Archive for August, 2012

2308: Coming Down

Posted: August 30, 2012 by Kelly in league, stories

A seven story fall should be enough to take care of things, Walter judges impassively as he sits on the railing of his balcony. He could get his gun from the bedroom, but for the moment he’s completely done with guns. He hears the sound of them echo continuously in his head, together with the way she whispered his name before she died. He will never be able to hear the sound of a gun going off anymore without hearing her voice.

He can’t bring himself to put a gun to his temple. It’s just too painful, more painful than every breath is painful. More painful than looking at his own future without her.

So he drags himself to the balcony, sits on the edge, and looks down at the concrete far below. Takes a deep breath and realises there are no tears. He wants to cry, but the pain is too soul-crushingly deep to do anything. All he can do is hang his head and sit… watch… and take a breath. And another one. Drizzling rain drenches his clothes and his skin. He hardly feels it.

He wonders dimly if the cameras are still there. If the Corporation is still watching him. He should be angry with them. Rage would be consuming him if he wasn’t too caught up in his inner pain. /You let her go. You were the one who let her go. You knew what would happen, right? You knew it, but you couldn’t bear to own up to it. And now she’s gone./ Whatever anger he has towards the Corporation, it pales next to his utter hatred for himself. /You let her go, you worthless, spineless fuck./

Jumping off that railing seems infinitely attractive right now. Living in a world without her seems so utterly pointless at the moment. He’s disconnected his communicator for incoming calls, he doesn’t want to talk to anyone. Nobody to talk him down that edge.

Once he’s done breathing in the rain, he’ll jump.

A few moments of weightlessness, and then it’ll end. He imagines meeting up with her in whatever afterlife, being together again. Free from the world and all its shackles. Free from all of their myriads of fuckups. Just; either the end, or an eternity in her arms. An end to this heartbreak, to the pain so intense that he has to consciously remind himself to breathe. Ending this seems like a comfort. /She’ll understand. She won’t mind./

Time passes. Rain has drenched him completely and rivulets down his arms, his face, towards the ground he is staring at. He has no idea how long he is sitting there. It feels like days, but it must be hours.

And then his comm bleeps the tell-tale sign of an incoming message. /Dammit, I’m sure I cut it off. Nobody should be able to reach me right now./ He moves to ignore the message, until he sees who it is from. His breath hitches. His chest is on fire. /Lannie…/

One moment there’s wild, uncontrollable hope flaring through his heart, but the next moment he sees that it is a dated recording that’s made in their apartment. He can tell from the blue shirt she’s wearing and the way her hair is still long that the recording was made the night before she left.

The date only confirms it. “So,” she says cheerily to the camera. Fake cheer. Her blue eyes seem kind of foggy, too-bright with heavy emotions. “If you see this recording, babe, then I didn’t make it out. I am so fucking sorry about that. Looks like I guessed wrong after all. But at least I managed to make things right, somewhat. The money for the participation should be wired to our account any time now. That’s going to be there anyway. And… well, there might be some extra. If I’m dead, then I kind of hope that the person who won the game was Valentina. I mean, if it wouldn’t be me, I thought – if they… well, if the hardasses don’t take each other out and leave me the easy ones, I thought she’d be the winner. Valentina /always/ wins. We should have never bet against her in the past, and so I didn’t this time. I really hope that this one last bet is going to turn out right.” She laughs softly. There are tears in her eyes, but she doesn’t seem to be regretful. She looks at the camera with exactly the same look in her blue eyes as she had when she told him ‘I do’ at the courthouse, months ago. “If not, poetic justice. If it is… I guess it’s poetic justice, too. In that case, please give the station a call and see what I’ve left you.”

He can’t help it. He connects to his account at the betting station and reels a moment when he sees the extra amount of money that is there, waiting for him.

When he unpauses the recording, she’s beaming at him. “I really hope this works out. And, love, I want you to get that surgery. I’ve should have gathered the money for you now – if Valentina wins or not. I took special care to look into that. If you get the surgery, I know I’ve made it right. Don’t do anything stupid, babe. Please, get that surgery, keep on living, move on. You’ve got the world at your feet again, and I love you. I love you. I love you.”

The recording ends right after that. Walter stares for a moment at the paused image of the young woman that is taking his heart into her grave before he climbs down the railing he’s been balancing himself on. He sags through his aching knees and sits down with his back against the stained glass.

And finally the tears come.

2307: The cake is a lie

Posted: August 28, 2012 by Kelly in league, stories

The two tier red velvet and white chocolate cake stands on the kitchen counter of her otherwise pristine kitchen. A few hours of work, but there it is. The perfect cake. It hadn’t cost her a single drop of sweat, not with the airconditioning in the kitchen merrily humming away to counter the first and probably last hot day Amsterdam has to offer. Outside it is well over a thirty degrees, and humid enough to seem tropical, but inside Valentina’s apartment the air is still pleasantly cool. Bland. Boring.

“Well, that’s that then. Another tick off my bucket list. What do you say to that, Cornelius?” she asks the little kitten sitting on the other end of the kitchen counter. The cat tilts his head slightly to the side and gives her a dumb look, which is really the only look he has in his repertoire. “That’s what I thought.” she mutters. The kitten mewls softly and buts his head against her elbow.

