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Desert Steel Chapter 22

-Pursuit

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At the same time Sebastian was discovering the discarded firearm, Pauly was struggling through fine sand two kilometres away. His feet were sinking up to the ankles, and the ground subsiding away beneath him. He had to try keep up with Ansar, who drifted across the sand effortlessly.

He’d been lead out of the town under the cover of the sandstorm. He’d walked until he could walk no further. Then he’d walked some more, thinking of the sawn-off shotgun Ansar carried. Now, finally, his legs ignored his brain and dumped him onto the sand.

“Uhh, Mr. Ass-lack-ono-vitch-anov?” he called out, trying to remember how to say his captors name.

Ansar stopped and turned, a light smile on his lips. “Mr. Aslakonovicanov is… Well, I do not know who he is but I am certain he is alcoholic and likes very much to make merry with the dogs. Do I look like I make merry with the dogs, browned one?” he asked in an undulating and melodic voice.

“No?” Pauly stuttered.

“Call me Ansar.”

“Ansar, sir, umm… I can’t walk any longer. Can we take a break?”

Ansar smiled. “But of course! There is only one question: can you not walk any longer, or do you just not want to walk any longer.”

Pauly was already sweating, but if he wasn’t he would have started.

“I can’t.”

Ansar smiled widened. “That’s all very good. But could you do one thing for me?” He drew his sawn-off shotgun. Pauly recoiled. “Could you try get up and walk? If not, I will shoot.”

Pauly felt dread terror nestle into his gut. Adrenaline flooded his body. An odd, fiery warmth suffused his legs. He got one foot placed flat. Ansar was still smiling. Pauly wished he had at attended leg day at least once at the gym. He pushed off. He managed to get to his feet. They felt like lead. He tried to take a step. All muscle strength was gone. The leg gave wobbled, and gave way. He managed to land on his hands. He sensed, but couldn’t see, the barrel pointed at him. He squeezed his eyes shut. He could feel tears beading up and he didn’t want to die crying.

Ansar put his gun away and plopped down on the floor. “You tried hard,” he said. He pulled a dinner plate sized loaf of unleavened bread, a staple of the Terra Deserta diet. He tore off half and held it out to Pauly. “Let us break bread, no?”

“No?” Pauly ventured, taking the bread. He devoured it in an instant.

Ansar laughed heartily. “Tell me, O Browned One, does bread evaporate like the morning mists in your country?”

“My name’s Pauly,” Pauly muttered. “I’m just hungry.”

“Ah so, Pally? Have some more, to stave off that vicious beast.”

Ansar procured a second loaf, and passed it across. Pauly ate it in little chunks this time, tearing off small crumbs and sitting them in his mouth until they dissolved. Ansar did the same, his eyes watchful but soft.

“Tell me about your tall friend, Poorly.”

“Huh?” Pauly asked, unsure whether to be cooperative or play dumb.

“Your comrade, the tall one who spoke for you. With the voice like iron and the eyes of a frozen lake.”

“He’s our leader,” Pauly said. It had never been said before, not explicitly, but when it was asked he knew beyond certainty.

“Is he a smart man?”

“Yes. Unbelievably so. Sometimes in a really subtle way, but he always seems to know things he shouldn’t.”

“Is he a good man?”

Pauly was contemplative for a moment. “I think so. It can be hard to tell. Sometimes he’s being kind, and other times he’s cold. He often seems to be morally conflicted, and then suddenly he’s heartless and ruthless. He smiles a lot, but his eyes are dead, y’know? Like the eyes of a dead fish.”

“But you think, overall, that he is a good person.” Ansar mused. “Why then, does he act as he does?”

Pauly lowered his heads. “I don’t think I can possibly know.”

Ansar laughed. “You don’t want to be impolite and judge him. Do I need to bring out my shotgun again?”

Pauly paled. “No, sir. I-I think he’s compromising. He thinks he has to be ruthless to be a good leader and make the right decisions.”

“Does he?”

“I don’t know.”

Ansar leaned back in the sand. “What’s his name?”

“Sebastian.”

“Wasn’t there a Saint Sebastian?” Ansar asked. “I seem to recall so.”

Pauly, who came from a family of devout catholic Italian immigrants, cast his mind back to the Sunday School he’d been forced to go to. He’d goofed off a lot, but the morbidity of being shot full of arrows had stuck in his mind.

“Yes. Patron saint of soldiers, athletes and those who desire a saintly death.”

“A saintly death…” Ansar repeated. A faint smile twitched at his lips. He rose to his feet. “Come now, Palely, our pursuers will be picking up our scent.”

Pauly got up. His legs burned with pain, but their strength had returned. He could walk. He took a chunk of bread hidden in his palm and dropped it behind him. He staggered after Ansar, who floated along the spine of a dune, his head silhouetted against the sun.

Timmy picked up the automatic, angling it in the light. He fiddled with it for a bit, before dropping it back onto the ground.

“He tried to fire the gun, but it jammed,” he said. “That’s why you should always maintain your weapon.”

Sebastian, who cleaned his revolver daily, nodded. Jax and Tanaka started looking thoughtful. “What else?”

“Patience, I’m getting there.” Timmy reached down and stared at the ground. “The sandstorm has obscured most of the tracks. I can’t tell where Ansar came from.”

“He came from behind the store,” Sebastian said. “That’s where he lost me.”

“He probably wouldn’t track back there, then.”

“No, I think he would. The street was likely to have several bounty hunters on it, while he knew I was lost and likely to move away behind him. It’s also the quickest way out of town.”

“One way to find out,” Timmy said. He pointed to the back of the houses. A steep bank of sand lined the back pathway all the way along. “When you clamber up something like this you don’t just leave footprints, you collapse the bank. The sandstorm won’t be able to hide it entirely.”

They walked up as a group and checked the bank. Directly in line with the gap between buildings where Pauly was captured there was a wide divot in the bank and a pile of sand at the base.

“We found the exit point from town!” Timmy announced. “But it’ll only get harder from here. Let’s go.”

“No,” Sebastian said. “We need water and supplies first.”

“A man’s life is at stake here!” Timmy admonished.

“We’re no good to him dead. Twenty Earth minutes, and we’ll meet back here.”

Timmy bowed his head. “Of course.”

As soon as they’d rounded the corner, out of Timmy’s sight and earshot, Jax spoke up.

“Why’d you say twenty minutes? We just need water, that’s like five minutes tops.”

“Because I don’t trust Timmy to not take off after Ansar without us, so I wanted him to think he would have a decent head start if he left now.”

“Yeah, okay, but even with a five minute head start he’ll be out of eyesight. How’ll we follow him, genius?”

“Well, Mr. Gentleman, what do you notice about the weather?”

“It’s still?”

It was. Since the sandstorm had left the wind had died down to nothing. It was eerily calm.

“The only difficulty with tracking is if the wind has blown away the footprints. Their footprints should lead us right to them.”

They’d reached the water store. Sebastian went inside. He threw down fifty New Zealand dollars, which were quite rare and ergo quite valuable. That gave him three bottles filled out of the nine they carried. He threw down a hundred, which now only filled five bottles, until he lectured the seller on basic arithmetic, using his knife as a prop. He stepped out into the strong sunlight. Two minutes used. The trio fast walked back to the spot. Timmy and the woman were nowhere to be seen. It was possible they’d left for supplies and planned to meet up in twenty minutes, so Sebastian climbed up the bank. Two sets of footprints went straight out into the open desert. It was confirmed. Pauly and Ansar’s footprints would have been wiped away by the sandstorm. Timmy had tried to ditch them.

They set out across the desert. Sebastian pushed them a little faster than he would have normally, despite the unforgiving sun. He wanted to get Timmy visible as soon as possible. In three minutes they achieved just that, and Sebastian killed the pace. Timmy and the woman were tiny smudges against the back of a gargantuan dune. Usually, dunes in Terra Deserta were five to ten metres in height, little waves of sand. Sometimes, however, there were titans several hundred metres high, tsunamis of earth.

“Why are we slowing down?” Jax asked. “We’ve got them.”

“I don’t want them to know we lied. Hold back for twenty minutes, then we’ll catch up. Make it seem like they had a twenty minute head start.”

They followed like that for ten minutes. The whole time Sebastian thought and rethought his plan. Wound everything back to the beginning. Played through it again. He ground to a halt.

“Stop.”

Tanaka stopped immediately, but Jax protested.

“We’re letting them get away!”

“No, we’re not. Think about it. My geographical knowledge about this area isn’t great, but we’ve been headed West this whole time now. The pathways from Portal City are like the branches of a tree. It starts off with one large path to Sixty Clicks, then splits and leads to smaller towns, then those split and lead to smaller towns. Hadrian told us there were three towns South and close from Hovetown Left. Towns are usually evenly spaced ou-”

Jax’s face made him stop. He grinned sheepishly. “Long story short, there isn’t a town out his way reachable in a day’s travel, unless they loop back. So if they do keep going straight, they’ll stop overnight and we can catch them. But I don’t think they will.”

Jax was impatient and annoyed. He kept silent, so Tanaka dutifully stepped in. “Why not?”

“Because even if they were stupid enough to not realise their footprints were obvious when they set off, they’ve had fifteen or so minutes to realise it now. So assuming they have, what do they do?”

“I don’t know, you dickhead. How about you stop revelling in your smarts and tell us,” Jax said.

Sebastian expression froze in place. ‘Revelling in your smarts’ was a bastard cousin to ‘you think you’re so smart’. “I’m explaining my logic to check it’s not wrong,” he replied. “Okay?”

Jax, unsettled by Sebastian’s frozen expression, nodded.

“Now, I would backtrack over my footprints, and then lay in ambush. If they are doing that, by stopping here and waiting we defuse that threat. They’re not going to believe we would delay chasing after them and our friend, so if we don’t go by after an hour they’ll think we won’t go by at all. Good so far?”

Jax, now agreeing with Sebastian, nodded.

“I don’t think they’ll do that. Real or not, Timmy puts on a show of being a goody two shoes. So realising he’s going to be caught out, the best way to cover it up is to turn around and come back. Then he’ll run into his pursuers. He’ll claim he went out to scout out the path, knowing all along his footprints could be followed, and that he then came back to pick them up.”

Jax nodded, now following along. By doing so, he felt useful to the group again, which made him feel better than he’d like to admit. “And so if we kept going, we’d run into them too early, revealing we hadn’t waited twenty minutes before leaving.”

“Exactly. So we’ll wait here, and start pretending to be moving right before they return.”

Tanaka went to sit down. Sebastian was about to tell him not to, but Jax got there first.

“Don’t sit down! That’ll leave marks in the sand. We want it to seem like we’ve been walking the whole time.”

Tanaka hesitated . Over Jax’s shoulder, Sebastian quickly nodded, and Tanaka straightened back up.

To Jax, it seemed his order had been followed. He got a rush of power.

They stood waiting, behind a small dune at the base of the gigantic one. They were three statues under a sweltering sun. Despite the abrasive nature of the sandy wind, they missed it for its cooling effect. Sweat ran down their faces and pooled in uncomfortable places.

Soon, the distinctive sound of voices carried in the still air. At first, words couldn’t be made out. As they got closer, Sebastian could just make out enough phrases to realise they were playing ‘I spy’. Finally, he could hear everything.

“I spy with my little eye, something starting with ‘S'”

“Sand?”

“No.”

“Sun?”

“Yes! Okay, your turn.”

Sebastian turned to Jax, who nodded to confirm it was time to move, feeling that same thrill of power. They set off over the small dune. Sebastian was half expecting to come face to face with them then, but sound carried far in the still desert air. It was actually the fifth dune on that they met.

If Timmy was surprised he didn’t show it. He smiled like they were the people he most wanted to see in all the world.

“My friends! I’ve been coming back looking for you, and you were even further back than I thought!”

“Uhuh,” Sebastian said. “You left without us.”

“I knew my tracks would be easy to follow. I didn’t want to waste time, so we decided to scout ahead.”

“Really?” Sebastian asked, raising his eyebrows. “You didn’t try dump us and get the bounty for yourselves?”

“How dare you!” The woman cried. “Timmy is doing his utmost to keep with the trail, and you come here with these base accusations!?”

“Now, now,” Timmy said. “Their suspicion is understandable. However, as you can see we were returning back to get you, which I hope will assuage your concerns.”

Sebastian was silent for a moment. His face could have been one of those simple white masks weren’t it for the swelling and cuts.

“Yeah, no problem,” he said, his eyes giving nothing away.

Timmy smiled. “Well come along then. Your friend was clever, he left a trail of items through the sandstorm. Past that the footprints are clear.”

‘You go, Pauly,’  Sebastian thought.

