Everything seems to stop when the weapon rams in. The other fighter wheezes, and blood soaks his skin. He clutches tighter at his opponent’s arm, expression barely visible under the mask he wears to fight. His eyes, though, they’re visible, wide as if he’s asking for some kind of mercy even though it’s already too late – the only person who can see them is the man who’s just stabbed a spiked cestus glove into his stomach.
Wade blinks. There’s a fraction of a second where he feels himself react to the man’s silent plea, where he feels himself freeze and his throat dries up. But the crowd roars, and he throws the dying man to the ground. Victory is contagious, after all.
The winding halls of the arena are taking some time getting used to: they seem to be a never-ending chasm of the same cold brick with no helpful tapestries to indicate where exactly one might be. The torches barely even manage to create an illusion of warmth with the way they’re sporadically dotted across the walls, just a muted glow in the darkness. Wade spends a full half hour attempting to get where he needs to be – the balcony up high that serves as a place for competitors to wait and spectate. He tells himself it doesn’t matter; it is his first time fighting here since he arrived only last week... though really he’s furious at himself for taking so long.
There are a few others, mostly looking down on the action below as a man attempts to do battle with a bear. A small group sit to one side, making snide remarks about the man fighting. Wade doesn’t even bother to nod a greeting, just steps further out towards the edge, leaning against the parapet to get a closer look.
One more lone figure is doing the same, occasionally wincing and muttering under his breath as the combatant unsuccessfully defends himself. Wade lets his attention shift for a moment to the man stood observing a few feet away. He doesn’t know the face – wouldn’t know who anyone here was unless he heard their name first. You hear about fighters, tales of blood and brawling and bravado, but there’s no way to know what they look like until you’re face to face. Sometimes, that’s in the middle of the arena.
The man straightens up when he feels Wade watching him. His eyes narrow.
“Good fight earlier.”
Everyone’s been like this around here – withdrawn, cautious. Wade can’t tell if it’s just the way they react to a new arrival or because no-one knows if there’s the chance that they’ll be dying next week. If the latter’s the case, there’s no point in anyone making any friends.
“Thanks,” Wade mutters. He’s about to look away when the man smiles at him – perhaps not so cagey after all; he’s barely been able to get a hint of a grin from most other people he’s passed.
“You’re not from around here, are you? And not just because you’ve just arrived – but because you’ve arrived from far away.”
Wade nods slowly. Correct.
“It’s the same with me.” Wade knows, can tell from the man’s accent. “Though I’ve been here a while longer, obviously.” It is obvious – but it’s nice to have someone talk to him like he’s something other than Possible Opponent #23 and vice versa.
Down in the arena, the fighter is on the ground as the bear claws at his lifeless body and the crowd cheers. The man shakes his head and sighs as if another human being didn’t just die in front of him.
“Ah. That’ll be my cue to go. I was serious earlier – good fight. I guess I’ll need to keep my eye on you, then.”
It’s a patronising comment, really – the man is obviously younger than Wade – but Wade doesn’t think he’d mind those eyes on him.
The ocean, he first tells himself. Not like the murky, grey-green sea back home, but the dazzling blue of the water the boat he boarded to get here was docked in...
But this man is from the Island too, isn’t he? Further north than Wade, a different land, even, but he’s still from there. His accent makes it obvious enough. The sea that surrounds the Island is never blue, or at least it’s not where Wade knows, and it especially isn’t in the true north.
The sky, however...
It’s often not blue, more likely an empty white – more likely actually raining – but there are days.
Days when it’s cloudless and clear, when it actually stays that way for a while and lifts everyone up so it’s like they’re flying in it, and – and no. Nothing else. He can’t let himself think like that.
He might find those eyes staring out at him from under a mask in the amphitheatre one day, laced with the same desperation he saw today.
Or they might not even be under a mask, and Wade would have to take in every detail of the man’s features, every breath and gasp and splutter, as he slowly died at the hand of a blade.
Maybe he won’t have to, though.
There’s the piercing ring of the bell to announce the entrance of a fighter and the man Wade just spoke with enters to a resounding reaction from the crowd. His opponent is another non-entity, just as Wade’s was, a man under a mask without a name or a face... but there are two of them. Two opponents at once? That’s something. It would have Wade’s attention even if he hadn’t spent the last ten minutes or so being enthralled by the man’s eyes.
The crowd quiets for the announcer, and Wade finally gets to hear who this man is, and he hears the man’s name, and... oh. That’s him. He’s that McIntyre. The one Wade’s heard about, the man who might have well picked up the world and spun it in his hand with the things people have been saying about him. Wade wonders whether that will turn out to be true – even if talk goes a long way, it’s not always correct.
But McIntyre delivers. Soon enough both of his opponents are on the ground and there’s the signal to kill from the Game Maker, who’s sat high in the arena, separate from the rest of the crowd. It happens swiftly: there are cut throats and open wounds and there’s blood, lots of blood. Wade watches closely even though it’s over, and the expression on the fighter’s face down below seems to be far, far removed from the smile Wade got from him earlier. It’s so devilish that it’s chilling. Almost sinister.
Maybe Wade doesn’t want those eyes on him after all.
Training is intensive, or Wade makes it so, anyway. Almost every morning he’s out in the grounds, sometimes late at night if he can’t seem to fall asleep.
There are few out there with him, surprisingly. None of it fits with what he’s heard of the place: dedicated fighters who devote themselves so much to the art of battle that they don’t even think to leave the arena because they’d slip from the mind-set they built while there. However, he never hears of anyone actually taking a trip outside, either.
The sun burns high in the sky by the time many of Wade’s peers have started to show up. A lot of what people do isn’t actual training, so to speak, just joking around, it seems.
When people do actually decide to be serious, though – well. Some move so fast that they’re hardly even seen, their fighting styles made up of what looks like some kind of elaborate gymnastics; others are ruthlessly tough and have the strength of what should be multiple men. It’s good to be a combination of the two, though Wade finds he falls more within the second category.
He’s intrigued to see how that McIntyre trains, though. Very much so.
The chance comes one evening when astonishingly, Wade arrives to train – perhaps a little earlier than he usually does at night – and he sees the other man swinging weapons at targets and practice dummies right where Wade usually does. Honestly, Wade can’t believe that he’s actually there in the training grounds.
He’s both flame and steel, fierce and determined, and Wade can’t look away.
He can probably sense that someone’s watching him, but he doesn’t stop to check. Not until he’s finished with what he’s doing.
“After something, Barrett?”
There’s no reason why the man wouldn’t know his name, but Wade still blinks at being addressed with it.
“Well? You after something?”
Wade clears his throat. He doesn’t quite know what he’s going to say – is he after anything? – but McIntyre continues before Wade can get any words out.
“I do watch your fights, you know. And I know you watch mine. And...” He pauses for a fraction of a second, glances to the floor and looks back up with a smirk. “And that you were watching me just now.”
“Well, I reckon this is the first time I’ve ever seen you down here,” Wade tells him.
“We must have different schedules, then. Like, completely opposed to each other or something.”
“Or, you never train.”
“Excuse you. I do so train. You watch me fight, so you must know I do. You’re just never here to see it, as I said. Based on that I could very well tell you that you don’t either.”