Her eyes automatically drift to the clock on her wall. Two in the afternoon. “Not beer ‘o clock yet then.” she tells Cornelius. “I don’t care what you say about that. I’m cutting you off, fuzzball.” She shakes her head. “And I’m talking to my stupid cat again. Yeah, that’s progress.”

She abandons the kitchen in favour of the rest of her 200 square meter penthouse, only to find that nothing has changed in the hours she holed up in her kitchen. Everything is still clean. Her newly painted cream walls are mocking her. The kitten follows her around dutifully, looking in corners and playing with the occasional toy strews around the place.

“Well, that settles it. I’m still bored.” she finally admits, flopping down on her large and comfortable couch. Cornelius jumps on the pillow next to her, demanding a cuddle. Valentina obliges, not having much else to keep her occupied anyway. She shifts a little and feels her telephone dig into her hip where she has it in her pocket. She pulls it out and stares at it for a moment, before flicking through her address book and dialing a number she hasn’t dialed before.

The picture flicks on the moment Lannie answers her call. She looks like she’s suffering under the sweltering heat and has a drink in her hand that’s more icecubes than liquid. “Oh hi, Lannie here,” she says surprised.

For a moment Valentina stares at the screen. Somehow she hadn’t expected Lannie to pick up, but there she was, all smiles and happy surprise. “Uh, hi. It’s me. Valentina. Obviously…” she pauses for a moment, not entirely sure what she had wanted to say again. “So… what’s up?”

She wipes a strand of sweaty red hair out of her face and grins. “I’m being unbearably hot on my balcony right now. How are you?”

“I’m bored.” Valentina confesses. “Sweet Jesus, I am so bored.” After a moment of silence she grins at the screen. “Not dying from the heat though, so that’s one thing I suppose.” Cornelius nudges the hand that’s holding the phone. “Shut up. No, not you Lannie, I mean stupid over here.” She directs the phone at Cornelius, who is looking appropriately vacant indeed.

“Oh my God he’s adorable!” Lannie squeals. “He’s still young though, right? Also, apparently your airco still works? Lucky you. The airco has failed in the whole building here. We’re burning up.”

“He’s about six months now. I keep waiting for him to grow a tiny brain, but I think it’s not going to happen. Poor little doofus.” she scratches behind his ears and is treated to a merry purring sound. “The airco is fine here. I think David paid off the city maintenance guys to make sure it’s in top shape. Can’t afford to sweat in his fancy suits, right?” She looks ponderous for a moment. “Hey, would you like to come over? Bring Walter, if you want. I have airco here, and there’s a pool on the roof and cold beer and I’ve baked a cake, so…”

“Pool AND a cake? You make a compelling argument! I’ll be right over. Walter’s on the other side of town at the moment, arranging stuff for the wedding. He might join later.” She looks off-screen for a moment. “I’ll be there in half an hour or something. And I bring the booze. I promised, right?”

Valentina grins like a lunatic for a moment. “You did! Ok, awesome. Just mention you’re here to see me to the doorman and he’ll send you right up. See you in a bit!.” The call is disconnected moments later, and Val can’t help but smile. /Finally, some action./  She thinks, as if she’s going up for a deathmatch instead of meeting up with a girl she’d met just a week ago.

She spends the next thirty minutes out on her balcony, staring down at the streets twenty floors below. The people walking around in the oppressive heat seem tiny from this distance. Cornelius jumps into one of the lounge chairs behind her, turns around a few times and flops down. His ears look a little droopy, as if he doesn’t appreciate the heat outside, but he wants to brave it to be closer to Valentina anyway. She flops into the seat next to him and scratches his head. “Yeah, I know. It’s hot out and I’m acting crazy. It’s a hard knock life, little guy.”

/But things will get better./ She thinks to herself. The words get stuck in her throat though. She can’t lie to the kitten, any more than she can lie to herself. After over a year of retirement she has come to the point where she has to accept that maybe she’s just not cut out for it.

She finally drags herself inside by the time her doorbell rings. When she opens it she’s collected her thoughts again, feeling slightly less pathetic. Cornelius lies curled up on her arm, seemingly dead to the world. “Hi there.” she says, opening the door to a disheveled looking Lannie.

Lannie is holding a bottle of rosé wine in one hand, and a portable fan in the other. “Hiya. I am so ready for your airconditioned apartment! The city is a frigging oven at the moment.”

Valentina graciously steps aside to let Lannie into the cool haven of her home. “You’re right, I can’t believe it. I haven’t been out since this heatwave started. Luckily it should be over within a day or two, and then we can all go back to complaining about the rain, right?”

“Totally. This rosé was cold when I left home. Sorry about that. Maybe it needs some time in a wine cooler before we can drink it.” She holds out the bottle. It’s not a bad brand. Valentina eyes it appreciatively for a moment before taking it off Lannie’s hands.

“Follow me.” she gestures, leading the younger woman through the airconditioned livingroom and into the equally cool kitchen. She puts the bottle in the fridge. “It’ll cool down soon enough. Can I get you anything in the meantime?”

