Tate stared at the clean man only inches away. The middle aged waiter swallowed a lump in his throat and forced a smile as he released the back of Tate’s cushioned chair and backed away. Tate smirked as he sat down and dragged his chair across the polished hardwood floor closer to the heavy wooden table.
The dining room was about ten paces wide and five times as long. With nearly every seat filled, there was just enough room for people to walk around the edges of the room comfortably. Tate eyed the fresh, luscious vegetables and meats covering the table’s center. Smells pretty fuckin’ good.
Normally when Tate passed the occupied dining room, someone usually just had the lights turned on. Tonight, candlelight cast dim shadows against the smooth white walls. What’s wrong with the overhead lights? He liked the smell of the candles spaced between dishes, but he wouldn’t admit it.
Megan sat next to Tate, also not allowing the wait staff push her seat in for Tommy or her. Tate grinned when he noticed Tommy’s overwhelmed eyes scan the prepared dishes. Megan kept Angelica cradled to her breast, the mother’s eyes also fiercely examined the food.
Tate swallowed the extra saliva building in his mouth as a clean cut blonde in his thirties entered from the hallway. He wore a slate gray suit and a blue dress shirt unbuttoned just below his collarbone. His blue eyes sparkled in the candlelight as he smiled, “Hello everyone. Tonight’s extra rations have been brought out to celebrate and welcome our four new guests.”
The blonde motioned towards Tate and the rest of the clean guests applauded. Tate smirked despite himself and nodded towards the end of the table, “Thanks dude.”
The apparent host smiled wider at that. “My apologies, I’m afraid I haven’t greeted any new guests for a while. I’m Neal Hamilton, the owner of Wayne Manor, welcome to our home.”
Vamper I assume. “Good to be here.” Tate smiled and looked around at the rest of the table.
The other guests were all clean with tamed hair styles. Facial scars and cautious stares were the only signs that some of these people hadn’t always been this safe. The guests resumed their applause in Tate’s direction, some scoffed, and a few seemed indifferent.
“Enjoy.” Neal gave a slight bow before turning to leave.
Tate blurted, “You’re not eating?”
The table abruptly froze when Neal focused on Tate. The host slowly smiled, “Later.”
Tate watched him leave and was suddenly aware of all the eyes on him. He shrugged, “Just being polite guys.”
Directly across from Tate, a red haired man in his thirties shook his head, “You trying to piss him off or what?”
“Just wanted to see if he’d have a drink with us, or if his ass is too tight to hang out with his cattle.”
The other man smirked as he began carving the cooked bird between Tate and himself. “At least we’re well-treated cattle. Have you ever been in a real leech nest? I’ll take well-fed prisoner over dead, or turned.”
“This place looks plenty safe. Why not take it for ourselves?”
“Kinda hard to fight leeches without sunlight.”
A lady beside the red head elbowed his arm and whispered, “They’re listening.”
The man smiled and called around the room, “Hear that Mercy?” He turned back to the bird, “Oh they know I’m not a threat. Just trying to talk some sense into the boy.”
He winched, “Tate, former chief of the Red Bones.”
“Mike Ford, day shift.” He stuck his fork in the bird and raised his hand for a shake.
Tate wanted to roll his eyes, “Just washed my hands.”
Mike smirked and resumed carving, “Can’t wait till noon.”
Tate’s eyes widened with the punch Mike had thrown into his stomach. The black chain link fence, and the concrete walls beyond were spinning, the overhead heat lamps weren’t helping either. Tate thought he had his balance back, but Mike was already tossing him over his hip.
Beneath the padded mat, there was nothing but concrete. Did I bounce? Mike’s bare foot connected with Tate’s still-cracked ribs and sent the teen rolling. “Fuck!”
Mike was breathing heavy, but still laughed, “Come on chief! Did I break one of your Red Bones?” The older man had taken off his shirt and boots to match Tate for the match. Unlike everyone Tate had ever seen, Mike actually had a measure of body fat that made him look healthy.
Fucker. Tate rolled to his feet and charged across the thirty by thirty foot octagon padding. Mike was a little shorter than Tate, maybe a little heavier as well. Why is he so much faster than me? Tate threw a right jab, but Mike was already out of the way, like he knew where Tate was going.
Mike hammered Tate’s right ribcage, grabbed the young man’s back, and tripped him into the fence. Tate caught himself with his left arm. Before he could turn, his face was grinded into the fence with no chance to break free.
“You’re fast kid. Not sure if I want to fight you fair.”
“Huh?” Tate was whipped back, flipped, and planted in the middle of the ring face down. He grunted with the thud to his ribs.
“We’re done kid.” Mike knelt down with a blue, plastic water bottle with a black lid.
This was the first fight Tate could remember where the winner didn’t rub in the victory. He expected Mike to spit down, kick the ribs some more, or piss on him. Maybe Gonzo wouldn’t hate me so much if I hadn’t pissed on him…
Mike opened the black tip and rolled it in front of Tate’s mouth. “This is from our well, with a little extra kick.”
Tate’s arm flopped up until he squeezed some water into his mouth. He furrowed his brows. What’s the kick? Tastes familiar.
Mike sat down in Tate’s line of vision, drinking from his red water bottle. After a few gulps, he shook the plastic container. “The secret ingredient is leech juice. I heard Gian gave you a pure dose.”
