Chapter 1: Campionem
The warning buzzer echoed throughout the block, and the men looked up from their afternoon pursuits in wariness and curiosity. The door to the outside rarely opened during the week, and the event could mean an amusing diversion or a threatening development...or both, depending on your perspective.
From his position at a table with his back to the stone wall, Armie was one of the few men who didn’t react. He continued to polish his armor, his fingers pushing the blackened cloth in slow circles across the scuffed leather. The scent of turpentine tickled his nostrils and he breathed shallowly through his mouth so as not to inhale the fumes too deeply.
The buzzer sounded a second time, and was followed by the predictable flickering of lights as the electricity in the block surged to unlock the main door. It was another thirty seconds before it slowly slid open.
Now Armie did glance up. Commander Brolin stepped into the entry cell and looked around. His observant blue eyes scanned the men, and then he smacked his rod on the metal screen to his left.
“Move back, Patel,” he snapped. “Other side of the line, you know the drill.”
Dev muttered something under his breath. Then he slid back on his bench a few feet until he was on the far side of the thick red paint that marked a semi-circle on the cement floor surrounding the entrance.
Brolin looked over the other men. His eyes caught Armie’s, and he smirked as Armie stretched his leg out so that his left foot was just over the line. Brolin rolled his eyes and turned to the open door behind him.
“All right, get them in here,” he said.
Seven bodies, their chains clanking and rattling, appeared in the entry cell. Lieutenant McConaughey crowded in behind them, prodding them forward with his rod, and the door slid shut.
Brolin unlocked the gate and swung it wide. The prisoners shuffled forward until they were standing in a tight circle in the center of the common space. McConaughey closed the gate and the locks slid home with a bang that echoed off of the stone walls and floor.
“Welcome home, boys,” McConaughey said, his drawl accentuating his mocking tone.
Brolin began speaking in an authoritative voice. “Gentlemen, this is the common area of the block. Meals are served here. You will spend most of your time in here, in your cells, or in the training arena. The door you just came through is the only way out of the compound, and most of you will never have reason to use it. That honor is reserved for those who have earned their freedom, an achievement most of you have no hope of ever seeing.”
As the Commander read out the rules — no fighting except in the Arena or in training, eating only during meal times and only in the common area, obeying every command given by an officer, and so on — most of the men seated around the room watched with interest. They scrutinized the new arrivals, sizing them up, looking for threats. Armie knew some would relish the sight of fresh blood and a fresh challenge. Others would be nervous someone new would prove to be their downfall.
Neither of those thoughts crossed his mind. He had no doubt that he could best anyone he came across. With twelve years and two-hundred-and-sixty-seven wins to his name, he had seen it all.
After finishing the bit of armor he was working on, he took a moment to casually look over the seven chained men the Commander and the Lieutenant had dragged in. On the whole, they were a sorry-looking lot, dirty, unkempt, and underfed. A few were a good size, showing evidence of muscles and strength. The rest were average.
Armie noticed the seventh man — a boy, really, from the looks of it — was hovering in the center of the crowd, shielding himself from view by the bodies around him. When a particularly large man shifted out of the way, he got a better look at the boy. He was the runt of the litter: scrawny limbs, stringy shoulder-length hair, prominent cheekbones. Armie could make out his bony joints jutting through his skin, skin that was obviously pale despite a layer of grime. His chains emitted a light rattle as his wrists and ankles shook.
As if the boy could sense Armie looking at him, he swiveled his head around. His eyes locked on Armie’s, and Armie was momentarily taken aback by the wide green orbs filled with fear, anxiety, and distrust. After a moment, the boy dropped his gaze to his feet.
With a shake of his head, Armie looked away. He didn’t give a shit about any of these men, least of all the smallest, weakest one who would be the quickest to meet his death. If he had learned one thing in his twelve years in the Arena, it was that it didn’t pay to make friends with the people you were trained to kill.
He gathered up his armor and pushed to his feet, uninterested in hearing the remainder of the orientation lecture. The Lieutenant looked his way.
“And this here is our celebrity, boys.” McConaughey leered at Armie and then executed an exaggerated bow. “Armand Hammer. You’ve heard of him, I’m sure. The only man in the twenty years of the Arena’s existence to ever come close to gaining enough wins to earn his freedom. He doesn’t lose, so if you want my advice? You’d better hope you don’t draw him as an opponent unless you’re looking to take the easy way out on the end of his dagger or choking between his giant hands.”
Armie ignored McConaughey, making his way around the edge of the room.
The Lieutenant laughed, and then his voice sharpened as he called out a command. “Hammer, halt.”
With an internal sigh at the old game, Armie stopped moving. He waited for the next command. McConaughey — and Brolin too, if he was honest — liked to use him to show the new men that no matter how successful they became, they were still at the mercy of the officers. Sometimes they would have him kneel, or execute a display of strength.
This time, however, he heard Brolin clear his throat. “Not today, Lieutenant,” he said. “Hammer, you’re dismissed.”
Armie relaxed and moved out of the common area towards the cells. His feet crunched on the gritty cement, announcing his presence and earning him a grunt of hello from an occupant or two as he made his way down the row.
His cell was all the way at the end of the block and larger than most. He entered through the open gate and carefully hung the armor in the corner before setting the polish and rags on one of the three shelves on the far wall. With a soft sigh, he sank onto the cot in the corner and stretched out on his back.
He was grateful that, in addition to the larger cell, his status — and his relationships with members of the staff and guard — had earned him a few comforts that the newcomers would probably never see: a larger cot with an actual mattress, a pillow, extra blankets that were soft to the touch rather than stiff and scratchy. At meals, he was given an extra portion. He was allowed reading material. During inspections, the guards often brought him contraband rather than rooting it out. And on Sundays, he was invited to dine with the Commander, eating real food with actual taste and drinking dark, syrupy port wine.
He turned his head and eyed the tally on the wall. Two-hundred-sixty-seven marks scratched into the stone. Two-hundred-sixty-seven moments he had stood in the Arena, blood on his upraised hands, and let out the animalistic victory cry. Two-hundred-sixty-seven times he had seen the eyes of his opponent go white at the edges as they feared he would take their lives. Two-hundred-sixty-seven steps towards his goal.
Thirty-three more to go. Thirty-three more men he’d have to beat bloody, thirty-three more nights he’d have to lie here, sleepless, guilt like acid in his belly, thirty-three more crowds to entertain. Armie wondered which of the new batch of fighters would fall to him in the midst of those thirty-three.
And they would fall. He had never lost. Would never lose. Could never lose.
Thirty-three more. And then he’d be free.
Chapter 2: Tiro
Timmy woke shivering.
Timmy woke shivering.
He reached wildly for the covers he must have kicked off again in his sleep, and let out a yelp of pain when his hand smacked up against a hard surface. Clutching his stinging knuckles to his chest, he blinked at the darkness around him. It was utterly black, and he froze, eyes straining to adjust to even the slightest hint of light.
There was none. The blackness disembodied him, made him feel like consciousness untethered. A wave of terror was chased away by a larger wave of nausea as his brain clicked into wakeful awareness and he remembered.
He was in his new cell. It was night, and the buzzing fluorescent lights were off, which explained the pitch darkness. The outside light did not penetrate this deep underground. He had a single, threadbare blanket to cover him in this space enclosed by stone, which explained the cold.
And he was totally fucked.
Timmy screwed his eyes shut against the black, curled into a tight ball, and pulled the blanket more securely around him, as though the act would somehow make him warmer.
He prayed for sleep, so that he wouldn’t have to think. But his left hip ached from pressing into the hard surface of the taut canvas of the cot, and his neck ached from the lack of a pillow. Another shiver wracked his frame, and he knew that sleep was but a dream.
How had he ended up here?
He had been drugged, he was pretty sure, and consistently, from the beginning. Now it seemed like maybe the drugs had left his system. It was the first time in...days, or even weeks, maybe...that he felt like he could push two thoughts together without them swimming crazily away from each other.
The span of time hazed out by the drugs was a mosaic of images and sensations. Being chained, blindfolded, gagged, shoved into spaces and told to stay quiet for his own good. People talking, voices pitched low in furtive conversation. Bumping painfully along in the back of a transport, jostling against sacks of hard grain. Joining a group of chained, foul-scented men in a cage. A furtive whisper to be patient, and stay alive.
The last clear thing he remembered was the attack in the market. It was a morning where the sun was already baking the tops of people’s heads and the heat had begun to melt the tar patchwork on the pavement.
Timmy had been browsing through some used boots, looking for some with life in the soles, when he heard a shout of warning. He looked over his shoulder in time to see a bald man with a grey beard closing in, his arm tucked into his side and a glint of steel pointing in Timmy’s direction.
He had dodged, spinning to the left, and collided with an elderly woman. The attacker fell against the market stall and, before Timmy could make another move, hands had grabbed him from behind. He looked up and into the eyes of an Empire Guard, who was staring at him with an expression Timmy couldn’t read.
“Thief!” The boot-seller jabbed a stubby finger in his direction. “Those are mine.”
Timmy looked down at the pair of boots still clutched to his chest. He shook his head frantically. “No,” he said. “I wasn’t stealing them. That man—”
He looked in the direction of where the attacker had landed. The man was nowhere to be seen.
“I’ll take him in,” the Guard said, as the boot-seller yanked the boots out of Timmy’s hands.
“I didn’t steal anything,” Timmy insisted. The last thing he wanted was to get arrested. If you got arrested, you were found guilty. It was the way the system worked.
“You were running with the merchandise,” the Guard said.
“No. There was a man, he had a knife,” Timmy said, his voice rising in desperation. “He came at me and I moved out of the way. I wasn’t taking them. I swear.”
The Guard tightened his grip on Timmy’s arms. “Did you see a man with a knife?” he asked the boot-seller.
The boot-seller shook his head. “I saw no one but this thief.”
“Good enough for me.” The Guard yanked Timmy’s hands behind his back and secured them with a pair of handcuffs. He circled a large, gloved hand around Timmy’s bicep. “Come on now,” he said. “Don’t make trouble.”
His stomach rolling and his heart pounding, Timmy let the Guard pull him through the crowded market. He could try to explain himself to the judge, but the chances of the judge believing him were minimal. The Guard had made up his mind, and that would be enough. He hoped that since he hadn’t actually stolen anything, the work sentence would be light, since he couldn’t afford to take too much time out of his schedule to work for free.
The thing that worried him the most, however, was the exposure. Being known to the Empire Guard was not an ideal circumstance. If he was arrested, there would be a record of him. If there was a record of him, he was at risk. He had been taught that since birth. Aunt Greta had drilled it into him, the necessity of staying off the Guard’s radar. It was why he lived the way he lived and didn’t try for a higher station in life.
It was safer down at the bottom. He was happy at the bottom.
Now it seemed he had landed in the worst situation possible for that sort of reverse ambition. In the Arena, it was critical to be able rise to the top. In the Arena, if you were at the bottom, you were dead. He remembered Aunt Greta bringing him to a fight as a child. They had sat way up at the top of the stands, buried in the crowd, but she had brought binoculars for him so he could see the action. When he tried to look away, she hadn’t let him.
“Look at them, Timmy. Look at their faces. Do you see them?” she had asked urgently in his ear.
“I see them,” he had said. Through the lenses, he watched the two men circle each other in the center of the Arena, prepared to end the fight for good. Dust streaked their faces and arms. One was limping; the other had a gash on his forehead that dripped red blood onto the golden dirt at his feet.
“What do you see?” asked his aunt. “Describe it to me.”
“I see two men,” he said. “They are hurt. Tired. One is—“
“No,” she said. “Look harder. What do you see?”
He watched another moment, and thought. “I see...desperation,” he had said at last. “I see lack of choice. I see helplessness.”
“Good boy,” she had said. “Never forget that. Never forget what you see here today, what the Emperor has made of these men, with his Arena system. Never forget that he claims this is what is best for the good of the people. Whenever you think you might forget, or might believe the propaganda, imagine that you are one of those men. Imagine how you might feel knowing you were being forced to fight or die.”
He hadn’t forgotten it, though they had never returned to the Arena after that. One visit was enough, Aunt Greta had said, and she was right. He had never felt the urge to grab some cheap seats with friends from school or to take a date to the fights on a Saturday night like others his age. The very idea of it made him sick to his stomach.
So no, there was no way that Timmy would have made the choice to enter the Arena. Sure, the idea of earning your freedom one day was tempting, but he wasn’t a fighter. He wouldn’t stand a chance against the standard gladiator. While not every fight ended in death, he had no doubt that he’d receive a fatal injury long before he had won three hundred bouts. He wasn’t stupid; a life sentence of slavery was better than certain death.
He thought back to the day of his arrest. He remembered being dragged out of the marketplace, brought in to the tribunal chambers, made to wait in a cell. He remembered nothing coherent after that. What was the most puzzling was that there was no way that a simple attempted market theft would lead to a life sentence.
So the question was, how had he been put in the system? For what?
And, more importantly...what was he going to do about it?
He turned the questions over and over in his mind, unable to find a trace of an answer, for as long as it took for morning to arrive. Eventually, the lights flickered on, the incessant buzzing almost a relief after the vacancy of the absolute dark. A loud tone sounded.
Timmy thought back to the instructions they had gotten the day before. He had just been coming out of his drug haze at the time, and he struggled to recall the specifics. He squeezed his eyes shut and put himself back in that initial entry, where he and the other new “recruits,” as they had been called, had huddled together in the center of the room. The broad man with the elaborate embroidery on his uniform had stood before them, admonishing them to listen carefully because the rules were only going to be communicated once.
“The first tone will wake you up. The second will sound ten minutes later and the cell doors will open. All fighters will proceed in an orderly fashion to the common room and line up to receive a meal. The third tone indicates breakfast is over and training will begin. Do not ignore the tones.”
Okay, so that meant he had ten minutes — less, now — to be up and ready to walk out into the hallway when his cell door opened.
He pushed himself into a sitting position and looked around his cell. It was sparse, and small, perhaps eight feet by eight feet. It contained only the hard cot, a squat toilet in the corner, and a metal sink basin with a single-knob spigot beside it. The sight of the toilet triggered his brain into realizing he really needed to take a piss.
With a grimace, he examined the wall of glass that separated his cell from the hallway. The cell across the hall was empty, but he could see into the cells on either side, where men were running their faucets and changing clothes. There was no privacy. He eyed the exposed toilet with apprehension, but since he was worried about when his next opportunity might be, he relieved himself. His heart pounded the entire time as he anticipated someone walking by the cell, but no one did. The men in the cells across the hall didn’t even look his way.
Afterwards, he tried to make himself feel more like a human by performing some semblance of a morning routine. He splashed his face and under his arms with water — freezing cold water that made his teeth chatter — and combed his now-numbed fingers through his long curls. He wondered briefly if they would make him shave it. The other men he had seen yesterday had all had close-cropped hair, so he didn’t hold out much hope for its safety.
When the second tone sounded, the cell door slid open and, nerves jangling, he stepped out into the hallway. Other men were doing the same, and he followed their lead, falling into a single-file line. He half expected someone to talk to him — the men in the room they had been in yesterday seemed to have some camaraderie — but no one did.
After a few minutes they reached the large common room filled with long tables. At one end was a series of carts which had not been there the day before. He followed the line up to the carts, picked up a metal tray filled with a greyish-brown substance with a piece of bread sitting on top of it, took a cup of water from the next cart, and then turned around.
The men were scattered around the tables. It seemed that, after you picked up your food, you were free to sit wherever you wanted. It was his worst nightmare, really. To be somewhere where he knew no one and had to make a choice about where to put himself. What he decided could make a big difference; choose the wrong people or get rejected by the right ones, and it could take him forever to climb out of that hole. He scanned the tables, looking for any of the men he had been brought in with. He thought he recognized a couple, but he wasn’t sure.
After a minute of paralysis, he made his feet move forward. Just pick a spot, he told himself. You don’t have to make friends or talk to anyone, just find a place to sit and eat.
He was halfway to a nearby table when another man slid into the empty seat he was headed for. He stopped abruptly and someone slammed into him from behind, uttering a sharp curse. He lost his grip on his tray and it tumbled to the floor, the metal clattering on the stone.
The conversation in the room ground to a halt. Timmy stared down at the upturned tray and the gloppy meal that was oozing out from underneath. He could feel hundreds of eyes on him, and his face heated in shame.
Great fucking first impression, he thought. Okay, you can save this. Pick up the tray, ask if anyone wants to trade. Maybe they’ll laugh, think you’re not bothered by anything.
He was about to move when a gruff voice from behind him spoke.
“Move already, asshole. Some of us want to eat.”
Timmy lifted his head as a literal giant stepped around him. He glanced down at Timmy on his way by.
It was the man from yesterday, the one who had been staring at him when he was first brought in. The one with the blue eyes and the blonde hair and the muscles that—
The man looked away and continued on his way, kicking Timmy’s tray to the side with a massive booted foot. It skittered across the floor and clattered under a nearby table.
“Clean up your mess.” The man tossed the comment over his shoulder as he strode to a table on the far side of the room.
Timmy hesitated only one second longer before he gritted his teeth and followed the path his tray had taken. It wasn’t hard to find, having left a trail of slop on the stone. When he reached the table it had disappeared under, the men there simply watched as he got down on his hands and knees and crawled underneath, reaching around their legs to retrieve the tray.
He got to his feet. Conversation started up again, and everyone seemed to go back to their meals, the moment forgotten. Shaking from head to toe, Timmy turned back to where the carts were to find they had been replaced with large metal bins. With a sigh, he dropped the empty tray in one of the bins.
He spent the rest of breakfast standing by the wall, trying not to think about how hungry he was, attempting to settle his nerves, and watching the blonde giant across the room.
The other men seemed to defer to him. In fact, as a Timmy watched, he seemed to be holding council, as men stepped in, sat across from him, and spoke with him a minute before moving on.
It made sense. He dimly recalled that this was the man one of the guards had called out to yesterday. What had he said? This man was close to earning his freedom. Which made him dangerous.
Well, fuck, Timmy thought. You’ve pissed off the most important person here.
Then again, if this guy was so important, he probably wouldn’t give Timmy a second thought. If he was lucky — and it was fairly clear he wasn’t, but maybe he was due — the guy would just ignore him and forget he existed.
The third tone of the morning sounded, and a large panel on the opposite side of the room opened with a hum, revealing a dark tunnel beyond. Immediately, the men rose from their seats and moved en masse towards the metal bins, disposed of their trays in a loud burst of clatter, and then filed out through the new opening. With a deep breath, Timmy followed the crowd.
It was time for training.
Chapter 3: Exercitium
“What do you think of the new recruits?” McConaughey asked in a low voice.
I just want to thank those of you going on this journey with me. I know you have a lot of choices in fic to read these days, especially with the Big Bang, so thanks for giving this story your precious time!
Here’s the next chapter...enjoy!
Lieutenant McConaughey fell into step beside Armie as he followed the serpentine tunnels from the cell block up to the training arena.
“What do you think of the new recruits?” McConaughey asked in a low voice.
Armie took a moment to answer. McConaughey was an unpredictable element most of the time, and so he knew he needed to take care in how he responded. The low voice, meant just for him and not for the prisoners around them, suggested that the question was real, and not for show. He wasn’t being asked to put on a performance, or to demonstrate McConaughey’s authority or Armie’s own strength.
Finally, in a conspirator’s whisper, Armie said, “They look to be in worse shape than usual. Not a particularly solid prospect among the lot. Is the Empire Guard unable to recruit the higher quality fighters these days? Or have the Emperor’s slavery sentencing and Arena system finally begun to act as the deterrent he promised?”
Twenty years earlier, just after the Emperor’s successful coup had violently deposed Crema’s last royal family and gained him supreme power, the crime rate had skyrocketed. The government was in flux, the people of Crema saw no strong system of leadership in place, and the instability created chaos and lawless behavior.
The prison system overhaul was an attempt by the new ruler to curb that trend. Those found guilty were sentenced to terms of servitude. Minor crimes could carry a sentence as light as a year of unpaid labor with the freedom to live amongst the public while the term was served. Harsher sentencing involved years of captive service. Most serious, of course, were the capital crimes. The Emperor — in a show of mercy, he claimed — had done away with sentences of death and replaced them with lifetime servitude. Slavery. This system was supposed to benefit the Empire as a whole, allowing those who had violated the laws of society to pay a debt.
Then, there was the Arena system. Those with life sentences were offered the alternative of becoming a fighter. Win enough bouts, they were promised, and you could earn back your life.
Of course, no one ever had. Armie knew that was why he was given preferential treatment. The Arena system was financially lucrative for the Emperor. It depended upon men deciding the chance of injury and death was worth it because of the potential reward. And in order for that to work, the men had to believe their eventual freedom was possible.
The Empire needed a champion, and he was the closest they were going to get.
McConaughey’s smirk was just visible in the dim light. “Not too concerned about the competition?”
Armie merely shrugged in response.
“I agree, on the whole,” McConaughey said. “There may be a few with potential, however. The Commander wants you to keep a special eye on this batch. See if you can turn them into the real deal. Why don’t you take the morning session, put them through the paces. Don’t coddle the newbies.”
Armie nodded. It had long been one of his unspoken roles to help in training the other prisoners. He didn’t mind; it allowed him to get closely acquainted with their weak spots and establish himself as an authority, which was useful outside of the Arena itself.
They walked in silence the last fifty yards up the tunnel as it ascended more steeply in its final climb to the surface.
As they emerged from the darkness and the morning sun hit his skin, Armie allowed himself a moment of enjoyment. In too short a while, he would be yearning for the cool shadows of the underground prison, as the day aged, the temperatures rose, and the sun began to bake his skin. But for a brief few seconds, the initial warmth and light filled him with a sense of peace, reminded him of days and people long gone. If he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine that he was in a verdant field, with fragrant wildflowers growing in colorful bursts alongside a bright little babbling stream.
If he listened hard enough, the sounds of the gathering men would fade and he could almost hear Rose, singing lightly about autumn mists and painted wings, as she danced barefoot through the tall grass.
He let it happen. For a moment.
Then he opened his eyes, and forced himself to confront reality. Reality was not a peaceful field, a delicate voice lifted in song. Reality was a hundred yard square of barren earth, baked into a fine dust by the unforgiving sun, surrounded by fifty-foot steel walls, of which the top third was electrified. Reality was being watched over by a dozen armed Empire Guards that flanked the entrance to the tunnel and spread out along the training arena wall.
Pushing his visions aside, he turned to the fighters filing out of the tunnel. He waved to Dev, who broke free of the crowd and jogged over.
“We’re running the session this morning,” Armie said.
“You’re running it, you mean.” Dev flashed Armie a white-toothed grin. “I don’t need these brutes hating me.”
“You are one of the brutes,” Armie said. He clapped a hand on Dev’s shoulder and addressed the men, his voice booming across the wide space. “We start with the endurance circuit. Five miles.”
A chorus of groans emerged from the crowd. Five was at the high end of their usual endurance training, but the Commander wanted to see what the newbies could do, so it was time for a little test.
“Patel will chase the pack, I’ll set the pace.”
Armie suppressed a smile at the string of curses his final comment provoked. He was fast, and they all knew it.
“That’s twenty-two laps, boys. We’d better get started. Anyone who falls behind gets water duty for a week.”
With that, he began to jog, starting at a slow, warm-up pace to allow the group to find their rhythm. He didn’t look behind him, knowing that the men would fall in line and listening with satisfaction to the sounds of boots thudding in the dirt. After a half lap, he picked up speed and settled into the groove that would get them done in less than half and hour.
Eight laps in, he shot forward in a sprint. He heard the men scrambling to keep up, and maintained the pace for the length of the arena before slowing back to the regular speed at the corner. He alternated between a rapid jog and a full-out sprint for three more laps. He could hear the men closest behind him breathing heavily, and decided to keep a steady pace for a few laps to give them time to recover.
The next time he turned the corner, he could see that the line had spread out around the arena, with the slower men struggling to keep up. Then he noticed what was going on at the very back: about twenty yards behind the last pack of stragglers, Dev was hot on the heels of one fighter. It was that scrawny kid, the one who had stared at Armie the day before and who had dropped his tray during breakfast that morning.
Armie sighed inwardly. For all his worth in the Arena, Dev was a soft touch. And that was exactly what this kid didn’t need.
He dug in and sped up, hearing small protests behind him as the men picked up their pace accordingly. As he expected, the kid fell further and further behind. Armie gained on Dev and had caught up to him before another full lap was completed. He slowed to match the pace of the kid, hearing the relief of the men behind him.
He tapped Dev on the shoulder, and Dev fell into step. “You take lead,” he said. “You can give them a little break for a lap or so, but keep it steady. I’ll take over here.”
“He’s hurting, Hammer,” Dev muttered. “Looks like he might pass out.”
“Let me worry about that. Go ahead, you can lap us.”
Dev nodded and then motioned to the men to follow him. The line moved to the left of Armie and the kid, picking up speed again now that they weren’t being held back.
Armie followed at the kid’s pace for a few minutes, watching his head hang and his feet scuff the dirt. Dev was right. He was hurting. But Armie wouldn’t be doing him any favors if he let him take it easy. He crowded in behind the kid, leaning close.
“Are you a slug?” he growled.
The kid stumbled in surprise, but managed to catch his balance. He didn’t answer.
“I asked you a question,” Armie snapped.
“N-no, sir.” The words came out in a gasp, but it was clear. Good, so he could still talk. Not about to pass out, then.
“That’s what you’re acting like. A slug, creeping along. Get your eyes out of the dirt. Look up.”
The kid’s head, covered in shoulder-length curls, tipped upright.
“You see that, Slug?” Armie said, raising an arm so that he could gesture at the rest of the fighters within the kid’s line of vision. “Look at them. They just lapped you. Every single one. And they’re going to do it again if you don’t pick up the pace.”
“I can’t.” The kid spat out the sentence like it was a curse.
“You can,” Armie said. “You’ve already earned a week’s worth of water duty. You don’t want two.”
“Fuck off. I don’t care.”
Armie couldn’t help the smile that sprang up, but he wiped it away quickly. “Oh, but you will. When your arms and chest are aching and all you want to do is take a break with everyone else, but you can’t, because you have to haul more water, you’ll care. Now move faster.”
The kid let out a grunt and, to Armie’s surprise, he did. Marginally, but they were running faster.
“Not. Good. Enough. When you get to the corner, take it up another notch.”
“Leave me alone,” the kid gasped. “I’ll run the fucking laps if you get off my ass.”
“You’ll run them with me breathing down your skinny fucking neck,” Armie said. “Until you hit an acceptable pace. We’ve got ten laps left. I want them done in twelve minutes.”