“A beer would be fine. Or any other rosé if you have it.” She looks around wide-eyed. “I love your apartment! It seems even bigger than Vermeer’s. And the cream looks good on that wall.”

Valentina grins and hands Lannie a beer, taking one out for herself as well. “Yeah, I don’t know about the cream really. It’s a little bland, you know? I might try yellow instead. Or orange. I don’t even know…”

“Cheerful colours,” Lannie grins. “My apartment is mostly yellow, which is awesome during dreary days but it feels like sitting in a sunflower on a day like today. By the way, I was planning to watch the Fortress later today, did you want to watch too? I don’t have money riding on this one, but I am interested anyway.”

“You mean the Northern League prelims? Are those today?” Valentina says, absentmindedly petting the kitten and blissfully ignoring the printed out league schedule stuck to her fridge. “Sure, why not? Lets see what idiots they managed to scrounge up this time.” she winks at Lannie.

“It’s going to be weird without you, though.”

“Dude, I know. It’s so weird not having to mind my workout and training schedule and not going through target practise every day. Not to mention learning the arena’s, studying competitors and all that. I don’t even know whose competing this year.” she takes a swig of her beer. “Any good gossip for this season?”

“The usual stuff,” Lannie says, gratefully sipping from her own cold beer. “Jones and Berger came to blows last week in some bar. I don’t think they’ll even get through the prelims, but they hate each other’s guts. Jones slept with Berger’s sister, or the other way around. And then there’s that red-haired chick that I think has the same hair dresser as me, who is going around telling everyone she’s had such a good fuck in Greene, who of course denies having slept with her because he’s married with kids.” She grins. “And then there’s Ramsey, who is just a bit of a douchebag with his cowboy attitude. I hope he dies in his first match.”

“Christ… Are there no more professionals out there?” Valentina says, rolling her yes with a laugh as she rests against the kitchen counter.

“I think you killed most of them,” Lannie says, raising her can as a toast.

“Maybe it’s just this one prelim though. There’s always a few decent competitors in the others. It’s always like they want at least one controversial characters to get through to the finals. Makes things interesting for the tabloids, I suppose. And with me gone they don’t have to import heavy hitters anymore either.”

“Might be fun to see the dramatic ones take each other out anyway. I vote we get drunk before they start, that might make it bearable.” Lannie suggests, and that’s how they find themselves on Valentina’s couch an hour later, listening to Hugh talk about the drama between the competitors in his casual, charming way. Valentina could almost see him sitting in the control room, flipping through the various feeds.

“We should have a drinking game. Any time Greene says ‘It’s a lie’ or Berger says ‘I’m going to kill that fool’ we take a shot. Or any time Ramsey misinterprets the question. Or when Lesley Templeton says ‘It was amazing’.” Valentina’s impression of the red-haired woman’s voice is scarily accurate. “Ooh!” she starts, bouncing up excitedly, “Wanna bet they show footage of her and Greene fucking within the next hour?”

“They’ll do that only when one of them is in mortal peril. It all depends on when this happens, or if they actually face off.” Lannie chews thoughtfully on her cake. “But you’re on. I think Greene has pretty good stats and that the chick might luck out, so I say, no. Not until the next hour. Bet you a fiver.”

“It’s a bet.” Valentina says with a wry little smile on her face. “Of course, you’re probably going to win this one, I haven’t seen that many matches. I mean, I’ve seen all the actual combat and what goes on in the arena, but I’ve never really watched… this. You know, the actual public feed.” A thought occurs to her. “Oh man… you must have seen such embarrassing shit about me over the years.”

“Naw, you’re not a redneck like these people. There was some stuff about Joshua and you of course, but you killed the cameras. Very smart.”

Valentina reaches for another piece of cake. “You know, I think I’ve managed to impress myself. This is not half bad.” She chews on the cake for a moment, ignoring the blatant curiosity she’s feeling from Lannie. “But yeah, that… I’ve always thought that no one should give a fuck about who I’m fucking, you know? Aside from the involved parties, obviously. I guess I was lucky enough not to be featured in too many shower compilations.”

“Fuck the shower compilation,” Lannie agrees wholeheartedly. “Walter and I often watch the late night feeds, but then they show shit of people wanking in the showers, too. Seriously, what the fuck?”

“Yeah, so much for privacy. I guess a whole lot of these people have no idea what they’re signing for when they put their scrawl underneath the ten page league contract.” Val shrugs and deposits Cornelius on the floor, stopping him from pawing at the cake some more. “And you have to hand it to the corporation… if no one wanted to see sad competitors wank in the shower by themselves at 3 in the morning then I’m sure they wouldn’t broadcast it.”

“Yeah, I know.” She wrinkles her nose. “And it’s oddly fascinating anyway, to see all those pre-match rituals. Kinda like watching a trainwreck.”

Val laughs at that. “Gee, thanks honey. I think you can probably tell the pro’s from the cannonfodder from looking at the pre-game rituals. I mean, some of the people signing up for this shit have had clandestine or military careers in killing that stretched for more than a decade before they even thought about signing up. Those people don’t dick around before a match. Unless they’re Ruiz, in which case they will definitely dick around.”

Lannie blushes unexpectedly, adding to the already rosiness of her cheeks that the alcohol put there. “Which is oddly hot, sometimes. I kind of fancy him.”