“Lead away,” Sebastian said.

Timmy nodded and headed off. Jax hung back, and so Sebastian did too.

“Why didn’t you call him out?” Jax whispered. “I was just about ready to flip out when the bitch started yelling.”

Sebastian smiled like a crocodile. “It’s a bit complicated, but what it comes down to is this:

I don’t want to lose.”

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Desert Steel Chapter 21

-Reunion

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“Fuck!”

The sandstorm had raged for another forty minutes. Jax had stumbled around in the storm for the first ten, before walking into a liquor store. After taking his anger out on the stool outside, he’d felt his way inside. Then he’d sat there, avoiding small talk with the store owner until the storm left. For the second time in a week he felt impotent and useless, sitting out another fight.

So when he emerged, having to push a pile of sand out of the way opening the door, he was pissed. He kicked at every new pile of sand, cussing as he did. He walked out onto the street. Then he stopped, astonished. He swore again.

“Fuck!”

Tanaka was still exactly where he’d been when the sandstorm had rolled in. His feet were smothered in sand, and a steeple of golden dust was perched on his hat. His clothes seemed battered and worn, although that might have been Jax’s imagination. Jax swung his attention South, to where the other group had been. One member must have gotten lost and stuck outside, he emerged from under his cloak and a mound of sand. Two others emerged from shops they’d successfully sheltered in.

Tanaka tilted his head up. Sand sloughed off his hat and down his back in a golden waterfall.

“Hands up, butts down!” he said, loud and forcefully.

All three people, in the process of greeting one another, turned towards the noise.

“What?” one asked incredulously.

“Did I fucking stutter, gaijin? Sit down, and put your hands in the air.”

Tanaka was leering arrogantly, an old habit from his delinquent days. It carried enough confidence and threat to be effective. When he got like this, his open, smiling self could be hard to find.

Two of them reached for their guns. Tanaka drew, kicking a cloud of dust off his cloak. He was ready to fire while they were still reaching down. He didn’t bother with warning shots. They wasted time, and better men had died attempting them. Well, not better. Almost as good as. Maybe just four days ago, Tanaka would have judged a warning shot as the good thing to do, but not anymore.

He didn’t bother try one fancy headshot either. He aimed at the centre of mass, and squeezed off two shots at the one he judged to be the fastest. The person went down in an awkward clump. The way he fell suggested he wouldn’t be getting back up.

For the second person, Tanaka decided he’d do a warning shot. He still believed in striving to be good. With no other attackers but the one in front of him he concluded it was an acceptable risk. It wouldn’t be a traditional warning shot, however. He was going to aim for the head, maybe a little wide. Small target, rushed, not really trying. He’d probably miss. Let fate decide. That way he’d have his target already lined up and tested if the target kept drawing. He hoped the buzz of a close miss would stop the target.

In the event, Tanaka’s shot went wide and to the right. However, the third man, who hadn’t drawn a weapon, was charging towards his partner. To Tanaka’s eye, it seemed like the bullet might have hit him. It didn’t stop the man if it did. He carried on and tackled his friend to the ground before he could draw.

The wind carried the gun smoke and sand down the street towards the pair. Tanaka ejected the two used casings and reloaded with fresh cartridges. Then he holstered his gun.

“Understand now?” he asked. “Stay where you are. Hands up.” The pair exchanged words and complied. Tanaka stayed planted where he was, arms crossed. That in itself was a statement of confidence. He was so skilled he could uncross his arms and still draw faster.

“You seen Sebastian, Jax?” Tanaka asked conversationally, without turning his head.

Jax froze up. “No.”

“Well I’m going to be here watching these two, so why don’t you go find him?”

“Because I’m not your fucking errand boy.”

“We’re a team. I have my role, you have yours.”

“My role isn’t a errand boy.”

“It is when the other role is gunslinger.”

Jax was all the more riled up because he was worried he was becoming one of the less helpful team members. Before he could do or say anything stupid, Sebastian arrived.

He came in from the North, little streams of sand running from his cloak and clothing. His hat had a thin layer of grit on the brim. His sandstorm goggles were up on his forehead. His eyes had white circles around them where the dust had been kept out by the goggles. He ripped the bandana from his face and was beating dust from it as he walked. It came off in large puffs. His mouth was a grim line.

“Where’ve you been?” Jax asked sourly.

“I almost fucking had him, is where I’ve been,” Sebastian replied.

“Had who?”

” Who the fuck do you think? The bounty, Ansar.”

“Before the sandstorm?”

“What? You mean that standoff? God no. I was just waiting for the sandstorm to arrive then.”

“Why the fuck would you want a fucking sandstorm?!”

“So I could catch Ansar.”

“How would you find him during a sandstorm, Einstein?”

“He had two ways to run, left or right. It wasn’t rocket science. And like I said, I fucking had him. Right in my goddamn hands.”

“What happened then?”

“I fucked up is what happened. Which is why I’m so damn pissed.” Sebastian emphasised this by the violence of his actions. He whipped the bandana to and throe to get the sand out. He ripped the goggles from his head and jammed them into his bag. His eyes were still dead, but his body gave away his fury.

“Well now what?”

“Argggggghhh!!!” Sebastian screamed. He was furiously shaking his shirt, sand pouring out from its folds. “This fucking sand is fucking everywhere and it is so fucking itchy. Grrrnngh.” He squatted, head in hands, sucking air in through his teeth. Jax stood awkwardly, unsure what to do in the face of such an uncharacteristic loss of control.

“Are you…”

“I’m okay. I’m just a little filled with impotent rage.” Sebastian exhaled and stood back up. His face was once again a mask and his eyes blank slates of steel. The momentary cracks were gone. He smiled with grim amusement at Jax. “So what’s going on here?”

Tanaka answered. “I wasn’t sure what you would want me to do, so I figured I should just keep everyone here until you returned. So I just stayed here until the storm passed and held everyone at gunpoint.”

“Good job. You stayed out in the storm without equipment? How are your eyes?”

“Alright. My genetics are good for squinting, eh gaijins?”

All three of them laughed.

“Anything happen?”

“They drew guns, so I had to retaliate.”

“Casualties?”

“What’s that?”

“You hit anybody.”

Tanaka grinned. “I don’t miss people. One dead, one possibly wounded.”

“Possibly?”

“I fired a near miss warning shot on my second target, but the third guy tried be all heroic and jumped in the way. I might have clipped him.”

“Alright. Where’s Pauly?”

“No idea. Haven’t seen him.”

“Probably pissing himself in a shop somewhere,” Jax said.

Well then let’s wait for him to turn up,” Sebastian said, expecting him to arrive in a few minutes, sheepish and unharmed.

They waited twenty minutes, their captives stuck in their uncomfortable position. Townspeople, such as they were, emerged from shops and houses and started going about their daily routines. Some came out with brooms and began sweeping sand clear of the doors. Others unlatched window shutters and opened their shops back out. They ignored the group, apart from a few glances. They had no interest in trouble. Pauly did not emerge.

“Well that ain’t good,” Jax remarked.

“No, it’s not,” Sebastian agreed. “If he stumbled out of town, he could be lost out in the desert now. It’s the very opposite of good.”

“Well now what?”

“You start looking for Pauly. Tanaka and I will go talk to our captives.”

Jax nodded and sauntered off, calling out, “Here chicky chicky! Here chicken! Bwock, bwock, bwock!”

As Sebastian got closer to the pair, he saw blood running down one’s right bicep. Tanaka’s warning shot had clearly hit after all. When he got closer still, he saw how miraculously little it had hit. The arm had the equivalent of a light scratch where the bullet had just scraped by. It was a superficial injury. It was then, when Sebastian moved his attention away from the wound, that he realised the second person was in fact a women, and an attractive one at that. She was beautiful in a soft, gentle way, with long reddish-brown hair that managed to be glamorous even in the harsh and sandy conditions.

“You can drop your arms now,” he said. They both did.

“I hope your happy, torturing us like that,” the woman spat. Sebastian had to admit he was surprised. Her tone was dissonant with her appearance. He’d judged a book by its cover, to his shame. “Poor Timmy here has a arm wound, thanks to you!”

“Now, now,” the man known as Timmy said, smiling. “Let’s be civil here, like adults.”

Sebastian didn’t smile back. He tried gauge Timmy’s age. He might have been a year shy of twenty, but baby faced. The woman was older, Sebastian wasn’t sure by how much.

Timmy turned to Tanaka. “However, I must preach to you to abandon your base brutality. I understand you were justified in retaliating when we disobeyed your orders to surrender. But you only needed to shoot once. To attempt to kill both was unnecessary and cruel. If you had succeeded, had I not intervened, you would be talking to just me now. Can you understand the value of that life that would have been lost? Could you really live with yourself if you had?”

Tanaka stared.

The women threw her arms around Timmy’s neck. “Oh, darling. You were so braze. And you’re injured, you poor thing!”

“Now, now, dear,” Timmy said, patting her on the back. “I only did what was the right and noble thing.”

“You’re barely injured, you git.” Sebastian said, fed up and pissed off.

Timmy looked at him. “It could have been far worse. Your man is lucky.”

“I’m starting to wish it was far worse.”

“I was shooting to miss!” Tanaka protested. “If you’d stayed put, you wouldn’t be hurt at all.”

Timmy shook his head. “There’s no room for excuses, young man. You may have missed, but to claim you meant to is just sad!”

Sebastian’s pet peeve, as previously mentioned, was being told ‘you think you’re so smart’. Tanaka’s was having his skill questioned. He coloured a deep crimson and stayed silent.

Timmy extricated himself from the woman’s hug.

“And you,” he said, pointing at Sebastian. “You let pride get the better of you. Ansar is a dangerous criminal. You should have prioritised the public safety and justice and teamed up to capture him. Instead you allowed a sandstorm to roll in and for Ansar to escape. Any more deaths on his account are on your head.”

“What were Ansar’s crimes? The poster didn’t say.”

Timmy’s mouth slammed shut. Then he broke out into a friendly smile.

“We’ve gotten off on the wrong foot here,” he said. “Let bygones be bygones, and move on.”

Sebastian kept silent.

“We should team up,” Timmy continued. “Ansar needs to be caught, that’s what is important here.”

Sebastian turned on his heels and started to walk away. Tanaka kept his eyes on the two, covering Sebastian’s exit.

“I noticed one of your men is missing. Our team has a tracker!”

Sebastian turned back. “Oh?”

Timmy smiled apologetically. “Had a tracker,” he said, indicating to the crumpled figure. The man’s blood was already darkening into ichor, and the smell of desert steel was strong. “But he taught me the basics. We all exchanged skills, it’s a core principle of survival. If one of us dies, another knows enough to keep that role filled.”

Sebastian stayed stock still. “You don’t seem to bothered by the death of your friend.”

Timmy’s smile was warm, open and disturbing. “I’ve forgiven you, and moved on. It’s water under the bridge.”

Sebastian had no answer to that. He waited arms crossed, until Jax got back. He was hurrying, looking worried.

“Find him?” Sebastian asked.

“No. And I don’t think we will.”

“Why not?” Sebastian asked sharply.

Jax stuck his thumb over his shoulder. “The townspeople are sweeping away the mounds of sand outside their stores. The guy outside the gun store just uncovered a small black automatic pistol.”

“Show me,” Sebastian said. He turned to face Jax and strode past him. Jax struggled to keep up with Sebastian’s longer strides. “Follow us!” Sebastian shouted to Tanaka and the two other bounty hunters.

He got the gun store, the door hanging off its hinges. Sure enough, right by the corner, sat Pauly’s automatic. Sebastian crouched down and read the serial number. He’d memorised Pauly’s offhand during the long walks in the desert. It was a match.

He got up, and shook the collar of his shirt. Sand flew out. “So fucking itchy!”

“What now?” Tanaka asked.

“We try find and collect our bounty,” Jax replied.

“And find Pauly,” Sebastian said. “Shit, I was right here! Ansar must have taken him!”

The store keeper came out through his ruined door frame. “Hey, aren’t you the guy who broke my door.”

Sebastian stared him down. The store keeper reconsidered and went back inside. In Terra Deserta, you either developed an instinct for when a man wasn’t worth pushing, or you got yourself killed.

Sebastian turned on Timmy. “You can track? That’s our teammate’s gun. We think he’s with Ansar. Track him down.”

Timmy smiled. “Of course! It’s a pleasure to work with you. Your friend’s safety is important to me too.”

“Save your breath.” Sebastian said.