“That’s impossible,” the kid said.
“It’s not. And when one of those fighters is chasing you down in the arena with a club, you’ll fucking thank me for this.”
“Not likely,” the kid said, but he shot forward in a sprint.
Armie followed on his heels. “Keep going, Slug. Don’t stop,” he shouted.
He continued to dog the kid, pushing him faster and faster, until the laps were finished. To the kid’s credit, he didn’t give up, even though he was never able to catch up with the pack and had to finish out the distance himself while everyone watched from the center of the arena.
When they were done, Armie immediately turned away from the kid and joined the men in the center.
“Agility drills,” he said. He named a few, then selected a handful of men to retrieve the markers from the shed by the entrance and set up the runs.
He scanned the crowd and found the kid had collapsed to the dirt. He was on his knees, his hands braced on his thighs, his pale arms trembling. His head hung down, and droplets of sweat spattered the ground below.
Armie crossed the space, and when he reached the kid, he said, “Stand up, Slug. Only the weak kneel in the dirt.”
The kid raised his head. His curls fell away from his face, and he peered up at Armie. Once again, Armie was momentarily thrown by the green of his eyes, which were now glittering in the sun. In the bright light, his skin was almost translucent, stretched over high cheekbones and a pointy jaw. There was something about him, especially those eyes, that Armie couldn’t quite put his finger on.
“Don’t call me that. My name is Timmy,” the kid said, his tone acid.
Armie stared at him a long moment. “I don’t care, Slug,” he said. “I said, stand up. You’re first in line for the lateral jumps.” He glanced over at the water cart, which was stationed by the tunnel entrance. He smirked. “Get yourself some water. While you’re over there, get to know the cart. It’ll be your closest friend for the next week.”
Then he turned and walked away to lead the remainder of the morning session, putting the kid — Timmy — out of his mind.
At dinner that evening, Armie scanned the common room. When he didn’t find what he was looking for, he turned to Dev, who was scarfing down rice beside him.
“Where’s that kid?” he asked. “The skinny one who couldn’t run this morning?”
“Slug?” Dev looked around, and Armie grimaced. The nickname was going to stick, then. He felt a little bad for the kid, even though Armie himself had started it. “I think he went to his cell. He was in rough shape after the weapons session.”
It was true. He had made it through the morning, barely, then had sat in a corner with his tray at lunch, his hair hiding his face, not interacting with anyone. Armie had watched as Lieutenant McConaughey approached him ten minutes before the tone signaling the afternoon training. The officer had said something to Timmy, let out a surprised laugh at Timmy’s response, and then grabbed his collar and dragged him off to fill the water cart and haul it to the surface.
Afternoons were set aside for weapons training, and that day they were working with the gladius. Timmy had trudged into the arena ten minutes late, the cart’s yoke digging into his chest and shoulders and his feet gouging dents in the dirt as he walked. Armie had sent Dev to show him where to set the cart and to partner with him for the combinations.
The day was hotter than usual, and the sun blazed down on the fighters as they practiced move after move in unison. Armie encouraged them to keep hydrated, and the cart was empty before they were even ready to split into sparring quartets. He watched Timmy shoulder the yoke and head back into the tunnel, emerging twenty minutes later.
This time, when he rejoined the fighters, he looked a little green at the edges. Sure enough, as soon as he had faced his opponent — and been pinned to the dirt by the flat of the gladius — he rolled to the side and lost his lunch. Armie sighed, sent him to drink some water, and told him to be back before the next rotation.
The glare Armie received at that comment comforted him. As did the fact that Timmy did return before his next match, and no matter how many times he was pinned — which was many — he never failed to get back up. No matter how much his legs and arms shook.
By the time they packed up the weapons and headed back into the tunnel for dinner, Timmy was stumbling under the weight of the empty water cart. He caught the eye of a couple of the seasoned men, and nodded in Timmy’s direction. They moved to help him out, but he waved them away and continued on his own.
He never appeared in the common room for dinner.
Now, Armie frowned. The idiot kid had ruined his own breakfast, puked up his lunch, and was skipping dinner. He was already skin and bones...he’d crumple as soon as the next day without getting something to eat.
Armie glanced over at the food carts, saw they had already been removed. He pushed his second tray at Dev.
“Take this to him,” Armie said. “His cell is in our block, not far from mine.”
With a curt nod, Dev stood and took the offered tray. Before he could leave, Armie reached out and laid a hand on his forearm.
“You know the drill; you run into a guard, you’re on my orders. But don’t—“
“Don’t tell the kid the food was from you.” Dev smirked. “Can’t have anyone thinking the great and terrible Armand Hammer has a heart.”
“I don’t,” Armie said. “And if they thought I did, they wouldn’t jump when I said to.”
“Or they’d jump higher and faster,” Dev said.
“That’s not how it works down here, and you know it.” Armie waved his hand towards the entrance to their block. “Go.”
Dev rolled his eyes and moved away with the tray. He was back a short while later, looking troubled.
“He take the food?” Armie asked.
“He did.” Dev sank onto the bench across from Armie. “He’s...not doing well.”
“Sore?” Armie asked, annoyed at the spike of concern he felt in his chest. “Something else?”
“No — well, probably — but when I got there, he was crying. He tried to hide it, but…” Dev shrugged. “Why the hell a kid like that would choose this life is a mystery.”
Armie thought back over the day, at the flashes of defiance he had seen, the tenacity and perseverance, the way he faced down Armie rather than cower at his attentions…
Or, he’s more determined to get free than anyone we’ve ever met, Armie thought. He wondered what was waiting for the kid on the outside.
Chapter 4: Agon
He could picture it, the giant man creeping into a bedroom, putting the muzzle of his weapon to someone’s forehead, and pulling the trigger.
Whew, this got longer than I intended! It's also probably riddled with mistakes, so please forgive those. I'm trying to keep to my strict posting schedule and got waylaid this evening for a while.
100% fiction, of course. Enjoy!
At lunch the next day, the bowl of stew sat on Timmy’s tray, taunting him.
It actually smelled good, despite the grey-ish color of the meat, but he couldn’t bring himself to eat it. It wasn’t that he wasn’t hungry, exactly. No, he could feel the tell-tale ache on the sides of his stomach that said his body was crying for nourishment.
That was no surprise, because he had probably burned six times as many calories during training that morning as he had eaten at breakfast. Water duty meant he was working three times as hard as everyone else, and he wasn’t used to this level of physical activity.
So, he needed to eat. On the other hand...
He remembered the sensation of puking during the afternoon session the day before. It was a result of the intense heat and sun, coupled with the extreme exertion, and it wasn't something he wanted to repeat.
That morning had been just as bad as — if not worse than — the day before. They began with what was apparently called a “straggler sprint,” in which they jogged in a single file line at a slow, steady pace around the perimeter of the arena, and the last man in line had to sprint to the front.
That giant asshole — “the Hammer,” people called him — kept the pace by running beside the man in the front of the line. Timmy would be willing to bet his life on the fact that the Hammer had deliberately increased the line’s pace when it was his turn to sprint, so that he’d have to sprint longer and harder than anyone else. He had made it though, each time, his sore muscles screaming at him, and it made him feel more than a little satisfied to take the position at the front of the line.
After three rotations of this torture, which took nearly three hours, they were given a break. Not Timmy, though. Timmy had to go haul more water, since they had exhausted their supply during the run. He nearly cried when he returned, fell onto the dirt in exhaustion, and within thirty seconds someone was kicking him in the ribs and telling him to get moving.
Since the endurance training took so long, he thought they might be called into lunch early. Instead, they ran a full hour of agility drills before they were allowed out of the heat.
Timmy could only imagine what was in store for him that afternoon. Still, he needed food, if the hunger pains and shaking hands were any indication. Making a face, he brought a spoonful of the stew to his mouth. It actually tasted as good as it smelled, and he found himself able to eat more quickly after that.
He was nearly done when someone else slid onto the bench across from him. Timmy looked up in surprise. He had eaten alone at breakfast, and now at lunch, and had assumed this was going to be his fate. No one had even made an attempt to talk to him, aside from when the Hammer was yelling at him, or that one guy who had brought him dinner the night before. And all he had said was you need to eat something so you don’t starve, man.
Timmy had actually felt marginally better after that; someone had noticed he wasn’t at dinner and been concerned. Someone had decided to do something nice for him and not treat him like shit. But he wasn’t stupid enough to think that it would be a habit, or that it meant much, because that morning, he had noticed the same man sitting beside the Hammer at breakfast.
Not exactly a friend in the making, then.
Now, he blinked at the older, bearded man with light blue eyes who had suddenly joined him. He recognized the man as one of his opponents from the day before, someone who had soundly beaten him several times during the sparring quartets.
“Hey,” the man said, in a gruff voice.
“Hey,” Timmy replied cautiously.
The man stuck his hand out. “I’m Joel,” he said.
After a brief hesitation, Timmy shook the offered hand. It was meaty and calloused. “I’m Timmy,” he said.
“Timmy,” Joel repeated. Then he smirked. “Not ‘Slug’?”
“No,” Timmy said with a scowl. That fucking nickname. First chance he got, he was going to kick the Hammer in the nuts.
Joel laughed. “It’s okay, you’re not the first newb to get an unfortunate nickname outta the gate. It’ll fade. So, what do you think of our little community? We’ve got all the luxuries of home, am I right?”
“Except hot water,” Timmy said. “And privacy.”
“You’ll get used to that stuff. I’ve been here fifteen years, and I think it only took me three to forget what a hot shower felt like. The food’s decent, at least. Don’t look like much, but tastes good and it’ll fuel ya.”
“If I can keep it down,” Timmy said. “I wasn’t so lucky yesterday.”
“I remember,” Joel said. Of course he would remember, he would have seen it up close, being in the same group. “Hey, sorry for…” he waved a hand.
“Slamming me into the dirt with your knee and pressing a sword against my cheek?”
“Yeah.” Joel chuckled. “You did good, though. Puke and all, I’ve seen worst first days.”
Timmy couldn’t imagine a worst first day, but he got the sense Joel was just trying to be friendly, and Timmy badly needed a friend, so he just said, “Thanks.”
Just then, Timmy caught sight of the Hammer rising from his table on the far side of the room. The rest of the table immediately rose with him. He glared in the man’s direction, and Joel swiveled his head to see what Timmy was looking at.
“Looks like his lordship is finished with lunch,” Joel said, in a tone that dripped with disapproval.
“His lordship?” Timmy asked.
“Thinks he owns the fucking place,” Joel said, turning back to Timmy. “Like he’s the king and we’re all his little serfs. Well, he don’t own me.”
Timmy watched as the Hammer and a few other men disappeared down the entrance to their block. “Is it just because he’s so…” Timmy searched for the right word. Commanding? Charismatic? Authoritative? Intimidating? He gave up. “Is it because he’s the closest to free?”
“Respect shouldn’t be about that. Should be about who’s been here the longest,” Joel said. “Seniority and what all. I’ve got a hundred and seventy wins, you know that? Would have more except they let him fight more often. The rest of us don’t get enough of a chance. There’s a few dozen men who outrank him by seniority, but for some reason the whole fucking prison — Empire Guard included — worships him alone.”
“I don’t,” Timmy said.
“I know, I got the sense you don’t. It’s why I thought we might be friends.” Joel grinned at Timmy. “Anyone who’s got enough balls to talk back to the Hammer like you did yesterday is my kind of man.”
“Or I’m just stupid,” Timmy said. “Seems like he’s the kind of person you want to like you.”
“He’s a murderer, you know,” Joel said.
Timmy frowned. “Aren’t most of the men in here murderers? There aren’t many other crimes that get you a life sentence.”
Joel laughed. “That’s true,” he said. “But he’s killed more of us in the Arena than anyone, and every time he acts like he’s above it. Like he’s better than that, when everyone knows he killed his fiancée and her lover in cold blood. Shot them both in the head while they slept.”
The blood in Timmy’s veins went cold. He could picture it, the giant man creeping into a bedroom, putting the muzzle of his weapon to someone’s forehead, and pulling the trigger. All with that stony, unbothered expression on his hard face.
More of the men had left the common area by this time, and Timmy watched them go with confusion. “Where is everyone going?” he asked. “Aren’t they going to be late for the afternoon session?”
“Tuesdays we have a night session instead,” Joel said. “Helps train for the late fights in the Arena. It’s why the morning session ran long. Lots of us sleep in the afternoon on Tuesdays.” He stood up. “In fact, I’m gonna do that myself. Nice to meet you, Timmy. I’ll see you later.”
“Yeah. You too.”
Joel gave him a little salute and then trudged off down the entrance to a different block. Timmy finished his lunch with more enthusiasm now that he knew he wasn’t going to be immediately rushing out into the heat again. He’d have to worry about dinner, but he’d cross that bridge when he came to it.
He wasn’t sure what he thought about Joel yet. Seemed a decent enough guy, and it made Timmy feel a little less alone to know that a true veteran was reaching out to him, ready to show him the ropes.
Because he had done some thinking last night. After he had eaten the illicit tray of food, and was feeling a little more in control of himself, Timmy’s thoughts had turned back to his predicament. How had he gotten here, and how was he going to get out of it?
As to the first question, he was no closer to any answer. Maybe his records had been swapped with someone else’s and some murderer was doing a night shift at the recycling plant or something while he got stuck with the Arena sentence. That was the most likely explanation. And the least threatening one.
If it wasn’t that...he didn’t like to think about the alternative.
As to the second question...he needed to talk to someone. But who? The guards didn’t seem the type to care, especially not that one who nearly strangled him while dragging him to the water station before afternoon training yesterday. The one in charge — the Commander — seemed to be a little more reserved, but Timmy hadn’t seen him as much and wouldn’t know how to approach him. That left the other prisoners. The trouble was, talking to anyone was fraught with complications and possibly danger. If it was just an error, that was one thing but if he had been stuck in here on purpose...bringing that up might cause him even more trouble.
Could Joel be someone to talk to? It was too soon to tell. For now, Timmy decided, he’d have to wait, watch...and hope he could keep his head above water in the meantime.
The night training was better in some ways than the daytime training.
For one, the sun was already nearly set by the time they began. That meant that the temperature had had time to drop and the rays of the sun weren’t burning Timmy’s skin with every step. For another, the cooler temperatures also meant that the water cart lasted the entire session, and Timmy was able to take advantage of breaks for the first time.
But it was also stressful. By the time the combination drills were finished and it was time for sparring, it was completely dark. Even though the training arena was lit by giant floodlights, there were still pockets of deep shadow, depending on where the fighters were standing. It made it harder to see what your opponent was doing, and easier for them to hide movement if they knew how to work the shadows.
They were working with the gladius again, and Timmy was terrified that he’d miss a move and end up with one fewer hand or the sword in his gut. After watching a demonstration match — between Joel and another older fighter who Joel seemed to know well — they were separated into quartets.
Timmy subtly moved towards Joel, in the hopes that he’d be directed into a group with them. Instead, he got stuck with three of the younger fighters, all of whom had a hard, hungry look that worried Timmy. He knew the rules — you weren’t supposed to actually harm other fighters in training — but he didn’t know how well those rules were followed.
During his first match, he managed to swivel the combat position so that he had his back to the lights and therefore could see his opponent well until he got too close. This worked in his favor until the opponent swung the weapon low. Timmy jumped over the blade, and when he landed, he didn’t have time to flip his hair back from his face before a fist landed in his gut and he tumbled to the ground.
During his second match, there was a scary moment in which he fell for a fake-out and tripped forward toward his opponent’s blade, only managing to sidestep at the last moment. Or maybe his opponent pulled his thrust, because when he was taken down, the guy whispered, “you okay?”
He was okay, but he sucked at this. It was no wonder. Nothing in his past had ever prepared him for this kind of thing. His childhood hadn’t been pampered — Aunt Greta earned their living cleaning houses, and it was enough to get by and not much more — but he had never been required to do substantial physical activity. Aunt Greta had encouraged him more towards books and reading than athletic pursuits.
Which was all fine, but if he had any hope of surviving long enough to get to the bottom of things and get free, he had to learn, and he had to learn fast.
So when he accepted his opponent’s hand up, he said, “I’m good. Can you show me that move?”
Their group then took a break from the rotations to practice the move, a clever fake that took advantage of the shadows. He was surprised that the men, who he had thought looked ready to eat him, seemed to be primarily focused on getting better themselves, and were willing to share technique.
An hour and a half later, Timmy was feeling better about his prospects. He still hadn’t won a match, and he was still missing things, but he felt like he was learning a few skills, at least.
It was his turn again, and he was stepping into the middle, when he heard a voice call out.
The Hammer. Timmy bristled at the nickname and held his ground. Maybe if he didn’t respond, the man would use his name instead of calling him —
“Slug. I’m talking to you.”
Timmy gritted his teeth and turned slowly. The asshole was standing fifteen feet away. With the floodlight shining directly behind him, his shadow seemed to stretch out for miles, nearly reaching Timmy’s boots.
“What do you want?” Timmy asked.
There was a long beat of a kind of silence. Around them were the clangs of swords clashing, the grunts of the fighters, the scuffling of boots in the dirt. But the space between them seemed to be a vacuum, devoid of noise and matter.
Finally, the Hammer said, “Get your ass over here.”
The man didn’t say anything, just loomed. After a moment, Timmy sighed and gave in, closing the distance between them. He went to fold his arms across his chest, but the gladius got in the way, so he ended up putting his free hand on his hip.
The Hammer looked down at him and shook his head.
“I see you’re having some trouble.” He said it in a neutral tone, one that Timmy might have thought was without judgment if he didn’t know better.
“I’m doing fine,” Timmy said.
“You’ve lost every match,” the Hammer said.
“I…” Timmy lifted his chin and squared his shoulders. “I’ve never done this before. I’ll learn.”
The Hammer nodded. “Maybe. But in time to survive?”
“If you’re so concerned, why don’t you let me get back to my group?” Timmy asked. He really couldn’t figure out what this guy wanted from him. Did he really just want to get in his head, stress him out about how likely he was to fucking lose and maybe die?
“One of your problems is your hair,” the Hammer said. He reached a hand up and flicked at the ends of Timmy’s curls.
“What about my hair?” Timmy said, taking a step back.
“Look around you. Do you see anyone else here with pretty locks?” The Hammer smirked at him. “It’s a liability. For one thing, it’s getting in your face. Making it hard to see. That’s dangerous, and one of the reasons you keep missing key movement from your opponents.”
Timmy frowned. He knew it. He was being told to cut his hair. He should, probably. But it was...his hair. Maybe it was stupid to care about it, and yet it was a link to his prior life. It made him feel like him. So much had been taken from him, he really wanted to keep this one thing.
“So I’ll tie it back,” he said, after a moment. “Problem solved.”
The Hammer sighed, and took three giant steps backward. “Come at me,” he said.
“What?” Timmy’s stomach sank. Was he really being asked to spar with a man who had never lost a fight? He was going to be eating dirt — or dead — in seven seconds. “No,” he said.
“Yes. Come at me.” When Timmy didn’t move, the Hammer held his gladius to the side and let it fall to the ground. “Look. Now you’re armed, and I’m facing you with only my hands. I’m telling you to rush me. See what you can do.”
Timmy swallowed, and then held the gladius up in front of him. It shook slightly, and he took two deep breaths to steady himself. He wasn’t going to stab this man, so he wasn’t sure exactly what he was going to do. In all of his sparring matches so far, he had let his opponent make the first move. Maybe if he thrust the sword towards the man’s left shoulder, he could roll low and take out his knees.
He crouched slightly, and then sprang forward. He ran the several steps across the dirt, thrusting the sword up and to the right.
The Hammer easily side-stepped the weapon and simultaneously brought his hand down hard on Timmy’s wrist. Timmy let out a yelp of pain and dropped the gladius. The next thing he knew he was being yanked backward by his hair, his neck snapping back with a crack. The Hammer had his fist wrapped around Timmy’s curls and had pulled him back against his own chest. His other massive hand circled Timmy’s throat and squeezed slightly. Timmy froze.
Breath blew across his ear as the man leaned close. “That’s the other problem,” he growled. “It’s too easy to grab and then you have no leverage.”
Timmy slammed his elbow backwards. His bones vibrated as it came in contact with the solid mass of the Hammer’s stomach and seemed to make no difference. He then remembered something his aunt had taught him long ago.
If they grab you from behind, she had said, her mouth in a grim line, that’s actually the best. Then you can just do this.
In a lightning-fast move, Timmy brought his hand up, fingers pointed, and jabbed backwards towards the Hammer’s eyes.
All he caught, however, was a bit of cheekbone and a wave of embarrassment as the Hammer dodged his move and laughed, tightening his grip on both Timmy’s hair and neck. Timmy could feel the Hammer’s stomach shaking against his back, and he closed his eyes, wanting this to just be over already.
“Nice try,” the Hammer said. “Maybe you need more convincing.”
He kicked Timmy’s feet out from under him and yanked his head down. Timmy’s body slammed into the dirt, the breath exploded out of him, and stars swam before his eyes. They multiplied when the Hammer planted a giant boot on his hair, imprisoning him with one move.
Timmy tried to wriggle free, but he was well trapped. His scalp stung, and tears leaked out the corners of his eyes.
“Get the point?” The Hammer leered down at him.
“Fuck you, asshole,” Timmy said, as soon as he could draw in breath again.
The Hammer sighed and stepped back, freeing him at last. He rolled to his hands and knees and coughed, spitting the saliva out of his mouth. His pulse was racing and for a second, he felt like he was going to puke again. But it passed, and he got to his feet, his legs shaking.
“Can I go back to my group now?” he asked. “Or do you have additional points to make?”
The Hammer bent down, picked up Timmy’s gladius from the dirt, and held it out to him. Timmy took it.
“Go,” said the Hammer. “I’m done with you. For now.”
Timmy hesitated. Then, although he knew it was stupid, he dipped into a low curtsy. “Yes, Your Lordship,” he said. Then he turned and stalked back to his group.
The next evening, after dinner, Timmy emerged from the infirmary with a fresh buzz cut and strode through the common area. As he passed by the table where the Hammer and his entourage usually sat, he couldn’t help but glance in that direction. The Hammer was staring at him.
When their eyes met, the Hammer nodded once. Before he knew what he was doing, Timmy nodded in return.
On Friday, during dinner, the weekend’s matches were announced. There were ten matches each on Saturday and Sunday, meaning a total of forty fighters would face off before the weekend was out.
Timmy held his breath as the Commander read off the matched pairs and their assigned weapons — the gladius was mentioned in there, but so was barehanded combat, along with various other swords, axes, and knives — but his name wasn’t called. He breathed out a sigh of relief and hoped it would be at least a few weeks before he would have to face the Arena for real.
The final fight on Saturday night was to be between the Hammer and a younger fighter, a man named Henry who had been in Timmy’s quartet during the night training. He was good, but if the Hammer was as good as everyone said...Timmy watched as the Hammer approached Henry once their match was announced. The men clasped hands and bumped shoulders. The Hammer said something, and Henry laughed.
On Saturday, Timmy sat with the other fighters in the pen. The prisoners were forced to watch all matches, but Timmy would have wanted to watch in any event; he had a lot to learn, and he needed to watch these fights with a critical eye. Figure out what was headed his way.
What he learned was that each fight was different from the last. The fighters were different, so their moves and strategies were different. Timmy’s head swam as he tried to catalogue particular tics and repeated combinations of each man.
Meanwhile, his heart was in his throat as the men battled. Unlike during training, here the stakes were higher and the intensity was clear. The men flew at each other, hacking and slashing, and Timmy was sure that at any moment, someone would fall to the ground in a pool of his own blood, his eyes closed for the last time.
It struck him, not for the first time but for the first time with this level of gravity, that this was real. When he went out there, he could die. Be...gone. For good.
From that point on, he watched the remainder of the fights with a pit in his stomach the size of a watermelon.
When it came time for the Hammer’s match, Timmy had begun to feel numb. It was a defense mechanism, he was sure. The intensity of the emotions he had been experiencing was finally too much, and his brain had flipped a switch so that he could deal with what he was seeing more easily.
This last fight was different from the rest. The sun had gone down, and the floodlights illuminated the Arena like spotlights, contributing to the feeling of a staged spectacle.
The crowd had clearly come to see the Hammer, and the cheers that went up when his name was announced — so his last name was Hammer, and it wasn’t just a nickname, Timmy realized — were bigger than any cheers that had echoed across the Arena all day.
But then, all went completely silent as he and his opponent emerged from the tunnel and into the open space. It was so quiet that Timmy could hear the footsteps of the two men as they walked to opposite sides of the Arena and took their starting positions.
The weapon of choice was a puggio, a kind of dagger with a symmetrically curved blade. That meant close combat. They would have to get within arms length of each other to do any damage.
When the starting bell rang, the Hammer immediately began moving. He sprinted down the center of the of the Arena, making a straight line toward Henry. For his part, Henry looked uncertain, but he remained in place, bouncing on his toes from side to side, waiting for the Hammer to reach him.
At the last moment, the Hammer spun left. Henry couldn’t move fast enough to adjust, and the Hammer pushed him from behind, sending him sprawling face first in the dirt. A cheer erupted from the crowd, and he turned and faced them, raising his muscled arms to encourage the cheers as Henry shoved himself to his feet.
Timmy squinted at the Hammer. His weapon was still sheathed at his calf. Henry had already had his in hand, and the Hammer had made his initial attack without the use of his weapon. Timmy shook his head. The man was a maniac.
He was also a work of art. Watching him move was like watching living poetry. Because he was so huge, Timmy would have expected him to be more...cumbersome. Using his weight and his size as his primary strengths. But he was light on his feet, moved fast, and had a grace that was surprising.
Timmy began to realize, as he watched, that the Hammer was toying with Henry. Henry was a capable fighter, but the Hammer was stronger, faster, and smarter. This fight could have been over after that first run. Instead, it went on for almost an hour, and felt like more of a performance than a fight. The variety of combat was astounding. At times, the men grappled with each other, grunting and scrambling. At other times, they looked almost like they were boxing. They moved all over the Arena, so that different parts of the crowd could get a clear view. They looked evenly matched, although Timmy had a suspicion the Hammer had the clear advantage and was deliberately holding back.
Finally, Henry was breathing hard, his shoulders hunching forward after every round of contact. The mood in the Arena seemed to shift as the Hammer tossed him to the ground like a rag doll and then walked away, once again hyping the crowd.
Henry pushed himself to his feet and stood, gathering his energy. The Hammer still had his back turned when Henry surged forward, dagger in hand.