Valentina’s laugh is boisterous now. “I know, right? He’s fantastic. So fucking ugly, but he’s got charm by the buckets. And he’s hilarious, which definitely helps. Not that he and I ever… ew, no, it’d be like sleeping with my demented older brother or something.”

“Are you two close?”

“Hmm. As close as you can get in the scene, I suppose.” Val muses. “We’ve both been doing this kind of thing for so long… and I guess we both feel like it’s nice to be able to talk to someone and not feel like a psychopath, you know? Like, we can discuss a kill and laugh about something horrible. And I know that’s not… normal or whatever, but it’s what we do for a living, and sometimes the most ridiculous shit happens and you just have to laugh about it.”

Lannie takes a hearty swig of her wine. “You lead the oddest life, you know that? I’m not sure I could pull that trigger so easily if there were real lives on the line.”

Val shrugs. “If it was your life on the line? Sure.” On the screen something explodes. Hugh is talking animatedly. Something about Berger, but no kill yet. “I mean, people are all convinced that they won’t, but during the war everyone killed. It’s survival instinct kicking in. Kill or be killed, you know? I think anyone could be a killer, if they were desperate enough.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

They are quiet for a while, watching the game on the screen, until first blood goes to Ramsey.

“Ugh,” Lannie spits. “First blood to that douchebag in a lucky shot. Now let’s see his ego inflate over that one. Well, hopefully he won’t make it out. His luck can’t last forever.”

“Don’t count him out yet, especially in this match.” Valentina points at his stats. “He may be a douchebag and a redneck, but he can fire a gun and he’s just about the only one in this match without a personal vendetta. His focus is where it should be.” Val chuckles “Mostly because he doesn’t have the brainpower to focus on anything else, but whatever. He’s the only one here with his eye on the final victory.”

Despite Lannie’s objections, Ramsey manages to dispatch his competition with surprising grace and skill, all of which he seems to drop before his first interview.

“There should be a rule against victory for douchebags.” Lannie mutters.

“If that were true we’d barely have any winners.” Valentina looks thoughtful for a moment. “But that would have saved me a match against le Blanc at least. God, what a cunt.”

“I’ll drink to that.” Lannie finishes her drink in one gulp. “The world is a better place without him. Which makes me wonder: why did you want to quit after that? The world could do without a few douchebags, you know.”

Valentine’s eyes darken for a moment. “I figured I’d quit while I was ahead. Six league victories, none of which came easy. And then there are the expectations. No one likes a walkover, so the corporation felt pressured to bring in people who would be a challenge to me.”

“Well, you /are/ the best. Do you honestly think any of the others could take you down at the moment?”

The older woman laughs. “At the moment? Anyone could take me out right now.” she holds up Cornelius, “Even this guy. But at my best? Le Blanc had a shot with a little help from his friends, and he came close enough. Ruiz could do the job. He’s wild, unpredictable. I’d have a hard enough time with him. And then there’s Chang of course. I’m pretty sure he could come out of retirement and kick my ass any day of the week.” She shakes her head. “Talk about someone I wouldn’t want to be up against.”

“He’s legendary,” Lannie agrees. “I once won a lot of money when he wiped the floor with Li Nguyen.”

“Chang’s always a safe bet.” Val says, “but when you look at it, anyone could have a good day. There really are no guarantees in the league.”

“So is that really why you quit? You thought that your skills weren’t enough of a guarantee anymore?”

Val laughs again, softly this time. “No, I figured the corporation wouldn’t stop trying to kill me until I stopped giving them chances to do so. I wasn’t ok with that, so I quit.”

“Fair enough,” Lannie says. She picks up the bottle and evenly distributes the last bit of wine over their glasses. “Let’s toast to that. Survival.”

Valentina raises her glass and mutters. “Survival.”

As Cornelius paws at her feet, she tells herself it’s enough.

2307: Young Blood

Posted: August 27, 2012 by Kelly in stories, the world

“So Lannie, are you enjoying yourself?” David Vermeer asks me cheerily. He lays his arm around my shoulder with a familiarity he never shown me before, but which is easily explained in the way he smells like expensive booze and new sweat.

I offer him my sweetest smile, while gesturing at the party people in the penthouse. Behind them, the sun is setting over the canal. “You throw the best parties. Thanks again for that.”

Music is swirling through the room, loud, but not too overbearing. The champagne is flowing freely and I think there’s not a soul in the house that is still sober.

“It’s okay, my dear. You’ve earned it,” he laughs graciously. “Also, you’ve earned me money, so I’m glad to throw you your official victory party.”

/A business opportunity gone well,/ I can’t help but think. I’m sure Vermeer has gotten very rich over my victory in the Rookie league, after he has sponsored me in the past year. But it’s okay, I can’t be mad at him. After all, it made me rich, too. Finally money won’t be an issue anymore. We’ll be able to pay off our debts, pay the bills, and then we still have money to get married and live comfortably for a couple of years. Our problems are finally over.

