In Which We Don’t Talk About
The really clichéd thing to do would be to say that I almost didn’t recognize Ian when he walked out, but there was really no danger of that. Other guys tended to run together a bit in my head, but this was Ian. Leaving aside my feelings for him, there was the matter of a strong first impression. Not that his had been great… but it had been strong.
You don’t tend to forget the face of the guy you light on fire.
Still and for all that, Ian had in some way been transformed. I’d seen the look of grim determination on his face, but it was weird seeing it at a remove, and not aimed at me. He wasn’t all bulked up, but his muscles seemed to have become emphasized. Maybe it was the way he carried himself. Maybe it was the arena lighting.
Maybe it was something else.
“He’s all… glisteny,” Steff said. “What’d he do, oil himself up or something?”
I realized she was right. The other fighters had worked up a sheen of sweat after they came out and started fighting. It hadn’t taken them long, but Ian came out looking like he’d just stepped out of a steam room.
“I think he looks like he just had sex,” Amaranth said. “Oh! Maybe he made a friend in the locker room?”
“That doesn’t sound like Ian,” I said, trying not to let jealousy at the idea creep into my voice when I was sitting there wedged between my two other lovers.
“Well, maybe not, but hope springs eternal,” Amaranth said.
“I think he looks like he needs a bath,” Two said. “If he falls down, he’s going to get muddy.”
“Well, the idea is not to fall down, so maybe he’ll be okay,” Steff said.
“I don’t think so,” Two said, shaking her head. “Mr. Drakon looks pretty strong.”
It was probably natural that our eyes would have gone first to the familiar form and face of Ian, but as soon as I looked at his opponent I felt like I’d somehow missed a very muscular forest for a comparatively skinny tree. He had a dark olive complexion and an elaborate sunburst tattoo on his back. Most of his head was shaved, but with one strip of fuzz going the center, like a very, very short mohawk.
“Sweet Khersis in a cage, that is a lot of person crammed into one person,” Steff said. “Did he get lost on the way to the heavy armored division?”
“Is Ian crazy?” I said. “He’s no fighter… he’s going to get creamed!”
“Now, baby, Ian does have a little experience handling people who are stronger than he is,” Amaranth said. “And win or lose, what really matters is that he tries his hardest.”
“My friend Hazel says that only matters if you lose,” Two said.
“Well, Two… your friend Hazel isn’t always right,” Amaranth said.
The crowd made further conversation difficult as the two stepped into the ring. I didn’t entertain any illusions that they were making that noise for Ian… I didn’t know if Drakon had a following or not, but the figure he cut was impressive.
Neither of them came out swinging. They both stepped forward cautiously, more like they were wading into a pool than wading into a battle.
As they came closer together, it became apparent that Ian wasn’t as badly outsized as he had first seemed… Drakon’s length of limb and his muscular build made his image register as “huge” when it was seen by itself. Still, his reach was an advantage, and a potentially overpowering one… as he showed almost immediately with a vicious-looking kick. There was little warning: a shift of his hip and then his foot snapped out and up in a high, wide arc.
Ian almost walked into it. He pulled back at the last moment, and the foot looked like it just grazed his chest, but he still rocked back and stumbled a bit before regaining his balance. Drakon followed the kick with another one, and Ian threw his arms up in front of him. It was a clumsy sort of block, but it worked… mainly, I think because Drakon hadn’t been expecting it. It broke his momentum, and put him momentarily off-balance, both literally and figuratively.
Ian pushed forward in that moment, not so much punching as shoving Drakon with both fists. The bigger man threw a punch that brushed by Ian’s head. Drakon went down on his ass, but the illusions showed a slow-motion version of the exchange focusing on his fist. What had seemed like a glancing blow looked a lot more devastating in the replay. Drakon’s large and surprisingly bony fist blazed a line across Ian’s cheek and hit his ear with deforming impact.
If not for that blow, Ian might have pressed his advantage, but he took a moment to recover and then had to jump back as Drakon’s powerful legs whipped out at him.
“Ian’s not moving as fast as he should be,” Steff said.
“Oh… you don’t think that hit to the head…?” Amaranth said.
“No,” Steff said. “That wasn’t a brain-box blow… I mean, since he came out.”
“Well… he’s not exactly running,” I said. “He’s probably saving his energy.”
“I don’t know how much he’s got to save,” Steff said.
