300: Progress, Of A Sort

on October 20, 2008 in Book 11

In Which All Good Things…
…Must Come To A Middle

“Are you okay, baby?” Amaranth asked me as we headed towards the fitness complex some time after dinner. Whole crowds of people were streaming down the network of glowing paths which encircled it. It was bizarre seeing the campus so busy after dark… even the dance hadn’t had drawn so many bodies.

Of course, attendance at the dance had been restricted to students and their dates… a lot of the people heading for the arena were either a bit young or a bit old for college. A lot of them had a rough, working-class look, though there were some couples who were dressed up as though they were going out for a night of legitimate theater or something.

I kind of wondered if there weren’t two events being held in the same general vicinity.

“Baby?” Amaranth repeated, squeezing my hand and pulling me back towards her. I realized that I hadn’t answered her, and that I’d been subconsciously drifting away from the mammoth flow of people.

“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t realize how many people were going to show up for this thing. It’s a little… unnerving.”

My social ineptitude had diminished a little bit, at least to the point where dealing with large groups of people no longer bothered me as much as it once had, but this wasn’t a group… it was a river. It was a tide of people coming in.

And not just people… arena fans, the sorts of people who glorified physical prowess over intelligence and learning, violence over any kind of actual accomplishment.

“What, you didn’t think they scooped out a great big hole in the ground just to accommodate our student bodies?” Steff asked.

“This kind of thing is big entertainment, you know,” Amaranth said.

“Yeah, it’s the weekend,” Steff said. “People want to get out and do stuff.”

“I guess I’m just surprised that so many people in the greater Enwich area can’t find anything better to do on a Saturday night than watch a bunch of guys beat on each other,” I said quietly.

“Ooh, missy,” Amaranth said, jerking us to a stop, “if you think I won’t find somewhere to take you aside and spank you, baby, you’ve got another thing coming.”

“What? I’m just expressing my opinion,” I said, after I regained my balance.

“Well, it’s not a very nice one,” Amaranth said, giving me a quick hit of the over-the-glasses look.

“What? I don’t enjoy fights,” I said, shrinking back from the look but trying to stand my ground. “It’s not my idea of a good time. I can’t like everything just to avoid offending anyone.”

Amaranth glared, the tip of her nose turning pink, but it looked like she was stymied as to how to respond.

“Amy? Let me,” Steff said. “Saying it’s not your idea of a good time is ‘just expressing your opinion’, Mack.”

“Yeah… that’s what I did,” I said.

“No, you acted like anybody who does think it sounds like a good time is an idiot,” Steff said. “Since I am looking forward to the evening’s program, how do you think that makes me feel?”

“I don’t know… maybe about the same way I feel when you talk shit about my comics and TV shows,” I said.

Steff laughed and tossed her hair back.

“Hey, I’m trying to explain Amy’s values for you,” she said . “I never said I agree with them. I say snark away… you’re free to enjoy your kiddy shows and little baby toys, and I’m free to give you shit over them.”

“Mack, if you don’t like how it feels when Steff puts down your shows, maybe you should take extra care not to do the same to others?” Amaranth said.

“Yeah,” Steff said. “Or… here’s an alternative idea: realize I’m only having fun, and that it’s okay to have a little fun back.” Her hand darted forward and pinched my side. “You could be more careful with your mouth, but we shouldn’t have to tiptoe around our friends.” She turned to Amaranth. “I mean, I know you want everybody to get along, Amy, and that’s cool and all… but… ‘getting along’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘agreeing’. Friends should be able to tell each other when they think they’re doing something wrong… or when they like something that’s really, really stupid.”

“Well, okay, maybe you’re right about that,” Amaranth said.

“Hey!” I said.

“I mean about the disagreement part,” Amaranth said. “I feel like I’m supposed to encourage other kinds of love as well as sex, but maybe sometimes I get too hung up on the outward trappings, you know? But… at the same time… I kind of think…”

She pursed her lips and frowned, but then her nose crinkled a little and she broke into a smile.

“What?” I asked.

“I was going to say that saying hurtful things on purpose doesn’t seem very fun…”

“And then you remembered who you were talking to,” Steff said, throwing an arm around my shoulder and pulling me in close. “This slut right here thinks that kind of thing is really fun.”

“Actually, I was going to say that we’re about to watch people hurting each other for fun,” she said. “But really, if you think about it, it’s really kind of a perfect parallel. I mean, the gladiators are probably mostly all friends, or at least comrades in arms, right?”

“I don’t know, I expect there’s some pretty heavy rivalries,” Steff said. “I mean, it is a competition.”