My searching eyes find Walter in the crowd. He’s talking to a dark-haired man I’ve never seen before. I can tell from the way he’s gesturing that my boyfriend has had a few too many as well. But it’s cool; the champagne tastes like heaven and my victory has been a great relief for the both of us. It’s like we’re living a frigging dream. /I think I’ll pay off everything tomorrow, hangover and all. Won’t that be something?/

“It’s great,” I assure my sponsor. “Thank you for believing in me. I’m glad I didn’t disappoint.”

He grins. “I hope you’ll continue to not disappoint me for a very long time. It’s been a pleasure doing business with you. Will you be competing next season?”

I shrug and finish my champagne. I put my glass on a nearby table and turn back to him. “Not sure. My first priorities are paying off my debts and get Walter to make an honest woman out of me.”

“Ah of course,” he smiles smoothly. “And here I am, just talking about future business. Of course you want to enjoy your victory first. But be sure to invite me to the wedding, alright?”

“Sure thing.”

Some other person walks up to us and congratulates me profusely. I have no idea who the woman in question is, but she is nice enough to chat with for a couple of minutes. Time is blurring together with champagne and friendly faces, half of which I’ve never seen before. People want to have their picture taken with me. I have to sign autographs. One highly pregnant woman tells me she’s always loved the name Lannie and is thinking of naming her daughter after me. “You won’t mind, would you?”

I have to laugh at that. “Not at all. I’m sure she’ll grow up strong like me.” /Hopefully not as much of an addict fuckup, though/.

I make my way to the balcony and lean over the wide railing. It is late June and the days in Amsterdam are long and sunny. The sunset is spectacular and I find myself smiling at the colours in the sky. /A sunset over my fuckups. Tomorrow’s a new day. And from tomorrow on, we’ll have a new life./

Something moves in the corner of my eye. I whirl around with reflexes who are still too wired after weeks of battle in the arena, but the only thing I see next to me is the balcony of the neighbouring penthouse. There’s a woman standing there, dressed in jeans and a tank top. She’s holding a beer can in her hand and is leaning over the railing of her own balcony much like I was doing a second ago. Watching the sunset.

She notices me watching and looks up. I immediately recognise her face. Everyone in the whole world knows that face. She’s one of the reasons why I had to enter the Rookie league in the first place. I lost a lot of money when I bet against her chances in the Northern League. A mistake I won’t make again, I think. Rumour has it, she quit the League for good.

Valentina Marin. /Wow/.

“Evening,” I say to her, smiling.

She returns the smile with a tiny quirk of her lips and raises her beer at me. “Evening, Lannie. This your party?” her eyes flick to the open balcony doors behind me.

/Damn, she knows my name./ I bite on the inside of my cheek and revel in the feeling of being famous. “Yeah, my sponsor threw the party to celebrate my victory. Awfully nice of him.” And then, in a daring move, I add: “Want to come over? I’m sure we can spare some champagne.”

She smiles again. “I don’t think I’m quite dressed for the occasion. But congratulations none the less, it was a good victory.”

“Thank you, that means a lot to me. You’d be totally welcome, though.” I look down at my own fancy dress; a purple slinky thing that must have cost more than what I used to earn in a month, and then check out the faded and paint-spattered jeans on the six time League Champion. I grin. “Not sure those people inside would notice much. You won’t believe how drunk these people are.”

“Well, I have met David before, so I think I’ve got an idea.” A mischievous grin spreads on her face. “Alright, step back a little.”

And with the easy grace that we’ve all looked at on our televisions, the grace we all know so well, she hops balconies on the twentieth floor. As if it’s nothing. I can’t help laughing. “Yeah, I guess that works too. Can I get you a drink?”

She absentmindedly looks down at the beer still in her hand. “Ehm. One of these? David should have some Lowlands beer stocked at least, and if I never drink champagne again it’ll be too soon.”

“Beer it is. Give me a sec.” I have to take two steps before I find some waiter who is making sure nobody’s glasses are empty. In less than a minute I hand Valentina Marin her beer. /Talk about fucking surreal./ “So, are you redecorating?” I ask, just to have something to say.

Valentina’s eyes scan the room, probably looking for potential threats or familiar faces. When she looks at me again she looks relaxed. “Yeah, I… uh… moved in next door a while ago. Well, over a year actually. I can’t seem to find the right colour for the walls though. I’ve tried green, but it’s just so… green, you know?”

“So it’s cream now?” I ask, gesturing at the majority of paint splotches on her jeans.

She chuckles and looks down at her jeans. “Uh, yeah. What gave it away?”

“The upper layer of paint, mostly.” I grin. “I’m wondering though, why don’t you hire someone to do this stuff /for/ you? You should have some money left from all of your League victories, right?”

“Well, some.” She says with a wink. David once bragged about what his apartment cost, and if Valentina owns the place next door ‘some’ sounds like a gross understatement. “But why would I let someone do it right when I can fuck it up spectacularly a dozen times myself? ‘s more fun this way.”

I laugh and marvel at the lighthearted tone of our conversation. Am I really talking home improvement with Valentina fucking Marin? “More talent with guns than with paintbrushes, then?”

Valentina shrugs. “Less practise. I’m sure I’ll get better at it over time. Anyway, my life’s a little boring right now, so lets talk about interesting stuff instead. How are you feeling today, oh victorious one?”

