At any turn, p.18
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       At Any Turn, p.18

         Part #2 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey
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Emilia showed up with Heath, pulling on one of his spare facemasks—which was far too big for her. And she hefted a gun that fit her much better—presumably one that she had purchased for herself. She wore sensible clothing—jeans and long sleeves covered by a denim jacket to protect her from the hard paintballs. Heath had likely informed her how much paintballs could hurt. Even though she was in an old T-shirt and frayed jeans, I couldn’t take my eyes off her—the way the shirt stretched across her breasts, how her jeans hugged her waist, her round ass. That weird white hair was pulled back into a ponytail and capped with a denim hat. Even with the stupid hair, she was hot.

  She didn’t look up as I watched her fiddling to adjust the mask so it would fit her. With a shake of my head and a reminder that I had to get my mind back in the game, I turned my eyes away, checking my equipment and trying to focus on the tasks at hand.

  The rest of our team used rented equipment or spare weapons loaned out from our more serious paintballers. And as a gaming company, we were in no shortage of paintball geeks.

  I was talking to my majors—Heath among them—while we were lotioning up. Fortunately, we were mostly covered—some heavily so, fearing the painful paintballs. As usual, the regulars just wore camo.

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  I was talking with Heath when a gaggle of young interns from marketing approached us. “Adam, are you done with the sunscreen?” one of them asked.

  I had no idea who she was. She was young—probably no older than nineteen or twenty—and had yards of wavy dark blond hair.

  I turned to her, handing her the tube of sunscreen. “Here you go. ”

  Instead she turned and held her masses of blond hair aside. “Can you put some on my neck and back? Please?” She batted her eyes at me flirtatiously over her shoulder. I tried not to scowl, noting she was wearing a fairly skimpy tank top.

  “So you know these things hurt when they hit you, right?” I said, squeezing a blob onto my hand and giving her a cursory rub down on the back of her neck. The minute I did this, three of her friends appeared next to her.

  “My shoulders too, please?” she said. I almost told her I was busy and handed the tube of sunscreen to one of her friends to finish when I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Emilia was watching me with these girls. Intently watching.

  So I finished up on Blondie and turned to her friend, a dark-haired girl with bright blue eyes who looked like Snow White. She smiled at me demurely. “Can you do me, too?”

  Her friend next to her—an impossibly thin, tall young woman—snorted at the innuendo that Snow White had likely purposely dropped on my lap.

  I shot her a devilish grin. “How ’bout you all do each other? I’ll, um…just watch. ”

  Four mouths dropped and they all started giggling at once. I couldn’t resist glancing at Emilia, who now looked incredibly pissed off.

  The fourth girl in line took the tube after her friends were done. “Adam, do you need some on the back of your neck?”

  I grinned. “Got it already. Thanks ladies,” I said, shooting them a mock salute and stepping off past Heath, who snorted at me. I pulled my mask onto my face and watched while Heath walked up to Emilia and they talked in low voices. Emilia sent death looks at the flirty interns a few times but never looked at me.

  Interesting. She was clearly bugged by what she saw. And I would have actually felt badly about it had I done anything to encourage it. I’d once leveraged another woman’s interest in me against Emilia and it had not gone over well. In fact, I’d almost lost her before I pulled my head out of my ass and decided to go after her. I wasn’t inclined to pull another stunt like that again. Not with things so delicate between us.

  I was a little glad to see her irritation, in truth. It was a good sign. She’d said she didn’t want my love life thrown in her face and I had not planned it that way. For once I wasn’t using it to be manipulative. But she had to understand that there were consequences in breaking us up—even if it was just “for now. ” I almost wanted to ask her when “for now” would be over. Maybe then I could tell her I’d go to Maryland with her.

  But I didn’t have time to think about any of that now. We were soon spreading out into formation to begin the games. I called us into positions with a battle shout, “Today is a good day to die,” borrowing the Klingon exhortation from Star Trek.

