Written by IllaRouge and TriangleDelta
It was late July when it finally came out.
Desi and Noah had just returned to their apartment in Bangor after a day out hiking. Desi was beat from the long day of ups and downs, so Noah went to the kitchen to prepare some food. While she was lying on the couch, trying to recover from the day, the kea's voice emerged from the kitchen.
"Uh…Desi. You might want to check your phone."
The perch blinked at her boyfriend's tone. She tilted herself to look towards the kitchen, and the green parrot leaned out of the entryway to nod meaningfully at her.
She sighed, and then fished her phone out of her pocket. Once she'd gotten it back on, it started lighting up with notifications. She scrolled through them until the earliest one she could find, a Tweeter notification from a gossip website. She opened it up, and her eyes narrowed as a video played out.
She glanced up at Noah. He had an eyeridge raised, a questioning look on his face. She shrugged.
"Told you it would come out eventually. Kind of amazing it took this long. That was June, right?" She sighed, then tossed her phone onto the end table. "Problem for tomorrow. Let's have dinner."
Pride in New York was different.
Desi and Noah had parted ways that morning, with the kea in his nicest clothes bound for an interview at the Queens campus of Templeton University and Desi in a loose tank walking around the borough. It hadn't taken the yellow perch long to wander to the queer district of the city, its streets crowded with people for Pride week. It hadn't taken much longer after that for people to recognize the tall fish.
She'd spent a good hour after that having people run up to her, excited to meet the openly trans player. Soon enough, somebody had given her a loose, flowing trans pride vest to wear over her tank, and she was posing for selfies with people and giving a few signatures.
She was sipping on a bubble tea a local shop had given her (at the price of a picture with the staff) when a genet with dyed fuchsia headfur piped up next to her. "Hey, are you here to meet Imelda?"
It took Desi a few long seconds to realize what the genet was talking about. Then she blinked, as the memory of Imelda, the Queens Pride's fighting fish forward, returned to her. She held back a grimace as a season of sharp elbows, dirty fouls, and a night of a pummeling returned to her.
The yellow perch cleared her throat and forced her voice to stay neutral as she responded, "Uh...nah, we hadn't planned anything. I was just in town. Why, is she around?"
"Probably over by the court!" the genet responded. Their eyes were wide, no doubt imagining getting to see both of the pro basketballer fish together. "She's always over there. Want me to take you?"
Desi hesitated. Her gut was telling her that this was a bad idea. None of her encounters with Imelda had been positive. At the same time, though... "Yeah, sure. Lead the way."
Pride certainly held its allure. Imelda had spent most of the morning looking at some of the ethnic stalls. She was not the type of popular like other fish, even in this city. But she found some people willing to take pictures, even a few she might call fans.
But no, she was for the nightlife of Pride, the burlesque shows, the drinks, the cruising. The tourist trap of the day scene was too much, so she sought solace in her favorite spot.
It was off the beaten path, still close to the festivities but obscured enough that no one was going to come around. It was a court nestled between two larger buildings, tall enough on either side that barely any sunlight got to it throughout the day. The two hoops were missing nets, and you were lucky to find a spare ball in the corner of the chain link fence. Only those with a key could unlock the gate, and you only got a key from a local business if they knew and trusted you. It was an odd setup, but Imelda liked that.
Today, she was just clearing her head. The season was over, and it would be another month or two before she knew if any contracts would come in. It gave her time to build up her skills. Today, she didn't bother taking out her piercings. She was in a simple getup of black basketball shorts and a t-shirt with a bar's name on it, albeit with a healthy number of tears in it.
It was a lucky day, as someone had left a raggedy ball inside, its stitching frayed and its bumps worn smooth. She practiced simple footwork and shooting, nothing complicated. She remained unaware of anything outside the fence, eyes on the basket, as she usually did.
Desi followed the genet through the streets, occasionally getting stopped for another selfie with somebody. Once this kind of behaviour would have bothered her, but wandering around Bangor the summer after the Tides' championship win had long since gotten rid of her sensitivity to it. It wasn't exactly what she'd had in mind for the day, but she wasn't going to disappoint people.
Soon the pair had left the main streets of the queer village and moved into less dense areas. She could still hear the general noise of Pride festivities a couple blocks over, but it wasn't as all-encompassing.