“Very victorious, thank you very much!” I laugh. “No but seriously, it feels like a crazy hopeful dream. I really needed this one, I was on fire in the Arena… and I was really lucky. For once. Good times were had by all. And by all I mostly mean my boyfriend and me.”

“Luck had very little to do with it, sweetheart. With reflexes like yours you’re a tough cookie in any competition. Besides, luck is for silly people, I put more stock in good exercise and lots of target practise myself.”

I can feel the blush of happiness creep up my neck. “Thanks. You’re right, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Practised until I was blue in the face. I came to this kind of stuff pretty late, so I had to make up for a lot of lost time. I used to be in sales. Can’t believe that’s only two years ago.” I shrug. “But yeah, practise helps. Can you give me some secret tips of the trade, maybe?”

Valentina’s next smile is a little wry. “Quit while you’re ahead,” she says with a small laugh. “Or if you’re determined to keep going, make sure you stay on good terms with the organisation, keep your head out of the illegal drugs and don’t forget to look up.”

“Sounds fair enough.” I sip from my glass of champagne. I can’t remember when the waiter planted one in my hand. “I’m not sure if I want to continue, though. I’ve gone as far in the Rookie league as I can and I’m kind of hesitant to actually enter the Fortress, after what happened with Walter in bootcamp a couple of years ago. They nearly killed him. Made him an invalid.”

Valentina’s eyes scan the room, finding a target in Walter easily enough. “Ah. Yes, I saw the reruns of that. You should be able to pay for reconstructive surgery though, with what you’ve won here.”

The happy blush turns into one of embarrassment. “Not quite, unfortunately. I got a lot of bills to pay off. But maybe one day. If I keep fighting, maybe I could. It would take time, though. It’s hard to pay when I’m bleeding out on the floor of some Fortress though.”

“Ain’t that the truth…” Valentina says. “Although, with your skills you stand a decent chance in the Euroleague. Get some decent backers… David’s a good start, but you can go bigger. Cute girl like you… People want to like you, Lannie, and that’s a trait few of your competitors possess. Of course, if you want to live out a happy life with your husband to be then your best odds are to stay out of the League.”

“It’s kind of a mixed blessing isn’t it, the League.” I raise my glass to Valentina. There’s not much champagne left in the glass. The sunset colours it orange. “Anyway, thank you for the compliments. You have no idea how much it means to me. I’m a huge fan of yours. And for what it’s worth, I’m glad you made it out of your last match. I really thought you wouldn’t, but you did. You’re an inspiration.”

“Awe shucks, you’re going to make me blush.” There’s not a hint of colour in sight on her cheeks though. “It was a close call. Far closer than it had any right to be, but it is what it is. I’m just glad I’m out.” She glances at my nearly empty glass. “And you have no idea how glad I am I no longer get that stuff forced down my throat. Six years of overpriced champagne. You have no idea, Lannie. It’s horrible. Not to mention the fucking caviar.”

“So far the champagne and the caviar don’t bother me yet. It’s the paparazzi that’s driving me nuts. How do you deal?”

“I just threaten them with violence,” she deadpans.

I look at the other people in the penthouse from the corner of my eye. “I counted at least six instances of them snapping pictures of us so far. Wonder why they think us sharing a drink together is so interesting.” I laugh. “They must think I’m asking for advice…. which is probably right. Thanks for being a good sport.”

She shrugs. “Well, it’s not like I’ve got anything to lose in offering you a few tips and tricks, right? I’m out. Besides, I’m just warming you up right now. I fully expect you to offer your help in redecorating my house by the end of the evening.”

“I’m sure that I am better with my shock rifle than with a brush as well, so sure, let’s fuck up your wall spectacularly together. I’ll bring the booze. What do you drink?”

Valentina takes a swig of her beer. “What don’t I drink… aside from champagne.”

“It’s a date. Cream is my favourite colour.”

Valentina laughs at that. “It’s boring. Why don’t we skip painting the walls and just stick with the booze instead? We’re less likely to wreck stuff that way.” As if on cue one of the guests tumbles through one of the glass tables.

“You sure? Oh God, look at him bleed all over Vermeer’s expensive carpet.”

“I told him white carpets were a bad idea. I don’t think he takes my advice on home improvement seriously though. Clever man.”

Soon after, David spots the two of us together, after which Valentina makes a rather hasty retreat. She obviously has no intention of talking to the other party people, which makes me feel extra special. Walter, at least, is horribly jealous when he finds out about our meeting in the tabloids the next morning. “Young blood gets advice from old blood” the headliner says.

“What did you two talk about anyway?” He asks.

I let out a chuckle. “You won’t believe it, but home improvement, mostly.” I take a swig from my morning coffee and grin at the attractive young man who will be my husband soon. “She’s oddly down to earth, for a six time League winner.”

He nods. “Yeah, she would be.”

“So,” I offer. “Want to pay some bills, babe?”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

2296: Terms of Employment

Posted: August 27, 2012 by Kelly in league, stories, the world

Far below her, the mega city was glowing with light pollution. Above her, the heavens were painted in the brilliant colours of an 8 am sunrise in a half-clouded, polluted sky. Irina stood before the huge windows, hands clasped behind her back.