  We started out easy—one round each of Capture the Flag and King of the Hill. The teams split on these, with us taking the first and Blizzard taking the latter. With this tie, we went into the third confrontation—the “long form” design.

  During our lunch break, there was no end to the taunting and shit-talking. The Blizzard guys, as always, took it good-naturedly, but I think it lit a fire under them that we probably should have tried to keep cold.

  Because the third scenario, based on a mission of gathering information, went long and was grueling. Hours past when it should have been terminated. The day before, each team leader—myself and an officer from Blizzard—had buried a lockbox in our own team’s territory

  The locations of each lockbox were drawn on a map, which was then cut into six different parts and hidden on unmarked team members. Once a map carrier was taken out, he or she was required to surrender that portion of the map to the enemy player. Spies, snipers and guerrilla tactics were needed to get the map pieces off the enemy players while avoiding capture of map pieces by the enemy.

  Once a map had been procured and pieced together, it was only a matter of time to locate the unguarded lockbox. Each one contained the plans for a fully catered theme party for the winning team thrown by the losing team. Tradition was tradition. But Draco was going to win this year instead of footing the bill like in the past.

  An hour past when this whole scenario should have wrapped up, I called all my messengers to me to try and track down our team’s remaining map pieces and to discern what had been captured. At that point, as far as we knew, only two pieces had been procured by the enemy. But I ordered them to reconnoiter while I went to check out one of our heavily-guarded strongholds—an “abandoned shack” that hopefully still housed the player who carried a precious pieces of the map.

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  When I got there, there were no guards outside. All around were telltale remains of splattered paint everywhere. The guards had all been taken out. That’s when I knew we were probably screwed out of this piece of the map. Nevertheless, I decided to check inside just to be sure.

  When I rounded the corner and peered into the darkness, I saw a vague movement and heard a gasp from the corner of the shack. And then the most gut-wrenching, earth-shattering pain exploded from my balls. I doubled over, gasping for breath and almost dropped my weapon. I’d been ambushed by the enemy on my own territory and it had been a low, low blow.

  It was a nut shot and I was about to pay a terrible price for refusing to wear a cup for paintball.

  “Fuck!” I screeched at least an octave higher than my normal voice as I crumpled to my knees, struggling through waves of pain to hold the gun and take aim on my attacker.

  “Don’t shoot!” came a familiar voice out of the shadows. She dropped her gun and got up to pull me inside with her. “I’m sorry. I thought you were another Blizzard person. ”


  “I can’t believe you just shot me in the balls,” I ground out between clenched teeth to keep from crying like a little boy. I probably sounded a lot like a little boy at that point. She must have been really pissed about those flirty interns.

  More likely, she had just aimed and shot without knowing who I was or without even waiting. I assumed she must have been here during the ambush that had taken the guards.

  “The map,” I choked out, fighting the waves of pain still spasming out from my crotch. Fuck it hurt.

  “Adam, I’m so sorry,” she said, reaching up to take off her mask—a big paintball no-no.

  “Don’t ever take off your mask,” I bre
athed, sitting down gingerly next to her. “Or someone will do to your eye what you just did to my nards. ”

  “I still have the map piece, but it was close. They ambushed us and I holed up in here and held them off. But I think they’ll be back. ”

  “Well, thanks to your not-so-friendly fire, our team is now without a general. ”

  “I’m a medic. I can heal you. ” She was a medic. Of course she was. She reached into a belt pack and pulled out a red streamer, which she tied around my left arm—a sign that I had been wounded and then healed by a medic. Only medics carried the red streamers and were allowed to use them. They only had a certain number of them and a person could only be “healed” once.

  “Still not going to help my balls you just shot up. Jesus, I know you’re mad at me, but fuck. ” It still hurt like hell and so I was going to bitch at her about it. Why not? Might as well get some mileage out of it.

  “I can go to the health station and get you an icepack—” she said, standing up.

  I grabbed her arm to keep her there. “No, someone will shoot you and then we’ll be out a medic and a map piece. Besides, do you actually think I’m going to sit here with an icepack on my nuts? Jordan and Heath would never let me hear the end of it. ”

  She sat down beside me with a huff. “I don’t suppose I can do anything to help?”