When they came upon the court, Desi didn't notice it at first. The street courts she was used to tended to be in parks or in more open areas. She didn't expect it to open up between a pair of buildings. She would have missed it if the genet hadn't stopped, and even then, she might not have realized if it hadn't been for the familiar sound of a ball bouncing off pavement.
She stepped back over to where the genet was leaning up against the chain link fence next to the entrance. Desi just watched Imelda out on the court, the koi's brilliant and flowing red fins contrasting with her plain clothes. She watched as the other fish dribbled, her mind reflexively measuring out her steps, figuring out how she would move to cover her.
Desi's considerations were cut short as the genet gave a slap on the chain link fence, making it rattle, and called out, "Hey, Imelda!"
The koi recognized the man's voice. She grinned but didn't take her eye off the hoop. "What is it? I told you I don't have time for that while the tourists are around," referencing some joke the two had shared, probably nothing the G-rated folks needed to hear. She took another shot at the basket. The ball bounced off the backboard and into the hoop.
Desi considered letting the genet announce her presence. She couldn't hold back the small bite in her voice when she instead called out, "Your free throw form kinda sucks, you know."
Imelda had let another ball go, and it bounced right off the rim to the ground. No way, she thought. She looked to see Desi, staring right at her. Imelda smiled like it was Christmas. "No shit. Ceylon, I didn't think you hung out with that kind of crowd." The two laughed, the genet assuming they were on the same page. Imelda retrieved the ball and held it against her hip. "You're looking ugly as ever," to Desi.
Desi cast a glance over at the genet, trying to read the situation. No, Ceylon had no idea what was going on. She looked back over to Imelda and considered the other fish. The betta hadn't had any concern beating the shit out of her back in November. Right now, though, in broad daylight…
The perch rolled her eyes and muttered. "You're as off with your insults as you are with your shots."
Imelda grinned, never thrown off when it came to banter or blows. She spun the ball with one hand, letting it float in the air. It came to rest, still spinning, on her clawed finger. The middle one to be exact. "Don't need to insult trash like you." Quick as a whip, she gripped the ball and chucked it at Desi's face. The ball impacted the fence and shook the whole frame. It was never going to harm the other fish. Desi didn't react to the ball. She wanted to play it off as the ball having not scared her, but really, she just hadn't seen it coming in time.
Imelda noticed a few peeping glances, as some of Desi's 'fans' that had followed her peered around the corner into the alley. "Nice tourist vest. You pay for that?" She didn't wait for Desi to answer. She got closer to the fence "Hot, too. You pay for the tea, Des-de-mo-na?"
Desi kept her gaze even as she replied, "What can I say? Your city likes me." The perch met the other fish's eyes, and waited, letting the quiet drag out. At length, she flicked her eyes over to the ball, then raised her eyeridge.
Imelda kept her gaze for as long as Desi did. “Pff, ‘your city.’ You don’t even know where I’m from, bitch.” She looked in the direction of the ball as well. She turned, heading toward her gym bag. She knelt and rustled through it. After a moment, she pulled out a twenty. Carrying it back to the fence, she folded the bill and slid it through the gaps to Ceylon. "Bring me something with booze in it. Take your time." Once he took the money, she nodded to the onlookers. "And get them out of here, gracias."
The genet smiled, nodding to them. He approached the group and shooed them, and they left, giggling. Imelda pulled a key from her shorts pocket. She undid the lock to the gate, but she didn't open it, instead turning her back and heading to retrieve the ball.
Desi watched all of this, unsure. She'd felt her last 'off the books' encounter with Imelda for weeks afterward. Not to mention, she had to go and meet up with Noah right after this.
But on the other hand, it was the middle of the day, not nighttime in a remote corner of an empty parking lot. Last time Desi had been out of her depth, too. She was out of her element in a fistfight.
A basketball court, though? There, she knew what she was doing.
She stepped over and pushed the gate open. She shrugged off her vest and dropped it onto the pavement with her bag. She gave a long stretch, then followed Imelda towards the center of the court.
Imelda dribbled the ball as she waited for Desi. "You won't mind if I've got ball first."
The perch stepped between her and the net, then settled herself into a low ready position. "Let's rock."
