308: The Naked Time

on October 31, 2008 in Book 11

In Which Shirtless Guys Beat On Each Other

With the end of round four, Callahan came out into the ring to announce that they’d be taking a little break and start “mixing things up” before they brought the final line-up back out for round five. Since Steff had already explained it to me, this wasn’t a big surprise… but I was totally caught totally unprepared when she asked everybody to stick around for the beginning of the naked round.

“Psst… she just means unarmed and unarmored,” Steff said, her hand slipping beneath my jaw and discreetly pushing it closed. “She just says it that way to try to get the crowd all het up for it, when they know there aren’t going to be any decapitations or flashy enchanted gear.”

“Oh,” I said.

“Look at you,” Steff said. “It’s like you’re back to your old self again.”

“What?” I asked.

“Blushing at the word ‘naked’,” Steff said.

“Not… not the word,” I sputtered. “Images. Anyway,” I said, scowling and trying to shake off the bout of tongue-tiedness that had temporarily overcome me, “what do you mean ‘my old self’?”

“Well… you aren’t exactly the same shrinking violet you were when you first came here, are you?” Steff said. She sounded wistful, almost sad. “I remember when you first came up to the table at the welcome festival… you were all proud of yourself for standing up for The Gay, but you also looked like you were afraid of being caught.”

“What? That’s ridiculous,” I said. “Caught by who?”

“You’d have to tell me, hon,” Steff said. She sighed. “I suppose I get some credit for cracking your shell, but… sometimes I wish the shell was still there, if only so I could have fun poking at it again.”

“Yeah, I think you’ve poked me plenty in the past few days,” I said with what I hoped was a playful smirk. I put a hand down by the side of my hip and tried to rub it in a sexy fashion.

“See? That’s what I mean,” she said.

“What? It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” I asked, feeling confused and a little bit hurt.

“Yeah, well… getting what I wanted never seems to work out the way I want it to,” she said. “Of course, even if they did, that probably wouldn’t work out…”

“Are you saying you aren’t happy with me?”

“Happy? Right here, right now, I’m having a blast…”


“But two nights ago I was running around an inn in my underwear, scared out of my sexy wits that you were going to come pounding down the hallway and tear me apart,” Steff said quietly. With Amaranth and Two gone, there were empty seats on either side of us, and a lot of the seats had emptied out at the end of the fourth round, and I knew her voice wouldn’t carry to any ears she didn’t want to hear it… but I felt myself shrinking closer to her all the same. “Last year I hooked up with an ogre prince who’s going to make me his consort, and this year I met a half-demon who took me out for… dinner. It’s like the world is conspiring to grant me all my little fantasies, just to show me how pathetic and terrifying they can be at the same time.”

“Wait… I thought you were happy with Viktor,” I said.

“Happy? Yeah,” Steff said. “But I’m afraid if he keeps going back to Kilrest, it’s going to destroy him.”

“You sounded pretty sold on it before,” I said.

“Like I said, it’s what I wanted… maybe not exactly in the specifics, but… inaccessible mountain holding, brutish minions, necromantic supplies… as soon as I knew about it, it became what I wanted,” Steff said. “But it isn’t what he wants. He won’t say so, especially when he knows how much I want it… the thought’s been there below the surface, bugging me for a long time… it was only when I was talking to Teddi about it that I got it into words.”


“My therapist. Did you know they’ve started dumping all the Harlowites onto one healer now?” Steff said. “I’m not supposed to know who her other patients are, but… well… I hear things, you know?” she said, waving a finger at her ears. “I hear them talking in the hall outside. Other people just started shunting their appointments off on her, making excuses or saying that she has ‘real insight’ and ‘unique experience’.” Steff laughed ruefully. “That’s gotta suck for her… the more often somebody uses that excuse to stick her with one of us, the more true it becomes. She’s great, though. I mean… there are some things I’m not sure how to talk to her about yet, but we’re working our way up to them. She’s got subtle arts, of course, but she stays out of my head, mostly.”