Then Drakon was back on his feet and back in the fight. They circled each other warily. Ian had blood dripping from his ear, but neither of them had any disabling injuries yet. Ian kept his distance. Drakon tested him with several more kicks, but Ian was still playing things conservatively. Then Drakon faked like he was going to snap a kick forward with his right leg and came around with a high sweeping kick from his left instead that caught Ian on the chin. The whole crowd groaned with me.
Ian had been moving away, so it wasn’t a solid blow… but the way Drakon’s feet were moving a “graze” still looked pretty brutal.
“Oh… I don’t know if I can watch this,” Amaranth said.
Drakon took a step back like he wasn’t sure how far he could press his luck, then he stepped up again and snapped off another kick. As unsteady as Ian looked, he not only put up his hands to block but he caught Drakon’s leg and held it. Unfortunately for him, Drakon had two legs, and the other one came up and around to slam Ian’s legs just above the knee. I think the idea was that Ian would let go and fall, but he held on, and they both went down in a heap.
Whatever advantage Drakon had held on his feet disappeared in a jumble of limbs. The illusion view shifted and wobbled before finding the right angle and zooming in, by which point Ian was on top, his face was red and contorted with rage. The cliché was becoming reality: I did hardly recognize him. The crowd roared along with him as he pounded away at Drakon’s head, then lifted it up and hammered it into the ground.
“Holy shit,” Steff whispered. “That’s pretty fucking hardcore.”
Any impression that the fight was over quickly disappeared as Drakon got his bearings. Instead of attacking Ian, he flipped himself over onto his side. Ian scrambled for a handhold and ended up grabbing at the side of Drakon’s head. Drakon lashed out with both arms and knocked him loose, but not before the damage had been done.
“Now they both have torn ears,” Two reported blandly as Drakon got to his feet and Ian rolled clumsily away from the reach of his legs. “That’s more fair.”
Ian was up now, but was wobbling visibly. Drakon was reeling a bit, too, but not as badly.
“Here comes trouble,” Two said.
“He can still make it,” I said. “They’re both hurting.”
“Uh… I don’t think she’s talking about the fight,” Steff said.
I turned my head and looked past both of them, to where Puddy was pushing her way down the row of seats, ignoring the protests of the people she squeezed past. The arena had emptied out a bit, but not enough that someone could just make a beeline like that.
“Hey!” she yelled when she saw she had my attention. “What the hell did you think you were doing, watching my fights?”
“It’s called ‘she paid her admission so she gets to watch them’,” Steff said. “Now, fuck off. People are trying to watch.”
She didn’t just mean us… the people in the row above us were grumbling about the drama unfolding between themselves and the contest they’d come to see.
“Puddy, I left during your second match because I felt like doing you a favor,” I said. “But then Mariel came up and bitched to me about it. As far as I could tell, it didn’t make a difference, anyway.”
“Of course it didn’t make a difference because you didn’t leave!” Puddy said. She stomped her foot. Something about the action seemed to shock her… she got a confused look on her face, then she punched the air a couple of times over the heads of the people in the next row down.
“Everything working alright, Ms. Banks-LaBelle?” Steff asked in a sticky sweet voice. Puddy ignored her… she just turned and headed back the way she came, muttering to herself.
“That was very rude of her,” Two said.
“What the hell was that about?” I asked.
“Guess her super-secret illegal buff wore off,” Steff said. “I guess she’s lucky she got eliminated when she did.”
“Could you hear what she was saying when she stomped off?”
“‘Who the hell was it?’,” Steff said. “My guess? She took some combination of shit that left her paranoid and edgy, and the whole time she was down in the pit she had the distinct impression that somewhere, somebody was watching her.”
“Hey, guys…” Amaranth said.
“I know, I know, we’re supposed to love thy neighbors and give peace a chance,” Steff said.
“Not that,” Amaranth said. “Ian.”
My first thought was that Ian was in trouble, but when I turned my attention back to the fight I saw he was up close with Drakon and pounding away at him. There was something methodical about his anger. He threw punch after punch. Some, Drakon stepped away from or deflected with a forearm, but it looked like he was forced to accept as many hits as he turned away. They weren’t taking much of a visible toll on him, but I figured they had to be adding up. The fact that Ian was on offense and he was on defense seemed very telling to me.
“He… he might actually win this,” I said.
“Nuh uh,” Steff said. “Drakon’s wearing him down.”
“Are you crazy? Drakon’s not doing anything,” I said.
“Yeah, and Ian’s doing everything,” Steff said. “He’s figured out that Ian’s scrappier than he looks, and dangerous when cornered, so he’s letting him slug it out until he gets tired. Ian could be biting, scratching, kicking, gouging… but he’s throwing punches like he thinks a ‘real’ fighter would because he’s not being pressed into a situation where he needs to.”