Imelda checked the ball to Desi. As soon as Desi checked it back, Imelda tossed the ball straight at the bridge of the perch's nose with no warning.
If it hadn't been for that throw to the fence before, Desi might have missed the movement. As it was, though, she had enough time to turn and lower her head. Instead of smashing into her nose, it bounced off her forehead. The scales there looked a bit raw from the impact, but she stayed on her feet and lunged towards the ball.
Imelda swept at the ball with her foot enough to keep it closer to her. She bent down and scooped it up, but now she stared down the barrel of a pissed off perch. She attempted a fake out by jerking one direction then the other to get at the basket.
Despite not taking the full brunt of the betta's cheap shot, Desi was still a bit dazed from the ball's impact. She did take one wrong step past Imelda's fake. She recovered quickly, though, keeping herself just a step behind the bright red fish as she made for the basket.
Imelda kept a quick pace. She attempted a layup on the right side of the basket.
Desdemona kept close the entire time. She was somehow just behind Imelda when she went to shoot, and the perch jumped at the same time. Her fingers came up just shy of the ball, and she let out a small curse as the ball went through.
She landed and clenched her eyes shut for a moment to clear her head of the ringing. She stalked over towards the ball, her pace stiff but even.
Imelda had caused enough momentary distress for Desi, so she let her opponent get the ball without an issue. She stood across from Desi and waited for the check.
Desdemona dribbled the ball back to her starting position and faced the other fish. She dribbled hand-to-hand a few times, and then sent the ball forward, not at the other fish's face but just as sudden as the betta had been before.
Imelda caught it in the stomach, but she played it off with her trademark grin. She passed it to check it back, but she put some spin on it so that it darted off in a different direction.
As soon as the ball left Imelda's hands, Desi was moving. She took a few quick steps to the side, judging where the ball would fly to before it even bounced. When she caught it, she was far enough out to the side that Imelda wasn't between her and the net anymore. She charged directly forward, keeping low and dribbling hard.
Imelda had screwed herself. She sprinted after Desi, but there was no way she'd be able to make up the ground. She groaned at the combination of her own mistake and the perch's skill.
As soon as it was clear she was free, Desdemona didn't even bother keeping the effort up. She slowed herself down to a trot and made an easy, lazy shot. Her broad tail gave a flick as the ball passed through the hoop, and she glanced back at Imelda. "Your ball."
Imelda stared daggers, but that wasn't different than how she was all the time anyway. She got the ball and lined back up. She checked it like normal, no cheap shots. She slowly approached from an angle and sized up Desi's moves.
Desdemona took slow steps back as the other fish advanced. She didn't move quite as fast, forcing Imelda to close the distance between them. She let her weight shift from side to side, following Imelda's movements but never actually taking a step in one direction or the other. She was waiting, forcing the betta to act first.
And act she did. She charged to the left, keeping her shoulder as stiff as possible if Desi decided to defend. She didn't want to give Desi a chance to stop her.
Desdemona saw that shoulder. She gritted her teeth and stepped out in front of Imelda, squaring her shoulders. The impact made her grunt, but her muscles all tensed against the pressure. Her legs locked in place.
Being unable to move, Imelda started laughing. "Bien. Where's this bitch during games?" Imelda pivoted on one foot and attempted to get around Desi.
"Spending three years letting the biggest centers in the league run into me, that’s where." Desi followed the movement, getting herself between Imelda and the net again. "Still faster than most of them, too."
Imelda started dribbling and backing into Desi in a way that might not get a foul on a normal court. "Just one problem, Des-de-mo-na," enunciating her name again. "You don't give it as good as you take it." She pivoted again, but this time, she let an elbow fly straight at Desi's stomach. A subtler version of this was a classic move for Imelda, but she put some extra spice on this one.
Desi turned. The elbow still hit her with brutal force, but it was only a glancing strike. She'd taken enough elbows from the betta over the past year to know when one was coming. She grunted at the impact, and fuck, did it hurt. She was still able to stumble forward and keep herself between Imelda and the net. No comeback this time, just the perch squaring off and panting.
Imelda knew her own patterns. For many strikes against Desi, it was just fun for the betta. But since she'd put more force into it, she changed up her tactic. She stepped away from the basket rather than toward it. Near the free throw line, she turned and took a shot.
