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.”
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?”
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?”
“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?”
“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.
“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.”
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.