2307: Killing Us

Posted: April 26, 2009 by Kelly in deathmatching, league, stories

Have heart my dear
We’re bound to be afraid
Even if it’s just for a few days
Making up for all this mess
~Snow Patrol, “Run”

Killing Us

The dream ended in tears.

Lannie’s tears, to be precise. I heard her sobs the moment I entered our apartment.
It was a gorgeous spring morning, the daylight was still pink-and-orange with sunrise and there seemed to be no one on the streets as I walked the short distance from the pod to our flat. The weather was dry enough that my knee was not aching for once and I’d had a pretty good night shift, so I came home in a relatively good mood.

Things had been looking up for us lately, after Lannie’d had her victories first in the Rookie Euroleague and then the World League. We were planning our marriage and maybe even a small honeymoon, delirious with the sheer sensation of our money problems finally being over. We’d managed to pay off the debts that had been killing us. Every moment I woke up, I thought I had been dreaming and it was not true after all – but it was, and the feeling was as wonderful as it was surreal.

But then I walked through the front door and I knew it was all over. The dream had lasted all but a week and a half. We were to be married in a month. I stood in the door opening of the living room and found her in a heap on the couch, crying heartbrokenly. From the disheveled state she was in, I gathered that she’d been at this for several hours now.

And somehow I knew. In that split second before I ran through the room and took her in my arms, I knew.

“I’m so sorry,” she choked out, burying her face in my neck. I could feel her tears wet against my skin. I held her tightly and didn’t ask. I didn’t need words to know what had happened. In the years, we’d had enough of these kinds of scenes. Arguments, screaming, blame, racking guilt… but above all, the addiction. It had loomed over us since we’d gotten together, like a ghost. It was so strong and overpoweringly present that at times I’d thought that we should just split up, that we were dragging each other down in a downward spiral we couldn’t get out of. Still, despite everything we loved one another fiercely, more than even the addiction. And we understood one another. By now we carried enough guilt towards one another that the blame game didn’t even apply to us.

I should have been outraged, I should have been screaming at her. We’d finally/finally/ been in the clear. The nightmare had been finally over, we had stopped our gambling. And now this? But all I felt was a numbness. It had been too good to be true anyway, too unreal to ever have a chance on existing. And on a deeper, more base level, I was perhaps a little glad that it wasn’t me who had destroyed our dream.

“I didn’t mean to,” Lannie sobbed against my neck. She was limp and heavy with exhaustion, heavily leaning onto me. “I wanted to- oh God, I wanted to give you a gift and I blew it all… I’m so fucking stupid… I ruined it all…”

It all started with how we met – in a betting station. I was interviewing for a job after the company I used to work for had abruptly gone bankrupt and we were all laid off with about ten minutes notice. Since I was a frequent visitor of the betting station, I thought I’d give it a shot. After all, I had enough knowledge of the subject – I had worked in real estate, so I knew all about flows of money and how to manipulate them.

I got the job, mostly because I was friendly already with the guys who interviewed me. And there Lannie was. She had purple hair back then, a brilliant hue of violet that she accentuated in her choice of clothing. I thought she was radiant and flirted with her, until I found out that she was the girlfriend of one of the other employees. But as things go, she and I ended up in bed together.
We were madly in love. She was cute, sweet, funny, but also tough and independent. The two of us shared a passion for athletics and shooting games, as well. We would lie in bed after steamy sex on a hot summer evening with all windows open and the fan blowing, and think about what it would be like to participate in the League, instead of staying up all night to watch legendary League matches. It was just dreams. If one would have told us back then where we would end up, we would have laughed… we were so young and naive.

We pulled all-nighters at the betting station, biting our nails during League matches, laying in our own money on competitors. Our finances took huge hits and got immense boosts. It got so far that we lost so much money that we were kicked out of our apartment and lived in my car for a while. That’s how bad things got. Then a few weeks later we earned the money back in another match, but it was always a thrill how bad it could be, or how good.