As if in slow motion, the Hammer whirled around, grabbed Henry’s wrist, and twisted. Henry let out a yell, and the Hammer slammed him into the dirt, planting a knee on his chest, the Hammer’s own dagger pointed at Henry’s throat with the tip just barely touching the skin.
Henry struggled for a few seconds, pulling at the Hammer’s forearm, but then lay still. He was beaten.
Timmy waited anxiously for what would come next. Joel — who he had continued to eat meals with all week — had explained how the matches worked. Only the final match of the night was eligible to be a death match. Sometimes they were announced in advance. More often, at the end of the fight, one of three things would happen: the Emperor would call for the death blow or allow mercy; the Emperor would allow the crowd to make the decision; or the Emperor would leave the choice up to the victor.
He tipped his head up, searching out the Emperor’s box high above the Arena. The man stood in his emerald green robes, looking down at the fighters, who had not moved.
“A worthy match,” he said, his voice booming across the vast space. A round of cheers erupted, and he waved his hands for silence. “Two strong fighters, two men who have great skill and fortitude. It was a beautiful thing to watch. I think that, tonight…”
The Emperor paused for dramatic effect. Timmy’s gaze flew back to where the Hammer and Henry remained in their grotesque pose. They were like a painting, or a sculpture, neither moving a muscle.
Was he about to see someone die? Someone he had worked with? Timmy’s stomach twisted in knots. You can look away when it happens, he reminded himself, knowing he would not.
“Tonight,” the Emperor said, “the victor will choose whether to finish his opponent or to have mercy.”
A hush fell over the Arena. Timmy leaned forward. Left to his own choice, surely the Hammer would end Henry’s life, wouldn’t he? After all, he had done it many times before.
For thirty seconds, no one moved. The lights shone down on the men, highlighting their features as they watched each other’s faces.
Finally, the Hammer drew the puggio away from Henry’s throat and stood. He reached a hand down, and Henry took it, letting the Hammer pull him to his feet.
The crowd sighed in unison. Was it disappointment? Or relief? Timmy wondered. He sighed as well, but his was definitely a sigh of relief.
Henry dropped to his knees before the Hammer, clasping his hands behind his back and hanging his head. The posture of defeat. It was ritual, Joel had explained, in the same way it was ritual for the Hammer, as victor, to raise his arms about his head and let out a bellowing cry of victory.
The cheers of the crowd were deafening as the champion turned and strode across the space and back down into the tunnel.
Around Timmy in the pen, the other fighters were rising from their benches and heading back underground now that the matches were complete. He knew he should follow, but he wasn’t sure his legs would carry him just yet. His mouth was dry. He tried to swallow, but it got stuck halfway.
So he sat there, watching the crowds beginning to stream out of the seats to head back home, and attempting to make sense of the fact that what he had seen tonight was his foreseeable future.
Chapter 5: Oraculi
“I’m fighting this weekend. Right? I’m right, aren’t I?” Timmy’s gaze flickered to Armie.
Sorry for the brief delay, folks! I had intended to try for a posting every other day, but this week got sticky for me at work and I just couldn't quite manage it. I felt like I had no time to write and was squeezing it into ten minute segments here and there.
Imagine my surprise when I wound up with a 7k word monster chapter anyway.
100% fiction. Enjoy...
Over the next few weeks, Armie continued to run the training sessions. He had been given full rein by the Empire Guard, rather than just an assisting role, and he took it seriously. He used Dev as his second-in-command and appointed several other of the stronger fighters as team leaders.
He knew some of the fighters thought the sessions would get easier, since the Guards weren’t running them anymore. They figured Armie would want the other fighters to be at a disadvantage so wouldn’t work them as hard. But Armie had a different theory. He wanted every single man to be in the best shape possible, with the highest endurance, the sharpest reflexes, and the most refined skills.
Everyone deserved a chance, even against him.
He kept a watchful eye on every man, watching for weaknesses and gaps in skill. He set up rotations to let the men focus on the things they needed most. He took a hands-on approach to tutorial, stepping into a sparring match not merely in demonstration but to give the men a chance to try against an expert who wasn’t holding back. Or...who was only holding back a bit.
Since it had been specially requested, he kept an eye on the newest fighters. They hadn’t been tested in the Arena yet, but they were coming along. He pushed them, and was starting to see results. Whether they would be ready when their names were called remained to be seen.
If he were being completely honest, he was paying more attention to the one kid — Timmy — than anyone else. There was something about him that Armie felt inexplicably called to protect. It wasn’t that he wanted to protect Timmy, exactly, more that he wanted to preserve that fiery spark he had seen. The last thing he wanted was for it to be stamped out, for Timmy to be broken, the way men sometimes were by the Arena.
When a man was broken, it wasn’t long before he met his end.
On the first day that Timmy’s water duty was lifted, Armie stopped him when he went to shoulder the cart after their morning endurance run.
“What are you doing, Slug?” he asked. “Your sentence is over.”
“Yeah, I know.” Timmy shielded his eyes from the sun and peered up at Armie. “But it’s nearly empty, and it’s hot as fuck, and...who’s going to refill it?”
Armie shrugged. “Not you. That’s all that should matter. Go ahead and take your break.”
Timmy shuffled his feet in the dirt a minute and eyed the cart. Then he slipped the yoke on.
“Someone has to do it,” he said.
Armie watched, frowning, as he hauled the cart back into the tunnels. He wondered if he should stop the kid. He was right, someone had to do it. Armie would have assigned someone — one of the stragglers from the morning run maybe. But if he wants to give himself water duty, Armie thought, the extra workout will probably do him good.
A week later — a week in which the kid continued to take on water duty of his own volition — Timmy approached the quartet Armie was working with at the end of the afternoon weapons training. Armie ignored him as he hovered around the outside of the group, finishing his demonstration of a block that was tricky to execute when the weapon involved was a double-edge blade.
When he was done, he dismissed the fighters and strode away from the group. Timmy ran to catch up.
“What?” Armie asked, when it was clear the kid was going to be persistent.
“I don’t think you should use water duty as punishment,” Timmy said, as they moved towards the tunnel.
Armie glanced at him. “Is that so?” he asked.
“I think if you want to give people extra laps or whatever when they screw up...that’s fine.”
“Glad I have your approval,” Armie said. He tamped down an urge to smirk. They headed into the tunnel, the ground sloping beneath their feet.
Timmy sighed. “But water is like...we need it. It’s important, because of how fucking hot it is, and how hard we work. Getting the water should be treated that way, not like something to be dreaded or...or...pushed onto the people who are struggling.”
“Make your point, Slug,” Armie said.
He expected the flash of annoyance that crossed Timmy’s face. The nickname really bothered the kid. But then Timmy just lifted his chin and set his jaw. When he spoke, all hesitation and deference had left his voice. If Armie didn’t know any better, he would have thought Timmy outranked him.
“Look, we should be taking turns with the cart. Someone in the morning and someone in the afternoon each day, in a rotation. We should all do it, because we all need it.”
Armie didn’t respond right away, and they continued down the path. Timmy had made an interesting point. It wasn’t the way things had been done in the past but...Armie was the one running training now. He had already made some changes. No reason he couldn’t make more, until someone took the role away from him.
When they reached the common room, he turned to Timmy and folded his arms across his chest. “Sounds like a headache. It would mean setting up a schedule, and convincing the men who would never get stuck with water duty to willingly take it on. Why would they do that?”
“Because they need water same as everyone else. And if everyone did it each person would only do it once every...twenty weeks,” Timmy said. “That’s nothing. Anyway, not everyone has to do it. It should be voluntary.”
Armie considered Timmy a moment. With his new buzz cut, there was a surprising hardness to his appearance. Perhaps it was the way his razor-sharp cheekbones and jaw were on full display. At the moment, his skin was slightly flushed, and his eyes were slate green and steely-edged. He looked...passionate. Like this was something that was really important to him.
Finally, Armie shrugged. “Do what you want. As long as the water is there, I don’t much care who does it.”
By the next morning, Timmy had convinced a dozen men to rotate water duty with him. Within a week, the rotation had expanded. Within two, it seemed like everyone was willing to participate. It wasn’t even necessary to assign someone to a full training session; someone simply volunteered each time the cart needed to be filled.
One Sunday, approximately a month after Timmy and the other newbies had arrived, Armie was having dinner with Commander Brolin in his quarters after winning another bout in the Arena that afternoon. He sipped at the deep red port and cut his steak into small pieces, savoring the decadent taste. His gaze frequently wandered to the window. He so rarely got to see outside — really outside, not just within the walls of the Arena or the training arena — and he treasured even this one simple view of the land surrounding the Arena prison.
Brolin had been praising the current state of the training, and paused for a moment to take a bite of his own steak. “How many wins do you still need now?” he asked.
“Thirty,” Armie said, and waited. Brolin already knew the answer, so his question had to be about something else entirely.
“You’ll be out in eight, nine months at this rate,” the Commander said.
“Let’s hope so,” Armie replied.
“Have you thought about what you’ll do once you’re free?” Brolin held up the bottle of port, and Armie offered his glass for a refill. He watched the crimson liquid swirl into the crystal as he considered his answer.
“Respectfully, sir,” he said at last, “I’m taking it one fight at a time. There’s no guarantee I’ll make it, after all.”
Brolin waved away his concern. “Of course. But let’s say you do make it. You’re still a young man. What do you plan to do with the rest of your life?”
The trouble with a question like this is that what Armie had said was mostly true. For the most part, he tried not to think too far ahead. When it came to fighting and training, he was like a chess player, always considering things several events ahead of where he was. But to think about, let alone make plans for, what he would do upon gaining freedom...it felt dangerous. Like he might be tempting fate.
But Brolin seemed to be less interested in what he really thought and more interested in leading him somewhere. So he said, “Enjoy it, sir.”
Brolin nodded. “If I remember correctly, you don’t have much in the way of family? Not many people waiting for you on the outside?”
Armie carefully set his glass down on the table. Where exactly was Brolin going with this? “No, sir, I don’t,” he said quietly.
“Well. Then perhaps you’d consider staying here.” The Commander sat back in his chair and began to trace the grain of the wood with one finger.
Alarm bells rang in Armie’s head. “What do you mean, staying here?” he asked.
“There may be a job for you if you’re interested.”
“What kind of a job?” Armie picked up his glass again, to have something to do with his hands. The idea of working for the Arena, in any capacity, made him slightly queasy.
“Maybe you stay on as a trainer. Since you’re a convict, we can’t make you an Empire Guard, not officially. But what we could do, if the conditions were right, is create a position. Chief Trainer. Responsible for doing...what you’re doing now, essentially.” Brolin smiled. “If you’re interested, that is.”
Against all his instincts, Armie realized that he was interested. Possibly. He liked running trainings. He liked working with the fighters. He didn’t like the fact that he was training men to kill each other, but if, instead, he framed it as training them to avoid being killed, he rather enjoyed the process.
What Brolin had said was true, after all. He had nothing waiting for him outside the Arena. But could he spend more time in this place, even as a free man who could leave whenever he pleased? After working so hard to get out?
Whether it ended up happening or not, it was in his best interest at the moment to play the middle.
“I might be,” he said. “It’s certainly an intriguing option. You’re not asking me to make a decision now, I assume.”
“No, of course not.” Brolin shook his head. “Just an idea to think about.”
There was a knock on the door, and a kitchen slave entered to clear away the dinner dishes. The two men sat in silence until she had left. Brolin rose from his chair and collected his tobacco and rolling papers. Armie watched as he began the after dinner ritual of rolling his cigarette. As always, he offered one to Armie, and as always, Armie declined.
Eventually, Brolin lit his cigarette and spoke again. “I also wanted to ask how the new fighters are doing. You’ve been working with them a month now. Progress?”
Armie nodded. “Good progress,” he said. “They’re in good shape, have learned discipline. It’s promising, more than I thought initially.”
Brolin blew out a stream of smoke, and Armie did his beat not to cough. “And what about the little one? The one they call ‘Slug’?”
“Timmy,” Armie said. “His name’s Timmy.”
“Right. That one. You think he’s going to make it?”
Armie shrugged one shoulder. “He might. What he lacks in basic strength and skill, he makes up for in...I don’t know. Grit, I guess. He’s focused. Wants to learn. And he doesn’t seem to know the meaning of the word defeat. The kid simply doesn’t know how to give up.”
It was true. Armie had become more and more impressed with Timmy. He seemed to be able to take whatever was thrown at him, and he absorbed instruction like a sponge. He also talked back, questioned everything, and challenged everyone, whether they were veteran fighters, Empire Guards, or Armie himself. He smiled.
“To tell the truth, he’s kind of a pain in the ass,” he said.
“So were you.” Brolin grinned.
“Then...maybe he’ll make it after all.”
“You should work with him,” Brolin said.
“I am,” Armie said.
“I mean, work with him in particular. Mentor him. You take a kid like that and make him into a successful fighter…well, you’ll be a shoo-in for a trainer position.”
“I haven’t said I was definitely interested,” Armie reminded him.
“Can’t hurt, anyway,” Brolin said.
“I can work with him,” Armie said. He smirked, thinking of his last interaction with Timmy in the training arena, in which he had flattened the kid during a demonstration and Timmy had called him an overgrown eggplant. “I’m pretty sure he hates every bone in my body, but I can give it a try.”
“It’s probably just because you’re in charge. Listen.” Brolin extinguished his cigarette and leaned forward. “Do what you need to do to make him a success, and I can pretty much guarantee you a job offer.”
“Noted,” Armie said. “And thank you, sir.”
Brolin stood, and Armie followed his lead.
“I’ll also give you a heads up.” Brolin clapped a hand on Armie’s shoulder and led him through the apartment to the door. “The new fighters will all have matches next weekend. It’ll be a highlight. A fresh blood event.”
Armie nodded. That made sense. It was time. “Thanks for letting me know, sir. I’ll keep it to myself.”
“Sure,” Brolin said. “Also keep it to yourself that we’ll be putting them each against one of the veterans, and making it a night of barehanded combat. Of course, if you wanted to use the information to...counteract any disadvantages a certain new fighter might have by giving him the prep he needs and making sure he's not taken by surprise, no one could blame you.”
Armie blinked at the Commander for a moment. He had, on occasion, shared information with Armie, but never to this extent, and never anything he was encouraged to use. The man must really want Armie to impress someone with what he could do with an unlikely champion. Either that, or he wanted to make sure Timmy was safe.
“Is he your sister’s kid or something?” he joked.
“Or something,” Brolin said. “Or maybe I like having you around and am trying to build a case for you to stay. Have a good night, Hammer.”
Armie returned to his cell with a full belly and a lot to think about.
The water coalition, as Dev had been calling it, was just one example of how Timmy was starting to find his place at the Arena. While he had seemed to be in a difficult position at the start, Armie had noticed that he was developing positive relationships with other fighters.
On Monday morning, Armie watched Timmy deep in conversation with one of the long-timers, a man named Joel, and his crowd. He frowned. He supposed he had seen Timmy with them now and again over the past few weeks, but he hadn’t really taken note of it before now.
There was nothing precisely wrong with Timmy spending his time with Joel’s crew. They were fine. Decent fighters. Most of them were fairly ruthless in the Arena. Would not hesitate to go for a death blow if given the choice, and even during non-death matches, more than one fighter had been seriously injured because of their dedication to the sport.
Armie tried, but couldn’t see Timmy as becoming that sort of fighter. He was determined, but not coldly calculating, the way the others seemed. At least, Armie hoped that was the case.
He made the men do a reverse stragglers run during the morning session. Like a basic stragglers run, the fighters ran single file around the training arena at a steady pace. This time, however, instead of the last man sprinting to the front, the first man sprinted all the way around the arena to the back of the line.
It was an evil, evil bit of conditioning.
Armie announced the drill and watched Joel lean over and say something to Timmy. Timmy burst out laughing and then shot a look at Armie, and things fell into place. He knew Joel’s crew, who had mostly been around longer than Armie, resented him a bit. Maybe more than a bit. They didn’t give him trouble, but the negative vibe was clear. Because Timmy couldn’t stand him, he probably felt like he had some common bond with Joel. Shared hatred was just as powerful as — if not more powerful than — shared love.
The run started, with Armie keeping the pace. He watched the men go, one by one. When Timmy was at the head of the line, he moved a bit closer.
“Think you can make it, Slug?” he asked. “Or are you going to be chasing this line around the arena for the next two hours? You know, the longer it takes you, the more the men have to run, and the more they will end up hating you for it.”
“Shut up,” Timmy said.
“Let’s see how much you’ve improved in the last month, shall we? Run.”
Timmy sprang forward in a burst of speed. Armie signaled for Dev to take over as pacekeeper, and followed suit.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Timmy asked, breathless, glancing to his left.
“I decided to make the run with you,” Armie said. “Thought it would be a nice stroll.”
“You’re distracting me,” Timmy said.
“Then block me out. Ignore me.”
“Hard to do with you fucking talking to me.”
“Then outrun me. Leave me in the dust. Come on. Show me what you’ve got. Are you that pathetic weakling from the first day, or are you—“
Timmy tucked his elbows against his sides and bolted. Armie nearly laughed. The kid could run, that was for sure, now that his endurance had been improved. He picked up speed himself until he was side by side with Timmy again, but he didn’t speak further.
They flew around the arena and caught up with the end of the line.
Timmy was breathing hard, and he staggered a step before finding his rhythm again. Once he found it, he looked over at Armie, who was now keeping pace with him at the back.
“Seriously...what the fuck...do you want?” Timmy asked between gasps.
“Next time, put your all into it from the start. What were you waiting for, an engraved invitation?” Armie asked. “If you can run like that, do it. This weekend, there won’t be any room for holding back.”
“What’s this weekend?” Timmy asked.
Armie sprinted to the front of the line and took Dev’s place once more.
That afternoon, he started the men on a round of training for barehanded combat.
“Your weapon is yourself,” he said, when introducing the session. He held his arms high, palms out towards the men. “Don’t think of it as if you’ve only got these to fight with. They’re useful in many ways. But don’t forget you’ve got feet, and elbows, and knees, a head, an entire body at your disposal. And don’t underestimate yourself or your opponent; the human body can be as lethal as any other weapon.”
Armie ran the men through a series of combinations emphasizing this fact. They rolled and kicked and slid through the dirt. They punched and chopped the air. They ducked and jumped.
He strolled through the fighters, watching movement carefully, correcting form where he could. When he reached Timmy, he stopped.
The kid was definitely coming along. His movements were a bit jerky, not as controlled and graceful as Armie would have liked, but he was able to execute them well enough. There was something...missing, however.
Armie moved in front of Timmy as he completed a combination, not close enough for Timmy to make contact, but in his line of vision.
“Next combo,” Armie called. “Right jab, left hook, duck. Jump, roundhouse, crouch.”
Timmy blinked at him, and didn’t move.
“What are you waiting for?” Armie asked. “Didn’t you hear me?”
“Why are you standing there?” Timmy asked.
“I’ll stand where I want. Let’s see it. Right jab, left hook, duck. Jump, roundhouse, crouch.” Armie spread his feet apart and folded his arms across his chest.
After another beat of hesitation, Timmy executed the moves. Armie shook his head.
“Did I do it wrong?” Timmy asked.
“You did it, but there’s nothing behind it. You look like you’re a robot, just going through the motions because you were programmed to do so.” Armie executed a right jab, and Timmy flinched and took a step back, even though Armie’s fist did not come close to hitting him. “See?” he said. “That’s what I want to see. Convince me you mean it.”
Timmy moved back into position. His face locked into that fierce, determined look he got sometimes, and he executed the sequence again, this time with more life to the movements.
“Do it that way from now on,” Armie said, “and not like you don’t give a shit and are just passing the time. In other words, do it like a man and not like a slug, Slug.”
“What?” Armie asked innocently. “You don’t like being called Slug?”
Timmy bounced on his toes. “You’re kind of pissing me off right now,” he said. “I might want to hit you for real.”
Armie smiled. “Good. Just imagine that it’s my face leering at you when you practice. You can use it this weekend, too, if it helps you.”
“What’s this weekend?” Timmy asked. “Hey, answer me.”
Armie ignored Timmy and moved on to help the other fighters. When he checked back on Timmy a while later, he could see him looking positively murderous and muttering under his breath as he moved. He’d be willing to bet his next victory on the fact that Timmy was cursing at imaginary him.
On Tuesday night, they practiced blocking with half of the arena lights off, which deepened the shadows and made it harder to see from where the hits were coming.
On Wednesday afternoon, Armie made them work on escapes. One of a matched pair would put the other in a hold, and he would attempt to get free. He divided up the quartets, and saved Timmy for last. Timmy stood, looking unsure, as he watched all of the other groups form and spread out across the field.
“All right,” Armie said, when the only men left ungrouped were Timmy, Dev, and another intimidating fighter named Ryan, “let’s get started. Ryan, take Patel.”
Timmy shuffled his feet, standing on the opposite side from Armie. Armie watched him more closely than he watched Ryan and Dev as they grappled. Ryan had chosen to put Dev in a hold from behind, locking his arms and hooking his right leg. It didn’t take Dev long to throw Ryan off balance and get free. The two men stepped apart and made way for Armie in the center.
Timmy eyed him.
“Come on, Slug, let’s go. I’ll create the hold, you escape,” he said, beckoning with his hand. Timmy didn’t move. Armie sighed. “What’s the matter?”
“You’re twice my size,” Timmy said. “You could just cover me with your entire body and there would be no way in hell I could escape.”
“He’s got a point,” Dev said. “You’re a beast.” Ryan laughed.
Armie rolled his eyes. “I hate to break it to you, kid, but...most of the men here are twice your size. You’re going to have to go up against a fighter who’s bigger than you. You, especially, need practice escaping from someone like me. Get your ass over here, and lie down on your back.”
“On my back?” Timmy asked, with a frown.
“Yeah. You had a good idea. I’m going to cover you — as if I’ve just tackled you to the ground — and see how you deal with it.” Armie pointed at his feet. “Time’s wasting.”
Timmy gave himself a little shake, and then moved into position. Armie lowered himself on top, not quite lining up their bodies. He grabbed Timmy’s wrists and pulled his arms out and away from his body. Up close, Timmy’s eyes were a deep forest green, with flecks of amber. He smelled faintly sweet, like he was coated in a layer of honey.
“Okay,” he said, “Get yourself free.”
Timmy squirmed underneath him a moment and made no progress. “I can’t even breathe, asshole,” he said.
“If I’m your opponent, that’s good for me. You pass out, I win. Is that what’s going to happen this weekend?”
Timmy’s eyes widened. “What’s happening this weekend?” he asked.
Armie ignored the question. “Come on, keep trying.”
“Fuck.” Timmy squirmed some more. He pulled at his wrists, tried to detangle his leg from under Armie’s and then gave up. “This is impossible. You’re like a ton of bricks. You’re heavier than the damned water cart.”
“You’re not thinking,” Armie said.
“Hard to think with your — you flattening me.”
“What did I say on Monday about barehanded combat?” Armie asked.
“I don’t know. You say a fuck of a lot. You don’t shut up.”
Armie let out a laugh, and Timmy winced as he moved. “I said don’t just rely on your hands, or even your feet. You’ve got an entire body to use. If you can’t get out just by pulling and wiggling like you’ve been doing, what do you need to do?”
Timmy frowned. Then he drove his head up fast. Armie barely moved in time to avoid getting knocked in the forehead.
“Good,” he said.
“Didn’t work,” Timmy grunted.
“It almost did,” Armie said. “What else you got?”
For the next five minutes, Timmy launched an all out attack from beneath. He twisted and bucked, jerked his legs up, and even managed to get his teeth on Armie’s neck for a second.
Finally, he collapsed back onto the ground, breathing hard. Armie decided he had had enough, and got to his feet. He held out a hand.
Timmy ignored it and stood on his own.
“What did you learn?” Armie asked.
“Not to let you tackle me to the ground like that,” Timmy said, brushing dirt off of his tank. “Asshole.”
Armie grinned, and then turned to the others. “Patel, you’re up. You take Slug.”
“Hey,” Timmy said, shooting him a glare. “I just fucking went.”
“And in the Arena, you don’t get time to recover. Stop arguing with me. Go.”
For the rest of the afternoon, the three of them took turns trapping Timmy. By the end of the session, he was covered in grime, bruised in several places, and red in the face. He flipped Armie off before rejoining his friends on the way back into the tunnel. Joel clapped Timmy on the shoulder and made a comment that resulted in Timmy looking back over his shoulder at Armie with narrowed eyes.
On Thursday morning, Timmy collapsed during shuttle sprints. He made it across the arena in the first rotation — faster than Armie thought possible — and then, when he was waiting for his turn, his legs crumpled beneath him and he went down. One of the other fighters shouted to get someone’s attention, but Armie was already jogging over.
By the time he arrived, Timmy’s eyes were open. He was blinking up at the men around him in confusion. Armie dropped into a crouch.
“Hey, can you talk?” he asked.
“What happened?” Timmy asked.
“You fainted, I think,” Armie said. “Take a few deep breaths, with me.” He set the pace, and Timmy obeyed. His eyes began to clear.
Armie helped him sit up.
“How do you feel?” Armie asked.
“I’m fine,” Timmy said. He sounded vaguely embarrassed. Armie peered at him. There were circles under his eyes, and he looked awfully pale. He went to stand, and Armie placed a hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down.
“Stay there a minute,” he said.
He shifted the shuttle run line twenty feet to the south and then jogged back to the water cart. He returned with a full canteen and handed it to Timmy.
“Drink,” he said. He watched as Timmy guzzled the water, eyes drifting closed.
After a brief hesitation, Armie sank onto the dirt beside Timmy. He draped his arms over his knees and watched the fighters sprint back and forth.
“Did you forget to eat today?” Armie asked. “Is that why you’re collapsing onto the dirt like a used tissue?”
“No, I ate,” Timmy said. Armie waited. After another long minute, Timmy sighed. “Maybe I haven’t really slept at all this week.”
Armie glanced at Timmy. “Any particular reason?”
Timmy glared into the distance, not meeting Armie’s gaze. “Like you have no idea why I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Sure.”
“Humor me,” Armie said.
“I’m fighting this weekend. Right? I’m right, aren’t I?” Timmy’s gaze flickered to Armie, and then down at the ground between his bony knees. “That’s what you’ve been hinting at.”
“Could be,” Armie said. “It’s going to happen sooner or later. That’s no surprise.”
“But people don’t...we don’t know ahead of time. We’re told after training on Friday night. They announce it, call the names, the weapons. There’s no...no warning.” Timmy dropped a palm to the ground and began to trace his fingers in the dirt, creating a complicated pattern.