“Ah, touché. Want me to show you that I do, then?”
He regrets it as soon as the words slip out, as soon as McIntyre’s eyes glimmer dangerously at the promise of a challenge.
“Well, I would, at least. Not sure if it’s exactly wise of you, but...” He pauses, lets his sentence drift away from him in a way that’s definitely meant to be frustrating, irritating, and done to get under Wade’s skin.
Wade tries not to let it bother him. He moves towards the weapons store, feeling McIntyre’s eyes on him as he does so.
“Choose your weapon wisely,” he says, his tone light, and Wade knows he has to. Even though it’s obviously not a serious fight, he can’t afford to slip up too much. He has a reputation to uphold, and even if McIntyre’s the only other person around right now, he wants to show himself to be worthy enough to be here.
There’s nothing particularly special about the sword Wade picks up, but it should serve him well.
It does, but both their weapons do, and it’s a tough battle. Wade watches McIntyre closely, watches the way he moves and the silver glint of his weapon and how the same glint is mirrored in his eyes. Competition looks good on him here, more so than it does in a real arena fight. Here, it isn’t gripping him like a vice or the will to live, isn’t turning his eyes to blazing infernos. There’s fire, sure, but only gentle, playful.
Wade curses the man for it: he’s sure it’s why he ends up finding himself cornered, unable to break from the position he’s been forced into.
“All right,” he says, attempting to gesture down at the weapon held across his neck. “I’m sure you do train. You win.”
Looking pleased at Wade’s admission, McIntyre drops the sword. Fire has burst into fireworks now. “Again?” he asks. “Could make this the best of three.”
“We could,” says Wade, and this time, he has to fight himself as well as fighting his opponent, just so he’s not totally distracted by the man’s – well. Just by his general nature, really.
This time, he’s the one to have his opponent’s back to the wall, to be in the position to end things if necessary, the one to win.
“You said out of three?” Wade asks once he’s got his breath back. McIntyre’s still leaning back against the wall, still panting.
“Ah, that was only if I won the second time,” he says, not pulling away from the wall just yet. “Not that I’m afraid to lose or anything – fair play, really – but I only had it in me for two rounds right then. Against you, anyway. I thought it was three, but... well. Proven wrong. Maybe another time.”
“Another time,” Wade echoes, and his eyes don’t move from the other man’s back as he watches him leave.
There is another time. And others after that. It’s not exactly regular, not planned, but Wade’s got a decent idea of when it is that McIntyre goes down to train. Sometimes he gets it right. Other times, he doesn’t. But if they’re both there, there’ll be the offer of a sparring session whether Wade decides to take it up or not. Even if they don’t end up facing off against each other, it’s interesting nonetheless.
Life in the arena altogether is so new, so different, and the fighting here is nothing like any other kind of fighting that Wade’s ever done. There are weapons he’s never got a chance to use before and fighting styles he doesn’t think he could have imagined if he tried. He makes sure to master them the best he can: the strengths of the ones he might make use of himself, the weaknesses of the ones he might not. Still, he sticks with what he knows for the most part. It was good enough to get him here, so why break away from it?
McIntyre, on the other hand, seems to be more often than not working with something different each time they come across each other while training. Wade knows that by now, but he still manages to end up surprised.
“I didn’t think this was your end of things,” Wade says one day in the training grounds, nodding at the net in McIntyre’s hand and the trident in the other.
“Oh, I’m always going for new things. I think I make a pretty mean retiarius, if I do say so myself.”
“We’ll have to see about that. Don’t go getting your hair tangled up in that net, now, McIntyre.”
“Think I’ve done more than enough training to avoid doing that,” he says with a smile (and Wade’s relieved that he can tell it’s a joke), but then he pauses. “Oh, and – no need for such… formalities. Call me Drew, aye?”
Wade does. And he gets a lot of opportunities to do so, because Drew doesn’t seem to mind the way Wade gravitates towards him. (Wade doesn’t know why he does it; he’s never been that way, usually so solitary and guarded. But there’s something about Drew and his eyes and his words that has Wade drifting over to him whenever he can and has his mind drifting to Drew whenever he can’t.)
Drew tells him all the lore of the land, and though Wade’s heard many of the tales before, it’s just that more engaging when Drew’s the storyteller, his eyes excited and fiery.
There’s that of the mysterious Deadman, who used to show up out of the blue like he was some kind of spirit and take on all challengers. Few managed to leave a mark, all of them struck down. Until the twenty-second – a carnivorous beast of a man who came out of nowhere and destroyed him, leaving not even a puff of smoke behind. Drew says the Game Maker wanted the beast as a fighter at the arena, wanted to mould him and keep him on the top. The offer was refused.
“And the Game Maker was humiliated,” Drew finishes with a slight smirk. “Never heard of any kind of beast like that again, no matter how hard he tried to create one. Some say this man was trained just to get rid of the Deadman, that he vanished afterwards because it’s all he had to do. He did only do correspondence through some sort of manager, after all.”
Wade doesn’t know how much of it he actually believes. There was a Deadman, this he knows – and a man like the one who crushed him. The conspiracy theories that Drew is speaking of now are a bit sensationalist, though, that has to be said.
But how farfetched they are doesn’t matter when Drew’s the one telling them, when he’s sat beside Wade with a drink, occasionally grabbing at Wade’s arm for dramatic effect.
Wade hopes they’re friends. He knows it must be difficult to be friends here, when anyone could have their death decided for them at any time, that Drew must have lost some great number of people already... but still, Wade hopes.
He’s fighting for the crowd regularly, almost every week. His fighting style is heavy and hard-hitting, sometimes even able to win barehanded. He’s clever, too: turning opponents’ weapons against them, making ever so subtle adjustments to the way he moves and fights to lure an opponent into a false sense of security.
Impressive, apparently. That’s what Hunter tells him, at least, and what the crowd seems to think as well.
As does the Game Maker. It’s all his design: the arena, its fighters, the tales of terror and triumph. His title is a little misleading nowadays – most of the details are left to Hunter – but it’s still clear that the Maker is very much at the head of it all, even as the somewhat mysterious figure he is. He turns the cogs, he decides on life or death and everything in between.
If you impress the Game Maker, you get things, Wade finds out. Treasure, women – but it’s money you can never spend and women you can never love, not until you’re out of the arena. Right now, it’s all just an illusion of riches and fortune.
Despite this, when Hunter calls Wade to him to offer him a woman’s company as a... a reward for his last fight, Wade decides that he might as well take it.
So Wade waits in his room the next evening, until there’s the sound of movement outside and the door opens. A startled looking woman is pushed inside, so hard that she’s almost down on the floor. She collects herself, but her eyes are still like that of a frightened animal. He attempts a gentle smile, and that apparently soothes her a little.
Her skin glows golden-brown under the candlelight, and when he gestures for it, her clothes are off and she’s on top of him on the bed. It’s good of course, and she’s beautiful, but it’s still artificial.
She seems so taken aback by the fact that he tries to be gentle with her; Wade wonders what she must have been expecting, what some of the other men must do to have her this way (and hopes to God that Drew isn’t one of those – though no, now is definitely not the time to be thinking about Drew).