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Desert Steel Chapter 20

-Sandstorm

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Sebastian didn’t waste time being smug. He could do that on while on the move. He’d guessed Ansar would be moving to his right. It was an instinctive, gut feeling, but it was as good as any. He hustled a diagonal path that aimed to intercept Ansar, based off his calculations of Ansar’s speed. As he ran, he ripped the goggles out of his bag with his right hand. Awkward with the taped hand, he struggled to pull them over. His eyes were squinted near shut, the sand lacerating his face. It was like swimming through razor blades. He succeeded in getting them on just as he reached what he’d hoped to be the interception point.

His eyes opened, and he was stunned by how little he’d been seeing before. The world opened up into a blur of angry sand. He felt cocooned and isolated. No noise beyond the roar of the wind could be heard. Near shapes were shadows in an orange mist. Anything else was concealed. Sebastian altered his path to follow what he’d guessed would be Ansar’s path, in case he’d been faster than expected. When no shadows emerged from the sand, he jagged a hard left, to test out a possible path away and to the right.

He came up to a disorientated figure, but it wasn’t Ansar. Maybe one of the other bounty hunters, running lost. He moved back, navigating on his mind’s eye map alone, until he was at the exact spot Ansar had been standing. The sand was scouring his mouth and noise as he panted. He reached back into his bag again, and found his bandana. He tied it over his mouth and nose two handed as he sprinted. The scouring sensation stopped, although his breaths were now humid and moist on the cloth. The sand was still scratching exposed skin, but he could almost call himself comfortable. He followed the left path this time, his long legged gait chewing up the distance. Shadows rushed into view. A sack, full. Then a pole, for a veranda. Then the building to which the veranda was attached. Sebastian went right through the door. Something he was noticing on Terra Deserta was all the doors were thin and cheap. A sneeze could take them off their hinges. He stumbled into a gun shop. The owner was standing off to one side, cradling a shotgun, ready to step in only if his shop was badly affected. He didn’t seem willing to fight over the door. The sandstorm blew in with Sebastian, coiling past his legs like a smoke machine effect on a stage. Ansar was strolling along towards the back door, unhurried. He must have thought nobody was going to find him in the storm.

“Freeze!” Sebastian shouted. His voice was muffled under the cloth. He had to really bellow to be heard over the wind. Ansar glanced over his shoulder, observed him with a detached air, and kept walking.

Sebastian levelled his gun on Ansar’s head. Cocked it, making an audible click. Ansar kept walking, steady, unbothered paces. Sebastian went to pull the trigger, and froze. His view of Ansar’s back was from the same angle as the man he’d killed back before he’d arrived in Sixty Clicks. He was back there again, caught in a loop. Same decision. Kill a man. His finger wavered over the trigger. His brain overrode it, forcing it around the trigger. The gun had almost no pull force. A breeze could fire it. But he couldn’t pull the trigger. It was like trying to push a mountain. His whole forearm was shaking from the effort. Tendons under tension stretched from his wrist to elbow. Veins popped to the surface. Twice Sebastian tried muster all of his energy into one pull, with visible effort showing on his face. His teeth were gritted. A light kindled in his cold, barren eyes, not fear but it’s primordial ancestor.

Sebastian’s fast mind had many benefits, but in terms of survival none stood out more so than his adaptability. Two tries were enough. He didn’t cling to some false hope of overcoming his body’s resistance. The flame in his eyes was stamped out. He holstered his gun, de-cocking it. He took the distance that had taken Ansar ten steps in three. He grabbed Ansar by the shoulder, and stamped down on his calf. Ansar was forced to his knees, but didn’t cry out. He jabbed back with an elbow, narrowly missing Sebastian’s groin and hitting his hip instead. Sebastian’s hold loosened, and Ansar gripped a display with his free hand, using it to pull himself away. He got to his feet, and head for the back door. Sebastian kicked him in the back, in what was more of a shove than a blow. Ansar went tumbling, almost smacking his face on the door jamb. He just managed to save himself with his arms, but he was left vulnerable. Sebastian was on him straight away, his left hand bunching up Ansar’s collar and choking him with it. He pressed the first knuckle of his right hand hard against Ansar’s skull. He hoped the hard, small point of pressure would simulate the sensation of having a gun barrel pressed against your head.

“Freeze!” he said again.

Ansar reached up and wrenched the back door open. The through draft created between the two doors sent a solid pillar of sand blasting across Sebastian’s face. He didn’t even flinch through his goggles.

“What part of freeze don’t you understand?” Sebastian asked.

He let go of Ansar’s collar to punch him in the head. It was a mistake. As soon as the choking was gone, Ansar lunged forward, locked himself around the door frame, and pulled. He slipped free. Under normal circumstances, Sebastian could have caught him again in a second. But with the sandstorm raging even in the shop, visibility was cut down to one metre again. Even at his slow pace, Ansar disappeared from view. Sebastian sprinted up to where Ansar had been, and found nothing. He was back in a blind, three hundred and sixty degree puzzle. Except now, behind the shop, he had no mental map, and he had no easy left or right guess.

Sebastian adapted. He was flexible. Three hundred and sixty degrees of possibilities, and he wasn’t going to find Ansar standing still. He chose a direction at random, and took off.

Pauly was caught completely by surprise by the sandstorm when it rolled in. One moment he could see, the next he couldn’t. The air itself suddenly began to cut him. He panicked. He couldn’t breathe. The world hurt.

So for the first second, he was frozen with shock. Then, blind and scared, he stumbled around aimlessly, the sand scraping at his face. Like a horse under a whip, he was spurred forwards, faster and faster, trying to outrun the pain. His mind was blank as he tore past shadows in the dust. His breathing was laboured as he tried to find oxygen in the clouds of grit. His cracked ribs ached. His eyes were squeezed shut, as sharp grains scrabbled at the lids. He tripped on something, although he couldn’t see what. A barrel, maybe, or a chair, maybe even a person. He could be anywhere in the town now. His ribs seared his side when he landed. He curled up, hiding his face under his body.

The pain passed, and with it his thinking returned. He opened his eyes. The sand wasn’t reaching them anymore. He could see, although all he was looking at was the ground. The air was growing stale beneath his body, but it was clear. He regained his breath. He was okay. There was a sandstorm, but it held no danger.  The wind howled and swirled around him. Sand began to accumulate in piles against his body. He ran over his options. Normally, a sandstorm would mean he should cover himself and remain where he was, as he was doing now. However, there’d been a gunfight and a bounty to collect this time. They had a man to catch. He considered getting up and pursuing the man, then discarded the thought. He was disorientated. He had no idea where he was, or where the man was. So he lay curled up, wishing he had a nice cloak to cover himself with. The wind threw waves of sand against his back. He waited.

The first set of footsteps he barely heard. They were puffs of noise, soft and fluffy. He wasn’t expecting them, and so he thought he might have imagined them. The second set were unmistakeable. They were definitive and determined. They were fast, and slammed the ground each time they landed. Whoever it was passed by so fast the whirr of displaced air could be heard. Pauly kept still, with his head down. He wasn’t going to poke his head out into a danger when he was this vulnerable. He waited. Shortly after there was the crash of splintering wood and tortured metal, and a muffled shout.  Pauly waited some more, debating with himself. Then he got up, his mouth dry. He pulled out his automatic piece. He still wore it in his waistband, he didn’t have the money yet for a holster. He took off  after the noise in a bent, crouching jog, like he’d seen cops do on television. He walked straight into a pole, bouncing off into the sand. Cursing, he got back up and walked normally and cautiously. He reached a wall of typical low-budget, low-materials Terra Deserta construction. He planted his left hand on it. Kept his gun up. Traced left, never leaving his hand off the wall. Got splinters in his hand. He reached a corner. Froze up, and hugged the wall. Put his back to it, gun pointing to the sky, just like in the movies. Psyched himself up. Took deep breaths. Spun around the corner, gun pointing straight ahead. Saw and heard nothing. He realised his eyes were still squeezed shut. He forced them open. All he could see was sand. A grain got in his eyes, scratching along the lens. He spun back, feeling stupid. His eye was watering. He blinked furiously until the grain was gone. He could still feel the scratch.

He sat down against the wall. Rethought the whole situation. He’d told himself he was going to be brave, but maybe he’d been confusing it with stupidity. He couldn’t see a thing. He didn’t know who he was chasing. He didn’t know where they’d gone. ‘What would Sebastian do?‘ he thought. Nothing, right? He wouldn’t waste his energy on a hopeless attempt, or a symbolic gesture. He wasn’t one for anything but cold, hard pragmatism.

Pauly wiped the tears from his eye, frustrated. He was trying to be braver, but he felt like he was just going around in circles. Every path seemed to end in failure. He shook his head violently, rejecting the thought. No! No! No! Because down that path, the path of giving up, lay death. He got back to his feet. He didn’t know where he was, but there could be no harm in moving on. He could try round the corner. Maybe there would be someone else from his group there. He’d definitely heard someone’s footsteps.

He rounded the corner, and ran straight into someone. They both went down in a heap. Pauly’s eyes shot open. In the chaos of the storm, it took him a moment to recognise the man. It was Ansar. Pauly fumbled for his gun. He’d dropped it. Ansar was reaching behind his back. Pauly felt a bolt of fear, and fumbled some more. Ansar began pulling up the butt of a gun at a glacial pace. Pauly managed to grip the gun. He swung it to point at Ansar. Ansar kept on drawing his gun. It was a sawn-off shotgun. Pauly tried pull the trigger, but couldn’t. He realised the safety was on. He botched up flicking it off twice, his fingers shaking. Got it the third time.

“Stop!” he shouted. Ansar kept drawing. The barrel was about to point at Pauly’s head.

Pauly squeezed the trigger.

Nothing happened. Just a cold, dead thunk.

His gun had jammed. Consider the amount of sand and grit blowing around, it wasn’t surprising. Pauly threw it away like it was poisoned. He threw his hand up into the air.

Ansar’s shotgun fell down to horizontal. To Pauly, it was a coffin lid slamming shut. Ansar got to his feet and held his shotgun at his hip. He smiled.

“Look at the bounty God has gifted me today!” He exclaimed. “Come now, Browned One!”

Pauly rose, legs shaking. He’d heard stories about the way shotguns tore those it shot to pieces. He’d always thought it would be the worst thing to be shot with. He swallowed his immediate fear. He stood firm, although his breathing was laboured.

Ansar started backing up the way he’d came. Out of town, towards open desert.

“Come, come,” he beckoned. Pauly followed. He had no more heroics left in him. The sand swirled and swallowed him and Ansar up.

Pauly’s automatic lay by the corner, steadily becoming buried.

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Desert Steel Chapter 19

-Stalemate

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Into the last hours of their journey, Sebastian found a dune that lay in the right direction and stretched on for kilometres. He lead them along the spine of the dune, but kept about two metres from the very top. This was so to remove their silhouettes from the horizon. The heavy wind from the North sent sheets of sand over the crest. It was like being in the tube of a wave. His navigation turned out to be spot on. The dune tapered and terminated right into the central strip of the town.

The town was called Dune’s End for this reason. It was a trading town, existing only for supply restocks on trips to further towns. It’s location by the dune aided navigation. This made it ideal for its purpose as a throughway and point of orientation. Reflecting its lowly status, there was really nothing there. A strip of stores all offering different supplies. No competition. No signs of residential housing. The population was the travellers, and the caterers.

What a throughway like this did have in its favour was an abundant message board. All news and information flowed through this town, and all towns like it. Sebastian went straight for the board. Unlike the last time, he found this one within a minute, nailed up against the side of the town’s General Store. As expected, it was laden with papers and graffiti.

“What do we want?” Sebastian asked.

“A mansion filled with clean water and ice cream.” Pauly replied.

Sebastian chuckled. “No, more specifically. What work do we want to take on?”

“That one!” Jax and Tanaka said at exactly the same time, pointing.

Sebastian kept his face turned away from the board. He’d already read it through. “Is it the bounty poster for ‘Ansar Aslakhanov’?”

“Yes. By far the most cash,” Jax said.

“Yes. Catching criminals is the most heroic job,” Tanaka said.

Sebastian’s smile got smug. “Sounds like we’re all agreed, then.”

“Uhh… Not exactly,” Pauly said.

All three faces, sun and sand scorched, swung towards him. He withered under their gaze, but he kept talking. “The highest bounty means the highest risk, right? Why don’t we go low? Just enough to cover our needs.”

“High risk, high reward. Only pussies don’t have the balls for them. Are you a pussy?” Jax asked.

Tanaka was visibly disgusted. “That is not what a hero would say,” he admonished.

Sebastian just smiled. “It’s three against one, I’m afraid.”

