Ryan’s twenty-fifth opponent was declared the victor as the four-minute bell rung. Stef scowled as the kangaroo took a victory lap, and curled her toes within her sneakers to stop herself from jumping up and helping Ryan from the ring. He was hurt, he was tired, but if she helped him, it would make him look even weaker. It might encourage his next opponents to hit him even harder, instead of fearing his agenty powers like they should. At least being in the Marches meant it was nearly impossible to kill him. Easier to hurt than being in a system area, easier to make him bleed, longer to heal…but still nearly impossible to kill an agent for reals.
Sweat dripped down his face as they followed a security guard through the crowd toward the assigned room – one of the small rooms above the club, which had oh-so-generously been provided gratis. Food, however, was apparently extra – or so one of the fairies had informed her about ten rounds ago when he had come by with another cooler full of bottles of water. Cold water, which she had immediately taken out to warm up under the harsh lights.
The club was a strange thing – it was an odd amalgam of things that had no right to be crammed into the same space. The ground floor level was a fairly standard pub – though one definitely designed with fairies and fae in mind – chairs of differing sizes, things that looked like bird feeders hanging from the ceiling for fairies to hang out on when they were Barbie-sized, and drinks in all colours of the rainbow…often all in the one glass. The basement level was the boxing ring, surrounded by a few hundred seats, though apparently it easily converted into a small auditorium for musical performances, or debates. The upper level was rooms, small and dark, for those who were too drunk or too tired to make it home.
He was tired. He was hurting. He needed to go home.
‘You going to shower?’ she asked as she closed the door. ‘I think there’s-‘
‘No,’ he said. He pitched forward and fell onto the short bed with a groan.
‘Okies,’ she said, ‘all that sweat is probably a protective layer or something. Want something to eat?’
‘No, just sleep.’
She lifted the sheet up over him, and left the room quietly. The main level was loud – but she made it through the throng of drinking, swearing fae easily enough. She joined the line at the gnome-height counter and stared up at the menu board. The fairy writing swirled for a moment in her HUD, then turned into English and was placed in a ghostly-blue overlay.
Dangerously non-specific foods such as “curry with meat” and “meat with sauce” stared back along with much stranger items like “rock and trash broth” – obviously for the city hob clientele, and “unicorn(ish) burgers”, the latter proclaiming “you’ll never know the difference”. One item, however, was too unusual not to try – llama burgers.
That still left the problem of Ryan. No food was no good. Obviously, anything too much or too heavy would be more harm than good – would leave him heavy, sluggish, or wanting to puke over his opponents. That in mind, over three hours of fighting-resting-fighting-resting was something that demanded that some nutrients be replaced.
In pale blue, under her pale blue translation, on the far right of the menu was the perfect item: mealfish. Ridiculously, each measly mealfish cost five times the price of her burger, but they were small, filling, and not likely to end in a puking incident.
The gnome in front of her stepped away from the counter, his arms full of burgers and fries.
‘You’re not a gnome,’ the fairy said as she stepped up the counter. ‘Are you?’
‘Not so far as I’m aware.’ Scared Spyder is my gnomish name.
‘And you want?’
‘Llama burger, coffee, and two mealfish.’
‘Want the mealies separate or together?’
‘Together.’
‘Sixty.’
She waved her Bank of Three card across the sensor, and stepped to the left as it flashed green and played a short, silent animation thanking her using their services. The food only took a minute to prepare and hand to her – the burger in a bag, the coffee and cup containing the mealfish in a cardboard cup holder. She mumbled a thank you, and headed up back towards the room, managing to avoid all but the drunkest of fae on the way back up. One asked for her burger, one asked for her shoes and the last asked if she knew where the exit was.
She peeked in the door of the room, and found Ryan still asleep. She closed the door quietly and sat in the hall – there were few enough people around to be able to risk being a tripping hazard. She pulled the llama burger from the bag, closed her eyes and bit into it.
It was delicious. Odd, but delicious – and fit perfectly into her theory of the cuter the animal, the more delicious it was – up until the kitten threshold. The coffee, however, was terrible. She popped the white lid from the container, and emptied all the sugar packets from her pockets into it, which rendered it thankfully drinkable.
Sauce from the burger dripped onto her knee as she nommed on it. She peeked into the bag and found it devoid of any kind of napkin, serviette, or wet wipe. Options limited, she inhaled the rest of the burger, then wiped the paper bag over the sauce stain, spreading it further over the fabric of her uniform pants.
She crumpled the bag into a small ball – which only left more sauce over her hands. With a quick peek to the left, and a slightly longer look to the right, she wiped her hands over the carpeting beside her, then hid the sauce-covered bag behind the fake plant.
She stood, and balanced the drinks tray as she opened the door and went into the room. She placed the cup of mealfish on the tiny bedside table near his head, then – due to the lack of chairs in the room – opened the wardrobe and sat in there.