He thinks she might almost start crying when he thanks her as he leaves, and it makes his heart sink a little. She deserves better than this.
Next time Hunter gives him the same opportunity, Wade rejects it. He knows that’s what the women are there to do – to be sex, to be entertainment, to be objects – but he can’t bring himself to use them. To exploit them, he soon realises.
He’d rather think about Drew, anyway.
(Or that’s what he ends up doing, regardless of whether he’d actually rather do it. He is as he finally manages to drift off to sleep, but even more when he’s actually sleeping. That night, Wade dreams of flying, of soaring through the sky like, well – like Icarus, really, but without the wings and without the misfortune because the higher and warmer he gets doesn’t force him to come down; instead he just continues on and up into the blue-blue-blue.)
Upon waking up, Wade tries to figure the dream out and comes up with nothing, but the moment he gets a smile from Drew at breakfast the next morning and those eyes flash at him, he knows.
They sit within the arena one evening as the sun sets. It’s funny, being sat where the audience usually is to watch. Everything’s put into perspective a little more as Wade looks out at the rows upon rows of seats – when they’re so empty like this, he realises just how many people are there watching them, watching him. How many people watch the sharp edges of weapons stab into skin, watch the blood gush out onto the ground, watch the way death and violence are masqueraded as entertainment while thinking nothing of it.
Most people seem to think nothing of it. And until here, neither did Wade – but seeing those names and faces he now knows, that he can now match up to voices and jokes and the swing of weapons while training, fight and bleed and sometimes get slaughtered has changed things. He’s shocked there wasn’t anyone in the training grounds when he passed it on the way here, shocked that he can’t see any figures now in the part of it that’s visible from where he and Drew are.
What’s even more shocking, actually, is Drew’s response when he asks about it.
“Haven’t you figured it out yet? We can’t go anywhere. Outside the arena, you hear we’re all so hardworking and focused and always willing to better our craft because it’s a ploy to make sure no-one knows we can’t leave. We’re trapped, basically. We live and we die in here.”
“No-one gets out if we’re contracted. And the contracts are for life and can’t be broken, which we all were lied to about. There are very, very few exceptions – like the Deadman, I guess. Wish I’d known that before coming in, but there aren’t exactly any examples of people who did know that.”
“But don’t you want to, though? Don’t you ever want to leave here sometimes, to get out and just... go?”
Drew blinks at him. “Go where?”
“I... I don’t know. Back home, I guess. Your home’s near mine, isn’t it? Ever want to go back?”
Silence. Drew doesn’t respond, just curls into himself a little, and smiles sadly. His hair falls forward over his face as he bows his head, and he doesn’t bother pushing it out of his way when he finally looks up to speak again.
“Home is here now.”
He doesn’t sound very convinced. Wade isn’t either.
“They’re getting bored with me,” Drew whispers, voice so slight that Wade hardly hears.
“What? The crowd isn’t getting bored of you at all; did you hear them at your last fight? If you think they’re bored, then–”
“Not the crowd. Hunter and the Game Maker. This is... this is tricky territory, Wade. I’ve been there once before. I’ve got to do something to show my worth. Got to suggest something new for me to do, something that the Game Maker will find entertaining. That’s all that matters, isn’t it? Whatever he thinks. The crowd is hardly a factor. It’s just him. God.”
“I-I’m sure it’s more than that. They must take the crowd into account, I...”
“The crowd only gets taken into account if it starts getting smaller,” Drew interrupts. “It’s not and it won’t. You ever hear of Bryan? Short guy, fantastic fighter?”
Wade nods. Of course he has. He remembers hearing about the uproar there was when Bryan lost, when a great combatant’s career and life were ended just like that.
“Everyone loved him. Everybody fucking loved that guy, except for the Game Maker. He was the only one who didn’t, and look where Bryan is now – dead. All because one guy thought he wasn’t good enough. He was married before he came to the arena, you know. Saw his wife crying and screaming in the audience as he died and the Game Maker just looked on smugly. She would have tried to attack him, I swear, but her sister held her back.”
There’s nothing to say in response. Wade knows of the incident, knows there was a great backlash, but he assumed a lot of it was over-exaggerated hearsay.
Drew stands, and Wade can see the way he shudders slightly as he clenches his fists, looking over the arena as if this is it, the whole world in front of him. After all, it’s the only world he has.
“I have to do something so I don’t end up like that. Have to keep them entertained. Have to keep the Game Maker entertained more than anything. You too, yeah Wade? Don’t let yourself be got rid of like that.”
Drew’s way of staying alive turns out to be something dangerous, risky, but Wade guesses that’s the point. To do something that shows he’s worth keeping around.
Drew won’t know who his opponent is going to be in some of his next few fights. Or what, even, because some of them are apparently going to be animals. He sounds very excited as he tells Wade of his suggestion over breakfast, so certain that it will help to propel him back upwards, and when they speak again at training it turns out the idea has been approved.
Wade waits with bated breath as Drew steps into the arena for the first of these; he can see that Drew is tense though he’s trying to keep it hidden, can see flashes of worry across Drew’s face as he doubts whether this was actually a good idea.
Then the bell rings to welcome Drew’s opponent and – God, it’s a giant. There aren’t many fighters in the arena that are taller than Drew, but this is a literal giant and Drew’s face pales when he catches sight of the monstrous man.
But this can be done, can’t it? Wade tells himself it can, and his hands clench tighter into fists. Drew’s expression down below grows that much more determined. Yes. Yes, it can.
It takes agility, wits, and skill – all things Drew has, all things he uses to dispose of the giant, who ends up a blood-covered mess on the ground. Drew is covered in blood too – it mats his hair, drips down his skin – but he stands victorious with a foot on the giant’s corpse and his weapon held high.
There are more fights like this, and Drew comes out of none of them unscathed, but always triumphant. Losing might not always mean death, but that still doesn’t mean Drew does it often.
Somehow, word seems to have got out about Drew’s next opponent. He faces endless taunting about it wherever he goes in the arena, others telling him he better watch out, that it might lead him to a loss, to a humiliation.
Wade doesn’t know who or what it is. He sees if he can squeeze it out of someone, but overall isn’t totally sure if he even wants to find out. He doesn’t want to be filled with even more anxiety ahead of the bout – if what people are saying is true, then this time he may have a reason to truly be worried.
This carries on until the day of the fight itself.
“No-one will tell me,” Drew whines, sounding genuinely irritated about the whole thing. He’s picking weapons out from his collection of them, selecting whatever he hopes could do well against almost anyone. “I get that it’s meant to be a secret, and that I’m the one who came up with it in the first place, but... God. How do they even know?”
“If it makes you feel any better, I’d tell you if I knew,” Wade says, his voice soft, careful to emphasise that he’d tell Drew, that Drew could trust him to.
Drew smiles slightly, and Wade suddenly feels a little light-headed. “It does, actually.” His hand moves to Wade’s arm, and the giddiness becomes more like actual floating.
It’s that that makes Wade do it: that feeling that he’s off up in the air somewhere, so far from any part of him that could tell him wait or no or give him any sort of reason whatsoever.
