Author's Notes: Happy early Valentine's Day, everyone! So, after finally hauling butt, I was able to get out the romance piece I wanted to write for Metal Navy's Romance Challenge! So, we open now on the fabulous, romantic plane of Kaladesh: a world where anything is possible, and innovation and hope are always to be found. As always, I do not own the fantastic worldbuilding or characters of Magic: The Gathering. They belong to Wizards of the Coast. Enjoy!
The mechanical snake had wound around the leg of the hulking automaton in the arena and squeezed with all its might. The automaton's knee buckled, its balance now off. The serpent's inventor, a very excitable elf, pumped her fist in the air, glad to have this small victory over her opponent.
Haroun shook his head. Enjoy it while you can, lifecrafter, he thought. Scrappers don't go down that easily. Plus, he knew Vatti, or Shadowblayde, or whatever her new name of the week was. She truly was a gifted quicksmither, if she'd only pay attention for more than ten minutes at a time. Her lifecrafted designs were remarkable, but just needed a little improvement.
"You were supposed to be back at the inquirium an hour ago," a voice said behind him.
Mitul was standing behind him, with a rather impatient look on his face. His arms were crossed, and he was tapping his foot, waiting for a response from Haroun. "So, fights ran a little late. I'm up next, so I'll be back in a few."
The otherwise incredibly smooth, blue skin of Mitul's forehead wrinkled. It was not a good look for him. "You're just lucky Rashmi hasn't noticed your absence yet," the shorter of the two vedalken men said. "She's been very busy with her new adjustments to the matter transporter, which you should be helping with. Need I remind you who helped you get your position at the inquirium? Most people would kill for an opportunity to work in Rashmi's sanctum."
It was true: he owed his place in Rashmi's inquirium at the Aetherological Society to Mitul, his clademate. They were practically brothers, and yes, sometimes Haroun did take advantage of his kindness. Then again, Mitul worried too much.
"Rashmi's elbow-deep in filaments right now. She'll never know we were even gon."
He shook his head. "Why does this matter so much to you?
The automaton had taken ahold of Vatti's serpent and snapped its wooden spine in half. He admired elves' insistence in incorporating natural elements into their creations, but it left the door open to too many potential flaws.
He turned his attention back to Mitul. "It's against Unnati," he said.
"What is it with you and this foolish rivalry?"
Haroun hardly listened, instead looking to the far end of the waiting room. Unnati was busy adjusting her leather gloves. She had accidentally cut herself so many times on her creations, they had become a necessity. She was a talented artist, but lacked the finesse to be a genuinely good quicksmither. She didn't even belong here.
Still, she could draw a crowd, though he couldn't fathom why. She lived that on-the-edge renegade lifestyle that people so idly romanticized. She was part of the Metal Spinners, an was known for her avant garde sculptures, which did raise quite a few eyebrows when they mysteriously appeared on consulate grounds. And that wasn't the only thing raising eyebrows. He had to admit that, for a human anyway, she did have the smoldering, yet rough appearance, of all the great renegade heroes.
His thoughts were interrupted when Vatti clapped him on the shoulder. "You're up next," she said, grinning from ear to ear, despite the layer of soot which now covered her face.
"What happened to you?" he asked, realizing he had missed the end of her fight.
Her smile never faded. He had to admire the youthfulness of elves. "It was amazing! So, after his automaton snapped the spine, it moved for a bit, and wriggled out. So, then I made one last strike at its legs and one came off. Smoke everywhere!"
He raised an eyebrow. "So, you won?"
"No, of course not. He smashed me to bits after that. But it was so cool!"
That was one reason why crowds liked seeing Vatti in the arena: she always had fun, no matter what. "Charming as that may be," Haroun told her, "next time, go for the core. Gopesh always makes his creations too limb-heavy, leaving the core vulnerable. You'd think he'd protect the power source better."
"Just can't keep your nose out of other's business, can you?" a voice said.
Unnati had finally finished getting ready and was standing before him. She already had that look of disdain and pity, as if he were a pathetic excuse for an opponent.
"Merely making suggestions," Haroun said, stiffening. "Some, more than others, take that advice to improve their craft."
She rolled her eyes. "If you're going to start that again…"
He held up his arm, which had a few small, white scars. "I know that if you had just welded your ligaments together for one point twelve seconds more, this wouldn't have happened," he began to lecture.
"Oh, poor baby got a few scratches. And are we sure that's the only reason. Maybe in those seconds, you could've had your work finished that much sooner, and you would've had me beat."
"Listen here, you…"
"Please, please," the dwarf who had been announcing the matches said, "save it for the match, eh?"
The two sighed and switched to cold silence between them. Their rivalry had become well-known among the quicksmithing circles, and did draw in a few crowds.
