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.
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.
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?”
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.”
“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.”
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.