“It’s so that matched fighters don’t try to injure each other during practice to gain an advantage,” Armie said.
“Yeah, whatever. The point is, we don’t get advance notice. But you keep saying — all week, you’ve been mentioning the weekend. To me. And I haven’t been able to sleep because I keep…” He squeezed his eyes shut a moment, and then he fastened his gaze on Armie, his eyes hard. “Is that why you did it? Because you want to torture me? I know you’ve got it in for me.”
Armie shook his head. “Whether you believe me or not, I don’t. Have it in for you.”
“Then why would you tell me?”
“Maybe I thought giving you some warning would help you focus,” Armie said.
“I always focus.”
“That’s true.” Armie shrugged. “Maybe I thought it would help you prepare if you had some time to adjust to the idea.”
“So...I am fighting this weekend. Against who?” Timmy looked out over the sprinting fighters, and Armie saw the fear flashing in his eyes.
“I don’t know,” Armie said. “But it’ll be barehand. And it won’t be in the final fight. They never put a newbie up in a death match.”
Timmy pressed his lips together. He looked slightly relieved. “So I just have to survive,” he said. “I don’t have to win.”
Armie kicked Timmy’s foot. “That’s a dangerous way to think,” he said.
Armie got to his feet. “Finish your water, then rejoin your line.” Before he walked away, he added, “You’re not going to die this weekend. Worst that happens is you get a little beat up. Get some fucking sleep.”
Saturday night, Armie and the other fighters waited in the designated holding pens for their fights to be called. There were two pens, one on each end of the Arena, so that the matched pairs could not interact with each other before the fight.
An hour before the first bout, the scheduled fighters were escorted into the dimly lit pens through a gate leading up from the prison, a gate that was secured until all fights were over. The fighters accessed the Arena through a gate on the opposite wall. One by one, the men were called, entered the Arena, fought, and then exited through a third gate in the middle of the side wall, opposite the Emperor’s box.
It was possible to watch the matches through the Arena gate, but while the prisoners who were not scheduled to fight were required to watch, here it was optional. Some fighters did. Others preferred to avoid it while waiting for their own. Armie sometimes watched, sometimes did not. It depended on his mood. On this night, however, he once again found himself focused on Timmy.
The kid stood off to the side, in a shadowy corner. He was leaning up against the stone wall of the enclosure, staring at his feet, his hands clasped in front of him. He was perfectly still. The sounds of the Arena crowd reacting to the current fight rolled in through the gate. Armie wondered if Timmy could hear it. Was it making him tense? Excited? Or was he so focused inward that he had tuned it out?
Armie thought about leaving him alone. He could be mentally preparing, running through scenarios in his head, planning his attack. It was what Armie usually did right before a fight. Timmy had been matched with one of the older fighters. He was good, but his age made him struggle, so the match was actually fairly even, in Armie’s opinion. The opponent may have been stronger, but Timmy was quicker, smarter, and had better endurance.
After watching him a few minutes, Armie decided to talk to him, feel out his headspace. If he seemed fine, Armie would back off. If, on the other hand, he was having trouble...well, maybe Armie could help prevent disaster. He leaned up against the wall beside Timmy.
“What are you thinking?” he asked.
Timmy’s eyes flew open, and he pressed a hand to his chest. He was on edge, then. Good to know.
“Shit,” Timmy said, “I didn’t hear you come up.”
“What are you thinking?” Armie repeated.
“I’m thinking about the match,” Timmy said.
“Are you running scenarios?”
Timmy nodded, then paused a brief moment before shaking his head. “Trying to, but all I keep thinking about is how things can go wrong.”
He pushed away from the wall and walked over to the Arena gate. Armie didn’t follow immediately. Timmy stood ramrod straight, his arms at his sides. The only movement was his hands, fisting and then flattening against his thighs.
The cheers from the Arena grew. One of the fighters must have done something impressive.
Armie finally moved back to Timmy’s side and looked out into the Arena. One of the newbies, a sloppy fighter who resented training in general, was circling one of the veterans from Joel’s crew. The new fighter already had a bloodied lip and scratches on one arm. He’d be willing to bet the newb would be well beaten down by the time this was over.
Neither Armie nor Timmy spoke for a few minutes, watching the fighters grapple with each other and then break apart several times. This was going to be an endurance fight, and it wasn’t going to be pretty. Armie questioned whether he should suggest to Timmy that he not watch, but decided to stay silent.
Finally, Timmy spoke. “I keep reminding myself I just have to survive. Get to the end of it.”
“That’s one way to look at it,” Armie said.
“Joel said that if I’m getting too beat up, or worried I’m going to get hurt, I can just take a knee. That’ll end the match.” Timmy bit at his lower lip.
Fuck. If that was what Joel was filling Timmy’s head with…Armie needed to do some damage control.
“Joel isn’t wrong. That’ll end the match for sure,” Armie said. “But you’ll lose.”
“And I’ll be alive.”
“Do you remember what I said to you on your first day? About the weak kneeling in the dirt?” Armie asked.
“I am weak,” Timmy said. “Compared to...well, just about everyone. I don’t really belong here, and they all know it.” He looked at Armie. “ You know it. You remind me of it every day.”
Armie rubbed a hand across his face. Timmy was getting in his own head, and he was definitely going down tonight if he kept thinking this way. With a sigh, he reached out and wrapped a hand around Timmy’s bicep. Timmy tensed and looked down at his hand, wariness coloring his eyes.
“This here?” Armie squeezed Timmy’s bicep, satisfied at the firm muscle he felt. “This says you’re not weak. You’re definitely a lot stronger than you were the day they dragged you in here.”
“I’m still not even close to as strong as the guy I’m fighting,” Timmy argued.
“You know what else says you’re not weak? The way you power through training every day, the way you tackled that water cart for two whole weeks, the way you always — always — get up after you’ve been knocked down.” Armie released Timmy’s arm. “You don’t give up during training. You’re a fucking machine. Are you going to give up tonight? When it matters?”
“During training, no one’s trying to kill me,” Timmy protested.
“No one’s trying to kill you tonight, either,” Armie said. He shrugged, and with a grim smile, said, “The only one anyone is trying to kill tonight is me.”
Timmy blinked at him, and then he dropped his gaze and scuffed his boot in the dirt. “Oh. I mean, of course. Sorry, you must think I’m the biggest whiner, being terrified of a match that’s not even...when you’re—“
“I’m used to it,” Armie said.
“Do you…” Timmy looked back at him, his expression serious. “Does it bother you that you’re always in the death match?”
“Come on, really?”
Armie kept his features carefully blank as he responded. “It wouldn’t matter if it did. So it doesn’t.”
“It doesn’t matter to them,” Timmy said, waving his hand in the direction of the cheering crowd. “But it might matter to...other people. To know how you felt about it. It would bother me. If every week I had to fight knowing I could be dead at the end, or have to kill someone, I don’t think I could—“
“You could and you will,” Armie said. He grabbed Timmy’s chin and brought his face close, so that he could be sure Timmy heard his message. “You’re talking about survival? The only way — the only way — to truly survive here is to win. To do what it takes, whatever it takes, to come out on top.”
Armie examined Timmy’s face, his wide eyes, the way his lower lip trembled. He released Timmy and took a step back.
“Listen,” he said, “you may not be stronger than Marshall, but you’re faster than he is. You’re younger. And you’re definitely smarter. So don’t give me any of that ‘I’m weak’ bullshit. I don’t care what Joel said. If you kneel, you’re giving up. Giving up is the fastest way to the grave, in here. You can’t just try to survive. You have to win.”
The way Timmy was looking at him now scared Armie a little. Maybe he had gone too far, because there was something like gratitude mixed with awe radiating from his features. Armie tried to think of what to say next, but he was struggling to concentrate, instead consumed with the moss green eyes that filled his vision.
A particularly loud roar from the crowd startled them both. Armie glanced into the Arena and saw that the newbie was lying unconscious on the ground while the veteran fighter was raising his arms in victory. The fight was over. As soon as the Guards cleared the prone fighter, it would be Timmy’s turn. They’d be announcing him within minutes.
“So what do you think?” Armie asked. “Are you really going to go out there intending to give up? Or will you be scratching your first win into your cell wall tonight?”
Timmy opened and closed his mouth a few times before he found the words he was looking for.
“I don’t know why you even care about me,” he said.
Armie was quiet a long moment before answering. “Don’t assume this is about you,” he said.
“Then what is it about?”
“What happens when there’s a good fight?” Armie asked, turning back to Timmy and folding his arms across his chest.
“I don’t...the crowd likes it,” Timmy said.
“And what happens if a fight is over too quickly? Not evenly matched?”
“The crowd gets bored,” Timmy said.
“Let me ask you this. If the crowds stop coming to the Arena because the fights are boring...what happens to us?” Armie waited for it to click. It did, realization crossing Timmy’s face all at once. He continued. “And what happens if they like a fighter? Think he’s worth watching?”
“The fighter gets to fight a lot. The Arena is popular,” Timmy said. “Is that why...is that why you toy with your opponents? So that the crowd will like you?”
Armie raised an eyebrow. “I don’t toy with anyone. And no.”
“Then why —“
The announcer’s voice boomed across the Arena, and he fell silent.
“Next up, our night of ‘Fresh Blood’ continues with the veteran favorite Marshall Reed versus a new competitor. You can call him...The Slug.”
Timmy’s mouth fell open, and a look of horror crossed his face. “No,” he said. “No, no, no.”
Armie smiled. “You don’t like your billing?” he asked.
“A slug is a fucking insect.” Timmy glared at Armie. “A gross, slimy, easy to squash—“
“It’s also ancient slang for a bullet,” Armie said. Timmy frowned.
“You called me a slug that first day,” he said. “No fucking way did you mean the bullet.”
“On the first day, you had trouble with endurance. Are you still struggling to keep up?”
“No,” Timmy said.
“Are you fast?”
“Yes.” Timmy’s eyes flashed, as if defying Armie to contradict him.
“Don’t let anyone else determine what you are,” Armie said. “Not me, not the other men, and definitely not those fucking leeches who show up week after week to watch men die. You decide. You make the choice. Which is it going to be?”
The fanfare started, and the crowd cheered in anticipation. The gate swung open. Timmy went dead still for a moment. Then his eyes locked on Armie’s, reflecting all the fear and anxiety he was feeling. One second slid into two, and then a mask of determination, the one Armie had become quite familiar with over the last month, replaced everything else.
Timmy turned to the open gate. Then, instead of striding out into the Arena like all the fighters before him…
The gate swung closed. Armie smiled, and settled in to watch Timmy’s first match.
Chapter 6: Insidiis
With the Hammer’s words ringing in his ears, Timmy flew across the Arena.
Things are heating up now. We're more than halfway to the conclusion. Keep your fingers crossed I can get us there in the next two weeks.
Note and plea for forgiveness: I don't play chess. Please just pretend that what happens in here with regards to the game play makes sense.
Thanks for reading, thanks for commenting, thanks for being wonderful. I have come to really love this story, and it makes me so happy that there are people out there who seem to love it too, even though it's not necessarily the usual Charmie fare.
100% fiction, of course. Enjoy...
With the Hammer’s words ringing in his ears, Timmy flew across the Arena. As he approached his designated starting position, he planted his feet and leaned to the left, skidding to a stop in a cloud of dust.
The crowd erupted, cheers exploding around him. Recalling what he had seen other fighters do, the Hammer in particular, Timmy raised his arms high and wide, waving at the crowd with both hands. His stomach was looping, his pulse was racing, and he felt like his heart was trying to climb out of his chest in fear...but at the same time, he felt a surge of excited adrenaline.
They liked his entrance. Maybe...they’d like him?
He barely dared to hope, but one thing was for sure: it was too soon to tell. All he had done so far was run out of the pen. The fight itself hadn’t even begun. He lowered his arms and turned to face his opponent.
Marshall was a decent guy. One of the older fighters, someone who had been in the Arena for years. When he had learned he was going up against Timmy, he had approached and shook his hand, clapped him on the back, and wished him luck.
Timmy hoped they’d both get out of this with minimal damage.
Marshall was at his starting position twenty yards away. They stood, motionless, staring at each other. Who was going to start? Timmy tried to remember what the Hammer...Hammer, it was his name, had told him about this part during training.
If you approach first, you’re taking control. But if you wait for the approach, you can use his momentum against him. Both strategies can be effective.
Marshall was bigger than him. If he ran at the guy, got up enough speed, maybe he could knock him down in a way he couldn’t if they were closer together. Just as Timmy was gearing up the guts to do it, Marshall made a move. He jogged towards Timmy, picking up speed as he ran.
Timmy immediately opened his stance and bent his knees. He bounced on his toes, hands clenched into fists.
Here he comes, Timmy thought wildly. Use his momentum. Three, two, one —
Marshall dove, arms out. Timmy sprang left, whirling out of the way, sending Marshall sprawling in the dirt. The crowd cheered. Timmy took off at a sprint, headed for the other end of the Arena, before Marshall could get to his feet.
The second time Marshall ran at him, Timmy decided not to repeat his last move. Instead, he waited for Marshall to get within ten feet and then ran at a diagonal. Marshall grabbed at him but missed, then changed course. Timmy zigged and zagged around the Arena, staying just out of Marshall’s reach.
When he thought Marshall might be tiring, Timmy dropped into a crouch and stopped. Marshall crashed into him and tumbled head over heels, landing on his back. Timmy delivered three kicks to Marshall’s ribs while he was winded before the man managed to get a hold of Timmy’s ankle and sent him crashing down.
They rolled and grappled together, Timmy striking out any way he could. He silently thanked Hammer for forcing him to take the brunt of the escape training earlier in the week. After taking an elbow to the cheek, pain exploding across his left eye, Timmy managed to wriggle out of Marshall’s grasp. He scrambled to his feet and ran.
The fight continued this way, alternating between Marshall giving chase and with them tangled together on the ground, for what seemed like an eternity. A painful, frightening eternity. Timmy knew he wasn’t coming out of this clean.
At one point, Marshall’s knee connected with Timmy’s nose. He was afraid it was broken, but he ignored the pain and the sensation of blood running down over his lips and kept going.
They collided with teeth-shattering force when Timmy decided to run at Marshall while Marshall was running at him, and his head snapped back, wrenching his neck.
On another run, Timmy dove for Marshall’s feet and Marshall landed on his arm, bending his wrist back so far Timmy screamed.
Finally, they stood twenty feet apart, breathing hard. Timmy though maybe — just maybe — Marshall was breathing harder than he was. Nevertheless, the man launched himself across the space.
Timmy waited, bouncing on his toes. At the last second, he glanced left and whirled right. Marshall fell for the feint and lurched to Timmy’s left. Timmy took the opportunity to jump onto Marshall’s back. He wrapped his arms around Marshall’s neck, tucked his knees up around Marshall’s waist, and held on tight. Marshall immediately began to try to buck him off.
His head was pounding, his left eye and nose throbbing. His left wrist screamed in pain anytime it was jostled.
But he didn’t let go.
Grunting beneath him, Marshall clawed at his arms, scraping red welts across them. Timmy tightened his grip, squeezing at Marshall’s neck. Eventually, Marshall staggered to a stop. Timmy could hear him wheezing.
He didn’t let go.
Marshall sank to his knees with a thud, and then crashed forward onto his front. Timmy remained on top of him, terrified to move in case Marshall was faking. Seconds ticked by. The crowd went quiet.
Then the horn sounded signaling the end of the match, and the cheers erupted around him.
Carefully, Timmy released Marshall and got to his feet. He peered down at the man, relief coursing through him when he saw that his opponent was breathing. He straightened up and turned to face the Emperor's box.
“We have our victor!” The announcer's voice boomed across the Arena. “Newcomer Timothée, known as the Slug for his bullet-like running style, has taken the win.”
Feeling as though he was in suspended animation, like none of this could be real, Timmy raised his arms in the air and bellowed. He wasn’t sure where the sound had come from. Somewhere deep inside, some primal place that knew he had won.
He turned towards the exit gate. Then he took two deep breaths, drew from some pocket of energy he didn’t know he had left, and bolted.
The screams of the crowd followed him back underground.
Timmy blinked his eyes open and saw sterile white ceiling. He turned his head to the side and pain exploded at his temple. He jerked his head back, closed his eyes and moaned.
“Hey, man up, kid,” said a gruff voice to his right. “You came out pretty good on this one.”
Cautiously, Timmy opened one eye. He swiveled it right and saw Joel standing there, a half smile on his face.
“Hi,” Timmy croaked. “Where…?”
“Infirmary,” Joel said. “Apparently, you ran back into the tunnel and collapsed straightaway. They brought you here to check you over and fix you up.”
“How bad is it?” Timmy asked. He could feel the throbbing now, in his head and in his wrist in particular. “My nose—“
“Not broken,” Joel said. “Like I said, you’re not in bad shape. The worst of it is a black eye and a sprained wrist.”
Timmy lifted his left arm, saw the surgical wrapping around his wrist, keeping it immobile.
“Nope,” Joel said.
“And Marshall?” Timmy was almost afraid to ask.
Joel shrugged. “He’ll be fine too. His windpipe is bruised — from the end of the fight — and you took some good gauges out of his arms and face, so he’s a little bloodied up. More bruised than you, from all the times you sent him diving into the dirt.”
Timmy nodded, relieved. He had to fight, and he had to win — that was the decision he had made — but he didn’t want to hurt anyone too badly if he could help it. He was glad Marshall was okay.
“You did good, kid,” Joel said, laying a hand on Timmy’s right shoulder and giving it a little squeeze. Timmy felt a rush of pride. He had done well. He’d done what he had been taught. Maybe it had been a little messy, but he’d done it. Joel continued talking. “A win on your first time out? That’s real good. Means they’ll use you again soon, see if you can build a reputation.”
That made Timmy think of something else. Hammer’s fight.
“What happened in the final fight?” he asked. Had Hammer won again? He was up against Andrew, one of Joel’s crew. Andrew was a good fighter, but he hadn’t won in a while. Timmy didn’t think Hammer had anything to worry about with Andrew, but still…
Joel’s face went grim, and Timmy’s stomach dropped. It was bad. Was Hammer okay? He remembered the guy talking to him, giving him a heartfelt pep talk, hours earlier.
He hoped Hammer was okay.
“Andrew’s dead,” Joel said. Anger flashed in his eyes. “The asshole killed him. Snapped his neck with his massive paws.”
Dead. Timmy swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. He’d been at the Arena nearly five weeks, but hadn’t seen a death yet. Each death match had ended in mercy. He’d known it was only a matter of time, and yet…
His eyes slid closed, and he tried to control the way his stomach rolled. A mixture of fear and regret choked him, squeezing the breath out of his chest. He hadn't known Andrew well, had only spoken with him a handful of times. He was a curt individual, stern-faced and business-like, but he’d welcomed Timmy into their group without any trouble. And he was Joel’s friend.
Timmy opened his eyes. He reached out with his good hand and grabbed Joel’s arm.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You must be—“
“I hate the fucker,” Joel whispered. “He didn’t even flinch. Just...” He made a twisting motion with his hands. “And it was done. Then he gave his victory yell and left the Arena with a fucking spring in his step. He enjoyed it.”
“Are you sure?” Timmy asked. Joel had said Hammer had killed a lot of men, but from what Timmy had observed, he seemed to only do so out of necessity, not because of a bloodlust. “You sure he...enjoyed it?”
“Of course he did,” Joel said. “He’s a monster. Only way you get to where he is is by having a heart of stone. He don’t give a fuck who he has to kill to get free. And Andrew? The Hammer hated him. Jumped at the chance to put him down. You should have seen his face afterward. He was fucking smug.”
Timmy considered that. It was true that Hammer didn’t seem to interact with Joel’s group. Maybe he did dislike them.
“Anyway, he didn’t have to do it. Not like that.” Joel shook his head. Then he refocused on Timmy, and his face seemed to shift, clear. “Look, you don’t worry about that for now. Got yourself a nice cushy spot to sleep tonight, you should get some rest.”
“Yeah,” Timmy said. He could feel the drowsiness setting in. “I’m kind of...drifting.”
“That’s the drugs. They give you the good stuff after a fight.” Joel patted Timmy’s leg. “I’m glad you won. Knew you had it in you.”
Timmy smiled. “Thanks, Joel,” he said, just before he slid into slumber.
The next morning, the doctor checked him over and declared him fit to return to the prison population. He wasn’t to use his left hand for a week, and was restricted from training at all for two days on account of his black eye, but otherwise he was cleared.
They brought him breakfast and told him to take his time, and he did.
As he ate, he thought about the conversation with Joel from the night before. He was still having trouble wrapping his brain around the idea that Andrew was dead. He was having a harder time accepting the fact that Hammer had willingly and brutally killed him.
Even though his initial impressions of Hammer had been negative, and he often harbored resentment towards the man because of the torture he was subjected to in training, he had to grudgingly admit that the guy had helped him out. Without Hammer being hard on him, singling him out for extra work and pushing him past his limits, he would never have beaten Marshall. He’d probably be in much worse shape, physically.
And then there was that pep talk. Sure, the man had said it wasn’t about Timmy, specifically. He wanted the fights to be good, so that he could continue to win his freedom. Still, the talk had benefited Timmy. He was grateful for that.
Also, despite what Hammer had said was his motivation, Timmy kept envisioning his blue eyes, intense and focused and locked on Timmy’s. He kept feeling the ghost of his giant hand wrapped around Timmy’s bicep, squeezing his muscle. The way his fingers pinched Timmy’s chin when he brought their faces close.
These thoughts were a jumbled mess in his brain when the door opened and the man himself entered Timmy’s room. Seeing him suddenly in the flesh when Timmy had just been imagining it made him shiver. His mouth fell open and he just gaped.
Hammer came to stand at the end of the bed. He frowned as he looked Timmy over, and then a smile broke out on his face.
Timmy nearly gasped. He had never seen this man smile — really smile — before. He was most often serious. Sometimes he’d smirk or let out a short laugh, but this...it was like sunshine had traveled through the tunnels and burst free.
“Look at you,” Hammer said, still smiling. “The matador at rest, and only a little worse for the wear.”
“The...what?” Timmy asked.
“Matador. The men who used to fight bulls, back when bullfights were allowed. You ever seen video of them?”
Timmy had a sudden vision of men swirling red capes through the air as they dodged the bull’s horns. “Yeah, I think. A long time ago.”
“That was you last night. Marshall was the bull, and you were the matador, leading him wherever you wanted him and then spinning away. Brilliant.”
Hammer was looking at Timmy in a way that made his stomach clench and his heart beat faster. Why did he suddenly look so...Timmy pushed the odd feeling aside.
“You thought it was okay?” he asked.
“Yeah. Definitely okay. How are you feeling?” Hammer asked.
“I’m good,” Timmy said. “Sprained wrist and some bruising. I’m not supposed to—“
“Yeah, I know. Enjoy the break because when I’ve got you back I’ll work you twice as hard. Can’t have you going soft now.” Hammer winked at him, and Timmy felt himself responding to the mood, loosening up and feeling lighter. Hammer thought he had done well, was praising him, smiling at him, winking at him. It made him feel warm. Noticed. He wanted to roll around in this sensation, wrap himself up in it.
But then he remembered what Joel had said after also praising him, and everything crashed to a halt. Hammer was standing here smiling at him, winking for fuck’s sake, acting like they were just old friends hanging out at a cantina. When in reality—
“I heard you killed Andrew last night,” Timmy said.
The smile evaporated and the Hammer’s face went blank. He didn’t dodge the statement, didn’t fidget, didn’t look away in shame.
“I did,” was all he said in response.
Timmy expected...something more. An apology. An acknowledgment that Timmy and Andrew were part of the same crew. A display of regret over the taking of a life.
He saw nothing. Nothing but stone. This wasn’t the man who had given him the rousing speech the night before, the mentor who was proud of him. This was the killer that he had been warned about from the start, the man who could get within a year of freedom because of his willingness to spread death among other men.
A coldness snaked its way down Timmy’s spine as the Hammer stood, unmoving, with the seconds ticking by. He was waiting for something, Timmy realized. What? Judgment? Well, Timmy could give him that.
“Andrew was my friend,” Timmy said. “You just...ended him. We were — he was my friend.”
“And?” The Hammer gave a one-shouldered shrug. “Everyone is someone’s friend. Someone’s family. None of that matters, not in the Arena. You should get used to that, if you plan to keep winning.”
Timmy opened his mouth to reply, but the Hammer turned and strode out of the room without a backward glance.
Timmy spent the bulk of the next two days alternating between being in pain and being bored out of his mind. He wasn’t allowed to train, and when he tried to join the training anyway — just to watch — the Hammer ordered him back underground. So he sulked in his cell, lying on his uncomfortable cot and staring at the ceiling. He sulked in the common area alone, staring at the stone walls. There was a shelf of old tablets loaded with old books and periodicals, but many of them were either broken or so glitchy it made reading frustrating, at best. There was also a set of game tablets, but he didn’t have anyone to play anything with, so he just sat and tried not to think.
When he let himself think, he got stuck in a spiral.
Why am I here — how do I get out — I won Saturday night, I can make it — I can’t kill someone like that — Saturday night was a fluke, I’m dead for sure — who can I trust? — can’t trust anyone.
On Tuesday afternoon after lunch, Joel looked around the common area, then leaned close and said, “We’re going to make him pay for Andrew.”
“The Hammer?” Timmy asked.
Joel nodded. “Of course. He thinks he can just go on after that without offering an apology or showing any remorse, because he thinks he’s better than all of us. The guys and I have been talking. He needs to be taken down a peg, and we’re going to do it.”
Timmy barely held off a shiver at the cold determination in Joel’s tone. “What are you going to do?” he asked.
“We,” Joel said. “It’s what we’re going to do. You in?”
“I mean...yeah, of course. You know I’m with you. But what exactly are you planning?” Timmy was still upset about the way the Hammer had reacted to his confrontation on Sunday morning, but the way Joel was talking made him a little uneasy.
Joel clapped a hand on Timmy’s shoulder and squeezed. “Knew I could count on you. The plan is to get him to lose a fucking match for once. Teach him that he’s not invincible, and that his fate can be in someone else’s hands. I’m working on something, and I’ll let you know when I’ve worked out the details.”
Timmy nodded, but Joel’s words only made him more uncomfortable. “If he loses a match, though...he’s always in the death match. So by making him lose, you might be killing him. Is that better than what —”
“Won’t happen,” Joel said, waving away Timmy’s concern. “The Hammer’s too popular. There’s no way the Emperor will let him die, not now. All that’ll happen is he’ll learn he can lose. Throw him off his game a bit. Bring him back down to our level.”