“Please make yourself comfortable. He will be with you soon,” the honey-haired drop dead gorgeous PA had assured her with a bright smile, settling her with coffee in the office of the richest man in the world.

Irina did not touch the coffee. There were usually enough stims to keep her awake and alert any given time of the day, and the adrenaline she was feeling right now did the rest. It would not do to become twitchy now. She wanted to seem relaxed, competent. She really wanted this job.

The endless battles she faced in the Black City had become stale two years ago. The first year after Solchov’s death had brought her challenge. She reveled in being able to bring the financial market – both legal and illegal – to its knees to do her bidding, but the dragging power struggle with the mafia and the crime cartels (not to mention the law) had been starting to chafe pretty soon after that. Burning ambition and a desire to be free had inspired her bid for power, but once she’d had it, she had realised what shackles that same power brought her. She was spending so much time on politics that her true love – information and money management – had fallen by the wayside.

So when Hugh had contacted her with the rough outline what he and Stender – motherfucking /Stender!/ – were planning, she had grabbed that chance with both hands. They’d negotiated mostly though vid meetings, but he had invited her to his office in the Compound to hammer out the last bits of the terms of her employment.

She had no idea how long the meeting would last, but she had booked the day completely free just to make sure. When she arrived to Stender’s offices, it seemed that his PA had even gone so far to arrange lodging for her for that night. It would be a long meeting, then. Perhaps she should take that coffee after all.

She never got to that point, though. The door opened behind her. Irina turned around and found herself face-to-face with Stender; head of the Corporation, richest man in the world. Most eligible bachelor in the whole world, too. Irina understood why. He was a terribly attractive young man and he wasn’t even all that much older than she was. Five years, maybe? Eight? He wore a slate grey tailored suit with the practised ease of someone who practically slept in them and his wavy dark brown hair looked artfully tousled.

And when he smiled at her, it seemed to light up the whole room. “Irina Weisz,” he said warmly, taking her hand in his. His grip while he shook her hand was pleasantly firm. “It’s good to finally meet you at last.”

She nodded back. “Likewise,” she said with all the professionalism she could muster. “I’ve been looking forward to this meeting.” It was true, too. Despite the fact that Irina hated to leave the seclusion of her office in the Black City and preferred to do most of her meetings through vid software, it /was/ better to see someone in the flesh. It added an extra dimension to a person that vids could never hope to create. She did not like to be close enough to anyone to actually touch and smell them, but by God it was useful.

It only took her a second of shaking his hand and looking him directly in his blue eyes before she’d taken the measure of him. In the end, that was enough to seal the deal for her. She knew immediately beyond the shadow of a doubt that the stories and the facts about him didn’t lie. Stender was the kind of man who was used to get what he wanted. He had all the easy charm and good looks of a successful businessman, but there was that edge about him that Irina knew all too well. If he didn’t get what he wanted, he would go to extremes to get it anyway. He was the kind of man you needed on your side, because he was fucking dangerous.

No less than she expected, exactly what she needed and hoped she would find. And she knew all too well how to get him on her side.

They sat down for their meeting. In the beginning they sat on opposite sides of the desk, but as the morning progressed she somehow ended up next to him. They drank coffee together, Stender ordered lunch. They talked Game designs; long-term financial plans; Irina’s experience in handling the betting stations around the illegal fighting league that Solchov had set up in the Black City a years prior to his death; they talked media politics. Stender was more than prepared to do his fair share of work, which is something she had dreaded to ask after. “I’ll be demanding the world of you, probably,” Stender said with that easy trademark grin of his. “But it’s not more than I demand of myself.”

It all sounded fair enough to Irina’s ears. “It will be nice to build something up from the ground. Something that is not built on the bones of something else. I would walk through fire to make such a thing a success,” she said thoughtfully, looking at the plans on Stender’s plasma screen.

“Which is why we want you aboard,” Stender responded with thinly disguised satisfaction in his voice. “I am sure we would make a great team. And your expertise with the betting stations should give us a huge boost.”

“It is a chance of a life time,” Irina agreed. Hugh had heard all her stories why she was done with Solchov’s legacy in the Black City; it was what made him introduce the two of them to each other. Huey and she had been in touch many times before; he was an old contact of Solchov and he had been one of the first to embrace her when she took control over Solchov’s assets. She did not particularly like Hugh, but he did seem to like her an awful lot. Enough to involve her in this business opportunity of Stender’s. She did not doubt that he had told Stender everything. She also didn’t doubt that Stender had digged up every history on her that he could get his hands on.
She wondered if he’d found the histories she had hidden and how much he could fill in the blanks.

Below them, the Compound buzzed with activity while the afternoon sun made its trek to the west through the hazy skies. The office was filled with a copper sunlight when Stender finally made her the offer and sent her the contract. “You don’t have to sign right away,” he said. “I can imagine that you want to think it over first.”

She scanned over the terms of employment in her contract while he continued: “I think the offer is generous enough, at least. If we get this off the ground in the way I want to, you’ll probably be richer than God in about ten years.”

“I’ll answer to you, though,” she said lightly, pleased with all that she saw. Job description, terms of employment, stocks, it was all there. She made the calculations in her head and found that he was right. It looked like a dream. A beautiful dream. Probably too good to be true, but she’d never gotten anywhere without dreaming. She looked up at him with a slight smile. “As major stockholder, if I’ll be richer than God, what will you be?”