The most money we ever won was during the now legendary Li-Nguyen match in the Asia League in ‘03. That was the best moment we ever had, and the highest amount. We threw a wild party with the prize money (nearly spent half of it on one big drugged and boozed up haze, but it was worth every penny). We lost the rest of it during the next match, but the delirious happiness stayed with us anyway. But then the debts started accumulating, and suddenly we found ourselves with a sinking boat that we didn’t know how to keep afloat anymore.

We started training in earnest in a last-ditch effort to maybe make some money in participating in the Fortress, and later the League… if that would work. We practiced with shock rifles and found that we were both good shots – Lannie even a bit better than me. I had more strategical insight than she did on top of a lot of mock combat experience in lasergames and paintball, though, so we decided that I would enter the prelims for the Fortress. It would be a last ditch effort, though – we hoped it would never get to that point. But then of course it did.

We bet it all on the Stateleague of 2304; the one that Valentina Marin won against all odds, AGAIN. We thought that Valentina’s luck would have to run out at some point. Her competition that year was shaping up to be good; there were some real terrors in the Fortress at that point… and we thought she just would trip this time. We thought her fire she was so famous for, would burn out. The only thing it did was burning our money.

Things were earnestly going wrong now. Lannie and I took to the city arena and had a shoot out to determine which one of us would sign up for the Fortress. It turned out to be me; I wiped the floor with her that day. I was just so determined. I got immediately scouted by a sponsor that day as well; someone video’d our match.

I managed to get into bootcamp for the Fortress the very next season. Lannie agonised a lot over the fact that I could die in the Fortress or the League, but I told her that I’d be fine. I didn’t want to die, I had something to live for, I told her. I loved her so much, that I wanted to make it all right again. It was a simple fact that the prize money was higher if you had a chance to die in the Game, so thus I had to go for the more dangerous games.

I dominated bootcamp. I was the absolute favourite… and then on the last day of training, there was an accident. A gun that was supposed to shoot blanks shot true. And I remember so well Saxa complaining that her weapon felt weird, but the blanks made /all/ of our weapons slightly unbalanced, so we didn’t pay much attention to it. The moment she loosed the shot, I knew immediately what was wrong. She’d had me pinned, too; the only one in bootcamp who even /could/ take me in a one-on-one fight. I whirled myself out of the way and off a platform, but I was too late.

I hit my head against a wall and never felt how my knee was completely shot to shit. I woke up in the hospital, with Lannie sitting next to my bed. She was wide-eyed and quiet, her blue eyes bloodshot with too little sleep.

It turned out to be sabotage. Saxa’s weapon had been tampered with by one of the trainers who would have rather see her protegee win. This way, Saxa and I were both out of the equation. For the duration of the game, she was disqualified… and I would never fight again. The Corporation, even though they were not liable (their lawyers made that very clear) paid for all of the hospital bills. I even got a nice sum of money to not sell my story to the press. And that was it.

Lannie and I were right back where we started; the money was gone soon enough and I was too invalid to participate the next year like Saxa did. You need your knee to turn, to jump, to walk, to run. I couldn’t do that anymore, not in the way I used and needed to.

It scared the living shit out of us; the very real concept I could have died. We decided Lannie wouldn’t enter the Fortress, then. She’d go for the finals in the Rookie League. It was now all up to her, she would be our only source of substantial income. I loved her for her determination, for her courage. When Lannie wanted something really badly, she would get it. I’d fought for money, back then, but she fought so much harder, so much dirtier than I ever could. She worked out day and night, read up on all literature there would be… but most of all, she was great with the media. Because the media noticed her. Our story had a certain sense of tragedy to it, and they loved it.

As she fought her way through several amateur leagues, money started trickling in. She gained sponsors, media attention. I did all of her secretary work, coached her during her exercises and fitness. I massaged her long hours after training sessions and matches, I pored over battle strategies with her. I tried to help her as much as I could. She gratefully let me do it, but I felt that it was never enough, it was never what had to be done. I should have been the one in there, talented as she might be. I was supposed to be the better one, the favourite in Fortress bootcamp. And now with training she was the better of us, the faster one, the /useful/ one, but I felt a horrible partner to her that I let her get out there.