Jax reached up and plucked the poster from the board. It was printed on white paper in black and white. It had the title: ‘WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE’. There was the photo of a man smiling like he knew a joke no one else did, a reward and the name: ‘Ansar Aslakhanov’. The reward was ‘Four Hundred Litres of Water or Cash Equivalent’. The currencies in Terra Deserta were measured against the ‘Water Standard’. This was how much water that money could buy. In the bigger towns, and Portal City’s sphere, efforts were being made to standardise this amount. Out in the outer settlements this wasn’t the case, but four hundred litres was still a high amount. Down at the bottom it said: ‘Reward given upon delivery to Mikhail or his affiliates at Mikhailsburg.’

“Why’d you do that?” Tanaka asked.

“So no one else can see the poster and take our prize,” Jax replied.

“The safety of the public is the greater good than our reward. We should want as many people as possible to see the poster.”

“Not this shit again.”

Jax’s words matched Sebastian’s thoughts. He stepped in before an argument overflowed.

“What does Ansar look like, Tanaka?” he asked.

Tanaka faltered. “Average face, crooked nose?”

Sebastian took the poster of Jax and showed it to Tanaka. “This the face you had in your head? Would you have recognised him in the street?”

“No.”

“So we need the poster,” Sebastian said. Tanaka nodded, mollified. They didn’t need the poster, in truth. Sebastian’s memory was excellent. He had Ansar’s face burned into his memory. His real reason was the same as Jax’s. Sebastian was morally flexible, and giving himself an edge was well within his limits. He rolled up the poster and slid it into the bags attached to the back of his trouser belt.

“Let’s go get some water first.”

They walked up the street towards the water store they’d seen. Water stores, as the name suggested, sold water in towns where there was no oasis, or where oasis access was monopolised. They sold it from large barrels, pouring out a prepaid amount into any container of the customer’s choice. The monopolies they held in smaller towns lead to brutal prices. The term ‘water store prices’ was common place to describe anything exorbitantly expensive.

They walked up the street, four abreast, with plenty of space between each other’s shoulders. In this smaller town, this practically blocked the road heading North. Sand blew around their feet and down the road. About halfway there, maybe twenty five metres from the store, a man stepped out.

He was average height, maybe five foot ten inches. He wore an elaborately embroidered shirt that Sebastian could best describe as a waistcoat. Its colours were fantastic and flamboyant. This contrasted with the rest of his clothing. He wore trousers of dull muddy tone, and boots of the same. He had a cloak of heavy cloth in mustard yellow. His hat was a leather bushwhacker hat, with gun shells sown with leather straps into the side of the crown.

His face was grizzled. His nose had been broken and fixed crooked. A few scars shone white against olive skin. He hadn’t shaved in a while, and a chin strap and moustache was emerging. There was no doubt about it. It was Ansar Aslakhanov. Sebastian thought he saw both signs of Slavic and Turkic ethnicity in the face, although he’d be willing to admit the name had biased him.

Before Sebastian could react to this new information, three people beyond Ansar burst out of hiding, guns raised.

“Freeze!” one screamed. They were positioned so their fire would triangulate on Ansar from three directions, but weren’t so far apart that they might hit each other. It was a clean ambush.

Ansar raised his hands. He showed no surprise or fear. He was unhurried, almost lazy in his movement. “You won’t shoot me,” he said. He didn’t have the stereotypical heavy Russian accent Sebastian had been subconsciously expecting. Instead it was a pleasant, smooth and musical voice.

“Fuck yes we will,” the same person screamed. Whoever he was, he was hyped up on adrenaline, but controlled. That suggested experience.

“One of you misses, you hit the innocent bystanders beyond me. One of you hit, and the bounty is voided. You need me alive.”

The speaker cursed. The guns stayed up, but the intent was dying. Ansar was serene. He turned so he fully faced Sebastian. He started to walk away. None of the three shot him. Sebastian drew his gun. To his right, Tanaka reacted and drew his even faster, beating him to the punch.

“About that…” Sebastian said, the smugness lacing his voice. “Our bounty said nothing about taking you alive.” Ansar’s controlled face flickered, although it wasn’t fear that lay underneath. It was something else Sebastian couldn’t pin down. “I’ve never been called an innocent bystander before” He added.

Ansar backed up a few paces as Jax and Pauly also drew up their weapons. He was now standing at the centre point between the two groups.

“You shoot him, and we’ll shoot you!” The spokesperson for the other group shouted.

“You shoot him, and we’ll shoot you!” Sebastian shouted back. There was a silence, only interrupted by the footsteps of those not involved scurrying away. Soon, the street was clear of people.

“It seems we have a stalemate,” another voice from the ambushers said. This voice was calmer, friendlier, more reasonable. More so than it had any right to be, Sebastian thought.

“Seems so.”

“Well, let’s be reasonable here. We can’t stand out here forever, now can we?”

The man’s matter-of-fact, patronising voice rubbed Sebastian the wrong way. He didn’t let it show. He just smiled, his eyes cold. “Actually, I think we can. I’m not budging until you’ve dropped your weapons and given us Ansar.”

“Now that I cannot do.”

“Then we wait.”

“Now hold on there…”

“I am. You hold on there until you give up. I’ll be waiting.”

“This is ridiculous. We cannot stand here forever. We need food, water, sleep. Your bluff is hollow.”

“I stand by what I said, and so I stand.”

“Come now. Men, talk some sense into your leader. You, with the tattoos. Surely you can see that we need to negotiate.”

Tanaka grinned. “Maybe, but I’m a moron delinquent, what do I know? I trust my leader, no negotiation.”

The man sighed loud enough for them to hear, and fell silent. The wind howled straight down the road. For twenty full minutes they stood in stalemate, Ansar in the middle. Sebastian raised his head and felt the air. Things seemed ripe. It should come soon. With his free hand, clumsy with tape, he rummaged in one of his belt bags for his goggles.

The man finally lost his patience and spoke up again. “How long do you expect to maintain this charade?” He asked kindly, like he was speaking to someone mentally ill. Maybe he thought he was.

Sebastian head throbbed. It sometimes did ever since his concussion in the fight with Hadrian, but only for a short moment. He waited for the pain to clear before replying, which suited him fine because he wanted to leave the guy hanging anyway.

“Until.”

“Until when?”

“Just until.”  The wind howled. Sebastian made sure he memorised the street layout and Ansar’s positioning. From then on it was a gamble. Heads or tails, left or right. A fifty: fifty chance, except Ansar had all kinds of biases, all the way down to whether he was left or right handed. And although the expectation would be left or right, the problem was two dimensional. There was a full three hundred and sixty degrees of options. There was even the unlikely but possible action of trying to run through one of the groups. Three dimensional, even, once one considered the slim chance of him climbing a building. But all these other options were improbable. The amount of calculations would paralyse Sebastian, so he kept it simple. Left or right. Fifty: fifty. Not great odds, not bad odds. He flipped a coin in his head, and prepared.

“This is unnecessary,” the man was saying. “We can work this out.”

Sebastian ignored him. His ears told him what he had been waiting for was about to arrive. He smiled smugly, and visualised his path.

Whatever the man was going to say next was drowned out by the howl of the wind and the buzz of the sand. The entire town was engulfed in a cloud of angry orange. Sand ripped through the air in dense clouds, slashing everything. Visibility dropped to a metre.

The sandstorm had come to Dune’s End.

<Last Chapter    Next Chapter>

Desert Steel Chapter 18

-Practice

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It was no sooner than when they had crested the first dune from town, that Sebastian started to talk.

“So, Jax. Are you going to explain why you freaked out at the party. I think you owe us all an explanation.”

“I thought you said you could care less about my past.”

Sebastian smirked. “Yes, you’re right, I could care less. I’m asking what happened at the party, is all.”

“What’s there to explain? They were bullying Amy and I snapped.”

“Oh, aren’t you just the perfect gentleman?”

“Fuck off!”

“Where’s your fedora?'” Sebastian asked.

“Nice memes you fucking faggot. Bet your mum’s real proud of you.”

“Thanks, dude. My entire adolescence was spent on anonymous chat boards, I hope it shows.”

“That’s fucking sad.”

“I had fun with it.”

“Yeah…”

For a moment, it looked like Jax was lost in another time and place.

“Mister Gentleman.” Sebastian teased.

Jax scowled, cussed him out, and the moment was gone. Sebastian smiled and bounced along the spine of a dune. His left hand drew his gun over and over again. The wind come in from the North strong and hard.

As the sun and heat peaked they sheltered in the paltry shade of a large dune. Sebastian took a few sips of his water. It had an earthy tang. Pauly started ripping into a air-dried strip of beef. Even as he rested, Sebastian drew his gun over and over. Having finished devouring his meal, Pauly became discomfited by the silence.

“So what anime did you guys watch?” he asked.

Jax glared at him. Sebastian, deep in thought, was delayed in responding. He managed to puncture the awkward silence just as it was forming.

“Jax has already said he watched ‘Moe Moe Bubble Girls’, which is about cute fairy girls. I don’t watch anime, although I did read manga. Tanaka said he doesn’t watch anime.”

“I did watch Doraemon as a kid.” Tanaka interjected.

There was another pause that threatened to stretch into silence until Sebastian realised he needed to ask a question back.

“Did you watch anime?”

“No,” Pauly said. “I went out and partied on my weekends. Anime was for…” He trailed off, and then changed tack. “I did watch Dragonball Z back when it was cool, though. What’s manga?”

“It’s the written comic book form.”

“What’d you read?” Sebastian was silent. Pauly got worried. “Hey man, if you don’t wanna talk about it.”

“No, it’s fine, I’m just trying to remember them all. There were at least two hundred series. The big three, obviously. Beelzebub, too. The popular seinens, like Berserk, Vagabond, Vinland Saga. Kokou No Hito is really good. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure was fun. I really love the art in Otoyomegatari. Baby Steps is a really good sports manga…” Sebastian stopped, seeing that everyone’s eyes had glazed over. “Lots, basically.”

“Yeah…” Pauly agreed.

“Christ!” Jax exclaimed to no-one and everyone. “How’d I get stuck with such a pathetic nerd?!”

“Says the neo-nazi who watched cute girls have a sparkly bubble fight with an evil witch.” Sebastian said. “I think you’re forgetting yourself here.”

“So are you!” Jax snapped back. He stopped, unsure what he meant, then forged ahead anyway. “You’re some no-life loser who wasted his life inside reading manga and surfing anonymous image boards. Not some badass leader you seem to be trying to be.”

“Can’t I be both, Mr. Gentleman?”

“Don’t call me that!”

“Why not? It’s just a joke nickname. Isn’t that what friends do?”

“Fuck off!”

Sebastian shrugged and lay back into the sand. Jax was breathing heavily. Pauly felt awkward. Everything he said seemed to have put Sebastian and Jax at each other’s throats. He took a sip from his water to ignore the atmosphere.

There was a click as a revolver was cocked. Pauly spun around. Tanaka had drawn his revolver.

“Make nice,” he said.

Sebastian glanced up and smiled. “Be serious.”

“I am,” Tanaka said. His face backed it up. “Make nice.”

Sebastian smirked at Jax. “Sorry I hurt your poor feelings.”

“Properly!” Tanaka commanded.

Sebastian sighed. His face lost its smile. Any emotion slewed off like snow from a roof. “I’m sorry Jax. I am socially undeveloped and the only way I know to connect with people and see their emotions is to tease them.”

Nobody could tell if he was still joking or not, but Tanaka let it pass.

Jax scowled. He looked at Tanaka, to double check the revolver was still drawn. It was. “Sorry I insulted you.” He turned his head to Tanaka. “There, you happy, you fucking slant?” he said.

“Uhh, I think that defeats the purpose of an apology.” Pauly said nervously.

“Hug.” Tanaka said, still deadly serious. When he was like that his delinquent past shone out. He was intimidating and majestically arrogant. The light cast his open face into sharp edges.

Sebastian and Jax did a double take with one another. Hesitantly and awkwardly, under the barrel of a gun, they embraced. The instant they began to break apart, Tanaka bowled them over in a massive bear hug.

All three of the tumbled down the dune. Sebastian laughed despite himself. It was like having a big, lovable dog.

At the bottom of the dune, Tanaka got up off the pile.

“No more fighting,” he announced.

“Oh, man, that was so fucking gay,” Jax said, getting to his feet as fast as possible.

Sebastian laughed. “Come on. What’s the harm in a little skinship?”

“Speak for yourself, faggot.”

“All better now?” Tanaka asked, all smiles again.

“Sure,” Sebastian said. “It was good catharsis.” Seeing Tanaka’s incomprehension, he added. “That means it was relieving.”

“Okay. That is good,” Tanaka said, deadly serious. Sebastian couldn’t help but laughing again.

“You, Tanaka, are one of a kind.”

“I know.”

That evening, Tanaka got up and faced Sebastian. The sun was dipping into the horizon and the stars surging up the other side.