I wanted to tell her that she was being ridiculous, that Ian was clearly in control of the situation and Drakon was hard pressed to keep up, but looking at the fight with her words in my ear put what I was seeing in context. Drakon’s expression was one of stoic determination. He did not look desperate. He did not look cornered. He looked patient.
And Ian did look tired.
“He’s falling for it,” I said. As focused as he was on the task in front of him, he couldn’t see the big picture… he couldn’t see the calm look in Drakon’s eyes. “You have to tell him, Steff!”
“Oh, honey, I couldn’t interfere in this…”
“Like you weren’t taunting Puddy during her fights,” I said. “Don’t pretend you found a bunch of moral objections all of a sudden.”
“I don’t care if I piss Puddy off,” she said. “But this is Ian, hon… if he gets mad at me, that’s going to affect your relationship with him.”
“I’m asking you to help him,” I said.
“He doesn’t want my help, Mack,” Steff said.
“You don’t know if…”
“Look at him… he’s in this trap because he’s being stubborn,” Steff said. “If I whisper to him that he’s being played, or that he should haul off and go for the throat, he’ll just knuckle down and do what he’s doing twice as hard.”
“You don’t know that,” I protested, but I had a sinking feeling as I said the words that they were not, in fact, true. Ian was not great at taking advice when he was struggling. I wanted so badly to see him win… to see him succeed… to not see him get beaten into the ground… but it was just like in class. I couldn’t help him if he didn’t want to be helped.
“He could still win,” Amaranth said.
“It’s possible Drakon could underestimate him and make his move too soon,” Steff said, though from the way she stressed “possible” it didn’t sound like she thought it was likely.
Ian was definitely slowing down. His punches were just plain missing more and more often the longer Drakon led him on.
“Well,” I said, “at least the whole thing’s going to be over relatively quickly for him… I mean, it’s probably better if he gets knocked out in his first match and is done with the whole thing. That way he doesn’t get a bunch of hope built up and he can get on with his life.”
“What, you don’t think he’ll keep coming back if he loses?” Steff asked.
“I don’t see why he would,” I said.
“But you don’t even see why he came in the first place,” Steff said.
The fight wore on, and so did Ian. The crowd had cheered enthusiastically when he first started hammering on Drakon, but now they’d grown quiet. It seemed like everybody had picked up on where it was heading… and that probably included Ian. He was, as Steff had said, being stubborn… keeping on his feet, keeping up the barrage as best as he could, but it was clear that he was spent. He might have been fatigued when he stepped into the ring, as Steff had suggested, but he’d been full of fight, as well. That was gone now. He’d thrown it away bit by bit, with blows the bigger man could afford to take.
When Drakon cut loose, it was, at least, mercifully brief. A series of lightning-fast punches to the head followed by a spin-kick, and then he swept Ian’s legs out from underneath him. Ian went down. He stirred a bit, but he didn’t rise. The marshal started counting. Drakon didn’t hit Ian while he was down, he didn’t jump on him and pin him, but he didn’t turn his back and start grandstanding, either. He stood in a ready stance, a kick’s length away, ready to seal the deal if necessary.
It wasn’t. Drakon was declared victor. Despite the rather anticlimactic ending, the crowd whooped and hollered. It had been the longest unarmed bout so far, longer than the previous two put together.
“That was a rip-off!” I protested. “Ian didn’t stand a chance… everybody else got matched up against somebody they could beat. Why didn’t he?”
“Hon, you might not want to share that opinion with your man,” Steff said. “Anyway, Ian could have beat him, if he’d walked out fresh and stuck to his strengths.”
“Yeah? Why didn’t he?” I asked. “What the hell did Callahan have him doing before the fight that had him so tired before it even began?”
“Honey, I don’t… ooh, pictures,” Steff said, shivering. “Not that… well, anyway, the fight was his to win or lose, and he lost it. It happens.”
“Baby?” Amaranth said.
“What?” I asked.
“Look,” she said. She pointed down on the field, where the healers were retreating, their work done. The bigger man was reaching out a hand towards Ian’s like he was going to shake it, but instead did some kind of forearm-clasping thing. The two of them both raised their other hands to the audience. The illusionists did a view sweeping around from one side of them to the other, showing their bare, muscled chests, their faces stained with blood from wounds that were no longer there. Drakon’s face was exultant, showing more genuine emotion than it had throughout the match.
Ian’s face was content.