She never complained, though. She even relished in it, in the fans, the media attention.

Sometimes we’d lay in bed at night, cuddled up, and she would say in the darkness: “Maybe this is was meant to be for me. Maybe I was born for this…”

I loved her too much to refute. She /was/ brilliant in the Arena, truly. Despite her holes in her game strategy, she had stats that would put several League champions to shame. She was lucky, too. “All the luck I don’t have in money, I do have in the Game,” she would laugh. But after that, we started to have luck in both. First there was sponsor money, but then bits and pieces of prize money started coming in. And by smart betting (I always bet on my Lannie/always/) we were able to double, triple, or quadruple the prize money. Suddenly we were paying off debts, filling holes in our sinking ship.

And then Lannie qualified for the Rookie Euro League and wonder of wonders, she /won/. She was magnificent. That’s when the media circus truly began. One day she was checking out the nets on her touchscreen (courtesy of one of her sponsors) while soaking in the bathtub and squealed that she had her own /fanclub/. We popped open the bubbly at that, it just seemed too weird and too fantastic to be true. It felt as if we were dreaming those weeks before the final of the Rookie World League. One big dream, flashing before our eyes. Paparazzi in the bushes, screaming fans, sponsor offers going through the roof. With sponsor money alone we could pay off half our debt already.

Lannie and I, we were living on a golden cloud. It seemed like right now, after seven years of disaster, our seven years in the sunlight had finally started. Because she won, of course. My Lannie won the Rookie World League in a thrilling battle. It was a close thing, but she won fair and square due to her superior reflexes and her quick thinking. Sometimes her improvisations were sheer genius – and this had been one of those moments. I was so proud of her I could have exploded.

That was when we started to discuss marriage. With our debts for 95% erased, we finally were able to get married, so we could afford to be financially dependent on one another.

And just a couple of nights ago, Lannie asked if she should use the money she would win with her next wins to contact that doctor she had heard about, who was said to be able to use cybernetic implants to fix people. “Maybe he could fix you up again,” she mused.

“I’m not broken, Lannie,” I said, even though I was. Even though I resented it. “And besides, it’s going to take forever for you to get that kind of money. I’ve heard those prizes, it’s more than you could win and earn in five or ten years, sweetheart. It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not,” she said vehemently. She’d sat straight up in bed, sheets falling away from her. The streetlights and neon signs from outside our window illuminated her lovely body. “It eats away at me that I win and win, while you sit at home like a fucking invalid. I’ve never seen you more alive than when /you/ were the one doing the winning Walter, and I hate to see you in pain when it rains, or when you turn too quickly. Or the look in your eyes when we have to climb stairs. Dammit Walt, I hate it!”

“Don’t worry about it. It just is that way. And maybe in five or ten years, we indeed can afford such a medical procedure,” I soothed her. “It’s fine.”

And now this. Of course I understood what happened. As her story was blurted out in bits and pieces, between the tears, the image painted itself. There had been a match last night. And Lannie had gone to a betting station, betting all of her World League prize money. Not to my department, but to another one in the neighbourhood, so I wouldn’t know. I wanted to kill them for not stopping her. I wondered if they could have, because Lannie usually got what she wanted. She was the kind of person that everyone wanted to see smile. Hell, I know I always gave her what she wanted just to see that radiant smile.

She had lost it all. And beyond. We were neck deep back in debt once again, like the whole Rookie League had never happened. We were back at square one, back in the nightmare. AGAIN.

“I wanted to give you the surgery as a wedding present,” she wept. “I’m so sorry. I ruined it all…”
That she did. But I couldn’t find the heart to blame her, because in the end it might as well have been me. Eventually. We were just so hopelessly fucked up, one of us was bound to abruptly end that dream one day.

I just held her and told her I loved her for trying to make me better, trying to help me. I also told her that she was a stupid fucking idiot, but that I still loved her anyway. What was there to say? What was there to do?

