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Greener Pastures (4)
Fri Nov 13, 2009 5:55am

"Well, at least you're going out with a bang ..."

Ben glanced up at the undeniable note of misery in his manager's voice, and he smiled, zipping the duffel he'd been packing. "You'll find someone else, Mitch."

"Yeah right -- not like you, pal. I'll still be talking about you when I'm going senile." Mitch had aged in these five years, thin hair thinner and grayer, hound dog face sagging even more prominently. "Starting with a major upset, keeping the title for five years flawlessly ..."

"Not so remarkable." He lifted one thick hand and clenched it into a fist, expression thoughtful.

Five years in the pits. He had barely noticed the time pass. But the rush of excitement before each match had faded -- slowly at first -- until they became one more chore in his daily routine. His smile saddened. The world held no more fascination for him -- no more thrill.

Even his final match had been routine -- spectacular, he supposed, for the audience -- but nothing special in his mind. His opponent had fallen under the weight of his fists, and now he left the arena to seek something more.

"Yes, it is! I told you the average lifespan for a fighter down here --"

"I know, Mitch." He shook his head. "I'm sure fighting Reploids have advanced -- there will be someone better than me."

Mitch sighed impatiently, but whatever argument he had readied died on his lips when there came a hesitant knock on the door. Giving him a puzzled look, Mitch turned away to open it, blinking in evident surprise at the person beyond it.

"Got a visitor, Ben."

He looked up and froze in place, brow wrinkling in consternation at the young girl who waved shyly from the hallway.

"Hi, Benny," she said, amending her childhood nickname for present company.

"Winifred --" he started, but she had rushed past Mitch by that point, flinging her arms around him and burying her face in his fur.

"It's been forever! Why didn't you tell me what you were doing? I missed you so much!" She looked up at him with a mock scowl, but there seemed to be real hurt behind the expression.

He sighed, pulling free of her and pushing her out to arm's length, hands on her shoulders and engulfing them. "Winifred, what are you doing here?" he demanded sternly. "This is no place for you to be."

Her mask fell away, hurt plain now. "A ... a friend told me about the pit fights, and we came to see one of the matches ... and I saw your name. I wasn't sure it was you, but -- I came to one of your matches to see, and --" She broke off at the look of alarm on his face. "No, it's fine! I never had any trouble with anybody! I came to every single one after that, too!"

"Every match?"

She nodded, then hesitated. "Well -- until I went to college."

Mitch gave a soft cough, and Ben looked up to see him hovering hesitantly in the doorway. He lifted his hand in a brief wave and sauntered into the hall.

"Winifred, perhaps we should talk somewhere else," Ben said finally. "Let me pack my things. There is a cafe near here -- it should be suitable."

"Sure!" She caught one of his hands as they dropped from her shoulders, and he finished his packing one-handed. "You can call me Freddie, you know -- everybody does now, except Mom."

Ben shook his head. "Let's be on our way."

The cafe was small and dingy, but it was open twenty-four hours, which made it ideal for the bear and his manager to talk shop before going their separate ways. He ordered tea, long habit making it his first choice, and Winifred grinned at him before ordering hot chocolate. The man at the counter seemed mildly disgusted by their choices.

"Why'd you disappear?" Winifred asked abruptly, toying with a coaster someone had left behind on their table. Her glance skated up to him sideways, a tiny frown working at her lips.

"It wasn't my intention to disappear," Ben said, shifting in his seat -- reinforced, thank heaven -- and frowning at his tea. "I was hardly welcome at your home, Winifred. Your mother would have frowned upon my contacting you."

"I guess so," the girl said. "So.. you've been fighting this whole time?"

"I spent the first six months searching for other work," he said, then gave his shoulders an easy, rippling shrug. "I was unsuccessful." He paused for a beat, then changed the subject. "Have you been well? I thought of you from time to time and wondered."

"Well, I've been doing the college thing lately." She smiled, some pride in her voice. "I'm majoring in law -- for now, anyway. Mom wants me to, but I don't know if I want to do it for a living." She sipped her hot chocolate, staring around the room for a moment. "Grandpa wanted you to keep up his work, didn't he?"

"That would have been very difficult. Even he was aware of that." All he'd been able to do was pass the man's work on to the researchers he'd chosen and step out of the way. They had wanted his help even less than the city offices he'd sought employment with.