“There is such a thing as friendly competition,” Amaranth said.

“Um… so… it is okay for me to say something?” I asked as we started heading down the hill again. “To Steff? About… stuff?”

“Of course, baby,” Amaranth said. “You should work on being a little more respectful, and I’ll work on handling disagreements better… but mainly, this is our night to be sociable with each other. ”

“Okay,” I said. “I was just going to say… I seem to remember you playing with toy soldiers not too long ago.”

“Yeah, but that’s a grown-up activity,” Steff said. “Like the arena fights. It’s simulating actual combat, not a bunch of made-up junk.”

“Didn’t you say something about adding mechanized units to your army?”

“Well, I looked at them… I mean as long as they have stats for them anyway,” Steff said. “But even still, from what I could see it seemed to be an accurate simulation of how mechanization could change warfare, not a bunch of people driving around on motorbikes and crashing into each other.”

“I just don’t see the point of mock warfare,” I said. “Or… and I’m not complaining about the night’s activity, Amaranth, I’m really not… arena fights, for that matter. War is so stupid and pointless, anyway. Why would you want to simulate one? Aren’t they generally the sort of thing you’d want to avoid?”

“Sure, in real life,” Steff said. “With mortality and all the attendant consequences… but if you can play out a scenario again and again, without actually…” She giggled. “Actually, this is starting to remind me of something else. How’s it hanging, Amy?”

“Oh, you,” Amaranth said, laughing. “I told you I’d try it once, for the experience, but that’s it. It would be way too easy to have an accident, and then I’m out five days of classes plus coach fare. But… in all seriousness, Mack, I’d think you’d understand what Steff’s getting at, given your own recent little experiments.”

“Okay, yeah, fantasy versus reality,” I said. “I get that. But I still don’t see what makes it interesting. When you line up your soldiers like little chess pieces or when two guys face off in the ring…”

I trailed off, trying to figure out how to articulate what I was thinking. The problem was, the lack of excitement seemed so completely and naturally obvious to me that I couldn’t figure out how to say it.

“What, baby?” Amaranth asked.

Why are they fighting?” I asked. “The armies, the gladiators? I don’t see two sides trying to beat each other into the ground is particularly riveting. They might as well be trying to… I don’t know… throw a ball into a hole? It’s so completely pointless and arbitrary. Mecknights may be written for kids, but at least there’s a story to get involved with.”

Steff snorted.

“What?” I asked.

“If you want stories, you should be watching the professional gladiators, not the college level,” she said. “And don’t say ‘everybody knows it’s fake’, when we just got done establishing you prefer fictional conflicts to real ones.”

“I wasn’t going to say that,” I said. “But I might have mentioned that I prefer good stories. I know they say it’s ‘soap operas for men’, but they aren’t even quite that good.”

“So it isn’t exactly high culture, but I’d like to see how well you do when you’re trying to churn out multiple plotlines several times a week,” Steff said.

“Okay, you’ve got a point there,” I said. “I suppose as long as they can keep people coming back, they must be doing something right.”

“Damn skippy,” Steff said.

“See, now we’re having a conversation,” Amaranth said, beaming. “Isn’t this nice?”

“Yeah, and you didn’t want any disagreement,” Steff said.

“That isn’t true,” Amaranth said. “But I think we can agree that a little harmony isn’t a bad thing.”

“See, now, I disagree,” Steff said with a cheeky grin.

We got to the box office and bought our tickets. Some of the arena was general admission, but there were some assigned seats available and we ended up buying four of them just to make sure that Two could join us, considering the crowd. We left Two’s ticket at the counter for her, grabbed three programs, and then threw our backs against a wall to get out of the stream of traffic. Amaranth borrowed my mirror to get Kyle to pass the word along.

“So this is the new mirror,” she said when she’d finished, poking at its surface and doodling with the glowing illusionary powder.

“I can’t find Ian’s name in the program,” I said. Amaranth snapped the mirror shut and opened her copy.

“Some of them say ‘open’,” Amaranth said. “I guess that means they’re putting on walk-ins? If Ian only just signed up… oh, his name’s crossed out! I hope nothing bad’s happened.”

As soon as she said it, the line jumped out at me. My mind had glossed over it before, probably because of the strike-through. Had Callahan been fucking with me? She’d said he was on the list, but had she actually said he was going to fight?

“Oh, here he is,” Steff said, looking at her copy. “Turn the page, guys.”

I flipped it over and saw Ian’s name, more than halfway down the right-hand side. I looked at the top of the left page and saw the giant heading “2ND HALF – 10:00 P.M.”