Eventually she fell asleep, exhausted. I brought her to bed and lay next to her, staring at the daylight-illuminated ceiling as outside the city was waking up. Life outside was going on even though our life was ruined once again. Our dream had ended… again. I felt numb. When we got up, we were too lethargic to do much but order pizza and sit on the couch, drinking wine and trying to forget our life was in shambles. We watched the Corporation feeds and listened to the rumours of an actual World League – a real one. Where they shot to kill.

I stared at the feeds for several hours in a bleary haze of depression and sleep deprivation when suddenly the doorbell rang. It was early the next morning and I couldn’t even remember the night passing. I cursed and shot on my jeans and a shirt, walking to the door barefoot and disheveled.

When I opened the door, I saw two men in Corporation uniforms and a tall russet-haired man in a black suit in front of me. The man in the suit looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him.

“Mister Lane?” the man in the suit asked.

“Yeah. Can I help you? If you’re here to collect the money, I’m sorry but-”

The russet-haired man smiled a smile that made me abruptly shut my mouth. “Please, mister Lane,” he said. “My name is Young. I’m here on behalf of the Corporation. I have an offer for Lannie Williams that I’d like to discuss with her. Can I come in?”

And that’s when the nightmare started in earnest.

***

Lannie must have known exactly what was up when she walked into the livingroom. One moment she was rubbing over her puffy eyes and raking a hand through her sleep-tousled dark red hair, and the next she dropped dead in her tracks. She recognized the russet-haired man in the expensive suit that was sitting on our couch immediately. I saw her mind racing in that one second before she said with baited breath: “Walter, go take a hike, will you?”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I said, crossing my arms. We’d never left each other alone in situations with debt collectors, I wasn’t about to start doing so today.

She sighed. “I think I need to do this one alone, babe. Sorry.”

Dread towered over me like a tidal wave about to crash. I had an inkling where this would be going and I was very sure I wouldn’t like this. My nerves were still raw from what happened yesterday morning, so perhaps I was paranoid but… dammit, they’d been watching us, waiting until we fucked up so they could sweep in and… what the hell was that offer that Young was about to make to Lannie? “This is my life too,” I protested.

“Not until we are married, love. Not your money, not your problem. I created this mess… let me do this one alone. I deserve it.” She looked at me with those hurt-stricken blue eyes and I couldn’t refuse her. How could I, when she gave me that look? Something inside me gave way and I gave in to her. “Alright. I’ll go grab us some breakfast or something. Take care.” I took her hand and squeezed it for a moment, near-limping out of the room. Damn leg was always at its worst when I just woke up.

In the end I didn’t go far. Breakfast be damned, I wasn’t hungry at all. I just walked to a playground a block away from our flat and flopped down on one of the benches, leaning back and staring at the hazy blue sky. Staring at the sun. Trying not to think, not to speculate. I don’t know how long I was there. I must have fallen asleep at some point as well, because I started when Lannie came to sit next to me on the couch.

“So,” she said, looking at me with eyes that were still luminous and aching. She’d washed herself up, though. She’d tied her red hair in a ponytail and was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, just like any other day. If you didn’t look too closely you might have even missed the red rims around her eyes.

“So,” I said. “Did he make you an offer you couldn’t refuse?”

She shifted her gaze to the grey concrete underneath her feet. “Pretty much.”

I didn’t say anything. I just thought of the rumours, that there was going to be a World Tournament, one in which they wanted to bring all of the League champions together in the deathmatch of the century. The betting stations had been abuzz with the possibilities. Discussions and arguments on who would win such a match had already started while the whole Tournament hadn’t even been confirmed yet. Never mind the bets that had opened on the names of the participants alone.

“It’s going to be the World Tournament,” Lannie confirmed. “Young wants all the League Champions to compete, even some Rookie Leaguers.” She paused for a moment, lost in thoughts. “He immediately began about the money.”

“So they know.”