"Heh, even Consul Padeem's here this time," the dwarf continued, nudging Haroun. "I even here she's got her money on you."
Haroun smirked at the scowling Unnati. Rather high praise, he thought, when Consul Padeem, who had a secret interest in the quicksmithing fights, thought him that worthy.
"The Consul's going to have to learn not to lose so much money in the arenas," Unnati said, adjusting her goggles.
The dwarf got a big toothy grin. "That's the spirit! Alright, let's give them a good show, eh?"
Show nothing. He was going to take absolute pleasure in showing them what flawed work she sent out there.
"A bench-clearing brawl," Mitul tisked as he helped bandage Haroun's hand, "now that's good sportsmanship."
"Hey, I didn't throw the first punch. Unnati brought my mother into it, and that big oaf, Gopesh thought I was talking about him when I rebuttaled. If anything, I'm the victim here."
Mitul rolled his eyes as he finished bandaging him up. "I'm sure. Unfortunately, the fun's over. We're heading back to the inquirium, now."
He grabbed his friend by the arm and started to march him back out. Unnati was there waiting for them at the exit. "So long, boys," she said. "It's been fun, really it has. Next time, Haroun, don't be such a sore loser."
Haroun suppressed a growl and reluctantly followed Mitul out.
"Haroun, darling, it's so good to see you," Yahenni greeted. "Where's Rashmi?"
From time to time, members of Rashmi's group were invited to the famous parties thrown by the aetherborn philanthropist. After all, Yahenni did personally finance some of Rashmi's projects. So, to put on a good face and thank their benefactor, they went. Not that Haroun complained. Yahenni's parties were legendary, and no one could turn down free food.
"You know her," he said with a shrug. "Once she's got her head in a project, no one sees her for months."
They shook their head, and Haroun noticed that the aetherborn's dermis was starting to crack a little bit. He felt a little sorry for their race: living only a few short years. Still, if they ever hated it, they put on a pretty good face of enjoying life to the fullest with all their parties.
"Typical. You'll have to tell her that she's going to have to come to one of these parties soon, preferably before my penultimate party. I hate to think of her stuck up there every day. Plus, I fund that elf's projects. She really needs to come visit."
Haroun gulped. "I'll uh, try to tell her. She'll probably forget though. So, what's the occasion?"
Yahenni laughed. "Do I really need one? I can't have a party just for fun? Oh, there you are, darling!"
The aetherborn was waving to the last person Haroun wanted to see right now. Unnati sauntered up to them, a knowing smirk on her face. Oh, he hated that arrogance!
Like most aetherborn, Yahenni easily read the emotions between them. They grinned, or at least the aether under their dermis moved into what passed for a smile. "Oh, yes, I heard about your last kerfuffle in the arena. Hm, you two make one hell of a show out there. Sad really, to see it all end."
"End?" Haroun asked, clearly puzzled.
"Oh? You haven't heard? Yahenni looked to Unnati and then back to him. "Why, Unnati is being moved to a new division of quicksmithers. Your fight next week will be your last appearance together. Shame. You two filled a lot of seats."
"What?" he asked incredulously.
"Oh, can't stand the thought of not having me around to criticize anymore? I thought you of all people would be glad, Haroun. At least, I'm happy I don't have to see your smug face anymore."
He gritted his teeth, ready to spew out some hot-headed rebuttal. Yahenni intervened. "Please, please, you'd have to give me a chance to sell tickets first if you're going to fight during my party," they said with a chuckle before they called, greeting the next guest. "Depala, darling!"
Haroun sidled up to Unnati. "Why didn't you tell me?" he hissed.
She casually took a sip from her drink. "I didn't think I had to share my private affairs with you. You're not my mother, you know."
"Yes, but…but…" He could not think of some remark to throw back. Instead, he could only ask more questions in disbelief. "So, what are they moving you to?"
She rolled her eyes. "Well, sorry to disappoint, but they wanted to move me up in the divisions, not down. I'll be fighting at level two."
It seemed that the more frustrated he got, the more his arms gestured wildly. "But some of those inventors would tear you to shreds. Have you seen some of them? Your problems with counterweight alone leave you open to their easiest attacks."
"I appreciate your vote of confidence."
"Look, you just…can't leave."
That seemed to get her to react with something other than her usual sarcasm. "Really? And why not?"
Haroun fumbled with his words. He just could not voice what it was he was thinking. He did not even know why himself. He was about to say it was because he needed her, but that did not sound right. Where had that thought come from?
"Whatever, I don't know why I bothered telling you anyway," she said, leaving him stuttering. "Not like it makes all that much difference to you."
Haroun was not sure what to make of all this. In the span of only a few minutes, it felt as though his whole world had changed. What was he to do now? In truth, he figured he would not know that answer until his last battle with her.