“Aw, hell,” I said. “He’s not even on for two hours… at the very least.”

“Oh, settle down, baby,” Amaranth said. “It isn’t as though somebody came along and changed it just to annoy you.”

“That doesn’t mean I can’t be annoyed,” I said. “I wonder, if we leave now, do you think they’d let us co…”

Amaranth held a finger up to my lips to shush me.

“Don’t forget, Two may very well be coming along before too long,” Amaranth said. “This place is big enough that if we weren’t here, she could spend the whole evening looking for us. Anyway, what did we say? We’re here to have fun.”

“I know,” I said. “It just seems like it’s been one thing after another, though, you know?”

“Yeah, but considering what the one things have been, I’m surprised you care about the another,” Steff said. “I mean, after being teleported into a deadly dungeon and possibly possessed, really you’re complaining about this?”

“I just feel like I can’t catch a break,” I said.

“I think you’ve caught plenty of breaks,” Amaranth said. “I mean, you have me, and Steff, and Ian. I am so, so, so very thankful to have met you, to have somebody who needs me as completely as you do, Mack.” She ducked her head down low and turned her eyes up to me, big and doe-like. “I’d hope you think it counts as a lucky break to have ended up on the same floor as me, to say nothing of Dee and Two.”

“…and with Puddy, and Belinda, and Rocky,” I said. “And Sooni… who, of course, touched off the series of events that put me in the labyrinth.”

“But, Mack… none of that’s been enough to beat you,” Amaranth said. “Everything that’s been thrown at you, it hasn’t been enough to drag you down, has it?”

“Yeah, look at me with the indomitable spirit,” I said, forcing a chuckle.

“It isn’t that,” Amaranth said. “Or at least, it isn’t just that. I believe you are blessed, Mackenzie Blaise… by life, if by no one else. You have been given some incredible hardships in your life already… losing your mother, facing prejudice… so it really isn’t any wonder that you’ve made it through everything the last month threw at you. And I know you’re going to keep on making it, too, no matter what else comes your way… our way.”

“Do you really believe that?” I asked.

“I do,” she said, putting her arms around me. “Life doesn’t give us a heavier burden than we can bear.”

“Actually, it sometimes does,” Steff said. “The good news is it rarely does that more than once.”

Amaranth turned her head and stuck out her tongue.

“That’s a cheery thought,” I said, putting my hands on Amaranth’s shoulders and looking up into her eyes. “I guess I just don’t know a good thing when I’ve got it.”

Steff reached over, took one of my hands, and placed it on top of Amaranth’s breast.

“There,” she said, as we both looked over at her in confusion. “That… for reference… is a good thing.”


Three hundred chapters… thank you all for reading this far.


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11 Responses to “300: Progress, Of A Sort”

  1. Shanri says:

    “Yeah, but considering what the one things have been, I’m surprised you care about the another,” Steff

    Doesn’t sound quite right

    Current score: 0
    • Leila says:

      It’s not supposed to, it’s Steff picking apart her “one thing after another” comment.

      Current score: 0
  2. pedestrian says:

    …another…

    an amusing word play off Macks proceeding statement.

    Current score: 0
  3. The Chosen One says:

    This is my favorite chapter so far. I love all the parallels to our reality, but “They might as well be trying to… I don’t know… throw a ball into a hole?” was brilliant and not nearly as contrived as the others seemed at the time.

    The clincher, though, was the metahumor:
    “So it isn’t exactly high culture, but I’d like to see how well you do when you’re trying to churn out multiple plotlines several times a week”

    Current score: 5
    • Leila says:

      Yeah… I never got how people could watch WWF…

      Current score: 0
  4. zeel says:

    Wait, did Jill really just move Ian to fuck with Mackenzie. . .

    Current score: 1
  5. nobody says:

    Mackenzie would have done better by quoting their equivalent of “The straw that broke the camel’s back.”

    Current score: 0
    • Athena says:

      Actually, given an earlier comment made by Steff, I think their equivalent is actually the same.

      Something along the lines of Steff quoting ‘”Oh no,” said the camel. “I hope he’s not putting a straw in that pack!”‘

      Current score: 0
  6. Wolf says:

    I liked Steff’s advice about disagreeing being okay enough here to make this my first comment in the story. Probably the most sensible thing anyone has ever said to Amaranth.

    Also, as said above, the real-world parallels/references in this chapter, as in most where they are included, was gold.

    Current score: 0
  7. zeel says:

    Haha, remember when 300 chapters seemed like a lot? Vol.1 nearly reaches 500, and vol.2 is already nearly 300 more. With bonuses that’s well over 800!

    Current score: 0