His uniform hung down beside her. His uniform, which he wasn’t wearing. His uniform, which she’d never seen him without. He wore it everywhere, all the time. He slept in it. He took off various pieces of it, but…he wasn’t wearing it. He wore it to go visit Patty and Magic Mike. He wore it to go get ice cream. It wasn’t just clothes. It was him. He was a cartoon character that wore the same thing every day, and it was so wrong to see him in anything else. No shirt. So weird to see him without a shirt. Before this, it had been as though his skin ended at his neck, and at his wrists, but here, in living colour, was skin. Whatever this was about, was major.
She took a gulp of barely-drinkable coffee.
Major, or he really hadn’t expected her to follow, and this is what he was like without her around. Maybe he really hadn’t wanted her to follow, and say stupid things, and be an annoying, childish distraction. She picked at her left shirt cuff, at the dried glue she hadn’t bothered requiring away before leaving true system territory, and felt like a worthless former-human-being.
Hot prickles of self-loathing, of guilt, and of embarrassment did the cha-cha up and down her spine as she watched him sleep for a minute more. She choked down the rest of her coffee, hid it in the corner of the wardrobe, stood, and began to sneak towards the door.
‘Trying to sneak away?’
Her hand froze an inch from the door handle. ‘…yeah?’
‘How long do I have?’
She stared at the countdown timer in her HUD. ‘Just over twenty minutes, if they’re starting on time.’
‘Stef?’
‘Yeah?’
‘Do you want to know?’
She gave a shrug.
‘Do you want to keep staring at the door?’
She gave a shrug.
‘What’s wrong?’
‘You’re the one who has various kinds of people beating on your skull for three hours, I should be asking that question.’
‘There’s no permanent damage, there never is.’
‘How long have you been doing this?’
‘Twenty years.’
Twenty years. Twenty years – not just a random number. Not just a random selection of years clumped together. Specific. Very specific for two reasons. She was one of the two reasons…but doubted very much the pseudo-fight-club had anything to do with her, since there was no logical reason for it to have anything to do with her, so that meant the other very specific thing…other very specific person. Carol. Vengeance from a sleeping beauty in an Oubliette seemed unlikely. So that left…nothing. No idea. More data was required.
‘…Carol? This has something to do with her?’
She sneaked a look over her shoulder, and watched him give a nod. ‘I don’t want to know anything you don’t want to tell me, I’m not here to pry, I’m just here to, I don’t even know why I’m here, I just followed, sorry.’
‘I killed her,’ he said, ‘so I have to be punished.’
‘Both parts of that sentence are lies, and you know that.’ He gave a shrug and one of the wound-sealant scabs split. She walked over to the medical kit and pulled the small plastic bottle from the bag and sat cross-legged in front of him. ‘Is this your choice?’ she asked as she ran the applicator through the pink goop. She dabbed it against the scab, and blew on it, waiting for it to seal.
‘It’s my choice to be here. It’s what I deserve.’
‘You didn’t set it up, though.’
‘No.’ He lifted the cup from the bedside table and gave her a questioning look.
‘Mealfish,’ she said, ‘you need to eat something, or yanno, drink, but something other than water, ok, more than just water. It’ll keep you going until you’re done, but there won’t be anything to actually puke up, and you’ll sweat out the water.’
‘It’s good thinking,’ he said, and patted her head, the dirty tape around his hands catching on her messy hair. ‘Sorry.’
‘Would you stop doing that?’
‘What?’
‘Apologising for nothing.’
‘I didn’t want you to see this. To see me, like this.’
‘I’m worried about you.’
‘Her sister,’ he said, ‘has never and will never forgive me. This is…her.’
‘But why?’
‘Promoting it makes money, the tickets make money, the bets make money, seeing me hurt does her good, makes her feel as though I’m paying the tiniest portion of the debt I owe to her for taking Carol away.’
‘That’s, and take it from someone who knows, crazy.’
‘I caused her misery, I’m the reason her sister isn’t turning forty-nine today, and-’
‘Tell her?’
‘No,’ he said firmly, ‘that would destroy her, to know that I couldn’t even be kind enough to kill her, but that I’ve left her in-’ Tears fell. ‘I miss her. I miss her so much.’
‘Isn’t that enough pain?’
He shook his head. ‘She refuses to believe that agents can feel anything – you know,’ he said as the tears rolled from his chin, ‘the argument everyone makes to feel superior over an agent.’
She extracted her tie from her vest and wiped his face. ‘This is bullshit, you’ve got to stop.’
‘I wont have to do it forever,’ he said as he wrung the minuscule amount of water from her tie, ‘no one lives forever.’
‘Them or us?’
He looked away, then slurped the first mealfish through the thick straw.
‘What you nomming on?’
‘A kind of pork pie that a friend used to buy, that aren’t available anymore, and whose required copies have never been as good.’ He put the cup aside. ‘And I am too tired to think of anything complicated.’
‘We can go home if you want. You’ve got the mirror now, you can-’
‘I just…Later please, I think you were the one who said I needed to focus on-’
‘How about yourself?’ she said. ‘Come on, you’re getting beaten up for-’
‘I have to do this.’
She bit her tongue until she tasted blood. ‘Fine. Ok. Later.’
He lifted the drink again, the other eel-like mealfish wriggling as it was sucked up through the straw.
‘And this time?’
‘Lemon meringue.’