And Desdemona jumped. Her side hurt, and it was just as rough as her last attempt to block Imelda's shot. This time, though, she was able to get her fingers in contact with the ball, and she sent it wide.
Desi landed, panting. It was only in the moment of quiet as she tried to gather herself that the noise from outside the court caught up to her, a few voices letting out a low "Ooooh" after the block. It looked like a couple people were on the sidelines, watching; not a crowd, but more than just Ceylon.
Imelda scowled harder. She turned at the fence. "Get the fuck outta here!" She kicked some loose asphalt at the small group, and they dispersed with hisses and groans. The betta was getting worked up. The ball was loose, so it was a turnover to Desi. She marched back to her spot.
Desi took a moment to catch her breath before moving over to the ball. Even after those few short exchanges, she was feeling rough. Her side was throbbing from where the elbow hit her, and her forehead was still stinging from the ball's impact.
She squared off again with Imelda and passed it forward, fast and direct this time, no bullshit.
Imelda passed it back. She was outmatched, but that block made it feel personal. She kept off the aggression for just a moment as she moved forward to defend.
Perhaps that was the thing that was changing it this time. As Imelda came forward, Desdemona realized that unlike that night in the parking lot, she was at the advantage here. She was better, she was in control. Imelda could throw any dirty tricks at her, and Desi would be able to push through.
There was a cold feeling in the pit of Desi's gut as she stared Imelda down. She was better. In that moment, she wanted Imelda to feel it, too.
She stepped forward to meet the other fish. Just as they were going to reach each other, she cut out to the side, going foot over foot. She wasn't the best cutter in the league, but she'd spent years playing against the best, and she knew how to move. Her steps were fast and precise, and she kept her body between Imelda and the ball with every movement.
The gap in their skill began to show through as Desi turned on. Imelda pressed right up against her fellow fish and used her comparable weight to keep the pressure on the fish. She wasn't throwing the same tactics at Desi. Rather, it seemed like she was trying to work up her own abilities, which were much more aligned in defending rather than scoring.
She swiped at the ball every opportunity she got close enough, but she wasn't wresting the ball from Desi. Slowly, Imelda was losing ground, and Desi was approaching the basket.
As they drew closer to the net, Desi sheltered the ball more and more, until she had her back fully to both Imelda and the net. She pushed backwards, forcing her way back against the other fish. It was rough going. The heat was radiating up off the black pavement at them, and Desi was dripping with sweat.
Once she judged that she was close enough, Desi turned to face Imelda abruptly. She leapt back and put all her strength into a throw at the net, a fadeaway like she would never try in an actual game.
Imelda cursed as she was thrown off guard. She was planning to be struck as she had been doing to Desi the entire game, but the pure skill meant that she didn't have a good defense. She was still green, and it showed as the ball sailed past her and into the hoop.
Desi staggered back out of her jump, but still managed to flick her tail as the ball went through the hoop. She was panting for breath, but she didn't care. She felt good, controlled.
She headed over to her position, not even bothering to look over at Imelda as the fish went to retrieve the ball. Desi did notice a few people standing just at the edges of the court, peeking in. Normally she might have gestured for them to leave, but not this time. That cold gnawing in her gut wanted people to see. She wanted people to watch what she could do.
Imelda got the ball back, and she was through being subtle. She checked, or chucked, the ball straight at Desi. The betta wasn't being clever; she was losing her grip on the situation. She was the one on her back this time.
Desi caught the ball, though it still had enough force to push her hands back until it smacked against her chest. She didn't even wince this time. The adrenaline of the situation, that cold gnawing, kept her from feeling it. She checked the ball back to Imelda.
This time, though, instead of waiting for the betta to come towards her, Desi lunged in to close the distance.
And Imelda jet forward with no finesse. She wasn't much of a technical player to begin with, so using her speed and strength worked for her. But she was off. She tried to dribble around Desi, but the perch was on top of her in no time. She wouldn't try a fadeaway, but she hoped to get enough space to attempt a delayed jumper, which she went for.