“Okay,” Timmy said. What Joel was saying did make sense, and lined up with what he had come to understand so far about the way the Arena system ran. The Hammer wouldn’t be in any real danger, he reassured himself.
Why do you care? he thought immediately thereafter. He’ll kill people to get what he wants, maybe Joel’s right...he needs to remember what it’s like to feel his fate in someone else’s hands.
When Timmy returned to training on Wednesday, he was still restricted from weapons sessions due to his wrist. Instead, the Hammer made him run laps and do strength training with his one good arm while the rest of them worked with broadswords.
“Can’t I work with a puggio or something?” Timmy asked. “I can practice with something like that. Why’d you pick a two-handed weapon this week when you know I can’t use one of my hands?”
The Hammer had simply said, “Not everything is about you, Slug. Give me a hundred one-armed push-ups and then take a reverse lap. See how fast you are when you’re running backwards.”
Timmy cursed the man the entire way around the training arena, his curses getting more creative and elaborate as his muscles screamed at him from the unusual activity.
On Thursday night after dinner, Timmy spent time with Joel and some of his crew in Joel’s cell, continuing the ongoing discussion about what they were planning.
Joel had come up with the idea of messing with the weapon the Hammer was assigned the following Saturday. He was friendly with the weapons master and thought he could arrange it so that one of them could swap out a faulty piece with the one designated for the Hammer. The idea of sending the Hammer into a match with a weapon that was going to fail made Timmy more uneasy than ever, but he kept trying to remind himself that they were just trying to make him lose, and he wasn’t in any real danger.
Besides, the Hammer was resourceful. He could probably win by stealing the weapon away from his opponent.
When he crossed through the common area on his way back to his cell, it wasn’t time for lights out yet, so there were still fighters milling around. The Hammer was one of them. He was sitting at his usual table alone, one of the gaming tablets in front of him, a chess game in progress. Timmy looked around for who his opponent might be, but didn’t see any of his usual crowd nearby.
The Hammer looked up while Timmy had paused, and their eyes met. He gestured at the seat across from him.
“Sit,” he said.
Timmy looked around suspiciously. “Me?”
“Is that an order, or a request?” Timmy asked.
The Hammer eyed him, his features controlled and blank, so that Timmy couldn’t read what he was thinking. “A request,” he said, after a brief hesitation.
Timmy considered telling him to fuck off and continuing on to his cell, but a part of him was curious as to what the guy wanted. So he slid onto the bench.
Neither of them spoke for a minute. Timmy watched as the Hammer considered the flickering virtual chessboard and moved a black knight. After another minute, he took a black pawn with a white rook.
“Are you playing against yourself?” Timmy asked.
“I am,” said the Hammer.
“That seems...boring,” Timmy said.
“It’s challenging.” The Hammer rested his elbows on the table, propped his chin on his clasped hands, and gazed at Timmy. “Trying to win from both sides is difficult.”
“I guess,” Timmy said with a shrug.
“Do you play?” asked the Hammer.
“I used to.”
The Hammer hit a button on the side of tablet and the board reverted to the initial layout. The white pieces were in front of Timmy.
“Your move,” said the Hammer.
Timmy licked his lips and considered the offer. Did he want to sit here and play a game with this man? But he suspected that this wasn’t really about the Hammer wanting a companion to play chess. He wanted something else from Timmy, and...Timmy sort of wanted something else from him, if he was being honest. He wasn’t sure what, but he needed the Hammer to do or say something to clarify Timmy’s feelings about what Joel’s crew was planning.
So flicked his finger and moved a pawn.
They played in silence for a few turns. Timmy was good at chess. He and Aunt Greta had passed many an evening with an old wooden set that had belonged to her family. It was elaborately carved and the painting was intricate and detailed, covered in gold and silver leaf and inlaid with tiny manufactured gemstones. Some of the paint had chipped, and some of the pieces had gone missing and been replaced with household items — a thimble for a pawn, a salt shaker for a rook, etc. — but it still retained its beauty and function.
After a while, the Hammer spoke. “I knew going into the match on Saturday.”
Timmy blinked at him. “What?”
“As soon as it was announced on Friday, I knew,” the Hammer said. “So did Andrew. So did everyone. It was the end for him if he lost.”
“How can you…” Timmy clenched his hand into a fist. “What are you talking about, you knew ? You mean you had decided ahead of time that you were going to snap his neck?”
“No.” The Hammer sighed. “But this is how the system works. We haven’t had a true death match in a while, and the Emperor needed one to keep the crowds interested. Make it a present threat even when it doesn’t happen.”
“But how does that mean you knew it would be your match?” Timmy asked. “And not the one on Sunday?”
The Hammer rubbed a hand over his face. “Andrew and I weren’t well matched. He was a decent fighter at one time, but recently he hasn’t been successful. I don’t think he’s won a match in six months. More, maybe. He wasn’t a popular fighter. When I heard the match-up, I knew the intention was for me to win and for him to die.”
Timmy felt sick. He imagined what it would be like to go into a match knowing with certainty that you weren’t coming out of it. He moved another pawn.
“Doesn’t mean you had to do it,” Timmy said quietly.
The Hammer frowned. “Of course I did,” he said.
“You could have chosen not to kill him. To show mercy. Like you have before.”
The Hammer stared at him. “You think I’m the one that made the choice. That makes more sense,” he muttered. “It was the Emperor’s decision this time, not mine.”
Oh. Timmy wondered why Joel hadn’t told him that. Why no one had. He felt his resentment towards the man slipping away and tried to hold on.
“Still,” he said stubbornly, “you could have refused. Or offered your life in exchange or something.”
The Hammer let out a bitter laugh. “Yes, because that choice would have turned out well. If I had refused, we would both have been shot. So Andrew would still have been dead, and so would I. Would that be better? Maybe it would, for you. Since your feelings about me are clear.”
He moved a pawn of his own, taking Timmy’s.
Timmy chewed on his lip. Hammer had a point, he had to admit. The Emperor probably wouldn’t have hesitated to kill them both if there was a threat to the stability of his Arena system. And yet, Hammer was so well-loved, would the Emperor really have sacrificed his most popular fighter?
“Do you really think he would have had you killed?” he asked, knocking a bishop two diagonal spaces to the northwest. “You’re the one who said that the popular fighters bring in the crowds. You’re popular, and you’re close to freedom. Once you get it, it’s even more enticing for men to agree to this entire system as an alternative to a life sentence.”
“That’s all true,” Hammer said. “But think about it. If the most popular fighter refuses to make a kill when ordered, and gets away with it, he has way too much power. The Emperor can’t allow that, and killing me would send a clear message that the system cannot be fought, and he does not discriminate when enforcing his rules.”
Timmy thought that over as Hammer moved a knight. Before he could say anything in response, Hammer spoke again.
“Besides, you think a man who killed the entire royal family, including children — including an infant — without remorse would think twice about ending the life of a single fighter?”
“You don’t believe in the legend of the lost prince, then?” Timmy asked. He looked over the board, using the game and his question to distract himself from the truth of what Hammer had said. The Emperor was ruthless. Always had been. It was how he gained and kept his rule, and it made Timmy feel inconsequential and helpless, as always.
“I don’t,” Hammer said. “Or rather, I think that anyone escaping that night of slaughter is unlikely. What is equally unlikely is the fact that if the infant did escape, he survived this long. And even more unlikely that if he did survive, he’d risk himself by coming forward. In other words...it’s either just a fairy tale, or it’s a false hope. Either way, there’s no use in putting stock in it.”
Timmy moved his queen to block a knight’s path to his bishop and caught Hammer’s eye. “I agree, for what it’s worth,” he said. “My aunt and I used to talk...he’s better off staying hidden, if he’s out there. Live a normal life. The second he reveals himself, he’s dead.”
They played a few more minutes without further discussion. After a while, Hammer tapped his fingers on the table a moment and then flattened his palm against the polished wood, and spoke.
“You asked me, the other night, why I ‘toyed’ with my opponents.” Hammer moved his own queen and took Timmy’s bishop anyway.
“You said you don’t,” Timmy said. He moved a rook into position, threatening Hammer’s exposed king.
“I don’t toy with anyone. What I do is make the match look as even as possible.” Hammer considered the board, then moved a pawn in the path of the rook.
“”Why?” Timmy asked. “Why would you bother?”
“You already know the answer to that question,” Hammer said. “Your move.”
Timmy looked at the layout of the board, considering his options, and thought over what Hammer had said. What had they talked about on Saturday night? That when a match was good, the crowd stayed interested. When they liked a fighter, they kept coming to see him…
He stared at Hammer. “You don’t do it so the crowd will like you,” he said quietly. “You do it so the crowd will like your opponent. So that when it comes time for the final decision, they want mercy.”
Hammer gazed back at him. “Your move,” he repeated.
The tone sounded signaling fifteen minutes until lockdown and lights out, and Timmy jumped.
With a flick of his finger, Hammer turned off the board. He rose from his seat, replaced the board on the shelf, and headed towards their block without another word.
Timmy stared after him. He had realized, a second before the game was shut down, that despite feeling like he had had the upper hand for most of their match, Hammer had been about to put him in checkmate.
The weapons locker was off limits to most of the fighters most of the time. Each day, the Empire Guards would bring the crates of selected weapons up to the training arena for the afternoon session, and then count and return them afterwards. On the weekends, before the matches, the weapons were distributed to the fighters minutes before they were escorted, also by the Empire Guards, to the holding pens.
The only exception was that one fighter was assigned to assist with putting away and cleaning the weapons after training. On Fridays, this task also involved preparing and cataloguing the weapons for the fighters in the weekend matches.
Joel somehow got one of his men assigned to weapons duty that Friday. Timmy still wasn’t sure how he managed it, and wasn’t so thrilled with the fact that it was happening. Ever since his chess game with Hammer the day before, he had been having second thoughts — or maybe third thoughts, since he had already had second thoughts — about this plan.
Joel made it out like they were just trying to embarrass Hammer. Show him that he, too, could lose. That he wasn’t invincible, and wasn’t better than they were. There were a couple of problems with that.
For one thing, Timmy was beginning to think that Hammer was better than the rest of them. Not just a better fighter, but maybe a better person. If what he had said was true...if he really did work the matches to try to save his opponents from death...that was one of the most ethical and heroic things Timmy had heard of, in a place like the Arena. He had also begun to look at the way Hammer trained them in a different light. He wasn’t lording his power position over them, but rather using it to make them all better fighters.
It had worked with Timmy, after all.
For another thing, he wasn’t so sure that tampering with the weapon was harmless. It could get Hammer severely injured, and his opponent could take advantage of that. He was fighting Ryan on Saturday, and Ryan was one of the top fighters, behind Hammer. He often fought the Sunday death matches. This particular fight was evenly matched without Hammer having to put on a performance, and Timmy would have been worried about Hammer’s chances of success even without putting a faulty weapon in the mix.
Ryan and Hammer got along well. Ryan was even one of the fighters Timmy would consider part of Hammer’s inner circle. But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t take the win if he saw the opportunity.
The thought of Hammer losing, and facing the possibility of a kill order, made Timmy sick. For reasons he wasn’t sure what to think about yet, but it made him sick nonetheless.
Joel talked a good game, however, and by the time Joel’s man was working with the weapons master to prepare the weapons for Saturday, he decided it would be fine. Joel was right, in a fight with such popular fighters, a week after the last Arena death, neither of them was really in any danger. Ryan wouldn’t go for the kill during the match if he didn’t have to, not when Hammer was his friend. Timmy convinced himself that if Joel was determined to do this — and he was — now was probably the ideal time.
That night, Joel threw an arm around him after dinner and whispered in his ear. “It’s done,” he said. “That bastard’s sword is going to shatter tomorrow night and then he’ll be weaponless. Let’s see him win then.”
Timmy simply nodded, trying to ignore the pit that had been sitting in his stomach all week long. It was still growing in size.
The following afternoon, after their early dinner, the fighters who weren’t scheduled in matches began to move towards the viewing pen. The ever-present Empire Guards were clearing the cell blocks to herd any stragglers in the right direction, and the on-deck fighters were assembling for weapons distribution and escort to the holding pens.
Timmy lingered in the common area, watching the weapons distribution. A Guard approached him.
“Let’s go,” he said. “You know where you’re supposed to be.”
“I’m going,” Timmy said. He rose from his seat and edged toward the tunnel to the viewing pen.
The Guard nudged him with his wand. “Keep going,” he said.
Across the room, the weapons master was handing Hammer his broadsword. Timmy hesitated. The Guard nudged him again, harder.
“Okay, I’m going. I just have to…”
“You just have to get moving,” the Guard said. The escort began to move the fighters towards the tunnel to the holding pens.
Timmy side-stepped the wand and dashed for the fighters. He ignored the shout of the Guard behind him.
“Hammer,” he called out.
Hammer turned. He was once again wearing the blank expression, the one that Timmy had thought looked to be made of stone. Now, Timmy thought maybe the stone actually masked feeling, rather than demonstrated the lack of it. He wondered what was going on underneath it, what the man was hiding from view.
Timmy caught up with him, but wasn’t sure what to say. He just stared a moment, trying to make the words come out in an order that made sense.
The escort paused, and Hammer told him to go on without him, saying he’d be up in a minute. The escort nodded and proceeded into the tunnel without hesitation. The Guard who chased after Timmy stopped when he saw who Timmy wanted to speak with. Hammer nodded to him.
“I’ll send him to the viewing pen when we’re done,” he said. “Don’t worry, you can rely on him.”
“Thanks, Hammer,” the Guard said. He eyed Timmy. “You’ll head up in a minute?” he asked. “No more than two?”
“I promise,” Timmy told him. “You won’t have to come looking for me.”
The Guard seemed satisfied. With one last glance at Hammer, he headed for the tunnel and left them alone.
It seemed that Timmy was getting the benefit of Hammer’s reputation. Everyone knew the man didn’t really need to be escorted to the holding pen. He’d show, and he’d fight, because that was what he did, week after week. He could be trusted. By the Guards, and by the fighters as well. Because he had an internal code that he followed, one that ran deeper than the rules imposed upon him.
Timmy could suddenly see that clearly. How had he missed it before?
“What did you want?” Hammer asked.
With a hard swallow, Timmy reached out for the sword. “You can’t take this in there,” he said.
The words came out in a tumble, as if Timmy was afraid someone was going to stop him. “No, there’s something wrong with it. It won’t last the fight, and you’ll be without a weapon. Against Ryan. You need to exchange it. I don’t want you to—”
Hammer held up the sword, but he didn’t examine it. Instead, he offered it to Timmy. “Take a look,” he said. “Seems okay to me.”
Timmy peered at the weapon. At the designs on the hilt. His mouth dropped open.
It’s not the one, he realized. This wasn’t the weapon that had been tampered with. This one was fine.
He lifted his gaze to Hammer’s face, saw a hardness there. His blue eyes were a steely grey around the edges, his jaw firmly set. He knew, Timmy realized. Somehow, he knew. Had known. He was never in any danger, because he knew exactly what Joel had been planning. Joel and the others. And Timmy.
Your move, he had said on Thursday.
“I’m sorry,” Timmy said, his voice breaking. “It wasn’t...I didn’t want to. Not really. I’m sorry.”
Just like that, Hammer’s face changed, softened. His jaw relaxed, his lips curled into a small smile, and his eyes turned aquamarine. He reached out a hand and cupped Timmy’s left cheek with his warm palm.
Timmy leaned into the touch. He felt stronger, brighter, than he had in weeks, as if Hammer was transferring some of his own stability straight into Timmy’s soul through that simple gesture.
Then Hammer dropped his hand and stepped back. “Thank you,” he said.
He turned for the tunnel, and Timmy called out to stop him. “Come back tonight, okay?” he said. “Just… make sure you win.”
Hammer looked over his shoulder and grinned at Timmy, that blinding smile that seemed to part the heavens. “It’s a promise,” he said.
Timmy watched him disappear down the path to the Arena, and realized he was grinning back.
Chapter 7: Vinculum
Armie felt good. It was satisfying to come out on top when it wasn’t easy. And aside from that, he felt somehow...lighter than he had all week. Than he had in months, or even years, possibly.
This chapter didn’t give me trouble; it was smooth, actually. I just ran out of time this week.
Thanks for sticking with me on this. I think we’ve got three more chapters to go. Hang on tight!
100% fiction, of course.
Art by binary-suunset
Armie braced himself, holding his head rigid and gripping the edges of the infirmary bed. He did his best not to wince at the sting as the doctor applied antibiotic wash and dermal adhesive to the gash above his left eye.
The fight with Ryan had been brutal and long, and not because Armie had been drawing it out. No, this was a fight in which he had given his all, using every trick he had up his sleeve against a worthy competitor.
He had won, but the win had been hard fought, and the battle had taken a toll on his body. He was covered in bruises and minor scrapes, he had a small slice on his left knee and then the sizable gash on his forehead from Ryan’s blade. Despite all of this, Armie felt good. It was satisfying to come out on top when it wasn’t easy. And aside from that, he felt somehow...lighter than he had all week. Than he had in months, or even years, possibly.
The reason for that feeling appeared in the door to his room just as the doctor was giving him instructions — come back if the pain worsens or there’s any redness or swelling — and packing away the bloody gauze and used syringes.
Timmy took one look at Armie, and his eyes turned to saucers.
“Oh my god,” he said, bolting forward, hands outstretched. He stopped a foot from the side of the bed and dropped his hands to his sides, where they closed into fists. His jaw tensed and his eyes showed strain around the edges. “Jesus, are you...how bad is it?”
“He’s fine,” the doctor said. “Just a shallow slice this time. He’s seen worse.” The doctor patted Armie’s shoulder. “Take your time. The bed is yours for the night if you want it.” He exited the room, closing the door behind him.
Armie turned to Timmy, feeling a bit of wonder at the fact that the kid was even standing in this room. In his dozen years in the Arena, no one had ever come to see him in the infirmary after a fight. It had never occurred to Armie to care. He was fine, he didn’t need to be coddled. He had, in fact, cultivated a reputation for not needing anyone to show him anything but respect, for being uninterested in forming anything beyond surface level relationships. And yet…
“Seriously, Hammer, are you okay?” Timmy reached out again, his hands fluttering a second before dropping to his sides once more.
“Like he said, I’m good,” Armie reassured Timmy. “I got nicked. No big deal. Looks worse than it is.”
“Good, because it looks awful. There’s so much... blood.”
At Timmy’s words, Armie remembered that he was indeed covered in blood. Some of it — a lot of it, probably — was from the head wound. The rest…
“This isn’t all mine,” Armie said. He reached for the sterile wipes on the table next to the bed and pulled some out, starting to wipe off his hands and arms.
When he reached his face and the wipes began to come away a deep red, Timmy made a small sound of frustration. He snatched up a wipe, pushed Armie’s hands aside, and began to clean Armie’s neck and face himself.
“You were missing most of it,” Timmy muttered. “And basically just smearing it around.”
“Hard to do without a mirror,” Armie said.
Timmy’s fingers were cool and delicate as they dabbed at his skin, pushing into the crevices around his nose and ears, carefully tracing around his eyes, swiping across his brows. Armie parted his lips slightly to allow Timmy to clean them as well.
When he was done, and there was a giant pile of discarded wipes on the table, Timmy peered at him and then nodded. A small smile appeared.
“Better,” he said. “You look like you again.”
Timmy moved to step away, and before Armie could think better of it, he reached out and grabbed Timmy’s wrist.
“Thanks,” he said. “For before, too. If I hadn’t had a working weapon, that fight would have gone very differently.”
“I want you to know,” Timmy said, “that it wasn’t my idea. I didn’t even want to...I tried to talk him out of it. I mean, I won’t say who—“
“You don’t have to,” Armie said. “I know who.”
“Oh. What are you...are you going to do anything?”
“No.” Armie shook his head. “He’ll know I know. That’s enough. I want you to know I appreciate you going your own way on this, and telling me.”
His eyes locked on where Armie’s fingers circled his wrist, Timmy shrugged. “I guess at first I thought...he said you would be fine, just a little shaken, and I believed him. It’s true, I bet you would have managed,” he said. “But then I just couldn’t let you walk out there. Anyhow, you didn’t need me to tell you about the weapon. You already knew.”
“Still,” Armie said. He released Timmy and sat back against the pillow. “I’m glad you spoke up. I thought...I’m just glad you did.”
Timmy fidgeted a moment. “How’s Ryan?” he asked.
“Dislocated shoulder,” Armie said. “Not his first. He’ll be okay in a week or two. How’s your other wrist, by the way?”
“It’s good,” Timmy said. He lifted his left arm, showing the absence of the bandage and flexing it back and forth. “I stopped in here this morning, they said to be careful with it for a bit, but I can use it again.”
“We’ll work with the puggio this week, then,” Armie said.
Timmy frowned. “You go to a one-handed weapon as soon as I can use both hands again? Seriously?”
“I want you to be able to use the dagger with both hands equally well. If we had focused on it last week you’d only have gotten practice with one.” Armie shrugged. “Despite what you may think, I do actually know what I’m doing.”
“I never said you didn’t,” Timmy said.
“Sure you did. Many times.” Armie smirked. “I remember being called an asshole, and an idiot, and an assortment of other things that made it clear how you felt.”
“Well that’s because—”
“Because you can’t stand me. It’s okay, I know.”
Timmy chewed on his lower lip, his eyes darting around the room. “That’s not true,” he said. “Maybe it was true, at first. But it’s not now.”
His gaze finally landed on Armie’s, and Armie felt his breath catch in his chest at the earnest plea he saw there.
“Okay,” Armie said.
Timmy nodded. “Okay,” he said. He glanced over his shoulder. “I should...it’ll be lights out soon.”
“Yeah, you should go,” Armie said. “Thanks for coming by. And for wanting me to be all right.”
The smile that lit Timmy’s face sparked a warmth in Armie’s gut. He smiled back.
At breakfast the next morning, Armie sat with Dev, Ryan — who was bleary-eyed and loopy from the pain meds — Tyler, and a few others. After some good natured ribbing about the slice above Armie’s eye and the sling Ryan was modeling, they settled in to eat in companionable silence.
Armie scanned the room, looking for Timmy. The night before, after Timmy left, he found himself restless. While the meds they had given him and the exertion from the fight should have made him sleepy, instead he felt wound up, as if the adrenaline was still coursing through his body.
Just before the tone sounded to warn of lights out and lockdown, he abandoned the infirmary bed in favor of his cell block. It was just because he was comfortable in his own space, he told himself. It wasn’t because he wanted to stroll past a certain cell and get another look at a skinny fighter who was stretched out on his cot, an arm flung over his eyes.
Now, he finally spotted the kid as he crossed the room toward his usual table. Status quo, then, Armie thought. But when Timmy reached the table, Joel and another man slid over to block him sitting down. Timmy said something, and Joel waved his hand and said something in return. Whatever it was, it made Timmy take a step backward as if he had been slapped.
Timmy looked away from the table, a dazed expression on his face. Armie waited until the kid’s gaze met his before sliding over a few inches and patting the table beside his place. It was a subtle gesture, one that went unnoticed by his crew, but Timmy caught it.
He made his way across the room. When he reached the table, he hesitated. Armie offered him a small nod of encouragement, and Timmy slid into the spot beside him. He set down his tray and stared at it.
“If you’re not gonna eat that, Slug, I’ll take a second helping,” Tyler said.
Timmy glanced up, and eyed the rest of the table. Then he picked up his spoon and dug into the sludge that passed for breakfast.
To Armie’s satisfaction, no one commented on the fact that Timmy was sitting with them. He was a little worried, however, at the blank expression on Timmy’s face. After a few minutes, while the others were debating the benefits of a curved versus a straight blade, he leaned over.
“What did he say to you?” Armie asked.
Timmy blinked at him a moment. “What? Oh. He just said...I should start watching my own weapons from now on.”
Armie shot a glare across the room at Joel’s back before focusing on Timmy again. “Ignore him. He knows I know, and he’s overcompensating. It’s all talk.”
“He’s really pissed,” Timmy said. “And I guess I shouldn’t mind that he doesn’t want me around anymore, because...someone like that isn’t really someone I want to associate with. It’s just that he was the first person who bothered to talk to me.”
Armie sighed. He’d rather Timmy not hang around that crew, but he could understand Timmy’s feeling hurt. “Look, Joel can be decent. He detests me for some reason, but he’s loyal to his friends. He’ll get over it, and if you still want him around I’m betting you can have that.”
“I shouldn’t want that,” Timmy said. “But…he helped me a lot at first. And who am I going to talk to now?”
Armie turned his attention back to his breakfast. “These guys aren’t bad company,” he said. Then, more quietly, he offered, “And if you can stand it, I’d talk to you.”
Timmy didn’t answer right away. The conversations of the others around them rose and fell, the buzzing of the overhead lighting seemed to grow louder, and a series of clatters indicated that the men were beginning to clear away the breakfast dishes and begin their morning pursuits.
Armie had decided that Timmy simply didn’t want to respond, when he Armie felt a brief pressure against his calf as Timmy slid his leg over and nudged.
“I could stand that,” he said.
On Monday morning, during agility drills, Armie watched Joel deliberately crash into Timmy twice. He fake-apologized both times, claiming to have lost his balance.
When it happened a third time, he decided to step in. Before he could reach the pair, however, Timmy shoved Joel away from him with an explosive show of force. Joel clearly wasn’t expecting Timmy to fight back, because he stumbled to the side with a curse.
“Get the fuck off me,” Timmy said.
“It was an accident,” Joel said, hands raised in a show of innocence.
“That’s fucking bullshit,” Timmy said. “You’re being an asshole, plain and simple.”
“You want to take a swing at me?” Joel asked. “Come on, give it your best shot.”
For a second, Armie thought Timmy might do just that. He hovered a few feet away, ready to spring forward and prevent a fight. It was one thing the Empire Guards were very serious about: no fighting except in the Arena.
But Timmy only clenched his fists once, and then straightened up, throwing his shoulders back.
“No, I don’t want to hit you,” Timmy said. “Jesus Christ.”
Joel laughed. “Maybe I want to fight you. You fucked everything up, after I trusted you.”
The rest of the fighters had begun to converge on the arguing pair, curious as to what the commotion was about. Armie wondered how long they had before the Guards came over to investigate.
“What did I fuck up?” Timmy asked. “I told you, I didn’t tell him anything he didn’t already know. He already knew. ”
“You still told him,” Joel said. “I don’t understand why you’d do that. He killed Andrew.”
