissolved in whoops and hollers. Killian started stomping the beat, and the others joined in, chanting, Who are we? The B.o.B. Who are we? The B.o.B. Who are we? The B.o.B… around them the fans started chanting too...
Magnus watched the Bureau pumping themselves up. Avi nudged him. “Johann wrote that chant. Look at him.”
Magnus looked; Johann had a hand over his mouth and tears in his eyes.
“He does that every time .”
“What a wuss,” scoffed Boyland. Boyland was short and stocky and had an army crest tattoo on his arm and the unlit nub of a cigar in his mouth. Avi had brought him over from a group of about twenty children that Avi claimed were all his.
“Johann’s just passionate,” said Avi.
“Speaking of passionate, was the captain of the Wild Women flirting with me just then?” asked Magnus.
“Worked like a charm on Gundren,” said Boyland.
“I told you, man, this isn’t exactly the big leagues.” Avi gestured to the crowd. “We love it, though.”
He was right, because now the fans were shaking the stadium, stomping and shouting the chant. Magnus grinned. He knew how they felt.
“Llllllaadies and gentlemen!” It was the only thing that could stop the chant, the voice of the announcer on the speakers. The rink erupted in cheers. “It’s time for the first game of the season! Please join me in welcoming...The Felicity Wild Women!”
There were a lot of boos, but there were more cheers than he expected. Now that he was looking, he noticed a lot of fans were wearing that toxic green/hot pink combination the Wild Women were sporting. As for the Wild Women, they made a lap around the track, voguing all the way. Their costumes were unusually sparkly for derby, Magnus thought. The captain blew him a kiss.
Yeah, okay, definitely flirting.
“And now...your team…”
The cheering swelled.
“She’s the silent scourge, the omen of death...Jenicide!”
The slimmest member of the Bureau swooped out of the center, circling the track in elegant curving swoops. She was East Asian; if Magnus was identifying the tattoo lettering on her arms correctly, Korean. She didn’t so much skate as float; she seemed to barely be touching the track.
“She will hunt you down, dead or alive...give it up for Robocop!”
This skater was young, with curly light brown hair that poofed out of the bottom of her helmet in a frizzy ponytail, but Magnus found himself doing a double take. Her leg was...not a leg. A prosthetic, which looked like it was built into her skate. Her arm was a prosthetic, too, and ended in a pair of grabby tongs. Despite this, she was skating backwards.
“If you mess with her, there’ll be hell to pay...it’s Lil Diablo!”
The skater was Latina, like him. She darted out of the center, seemed to trip--Magnus’ heart jumped into his throat--but she landed in a one-handed handstand, skates still spinning in the air, before falling back onto the track in a crouch and finishing her lap.
“It’s the baddest little lady in the league...let’s hear it for the Battling Ram!”
Midget wasn’t a nice word, but this skater couldn’t have been more than three foot six. She jumped onto the track, pawing the ground like an angry bull, and charged around the track, a streak of red hair and freckles around the rink.
“Let me hear you make some noise for the most magical girl in the world...Abby Cadabra!”
This skater did a few fancy twirls and then blew a dramatic kiss into the audience. Magnus stared at them, not quite sure if they were a man or a woman or someone else entirely. They seemed to be playing jump rope with gender roles. The screaming crowds didn’t seem to care; they were obviously a fan favorite.
“She’s the whole package, ladies and gentlemen, and way out of your league...Beauty and the Beast!”
A huge woman--taller than Magnus and way fitter too, with a braid as thick as a rope sprouting from her helmet--barrelled around the track, flexing the whole way. She had black geometric tattoos up her legs and one arm, the kind that looked ancient, some sort of Samoan or Hawaiian design, maybe.
“And finally...your hero and mine, oh captain our captain...Jule! Be! Sorry!”
The most beautiful woman Magnus had ever seen stepped onto the track and lifted her arms like a conquering empress. The crowd lost its collective mind.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Bureau of Badass!”
“That’s the strangest team I’ve ever seen,” Magnus commented as the crowd went wild.
“Wait ‘til you see them play,” grumbled Boyland.
“I guess it’s time.” Magnus rolled into the middle of the track. Avi and Boyland took their places on either side of the gathering players. Jule Be Sorry and Lydia took their spots behind the blockers, both looking ready to kill. Magnus held up his hand, and blew the whistle. And the bout began.