Desdemona jumped with her. In other situations, the delay might have just done it. As it was, though, Desi was focused. She wasn't worrying about anybody else on the court, be they opponents or teammates. Her arm lifted, and after that delay, it came down. Her palm made firm contact with the ball, and it went flying across the court.
They landed. "Fuck!" Imelda kicked another small bit of loose asphalt.
Desi was panting as they landed, but her breaths didn't feel laboured. They felt powerful. She flicked her eyes over to the ball, now lying in the far corner of the court. Then she glanced back at the betta.
"Should I go get that? Or is there even a point?"
Imelda turned on one foot, and she firmly shoved Desi. By now, the crowd was growing. The betta's teeth were bared. She still hadn’t registered their audience.
Desi fell back a step at the shove, but she stepped right back forward, into the betta's face. "What? Is that your best? All you can do?"
Imelda shoved again, closing the distance herself, driving Desi closer to the back wall. "The fuck do you know about what I can do?"
"Jack shit from the look of it." Desi pressed forward, shoving back. "You know how many people have tried to push me down? Hit me? Fucking trample me?"
"Not e-fucking-nough!" Imelda pushed Desi back far enough to shoulder check her and push her into the wall. She threw punches at Desi's midsection while she kept her pinned. “You and your stupid,” each word punctuated by a punch,” fucking. Speeches!”
Desi knew she was outmatched at this point. It was going to hurt like a bitch. It didn't matter. She'd won. The first fist in her gut meant she'd won. She might have drawn herself up to try some sort of retaliation, but she froze as the background noise suddenly faded in around her. Cheers. A few catcalls. Voices egging Imelda on.
Imelda was about to go for Desi's face, but the noise caught her attention. Still holding Desi down, she turned her head. The gate was lined end to end with people. Her whole body froze. This was bad. She looked back at Desi with panic in her eyes, all the fight gone from her face.
Desi was already thinking of the headache this was going to cause. She was sure there would be talks with her agent, with the new Bangor staff whenever they came on. As she looked back to Imelda's face, though, she blinked.
The pure fear in those eyes was overpowering. They froze her in place for a long time.
She swallowed down a deep gulp, then whispered. "Uh. Just...” Her words were missing. “Just walk away. Walk normal. Walk away. I'll talk to them."
Imelda shook her head. She completely let go of Desi. It was too late. They both knew it was too late, but what it meant for them couldn't be compared. She sprinted for her bag. She pulled it from the ground and headed for the exit, but it was blocked by the small throng that had formed. She pushed, but the crowd hadn't dispersed enough. She looked like a cornered animal. If they were speaking to her, she couldn't hear them. She burst through the gate as soon as she could. Someone asked for her to say something, but she knocked their phone out of their hands. She sprinted down the alley, and she was gone.
Desdemona stuck around long enough to talk to the group. No reporters, thankfully. She was hurting, but she did her best to downplay all of it, act like nothing unusual had happened, made some small appeals to them to not spread the videos around once the phones were down.
In the back of her mind, she knew it was only a matter of time. She made a mental note to tell Noah and her agent, just so both would be ready whenever the shit hit the fan.
Imelda disappeared into the Pride crowd. She only had one thing on her mind: get home. She walked several blocks to the nearest train station. She pulled her pass from her bag and scanned it. Everything was busy because of Pride, but she managed to find a corner seat next to the door connecting the cars. Then, everything caught up with her.
She pounded the metal wall twice, and she started to cry.
It had finally come out. For more than a month, Imelda dreaded if any videos would surface of their latest fight. Nothing came of it, so she lured herself into thinking it wouldn’t happen. But it did, like it was always going to happen.
Out of contract, out of contract, out of contract, out of contract.
That’s all she could think of. Sitting on her mattress, her phone played the clip. In the video, Imelda wailed on Desi. The perch never fought back. It was just the red koi betta beating the shit out of another fish five years her junior, a fish far more famous and loved than she was.
A widget popped up over the video, catching Imelda’s attention as she smoked in the dark. ‘Call - Susan Thorne.’ Imelda examined the name for a few seconds. She wasn’t dealing with this. She tapped the widget, which accepted the call.
“Imelda, we’ve got--”
But Imelda tapped the ‘Block’ button, and the call went silent. The call screen minimized, and the video went back to playing. On the screen, that Imelda looked straight into the camera, and it ended.