Lannie shrugged. “They’ve been watching us like hawks apparently. Knew that I’d screw up before I did. And now we’re back in money problems they…” She turned around and took my hand, squeezing it painfully. “The /money/ they’ve offered, Walter…”

I didn’t even hear her anymore. All I could think of was all those games we’d bet upon. All those Leagues. All those /deaths/. All those people; talented in their own right. Gored, impaled, shot, decapitated, smeared over concrete. All those /people/. And Lannie… /my/ Lannie…

“You’re not going to do it. Please don’t do it,” I breathed. I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to shut out the world. Trying to shut out the possibilities. “Lannie, seriously. I’d rather break my other leg than seeing you enter that Arena.”

“I know,” she said softly. “But you forget what I’ve done to you. What I’ve done to us. I could atone for it, I could make things right again. This is my fault, Walter.”

“I don’t care about the rest of the world. We can have every money issue in the world and they could kill us for it and I wouldn’t care. Not if you were with me.” I started to shiver despite the gentle breeze and the warm sunlight. Images in my head, tearing at my sanity. Gut-wrenching panic. “I couldn’t bear you becoming one of those people who are cussed out because people lost money over their death. That can’t be you, babe. It can’t be.”

She tried to be reassuring, but I could hear the uncertainty in her voice. I knew her for over a decade, of course I would hear it on her. Still, she tried. “It won’t be. I won the Rookie League, too.”

“The Rookie League doesn’t shoot to /kill/. How do you think you’ll fare under the guns of Ruiz or people like Chang, love? Or even Valentina, if she would compete? Those people have won multiple times; they are experienced killers. You have yet to draw blood /anywhere/!”

“Have a little fucking faith in me!” she suddenly shouted, jumping up from the bench. Passersby gave her a glance, but not more than that. We were just a couple having a domestic spat to them. In neighbourhoods like ours, people were used to much, much more.

I got up from the bench as well. “You’re brilliant, sweetie. Seriously. It wasn’t a fluke that you won the Rookie League. You’ve got skills, talent, flair, you’ve got it all. You’d be a good contestant in any actual League – even if they’d shoot to kill. But seriously… some of those contestants are /out of this world/. The League… it’s all they are, all they know. You are so much more – and you came to it late. You’d be a great contestant, but honestly I don’t think you’d be able to beat the best of the best out there. Maybe with rigid training regimes for the next five years… but not yet babe. Not yet.”

“They could kill each other and leave the easy ones for me.”

“They could,” I agreed. “But as I said, I’d rather break my other leg than betting on that chance. You’re worth so much to me, baby.” I took a step in her direction and a jolt of pain shot through my knee. Ah, fuck. That happened when I was careless and swept up in emotions; I placed my foot wrong and then this would happen. For a moment I had to suck in my breath and weather through the pain, but when I opened my eyes again, Lannie was looking at me with all of the hurt of the world in her eyes.

“I let /you/ enter the Fortress, Walter,” she said softly. “You were in the Fortress, and I respected the fact that you could die. You wanted to enter, I hated it, but I let you go.”

“Yeah, and see where it brought me!”

She wiped tears from her eyes. “You’re here, you’re alive. And I had that confidence in you. Please have some confidence in me, Walter. If you don’t believe in me, how the hell can I believe in myself after what I’ve done?”

My heart was breaking all over again when I realized what she was asking from me. She wanted me to show my love for her by supporting her in letting her enter the Tournament. I had to believe in her skills in the Tournament, because she felt it was all she had ever done right in the world. She’d fucked up everything else, and she had to believe that /I/ believed she was worth anything in the Arena. I had to believe in the fact that she could make everything right again, because she was hating herself so bloody much right now.

“Lannie, you’re killing us,” I said. My chest was tight and painful with emotions that were too much to bear. I loved her more than ever.

She shook her head. “No, I’m saving us.”

I wrapped my arms around her – that oh so familiar gesture, so close against me. Her arms snaked around my waist like they’d done countless of times before. We felt so good together. I wanted to cry, I wanted to tell her that no, she /was/ killing us, but I didn’t have the heart to. I /wanted/ to believe in her as much as she did. I thought of the pure happiness radiating from her face when I ran up to her after her victory. Camera’s had been flashing everywhere, my leg had been hurting, and she’d been covered in mud and blood, but I hadn’t cared. All I’d seen was the happiness in her eyes, and the all-consuming love and pride I’d felt in that moment. My girl, the victor. She had done what I couldn’t; she had made everything right again in that moment. And she believed she could do it once more. She /had/ to believe in it, otherwise she couldn’t live with herself.