Finishing a gulp with a slight gag reflex, Tate rolled on his side. “Not gonna lie, I feel violated now.”
“Ha, I guess you did get the whole mess.”
“He didn’t even warn me. Just yanked me in and kissed me like I was his bitch.”
“Well, this stuff is a little more refined. Not as effective as a make out session, but it still heals us, makes us faster, stronger and dulls any pain. All that, plus hydration.”
“The full dose gave me wicked cotton mouth. Emptied three canteens when it wore off too.”
“Well the watered down shit’s a calmer ride.” Mike took another swallow and Tate noticed the man wasn’t breathing heavily anymore. “Speaking of a ride—”
“Chicks only dude.”
Mike scoffed with a grin, “Not that kind. I heard you pedaled some serious herb.”
Tate sighed and rolled on his back; the pain in his ribs was beginning to fade already. “Used to. Lost it all… I don’t even know where home is anymore.”
“You know this is your home now, right? Ain’t nothing but a slow death out in the sand. We’re actually making progress here.”
Tate chuckled, his pain was distant. “We’re living in a cave dude. Not even living. We’re just pampered prisoners. And blood donors, almost forgot that part.”
“How long you been here?”
“A day or two. Can’t really go off the sun anymore.”
“Wait till you and your family gets topside. That’s when it makes sense.”
Family. Maybe torturing Deborah together will get Meg’s respect.
Mike must’ve read his face, “Sorry, I should’ve known it was a rough subject.”
Tate rolled his head over the sweaty mat, “Why would you know?”
Mike shrugged, “Only two groups come to Wayne Manor. Big, and small. The leeches bring in bigger groups that are more docile, stable. Like a town the leeches have been in contact with for a while. Smaller groups, now, usually those people just don’t have much of a choice. Four is pretty small.”
“How big was your group?”
Mike broke eye contact and took another swig, “Three. Coulda been five.”
Tate thought Mike was getting lost in old memories, “So when can we go topside?”
Mike snapped his attention back and cleared his throat. “When the leeches say you’re ready.”
“Don’t they mind you calling them that? Gian laughed when I called him vamper.”
“Nah, when you live as long as some of them, it takes more than that to get under their skin.”
A familiar voice echoed through the training room, “Couldn’t have said it better myself.”
Tate sat up, mildly aware of the jolt in his ribcage. Neal Hamilton closed the steel door behind himself and made his way to the octagon’s cage. He still wore the gray suit from earlier. Tate noticed Mike stiffen his shoulders. Easier to trash talk behind their backs, huh?
The blue eyed blonde opened the cage door and stepped inside with polished black dress shoes. He offered a hand to Tate, “Did you make up vamper on your own, or did you learn it from others?”
Tate accepted the lift to his feet, “My dad. He thought it made you guys sound less scary for me.”
Neal smiled and sounded genuinely curious, “Did it work?”
“Well, I’m not shitting my pants like Mike right now.”
Neal smiled even wider and slapped Tate’s shoulder. He pointed to Tate’s face, “I like that.” He then turned to Mike and motioned him to leave, “Need you in the tower Mister Ford.”
Mike jumped up, “Yes sir,” and left.
Neal eyed Tate up and down, “Enjoying your stay?”
“Good food, and you’re letting me torture someone in your basement.”
Neal turned away and began walking around the octagon, running his right fingertips over the fence. “The worst part about spending most of my days in this place is that I don’t get many conversations like this.”
“Oh no, everyone’s honest with me, they know better. No, with you, I’m referring to your lack of fear. It’s refreshing.”
Tate joked, “Getting tired of that worn-out fear smell?”
“Indeed I am.”
Oh. Okay then.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked hard to earn my people’s respect first. Gaining their fear was more of a side effect along the way. I won’t lie, fear seems to be more motivational than respect.”
Did my people respect me?
Neal circled Tate back to the cage door. “Gian recruited you for the day watch, bravery is a requirement. I only ask that you don’t try to spread it too far.”
“What do you mean?”
“You used to be a leader. What kept your people in line?”
Neal chuckled, almost like Gian’s inhaled laughing, except Neal’s sounded more practiced, “That’s complacency. What kept your people from challenging you? What kept them from killing you in your sleep so they could be in charge?”
Tate tried to think. How did Gonzo win the last election? “They followed me, because I was strong. Before they all died, my people voted against me, right when I was at my weakest.”
“Sounds like they stopped being afraid.”
Meg stayed on my side. She was always afraid of me. Still afraid of me.
“Tate, there’s room for you to be a leader again. This time, try going for respect.” Neal stepped out of the cage.
“Wait. You made it sound like fear was better.”
Tate blinked; Neal was instantly inches from his face. Tate’s reflexes made him back away, and he backed into Neal. Tate bounced away, ready to punch. Neal threw Tate against the fence, holding him by his elbows, not letting Tate’s feet touch the floor.
Neal smirked, “Fear is a good motivator,” he let Tate drop to his feet, “but respect comes first. Otherwise we’re just a bunch of animals fighting for scraps.”
Tate felt like his heart was going to jump out of his chest. “I get it.”
“I don’t think you do.” Neal eyed Tate up and down again, “Prove me wrong.”