It’s that that has his mouth on Drew’s for a moment, which has him even higher, further, brighter... until he actually realises and has to ask himself what the hell he’s even doing.
Drew doesn’t even say anything, doesn’t react in any way. Wade can’t decide whether that’s the worst or best response.
“Good luck, is what I meant to say,” he offers, panicked, letting out only half of a sheepish laugh. “So... good luck, then.” He wants to reach out, wants to give Drew a pat on the shoulder to emphasise the words but doesn’t trust himself to touch Drew again, even if it’s just that.
“Right. Thanks.” Drew nods, his smile a little forced, and Wade takes it as his cue to go. He only hopes that whatever Drew has to face won’t mean this is the last time they speak, but half of him feels like that must be it for them even if Drew does come out of it alive.
The opponent is another one of them, just someone they see every day whether it’s while training or eating or absolutely anything. The man seems to have been told not to hold back when it comes to Drew, though, seems to have been told to make sure Drew thinks it could be anyone’s game.
Those who Wade stands watching alongside have their loyalties to uphold, and Wade of course has his. It’s the first time this has been the case: the fights with beasts and unknowns hadn’t split the support. The crowd themselves have their favourites, too.
It’s not a fight to the death but it seems to get close to it. Wade finds himself unconsciously moving forward to the very edge of the balcony whenever Drew takes a hit, finds his hands gripping the parapet so tightly that his knuckles almost turn white and he swears the stone could almost start to crumble.
He realises that he must have really meant that kiss.
As much as Wade meant it, though, it doesn’t actually have much of an effect on the way Drew interacts with him. Wade finds himself both grateful and disappointed about it: on one hand, it seems to have done nothing to jeopardise the relationship they have, but at the same time, it would have been nice to get something from that, to get a real response to it.
Maybe he should just stop thinking about it, should just stop hoping for anything more, but with that hope, this now almost desperate want for Drew’s acceptance and even affection, he can’t. It’s on his mind when they train together, when they’re together in any capacity. It’s on his mind when Wade’s alone, alone with nothing but his own thoughts to keep him company.
And it’s on his mind when Drew’s heading out to face the next of his surprise opponents, the look on his face just as confident as ever, the swagger in his walk just as present as ever.
Once Drew’s out there and ready for the bout to start, the clamour of the crowd dies down, anticipating the arrival of his opponent just as much as he is. A large cage is brought out, its contents not visible from the outside, signifying that his opponent is to be a beast this time. The door to the cage is opened, there’s a growl from inside, and–
Wade’s never seen anybody take on a lion before, here or otherwise. Doesn’t think he’s even heard stories of it, and if he had, he’d think they were just old folktales that had no basis in reality.
But this is real, there’s a lion, and Drew has to fight it, has to kill it. He’s armed with a blade and a shield, and it should be enough to do it. It’s always been enough before. Whatever Drew’s fought with, it’s always been enough.
Wade finds himself hardly able to watch. He lets what’s going on down below become a blur, blinking only when there’s a shocked gasp from the spectators and he feels like he needs to know what’s happening. Drew’s focusing his strength on his shield arm, using it to keep the lion at bay. If he keeps this up, he’ll end up exhausted before he can even get any offence in. Wade tears his eyes away. He can’t watch this. He can’t. He lets the noise from the crowd tell him what’s going on, tell him just how well or badly things are going.
It doesn’t do anything to calm his nerves: one moment there’s a cheer and Wade almost feels like he can start to breathe easy, but then the air seems full of worry and concern, and his heart’s pounding so hard that it feels like it’s going to beat right out of his chest.
Finally, he gathers the guts to actually look again. The crowd seem to have been stunned into silence, and that’s even more terrifying than when it was obvious that something bad had happened. Now, Wade can’t tell.
So he looks. Drew has finally managed to get some offence in and he’s got the beast just about cornered. There’s blood, both his and the lion’s, Wade is sure, and he hopes this means that the battle is coming to a close. Drew gives the lion one last stab: through its head, through its skull, probably through to its brain. There’s no more movement after that.
He looks surprised at himself. He looks down at the lion and back up again, and pulls his blade out of the lion’s head. It’s covered in blood and whatever-the-fuck-else, nothing like the reflective shine it started off the fight with, but that doesn’t matter. It’s not his own blood that’s being spilled to win so it doesn’t matter.
He did it.
He did it, and Wade is laughing, cheering and laughing, suddenly not caring that everyone who’s watching with him can see him like this, though it doesn’t seem to matter – the rest of the crowd of fighters gathered with him seem to be just as ecstatic, and there are hands on his shoulders and roaring laughter in his ears.
Now, there’s nothing to do but to hurry down to the atrium and wait.
He falls into Drew’s bed that night. It’s hard to say exactly how it happened.
Or, it isn’t: his mind had given in to instincts and urges once more, completely disregarding that he’d ruled out any of that and forced himself to actually think around Drew again.
But he isn’t thinking – his brain must have stopped doing that at some point during the fight, perhaps even before then, when Drew stepped out in the arena and first caught sight of the lion.
It’s just the relief, really, the fact that Drew is fine – that he’s okay and all right and alive – that has Wade holding onto him a little tighter when he emerges into the atrium. Others pat Drew on the back; they cheer and whoop in response to his victory. But Wade just clings to him, perhaps for a few moments too long. (Although if it is, he thinks Drew doesn’t seem to mind. Hopes Drew doesn’t mind.)
They end up being the last two in the room as everyone else heads off elsewhere.
“Well.” Drew smiles – it’s supposed to be a smirk, probably, but he’s so overcome by the fact that he managed against the lion that Wade guesses a smirk is too much for him to muster. “That was something, wasn’t it?”
“It... it was. Wow.”
Drew nods. “Aye. Don’t... don’t tell anyone this, but there were genuinely some moments there when I felt I might actually die.”
“I... I thought so, too. And that’s not a slight on you or anything – just because it was so dangerous, y’know? I’m just – I’m so glad you’re safe.” Wade’s hand finds its way to Drew’s shoulder, stays there for – again – maybe longer than it should.
It’s Drew’s smile that gets him, the one that can’t quite seem to believe there’s the chance Wade really cares this much. Of course there are other people he trusts, but none of them are here, telling him how relieved and pleased they are that he’s here, how proud they are of him, are they?
Now Wade definitely isn’t thinking, completely forgetting the fact that any one of those people (or someone Drew isn’t even friendly with altogether) could come back in here at any given moment. He definitely isn’t thinking because he’s kissing Drew; he’s got one hand in Drew’s hair and is still clutching at Drew’s arm with the other.
Drew’s responsiveness is surprising – once Wade’s train of thought becomes somewhat coherent again, he’s expecting Drew to push him away. When they do eventually break apart from each other, though, Drew seems to confirm this as correct.
“We – we can’t,” he says, prising Wade’s hand from his arm. “Can’t do anything, I...”
Wade frowns; he’s hurt that Drew would lead him on with such a kiss, would give him such fire but not let it burn, and–
“Not here.” But Drew’s eyes are dancing when Wade looks right into them, flames and laughter and what Wade hopes is just plain happiness.
He follows Drew through the meandering chambers of the building to his room. Their hands only unlink when they think they hear footsteps.