“And how many men have you killed in the Arena?” Timmy shook his head. “Look, I’m not...I’m not judging you, or anyone, for that. I won’t know until I’m faced with that choice, what I’d do. But it was self-preservation. You can’t act like you haven’t done the same thing.”
Joel frowned. “He enjoyed it.”
“How the fuck do you know that? I can pretty much guarantee he didn’t. I don’t think anyone in here does. What happens in the Arena happens because of necessity. Because of the rules and what we’re facing. None of us are getting off on it.”
“I still hate him,” Joel said. “He’s still—“
“No,” Timmy said. “Stop. This is ridiculous. It’s what they want, don’t you see that? They want us to feel like we’re against each other all the time. They want us to be in constant competition, to be at each other’s throats. To enjoy beating each other senseless, or to at least tell ourselves that we enjoy it.”
By this time, the entire group of fighters was watching.
“Well, I refuse to be manipulated like that. I’m not a killer. I don’t want to hurt anyone here.” Timmy looked up and realized he had an audience. He ran a hand across his head and raised his voice so that it rang out across the training arena. “I don’t want to hurt anyone here,” he repeated.
“So, what exactly?” Joel asked. He looked almost confused. “You’re saying you won’t fight? Or you won’t make the kill?”
Timmy shrugged. “I don’t think I can refuse to fight in the Arena,” he said. “And I don’t know what will happen when I’m in a death match. But whatever I do there, it’s not who I am here. They can make me fight, but they can’t make me into something I’m not. They don’t get to say who I am. Only I do. Same goes for you. For everyone.”
He scanned the crowd of fighters and caught Armie’s eye and nodded in acknowledgment. Armie was doing his best not to let the swell of pride in his chest leak out and make him grin. He kept his features carefully stern. He nodded back.
Joel stared at him a minute, and then asked, “Now what?”
“Now…” Timmy stepped forward and offered his hand. “Now we put that bullshit about what happened behind us and agree not to let them make us into enemies. They can make us fight, but they can’t make us hate each other. Only we can do that. We’re on the same side, here. We should stay on the same side.”
After a long minute, Joel took Timmy’s hand and shook it. “Damn,” he said, grinning. “You’ve got a fucking mouth.”
Timmy grinned back. “Yeah, kind of. Can you do one more thing for me?”
“What’s that?” Joel asked.
Timmy pointed to where Armie was standing. “Shake his hand, too.”
Joel rolled his eyes, but he turned to Armie and offered his hand. Armie stepped forward and took it.
“You can still think I’m an asshole if you want,” Armie said.
“I plan to,” Joel said, but he chuckled.
Armie turned to the fighters and clapped his hands. “Okay, let’s get back to work. That’s enough of a break. I want fifty-yard shuttle sprints and I want them now.” There was a collective groan, but the men dispersed to get in position. On his way past, Armie cuffed Timmy on the back of the head. “Nice speech,” he said.
A couple of months later, another batch of fighters arrived. A large batch, twenty-seven in all. Armie watched them brought in, looked them over as they were given the rules and introduced to the prison.
Timmy sat beside him. These days, Timmy was most often beside him. The kid took nearly all his meals with Armie, and it was now habit for their knees or ankles to seek contact under the table, like some secret that neither acknowledged in the open. Armie was beginning to realize that Timmy was highly tactile in a general sense. He seemed to always be reaching out with an affectionate touch...a hand on the arm, a shoulder bump, or even a nudge with his forehead.
It was an odd sensation, to be touched with affection again. Not just a slap on the back or a punch in the arm, but something softer, gentler.
He had begun to crave it, and that worried him.
Timmy also sought him out during free time, and they played chess or talked, or both. Armie learned about Timmy’s Aunt Greta, who had raised him. “She was the funniest person ever. She could make you laugh no matter what the situation. I wish you could meet her,” Timmy had said, a wistful smile on his face, before revealing that she had passed away a few months before he came to the Arena. “Without her...I don’t really have anyone waiting for me.”
“Neither do I,” Armie told him. He explained that he had only been seventeen when he entered the Arena, and that he didn’t have any family left either. “Sometimes I wonder what I’m going to do if I get out of here. If it’s worth it,” he confessed.
“Of course it’s worth it,” Timmy said, smacking Armie’s hand. “Don’t talk like that. When you get out of here, you’ll figure something out.”
They didn’t talk about how long it would be before Timmy could hope to be free, but Armie didn’t like to think about it.
Since his first match, Timmy had fought — and won — three additional matches. The Slug was developing a reputation with the spectators, and Armie had no doubt he would continue to grow in demand as a fighter. On the one hand, Armie was glad for this; if Timmy was popular he was safer, and if he fought frequently he could earn freedom eventually. On the other hand, he found himself nervous every time Timmy entered the Arena, no matter how often he proved himself.
He scolded himself daily for letting Timmy become too important to him. He didn’t have friends down here, and that was by intention. He had, in fact, spent over twelve years keeping up a well-constructed wall between himself and the other fighters. He could have some camaraderie, some laughs, an interesting conversation, and a healthy dose of respect with other fighters, but he was not allowed to develop an emotional connection with anyone.
It would be too difficult to fight them, in that case.
But with Timmy...Armie couldn’t seem to help it. The kid had snuck beneath all of his defenses, wriggled through the gaps in the wall, and stationed himself firmly in Armie’s heart. It scared him. It confused him. It delighted him. It made the sharp edges of his daily existence fuzz and soften.
On the day the new fighters arrived, Timmy leaned up against Armie’s side — another habit — and muttered, “They’re all kind of...big. Aren’t they?”
It was true. The crowd of new fighters was wedged into the center of the common area. Wedged because every single one of them was muscular and tall. Not as tall as Armie, but on the whole, they were large.
He leaned down and spoke in Timmy’s ear. “You know what they say. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”
“Yeah, but what if they fall on me?”
Armie snickered and threw an arm around Timmy’s shoulders. “Nah, you’re too quick. You’ll just roll out of the way.”
The next morning, after putting everyone, including the new fighters, through a grueling endurance run, Armie got everyone’s attention.
“Agility drills. Timmy is going to run them today,” he said, clapping a hand on Timmy’s back. The kid looked up at him in surprise, and he winked. He directed his next comments at the new fighters. “Don’t be fooled by his size. He’s a damned skilled fighter. Knows how to work the crowd, too.”
“And annoyingly quick,” said Dev. “Makes him impossible to catch.”
“Don’t forget his mouth,” said Joel. “Step wrong and he’ll give you an earful.”
Timmy blushed. Then he took over agility training like he’d been doing it for years.
As for the new fighters, they merged seamlessly into training, as if they, too, had been doing it for years. Armie watched them with a critical eye, marveling over how much more ready they were for the Arena than the last batch. Timmy’s batch. He wondered about that, and brought it up to McConaughy a week later.
“Less work for you, right?” McConaughry said. “Listen, the Commander brought something up recently. I’m not telling you this, got it?”
“Of course,” Armie said.
“You may want to consider training for team fighting.” The Lieutenant glanced around, making sure there was no one in earshot. “Pairs and threes.”
“Team fighting?” Armie frowned. “That’s new.”
“Like I said, I’m not telling you this. But we’re considering introducing it to the Arena. Mix things up a little. Keep the crowds entertained.” He raised a brow. “Got me?”
Armie nodded. That afternoon during weapons training, he had the quartets face each other in pairs instead of one on one. It was going to take work to get the fighters used to fighting with someone instead of only relying on themselves. However, perhaps because of the new camaraderie that had sprung up amongst the fighters as a whole in the past couple of months, they were willing to learn.
Three weeks after the new fighters arrived, the Commander stood in the common area and made the announcement.
“The fights this weekend will include a new style of match,” he said, eyeing the room full of men. “We’ve been at this twenty years. Some of you have been here almost that long. You all know how important it is to keep the public entertained, and so we think it’s time for a change. This weekend, some of the fights will involve pairs of fighters working as teams.”
Timmy pressed his knee to Armie’s under their table, and Armie pressed back. They had talked about what McConaughey had said, and wondered about the timing of it. Timmy was worried that this would mean more deaths; Armie thought it would mean fewer. It looked like they were about to find out who was right.
The Commander began to announce the lineup. Most of the fights were still one-on-one. Only the final two fights on Saturday — including the death match — would be in the new format. The first would match Tyler and Ryan against Joel and one of the biggest new fighters.
“The final fight of the evening will be Jake and Giullian versus...the Hammer and the Slug.”
Timmy tensed beside Armie, and Armie placed his palm on Timmy’s thigh and squeezed. It would be Timmy’s first death match, which was no doubt what was frightening him. It didn’t help that Jake and Giullian were two more new fighters, whose style they didn’t know as well as the others.
As for Armie, he wasn’t sure how to feel. On the one hand, he was glad to be by Timmy’s side. He could protect him, make sure he was safe. On the other hand, with Timmy in the Arena beside him, would Armie get distracted? Would it cause him to make a mistake, because he was too focused on...his friend? He shook the anxiety off and searched for that steel core that had gotten him through hundreds of fights.
Armie had never lost, and he wasn’t about to let that statistic change.
As the Commander finished announcing the lineup and moved towards the exit, Armie whispered, “stay here,” in Timmy’s ear, tried to ignore his panicked look, and rose from his seat. He caught up with Brolin just before the man entered the tunnel to the upper apartments.
“Sir,” he said, “Could I speak with you a moment?”
“Of course,” Brolin said. He opened the gate and ushered Armie through. “Walk with me.”
As they strode through the tunnel towards the elevator, Armie considered how to phrase his request. Finally, he said, “I’d like to train tonight.”
The Commander stopped and stared at him. “Didn’t you train today?”
“Yes. But with teams...it’s important that pairs know how to work together. Otherwise, instead of an entertaining bout, what you’ll have is a messy free-for-all.”
“You have a point,” Brolin said, a thoughtful look on his face. “You’re saying you want time to work with your partner in advance of the match.”
“Not for long,” Armie said. “But it would be useful. And likely benefit the crowd.”
“Tell me exactly what you want,” Brolin said.
“Two hours,” Armie said. “In the training arena, with the weapons we’ll be using. All eight of us.”
“Are you worried about attempts to disable?”
Armie shook his head. “I’m not.”
After a moment, Brolin nodded. “I’ll send four Guards up with you. Two hours after dinner.”
“Thank you, sir. You won’t regret it.”
“I’ve no doubt,” Brolin said. “This is why I want you to stay on as Chief Trainer once you’re free. You’ve got innovative ideas.”
The Commander dismissed him, and a Guard received him back into the common area.
Timmy was waiting for him. “What was that about?” he asked. He looked almost hopeful, like he was expecting Armie to tell him he was off the hook.
“I asked for time to train. With you. And to give the other pairs some extra time as well. We’re all going up tonight after dinner.”
“To train?” Realization crossed Timmy’s features. “You want to work on our strategy.”
“Yes. And not just ours,” Armie said. “When we’re done, none of us will have anything to worry about.” He grabbed Timmy’s hand and held it tight. “I promise, okay? You’ll have nothing to worry about.”
Up in the training arena later that evening, Armie faced Timmy and the other six men.
“We’re about to do something new,” Armie said. “It’s something that could benefit all of us, if we take this as what it is: an opportunity.”
“How is it an opportunity?” Joel asked. “I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m just asking for the logic.”
Timmy spoke up. “It’s an opportunity to put on a real show,” he said. “Think about it. When the crowd enjoys a fight, likes a fighter, they want to see that fighter live to fight another day.”
“Right,” Ryan said, “we all know that. So you’re thinking...with four fighters, it’s more exciting, and more likely the crowd wants mercy?”
“Not just that,” Armie said with a smile. “I’ve been thinking recently that we could really take advantage of this system. Actually put on a show. I know no one wants to be the losers, so at some point the fight will have to shift to the real thing. But we could work out some fight combinations, like we do in training. Perform. And then, towards the end...that’s when we battle it out.”
Joel frowned. “What’s to stop someone from starting the real battle early? Taking advantage of the fact that the other is just performing?”
“We’d have to trust each other,” Timmy said. Armie nodded, pleased that Timmy was picking up what he was laying down without them having to talk about it. “Trust that we’ll all do what we agreed.”
“I guess it’s like you said, we’re on the same side,” Joel said with a sigh. “Until we're not. Look, I’m in. We all know, if we were going up against you two — together, no less — I’d be toast. I’d give it everything I’ve got, but my chances wouldn’t be great, and I’d do whatever I had to do to make the crowd like me.”
“Or you could do what you had to do to flat-out win,” Armie said.
Joel hesitated. “Yeah. Well...maybe I’d rather we all got out of this than any other result.”
The others quickly agreed, and they got down to work. Two hours later, they were sweaty and exhausted, but laughing as they descended back into the prison.
Timmy and Armie peeled off from the others towards their block.
“You think it’s going to work?” Timmy asked.
“I don’t know,” Armie said, “but it’s worth a try. The new guys are naturals. At fighting and at faking it.”
They reached Timmy’s cell just as the warning tone sounded. “I guess...good night,” Timmy said.
Armie saw the flicker of uncertainty in his eyes. He couldn’t help his next actions, it was as if his body moved on autopilot.
He reached out and grabbed Timmy, pulling him close, wrapping his arms around Timmy’s wiry frame. The kid stiffened a moment at the contact. They had never hugged before. Armie wondered if he should let go, but then Timmy hugged Armie back, burying his face into Armie’s chest.
“I need you to get some sleep tonight,” Armie murmured. “It’s going to be fine. I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”
“How do you do it?” Timmy asked, his voice muffled. “How do you go to bed tonight, knowing it might be your last, and fall asleep? How do you walk into that Arena knowing you might have to slit someone’s throat?”
“I just do,” Armie said. “It’s my life.”
“I’m not sure I can,” Timmy said. “I can already feel it. My mind is too busy to sleep. It’s not going to shut up.”
“You have to,” Armie said. “Think about something else. Think about...when you’re free, what’s the first thing you’re going to do?”
“Look for you,” Timmy said. He pulled back. “Sorry, I didn’t mean...you probably —“
“No, that’s good,” Armie said. “I want you to close your eyes, and imagine what we’ll do together on that first day you’re out of here.” He felt Timmy relaxing against him once more, and smiled. “Okay. Go on, get in there before they shut the doors.”
Timmy nodded, and then released Armie and walked backwards until he was in his cell. “You do it too,” he said. “And tell me in the morning what you came up with.”
“I already know,” Armie admitted. “I’ve thought about it before.”
The way Timmy’s face lit up at his words made the admission and the vulnerability that came with it worth it.
The following evening, Armie watched Joel and his partner enter the Arena and the gate swing shut behind them, sealing him and Timmy in the holding pen alone.
Timmy had been leaning against the back wall for most of the first eight fights. Towards the end of the last one, he had pushed away from the wall and begun to pace the space, shaking his hands at his sides and muttering to himself.
Now that they were alone, Armie knew he needed to step in before the kid got so far in his own head he wasn’t able to climb back out in time for their match. When Timmy looped around and headed across the pen again, Armie stepped into his path.
Timmy stopped abruptly and looked up. Armie was worried about the look in his eyes. The green was clouded, pupils tiny, his gaze distant and unfocused. Armie took Timmy’s hands in his own, hating how cold they were. He held them tightly, shook them a bit, until Timmy was not merely looking at him, but seeing him as well.
“Come on,” Armie said, keeping his voice soft. “Come back to me.”
Timmy blinked, and then cleared his throat. “Sorry. I was…”
“Stuck in a loop in your head,” Armie said. “Let me guess. You were wondering if we could pull off the performance. Then you were thinking about the battle. Next you probably imagined losing, facing Jake’s or Giullian’s dagger, waiting to hear if you’d be granted mercy. Finally, your positions reversed and you wondered whether you could use the dagger on one of them if the Emperor called for it, which sent you back to the performance, and how critical it is.”
With a surprised laugh, Timmy nodded. His hands flexed in Armie’s. “Yeah. Exactly that.”
“I’ve been there. The trick is not to get stuck there. We will perform. We won’t lose, because I don’t lose and neither do you.”
“Well, I haven’t lost yet— “
“Nope.” Armie shook Timmy’s hands again. “You. Don’t. Lose. Say it with me. I don’t lose.”
Armie repeated the three words several times, until Timmy’s voice lost some of its tremor and he sounded more convincing.
“Good. I know you’ll do fine because there’s no way in hell you’ll let either of us down.” Armie immediately realized he had said the wrong thing when Timmy went even paler.
“God, Armie, if I’m the reason you lose tonight, even if we don’t...even if it’s not a kill, please don’t hate me.” He swallowed. “I swear I’m going to do the best I can.”
Hearing Timmy use his nickname, the one no one had used since before he had entered the Arena, distracted Armie for a moment. That was new. About a week earlier, he had used Timmy’s name — the way he always did these days — and Timmy had grinned at him.
“I like you calling me that,” he had said. “Instead of Slug.”
“Slug isn’t an insult,” Armie reminded him. “Not anymore.”
“Still, it’s nice to hear...someone say your name.” He had ducked his head at that, seeming to be embarrassed at the admission.
“In that case, maybe you should use mine,” Armie said. “Instead of just Hammer all the time.”
“Armand?” Timmy asked.
“Actually...they used to call me Armie,” he said. “Before.”
“Armie,” Timmy said carefully. He smiled. “It suits you.”
Hearing it now made Armie smile again, despite the words that accompanied it.
“That’s nonsense,” he said. “I know you’re going to give it everything you’ve got, because you always do. And as if I could ever hate you.” He rolled his eyes.
“You did at first,” Timmy said.
“I didn’t,” Armie said. “I had to push you, to make sure you’d be okay. It wasn’t personal, and it didn’t mean anything.”
Only it was personal, Armie realized. From the very first day, he had noticed Timmy. Seen something in that scrawny prisoner with the green eyes that caught his attention, made him continue to pay attention.
It had always meant something.
To distract himself from that revelation, and to distract Timmy from his worrying, Armie pulled Timmy to the gate, where they could see out to the match currently going on. “Let’s watch a bit,” he suggested. “See how these guys are doing. It’ll help us focus.”
They watched for a long while in silence. The four fighters in the Arena were doing exactly as they had planned. The battle certainly looked real, as their broadswords clashed and they shoved and tumbled together. But Armie knew three of these fighters very well, and he could tell they were holding back. The crowd, on the other hand, could not, if their cheers and collective gasps were any indication.
The men were performing, and performing well. He knew that, soon, they would shift into battle mode and the match would be decided. But in the meantime, they were building their reputations and giving the audience — and the Emperor — what they wanted. It was what he had done for years. It had just never occurred to him to orchestrate it with the other fighters.
Not until Timmy.
Armie retained hold of Timmy’s hand as they watched, wanting to provide a grounding influence. It seemed to work, since Timmy squeezed his fingers every so often, whenever something particularly brutal-looking happened out in the Arena.
The four fighters paused in unison. They stood, two on one side and two on the other, about ten feet apart, all breathing hard. The crowd hushed, as if they, too, knew something was about to happen. Then Joel gave a slight nod, and they sprang back into motion.
This time the fight was real.
Knowing this meant it was nearly finished, Armie tugged Timmy away from the gate again.
“Okay,” he said, as the kid turned to him. “You remember what we’re doing?”
“Yeah.” Timmy nodded. “I’ve got it.”
“And then, once the combos are finished, we’re on the same page with the true battle, right?” They had discussed that part of the fight over breakfast that morning, agreeing to some simple signals and identifying their strengths and how they could work together effectively.
“I’m low, you’re high, I’m the distraction, you’re the force.” Timmy shook his head. “Think it can work?”
“I know it can,” Armie said. “You’ve got skills I don’t have, and vice versa. We’ll be fine.” He heard a particularly loud groan from the crowd and guessed the battle outside might be coming to a close. He searched Timmy’s face, still seeing uncertainty there, a little bit of hollowness in his gaze. It worried him. “How are you feeling?” he asked.
“I’m...okay,” Timmy said. “Honestly, I feel a little bit...numb. Like I can’t quite accept what’s happening, so I’m not really here. I’m floating outside of my body and watching from the side.”
Not good, Armie thought. He reached out and gripped Timmy’s bicep. “You feel that?”
“Yeah,” Timmy said.
Armie slid his hand up to Timmy’s shoulder. “That?”
“Uh-huh. I mean, I feel it. I just...”
Thinking Timmy still looked a little distant, Armie took his hands and placed them flat on Armie’s own chest. “Feel me,” he said. He pushed Timmy’s hands up to his collarbone and out towards his shoulders. “Use me. Find your anchor.”
Timmy’s eyes flickered up to Armie’s and then back to his chest. He slid his hands down, smoothing the leather armor over Armie’s pecs and stomach. Armie inhaled at the pressure, wishing he could feel more through the strong material. Then, as if he could hear Armie’s thoughts, Timmy ran his hands up the outside of Armie’s arms and down again.
Armie mirrored the motion on Timmy, and Timmy sighed. Then he looked up, his gaze intense, and something went thunk in Armie’s chest. The sound was followed by a web electricity that spread out across his skin. He shifted a step closer, slid his hands around Timmy’s lower back, flattening them on the armor there.
There was a tiny explosion of breath, and Timmy’s lips parted. When Armie pushed his hands up Timmy’s back, Timmy slid his palms up to Armie’s neck, brushing his thumbs along Armie’s jaw.
“Armie?” Timmy whispered, a note of wonder in his voice.
Armie leaned down. He wasn’t sure exactly what was happening, but he knew one thing. He needed to be as close to Timmy as possible. Closer.
He tilted his head and brought his lips a breath away from Timmy’s, feeling as well as hearing the kid’s sharp intake of breath as the air around them seemed to fizz and crackle.
Then the tone sounded signaling the end of the match in the Arena, and Armie froze.
What am I doing? he thought wildly. What are we doing?
Rather than move away, however, he let his lower lip just barely brush Timmy’s as he spoke.
“We’re not going to do this right now,” he said.
“We’re not?” Timmy’s voice was barely a whisper.
“No.” With heroic effort, he finally managed to release Timmy and step back, putting some distance between them. “The gate’s about to open. We have to get focused.”
Timmy swallowed visibly and nodded. “Sorry,” he said.
Armie smiled. “Don’t apologize. We’re just...pausing this. Whatever it is.”
“Pausing?” Timmy bit at his lower lip. “As in…”
“As in, I want to come back to this. Figure out what’s going on. But first we have to get this fucking fight over with. So here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go out there, we’re going to win, and then we’re going to come back and pick up where we left off. Okay?”
He picked up their swords from where they were leaning against the wall and held Timmy’s out to him. Timmy took it and stared at it a moment.
When he looked back up at Armie, his face held that steely-eyed look of extreme determination that Armie had come to love.
“Okay,” Timmy said firmly. The gate swung open, and he brandished the sword, swooping it through the air at his side with a blinding grin. “Then let’s go fucking win.”
Chapter 8: Familiarius
For the fifth time since his arrival in the Arena, Timmy bolted from the gate at top speed to the sounds of a cheering crowd.
Two more chapters to go.
Thank you for loving this little story...
100% fiction, of course.
Art by binary-suunset
For the fifth time since his arrival in the Arena, Timmy bolted from the gate at top speed to the sounds of a cheering crowd.
Like the other times, the adrenaline sliced through his veins and coated his mouth in bitterness. Like the other times, he tried to focus on what he had to do, and not let his fear take over.
The difference was that this time, Armie was at his back, running behind him. This time, the fear wasn’t the only thing he was trying to push down and not think about.
Despite all of his effort, at the forefront of his mind was the moment they had shared just before the gate swung open. He could still feel the gentle pressure of Armie’s hands on his back, pulling him close, could still see the way Armie’s eyes had gone a deep blue as he gazed down at Timmy. His stomach continued to somersault at the memory of the feather-light caress of Armie’s lower lip against his as he spoke.
Armie had been about to kiss him.
Timmy couldn’t say he hadn’t thought about kissing Armie before, because he had. Many times, in fact, since they had become friends. He had caught himself watching Armie’s muscles flex as he trained, losing himself in Armie’s smile, doing whatever he could to get Armie to laugh. It took him by surprise sometimes, the intensity of the warmth he had begun to feel for this man, when he had spent the first part of his time in the Arena resenting his existence.
But he had assumed he was the only one who felt that way. He had told himself, over and over, that he’d have to be content with the casual affection they had begun to show each other. He figured he’d just be grateful Armie didn’t push him away when he leaned up against him or touched his arm or hand or knee.
The fact that Armie was willing to even consider something more than friendship between them, when by everything Timmy understood he didn’t really even have friends in the Arena, was enough to knock him on his ass.
Come on, he scolded himself. You don’t have time for this now.
Timmy slid to a stop in the dirt, and Armie slid in beside him. Their eyes locked, and Timmy felt his stomach loop again. Then Armie smiled.
“You ready?” he asked. “Let’s give them a show.”
Timmy found himself grinning back, and they both turned to the crowd, right arms raised in unison, swords overhead in a salute.
The crowd loved it.
After a moment, they turned to face Jake and Giullian, who were doing the same thing across the Arena, and the performance began.
They had worked out a complicated series of combinations, and Timmy found that concentrating on that took everything he had. The swords flew and clashed, and his muscles strained as he grappled with Jake and Giullian in quick rotation. The plan required their moves to be sharp and precise, and being off or distracted for a split second could get him seriously hurt.
As he ran across the stadium, Jake in hot pursuit, the crowd cheered him on. Timmy felt another rush of adrenaline as he realized he was sort of proud of what they were doing. It must have looked exciting. It felt exciting, if he were being honest.
While at first he had been terrified the new fighters would go against their promise, try to take advantage and get a win — and guarantee their safety in case of a kill order — they seemed to be following the plan exactly.
Timmy reached the area where Armie was dealing with Giullian. They were at the spot where they had agreed to transition into the real fight, and he was supposed to be near Armie when that happened.
He whirled around so his back was to Armie’s and faced Jake, who was bearing down on him. Their swords met, and Jake pushed in toward him, the weapons pressed together between them. Timmy met the move, but Jake’s momentum forced him backwards so that his back met Armie’s.
“You good?” Armie asked him. Giullian was, as planned, mirroring Jake’s move. Timmy knew Armie could easily toss Giullian off of him, but instead he was allowing the assault momentarily to check in.
“I’m good,” Timmy said.
“We are too,” Jake said, flickering his gaze to Giullian over Armie’s shoulder. “We’re going to let you push us off, and then...we go. Okay?”
“Right,” Armie said. “Let’s do it.”