"But why fighting?" she insisted. "You could get really hurt -- I don't know. It just ... it doesn't seem like you." She bit her lip, but her gaze stayed with his.

He watched her for a moment, ears pricked in surprise, then looked thoughtfully at the table, a faint smile curling his lips. "I suppose it would seem that way," he said finally. "I was taken aback at first, when I found the work to my liking."

Her brow wrinkled, and he resisted a momentary impulse to reach across the space between them and ruffle her hair, as he often had when she was young.

He smiled gently -- as gently as his features allowed -- instead. "Winifred --"

"Freddie," she insisted.

"Winifred." He gave her a stern look, then began again. "When I lived with your grandfather, my work required a delicate touch. Frail artifacts, frail papers, and a frail old man. In the pits, my work requires no such restraint." He rubbed a paw over his face and frowned. "There was a feeling of such release -- I have no way to describe it."

She watched him a moment, expression pensive. "But you're quitting?"

"I am," he confirmed, pausing to take a long draught of his tea. "There are greener pastures, I'm sure. The pits have lost their minimal allure."

"But where are you going to go?"

"I don't know yet, Winifred." He finished his tea in a gulp and rose. "I'll call you a cab. It's getting late."

"But --"

He frowned. "You already know you shouldn't be here. I would take you home myself, but your family would hardly approve of me arriving on their doorstep with you in tow."

Her lower lip pushed out in a pout, but after a moment the expression grew into something more like genuine distress, and she stood up as well, walking around the table to take hold of his arm. "But you're just gonna leave! And I'll never see you again." The last she said in a mumble and the bear sighed, reaching over once again to rest his free hand on her head.

"If that is the issue ... will you go home if I give you a way to contact me?"

There was a moment of reluctant silence, then she nodded, lifting one arm to scrub hurriedly at her eyes.

"Very well, then." He reached into a pocket of his trousers and tugged out a small device. "This was my manager's. He returned it upon my retirement. Tap this button to page me -- it will send me a signal directly -- and I will contact you as soon as I may."

She took the device from him and looked at it for a moment before closing her fingers around it and shoving it in her pocket. "You promise?"

He opened his mouth, then closed it, thinking better of yet another admonishment. "Yes, Winifred. I promise."

Then she threw her arms around him again, and he let her, stroking gently at her hair and gazing a little vacantly across the cafe, noting that the man behind the counter was looking studiously away. Ben could only guess what he thought of the gesture.

"Come now," he said after a few moments, attempting to pry her loose -- she resisted for several seconds, then relaxed her grip. "A cab." The clerk jerked his chin toward a phone in the corner, and Ben let Winifred make the call, a pout once again gracing her young face. He stayed with her until the vehicle arrived, permitting her to cling to his arm as well.

"I'll call you for sure," she said when the vehicle arrived, voice fierce. "So you better keep your promise."

He smiled, lifting a hand in farewell as she slipped inside. She didn't look back as the cab pulled away, and he lowered his hand, suddenly and inexplicably weary.

"Kind of hard on her, weren't you?"

"I am hardly someone she should be associating with, Mitch." He looked down at his manager, who had crept into the cafe halfway through the conversation to wait for his chance to give his farewells, Ben suspected.

"Well, it's none of my business." He grinned, running a hand over his very thin hair. "I guess this is it, huh? Gotta find me some new blood."

Ben chuckled. "You are quite capable. I'm sure I'll see your name soon."

"Hah! Not my name, but my fighter's!" He extended his hand, smile becoming more awkward. "See you around, Ben. It was great workin' with ya."

"A pleasure," Ben agreed, taking -- or rather engulfing -- his former manager's hand and giving it a brief shake.

Released, Mitch turned away, lifting his hand again in a wave as he walked slowly up the street. Ben watched him for a moment, weariness growing heavier, then turned in the opposite direction, toward his apartment. He still had packing to do.

  • The Way of Things (3)Benjamin, Fri Nov 13 5:49am
    The old man's voice had grown weak, a bare, rasping whisper that drifted fitfully through the halls of his home, but Ben could still hear him. He rose to his feet from where he had been packing away... more
    • Greener Pastures (4) — Benjamin, Fri Nov 13 5:55am
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