“Show me your gun draw.”

Sebastian nodded and got up. “Good thing it was my other hand that broke,” he observed, raising the taped up hand.

He stood tall, his full height towering over Tanaka. He pushed back his cloak and hooked it on a metal spur on the back of his belt. This spur kept the cloak clear of the holster and the hand. Hooking one’s cloak on this spur was a belligerent declaration in Terra Deserta, just as raising one’s head was an amicable one. At a controlled speed, Sebastian drew as he had thousands of times before. Tanaka smiled. The form was perfect. Sebastian was a good student that could mimic things down to the last millimetre and then drill the action for hours without losing interest.

“Faster now. As fast as you can.”

Sebastian re-holstered, breathed, and drew. His hand blurred. Not as fast as Tanaka, but he came up with a gun held correctly, and it hadn’t snagged on anything.

“Okay,” Tanaka said. “Next step. Reaction times.” He pointed to a spot ten metres away from him. “You stand there. We’ll duel.”

Sebastian took up the position in the same stance. Tanaka shuffled his feet around. He swept his cloak aside. Then he straightened, tensed, and raised his face so it was out of shadow. His eyes unfocussed. An arrogant leer suffused his face. Suddenly, Sebastian wasn’t towering over Tanaka. Instead, all five feet eight inches of Tanaka seemed to be towering over Sebastian.

“You cannot draw until I draw. Understand? We won’t fire, obviously.”

Sebastian nodded.

Tanaka drew. His lightning tattoo left a yellow blur in the air as it moved. The sound of air whistling as his arm forced it out of the way was audible. It was like the noise when someone swings a tennis racket as fast as they can.

Sebastian blinked before his brain clicked. He drew as fast as he had before. By the time he had the gun out and aimed Tanaka was holstering his gun.

“Again,” he said.

Sebastian nodded, holstered his gun, and took a deep breath. Tanaka drew again and exactly the same thing happened. Again and again Tanaka holstered and drew. Again and again Sebastian wasn’t fast enough to react.

And again and again and again.

Sebastian knew why, scientifically, this was happening. Firstly, Tanaka was inhumanly fast. Secondly, it was a matter of distance. The nerve impulses sent by Sebastian’s brain had to travel his long arms. Knowing either of these things wouldn’t make Sebastian faster, so he put his mind to a different work. Each time Tanaka drew, Sebastian observed every flicker and twitch. Every tensed muscle, every glance. For the next three tries he was even slower due to the distraction. On the fourth try, he’d memorised every action. He timed his own reaction speed, then worked backwards through Tanaka’s mannerisms until he knew which action to react to.

On the fifth try, he drew at exactly the same time as Tanaka. Tanaka still got the gun out first in the end because he was faster, but the reaction time delay was zero seconds. Tanaka grinned. They did it again, and again. Both times, the reaction time was zero. Tanaka’s smile faded.

“You’re not reacting to my gun draw, are you?”

“No,” Sebastian admitted. “I can read your body language.”

“That’s not the proper path. How will you know a stranger’s body language?”

“How will I gain your reaction time? Just reacting over and over again won’t magically make the nerve signals faster.”

“You’ll never be as good as me like this.”

“I never will, regardless. I have to compromise. This is my way of doing things. And different isn’t always worse.” Sebastian could see Tanaka was still disapproving, so he gambled. “Watch this. Duel me again.” It was a gamble Sebastian knew in his gut would pay off. When he gambled on his mind’s ability, he always knew when he was going to win.

They reassumed their positions. Sebastian scoured Tanaka’s stance. He closed his eyes. He had the image, now he had to extrapolate. He’d learnt the lead up to Tanaka drawing to one and a half seconds back. Tanaka had been one second away when he’d closed his eyes. In his mind’s eye he could see Tanaka going through the one second of body language before drawing. He didn’t need to see this, though. He just had to count down one second, and draw about a quarter of a second before zero. He did so, opening his eyes.

He’d matched Tanaka perfectly. Reaction time: zero seconds.

Everyone gaped in awe.

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Desert Steel Chapter 17

-Fracas

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The party was thumping, if expectations were downscaled to outer Terra Deserta standards. All of the fight show crew was there, bar Hadrian, as was a slice of Hovetown Left locals. Alcohol was available in two kegs. It was nasty and cheap but it was stronger and tastier than the earthy oasis water. The party was taking place in one of the towns two saloons, which was furnished with a lean towards comfy. The saloon buzzed with conversation. Cigarette and other smoke occupied the top half of the room.

Tanaka was propped up against one corner of the bar. Not one to dwell on a past mistake, he was savouring a glass of moonshine with a unfettered grin. His hair had restored to its usual chaotic bramble. His ear piercings, a row of simple pale yellow and dull grey rings along the arc of his outer ear on both sides, gleamed. When he lifted up his glass, the lithe muscles in his forearm rippled beneath his tattoo. A crowd of admirers drank in every aspect. He fielded their questions with a friendly manner and an easy smile, even those asking about why his teammate had spat in his face.

Pauly was in his element. His old lifestyle may have had its foundations in bullshit, but one thing had shone true: he loved a party. As a bonus, he didn’t even have to lie. He really had been to bigger and better parties involving more famous people. Let me tell you about a REAL party, man, it’s got minor Staten Island celebrities and people drinking all different kinds of alcohol, none of this low level bullcrap. Besides that, he actually had a real reputation, having fought Hadrian. No longer did he have spin a tale about this gangbanger from Brooklyn he’d roughed up, or some out-of-state college student he’d slept with. Pauly was a badass for real this time. Sure, people still had to take what he said about himself with a grain of salt, but a little seasoning makes a meal taste better anyway. In Terra Deserta, embellishing stories was something of a local pastime. He was the life of the party, imparting anecdotes and cracking jokes with every group. He bounced around the room, constantly replenishing drink in hand.

Jax stood off in the corner, and smouldered. If anyone or any group strayed too near he repelled them with his glare. He sipped from his drink with a burning intensity. He observed the party as it flowed with unconcealed hatred. His mind continued returning to his dismal and pointless round in the fight. Every time it did his anger flared further. Even the crybaby Pauly had done better. Now he swanned around chatting while Jax wallowed in his isolated corner. Jax stole another furious sip of his drink. He passed the time by fantasising about punching a partygoer’s stupid smiling face. He scowled at a girl that had looked up and made eye contact with him. She dropped her gaze, a friendly smile dying on her lips. Jax’s eyes darted off for their next prey.

He alighted upon Steve, Erica and Amy, although unlike Sebastian he didn’t remember their names. Steve was lounging on a sofa, legs and arms splayed. Erica’s small and willowy form was curled up on his lap, one slender arm slung over his neck. She had a smile like cough medicine, sickly sweet but still unable to hide its bitter, nasty nature. She was talking over Steve’s shoulder to Amy, her face towards Jax. Amy’s boyish figure had its back to Jax. It was shaking. Erica’s lips moved, evidently saying something, and Steve threw back his head and laughed. The group in the area did the same. Amy spun and stormed away.

Jax saw she was fighting off tears and rage. After stalking a few steps away, the laughter still chasing her, she froze with fearful confusion. Her head spun left and right, looking for a safe haven to run to. She alighted upon Jax in the corner. He had no angry glare for her. She didn’t have some fat, shit-eating grin on her face. All people were trash, but some had the decency to be sad about it. She walked over and joined him. He took another sip of his drink, his glare sweeping the whole room.

He opened his mouth to say something, reconsidered, and closed it. She sniffled, and he flared up again.

“What the fuck’s your problem?”

She got pissed and glared at him, but she stopped crying. “People.”

“Amen,” Jax said under his breath. He took another sip. He eyed Steve and Erica. The group had lost interest, as had Steve, but Erica caught his eye and leered at him. He turned his attention back to Amy.

He cleared his throat. She stared dead-eyed off into the distance, past Erica and through the far wall. “Sorry, you know,” he managed. “For the things I said and did to you.”

“Whatever,” she said hurriedly, her voice cracking.

“People are trash,” he said. He gestured vaguely in Erica’s direction. “You don’t need them.”

“I need someone,” she said. Emotion was breaking through the cracks. She turned her eyes to meet with Jax’s.

His burned with rage and emptiness. “No. You don’t.” He paused, the flames dimming. “You want someone worth something.”

“I… guess,” she said, averting her eyes. The emotion and the pain in her voice tugged at Jax’s memories. His emotions swirled, and something dislodged.

He dropped his cup, the clear liquid spilling at his feet. He strode over to the sofa. Erica looked up at him.

“Yesssss?” she asked. The group around her sniggered. Rage rose of Jax’s body like steam.

He sucker punched her. Something cracked. Somebody screamed. She fell off of Steve onto the floor. Steve got up, fast, shouting something. It was an elemental buzz to Jax’s ears. He headbutted Steve as hard as he could. Steve fell back, roaring in pain. Hell broke loose. Confusion reigned. Some people tried get away. Others tried attack him. He kicked, and punched and bit. They were knocked back, tripping over one another.

To his left, and behind him, Tanaka waded through the tangle with practised ease. With the nonchalance of a man picking a flower, he took Jax’s flailing arm and wrenched it into a lock. Jax thrashed about, still hitting out at anyone in range in front of him. Tanaka increased the pressure, trying to drive home the point, but Jax seemed oblivious to it.

“Jax!”

The words were delivered like a whip crack, and the crowd was cowed as if it were.  It cut right through the fog of anger clouding Jax’s brain. He stopped struggling. Sebastian stood tall at the door, one eye still swollen shut. His good eye stared Jax down. Jax averted his gaze.

“Explain,” Sebastian commanded.

“He just started attacking peo-” someone began saying. Sebastian didn’t turn to look at the speaker.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” he said. Whoever it was fell silent.

Jax expelled air in an angry and frustrated tut. He didn’t say anything, unsure where to even start.

“Answer.”

Jax glared up defiantly at Sebastian. “Just showing how you take out the trash.”

Hadrian had entered after Sebastian, his imposing presence oddly going unnoticed. He was now kneeling over the moaning Erica. “I think her jaw’s dislocated,” he said. He rose, his eyes hard. “I think you should leave.”

“Yes, let’s.” Sebastian agreed. He crossed his arms. Tanaka released Jax and left, Jax following just behind. Pauly came out last, hurrying out from a group of people. Applause started somewhere in the back of the crowd and spread. Sebastian pretended he didn’t notice. His eyes searched the room, and found Amy standing frozen in the corner.

Shock, horror, admiration, joy and disgust all fought for supremacy on her face. It told Sebastian everything else he needed to know. He sighed, turned on his heels and left. His three men were waiting for him outside under the veranda.

“That’s the first time it wasn’t my fault we’re thrown out of a party,” Pauly joked.

“Follow me,” Sebastian said, ignoring him. He lead them down the street and into the cellar where he had been. He surveyed his group. The blindly heroic Tanaka who was only now opening his eyes. The jokey and sociable Pauly who was emerging from his shell of bluff and fear. And Jax, a vicious and violent wounded beast.

Sebastian smirked. “That went better than it should have.”

Tanaka and Pauly gave relieved smiles.

“True. I thought the town was going to turn on us,” Tanaka said.

Jax sullenly remained non-responsive.

“So Jax,” Sebastian asked, the tension relieved. “What were you thinking? That you were some white knight coming to save poor, sweet Amy? Or are you some kind of berserker, and bullying is your trigger to hulk out?”

“How the fuck do you know this?!” Jax burst out. “You reading my fucking mind?!”

“Ooo, Jaxxy boy. You’re crying.”

“I am not.” Jax furiously wiped his eyes.

“You are. It’s ok, buddy, you’re among friends here. There are more emotions other than anger, you know.”

“You guys are not my friends!”

“No, because you don’t have any friends. Your only one died because you didn’t try to save him.”

Jax reacted like he’d been slapped. New tears sprung to his eyes. He bit his lip and lowered his head.

“I don’t know your past,” Sebastian said. “I don’t care either. I care about your fuck ups now. That old you? He died when you jumped through the portal. In this desert, you adapt or you die.”

Jax swallowed. Anger relit in his eyes. “Fuck you, you preachy bitch. I’m more adapted to this fucking desert than any of you moralising pricks.”

“Then act like it,” Sebastian said, unbothered.

Hadrian burst in, making everyone jump. He was alone.

“Hey, hey, hey,” he said. “Where’s my little trouble maker?” He saw Jax, and rushed up to meet him. Hadrian patted him on the back as he cringed away. “Great punch, man. First time I’ve seen anyone successfully shut Erica up.”

The three were stunned by Hadrian’s nonchalance . Sebastian just rolled his eyes.

“Yo-you’re not bothered that we just attacked your crew? Punched a girl?” Pauly asked.