Timmy braced himself against Armie’s back, and with a roar shoved Jake with all his might.
Jake and a Giullian flew backwards as one and landed on their asses in the dirt. The crowd went wild as the new fighters scrambled to grab their weapons and get back to their feet.
Timmy pressed forward, forcing Jake to take the defense as he worked the sword like lightning. His arm was beginning to tire — they’d been at this a while — but he could manage. He could hear Armie grunting behind him and it took all his self control and focus not to look over his shoulder to make sure Armie was okay.
Of course Armie was okay. He was always okay. As long as he resisted as well—
“Timmy, you with me?” Armie shouted.
“With you,” Timmy shouted back, trying not to smile. Unfortunately, answering Armie took his focus away from Jake for a half second, and that was enough for Jake to knock the flat of his blade against Timmy’s hand. The hand went numb and his sword fell, tumbling into the dirt a few feet to his right.
Jake’s eyes widened briefly and he hesitated, as if he was surprised it had happened. Timmy took advantage of his hesitation, no doubt born out of inexperience, and dove to the right. He had to get the weapon back without getting pinned.
He tucked his right shoulder and rolled, coming up with the sword in a crouch. Jake surged forward, swinging his own blade and Timmy raised his weapon. They met with a clang, and the force sent Timmy backwards. He lost his balance and fell, his head hitting the ground with a loud crunch.
The vibrations from the collision traveled down Timmy’s spine, and his vision went grey for a few seconds. His stomach seized, and a wave of nausea bubbled up his throat.
When it subsided a second later and he could see again, Jake was practically laying on top of him, their swords between them.
“Hey, you still awake?” Jake’s teeth were clenched, and he was speaking without moving his mouth. Or maybe Timmy imagined that part, because then he said, clearly, “Are you giving up?”
In answer, Timmy bucked his lower half two feet off the ground and Jake fell off of him. They both scrambled to their feet and faced each other once more. Timmy shook his head as his vision went fuzzy at the edges again, and felt that nausea still rolling in his stomach.
Fifteen feet away, Armie was just managing to disarm Giullian and was forcing him backwards. Giullian was jumping over and ducking under Armie’s blade as though he’d been fighting for years instead of weeks. It struck Timmy again how well prepared these two were...and it occurred to him for the first time how odd it was that their first fights were during a death match.
They never put a newbie up in a death match, Armie had said.
Maybe since Jake and Giullian were clearly ready, that had changed. Or maybe, like Armie had said, there was no plan to have this fight end in a kill, so they weren’t worried about it.
Then Giullian stumbled, and fell onto his ass. Armie surged forward, stopping just short of driving the tip of his sword into the man’s throat.
“Timmy,” Armie called, not taking his eyes off of the man on the ground. “Where are you?”
This was it, Timmy realized. If he could get into kill position as well, they’d win. Jake must have realized this, too, because his eyes narrowed. He suddenly darted to the left, away from Timmy. For a second, Timmy thought Jake was going to go for Armie, but instead he moved towards Giullian’s abandoned weapon.
“Hang in there, G” Jake shouted, as Timmy launched after him.
It was in this moment that Timmy was grateful he had gotten so fast. He reached Jake just as the man swooped down to scoop up Giullian’s sword from the dirt.
One well-planted foot on the back of Jake’s knees had him somersaulting forward, both swords flying out of his hands. He landed on his back, his head pointing towards Timmy. Timmy grabbed the hilt of his weapon in both hands and brought the blade down towards Jake’s face.
Jake flinched, but Timmy held the tip steady just above his eyes.
The collective gasp of shock from the crowd was followed by a long moment of silence. Timmy remembered the first time he had seen Armie fight, and the way he had thought Armie and his opponent had looked like a painting as they held the position.
Timmy was tense and ready. Until the fight was called, either Jake or Giullian or both could attempt to turn things around. But neither did, and the relief and elation Timmy felt as soon as the tone sounded was immense.
They had won.
But the relief was replaced immediately by a cold sweat and a racing pulse as he remembered. They were in a death match. Any second, the Emperor could give the kill order, and he’d have to plunge his sword down, taking Jake’s life. Armie would do the same to Giullian, spilling his blood on the Arena floor like he had done to so many others.
He could barely breathe, and started to feel dizzy. There was no way he could do this. No way he could coldly take another man’s life. And as soon as he couldn’t, he’d be shot. He was sure of it.
Jake blinked up at him, and then spoke softly. “It’s okay,” he said. “If you have to, it’s okay. I forgive you.”
Timmy licked his lips and nodded. He still didn’t think he could do it. He didn’t understand how Jake could look so calm, with only a hint of fear at the edges of his eyes, when Timmy was practically jumping out of his skin with dread.
The Emperor's voice filtered through the roaring in his ears, congratulating them on a well-fought match. Finally, the words came.
“It would be such a shame to extinguish such promising young fighters at the beginning of their careers,” the Emperor said. “Tonight, we will grant mercy.”
He didn’t have to kill anyone. Limbs shaking, Timmy immediately stepped back, pulling his sword away from the man on the ground. He came around and offered Jake a hand, helping him to his feet.
“Thank god,” he muttered, and Jake flashed him a quick grin.
They joined Armie and Giullian, and Jake and Giullian dropped to their knees side by side. Timmy hates this part. He hated seeing someone kneeling before him, like he was somehow better. He knew he wasn’t, not really. He was just luckier.
Then Armie was taking his left hand and raising their joined hands above their heads. They let out the victory cry, their voices drowned out by the sounds of the cheering crowd.
“Let’s go,” Armie said, and they turned and jogged towards the exit gate.
Timmy struggled to keep up, his entire body feeling like jelly. His head had started to pound like he was being repeatedly whacked with a club. He told himself to just keep going, one step at a time, but it seemed like forever before the gate loomed before them.
Finally, he crossed the threshold and staggered to the wall, bracing his hands on either side of his head just before the tunnel began to slope down into the prison.
“Nice work,” Armie said, clapping him on the back.
Timmy let out a moan as the vibrations from the contact reached his skull and the pounding intensified.
“Wait, are you hurt?” Armie pulled Timmy off the wall and turned him around, and Timmy grabbed at his shoulders, trying to find a way to stay upright. “Timmy, look at me,” Armie said.
Timmy blinked his eyes open. When had he closed them? He saw Armie peering down at him, his eyes full of concern, just before his legs gave out and everything went black.
….when he wakes up…
...trying not to get killed, I didn’t…
...not breathing right…
...fuck off I’m not moving until…
Timmy felt like his head had been dunked in a bucket of pudding. There was a soft pressure around his throbbing forehead and temples, and a roaring in his ears. He pulled in long, wet breaths to lungs that didn’t seem to want to fully work — no wonder if he was breathing in pudding. People weren’t supposed to breathe pudding. He didn’t think.
...call the Commander if you want to…
...looks too pale, why don’t you…
...come on, Timmy, don’t forget we were in the middle of something...
Armie’s voice rumbled its way through the pudding and registered in Timmy’s fuzzy brain. Something warm was squeezing his hand, and he squeezed back.
Hey, there you go. Can you hear me? If you can hear me, squeeze twice.
Timmy squeezed once, and then it seemed too hard to do it a second time in a row, so he opened his eyes. Armie peered down at him, lips curved into a smile but eyes strained and filled with concern.
“Hi,” Armie said. Timmy frowned, and Armie leaned closer. “What’s wrong?”
“Where’s the pudding?” Timmy asked.
Armie’s brows wrinkled, and he stood, starting to pull his hand away. “Shit. Let me call the doctor, you—“
“No, wait. Don’t go.” Timmy clamped down on Armie’s hand. “We won, right? Or did I dream that?”
Armie’s features relaxed, and he sat back down. “Yeah, we won. And there was no kill order. Everyone’s safe.”
“Good.” Timmy closed his eyes again. “Are you hurt at all?”
“No,” Armie said, laughing softly. “Nothing more than the usual scrapes. You going back to sleep?”
“I don’t think so. It’s just bright.”
“Hang on.” Armie pulled his hand free, and Timmy’s eyes flew open and he tried to sit up, the motion sending his head into the pounding zone again.
“I’m right here. I’m just turning the lights down.” Sure enough, the lights dimmed, and Armie was back, pushing him gently back onto the pillow. “Don’t get up yet.”
“What happened?” Timmy asked.
“You fainted. As soon as we hit the tunnel,” Armie said. “That’s getting to be a frightening habit. But otherwise, I guess you hit your head?”
“Oh. Yeah, I definitely did,” Timmy murmured, putting a hand over his eyes. “On the ground, right before the end of the match. I fell.”
“But you got up and got the upper hand again,” Armie said. “Nice. Anyway, they think you have a concussion.”
“Mmm. That would explain the headache,” Timmy said. He forced his eyes open so he could see Armie’s face. “Thanks for being here.”
“I don’t think they’re going to let me stay much longer,” Armie said. “Just before you woke up they were telling me that once the lockdown warning sounded I was going to have to go back to my cell.”
“That’s okay,” Timmy said, though the idea of Armie walking out the door left him feeling cold.
The door opened then and the doctor walked in. “Awake, talking...how does he seem?” The question was directed at Armie.
“In pain. A little fuzzy, but mostly aware.”
The doctor hummed, and gently removed Armie from the side of the bed, taking his place. He shined a light in Timmy’s eyes. “What’s your name?”
“Timothée,” Timmy said. “I know who I am and what’s going on.”
“Where are you?” The doctor watched him closely.
“The infirmary of the Arena prison. I just won a death match. I told you—“
The doctor shined the light at him again and began to move it up and down and back and forth. “Follow this for me, with your eyes only, please.”
Timmy tried, but the motion increased the pain in his head and he squeezed his eyes shut.
“Okay.” The doctor patted his shoulder. “I’m going to give you something for the pain, and that should feel better in a bit.” He glanced at Armie. “It’s about time for you to go,” he said.
“Can’t he stay?” Timmy asked. “I’d rather he—“
The doctor sighed. “You need to get some rest. You probably have a concussion, and so you’re on restricted activity for the next few weeks. We’ll watch it and see how you do.”
Armie spoke up. “Does he have to stay here?”
The doctor hesitated. “He should. So we can keep an eye on him.”
“But if I keep an eye on him, is that sufficient?”
Timmy frowned. He wasn’t sure if it was the concussion making it harder for him to understand what Armie was offering, or what. If he left the infirmary, he would just be back in his cell, on his hard cot. He’d almost rather be here, even if Armie couldn’t stay with him.
The doctor eyed Armie, and then rolled his eyes. “You keep him with you. Those will be my orders. You’re looking for sudden changes, vomiting, breathing erratically, that sort of thing. You won’t get much sleep.”
“That’s fine,” Armie said.
“Wake him up every few hours, talk to him, make sure he’s still aware. If anything changes—“
“I’ll let you know. I can get a guard.”
The doctor nodded. “Only because it’s you, Hammer,” he said. He turned to Timmy. “You tell him if you feel worse, got it?”
“Got it,” Timmy said. He still wasn’t sure how Armie intended to keep an eye on him, but he hoped the pain medication would knock him out enough that he wouldn’t care about leaving the infirmary bed. He nearly said something, but Armie looked so satisfied, he kept his mouth shut.
Twenty minutes later, after the doctor had given him some pain meds and some more instructions, they left the infirmary. Timmy leaned on Armie, feeling more stable because of Armie’s arm locked around his waist.
Jake approached as they moved through the common area towards their cell block. “There’s the beast,” he said. “You all right? It was the knock to the head, wasn’t it? I’m sorry about that.“
“I’m fine,” Timmy said. “It was during a match. And it wasn’t your fault, anyway.”
“Yeah, but still. I’m sorry for my hand in it. I’m glad you’re okay.“
“You too,” Timmy said. “I’m glad about...the way it ended. And thanks. For what you said.”
“If there’s anything you need—“
Timmy held up a hand. “Don’t worry about it, seriously.”
Jake grinned. “Yes, sir.”
Timmy had time to wonder about the title for a half second before the tone sounded warning the prisoners of lockdown and lights out.
“It was a good, clean match, Jake,” Armie said. “You did well. I’ve got to get him to bed.”
Jake gave a little salute, and turned towards his own block.
Armie led Timmy out of the common area and down the long hallway, past the rows of cells. When they reached Timmy’s, he turned towards the open gate, but Armie tightened his grip and steered him straight.
“You’re not staying there tonight,” Armie said.
“No. You’re staying with me. I’ve got to keep an eye on you, remember?”
Timmy wondered how that was going to work, until they reached the end of the hall, turned the corner, and entered a large cell that was definitely not the same as the others.
“Woah,” he said. “This is your cell?”
“Yeah. And tonight, it’s yours too.” Armie steered him to sit on the edge of the cot. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.” He left the cell and disappeared down the hallway.
Timmy scanned the large, comfortable-looking cot and the shelves on the wall filled with what looked like actual possessions in wonder. Armie returned less than a minute later and set a bundle on a small table in the corner, then went to fill a glass with water from the sink. Timmy bounced slightly on the cot, marveling at how soft it was.
“You have a mattress,” Timmy said. He reached out and patted the pillow and the fluffy blankets that were bunched near the head. “And...why do you have all of this?”
“Years of building the right relationships,” Armie said. “And being the closest fighter to freedom in the history of the Arena. It’s why it’s fine if you’re in here with me, no one will do anything about it.” He pressed the glass into Timmy’s hand. “Drink this.”
Timmy obeyed. The pain meds had helped, and his headache had receded to a dull background discomfort. Armie moved back to the sink, pulled off his shirt, and began to wash.
He wanted to avert his eyes. Or, more precisely, he figured he should avert his eyes. But instead, he found he couldn’t take his eyes off of Armies back, his muscles flexing and twisting as he stretched.
Armie had a bruise on his left shoulder, and another on his right bicep. Neither looked too bad, but Timmy wanted to run his fingers over them, soothe them in some way. After a couple of minutes, Armie turned off the water, kicked off his boots, and turned around. He looked exhausted.
“I think I’m okay,” Timmy said. “If you wanted to dump me in my own cell and get some sleep, I won’t—“
“You don’t want to stay?” Armie asked, looking suddenly unsure. “I’m sorry, I should have asked, I didn’t even think. I’d rather you be back in the infirmary than alone in your cell, but I can take you back there if you’d like.”
Timmy looked at Armie’s face, full of concern. He thought of the way Armie had talked to him in the infirmary. He thought of Armie taking his hand at the end of the match.
He thought about the almost kiss and his pulse jumped.
“No,” he said. “I want to stay.”
Armie smiled. “Oh. Good,” he said. He came to sit beside Timmy on the cot, and the mattress sank under his weight, sending Timmy sliding towards him until their thighs touched. Armie took the empty glass from Timmy and set it on the floor.
The tone sounded again, this time warning the fighters that the gates were about to close. Sure enough, the glass wall slid shut, sealing them in.
“You aren’t stuck, you know,” Armie said, as if he could read Timmy’s mind. “I can get in touch with a guard, have them take you back to the infirmary, anytime you decide that’s what you want.”
Timmy nodded, then licked his lips and took a deep breath before diving right in and addressing the elephant in the room. “We have something to talk about. Don’t we?”
“I guess we do,” Armie replied.
They were both quiet for a minute. Timmy kicked off his own boots, and then stared at the floor between his bare feet. He slid his foot to the right until it was up against Armie’s.
“I thought,” he said quietly. “That I was just...wishing for something I couldn’t have.”
“And what is that?” Armie asked.
Timmy looked up at Armie. “You.”
Armie shook his head. “I’m not sure what this is...or why this is,” he said. “But I just know that it is.”
“Were you going to kiss me? Before, in the holding pen?” Timmy asked.
“Do you still want to?”
Timmy’s stomach did a long, slow loop that had nothing to do with his concussion. “Then...why don’t you?”
Armie looked at him searchingly. “Is that what you want, too?”
Tilting his head up, he leaned in. “Please. Even if it’s just once, just to see. I can’t stop thinking about it.”
The tone sounded again, and the lights shut off, plunging the cell into complete darkness. Timmy opened his mouth to remark on it, and Armie’s lips closed over his, canceling out anything he had been about to say.
Armie’s mouth was softer than Timmy would have thought, his lips gently moving against Timmy’s in a caress that stirred something deep in his chest. When Armie pulled back, Timmy leaned into him, searching for further contact.
“More,” he whispered, when all he met was air.
There was a quiet snicker. “You need to rest,” Armie murmured.
Timmy intended to protest, but Armie was already scooping him up and laying him out on the cot, making sure his head was resting on the pillow. Then Armie was lying beside him, the long lines of his body warm and strong. Timmy sighed and pressed closer, his eyes flickering shut at the sensation.
Armie covered them both with a pile of fluffy blankets, and Timmy was suddenly more secure and comfortable than he had felt in months. Since coming to the Arena. Since before. He felt himself relaxing in immense relief, his muscles going slack and his breathing deepening.
“Don’t want to rest,” he whispered.
“Yeah, you do,” Armie said. “I’ll wake you up in a while anyway, we can do that again then.”
“Fine,” Timmy said. He turned his head toward Armie, found his neck, and smiled against it. He drifted off to sleep, for once not cold and anxious about what he would find when he awoke.
When Armie woke him the first time, Timmy inhaled a lungful of Armie’s scent and hummed.
“You know where you are?” Armie asked.
“Yeah,” Timmy said. “And I know you promised me something.” Then he tipped his head back and waited.
With a laugh, Armie found his mouth again. This time the kiss went on for longer, and Timmy tentatively licked his way into Armie’s mouth, eliciting a soft groan before Armie mimicked his actions.
The second time Timmy woke, Armie was already kissing him.
They parted for air, and Timmy asked, “Aren’t you going to ask me if I know where I am?”
“I figure if you were confused you’d push me away,” Armie said, and then they were kissing again.
The third time Timmy woke, he woke on his own. He turned towards Armie and kissed his neck.
“Hey,” Armie said, “you can sleep more.”
“You’re awake,” Timmy pointed out. He shifted so he was lying half on top of Armie and threaded his fingers through the hair on Armie’s chest.
“I’m monitoring you,” Armie replied.
“Then monitor me,” Timmy said. He found Armie’s face with his hands and pulled, bringing their mouths together roughly.
Armie made a low sound in the back of his throat and flipped their positions. Timmy was now on his back, and Armie pressed him into the thin mattress, plunging into his mouth and running his hands along Timmy’s sides. Goose bumps sprang up all over Timmy’s body, and when Armie’s right hand slipped under his shirt, he shivered.
“Cold?” Armie asked.
“No,” Timmy said. He yanked his shirt over his head and flung it to the side before wrapping his arms around Armie’s back, pulling him closer, and arching his hips up, bringing them into contact.
Armie gasped and then rolled his hips down, and they moved together, moaning softly at the sensation even though the layers of fabric.
“Do you want me to stop?” Armie asked.
“Fuck, no,” Timmy managed. “Do you want to stop?”
“No. Fuck,” Armie grunted.
A few frantic minutes later, Timmy tensed and came, feeling the wetness spreading in his pants. Armie buried his head in Timmy’s neck and, with one last punishing roll, he followed.
Afterwards, they lay tangled together, catching their breath.
“How’s your head?” Armie asked.
“It’s okay,” Timmy said. “Same dull ache as before. Actually, a little better now.”
“Good,” Armie said. He adjusted the blankets over them and pulled Timmy close, and Timmy drifted back to sleep with Armie breathing in his ear.
In the morning, Armie told Timmy to stay in bed.
“I’ll get you breakfast,” he said.
“Food isn’t allowed in the cells,” Timmy reminded him as he changed into a fresh set of clothes. He tried not to drool too much at the sight of Armie’s long legs and ass.
“It’s okay. They’ll make an exception because you’re injured. No one will say anything, anyway, because—“
“Right, because you’re the great Hammer.” Timmy rolled onto his side and propped his head on his hand. “You sure? I can go to breakfast. I feel okay.”
“I’m sure,” Armie said, splashing water on his face. “I’ve done it before and it was fine.”
“Oh.” Timmy tried to ignore the way his stomach fell at the thought of Armie with someone else. It would be stupid to assume it had never happened...he’d been in the Arena for over twelve years, after all. But he couldn’t tamp down his sudden need to know. He tried to keep his tone light and casual when he asked, “Who was the last person you brought food to?”
“You,” Armie said. “That first night when you skipped dinner after throwing up lunch. I had Dev do it, but—“
Timmy sat up. “That was you?” he asked. “You did that?”
“I thought...shit, Armie. I wasted so much time thinking you hated me, that you were out to make me miserable. But you…” he searched Armie’s face. “You didn’t, did you?”
“Never,” Armie said. The tone sounded, and the gate slid open. He crossed the cell and kissed Timmy soundly. “The wanting to...kiss you...part is new, but I liked you from the first day.”
Then he turned and walked out of the cell, leaving Timmy gaping after him.
Timmy’s headaches subsided after about a week, but the doctor made him sit out of all physical activity for two more weeks. He also made it clear Timmy needed to continue to be monitored during that time, which made it easy for him to justify staying in Armie’s cell instead of his own.
“What did you like about me? That first day?” Timmy asked one night. They had taken to talking for a while in the dark after lights out, whispered discussions and confessions that almost didn’t feel real when the lights came back on in the morning.
“I liked that you didn’t give up,” Armie replied. “I liked your spirit. And I liked that you didn’t take shit from me.”
Timmy let that sink in. All that time he’d been lashing out at Armie, cussing him out, pushing at him...Armie had liked that. He wondered if that was why Armie gave him such a hard time, to provoke a response.
“What about me?” Armie asked, after Timmy was quiet for a while. “What made you decide I wasn’t Satan personified?”
“I think…” Timmy chewed on his lip, glad Armie couldn’t see him in the blackness. “It wasn’t any one thing. The night of my first fight, you were so...I guess I saw that you were hard on me so I could have a prayer in the Arena. And it made me feel like looking a little more closely. Then I realized that in a place where everyone — everyone — is looking out for number one, you were a Big Damned Hero. And—“
“A what?” Armie snickered. “I’m definitely not.”
I think you are,” Timmy said. “Even before we started orchestrating the fights as performances to make everyone look good, you did that. All on your own. To give your opponents a chance of survival.” He placed a hand on Armie’s chest. “That’s hero stuff.”
“It didn’t make a lot of difference,” Armie said. “Trust me, I’m no hero.”
“I disagree.” Timmy surged up and kissed Armie, and they forgot about the conversation for a while.
As the nights wore on, they progressed beyond rutting against each other fully clothed to stroking each other with hands and mouths, but they didn’t go any further than that. Timmy almost didn’t care. He wanted more, but he was still feeling such intense amazement that it was happening at all that he was content with what they were doing.
And yet, he also wondered why Armie didn’t seem to be pressing for more himself, especially since the time where they could justify staying in Armie’s cell together wasn’t going to last forever.
Another night, after Armie tucked the blankets around them and shifted the pillow so Timmy got more of it, Timmy smiled against his mouth.
“My hero,” he said.
“Cut it out,” Armie grumbled, twisting his head away. “You can’t keep saying that. I told you, I’m definitely not a hero.”
He sounded so put off that Timmy stilled. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I was kidding. But—“
“Timmy, you know what I’ve done. No one who has done what I have can be called a hero, no matter what they do to make up for it or how they justify it.”
“Actually,” Timmy said, after a long beat, “I don’t know what you’ve done, not really.”
Beside him, Armie tensed. When Timmy didn’t continue, he said, “Ask me what you want to ask me.”
“Joel said...way back, when I was first here...he said you were a murderer. After we became friends, I figured he had been exaggerating.”
“I am a murderer,” Armie said quietly.
Timmy waited for him to elaborate but he didn’t. Eventually, Timmy asked, “Who did you murder?”
Armie sighed and rolled away, leaving a cold, gaping space between them. His voice drifted to Timmy through the suffocating darkness. “I’ve murdered dozens of men. You know that.”
“Not...not in the Arena,” Timmy said. “What you do in the Arena isn’t murder. It’s—“
“Isn’t it?” Armie asked bitterly. “I willingly take men’s lives away. On purpose. Seems like murder to me.”
“To preserve your own,” Timmy said. “It’s like a warped version of self-defense.”
“Doesn’t make it right.”
“Maybe not. It also doesn’t make it murder.”
The silence stretched out, nearly solid and impenetrable. Timmy was about to move towards Armie, do something to make him forget about the turn the conversation had taken, when he spoke again.
“You want to know what I did to get in here,” he said, his voice tight. It wasn’t a question. Timmy waited. “That was murder too. So..I’m a murderer. Joel told you the truth.”
“He said you shot your fiancé and her lover while they slept. Is that true?” Timmy told himself it didn’t matter. That he knew Armie, who Armie was now, and it didn’t matter what he had done nearly thirteen years ago. But he kept his hands to himself.
“What?” The mattress shifted as Armie turned to face Timmy. “No.”
“It’s not true?”
“No,” Armie said.
“Then who did you kill? To get in here?”
Armie sighed. “I killed the man who raped and murdered my sister. He was an Empire Guard.”
“Oh my god,” Timmy said. He immediately reached for Armie, fumbling in the dark until his palms rested on the man’s cheeks. “Armie, I’m so sorry.”
Armie laid a hand on top of Timmy’s. “I planned it. It was calculated and premeditated. I knew what I was doing. And I’m not sorry.”
“Understandable,” Timmy said. “Did you think that would make me feel any differently about you?”
“You should,” Armie said. “Because I’d do it again. Sometimes, I pretend the other fighters are him, so I can kill him over and over. The fact that it landed me in here doesn’t even make me sorry for selfish reasons.” He squeezed Timmy’s hand. “You see? I’m no hero.”
“On the contrary,” Timmy said. “I think you are, especially now.” He silenced Armie’s continued protests with an urgent kiss.
A few nights later, Armie asked, “What did you do? To get in here?”
Timmy tried to figure out what to say. He hadn’t told anyone yet that his being in the Arena was a mistake. But he trusted Armie.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Nothing.”
“What?” Armie sounded incredulous. “Not nothing. Are you saying you were innocent? What were you accused of?”
“Attempted theft of a pair of secondhand boots,” Timmy said, dry humor coloring his voice.
Armie made a noise of disbelief. “Come on,” he said. “Attempted theft would get you a couple of months of service on the outside. At most.”
“I’m telling you the truth. I got accused of trying to steal a pair of boots from a vendor in the marketplace. I wasn’t, but the Empire Guard took me in anyway. And the next thing I remember clearly is being brought in here.”
“That doesn’t...that doesn’t even make sense,” Armie said.