Well then, who was I to refuse her anything? She wanted this, she /needed/ this.

It was just so completely terrifying to realize that the fact that she needed this might be bigger than my need of her. I buried my face in her hair and hated everything. “I love you, baby. I’ll support you in everything you do if you want me to.”

Her arms squeezed around me. “Thank you,” she whispered. “I love you too.”

***

What does one do the day after you’ve decided to enter the Deathmatch of the decade? In our case, Lannie and I snuggled up on the couch. The Corporation went live with the news about the World League Tournament the very night after Lannie had given me that rueful smile and told me she’d accepted the offer of participation.

We did not want to talk to people. We did not want to tell people; it was bad enough we were in this situation. There were people still thinking that we were still rich and would be getting married in a couple of weeks. The prospect of telling anyone nauseated the both of us, so we just shut ourselves off from the whole world and sat on our couch, half-watching the League tournament rumours trickle in through the feeds.

“If only they knew,” Lannie said with that smirk of hers that I knew so well.

I buried my face in her red hair and listened to the lively discussion on the screen. “I think they’ll know soon enough.” And when Lannie’s name would be listed as a participant, everyone else would know about us soon enough, as well.

I felt her sigh. “Who do you think the other competitors will be?”

“Ruiz, probably. He doesn’t seem like he’ll ever quit.”

“The African League winner as well,” she added. “Adhiambo. She looked like someone who would keep going until the bitter end, too.”

“Logan, the sniper.” I could still see the Euroleague winner before my mind’s eye. A quiet, withdrawn man. However, despite the fact that his reaction to his victory had been full of blazing emotion, his reaction hadn’t really been one of joy. It had been /relief/. I’d seen the same relief in his eyes as there had been in mine and Lannie’s when he took his victory in the Euroleague. He was in it for the money; and when you needed as much as a League victory gave you to pay for something, then you probably needed a lot more, too.

We speculated a while longer while eating dinner, and later, with a bottle of wine. People were calling us and sending us messages regarding the rumours that there would be a League announcement today, but we did not respond. Tonight was just for Lannie and me and our couch. My stomach was still all knotted up from our confrontation earlier that day.

Speculating about the killers she would be facing in the Arena didn’t do much to make me feel better. The worst thing was that my League-conditioned mind immediately started going over the stats, comparing them to my girl. Thinking who she could take, who would be a problem. As if she was just another of those contestants. As if she wasn’t my fiancée. I hated myself for it, but I couldn’t help myself. A lifetime of watching games and a year and a half of coaching my girlfriend through competitions was betraying me. I wanted to beg her not to do it after all, but I was firmly trapped in her plea. /If you love me, you’ll let me participate/. She hadn’t said it, but it was what she /meant/ when we argued. It only made me drink more.

The wine hit me like a ton of bricks. I still had not slept properly since my night shift two nights ago and the emotions of the day were wringing me out like a wet rag. Maybe I dozed off at some point somewhere, because when our League news tag started glowing and the newscast immediately came on screen, it rattled me more than it should have.

It showed Stender himself, in all his charming glory. Could that guy ever look anything else than calm, collected and a little ironic? He started talking. I wrapped my arms around the love of my life and felt my mind slipping in and out of focus as a death-cold fear took a hold of me. “This is it,” I whispered out loud. Lannie’s hands clenched around my forearm, nearly tightly enough to bruise. I hardly felt it.

He was saying things about the Rookie League World tournament, and how it had been the success they had hoped for. And that of course with such a success, the actual League could not stay behind. “I am thrilled to announce the first World League championship,” he said with a pleased smile. There was no irony in his voice; he seemed more honest than he’d ever been on screen.

“I’d like to announce the names of the first contestants that have signed up already. A few more names are likely to follow in the next few days, but we could not keep this news for ourselves anymore. Not with the names we’ve already acquired for you.” He paused a moment, purely for dramatic effect. It worked.