“That’s a good thing, I suppose,” I said. “And I’m glad that you’re going. Really.”

“You should think about it, too,” she said.

“I am,” I said. “Thinking about it… or, at least, I plan to. I just… I wouldn’t know where to start. Or how to start.”

“If she can help a hopeless case like me…”

“You aren’t hopeless, Steff,” I said. “If anybody on our fl… anybody in Harlowe is, it isn’t you.”

“Not as long as Sooni and Puddy are around,” Steff said.

“I think Sooni can at least get better,” I said. “And maybe there’s hope for Puddy. She did stop drinking, I think. That’s progress. Maybe her motivation isn’t the greatest, but it’s a step in the right direction, anyway.”

“There’s Amy talking again,” Steff said. She giggled. “Did she get her tongue far enough up your ass that she can speak through your mouth?”

“Oh, fucking hell, Steff, that’s gross,” I said, as too much caramel corn and lemonade underwent a wrenching contraction at the image. “Anyway, I’m not so sure it’s her influence exactly… I think she found things inside me. She didn’t put them there.”


“My mother, I guess.”

“You guess?” Steff asked.

“I don’t think about her that often,” I said. “Not as often as I should…”

“Ooh, look out,” Steff said, craning her neck around. “Here comes trouble.”

“We aren’t trouble!” Two said as she and Amaranth squeezed past legs to get to our seats.

“Hey, baby… what were you two talking about?” Amaranth asked. “You looked so serious.”

“Just where we’re going in life,” I said. “Choices and stuff…”

Two squeezed past me to sit on the other side of Steff and Amaranth squeezed into the empty seat beside me.

“Oh, that sounds interesting,” Amaranth said. “Of course, I know where I’m going… when I’m done here, it’ll be back to Paradise Valley. I was thinking about that the other day, how very odd it’s going to feel going back there for good… I mean, in one sense, I’m going to be returning to myself, to my roots… literally… but on the other hand, what will it be like staying in my field after sleeping indoors in a bed most nights?”

“How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm?” Steff said.

“I envy you, baby,” Amaranth said, and she kissed me on the cheek.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well… I’ve got my duties, and Steff has her life with Viktor… but your future isn’t all mapped out yet,” she said. “You’re majoring in one of the… no pun unintended… fastest growing fields out there. You’re going to have a major you can do anything with. You could have a real career.”

“That’s assuming I get through the next four years,” I said. “Which is assuming I get through the next year, which is assuming I get through the next week, which is assuming I get through the weekend…”

“One day at a time, baby,” Amaranth said, squeezing my hand. “I know that’s the only way I can take it.”

“Yeah, uh, I’m calling bullshit on that one, Amy-doll,” Steff said. “I know several other ways you’ve taken it today alone.”

“Oh, you,” Amaranth said.

“It’s starting,” Two announced.

I got a fresh taste of the original shock when the first pair of unarmed combatants walked out. With no illusions in place yet, from up in the stands it almost looked like the guys really were naked. Then the images came up, and I saw that they were in fact wearing rather form-fitting leather shorts. As the first two fighters were both rather deeply tanned, there was a certain amount of blending of color from a distance. Apart from gloves that were little more than straps of leather across the backs of the fingers, the briefs were all they were wearing.

They were about equal in height… my impression from their legs was that they were on the tall side, but there was no real frame of reference… and muscled. Though neither one was bulky in a dwarven or ogre style, their arm and leg muscles showed real development. They were both clean-shaven, and I don’t just mean their chins… or their heads, for that matter.

Had I still been in my desperate-to-connect-with-heterosexuality phase, I think I probably would have heard something like a chorus of angels singing at the sight of them… only, without all the being fatal to me. They were a sight to behold.

The marshal of the lists and two assistants had come up to ringside… evidently they watched these bouts much more closely than they did the mock weapon ones. Callahan herself stood at the fourth “corner” of the circle. She raised her hand and brought it down with a shout, and the match was on.