When the day finally came for the last battle between Haroun and Unnati, the thunderous applause of the crowds sounded more like death knolls. It was the end, he thought, the end of something that had been such a big part of his life.
"Well, after this, we won't have to look at each other's ugly mugs, eh?" Unnati said, clapping him on the shoulder. "Got any last insults to throw, you know, for old time's sake?"
He shook his head. "The lower balance on your automaton is a little off," he said with a sigh.
"That's it? Nothing else?"
His shoulders sagged. "Let's just get this over with."
For once, she had no witty comeback to say to him. He looked too sad for anymore insults. She actually felt sorry for him.
Still, he gave it his all in the fight. It was going to be a last performance people would talk about. Blow for blow, he was on fire, but she always brought the heat. Her multi-limbed automaton whipped around the arena, outdoing Haroun's bulky contraption in speed easily. But, he had her in defenses.
Unnati was getting close, though. She was about to strike a fatal blow when a voice shouted. "Consulate! Scatter!"
Always, when it was getting good, the consulate had to come and ruin the fun. Haroun grabbed her wrist, dodging the haphazard movements of their automata, running without controllers. They dashed out of the arena just as big, hulking police automata and guards burst onto the scene.
That did not mean they were in the clear just yet. The consulate would spread out for several blocks, rounding up any stragglers. Haroun led the way, taking various turns and twists to avoid being seen. At first, she thought he was just making random turns to confuse them, but she knew Haroun better than that.
He eventually came to a stop in the middle of an alley, catching his breath. "This area is a blindspot to their automata," he said between breaths. "They've never fixed this error."
"Good for us then," Unnati replied.
He nodded. "one of the benefits of noticing flaws in other's work. But we've got to keep moving. The consulate officials themselves might go poking around."
She smiled wickedly. "Not when they've got other distractions to worry about."
She pulled a small device from her sari and chucked it into the sky. It exploded into an artistic display of fireworks several blocks away. Haroun's jaw dropped. "Wow!"
"Not bad for someone who only knows how to make stuff look good, eh? Come on!"
The two climbed to the top of a nearby home, knowing that the consulate guards would not be sending prying eyes this far after them. Unnati looked to Haroun. "It was pretty cool what you did back there," she said quietly, "knowing where the consulate would look and stuff."
"Are you kidding? Those fireworks, that was brilliant! Incredibly reckless, but brilliant."
They were silent, just standing there, letting the aether whip through their hair. "So, you really didn't want me to leave the division?" she asked.
Haroun crossed his arms. "I never said that. I just think it's impractical. I mean, you barely…"
"Oh, just shut up, already," she said.
Unnati grabbed Haroun by the shirt collar and kissed him. At first, he felt a lot of things: his stomach turning in knots, his ears getting warm, a need to pull back. But then, he changed his mind. It was like a pressure valve being released. In that moment, he wanted nothing more than to be here right now with her.
She stepped back from him, not quite ready to meet his eyes. "I didn't want to go either," she said.
"Really? Why?" Haroun was still in a daze.
She laughed. "Are you really that dense? It's 'cause I like you, duh!"
He began to stutter. "L-like me? Really?"
She nodded. "Sure, you have your annoying habits, and you are a pain in my ass sometimes, but sometimes, you're right. You…kinda bring out my best work. If I don't have you, then I don't feel a need to try."
"I guess you kind of bring out the best in me too. Always trying to one-up you has always given me inspiration." He paused, his blue cheeks turning a light shade of violet. "And, uh…I like you too."
They both smiled, not wishing to say anymore. Everything they had been holding back from each other had come out of one single action.
Several weeks later, Haroun and Unnati were back in the ring. Unnati had ended up refusing her promotion, arguing she wouldn't go until her favorite rival went with her. Since then, the two had been inseparable, always improving each other's projects. Unnati had even given Haroun a few lessons in metal spinning, and Haroun had let her tour Rashmi's inquirium to get a few tips on her work.
"Watch that counterbalance," Haroun said. "You really should have gone with the bronze fitting."
"They were sold out, no thanks to you," Unnati said, adjusting her goggles. "Besides, I think the gold-plated makes it look nice."
He rolled his eyes, shaking his head. Some things never changed.
"Oh, and no hard feelings when I call you a gremlin spawn. It's just arena talk, you know," Unnati said, kissing him on the cheek.
"Of course, now let's give 'em the show they came here for."
Author's Special Note: Just a special notice I'm placing at the end of all my MTG stories. Please remember to support your favorite MTG fanfic authors with kudos, follows, favorites, and yes, reviews. Hasbro and WotC may not always know how to treat MTG's vast story all the time, but we really do try hard to continuously bring you free MTG content that we feel fits the wonderful stories best.