(They’re wild together, and Wade is sure that this – Drew, every part of Drew, inside Drew – is the best he’s ever had, the best he’s ever felt. It’s better than the thrill of a win, than the roar of the crowd when he pulls off a particularly impressive fight sequence. Drew is loud all the while: panting through it, moaning when he comes, and Wade leans in for a kiss to muffle the noise. He knows this can never be heard or even spoken of again.)
That’s why it’s so surprising to find Drew still there when Wade wakes. Well – it shouldn’t be: it’s Drew’s room and really Wade should be the one to get up, the one to hurriedly collect himself and make his way back through the halls to somewhere, anywhere else.
He has to consider doing that though it’s so far from what he really wants to do (that’s staying warm in the bed and holding onto Drew), so he does, and almost manages to ease himself out of the bed before he notices Drew’s eyes opening.
“Shit,” Drew says once he becomes aware of his surroundings, of the situation. “You... you can’t be here, Wade.”
“I know. I know I can’t. That’s why I’m leaving, yeah? Can’t be here. Can’t be here with you.” Now, Wade is quick to move away from the bed, quick to collect up his clothing from the floor and–
“Do you... do you actually want to go, though?”
Wade just blinks at him. He doesn’t. “I – I don’t,” he manages to get out, because he can’t lie when Drew’s eyes are what’s compelling him to speak, when they’re looking into his with what Wade wants to believe is hope that Wade does want to stay.
“Good. Because I don’t want you to go, either. Get back into bed with me, then.”
Wade crosses the room once more, having to stop in front of the bed for a moment because – because Drew. He’s sweet and sleepy and holding his arms out towards Wade, a little shaky because of how hardly awake he still is, and Wade lets Drew pull him in.
“I... I think I’ve actually realised that you... you care about me,” he says, quiet, right into Wade’s ear, voice still slurred a little from sleep. “And that – well. I care too, you know.”
The revelation has Wade’s breath catching, and he lets himself completely relax in Drew’s arms. It makes him forget that what they’re really here for is armour and weapons and perhaps eventually each other’s heads.
Wade doesn’t know what they’ve become, but he knows it’s something.
They eat together and laugh together and train together and as soon as they’re hidden from the rest of the world, Drew kisses him and kisses him and kisses him until Wade would be content never to breathe again, so long as he had this.
So lovers, perhaps. Or somewhere on the way to it at least.
He hopes Drew would be willing to admit that. Not to other people, obviously. That’s far too dangerous. But to Wade, or even just himself.
Wade hears things, though. And he can’t keep from smiling to himself about it.
He’s on his way to Drew when he realises that’s the muffled sound of Drew’s voice coming from behind the curtain he’s passing. And when he hears something he thinks is his name, Wade can’t help but stop and try to listen, praying that no-one else will be able to hear.
He recognises the man Drew is speaking with as Alberto: a good fighter who Wade respects, who he’d probably say is one of Drew’s closest friends.
And he recognises that what they’re talking about is him, so he watches through the crack.
“You and him, anyway. I’ve been wondering. You seem very... cosy together.”
There’s a small smile from Drew, bashful almost. “Well. I’d say we are very cosy.”
“Oh?” Alberto raises his eyebrows. “But wouldn’t it be easier just to get women from Hunter? I’m sure your requests would always be met. And even if it’s a man you’re after... that could probably be seen to. I doubt they’d make a thing of it so long as you kept it quiet and continued providing entertainment.”
“It’s... it’s more than that, though.”
A pause, as if Alberto’s trying to figure out what that means, and then:
“What?” The word is hissed; Alberto sounds shocked. “Drew, you can’t. It’s too dangerous to do something like that, and what if... look. Just be careful, yes?” He’s grabbed Drew by the shoulders now, definitely concerned.
“I am being careful, believe me. Don’t speak a word of this to anyone, aye?”
“Of course not, you know me, you know I won’t. But I know you, and that there’s the chance you might...”
“I’m not going to, Alberto. I know the risks. I know I could lose everything.”
Alberto’s apprehension seems to deflate a little, but then his voice drops.
“But what if he does? What will you do then?”
“I know he won’t.” Drew’s tone is so serious, so sincere – it just shows the words he’s saying to be even truer.
If there wasn’t such a danger in doing so, Wade would burst into the room and throw his arms around Drew in the hope that such a gesture could show even a fraction of what he feels.
But he can’t do that, and it can’t show that, so he just settles for deciding to surprise Drew in his room when he goes back to it – one of the only rooms in the whole building that Wade’s learned the way to even now.
One of the places he’s actually had to learn to get to, however, is the set of rooms that serve as an office for Hunter. He’s called in for unknown reasons about a week later – a week which Wade’s again spent becoming as acquainted as he can with Drew’s body, his soul.
“So?” Wade says after a moment; Hunter hasn’t been talking, just staying silent and watching Wade. “What do you want with me?”
Another pause before Hunter speaks.
“We’ve got a fight planned for you. Quite a big one. You versus McIntyre. A couple of weeks from now.”
Wade feels himself freeze from the inside out. When his utter disbelief about the situation seems to melt and melds together with the realisation of what this means, he wants to roar. He wants to turn into the lion Drew had slain and ferociously annihilate Hunter, the Game Maker, everyone. Everyone but Drew, who gets snatched up onto the lion’s back and carried far, far away to safety.
Wade thinks Drew must already know about it, so it’s a surprise to find him cheerful the next time Wade sees him. Nothing like the shaking mess Wade became the moment he was in private – but then he remembers that this must be part of the whole surprise opponent thing, remembers that Drew probably won’t even know it’s going to be Wade when he’s standing in the arena and waiting for the worst...
“Hey, what’s got you so bothered?” The smile on Drew’s face has no business being there, as much as Wade hates to say it.
“What, you found out who my next mystery opponent is and you’re worried I won’t be able to handle them? Come off it, Wade. You’ve seen me fight giants, bears, lions, fucking–”
That forces Drew into silence. He swallows. When he opens his mouth again, no sound comes out. Everything is still, as if breaking Drew’s spirits has brought on the early apocalypse. Wade swears the ground could start shaking at any moment: an upset, dejected Drew is enough of a turnaround for the sun to sink and the sea to storm.
“You. It’s – it’s you. Oh, God. Oh God, Wade. We have to... fucking hell. We’re probably going to end up having to kill each other.”
Wade can hardly bear to meet Drew’s eyes. He doesn’t want to see the blue that was once his sky, his place to roam free and break away from all the blood, become the swirling sad depths of the sea. He nods gravely, and only manages to find a fraction of his voice when he talks.
“What are we going to do?” It’s only a whisper, and Wade hates hearing himself sound so scared, so pathetic, so unlike the man presented to the public, the one who’s capable of killing other men and the most savage of beasts. A hand on his shoulder and a gaze that pierces through everything eventually win Wade’s attention from the ground. The eyes he meets are darker, more serious than he’s seen of them before.
“We’re going to go out there and give them the best damn show they’ve ever seen, even if we both end up dead by the end of it.”
Their love’s become more frantic now. It’s still glorious, there’s nothing vaguely bad about it at all, but there’s a marked change between this and the few times before. Them both knowing it probably doesn’t have a chance to last is why.