  I couldn’t resist. “Kiss them better?”

  She picked up her gun.

  “Fuck, don’t shoot them again. I was just kidding. ”

  “No. Someone’s got to cover us. They’ll probably come back if they figure out I’m still here. ”

  “Where is it?”

  “I stuffed it in my bra. ”

  I made a grab for her chest. “Let me see. ”

  She slapped my hand away. “Don’t give me a reason to dish out another nut shot. ”

  I grinned at her and rested my head back on the wall behind me, letting out another groan. It was just sore, now that the majority of the initial bone-wracking agony had faded.

  “I’m not, you know,” she said. I looked at her, waiting for her to continue. “I’m not mad at you,” she clarified.

  “Really. You shot my junk for fun?”

  She laughed. “You know full well I didn’t know it was you. ”

  “I thought you were pissed about the interns,” I blurted. Hell, if she wasn’t going to bring it up, I would. I wanted to know what had been going through her mind when those girls had clustered together and wanted me to put lotion on them.

  “What about the interns?” she sidestepped.

  “Oh, I dunno, something about rubbing them up with lotion. ”

  “You missed a great opportunity there. A couple of them are really pretty. ”

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  I shrugged. “I hadn’t noticed. ”

  “Liar. ”

  I didn’t say anything for a minute, checked the setting on my gun. I think I was most disturbed by the fact that she didn’t seem to care. But I’d seen that look on her face and I knew what it had meant.

  “Yeah, they were hot. Maybe I should ask one of them out. Or maybe more than one. They seem willing to share. ”

  Silence. I chanced a glance at her and she seemed to be staring off into space. She turned toward me, then jerked her gun up and aimed past me. “Duck!” she screamed and shot out the doorway at the player who had just appeared there. Orange paint splattered his midsection.

  I brought my gun around and pointed it at him. He raised his hands. “I’m dead. Back to base. ”

  I stood up and watched him go, limping to the doorway and glancing around to make sure he’d been alone. He was.

  “I noticed you didn’t shoot him in the balls. Maybe because the interns didn’t flirt with him?”

  She waved her gun menacingly. “No more talking about the interns or I’ll undo my good deed as medic. ”

  I rubbed at the vicinity of the soreness, blatantly adjusting myself. “Just because you don’t want to use those parts anymore doesn’t mean someone else isn’t interested. ”

  The smile immediately dropped off her face.

  “We should get you out of here and back to headquarters,” she said. She reached into her shirt and pulled out the folded-up portion of the map. “Should I give this to you?”

  I took the map from her. It was warm and damp with her perspiration. “You know that part in Return of the Jedi where Han and Leia are trying to break into the bunker and Leia’s injured, but she ends up covering for Han? This is kind of like that. ”

  “Except Leia didn’t shoot Han in the nuts,” she said. “Besides, you are the one who’s injured, so wouldn’t that make you Leia and me Han?”

  “Well, you are like Han in that you shoot first and ask questions later. ”

  “I don’t recall Han Solo blowing anyone’s balls off. ”

  I laughed. “Let’s go back to headquarters. I need to check in and see if we’ve made any progress on the enemy’s map. I think I can walk now. ”

  The game had dragged on and because of what we thought would make an awesome scenario, we ran into a stalemate instead. Blizzard’s guys called it first, fortunately. After much deliberation—we had more map pieces than they did, after all—we decided to call a draw. It wasn’t the great victory we’d been anticipating, but at least we weren’t humiliated by them, either.

  As we were packing up our equipment, I went over and thanked Heath for his excellent leadership on the sniper team. But he was distracted with a text on his phone.

  He finally jerked a head in my direction. “Oh, hey man, sorry. I’m kind of annoyed because this game went so late and Connor left me a text message wanting to get together. ”

  I thought about that for a moment and immediately saw an opportunity. Things had been easier, more open between me and Emilia today. And if I played this right, I might be able to angle more time with her tonight.

