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Worse Guy(7)
Author: Ruby Dixon

The stench hits me like a slap, and I breathe through my nose as I take a few steps inside. "Hello Crulden," I say softly. "I've brought your food, and I've come to make you a deal."

I jerk backward when he hops onto his feet, pressing up against the bars as he glowers in my direction. He's terrifying to look at, all animalistic and looming. He's enormous, and the spikes that cover his arms and back look deadly, as do the wet tusks that jut from his mouth and frame his ugly face. His nostrils flare and his eyes narrow as he watches me.

"I've brought you food." I set the bowl down at my feet and crouch on the floor. "But that's going to end soon, because if I'm going to keep this job, I need to show progress. That's where I need your help."

His eyes look fierce and alarming as he watches me. His pupils dart and I realize for the first time that his gaze is so unnerving because his eyes are like a cat's. He doesn't even look at the bowl, just watches me.

"My job is to help you become a part of society here on Risda III," I say, deciding to throw my cards on the table. "I have a week to show progress with you, and that week is almost up. If I don't show progress, I'll be sent back to the laundry and no one will bring special foods anymore. But if you tell me what you like, I can bring it for you. If you prefer fruits to nuts, I can bake something with that. If you prefer meats, I can figure something out. I would like for us to work together, because we're both kind of screwed unless this works out."

I take a step to the side, and his unnerving gaze remains locked on me. "Screwed?" he murmurs.

Of course he'd focus on that word. I smile, my expression sweet. "Yes. I'll be doing laundry forever, and if you don't seem to be making strides, they're going to put you back into stasis or keep you drugged permanently. If you kill someone, they're going to get rid of you. Understand?" When he doesn't answer, I go on. "You have to pretend like we're following the rules, even if you don't like them."

I figure if I can get him to pretend to be obedient, I can eventually work him around to actually obeying the laws. Baby steps, I tell myself.

"Pretend," he states.

"Like a game," I agree, whispering.

His mouth curls into a terrifying looking grin. "You're good at pretending."

I keep smiling. "Beg your pardon?"

Crulden's smile grows wider, and far more menacing. "Your male still hasn't figured out you're not attracted to him."

Uh oh. Someone's been watching me far closer than I'd like. I continue to wear my smile, even as I straighten and brush at the skirts of my long, belted tunic. "You're wrong. Of course I am."

He laughs, the sound raspy and unpleasant. "Are not. When you're around him, your cunt's dryer than my ration bars. I can smell it."

I blink, horrified. He can smell me? That part of me? I freeze in place, wondering if I should race out of the cell. I don't like that the first thing Crulden's mentioned is sex, but…he's talking, at least. "Our relationship isn't sexual, if you must know. Riffin knows I'm not interested—"

Crulden's eyes narrow, and I still get the impression that he's amused as I kick the bowl toward him. "He thinks he can make you interested."

"You can't force someone to be interested." Why am I even talking about this with him?

He snorts. "Obviously."

The plate skids a few inches away from the slot in his cage. Close enough. I'm not getting any nearer. "Just think on what I said. About us working together—"

"I could make you come."

My throat closes up and I recoil in surprise. This…creature? No, it's a man, I remind myself. A man that's been bred to be a killing machine. He's watching me with those deadly eyes, and for the first time in my life, I don't have a chirpy answer. I don't know what to say. I swallow hard, then nod at the cookies. "Eat your food. Think about what I said."

"I don't want to play along." His voice is low, dangerous. "I don't want them to think they've won."

I pause. No one's winning anything, but I decide to couch things in terms he'll understand. "Look. We both know what happens if you break out again. If you hurt someone. They will not hesitate to put you down like an animal, and if they do, we both lose, understand? You can't play the game if you're dead."

He extends one nasty claw toward his bowl and hooks it on the edge, then drags it slowly toward him, the metal scraping over the floor like my nerves are being scraped. "What do you get out of this?"

"I get to keep my job. You get to keep your life. I think those are good incentives, don't you?"

"I'm a gladiator," he growl-purrs, his voice silky and alarming all at once. "I get a prize when I win. What do I win if I play along?"

"Very well. What kind of incentive do you want? More food? Better quarters?" If his freedom is too nebulous, maybe I need to offer something concrete. "Do you like plants?"

He retreats into the shadows of his cage, as far as the cuffs will let him, and his face is hidden from me. "I will think about what I want."

"You do that," I say brightly, and turn and leave the room. The guard locks the door behind me with shaking hands, and I thump down onto my stool, surprised that I'm not shaking as hard as my companion is.

I've told Crulden what I need from him. Now I have to wait and see if he decides to play along.

 

 

4

 

 

ASSHOLE/CRULDEN

 

I think about the female after she's gone for the night. When the majority of the guards clustered in the hall, shivering in their boots, go home and I'm left with only a few overnight. It's the best time to break out, and just like every day that I'm here, I consider ripping my cage apart and tearing off heads until I leave the building. To run and see how far I get before someone retrieves me.

Instead of mulling this for hours, I consider it only briefly before my thoughts turn back to the female again. She brings food treats, and while she always remembers to save some for me, I know they are for the guards. She's a sly one, the female, for all that her face is round and innocent, her voice sweet and slightly foolish, she is playing them all.

I have to admit, it amuses me.

I think about what she said. About how we need to fool them all so they think I am tamed. I hate the thought of it, but I am growing weary of this cage and these cuffs. When they bring out the hose and spray me down, I bite back a snarl of anger and decide I am tired of that, too. I am tired of shitting in a corner. I am tired of crouching next to these cuffs all day long. I am tired of a great many things.

This is not how a champion should go out.

Sitting in a cage, covered in my own filth? Cuffed? I should be in a glorious battle in an arena. I should be fighting to the death in front of thousands who call my name. Not this. This? This is not worthy.

And so I consider what the female said.

They will not hesitate to put you down like an animal.

You cannot play the game if you are dead.

It occurs to me that I can trick them, as she tricks them, to get what I want. I can pretend to be tamed. I can pretend that they have cowed me and defanged me. And when I am free, I can find new arenas, new competitors. Instead of the baked treats the female makes, I will give them my grudging obedience.

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