Wade curses and gasps at the way Drew feels against him, inside him, pulling Drew down onto him so they can be closer, even with their bodies are fused together how they are.
Their kisses like this are hardly kisses at all, just their mouths either barely brushing against each other as they try desperately to maintain the rhythm or clashing together almost violently as the movement itself pauses to allow their lips to meet.
Everything is faster but in no way worse; finishing sooner just means there’s more time to fit more in, time for absolutely anything they can think of that they’d do at half the speed had they the opportunity.
Drew’s hand on him to bring him off is what has Wade coming undone; the simple movement that matches the tempo of Drew’s thrusts is more than enough. Soon, Drew is there with him, and they’re a mess of tangled up limbs on the bed.
“I love you,” Wade murmurs, linking his fingers with Drew’s. At first, he receives nothing but a mildly blank stare in response. “I love you.” He tries again, this time lifting Drew’s hand to brush a kiss over it.
“You... you can’t be telling me things like that,” Drew says when he finds his voice.
“Not got much time to tell you, have I? We might be dead next week. You deserve to know I love you now because otherwise I might never get to say it.” He squeezes Drew’s hand, willing his lover to look back up at him.
Drew swallows, meeting Wade’s eyes almost shyly when he does look back.
“Well. I guess I love you too, then.”
“I do. I know I do.”
It seems to go away, then: all the worry and the woe. They lie awake past when the soft glow of candlelight is no more, when it’s just the dark and the two of them and not knowing where each other ends and begins.
Wade forgets they’re not the only ones with problems.
The next couple of days are a mess, confused murmurs of conversation buzzing through the arena setting the mood dark and dreary.
He’s being reprimanded, the rumours say. Set away in Hunter’s custody for apparent violent behaviour towards one of the workers, not a fighter. Wade still thinks it’s a bit of a stupid reason considering all the glory violence gets in the arena, especially as witnesses say Alberto was provoked, that the so-called victim wasn’t much of a victim after all because he made the first move, he made remarks about Alberto’s worth in relation to his race and heritage.
Of course, they’re not believed.
When Alberto doesn’t return for a rather worrying length of time, it’s spread around that he must be dead – must have been killed for merely defending himself.
That’s confirmed by the sight of his body being carried away, carried down flights of stairs that go unused bar one purpose. Even after only being here for a short time, Wade knows where Alberto’s body was being taken: from the grounds, it appears to be a pit, but it’s on the same level as the lowest floor of the building. It’s where the corpses go after fights, men and beasts alike. That area of the arena always smelled, but its scent could be ignored. Now, Wade finds the more pronounced stench of injustice each time he passes, injustice against not just Alberto but probably also so many of the other bodies that now envelop him.
Drew seems near to tears – angry, acidic tears – when Wade first finds him after the news breaks. Wade isn’t totally sure how to approach him like this.
“I’m sorry,” he says, stepping a little closer to where Drew is standing. He doesn’t even bother with a reassuring touch on the arm: Drew is a volcano ready to erupt and Wade doesn’t want to get burned.
“You didn’t do anything. You don’t have to say sorry. It’s those fucking bigots running this place that should say they’re sorry. And the bastard that provoked him.”
Wade agrees; that man didn’t even get reprimanded.
“He... he seemed like a good man.”
Drew nods solemnly. “He was. I told him, you know. About us. And I know he’s never said a word about it to anyone. I trusted him.”
“Yeah. I saw you tell him, actually. It was then that I knew, I think. That I loved you. That I love you. He doubted me and I don’t blame him, but you showed then that you didn’t doubt me one bit, and...” He pauses, and again: “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologise, I told you...”
“No, I’m sorry for making that about us. It should be about him. His life should be celebrated. He was killed because he stood up for himself, for who he is, for things he wouldn’t change about himself even if he had the chance to. And I can definitely respect that.”
There are no celebrations, though. They don’t even get to hold any kind of service in secret, because surveillance seems to be being taken so much more seriously though no-one understands why. (Of course the two of them are still sneaking around in the evenings – Wade into Drew’s room for the night, Drew into Wade’s – but Wade decides it’s worth it. Drew is worth it.)
A lot more death’s been occurring as a result of fights now, with two more men Drew spoke of as friends dying in the arena soon after Alberto, one after the other. Drew doesn’t talk about it, just tries to appear stable although inside he’s disintegrating and it’s breaking Wade too.
He’s losing everyone. And soon he might not even have Wade.
The worst thing by far is watching the way Drew changes as the day of their fight creeps even closer. He’s lost that confidence he had when Wade first told him (we’re going to go out there and give them the best damn show they’ve ever seen, even if we both end up dead by the end of it...) and has become a mere shell of himself – not even that.
“I don’t think I can do it,” he whispers to Wade three nights before. In the dark, Drew can’t be seen, but he sounds on the verge of – or past the verge of, perhaps – tears. “I can’t... I can’t be told to kill you. I don’t think I’ll even be able to hurt you. The Game Maker wouldn’t sentence either of us to death, would he? Surely that would cause an uproar in the crowd and–” His voice breaks. Wade thinks he hears a sob.
There’s ultimately nothing he can say in response. He can’t tell Drew no, of course the Game Maker wouldn’t kill either of us, because there’s no way of knowing. The Maker loves to shock, to surprise the audience. Even the best of his best are expendable bar a very select few. And Wade can’t say the opposite of that, because what would be the point of bringing Drew down even more?
He just settles for leaning in and kissing Drew, hoping it’s enough. When he lets a hand reach out to find and caress Drew’s face in the dark, he feels a tear falling there.
It’s then that Wade decides they have to get out. If they don’t, the next two days and two nights is all they have. That’s not nearly enough time to live any part of the life he wants with Drew.
(If Wade has any say in it, then that life includes seeing the world and its oceans and its wide, open hills. The arena hardly encompasses the smallest part of that.)
Tomorrow just makes everything worse. Wade shakes inside as he makes his way to Hunter’s office. It becomes violent when he hears the words he’s there for.
“About that... about that big fight you’ve got coming up. We’ve made a change to it. To the outcome. You’re to kill him.”
Wade only hopes he heard that incorrectly, but he knows he didn’t. He stays silent; he can’t speak out – one of the things he’s had to learn about this place.
“Simply, we don’t necessarily need him anymore. Other competitors have been on the rise, some I’ve been personally mentoring. The Game Maker wants fresh blood.”
He wants Drew’s fresh blood, pooled out on the dirty ground of the arena at the hands of Wade. Wade feels beyond sick at the thought: at the idea of himself smeared with the blood of his lover, his best friend; forced to watch day turn to dark, dark night as Drew slowly dies. And then there’s the fact that he’d be unable to stop himself from falling to the floor to clutch at Drew’s lifeless body before he gets carried away and Drew is thrown over the wall to find peace among the pile of corpses that are beginning to overflow the pit they’re in.
Now, there’s no question about it. They are leaving, going far away, and never looking back. Wade starts formulating some kind of scheme in his head, something wild but something that will essentially need to work.