”You have to sign a whole contract. There’s a hearing. They ask you a lot of times if you’re sure you want to do this, because it’s irrevocable.”
“Look, the best I can figure is that my records got mixed up with someone else,” Timmy said, putting voice to the possibility he preferred.
“We have to tell someone,” Armie said urgently. “If it’s a mistake, you can get out. The Commander—“
“No.” Timmy grabbed at Armie, got a fistful of his chest hair, and pulled. “You can’t say anything. Please.”
He trusted Armie, but he trusted no one else. And if someone looked too closely at him...if he wasn’t here by mistake, if the other possibility was true, he’d rather not find out. Maybe he’d just be forgotten.
“But you shouldn’t be here,” Armie said. “Jesus, this is...someone has to do something. You should be—“
“Armie please,” Timmy said. “Please just forget I told you. Please?”
There was a beat of silence. “I don’t understand why,” Armie said, after a minute. “If there’s a way you could get out…”
“There is a way,” Timmy said.
“A faster way.”
“I don’t trust anyone,” Timmy said. He searched for some reason why that would matter, some reason other than truth. “Most likely they’ll laugh and not believe me, and then I’ll have a reputation that I don’t want. Just let it go for now.”
Armie sighed. “For now,” he agreed. “But we’re going to talk about this again.”
“You won’t say anything?”
“No. Not until you say I can.”
On one of the last nights of Timmy’s medical restrictions, he waited until they were tangled together, clothes discarded on the floor, and Armie was stroking him expertly. Then he took Armie’s wrist and guided his hand lower, to his ass.
Armie stilled immediately, his palm cupping Timmy’s cheek.
Shit, Timmy thought. Maybe he should have left well enough alone. He could just kiss Armie and pretend it hadn’t happened. But instead, he asked, “Why don’t you want to fuck me?”
He swallowed at the silence that met him. Shit, shit, shit.
Then Armie spoke. “I...do want to,” he said carefully.
“Then why aren’t we?” Timmy moved, shifting so Armie’s fingers slid into his crack. “I want you to.”
Armie rolled off of Timmy. Just when Timmy was about to protest, Armie pulled him close and kissed him, stealing his breath away with the force of it.
“I just didn’t want to rush things,” Armie said.
“Rush things? Armie, we live in a fucking prison that wants to kill us for sport. Any week you could go out there, or I could, and...and…” Timmy felt his voice cracking. He was forgetting to whisper. “We’ve already wasted so much time. We don’t have time to—“
“Shhhh.” Armie kissed his cheeks and his forehead. “Okay. I also don’t really...I’m not sure how to…” He sighed. “I’ve never done this before.”
Timmy’s eyes went wide, and he searched the absolute blackness for anything that could resemble the shape of the man beside him.
“Never?” he asked.
“I was seventeen when I got here,” Armie said, as if that explained everything.
“But what about the others?”
“What others?” Armie sounded confused.
“The other...fighters. You must have — I mean, in twelve years —“
“There hasn’t been anyone,” Armie said. “Until you. What, you think I have a string of ex-lovers wandering around here?”
“No, I just assumed...really, no one?”
“No one,” Armie said. “What about you?”
“Uh...Well, before I got arrested, I had a couple of guys who…” Timmy cleared his throat. “I’m not a virgin. But there hasn’t been anyone important.”
“I see. And I’m…” Armie trailed off, and Timmy grinned in his direction, unable to help himself even though he knew Armie couldn’t see him.
“Yes. You are,” Timmy said. “So important.”
Armie shifted on top of Timmy, pressing their lips together and settling his hand on Timmy’s collarbone, stroking outward in a motion that made Timmy shiver.
“You too,” Armie said. “Tell me what to do.”
As it turned out, Armie was as much of a natural in bed as he was at every other physical activity. Timmy stuffed his fist in his mouth to keep from crying out as Armie glided in and out of him, aided by the Vaseline that he had stolen from the infirmary during one of his check ins.
When Armie came, slamming into Timmy so hard the cot screeched as it slid two inches on the stone floor, he latched onto Timmy’s mouth and whimpered into it.
Afterwards, they lay side by side, sweat cooling in the chilled air and gasping for breath.
“So what did you think?” Timmy asked. “Worth repeating?”
“I’d do it again right the fuck now if I could manage it,” Armie said.
“In a few hours is fine,” Timmy laughed. “And maybe next time I could fuck you. Unless that’s not something you’d like.”
“If it feels anywhere as good as that, you can do whatever you want.”
Timmy hummed and curled up against Armie, who drew the blankets around them. “I’m going to miss this,” he said sadly.
“Miss what? You going somewhere? Getting bored?” Armie asked, kissing the top of Timmy’s head.
“In a few days, I don’t need to be monitored anymore,” he explained. “I guess I’ll be back in my own cell.”
Armie tightened his arms around Timmy and huffed. “Only if you want to be. No one will bother us if you want to stay.”
“The other fighters—“
“Already know. None of them care. As far as I can see, the only thing that has to change is you getting your ass back in the training arena. You’re getting soft.” Armie poked his belly, and when Timmy squirmed, he began to tickle him in earnest until Timmy breathlessly begged him to stop.
As they drifted off to sleep a while later, it occurred to Timmy that he was feeling something he hadn’t felt since before Greta had died. Something he never would have expected to be feeling in a place like this.
He was actually happy.
With a shiver, he wondered how long it could possibly last. At the very least, this relationship had an expiration date. If they both survived that long, Armie would be free in less than six months.
Chapter 9: Apocalypsis
The future weighs on them.
Happy New Year!
This chapter is a hot mess and there is a real chance I'll pull it and redo it at some point. But I've been writing it in between family obligations and having a load of friends in town and it's been a struggle to focus on it for long enough to feel like I've gotten it right.
I fear that if I don't get it out now, it will be a good few days before I manage, so I'm giving it to you, warts and all.
One more chapter left, and it will be out by next weekend.
100% fiction. Much love.
Art by binary-suunset
For the next few months, Timmy continued to sleep in Armie’s cell, letting the gate slide closed each night, sealing them inside together for long, dark hours filled with nothing but each other.
Some nights, Timmy took control, feeling his way across the hard planes of Armie’s body, kissing the soft secret places Armie hadn’t even been aware still existed, drawing breathy moans and cries for more in a way that left Armie feeling more vulnerable than he ever had at the point of another man’s blade.
Some nights, the lights were barely extinguished before Armie had Timmy pinned beneath him, devouring his mouth and his flesh as though he was starving, using delicate caresses instead of force to bend this man to his will.
Some nights, after particularly exhausting training or matches, they simply slept, tangled together, finding rest for more than just their bodies.
Armie couldn’t quite wrap his head around the change that had taken place in his existence. For so long, he had been completely focused on doing what he needed to do to survive, and finding a way to live with it. Now, with Timmy...he found himself letting down walls that had been up for over a decade, exposing parts of himself and his past to someone else, dusting off emotions he never thought he’d be able to feel again.
It shocked him that, despite the fear that had him closed off for so long, he wasn’t plagued with anxiety or dread over his relationship with Timmy. Maybe because he had come to have such faith in Timmy as a person and as a fighter, he wasn’t concerned with Timmy’s ability to take care of himself. Maybe all those precautions he had taken over the years to protect his own sanity were simply less important than letting Timmy in.
Whatever it was, Armie was constantly thrown by the intensity of his feelings for Timmy. He could no longer remember what occupied his thoughts and his nights before Timmy had come into his life. The one dark spot in all of this was when he thought about the future that awaited him once he had earned his freedom.
That future weighed on Timmy as well. He tried to hide it, but Armie could tell by the way he seemed distant whenever they talked about life outside the Arena. One Saturday night, after both men had won their matches in the Arena, Timmy simply began to cry silently, the salt from his tears sharp on Armie’s tongue.
Armie pulled him close and stroked his back. He knew that sometimes, after Timmy fought, he became melancholy. This also happened after matches ended in death. But this was different. Timmy had never cried in front of him before, not like this.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
Timmy shook his head, and then let out a soggy breath before speaking. “How many wins do you need? Before you’re free?”
Armie hesitated before answering, knowing at once what was bothering the man in his arms. “Nine,” he said.
“So close,” Timmy murmured. “You’re so close.”
He went quiet, and Armie waited, knowing Timmy wasn’t quite done. When he spoke again, his voice was too bright, too cheerful.
“You must be so excited,” he said. “To finally be getting out. You deserve it. I’m happy for you.”
Armie tightened his arms around Timmy, hearing what he was saying not with his words but with the way his muscles were tense and his chin quivered.
“It’ll be okay. I’m not going anywhere, after nine,” he said.
He had made up his mind to take the offer the Commander had mentioned months earlier, to stay on as Chief Trainer. Before, he hadn’t been sure he wanted to have anything to do with the Arena after he was granted his freedom. Now...things had changed.
“What?” Timmy stilled. “What are you talking about?”
“The Commander offered me a job,” Armie said. “Chief Trainer, once I’m free. I’m going to take it. So...you don’t have to worry. Like I said, I’m not going anywhere.”
Timmy pushed up on one elbow. Armie could practically sense the look of shock on his face, even though it was too dark to see.
“You can’t do that,” Timmy said.
“Can’t do what?”
“Stay here. You’ll be free. You have to...you should get away from this. Go and live your life.”
“You are my life,” Armie said. He reached out, found Timmy’s cheek, and stroked his thumb along it. “Timmy, nothing and no one is waiting out there for me. The only thing I need is in here. So...it’s an easy choice.”
He leaned in and found Timmy’s lips, but Timmy turned his head to the side.
“No, that’s not…” Timmy blew out a breath. “I don’t want you to stay here because of me. You’ll finally be able to leave the Arena behind. You should do it.”
“No,” Armie said.
“No?” Timmy laid a hand on Armie’s chest. “Be reasonable...even if you take this job, you won’t be...we won’t be together. We’ll see each other in the training arena, and—“
“And at night,” Armie said.
“I’ll be given an apartment upstairs. You can stay with me.”
Timmy let out a surprised laugh. “There is no fucking way that would work. They aren’t going to let me live with you. As if I’m free.”
“Maybe not every night,” Armie said. “But often enough. I have dinner in the Commander’s apartment every Sunday. This would be like that. And other times, I can stay with you.”
“ Armie. ” Timmy smacked Armie’s chest three times in quick succession. “Listen to yourself. I’ve got...it’ll be a decade. More, maybe, before I have hope of freedom. You can’t live like that, not for that long, I won’t let you.”
“It’s my choice,” Armie said. “My life, my freedom. I don’t even want it if you’re not with me. So I’ll wait.” He paused, a realization settling over him like a wet blanket. “Unless you...I didn’t expect you to put up such a fight over this. Do you not want me around?”
“No, it’s not…” Timmy settled back against Armie, pushed his nose into Armie’s neck. “Of course I want to be with you. But it might be easier if you left, you know?”
“Easier? Easier for what?”
Timmy sighed, his breath tickling Armie’s chin. “I might not even...have you thought that I might not make it? What will happen then, when I lose a death match and it’s over? I don’t want you to have to—” Timmy’s voice went high-pitched at the end, and Armie tipped his chin up and kissed him hard.
“You won’t,” Armie said fiercely. “How many matches have you won?”
“Twelve,” Timmy said.
“And how many have you lost?”
“None,” Timmy said. “But—“
“You’re fighting nearly every week. The crowd loves you and you’re getting more popular each time you enter the Arena. At this rate, you’ll be free in six years.”
“There’s no guarantee, Armie,” Timmy whispered.
“There never is,” said Armie. “And if the worst does happen, I want you to know I’m right here with you. Until the end.”
Timmy made a small sound of distress and then pushed Armie onto his back. Before Armie could take a breath, Timmy’s mouth was on his with an urgency that communicated everything he was feeling as clearly as if he said it aloud.
They didn’t discuss the future or Armie’s freedom again, after that, but Armie wasn’t naive enough to think the issue was resolved for good.
One of the reasons Armie was sure Timmy would earn his freedom one day, and that they would be able to convince the Commander to approve a relaxed arrangement in terms of living conditions, was because of the way Timmy had truly blossomed as a fighter and as a leader.
Over the months that followed their dual match, two more large batches of new fighters arrived. Including the last batch, that made seventy-nine new men in the past quarter. Armie watched them during weapons training shortly after the latest ones arrived, feeling a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of fighters he was trying to manage. He had already designated Dev, Timmy, and Joel to help, and between the four of them there was still a lot to monitor.
“What do you think?” he asked, when Timmy jogged over to check in with him. His group of men were working with tiger claws, which was a particularly nasty new addition to the Arena arsenal. Used improperly, you could injure yourself — never mind your opponent — badly.
Timmy looked out over the nearly two hundred and fifty fighters and made a face. “It’s a mess,” he said.
Timmy shook his head. “No, it’s not...this new group is sort of like the last group, and the one before that. They’ve already got some skills, so it’s a matter of refinement. But as a whole group...they’re all over the place. I feel like before the last two sets showed up we were working towards something, as a group. But now it’s like everyone is back to doing their own thing.”
Armie watched the fighters in their quartets, focusing on the newbies. “I see what you mean,” he said, after a minute. The men’s movements were erratic and disjointed. Veteran fighters, who had adjusted seamlessly to the strategy of performing a choreographed fight before engaging, were getting frustrated at the unpredictability of the new men.
The general mood was of agitation, and that was never a good thing.
“I wish they’d be more...I don’t know.” Timmy rubbed a hand over his short hair. “They need to feel more connected. Otherwise as soon as they get in the Arena the whole system we’ve developed falls apart. Maybe…” He trailed off with a frown.
“What are you thinking?” Armie asked.
In the months since the kid had begun to work with him in training fighters, Armie had come to appreciate Timmy’s unique perspective on the Arena. Armie’s dedication to creating strong fighters hadn’t changed, but while he had always relied upon the fighters being intimidated by him and respecting his skill as a way of keeping them motivated, Timmy had a talent for bringing people together and helping them find personal motivation to perform.
Now, Timmy eyed the men. “I feel like we need to do some exercises to get everyone in sync. And there’s a lot of them so it might take a while.”
“Go ahead,” Armie said, folding his arms across his chest.
Timmy blinked at him. “What?”
“Take them. Give them what they need.”
“Me?” First surprise, and then a flash of concern crossed Timmy’s face.
“Yes, you. You have an idea, let’s try it. Don’t look so worried. You’ve been working with the fighters for months now.” Armie laid a hand on Timmy’s shoulder and squeezed.
Timmy bit at his lower lip and scuffed a boot in the dirt. “Yeah, but like...a couple, or, at most, a dozen at a time. They’re not going to listen to me. I can just explain to you the exercise and if you think it’s a good idea, you can—”
“Timmy.” Armie smiled and slid his hand up to cup the side of Timmy’s neck. Timmy immediately stopped fidgeting. “They’ll listen to you. Trust me.”
It was true. Armie had watched Timmy gain the respect and admiration of the veteran fighters — all the fighters —during his time in the Arena. They saw how hard he worked, how quickly he had increased his skill, and how sharp he was at strategy. Beyond that, he had earned a reputation of being fair and helpful in training, and always had a kind word of encouragement. He was naturally charismatic, which served him in the Arena as well, where he still hadn’t lost a match, and had become a spectator favorite. They loved that he was tiny but fierce, they loved his surprising speed and quick reflexes, and they loved how he played to the crowd.
Armie waited, and sure enough, Timmy's face changed as the uncertainty evaporated. With a nod, he turned to the field and called for attention. When the fighters ceased their sparring and looked to him for instruction, he explained what he wanted from them.
To his clear surprise, they immediately spread out across the training arena in the formation they used for combination drills. Dev and Joel joined Timmy and Armie, and Timmy led the group through a set of coordinated movement. The combinations were simple, but the goal was to get them one hundred percent in sync. He counted out the moves, his voice ringing clear and strong across the field, and before too long the majority of the fighters were stomping, turning, and thrusting in close-to-unison. The ones who struggled fell off the count and scrambled to catch up.
He turned to Armie. “Can you guys go out there and correct or help the ones who need form adjustments? I’ll stay up here and keep guiding the movement.”
They continued this during weapons practice the next day, and on the third day, Armie told Timmy to take weapons training from the start. They began with coordinated combination drills again, and then when they broke into sparring, Timmy said, “I want you to try something different today. Your objective isn’t going to be to engage and overcome your opponent. Instead, one of you will move, and the other will mirror the movement. Try to anticipate what your opponent will do so that your are actually mirroring and not just copying seconds later.”
Without question, the fighters did as they were told.
Armie watched in wonder as, over the coming weeks, the fighters were able to do just that. It affected their performance in the Arena as well, since the choreographed and even the legitimate fights looked tighter and more intense. With the fighters able to anticipate each other’s moves, blocks were clean and the fights began to look like a violent dance.
But when the fourth new batch of fighters arrived on a Tuesday, another thirty-two men, Armie asked for an audience with the Commander. It was granted, and he was escorted up to Brolin’s quarters before night training began.
He found the man in his study, poring over a tablet with books open around him. He looked up when Armie was brought in, and gestured for him to sit.
“What’s on your mind, Hammer?” Brolin asked, his expression neutral and unconcerned.
“Sir…” Armie tried to figure out how to express exactly what he was thinking in as diplomatic a way as he could. “The influx of new fighters is on my mind.”
Brolin sat back in his chair. “Oh?”
Armie frowned. “We’ve picked up one-hundred-eleven new men in under six months. That’s...highly unusual. What’s going on outside? Did they change the terms of freedom to make it more attractive? Change the laws to make more offenses eligible for life sentences?”
He hoped that last bit wasn’t the case. Were that true, it would explain Timmy’s predicament...if it weren’t patently ridiculous for an attempted theft of secondhand boots to carry a life sentence.
The Commander’s mouth curved up just a hair on one side. “I’m glad to see your focus turning to the outside. Thinking of your release? It’s soon, isn’t it?”
Armie shifted in his chair. “If I make it, sir. But that’s not why I’m here.”
“Have you given any further thoughts to my offer? About staying on as Chief Trainer? I pushed the paperwork through, got it approved. It’s yours if you want it.”
“Sir…” Armie leaned forward, needing to make his point clear and not get distracted. “I’m concerned that we are at capacity in the prison. That so many new fighters means that there will be a shift towards more true death matches, to help keep the numbers down.”
Brolin watched Armie carefully a moment, but didn’t reply. An icy pit formed in Armie’s stomach as he realized that what he was fearing might actually be true. Like he had done with most things since his arrest and conviction, Armie swallowed back his fears, let go of the things he could not control, and searched for the things he could.
“I’d like to stay on after my release,” he said. “But I’m not sure my conscience will allow it if I know the men I’m training have a lower chance of survival.”
“I appreciate your concern,” Brolin said. “We’ll be doubling cell occupancy as new fighters arrive, which means we aren’t close to capacity yet.”
Armie nodded, keeping himself still even though his shoulders wanted to slump with relief. “Thank you, sir,” he said.
Brolin shuffled some things around on his desk and stood. Armie got to his feet as well, thinking he was being dismissed, but Brolin held up a hand.
“Sit,” he said. “I’ve got a situation to deal with, but since you’re here I’d like to talk with you more about the Trainer position, as well as how things are going with the men. I’ll be back shortly.”
Armie sank back into the chair as Brolin exited the room, closing the door behind him.
His mind wandered as he waited. He thought about the Trainer position, and how to request the benefits he wanted in order to accept it. He would take it no matter what, but he wanted to officially negotiate the terms in a way that would allow him to do what he could for Timmy.
He thought about his relationship with the Commander, and with the other Empire Guards here at the Arena. He respected them, to a point. They were mostly fair with the prisoners, doling out punishment and rewards objectively. He knew he got better treatment than others, but that was a result of both his success in the Arena and his deliberate cultivation of relationships with the guards. He considered how he could use this to his advantage in transitioning to his new position after his release.
Of course, he thought about Timmy. About how many wins he needed, what Armie could do to help him, how he could make sure Timmy was in the best position possible. He also thought about whether he might be able to look into the circumstances of Timmy’s array and sentencing. Timmy had said to leave it alone because he didn’t want to draw attention to himself that could cause him problems, but perhaps, by using his relationships with the Commander and others, Armie could at least get his hands on the records.
If there was a chance — any chance at all — that he could get Timmy free without having to go through what Armie had been through, he wanted to do it.
He also knew that there was a real chance that, once out of the confines of the Arena prison, Timmy would no longer want anything to do with him. It was one thing, while in here, to say that once he got out he would look for Armie. It was one thing to be in a situation where the joys of everyday life were limited, and to view their relationship as something to be cherished.
It would be another thing entirely for Timmy to feel that way when he had the entire world at his feet and no restrictions on with whom he could spend his time. Whom he could love.
No matter that Armie himself was certain beyond any reasonable doubt that, once free, his feelings about Timmy would not change in the least. Timmy was younger. He hadn’t been in the Arena as long. Had had more of a life — not that much more, but still — on the outside before coming in.
Armie closed his eyes and felt the ache building inside him. He knew that Timmy had been protesting against him taking the Trainer position and staying in the Arena after earning his freedom because he was probably experiencing some of the same doubts. He could only hope that Timmy would continue to choose him throughout. If, at any point, he suspected that the kid didn’t want him around anymore...well, he would leave. It was that simple.
When he opened his eyes, they landed on the clock on the wall. The Commander had been gone for nearly thirty minutes at this point. Night training had begun. Armie knew Timmy and the others would have the session in hand, but found himself feeling antsy and ready to move on. He wanted a chance to talk to the others about what he had discussed with the Commander before lights out.
He glanced over the materials on the Commander’s desk, trying not to be too obvious about it. He was sure there were cameras hidden, recording his every move, otherwise Brolin wouldn’t have left him in here alone, and he didn’t want to get caught looking at anything that wasn’t meant for his eyes. His eyes roamed over stacks of printed reports awaiting signatures as well as several hardcover books, the kind they didn’t make anymore and that were probably valuable.
One of the books was open. He leaned forward slightly, turning his head to the left to get a better look at what was on the pages. The top of the left page said Crema: A History and the top of the right page was labeled The Royal Family Throughout the Ages. That was fine, but it was the photo on the right page that caught Armie’s eye.
It was a portrait. Dressed in the royal colors, looking regal and in command, was Timmy.
Armie glanced around, decided what the hell, and stood up to get a better look. He squinted at the photo. It wasn’t Timmy, he realized. This man was older, by perhaps a decade. But the resemblance was uncanny. The cheekbones, the cut of the jaw, the eyes...it was no wonder he had first thought it was Timmy.
He scanned the transcription below the photo. Current King of Crema, Marc Chalamet.
Armie’s stomach turned once, twice, and then a third time. Fuck.
The door opened, and he quickly sat back down, trying to look as though he had been sitting calmly all along. Brolin entered with a smile.
“Sorry that took so long,” he said. He held up a tablet. “I’ve got the proposed employment contract, and thought we could start to talk about what this would look like in practical terms.”
“Yes, sir,” Armie said. He did his best to concentrate on what Brolin was laying out, remember the strategies he had come up with earlier, but his mind was focused on one thing and one thing only, and he could barely wait to get Timmy alone.
After an excruciating forty minutes of discussion, Brolin looked over the employment contract, which had been amended with details. He nodded and turned off the tablet.
“Good,” he said. “I’m glad you want to stay on with us, Hammer. And I think we can make the arrangements you request, especially if your young fighter continues to perform as he has.” He sat back in his chair and smiled. “How are you feeling?”
Armie shook his head. “I’m feeling fine, sir,” he said. “Thank you. I’m looking forward to working with you in a new capacity.”
Brolin stood, and this time when Armie stood with him, he wasn’t instructed to sit back down. Instead, Brolin stuck out his hand. “I am as well. I like being on your side.”
“Don’t you mean, having me on your side?” Armie asked, shaking Brolin’s hand firmly.
“Not necessarily,” Brolin said. “Or perhaps our interests are more aligned than you currently believe, and they are one and the same.”
As Armie was escorted back into the prison and up to the training arena, he considered Brolin’s words. He had always thought the man was doing the best he could to make things reasonable for the prisoners. He had a job to do, and he did it, but he didn’t seem to take joy in the aspects of it that Armie himself found to be unpalatable. Maybe Brolin was right, and with Armie working alongside him, they could continue to work to keep as many of the men safe as possible.
But in the meantime...Armie scanned the training arena, searching for Timmy. When he spotted him, demonstrating a move with the gladius to a quartet of new fighters, he jogged over, waiting on the edges as Timmy finished what he was doing.
The kid faced off with one of the newbies, circling slowly. The newbie flinched as Timmy moved his left arm, and as he was watching the left arm, Timmy lunged and brought the gladius around with his right. He turned it so that the flat side smacked the newbie's arm hard, then whirled around and brought the sword to the newbie's neck as he had dropped his own weapon to grab his arm.
With a sigh, Timmy disengaged and lowered his weapon. “See, that’s what I’m talking about,” he said. “You’ve got to pay attention to all the cues. Don’t fall for the easy fake, and don’t assume that the next move is the big move. Okay. I want you to practice that combination. Don’t try to outsmart each other, just try those three moves until you can recognize them immediately.”
As the men set themselves up to spar, Timmy turned and saw Armie watching. He smiled immediately, and then the smile faded and was replaced with a look of extreme concern. He trotted over.
“How did the conversation with the Commander go?” he asked. “Is it what we’re afraid of?”
Armie glanced around, and then tugged at Timmy’s elbow. “Walk with me,” he said.
They strode across the training arena, away from the grouped fighters and away from the watchful Empire Guards. What Armie had to say to Timmy...he didn’t want an audience.
When they had reached a safe distance, he faced the man he had come to know inside and out. He searched the planes of his face and how the shadows made him seem even more sculpted than usual, the way his eyes were a fragmented hazel as they caught the spotlights, the way his brows sloped up in the center as he awaited anticipated bad news.
Armie wanted to grab this man, wrap his arms around him, and protect him from what was to come. Because he had been thinking, and what he had realized was this: if Brolin had the book on Crema history open to a photo of the last king, then chances were he knew that Timmy bore a strong resemblance. Chances were, he was thinking the exact same thing Armie was. Armie didn’t know what it meant for Timmy, for his time in the Arena, or for his future, but he was certain of one thing.
“Timmy,” he said, in a low tone, “I think you might be the lost prince of Crema.”
Timmy’s lips parted for an instant as he drew in a sharp breath, and then closed immediately into a thin line. His jaw tensed, and his eyes got that steely look that indicated he thought he was about to be challenged in some way and wasn’t about to back down.
Then he nodded. “I know,” he said.