The Best Seat
The line stretched around the block. Mark had come prepared - he had a collapsible chair and a bag with some snacks and canned drinks. Others with less foresight watched him with envy, and he enjoyed a moment of smugness. It was rare that he actually had a chance to come in ahead of someone else. Tonight, though... tonight was his victory. It had taken nearly he had available, but he'd managed to get prime front row tickets. He'd be close enough to the action to nearly reach out and touch the D-Wheelers as they drove by. And this wouldn't be just any tournament, either. The headliner tonight was none other than Jack Atlas himself. Getting to see him dueling live and up close was an event to be celebrated.
Mark was feeling quite pleased with himself as the line inched along. Up and down the street, holograph screens were showing clips from the previous duels of the tournament's contestants, providing some entertainment for the people forced to wait in line for hours on end. Mark had watched them for a while, but after the tenth or twelfth repeat, he'd started amusing himself by watching the people in line with him instead, trying to guess who they were, who they'd come to root for, and where they'd be sitting.
Take the man standing behind him, for example. Now, there was the living image of a hayseed come to the big city. His hair had clearly not seen a pair of scissors in quite a long time, falling in uneven locks well past his shoulders. He was wearing a long, dusty coat, clearly much worn, fraying around the edges. Oddly, he had a harmonica on a string around his neck. Most remarkably, he had a criminal marker running down the right side of his face from hairline to chin. He didn't look like he was about to cause any trouble, though. He was just standing there, gazing off into space with a dreamy sort of expression. Probably not any sort of big-time criminal, or they never would have allowed him out. The state of his hands suggested he spent a lot of time doing manual labor; they were rough and callused, and there was dirt under his nails. Ex-con, then. Probably come out to the wild west to make a new life for himself, Mark decided.
"So, where are you from?" Mark asked him casually.
The man's amber eyes snapped back into focus.
"Oh. Satisfaction Town."
Mark frowned a moment, thinking. "The mining town?"
Mark preened inwardly, pleased that his guess had been right. So this was a laborer, a miner taking a break from his dreary toil to enjoy a show in the big city. It made sense. A man with a criminal mark wasn't ever going to get a decent-paying job. Poor sod - he'd probably had to go without dinner to afford even a seat in the far back row for a prestigious duel like this one.
"Got a good seat?" Mark asked him.
"Cheapest in the house, probably," the man answered with a faint smile, "but it should be good enough for me."
"I don't mind saying, I got pretty lucky," said Mark. "I've got front row seats - the best view in the house."
"That was fortunate."
Mark felt his satisfaction fading. He couldn't see a trace of envy in his companion's face. It didn't seem to matter to him that he would be watching the show from so high up he'd probably get a nosebleed from it. What was the point of wiping out his savings for a front row seat if not even this hick from the sticks was impressed by it?
"Well, you know," said Mark, "I have a few inside connections. I know one of the duelists."
The man raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
"Oh, yeah," said Mark, pleased to have made an impression. Sure, it wasn't the truth, but how was this bumpkin ever going to know the difference? Having hit on a story that had finally gotten the reaction he wanted, Mark decided to embroider a bit. "Fact is, I used to know Jack Atlus."
"Impressive," said the man. He looked genuinely interested now. Mark suppressed a smirk. Some people were so easy to fool.
"Oh, yeah," said Mark. "We were good buddies, back in the day. Grew up together."
"Yeah, and you can believe he hasn't forgotten me," said Mark. "We still get together whenever he's in town."
"That must be nice."
"Better believe it," said Mark, warming to his subject. "He always treats me to a good dinner and drinks when we meet up. The best place in town. Heck, if anyone can afford it, he can!"
"I'm sure he can," said the man. "It would sure be nice if I could afford to live like that. I guess some people are just luckier than others."
"You got that right!" Mark agreed. "He's even let me borrow that D-Wheel of his a couple of times. You know, to impress dates and stuff."
"That isan honor."
"Yep," said Mike. "It's like they say - it's all about who you know."
"You're lucky to have such a good friend," the man replied.
As they had chatted, the line had been moving them steadily towards the ticket booth. Mark packed up his folding chair and tossed his snack wrappers into a nearby can before sauntering up to the counter and presenting his ticket.
"Ooh, front row center," said the woman at the window. "It doesn't get much better than that, does it?"
Mark agreed that it didn't. After his ticket had been torn, he lingered in the lobby, pretending to be contemplating the displays of concessions and souvenirs, but really watching his erstwhile companion. He wanted to have the satisfaction of watching him from the comfort of his prime seat while the other man slogged his way to the top of the stadium.
"May I see your ticket, sir?" the ticket-taker asked.
In response, the man took out a ticket and laid it calmly on the counter. It looked quite different from the one Mark had used.
"Oooh," said the woman. "VIP box seat and backstage pass! Kiryu Kiyosuke, right? We've been expecting you. One moment..."
She picked up a phone and started talking to someone. Mark stared in disbelief. He stormed over to Kiryu.
"You said you had the cheapest seat in the house!" he exclaimed.
"Well, in a sense," Kiryu replied. "I didn't pay anything for it, and you can't get much cheaper than free."
Mark narrowed his eyes. "What did you do? Win a contest or something?"
Kiryu smiled at him. "No. It's like you said - it's all about who you know. Oh, and, a word of advice?"
"What?" asked Mark suspiciously.
"Learn to lie convincingly," said Kiryu. "Jack Atlas never lets anyone touch his D-Wheel."
"Huh?" said Mark. "What would you know about..."
There was a commotion. Then, striding down the hall came Jack Atlas himself. Female onlookers squealed in excitement; men nudged each other's shoulders and pointed. Jack ignored all of them, marching straight up to Kiryu's side.
"You made it," he said. "I wasn't sure you would."
"Couldn't turn down an invitation from one of my oldest friends," said Kiryu, smiling. "First class seats didn't hurt, either."
"You're treating for dinner later."
Kiryu laughed. "I knew there was a catch. Can't the King pay for his own meals?"
"He can," said Jack, "but you're treating anyway, to congratulate me for winning."
"You haven't won yet," Kiryu pointed out.
Jack smirked. "Yet. Come on. There's some time to kill - I'll show you where the VIP box is."
He started to walk away, came face to face with Mark, then stopped. He looked back over his shoulder.
"Do you know who this person is?" he demanded.
Kiryu shrugged. "Oh, just some guy."
"I figured," said Jack. "Out of our way. We have places to be."
And then he and Kiryu swept past him.
"You'll like how they've fitted out the box," Jack was saying. "There's a bar. You might want a stiff drink after you see how badly some of my competition plays..."
They disappeared through a side door. Mark continued to stare. Then he looked down at his ticket and sighed. He tried to rally himself: he might not have a VIP ticket, but he still had good seats. He should try to put the whole incident out of his mind and just enjoy the duel.
A few minutes later, he'd found his seat: front row, center, exactly as promised. He sat down and gazed across the dueling track. Straight across from him, on the other side of the field, was a boxlike structure with large windows of one-way glass. It was the private box, where just now Kiryu was probably kicking back in the air conditioning and enjoying a drink while he waited for the show to start. That was going to be his view, Mark realized, for the entire tournament.
He knew right then that he had the worst seat in the house.