He decides not to tell Drew he’s supposed to be killing him. That would just be too much; Wade never wants to have to watch someone usually so strong, someone who is so significant in his life cry again. And Drew’s the only person he knows who’s that strong – the only one who’s that important to him.
He just continues work on some vast number of escape plans and prays there’s a chance one of them might somehow miraculously manage to be successful.
In the dead of night looks to be the only time they have the hope of getting out. Wade lets Drew sleep beforehand but stays awake himself, counting seconds and minutes until he deems it’s safe to leave. Or, attempt to leave at least.
He gently shakes Drew awake – it turns out he had barely even been asleep – and they check that they have what they need. There’s not much to take – mostly just any gold and treasures they’d been rewarded for past fights, just so they can get by. And each other, the most important thing of all.
“Here’s where I need your help,” Wade whispers as they turn out of his corridor to what to him is a more unknown area of the halls. “I’m not so well-versed with where we are now, especially in the dark with fewer torches than usual. We need to get to the atrium so we can actually get outside, but we also need to go unseen.”
Drew nods and takes the lead, tugging on Wade’s hand as they snake through the building attempting to be quiet.
There’s a corner of the training grounds that Wade’s spent far too much of the last couple of days inspecting, even if there’s only the slight chance that it could make for a feasible area of exit. There was no point in asking around – it would only arouse suspicion, after all – and little reason to even ask Drew. Even though he’s been here for longer, what would he know about escaping? What would anyone know?
For now, though, their task is actually leaving the building. Ordinarily they’d seem only a little suspicious – although late night training is unusual, it’s accepted – but the two of them laden with items that certainly aren’t customary for training would be enough for a thorough questioning if someone finds them, even without the anxious expression on Drew’s face under the dim light of the torches, the same one that Wade thinks he must be wearing too.
But Drew’s soon changes: he’s steely with resolve now, more cautious than Wade’s ever seen him before. Sure, Drew exercises vigilance in a fight, plays things slow until he sees an in to take and exploit, but other than that, his tendency is to rush into something, to exert himself before he’s even stopped to take a look at the details.
Right now, though, he’s as careful as possible. He knows what will happen to them if they’re caught and found out, and he has an incentive to work for. He has Wade to work for, and Wade has him. That’s enough for Wade to feel even more overwhelmed by everything – the possibility of no escape, of getting found and punished or even put to death, but also the fact that Drew is doing all he can for Wade, for them. Wade would marvel over it if he had the time to. Maybe he’ll have all the time in the world to do so if they manage to get themselves out of here, but now is not that time. Now is to actually navigate out of the halls and then, out of the arena altogether.
There are a couple of moments that could constitute as narrow escapes: they’re sure they see shadows that aren’t their own moving across the walls, think they hear footsteps coming in their direction, think they hear someone behind them which is even more nerve-wracking and has Wade’s heart beating in his eardrums and his hand gripping Drew’s hard... but then they find themselves at the doorway that leads to the atrium, and thank God.
Even if they’re grateful to be out of the halls, though, it doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous here. After all, it’s wide and open and someone could be watching from anywhere. There could be someone watching from above, from the open roof, ready to shoot arrows down at anyone who dares intrude or escape.
“Best we keep to the edge,” Drew says – he must have realised the possibility of that, too. “It’ll take longer but we’ll more likely be out of sight. The moon is shining right into the centre of the room through the opening.”
Keeping to the edge means more footsteps, more time to be found, but less chance of it if someone actually is on the roof. They make it to the other side of the atrium slowly, making sure every step is as unnoticeable as it can be.
“This is – this is it,” Wade whispers when they’re in front of the door, though it’s not it, not really. They’ve still got the grounds to tackle. This is something, though. This is a conscious decision that they’re definitely leaving. Once they’ve closed this door behind them, there will be no turning back, no going inside the building again.
There’s also the fact that actually getting through the door will be a feat in itself: the doorway is wide, made up of two separate doors, and just one door alone is heavy enough to get open, even for them. Not to mention that it’s locked. Drew pushes at it, and–
“Fuck,” he hisses. “We didn’t – we didn’t exactly think this part through, did we? What is there to do now, climb up through the roof to get out?”
“I think the door’s a better bet than the roof,” Wade tells him, because it is. Even so, that doesn’t mean they’ll definitely be able to get it open by sunrise. While that’s a good few hours off yet, there’s no telling how long it will take. They could waste all their time and energy trying to open it, and be caught the moment they’ve done it. They might not even be able to unlock it at all.
That’s not to say that it isn’t worth a shot, though. It’s one of the only shots they have.
“How the hell are you thinking of doing that, then? It’s too dark to see just about anything, and even if it wasn’t, it’s still locked. And who knows where they keep the keys. There has to be another way. There has to be.”
Honestly, Wade doubts there is.
“The keys,” Drew says a moment later. “We should try.”
“Wherever the fuck they are will be heavily guarded. Think we can do it?”
Drew looks up, and even in the dark, Wade can see the unwavering glint in his eyes.
“With you – aye. Reckon we can.”
With you. Wade doesn’t think he could be doing this without Drew, either.
The longer they go on with their search for the keys, though, the more he begins to doubt. They should have taken a different approach, should have just hidden outside all night and then gone when they got the opportunity. Then it would have been just a case of escaping the grounds, not getting out of the building, too. Wade’s began to think that taking the keys isn’t a good idea anyway, even if they could find them, because then the door would be unlocked, the keys would be missing, and then it would be known that there are people missing.
Drew seems to be having the same thoughts.
“Maybe – maybe we don’t need keys. Maybe we can just – there’s this one door, aye? And I think we can get outside from where it leads.”
“A door we can get outside through? Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I thought you had it planned out! It was going to be, like – only if we had to resort to desperate measures.”
“Desperate measures? Drew, this whole thing is a desperate measure, I–”
“Trust me. I’ve been here longer than you. I know my way around, like you said. And I think I might just know a way we can get out of here. A way outside, at least.”
“All right,” Wade says, though if this goes wrong, that’s them done for. “I trust you.”
He lets Drew lead him to where this door apparently is, lets Drew lead him down flights of stairs, and even if it were daytime, Wade doesn’t think he’d recognise the area. It’s even darker than the rest of the arena, and the walls are dank, and then there’s the fucking smell, and – the smell. It’s then that Wade realises what this is, where they are.
“I’m not climbing up the pile of corpses to get out, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he says. “Don’t think that’d even be possible, anyway.”
“No, of course not. We don’t have to do anything that drastic. Up the wall, though. That’s our best bet.”
“Up the wall?”
“Up the wall,” Drew confirms. They’re in front of the door now. “Let me see if I can get this open.”
The door is bolted shut rather than locked, so he can. Slowly, though, because otherwise it’d be loud. With it open, the stench is overwhelming. Luckily the space is big enough that there’s no need to get too close to the bodies, though, and Wade scans that side of the wall for a way up it.
Drew seems to figure something out before he does, and he motions for Wade to come over to look.
“See here?” he asks, pointing up at what look like could possibly serve as footholds in the battered brick. “Reckon I could climb up it from here?”
“Reckon you can,” Wade tells him. It’s still dark here, but they’re not inside anymore, so there’s at least the light of the moon to guide them, and they should be able to scale the wall just fine. Drew might be quicker, more agile, but they’re both strong. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be here in the first place. They can do it. Wade has faith that they can.