“Nah. Equal rights, equal lefts, that’s what I say.” Hadrian laughed at his own joke.

Pauly picked up on the accent. “Are you and Sebastian from the same-”

“God no,” Sebastian said. “He’s Australian. Just ignore him and he’ll go away.”

Hadrian laughed again.

“Well anyway, we clicked her jaw back in and wired it shut, so she’ll be alright apart from the agonising pain,” he said.

“Do people think Amy put Jax up to it?” Sebastian asked.

“Not if she plays her cards right.”

“Do you think she will?”

“Nah.”

Sebastian nodded. He respected Hadrian’s insight, if not his attitude. He agreed. Amy would only incriminate herself further.

“You said you wanted to be my mate, Hadrian.”

“Yeah?”

“As a favour to your mate then: resolve the conflict, help Amy.”

Hadrian scratched one of his healing cuts. “Yeah, no worries. You’re a manipulative bugger, starboy, even if it is for the greater good.” He eyed Sebastian for a reaction through his wounds. There wasn’t one. “That was a compliment, by the way.”

“Thanks. My name’s Sebastian. I don’t think I’ve introduced myself yet.” Sebastian extended his hand. Hadrian took it and shook it firmly.

“Hadrian Chanda Smith.”

Pauly, Jax and Tanaka all exchanged looks. What had those two talked about when they’d been left alone.

“It’s been a pleasure, Sebastian. Most of the people we get are so damn boring. Which is why I’d recommend leaving town now. I don’t think I can quell another incident.”

“We’ll need bearings.”

Hadrian bared all his teeth in what was probably a smile. “No problem. There are three outposts near and South, but the biggest one will be the best one. Go one hundred and seventy seven degrees South from this town’s boundary. It was ten days travel for us, less for you probably. Feel free to take the oasis water.”

“Thanks, Hadrian. It’s been a pleasure.”

“Likewise.”

They filled up their water at the oasis, checked all their equipment, and left. Before Jax’s violent outburst they would have left to a fanfare. Instead, they beat a quiet and ignoble retreat. It suited Sebastian fine. Crowds and attention he hated, although he never let them phase him. Against all common sense and better judgement, however, he loved the desert.

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Desert Steel Chapter 16

-Awakening

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Sebastian awoke with a thumping headache. His mind was a tempest of incoherent events. There’d been a… fight, and they’d… lost? No, he’d lost, but they’d won. The memories came rushing back in a flood, and Sebastian felt relief. Not because of the victory, although that pleased him. He was relieved because his mind was still working. His memories still there. His intelligence and memory were his prize possessions. He didn’t know if he could handle losing them.

The room was pleasingly dark and cool. He was reclined in some sort of armchair covered with a plush down duvet.  He did a brief check of his injuries. His nose had been set, and was held in place with duct tape. Sebastian touched it tenderly with his left hand. It seemed to be set straight. Sebastian pulled his right hand out from under the covers. His ring and pinkie had been taped together. The hand looked normal otherwise. He elected not to touch it. Looking at his hand drew his attention to his arms, which were bruised all the way up to the elbow. He traced his face with his hands. His lip was split but scabbing over. His face was swollen, his left eye still sealed shut. He hoped his eye would open and his depth perception return before he needed it.

“You should see the other guy.”

The voice surprised him, and he couldn’t stop himself from flinching. A quick search turned up Hadrian, who was slouched at the sofa. His arm was up along the top of the sofa. In the murky darkness, Sebastian took a while to see the arm was in a splint. He’d only recognised Hadrian by his body. His face looked like a misshapen tumour it was so swollen and bloodied.

Sebastian was silent for a moment, a whole queue of questions battling to be asked. At last he settled for:

“What time is it?”

“Evening,” Hadrian said. He smiled, or at least Sebastian thought he did, the swelling was obscuring. “Time for the after-fight party.”

Sebastian, who hated parties with a passion, snuggled deeper into his comfy chair. “Where you would normally be?”

Hadrian laughed. “With a titty in one hand and a beer in the other. Toast of the town. Instead, here I am, in a dark room with a bum arm. Oh how the mighty have fallen.”

Sebastian grunted noncommittally to this. He changed the subject. “It’s entertainment, right?”

Hadrian laughed again. He had a relaxed air of extreme confidence. “Yeah, you’re a sharp one. Big money, too. Kids lap it up, their parents shovel out the cash. They pay a lot to give their darlings one slice of joy in this damned desert. We used to do staged stuff with our own team, like in wrestling, but it got dry. So we switched to genuine fights with strangers.”

“Do you take bets?”

“Yeah. Makes up about half our revenue, I think. You lot were hundred to one against.”

“Good job to have,” Sebastian observed.

“Definitely. I get the good cuts of food to keep my muscle mass up, and the chicks that are here can’t keep their paws off me.”

“When you win.”

“Whenever. You seeing this body? Except, of course, when my face is this much of a mess.”

“Sorry.”

Hadrian laughed again. “No worries, mate. That’s showbiz.”

The phrasing caught Sebastian’s ear. As did the accent. “Are you Australian?”

“Yeah. Are you a kiwi?”

“Yes.”

“Sheep-shagger.”

“Fuckin’ Aussie.”

Hadrian gave another peal of laughter. His laugh sounded like wind chimes in a gale. Sebastian decided his guard was far enough down.

“Do you really kill the losers?” he asked with practised disinterest.

“Nah. We just say that to get you riled up.”

Sebastian nodded. His smile was smug and self-satisfied. There was silence for a moment.

“What if I’d said we did?” Hadrian asked pointedly. “What’d you do?”

“Hrm.” Sebastian replied. He became lost in thought. The dull thump of party music permeated the thick walls.

“Well that’s comforting,” Hadrian said, before erupting into another round of laughter.

Sebastian gifted Hadrian a weak smile. In truth, he didn’t know what he’d have done. He didn’t have the moral assuredness of Tanaka, nor the moral apathy of Jax, nor even the moral cowardice of Pauly.

“So where are we?”

“A cellar,” Hadrian replied. “Nice and cool and quiet. You want to know what sucks about injuries out here though?”

“Sure.”

“No ice packs, so swelling takes forever to go down. The world is robbed of my beautiful face for far too long.”

Sebastian, who thought that Hadrian’s face, unlike his body, was distinctly average, said nothing.

“Your boys will be out there enjoying the party too. I’m sure Mister ‘Rightning’ is out there stealing all my girls.” Hadrian’s voice wasn’t bitter. His jokes were gently mocking instead of mean spirited.

Sebastian’s thoughts turned to his team for the first time since he’d woken up. He felt a guilty twinge.

“My guy get his knife back?”

“Braveheart? Yeah. All weapons were returned. Yours are on the table there.” He indicated with his good arm.

Sebastian saw that they were, both his knife and revolver. He leant over, pleased to note his head didn’t hurt from this, and picked up his gun. It was loaded.

“You’re kinda lax with security aren’t you? It’ll bite you in the arse one day.”

“What do you mean?” Hadrian asked.

“You keep us in a cell with only one guard, who fell asleep. Which can lead to… incidents. You held us at gunpoint with rifles pressed right up against us. With those long barrels do you have any idea how easy they are to grab and disarm? And after having beaten me seven shades of blue, you’re sitting here unarmed while I have a loaded revolver.”

Hadrian waved away the concerns, completely unfazed. “Nah, mate, no worries. You seem a good sort.”

Sebastian was astonished. He felt embarrassed for even thinking of these points. Then he burst out laughing. The mirth rasped against his dry throat.

“Good luck, man,” he said once his chuckles had abated.

“I don’t need luck. I make my own.”

Sebastian managed to quell his amusement this time. “You could at least have shifts for the guards.”

Hadrian shrugged his perfect shoulders. “Erica’s the one who takes care of that kind of stuff.”

Sebastian cycled back through his returned memory. “That the black chick?”

“Yeah.”

“Prison guard’s got to be the worst job in the group, and she seems to have something against Amy.”

“Not my problem. I don’t worry about that sort of things.”

“Aren’t you the leader?”

“Obviously. Alpha male numero uno.”

“Then it is your problem.”

It was Hadrian’s turn to be non-committal and silent. Sebastian decided he’d done his good deed for the day.

“I’m thirsty and hungry. Do we injured just languish back here with nothing?”

Hadrian’s pulpy face shifted to what may have been a smile. “Course not.” He chucked two objects that had sat by the foot of the sofa over to Sebastian. Sebastian just managed to catch them with his good hand. The first was a can of beer, the second something soft and warm wrapped in cloth.

“Careful, I’m injured!”

Hadrian ignored this protest. “It’s only room temperature, but it’s better than if it was left out in the desert. It would be boiling if we did that. Enjoy it. This is what being a pro fighter can get you.”

Sebastian unwrapped the second package. It was a home-made pie, maybe even made in Terra Deserta from locally grown ingredients. He took a bite. The crust was irregular and overly thick, the meat unrecognisable, and the gravy lukewarm. It tasted like heaven. His face split into an irrepressible smile.

“I know right?” Hadrian said. “It’s shitty by Earth standards, but it’s ambrosia over here.”

“Mmhmm.” Sebastian agreed. He took another ravenous bite.

“Y’know,” Hadrian said. “I think that’s the first time I’ve seen the smile reach your eyes.”

Sebastian’s smile didn’t waver, but the bombproof shutters slammed down in his eyes. He took his third bite, finishing off the pie. “Tasty.”

Hadrian smiled cryptically. “I do know why Erica and Amy are fighting,” he said, changing the subject.

“Really? Why?”

“Steve and Erica are an item. Erica is very jealous, Amy got a mite too friendly when she and Steve shared a shift.”

Sebastian gave a smug smirk, then asked, “Is ‘too friendly’ a euphemism for…?”

“Nah. All she did was chat with him. Which you’d do if you’re on a six-hour guard shift.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

Hadrian shrugged. “To show you I’m not oblivious.”

“What do you care?”

“You seem a cool dude. I don’t want you to think I’m an idiot. I’d like to be your mate.”

Sebastian stared, deadpan. Finally, he said “Good one,” although he didn’t seem to mean it.

Hadrian gave the same cryptic smile as he had before. “Drink your beer. Let’s have our own little party right here.”

Sebastian cracked open his can. “Cheers.”

“Cheers.”

He’d just taken his first sip when screams and shouts rode in over the distant music. Both he and Hadrian burst to their feet. Sebastian’s twisted knee ached, but not badly. They exchanged glances, and rushed out the door.

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Desert Steel Chapter 15

-The Fight Part 3 (Raijin)

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There was a hushed silence as Tanaka entered the ring. In part it was because of the impressive but disturbing display the last fight had been. It was also, however, because of Tanaka’s demeanour. The cheery and confident delinquent with the sunny smile was gone. A wrathful god, marked with blood and spit, had emerged. Hadrian felt a terrible unease in his stomach. He knew instinctively that this man was different. His men had sensed it too. They stood around, unsure whether to start the round. He nodded to the Dwayne, the announcer. Dwayne hesitantly raised the megaphone up.

“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! IT’S THE FINAL ROUND!! GIVE IT UP FOR LORD SHIVA AND RAIIIIIIIIIIIIIIJINNNNNN!!!!!”

Adil rang the bell.

Tanaka had had a whole plan laid out for his fight. He was going to announce to the crowd that he was the holy lance of justice. He was going to give Hadrian one minute to attack him, before he would take him down in one hit. He was going to tell Hadrian this on the stage for the whole crowd to hear. His final move would have had a grand declaration, and been as showy as possible. He discarded that plan.

He was on Hadrian in an instant with a flurry of blows. His fists were blurs, spamming Hadrian’s defences until they broke through. He varied the attacks and their angles. His body jived and twisted, dodging any attempted counters. Hadrian tried to strike but he was beaten back under the cumulative weight of the blows. He couldn’t tell how many times he was being punched. It was like trying to punch a cloud while dodging lightning strikes.

He gave up on punches, and went for a kick instead. Tanaka leapt over the leg and delivered a spinning jump kick of his own. It nearly unscrewed Hadrian’s head. He went down and Tanaka straddled him. Tanaka began pounding Hadrian’s head ferociously, alternating between fist and elbow strikes. Hadrian tried struggle at first, but his strength was waning.

Adil rang the bell without being prompted by Hadrian. Tanaka disengaged immediately. He wasn’t out for vengeance. He was out to win, and he needed to stay inside the rules.

Hadrian got up and strode over to Adil. His face was a mess, but his displeasure shone through.

“The crowd will notice that round wasn’t as long as the others,” he said. He could feel Tanaka’s red-rimmed eyes burning into the back of his head.

Adil looked worried. “But the fight!”