  “Why not just clean up from here and go meet him somewhere?” I asked.

  Heath made a face. “Can’t. Gotta run Mia home and I’m sure she wants to go to the dinner with everyone first. ”

  I tilted my head, considering—as if I hadn’t already anticipated exactly what he had just told me. “Well, I’ve got this, then. Why not just let her go to the dinner and I’ll give her a ride home?”

  Heath eyed me for a minute, so I pulled out my phone and looked at it to make this all look more casual instead of orchestrated. I was pretty sure he was on to me despite my act.

  “Would Mia be okay with that?” Heath said.

  I shrugged. “I dunno…ask her. ”

  Heath nodded and went to talk to Emilia who, apparently, was okay with it.

  Heath took off. We finished packing up, showered and changed in the locker rooms. Afterward, we ate at a local restaurant, a massive joint dinner where the teams got to mingle and razz each other. Much fun was had by all. Or at least I hoped so. The employees had been worked pretty hard in preparation for DracoCon and would be worked even harder until the convention was over. I hoped they’d enjoyed this brief respite. Either way, all the hard work would be done before the holidays, to the relief of everyone involved.

  Emilia was quiet most of the way to Heath’s apartment—I refused to think of that place as her home. And I was also thinking that this little plan of mine might end up being a bust until she finally started talking.

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  “How are you feeling?” she asked when we were almost there.

  “Fine. ”

  “You aren’t—sore?”

  I tossed her a quick look as I downshifted. “Oh, you mean due to your attempt to maim me and ensure I’ll never father children?”

  Her lips twisted into a wry smile as I slowed and pulled into the parking lot at Heath’s complex and killed the engine. “You know I could make an ice pack for you. If you want to come in, that is. ”

  I hesitated. Oh, this was going bette
r than I’d even dreamed when I’d gotten the idea. She was actually asking me in. I thought at best maybe we’d chat for a bit in the car before she got out. Maybe even a good-night kiss.

  I really had no desire to stick ice on my boys—none at all. They were still a little sore, but not enough to warrant an ice pack. But it would be worth it to ice my crotch if it meant spending time with her alone. Any time alone. Even if we just sat on the couch and watched reruns of Doctor Who. The ice pack was a small price to pay for that, I decided.

  “That might help,” I lied. I’d put it on for five minutes, maybe, and then dump it.

  And even as I followed her into the apartment, I began to wonder what the heck was going on in that bleached-white head of hers. I settled in on the couch and she came from the kitchen with a gallon-sized plastic bag full of ice cubes. It was way too much. I swallowed my pride and settled it on my crotch and waited. She seemed at a loss for what to do, so I scooted aside on the couch and she sat down beside me, as I’d hoped she would.

  She bent to grab Heath’s TV remote. He had a fairly good-sized plasma screen and a decent sound system. It wouldn’t be a punishment to watch old reruns on it—especially if it meant I got to sit with Emilia. She hesitated, fiddling with the remote. She wanted to talk, I could tell, but I was going to fight every urge inside of me to take over the situation. I’d orchestrated this setup, sure, but now I was going to sit back and let her drive this where she wanted it to go.

  She gave her head a toss—flicking that strange hair over her shoulder. I didn’t take my eyes off of her; couldn’t, really. Even with that ridiculous white hair, she was still the most beautiful woman in the world to me.

  “You were wrong today, you know…about—about my not being interested in those parts. ”

  I suppressed the urge to sigh in frustration. But I stayed silent. Without a word, I pulled the ice off my crotch and set it on the ground beside the couch, laying it on a towel she had given me. She watched me and continued to fiddle with the remote.

  “Are you going to leave now?” she asked in a quiet voice.

  I watched her carefully, scared I might startle her away. When I spoke, I kept my voice quiet. “Do you want me to?”

  She cleared her throat, her eyes avoiding mine. “I don’t know what I want,” she said in a trembling voice. She wasn’t talking about my going or staying.

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