He waits down below as Drew makes his way up, his belongings on his back. Wade’s glad they didn’t have to leave any of the little they’ve brought with them behind – that would be a sure sign that someone was trying to escape.
A couple of minutes later and there’s Drew’s voice from up above him.
“Come on, then. Your turn.”
The brick is tough on Wade’s hands, and his feet are too big for the climb to be anything other than excruciatingly uncomfortable, but it doesn’t matter. He has to pull through. He’s got Drew up there, waiting for him, and from there, he knows they can make it.
Wade’s not far from the top now. He’s just got to get past those few last rows of brick, and he’ll be on the same level as Drew. On the same level as Drew, and outside, properly this time. Again, when they’re both up there, there’ll no turning back, but they’re not planning to, and – that’s it. He’s made it. Drew’s got a hand reached out to help him up, and Wade takes it. They’ve made it this far without any interruptions, without anybody coming across them. They can do it. The hardest part is over – Wade hopes.
Now they’re in the grounds, and Wade’s got this, knows what they’re doing from here. Making sure to be quiet, they shut the door behind them, and Wade gestures for Drew to follow him away from the building and across to the wall, taking care to be quiet and keeping in the shadows. Just in case.
“Around here,” says Wade. “This is where I thought it’d be easiest.”
Around here is where he noticed that the top of the wall might actually be reachable because of the trees in front of it, close enough to the wall to get onto it from their branches. They seem climbable enough, and even though Wade’s had far more than enough climbing in the last few minutes to last him years, this is it. This is what he had planned. Come to think of it, it’s probably the way that other attempts to escape have been made, but hopefully they’ll get lucky. They have to.
“After you,” he says, nodding towards the most suitable tree. A strong trunk, not going to break from the weight of a person, and branches that allow someone to climb it. Honestly, he’s surprised that it hasn’t been cut down. Maybe no-one’s noticed before. Drew raises an eyebrow at him. “What? It’s better than tunnelling out or anything else like that. It’s all we’ve got.” You’re the one they want to kill, he almost adds, but thinks better of it. Whenever he does decide to share that information with Drew, it can’t be now. Not when they’ve got so far.
Drew shrugs, and does as Wade said, finding the best branches to use to climb. Again, Wade watches as Drew makes his way up first, every so often shooting a glance back towards the building, just in case. It’s a relief when he makes it onto the wall and it’s Wade’s turn to climb up. The only thing that could stand in their way would be if someone were to suddenly come out and find them, but Wade tries to shove any negativity out of his mind, and just climbs.
The tree is nothing like as bad as the wall earlier, and eventually they’re beside each other on the top of the wall. It’s not too high off the ground, but it still requires jumping.
“Together?” Drew asks, and Wade nods. Together is exactly what he wants, for now and for always. They push off from the wall, landing on their feet (though Wade’s a little unsteady), and it doesn’t quite sink in until a few moments later.
They’ve done it. They’ve fucking done it. The seemingly impossible, and they’ve done it. Wade wants to laugh, loud and roaring, but they can’t make much noise, can’t stop for anything. Drew’s just as shocked and just as ecstatic, perhaps even more so, clutching at Wade and smiling wide.
“We’re out,” he says. “We’re – I can’t believe it. Fuck. Still, we’ve got to get away from here, get as far away from here as we can.”
And so they move. Their route takes them towards the coast, the sea on the skyline in their sights even though they’re still in the city. Every so often, Drew seems to need to stop and marvel over something, and the sea stretching out ahead of them is definitely no exception: he pauses again, and his breath catches at the sight of it.
“Look!” Drew grabs Wade by the arm and waves in the general direction of the coastline and the ocean. “The sea! It’s the sea!” Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve got to see that? Since the air’s felt this fresh? Since the sky’s looked this open to me? Since there’s been the possibility of travelling over a mile or two without repeating my steps? It’s been so long, Wade.”
His joy is so pure, so unbelievably real that Wade can’t help but smile too, can’t help but let Drew have that moment where he gets to soak everything in and feel truly alive again. But they also have to be careful. Wade pulls on Drew’s arm.
“We’ve got to move, got to get out of the city before they realise we’re missing, before anyone in the town can wake up and recognise us.”
Drew seems reluctant to leave the view of the water, but he follows when Wade begins to lead back from the coast.
They stay on the edge of the town, just to make it that much easier if they do have to bolt away at a sudden moment. Wade doesn’t know his way, necessarily – he was only here for a couple of hours between alighting the boat and entering the arena – but he can at least remember some of the geography of the area. What he knows is enough to take them a few miles to a hill he remembers passing on the boat; the crest of it is shrouded in wildlife but he and Drew don’t climb, seeing little point in making their feet ache even more.
But it does seem to be the time for a rest, though, and they’re sure they’re far enough from the arena, from the town, that they won’t be found. So, they sit: the slope of the hill that’s closest to the coastline, facing the sea.
“I can’t believe it.” Drew breaks their quiet. “I can’t believe I’m out of there.” He reaches over to join Wade’s hand with his own. “We actually got out. I don’t think anyone’s ever managed to get out before. People who tried never got very far. Fuck. And now... now I get to have this.” His other hand gestures out at the ocean, at where the sun is beginning to rise over the water. “And this.” He squeezes Wade’s hand then, sounding so overcome by it all.
“Perhaps going into that arena was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Wade offers, brushing his thumb over Drew’s hand, but he knows that’s not entirely true. It wasn’t the arena alone, of course not. He could have gone in and be dead by now, could have kept completely to himself and been that formidable, friendless potential foe.
It was all Drew, really. Drew was the best thing, is the best thing, will hopefully continue to be.
“Well, you going there was certainly the best thing to ever happen to me,” Drew says softly, and he leans his head against Wade’s shoulder. “Thank you, Wade.”
“You don’t have to thank me. If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t have thought about leaving in the first place. There wouldn’t have been the need to.”
“And what a burning need it was. Though what now, hm? You’re the one who came up with the plan and idea to escape. Where were you thinking of escaping to?”
Wade doesn’t know, but that doesn’t matter, at least not right now. They could choose to go anywhere: to one of any number of tiny towns along the coast, across a seemingly endless expanse of land and sea, back to the Island if they wanted. Absolutely anywhere.
Where Wade thinks he’d like to go the most though, is up. The sky isn’t blue yet as they look out on it – the sun hasn’t totally risen – but he knows his sky always will be. He catches Drew’s eye with a smile, finding himself lost there almost as soon as he looks. God, it really doesn’t matter where they go. It doesn’t matter if they get lost there. All that matters is that they’re there together. If they had had to die in the arena, fine – so long as they wouldn’t have had to be without each other. If they were still in there, neither of them sentenced to death in any way, then so be it, because everything would have been carrying on as normal.
But they’re not trapped, they’re not there anymore, they’re out in the wild with the ocean right in front of them and a million places to go. Just mere hours ago they had nowhere and nothing and the prospect of Drew’s possible death – maybe even both their deaths – facing them. All there was to pull them through was each other, and suddenly, they’re here with a whole wealth of possibilities at their feet.