A fist flew at his face. It was an ugly fist, not the worst of the eight that had pummelled him so far – that had been the wombat with the poor hygiene, whose meaty hands had stunk of mud, of blood and of faeces. This fist was an odd orange colour, and considering its owner a fairy, the colouring had to be artificial – whether engineered before birth or not, that was another question, and an answer he didn’t care about. A question that was only a distraction to the pain. The fist hit him, and he knew it would form a bruise.
He swung back, but the fairy easily danced around it. Fairies were hard to fight – they didn’t stick to the ground, they didn’t stay the one size during the fight and they always found a way to gloat. Often in several languages.
The bell rung and the fairy was declared the winner.
Ryan slipped through the ropes and into his corner. The grouchy gnome who had been assigned to him – Trailing Tomas – grunted, and made the same remarks about his lack of fight club prowess as he had done after the previous seven rounds. Cold water was offered, but he pushed it away, not wanting the shock to his system that it would provide. He rubbed the dirty towel over his face, sopping up most of the sweat before discarding it.
The announcer began to talk up his next opponent. A gnome this time – which excited his assistant to no end. Four minutes with a gnome – significantly easier than some of the bouts he’d already survived. Gnomes were easy enough to fight with enough practice – they didn’t have the same bag of tricks that fairies did, instead relying more on their solid structure, and insignificant psychic power.
The psychic power was nothing more than a distraction – they’d either lost the ability to do more with it over time, or never had it to begin with – their historical records were unclear on the point. It was a whisper in the ear, a shade in the corner of your eye, barely anything at all – unless you were also trying to counter blows to your body, and fight back. Not fight back to win necessarily, there was no need to win – but fight back enough to draw, to not be knocked out, to survive until the next round.
The next round was all that mattered. Surviving the day. To pay what was due before putting the entire painful affair aside for another year. The announcer called him – by race, not by name – and he moved back up into the ring. Today he wasn’t a person. Today he was nothing more than “the agent”.
The gnome was dark green, just over four feet and no match for him. Whoever had done the skin colouration had apparently also had a special on hair. Twigs, leaves and thorns were woven in – a nymph look, a hob look. The gnome – Hurried Horace, according to the announcer and the crowd – gave him a half-bow. He extended his left palm before snapping it closed – the traditional greeting for gnomes, then looked to the announcer.
The fairy announcer – as he has done for the previous eight rounds – began to count down from ten as he spread his wings and rose above the ring, and out of the way of flying fists.
Four minute rounds – long enough for a good show, long enough to allow his opponent to get a few good hits in, short enough to allow the multitude of rounds that were ahead of him. Forty-nine rounds today. More than enough to make him hurt, which was all she wanted. He was grateful for the lack of ceremony – the only thing that made the day even longer was the one-hour lunch break, and that he was grateful for – it allowed him to get some sleep in if he needed, or to do some of the paperwork he had smuggled with him in his duffel bag.
The entire bar booed as he knocked the gnome onto its back. The entire bar – and that included the few storage facility staff that had come to watch – or had already been there drinking. He listed their names, and made a note to let it affect them negatively during their next performance review.
The minutes passed quickly, and with the gnome lying bleeding on the ground, he was declared the winner – for only the second time that day.
He slipped out of the ring and into his chair. He closed his eyes and wondered if he could run a thirty-second sleep program. A bottle of water was pressed against his open palm, and he opened his eyes. A tiny hand held the bottle. A familiar tiny hand.
‘You do know,’ Stef said, ‘that the guy who was here was cheering for the other team, right?’
‘No one cheers for the agent,’ he said as he sipped at the room-temperature water.
‘I will,’ she said as he towelled the sweat from his face, and hair – fluffing it like a mother would to a child. ‘I don’t have any great advice, this is two blokes fighting, it’s never very interesting to me, so…keep your hands up, do whatever with your shoulder, dance around and do whatever else you’re supposed to do.’
‘That’s very good advice.’
‘Oh shut up,’ she said as he threw him the tape so he could rewrap his hands.
‘You haven’t asked,’ he said.
She took the bottle of water from between his knees and took a sip before replacing the cap. ‘Don’t need to know.’
‘Stef-‘
‘Tell me later if you want to. For the moment, I’ll assume that whatever the reason you’re doing this, you want to win, yeah?’
‘I need to finish. Forty more rounds.’
‘Then focus on the punching. Talk later.’
She dabbed some wound sealant against his few cuts, and he felt the slight pinch of skin as the artificial scabs hardened. He smiled at her – at the tiny amount of confidence shining through. ‘Thank you.’
‘Thanks for not wasting five minutes bitching me out cause I’m not supposed to be here.’
‘If I did that every time you did something like this, I’d never have time to be somewhere else that you weren’t supposed to be. You got bored?’
‘Bring me back when my security clearance is high enough so I can play with the cool stuff.’
The announcer called for him, and a strange look came over her face as he stood.
‘What?’
She shrugged. ‘You’re naked, I didn’t know you could do that.’
He sighed. ‘I’m not naked.’
‘You’re not wearing a shirt.’
‘My suit isn’t glued on.’
‘Mine is,’ she said as he stepped up into the ring. ‘But only a little, I had an incident with my stationery drawer.’
He smiled, then turned to face his next opponent.