“Here we go,” Lannie said. She felt rigid under my arms. Every muscle was tensed up.

“First of all, from the Rookie League, we’ve contracted the runner up and the winner of this year’s World League, Bijou Sanchéz and Lannie Williams.” The images flashed in the screen next to him; Bijou’s blonde hair flying as she was taken down by Lannie’s guns. Lannie, in all her brilliant glory with her radiating smile as she accepted the trophy. “I’m sure Ms Sanchéz would love to take revenge for losing to Lannie Williams in the Rookie League final. And we couldn’t withhold Lannie Williams from you of course, after that brilliant victory. Time will tell if she’ll do as well in the Arena when the bullets are real.”

Lannie breathed in sharply. “Bijou as well,” she said.

“Well, at least you know you can take her on,” I said sourly.

She dared a quick grin. “Maybe luck is on my side after all.”

Stender kept talking, however. He had already moved on to the winner of the African League, Adhiambo Merari. They showed pictures of her brutally killing one of her opponents with a shot in the throat.

“As expected,” she mumbled. I didn’t reply, but just kept staring at the screen at the smiling face of the man who would put my girlfriend in an Arena to be killed.

Next, they moved on to Logan, which was not a surprise either. His final shot that had given him the victory over the Euroleague had been a nigh impossible one under extreme circumstances, but he’d made the shot. A perfect headshot; and then he was the only one left. I remembered that one very well; we had not been betting on him. No money in the Euroleague because we were too busy working on Lannie’s victory. We should have bet on him; Logan was a fucking legend. Snipers were usually ganged upon by the other participants, nobody felt safe with a sniper around. But Logan had showed them all.

Stender also announced Adil and Halver, which were a surprise. Both convicts and old war criminals with a huge grudge against one another, famous, violent. A great catch for the League; the audience would love this. Lannie just shrugged. She calmed down a little in my arms, her carefully nurtured tactical mind taking over. “We’ll see how they fare. Right now it’s impossible to say.”

And Ruiz. Fucking Ruiz with his ripper. Expected, of course, but not desired. “That will be dangerous,” I told my girlfriend. “Ruiz is a menace.”

She looked at me and had the actual audacity to grin. “Is it really bad that I can’t really wait to meet him in the Arena? He’s a legend, and I’ll get to compete with him.”

I wanted to say something that he would probably kill her, but I bit on the inside of my cheek and just nodded.

“And last but not least,” Stender continued. His eyes were sparkling with mirth. Oh, he was so pleased with himself. My heart skipped a beat in anticipation. The name he would give now would change /everything/. I suddenly knew it with a crystal clear clarity. /THIS is it,/ I thought and I felt sickly.

“We are honoured to announce that we’ve managed to contract Valentina Marin, six time Northern League champion, to return from retirement for this very match of the decade, and we can’t /wait/ to see her in our Arena once more.”

Everything went still for a moment, before the sound of breaking glass cut through the thundering of blood in my ears. Lannie’s wine glass had dropped to the floor. Shards and wine were everywhere. I didn’t even notice at that moment. I just grabbed my girlfriend tightly and tried not to faint.

“Valentina,” Lannie breathed. “Oh, fuck.”

And with that same crystal clear clarity I looked at the beautiful girl in my arms. I took in every feature of her face, her hair, her jawline, her collarbones. /I love you so much,/ I thought brokenly. This was it. This is what she had said yes to. /What the fuck have you done?/

“Lannie,” I choked out.

Her blue eyes were wide as saucers, full of emotions I could not really name. “Yes?”

“You will marry me. Tomorrow, at the town hall. If anything, you owe me that.”

“Why?” she asked. Tears were welling up. She knew the answer, but she asked anyway.

“Because you owe me. And because I will not let you walk into that Arena on your own. I will watch you in there as your husband, Lannie.” My throat was tight, I could hardly speak. “Please.”

Tears rolled over her face. “Of course I will,” she said, throwing her arms around me and sobbing in my neck. “First thing in the morning…. I promise.”

And so we did.

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