After the flash and dazzle of the various enchantments and Steff’s talk about the lowered interest, I didn’t expect to be blown away by the spectacle of unarmed fighting. I expected the fighters to be more timid because it was real and because they didn’t get to stay a sword’s length away from their opponents.

I was completely wrong in my expectations, but somehow, “disappointed” wasn’t the word to describe what I felt as a result.

Steff had said there were no flashy enchantments, but you wouldn’t know it to watch the two figures sparring. Fists flew like lightning, striking hard flesh with thunderous impact. They were mostly body blows. The two combatants seemed willing to accept hits to the chest in exchange for the chance to launch a counter. When one launched a strike at the other’s head, the target would step aside or whip his neck in far less time than it takes to tell it.

The only time the chained explosions of motion ceased was when the two got into a clinch, and even then it was hardly what you’d call restful. Muscles strained, bare feet scrambled for purchase as each one sought to gain control of the struggle, and of the other… I had to admit, it was hot, in a way that both tapped into and transcended my fetish for pain and domination.

They were to all appearances two “mere” humans, and their struggles against each other were, in their own way, as titanic as Puddy’s clash against the Asgeirsdottir woman had been.

At the same time, it was clear that it couldn’t go on forever… the sweat which was pouring down their brows and glistening on their backs and chests wasn’t there for the audience’s benefit. They were wearing each other down by degrees, with each blow they threw and each blow they took. It was surprising to me how many of their blows resulted in flecks of blood flying and welt-like cuts left on muscular bodies, considering they weren’t using any weapons.

Finally, one of them caught the other with a punch which glanced off his cheek. It wasn’t the most solid hit, but it was the first blow to the head either had taken, and it signaled the beginning of the end. While he was reeling from it, he took two more to the dome of his head that left him swaying. He lashed out with a weak and wild punch that hit air. His opponent seemed to be getting a second wind from the success, and he hammered away until the other man fell.

The marshal of the lists had his hand in the air and was counting as soon as the body… the person, that is, as he wasn’t mock-dead, just really-knocked-out… hit the ground, and that was the end of the first bout.

The next bout gave a hint as to why the first two fighters had both gone hairless, as right away one of the combatants grabbed the other by the hair and started smashing him in the face with his fist. The one doing the smashing had a buzz cut. After punching his opponent in the face repeatedly, he adjusted his grip on the guy’s hair and then whipped him around, throwing him into the ground. I thought the match was over… the marshal started counting, but as the buzz cut guy came forward to finish him off, the downed fighter whipped his leg out and tripped him, then rocked himself back up to onto his feet in one impossibly fluid motion. He was on top of his opponent in a flash, kicking at his ribs and face.

There really didn’t seem to be a lot of limits to what was allowed. The first two combatants had shown a similar fighting style to each other, but these were very different from them and from each other. Buzz cut guy seemed to be a big and brutal brawler, but there had been something methodical in his movements all the same. The longer-haired guy was quick and wiry, and seemed more impulsive. Of course, I was only getting that from the fact that he’d walked into the first attack.

The bigger guy reached out with a hand and grabbed his opponent’s ankle when he tried to kick him again. He got his wrist stomped, but he succeeded in getting his tormenter to back off long enough for him to sit up and then get to his feet, and then the fight was on. There was a lot of running around, with the little guy trying to do a hit-and-run routine while not getting caught by buzz cut’s longer arms. He finally got caught when his opponent threw out his arm unexpectedly and clotheslined him. He went down, and a great big foot on his face made sure he stayed down.

It was only when it was over that I realized I could have got their names from the program, or even looked at the scoreboard at any time. My eyes had been glued on the images of the fight the whole time. I looked at the board just in time to see DAVIS and GREENWALD fading out, to be replaced by DRAKON and MASON.

This was it. Ian was up.

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