“The fight is lost, no matter how you delay it. We’ve unleashed a demon.”

“Should we forfeit?”

“No. This is the climax. I’ll just have to face him.”

Adil nodded, and rang the bell once Hadrian was back in position. Tanaka didn’t charge in this time. He waited, his arms raised in a unorthodox guard. Sebastian’s spit was smeared across his face like war paint. Hadrian charged in, swinging a big haymaker.

Tanaka caught the outstretched arm, locked it, and brought his elbow down. Hadrian’s arm cracked and bent the wrong way. The crunch was sickening. He howled and collapsed, clutching the broken arm. Tanaka let him fall, and walked over to his corner.

Jax nudged Sebastian with his foot.

“Hey,” he said.

Sebastian groaned but stayed unconscious. Jax shook him.

“Hey,” he said, louder.

Sebastian’s eyes fluttered open.

“My head hurts,” he groaned, his eyes misty. Then they focussed sharply, and scanned the area. He managed to see Jax looking down on him, not unkindly, and Pauly, who was smiling with unfettered relief, before a hot spike of pain seared his brain. He squeezed his eyes shut until the pain passed.

“I think you need to see this,” Jax said.

Sebastian allowed himself to be helped up into a sitting position. Tanaka was approaching to their corner of the ring. Hadrian… Hadrian was lying on the ground, his arm clearly broken and his face a pulpy mess. Relief washed over Sebastian, followed by surprise. Tanaka’s appearance was shocking. His fists were red with blood. His orange-blonde hair with the black roots was slicked back, looking like a flame with a black heart. His eyes were red-rimmed from crying, and were now ferocious and stern. Blood and phlegm was smeared on his forehead, nose and cheeks in an inverted Y. Most shocking of all was his face. The ever-cheery, open, friendly expression was gone. In its place was a cold and dead mask.

Without a word, Tanaka prostrated himself to them, first kneeling and then bending forward until his forehead touched the ground. He held the position while speaking to them, his head still lowered. Hadrian’s men, who’d been entering the ring, hung back confused.

“I, Tanaka Daisuke, beg your forgiveness! I treated things like a game and did not consider the consequences!” he shouted.

Sebastian smiled wryly, or at least thought he did under his injuries. Tanaka was earnest, at least.

“Why are you talking so weird,” Jax asked. “Just say sorry like a normal person.”

Tanaka stayed down, his face hidden.

“And yeah, you were a complete fucking idiot. You ran into an ambush, shouting your head off. You tried shoot someone with a pistol that was too far away. You thought a fight to the death was some kind of silly fucking joke.”

Sebastian smiled and let Jax blow off his steam. The rant grew in colourful curses before he cut Jax off with a wave of his hand. It was all he could manage but Jax went silent.

“Anything you’ve got to say?” he asked Pauly.

Pauly scratched his head. “Nah. I think Jax covered it and then some.”

Sebastian felt sleepy. He quelled the sensation. He had to get this right.

“Tanaka, wipe the stain off your face… But never forget why you got it.” He then realised Tanaka was second-language English and probably didn’t understand the symbolism. “You’re forgiven.”

Tanaka’s head shot up, grinning ear to ear. “I beat the shit out of him, didn’t I?”

“Hell yeah you did!” Pauly whooped.

Tanaka jumped up onto his corner pole and raised one finger to the sky. “I, Tanaka Daisuke, am Raijin, the holy lance of justice! I will be a hero one day!”

The announcer took his cue.

“THE NEW CHAMPION BY DECISIVE KO… THE RAGIN’ RAIJIN, THE HOLY LANCE OF JUSTICE…. TANAKAAAAAAAA DAISUUUKEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!”

The crowd cheered.

Sebastian gave up, and let sleep envelop him.

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Desert Steel Chapter 14

-The Fight Part 2 (Stubbornness)

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“ROUND THREEE! SHIVA VERSUS…. THE STAR. STUDDED. STRANGERRRRRRRRRR!!!!!”

In this type of situation, Sebastian would normally feel that primal keening for danger. He didn’t this time, maybe because he saw there was no hope of victory. Sebastian raised his guard. He drew on his crystal clear memories of martial arts manuals he’d read on the internet. They dissolved away when he got hit in the face, hard. Sebastian smiled wryly, and jumped back. Just as when against Jax, Hadrian charged in, keeping the intensity up. Unlike Jax, Sebastian held him back with a low, straight kick to the hip that killed the momentum. Sebastian let out a deep breath, for what felt like the first time in ages. Then he stepped in hard and fast, and gave a punch that stretched his reach to his limits. He was taller than Hadrian, and had long arms, so he could use his reach to his advantage. Hadrian ducked under it, stepping in himself. He landed a counter that made Sebastian’s teeth clack together.

Sebastian staggered back into the ropes. He didn’t bother to raise a guard, and instead tried get some breath back. He calculated correctly, because Hadrian had lost interest and turned back to the crowd.

“You don’t have to try too hard, you know.”

Sebastian turned and looked down on Tanaka’s round face. “Huh?”

“Just go down in the next phase,” Tanaka said. “I’ll handle him.”

Sebastian shook his head. “I’m never going to give less than everything in a fight for my life. And neither should you,”

If Tanaka had a response Sebastian never heard it, because he was grabbed and lifted away from the ropes. Hadrian had returned to the fight. Sebastian was hopeless in Hadrian’s iron grip as he was thrown down into a suplex. Knowing this, he tensed himself and rode out the impact. He rolled away the instant the grip loosened. He got to his feet unsteadily. Hadrian was up in a gymnastic kip-up. Sebastian put up his guard again. Hadrian changed tactics, and started launching high kicks. Sebastian tried block one, but it blew right threw his defence and cracked him across the cheek. He gave up on defending, and instead launched another one of his long reach punches. On only one leg, Hadrian couldn’t dodge. Sebastian’s fist smacked him in the jaw.

Sebastian felt a warm glow of victory. This was the first time Hadrian had been dealt a proper blow. It vanished as Hadrian’s kick connected, sending him tumbling. He landed face to face with Tanaka.

“Just stay down,” Tanaka said. He wasn’t concerned for Sebastian. Just cheery and confident.

Sebastian shook his head and got back up. The world spun. Things weren’t looking good. He bit down on his cheek, focussing on the pain. The world stabilised.  Sebastian didn’t bother with his guard, it was worthless. Hadrian was weakest when launching an attack. This was going to be a good old-fashioned slugfest.

Hadrian launched a hook, and Sebastian fired back another long reaching punch. Both made their marks. Hadrian’s crushed Sebastian’s ear and sent him reeling sideways. Sebastian’s hit Hadrian’s cheek bone. Sebastian’s hand stung like crazy. He hypothesised he’d broken a few bones, but he ignored it. He threw another punch, the other hand, same style. It connected again, opposite cheekbone. At the same time Hadrian’s fist pulverised Sebastian’s nose. Blood gushed down over his mouth and onto his chest. Sebastian ignored it. Another round of blows were exchanged. Sebastian’s lip was split, Hadrian’s face paint smeared off on one side. Another round. Sebastian left eye was bruised. Hadrian’s cheek bone was suffused with a purple hue. He was beginning to show damage. Hadrian broke off from the fight, and moved over to his corner again. Sebastian made no move to follow him. His left eye was swollen shut, his nose broken and bleeding, his lip split and bleeding, and his right hand broken.

The bell rang. It was the end of the round but Sebastian stayed standing, for fear he’d never be able to get back up again if he sat down.

“Just tap out.”

Sebastian turned to Tanaka. “No.”

“It’s just a fight.” Tanaka whined. He was no longer calm and confident.

Sebastian leant over the rings. His face was hideous, and not just because if its wounds. “It’s real life. It’s my life. It’s our lives. It’s never ‘just a fight’.”

Sebastian returned his attention back to Hadrian. His depth perception was gone and he was dizzy. He got ready for another round of fighting. The bell rang.

Hadrian had had enough of the slugfest, because he attacked straight away. He delivered an eye-wateringly fast high kick that attacked from Sebastian’s blinded side. Dazed as he was, Sebastian didn’t even react as the kick hit his temple dead on. Sebastian stumbled. His vision was greying out. As he half-fell, half-walked, he blacked out several times, only to wake himself up. By sheer miracle, he managed to plant a foot to stabilise himself. He placed it oddly though and as his body weight came upon it his knee twisted. The pain kick-started his consciousness. He came rushing back, and managed to put a steadying hand on the ropes. His head felt like it was in a vice.

“You… you don’t need to stay up,” Tanaka pleaded to him. Sebastian ignored him, feeling guilty about exploiting Tanaka’s sympathetic nature.

The whole world buzzing, Sebastian got back on two feet and weaved a path to Hadrian. He placed his hands on Hadrian’s shoulders. He looked like he was about to collapse and Hadrian didn’t attack. In fact, he looked mildly worried. Without warning, Sebastian headbutted Hadrian as hard as he could. The sudden movement of his head felt eerie and wrong. As soon as he heard the crunch of bone on cartilage, a wave of nausea overwhelmed him. He staggered away from Hadrian, who was clutching his nose, and dry heaved over the side of the ring.

Hadrian’s nose appeared to be broken, although it wasn’t bleeding. He touched it, winced, and then exchanged worried glances with the cowbell man. His opponent was deteriorating. He seemed to be clinging to the fight by sheer stubbornness alone. This was going far beyond the parameters he wanted in a fight. He was saved from indecision by the Japanese captive banging on the ring.

“Forfeit,” he yelled. “He’s done.”

The crowd started booing again, as with the last forfeit. It was less than before, however. This fight had been getting far more brutal and far less pretty.

Hadrian was relieved. He’d been losing control of the fight.

“No.” The words cut through all other noise. They were unyielding. The bloodied, battered man was back on his feet, fists up.

“You’ve forfeited,” Hadrian said, in disbelief.

“He doesn’t get to decide that. You don’t get to decide that.” The man’s words were slurred from concussion and blood. The crowd started to cheer, a little hesitantly. “I alone decide. I’m not leaving this ring until I can’t stand.”

Hadrian was trapped, he realised. The crowd was getting behind the man’s resilience. He couldn’t force him off the ring. He just had to end this fast. He nodded to Adil, his man with the cowbell. He didn’t want it said he gave the man no warning. The bell rang, and he planted his hardest punch into the man’s head.

For Sebastian, it was as though the world had ended with a clap of thunder. He was unconscious the whole way down, and didn’t wake up until he’d bounced twice on the plywood floor. He was on his stomach, staring at his corner. He pushed himself up on his knees, every part of his body rebelling. His eyes met with Tanaka’s once again. Tanaka was as white as a sheet, all his confidence and cheer gone. He was blinking back tears.

“Just stay done. Please. I can win. You don’t need to.”

A whole speech bobbed up out of Sebastian’s magma lake. About how he had to, because he couldn’t trust Tanaka to win. About how Tanaka’s lack of seriousness meant he hadn’t earnt the right to win for his team. But he didn’t have the energy, and he felt these words had already been communicated to Tanaka.

What Tanaka needed to understand was the emotion behind them.

Sebastian spat in Tanaka’s face, a mix of phlegm, blood and a small touch of bile. It landed squarely on his forehead and ran down his nose and onto his cheeks. He recoiled in shock and revulsion.

Sebastian, using the ropes as support, got back onto his feet, and planted them.

Hadrian observed his hand in mute amazement. He’d been going for the temple, the softest part of the skull, but the man had turned and taken it on the brow. As a result, he was still standing and Hadrian’s hand had broken. Hadrian didn’t know if the move had been intentional or instinctive. He didn’t know which made the man more dangerous. Whatever. He’d been careless. This time, he’d put the guy down for good.

Sebastian didn’t bother throwing a punch as Hadrian approached. He was far too unbalanced. He did try shove him away when Hadrian grabbed him, but the strength was gone from his arms. He fell helplessly when Hadrian pulled him over. Once he felt the pressure around his throat, he finally realised what was going on. He punched up at Hadrian’s chest, the hits awkward because of the angle. Over and over again he punched. His fists bounced off Hadrian’s chest. The grey tunnel returned to his vision, closing up until his view was a needle point of light. Then that too winked out. His arms finally fell.

Hadrian breathed out a relieved breath and dropped the limp body. The man had fought until the very end. It was crazy- the man’s final punches had been weak and ineffectual- but for a moment Hadrian had feared he would lose.

“WHAT A MATCH! GIVE IT UP FOR LORD SHIVA AND THE STAR STUDDED STRANGER!!!”

The crowd applauded as Sebastian was lowered down from the ring. The wheeze as he breathed through a broken nose and blood was the only sign that his collapsed form wasn’t dead. Tanaka knelt reverently by his side. He still hadn’t wiped the spit from his face. It sat red and vivid against his light olive skin. He wiped tears from his red-ringed eyes and ran his hand through his hair. The combination of grease and sweat slicked it back, keeping it out of his eyes. He was determined. He was serious.

He stepped into the ring.

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Desert Steel Chapter 13

-The Fight Part 1

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One of the guards, who was wearing a Bedouin style robe, pulled a cowbell out of the folds. He rang it with his knuckle. To the roar of the crowd, Hadrian, or Lord Shiva as he was known, charged forwards. Pauly, slow on his best days, was overwhelmed by the noise. He didn’t even twitch when Hadrian’s meaty bicep ploughed into his face. Pauly was taken right of his feet, his legs kicking up and his neck straining under the force of the blow. He landed on his back on the plywood floor, which boomed under the impact. It sounded worse than it felt, barely. Hadrian bounced against the cables a few times before jumping up and dropping his elbow into Pauly’s gut. Fortunately, Pauly’s dense muscles absorbed the majority of the hit. He managed to scramble up and escape to the corner of the ring. Hadrian got up and paraded around in front of the crowd.

Face stinging, stomach aching, Pauly realised he needed to fight back somehow. He threw a clumsy and telegraphed punch. Hadrian ducked under the swinging arm, popped up behind Pauly, and booted him in the back. Pauly was sent staggering into the ropes. They were still hard and unpleasant despite their plastic wrapping. He tried another punch, this one an uppercut. Hadrian merely leant back, watching the fist sail by. He launched a flurry of punches that knocked the wind out of Pauly’s lungs. Wheezing, Pauly attempted to charge him down, but was instead neatly tripped. He was sent sprawling onto the unpadded plywood for the second time.

On the ringside, Sebastian watched with dimming hopes. Hadrian was muscular, which had been obvious and intimidating from the start. He was gymnastic, which was further discouragement. But against the group’s most muscular fighter, Hadrian was also revealing himself to be fast. He dodged around Pauly’s swings with unhurried ease. Sebastian saw Jax’s and his own odds dwindling. They lacked muscle, and he now knew their speed would not fill the gap. Sebastian looked over at Tanaka. He was watching without a single sign of concern. But this same man had walked into an ambush shouting out that he’d be a hero. Was he delusional?

Hadrian climbed up to the second cable on his corner, sighted Pauly’s recumbent figure over his shoulder, and rallied the crowd.

SHIVA! SHIVA! SHIVA!

On the third, climatic cry, he leapt backwards, falling and twisting. The crowd watched in breathless silence. Hadrian landed with a resonating slam, his shoulder cracking Pauly’s ribs. The crowd erupted with cheers. Pauly’s hands scrabbled weakly at Hadrian’s chest. Hadrian looked at Pauly, looked at the crowd, and nodded to the bell holder. The nod was subtle, but Sebastian noticed it. The bell man rapped the bell once, and Hadrian disengaged, striding back to his corner. Pauly, dragging in each breath with agonising effort, rolled over and crawled over to the cables. By upper body strength alone, he pulled himself to his feet.

“What..? Is happ… enning?” he managed. His ribs sent shards of pain shooting up his side when he breathed.

“End of the round, I think,” Sebastian replied. “More importantly, how are you?”

Pauly managed a weak but brave smile. “I’ve been better. I think he’s broken my ribs.”

Sebastian nodded. “Just cracked, I think.”

“What’s… The difference?”

Sebastian didn’t tell him a lose bone chip or broken end could puncture an organ, something that would be certain death out here. It was a concern Pauly didn’t need. “Not much. Listen, your punches are pointless. They’re slow, and they’re obvious. He may be the peak of the male aesthetic mountain, but your arms and chest are bigger, and stronger. So try grab him. One good grip might be all you need. After all, he’s showboating. Got it?”

Pauly nodded just as the cowbell was rung again and Hadrian came out of his corner. Hadrian hopped around a bit, showcasing some fancy footwork that was wasted on Pauly. He then threw a right hook like a cobra strike. Pauly swung both his arms wildly, but they missed out on gripping anything. This gave Hadrian an opening to rush past Pauly and come flying back in a dropkick. Pauly stayed up and tried grab the now grounded Hadrian but he rolled away. Hadrian wound up and then sprung up onto his feet. Two more grabs missed Hadrian, who danced between them. Finally, Pauly got a grip, his thumb hooking under Hadrian’s armpit. He consolidated his hold, his left hand grabbing Hadrian’s side. Pauly froze.

He twisted his head to look back at his team.

“What do I do now?” he asked. Hadrian politely refrained from breaking free or striking back. The three on the side shrugged, and exchanged looks.

Jax hazarded a cautious “lift him?”

Pauly shifted his left hand grip to the inside of Hadrian’s thigh, and strained. His ribs screamed in protest but he ignored them. ‘I am desert steel’ he thought, his mantra. Hadrian’s feet lifted off the ground. Pauly’s biceps bulged. He got Hadrian up to his chest. Hadrian remained unresisting. With one last gargantuan effort, Pauly heaved Hadrian up above his head. A line of pain seared his side and he almost lost his balance but he managed to steady himself. His two arms were held up in a v shape, his elbows locked, and on them rested Hadrian. Pauly froze.

He twisted his head to look back at his team.

“What now?” he hissed. His team shrugged again.

“Drop him hard?” Sebastian offered.

Pauly went to do just that, moving his arms forwards to chuck Hadrian onto the floor, or maybe out of the ring. The weight above him shifted. Suddenly, his right arm was jerked backwards, while his left side was still pushing forwards. His forward leg twisted, and he fell down hard, a weight on his back driving him down harder. The floor bounced, the unsecured centre of the plywood flexing in and then out, acting like a drum. He tried get back up but the weight on his back was immovable. His right arm was being pulled back painfully, his shoulder felt ready to pop out of the socket. His ribs screamed.

“THERRRRRRRRRRRRREEEE IT IS FOLKS! THE LYNCHPIN AERIAL REVERSAL!!!!!! GIVE HIM A BIG HAND!!!”

Pauly’s shoulder was near dislocated to thunderous applause.

From Sebastian’s viewpoint, the move was a lot clearer. Hadrian had wrapped himself around Pauly’s right arm and fallen backwards. The weight shift had sent Pauly over, unable to break his fall. Then he’d pulled the right arm into a painful lock. It sounded almost bland when simplified and described, but the move had been poetry. The gravity-defying twist to shift the balance. The graceful descent. The forceful lock. The fluency between actions. The sensual flexing of his perfect body in action. There’d been an undercurrent to the action, however. Hadrian had stopped playing around, and gone for the kill. He was controlling the progression of the matches. Drawing them out was going to be even more difficult than Sebastian had initially anticipated.

“I give, I give!” Pauly screamed.

“Tap the floor, hard.” Hadrian ordered, in a near whisper. With his blown eardrum, Pauly almost didn’t hear it, but fortunately for his shoulder he did. He slammed the ring floor with two more dramatic and resounding thumps. The pressure came off his shoulder, to his immense relief. The cowbell rang once again. Hadrian got up and started riling up the crowd again. Pauly just dragged himself off the ring, collapsing at his group’s feet.

“You did well!” Sebastian said, having to shout over the megaphone that was blaring out the victory announcement.

“I did jack shit,” Pauly puffed. “He was just playing around.”

Jax was shaking his limbs in warm up. “I’m fucked, guys. I can’t fight fair.”

Sebastian nudged Amy. She glared at him. “What?” she hissed, the words acid.

“What happens if one of us cheats? Goes for a low blow?”

“You’re shot dead where you stand.”

Sebastian turned back to Jax. “I think you’d better fight fair,” he observed wryly.

“Fuck, man,” Jax said, before using the elasticity of the cables to jump into the ring. “I fucking hate getting the shit kicked out of me. It’s never fun.”

Hadrian was circling back round the ring, still hyping the crowd up. He spun on nimble feet and raised his guard. Jax half-heartedly did the same.

“ROUND TWO!!! SHIVA VERSUS RATMAAAAANNN!” the megaphone man rumbled. The cowbell was rung again and Hadrian darted forwards.

Regardless of what Jax had said, he was actually a decent fighter. His punches had good form, and he was fast, far faster than Pauly. The problem was that where Jax was good, Hadrian was better. Jax hopped around, and then went in for a left hook. Hadrian dodged, landed a stunning uppercut, ducked under a reflexive straight, and then gave a body shot that lifted Jax full off the ground. Jax manoeuvred back, trying to find space, but Hadrian kept the gap closed. Jax tried drive him back with a quick succession of jabs, but Hadrian batted them aside. He double faked his approach, and then gave a direct punch to the face. It was like getting hit head on by a steam locomotive. Jax reeled back, dropping his guard, and Hadrian fell back.

Sebastian watched with growing suspicion. Twice now Hadrian had given openings. He was either confident or stupid. Or the fight was about the entertainment, not the victory. As the fight continued, this third possibility was growing ever more likely. Sebastian didn’t let it bother him. The reason for the openings didn’t matter, and his turn was soon approaching by the look of things. He checked on Tanaka, to see if the comprehensive pounding was fazing him, but he was still unworried.

Jax waited for his vision to stop blurring from tears before moving away from the ropes. He was moving sluggishly now, and his head felt both oddly clear and foggy at the same time. He took a step in and sidestepped, just in time to dodge a punch that hummed as it passed. He stepped back again. Hadrian didn’t approach at first but when Jax continued to hang back he moved in. Jax leapt back, felt the cable dig into his back and dived and rolled just in time to escape a colossal onslaught. The crowd began to boo this cowardice. Jax ignored it as he backed up in the ring, his face still stinging. Hadrian was ignoring him for now, instead addressing the crowd again. A chant got started somewhere in the back eastern row, and spread.

KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL.

Hadrian wiped his nose with his thumb and dropped back into his guard. Jax body tensed up, ready to leap away.  Hadrian came in to the left and Jax spun out right. There was a dense thump and his thigh felt like it’d just run into a log. Jax went down. Hadrian had faked him out with punches and then delivered a low kick that had numbed his leg and thrown him down. Fucker! Jax tried to get up but Hadrian strolled over and gripped him by the armpit and side. In an imitation of Pauly’s move that mocked it by being superior to it in every way, Hadrian heaved the thrashing, cursing Jax into the air, held him there for dramatic effect, and then slammed him onto the plywood.

Jax’s back took most of the force, but his head still whipped back and hit the floor hard. At that point Jax had had enough. He was looking up at Hadrian, who stood wide legged and confident. His eyes alighted on Hadrian’s unprotected crotch, and his booted feet which were lying beneath it. He rose halfway, seeing blood.

Sebastian saw the change in Jax’s eyes, and he saw the obvious target of Jax’s rage. He hammered on the floor desperately. Jax and Hadrian both froze and stared. Sebastian waved his arms parallel to the ground. He remembered seeing it down by referee’s in some sports, and he figured it looked legitimate.

“Forfeit,” he said. “We give up this round.”

The cowbell man looked at Hadrian, who shrugged. The cowbell was rung. The crowd burst out into even bigger boos. The megaphone man started announcing the result and attempted to console them.

Jax got up, furious, and stormed over to his corner.

“I wasn’t fucking done,” he said.

“You were about to go for his balls,” Sebastian said. “You were going to be shot dead.”

“Whatever,” Jax said, although he knew Sebastian was right.

“Wait,” Sebastian said, the ghost of a smile on his face. “Don’t tell me you were thinking: ‘If I hurt him bad enough then my team can win the next round and live, even if I die’.” Sebastian said, in a modestly good affectation of a Boer accent. His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “Jax, are you… Tsundere?”

Jax’s face relit with new rage. “No, I’m fucking Yandere because I’ll kill you shits!”

“How do you know that term?” Sebastian asked. “Could you be an ‘anime watching freak’, to quote yourself?”

Jax face transitioned from angry flush to blush. “So what if I do?”

Sebastian and Tanaka burst out laughing.

“Wha-what do you watch?” Sebastian managed between giggles.

Jax blushed even deeper. “Moe Moe Bubble Girls,” he admitted.

Tanaka’s and Sebastian’s laughter graduated into body convulsing guffaws. The image of a neo-nazi watching moe girls was too bizarre and hilarious. Jax stood at the corner of the ring impotently, his fists clenched. Sebastian recovered himself and jumped up into the ring. He patted Jax on the shoulder.

“I needed that, mate,” he said, and Jax softened a little.

Jax dropped down, leaving Sebastian alone with Hadrian in the ring.

Sebastian raised his fists. There was just one objective in his mind. After seeing Hadrian’s display, it wasn’t winning. He needed to make Tanaka take the fight seriously, one way or another.

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