“Owner of the universe,” he said in a matching light tone.

She signed her contract that very night.

***

Her lodgings were extended indefinitely. Stender’s pretty PA (who was called Sybil, Irina learned later) made sure she would have a place to stay if she wanted to work in the Compound and the first month, that was exactly what Irina did. She brought over her wardrobe, toiletries and some personal effects, and set to work pretty much immediately.

The workload was killing, but the job satisfaction was just as intoxicating. Setting up an operation from the ground off was exhilarating. There were many all-nighters, contract negotiations for possible cooperations, redesigning of the Games to fit a more mainstream mold. Financially it all seemed to work out. Stender’s fortune was not limitless, but it was more than enough to set up the first structures of the dream. The rest would come later, with the money they would start making.

Huey and Stender invited her to many brainstorm sessions and listened intently to what she had to say. They disagreed often enough, but they took her expertise seriously.

Somewhere near the end of that first month, she also met the girl Valentina, who Stender introduced to her as his protegée. They met her in the hallway and Irina immediately noticed the girl, since she was the first person she’d met in the past few weeks who was not professionally clothed (she wore jeans and a hooded sweater and was drinking a slurpee in an alarming shade of blue) and because of the way she /moved/. She moved like Gershan. And she was watching Irina curiously and met her eyes boldly. “Hi,” she said, when she saw Irina look at her.

“Hi,” Irina offered.

Stender, who was walking next to her, waved in greeting, until the girl said: “Stender, can I watch Silver Skies in your pad? Your tv is much bigger than mine.”

Her boss paused for a moment. “Sure, whatever. Don’t touch my terminal though, or I’ll..”

She laughed. It was a surprisingly warm sound. “Yeah yeah, you’ll kick my butt. I know. I’d like to see you try.”

Stender chuckled softly. “Valentina, I’d like you to meet my new associate, Irina Weisz.”

“Nice to meet you,” the girl said as they shook hands.

“Irina, this is my protegée, Valentina Marin.”

“Nice to meet you,” Irina echoed. They didn’t have time to talk for long, though, because they were on their way to meet with a representative of Silcom. Any questions she might have had about the relationship between Stender and the girl (Irina assumed that maybe she was family) were pushed to the back of her mind quickly enough, because of work.

At the end of the first month, they had something to celebrate. Irina had survived her first month of trial period and she’d never been happier. She’d also just been single-handedly responsible for the acquisition of Beldine, a company that specialised in state of the art camera equipment. And she wasn’t even supposed to be good at this kind of thing. Still, with Beldine on board they had created their link to the audience that would come soon enough. Beldine gave the audience their eyes; their fly-on-the-wall perspective that would move so naturally, so beautifully, that the viewers at home would feel as if they were in that very arena. The tech was incredible, and Irina had managed to get them on board.

A celebration was definitely in order, so after they ordered dinner, Stender called for champagne. “Welcome to the family, miss Weisz,” he said with satisfaction while he popped the cork. The fizz sparkled in lamplight of his office.

By the time they finished dinner, they were on to their third bottle.

The sun had set over the Compound and below, the twinkling of the lights was distracting Irina from having coherent thoughts. Stender’s presence, so close to her on the designer couch, was even more distracting. It was the whole male presence thing, while talking business, her stims losing their strength with the fall of evening and booze clouding her brain.

Yet even when they was alcohol involved, they kept working. Throughout it all, Stender seemed to hold is alcohol better than she did. He was brilliant. Outlining plans and business proposals. Listening to her opinion, but still pressing his own opinion. He was more gentle than Solchov had ever been. Working with him was a relief; verbal sparring seemed less dangerous. Still, Irina had fallen in those kinds of traps before. Even Alek Solchov, in the best of moods, could still lash out. /I own you…/

“Since we’ve acquired Beldine’s assets, we’ve been much more able to figure out how much of a financial drain the whole new camera feed system will turn out to be,” Stender said. “The regen credits, however, are a wholly different ballpark. The costs of that system alone…”

“You could try to go without regen,” Irina offered. “God knows that they go without in the Black City. Wounded is wounded, dead is dead. Makes things more dynamic.”

“I want the battles to last more than half an hour,” Stender interjected. “I want to keep the viewers bound for longer than that.”

Irina leaned back on the couch and sipped from her drink. If angel piss would have a taste, it would taste like this champagne. “So what would you do about the regen?”

Stender shrugged. The lights from the city outside played on his handsome face. “Whatever it takes. We’re already working to get the technology ourselves. Put our own people on it. Circumvent Silcom’s patents, get our own. Become /better/, take down the competition. The usual.”

“The usual,” Irina echoed. She smiled wryly and finished her drink. “Glad I’m not Silcom.”

He shrugged again. “Cooperation was my preference. I made them an excellent offer. They didn’t accept. So then we’ll go the hard way. It will take some more time, but we’ll succeed anyway.”

Irina nodded and poured herself some more champagne. Perhaps not the smartest move while she was sitting with her boss, but she was Russian, she knew how to hold her liquor. Usually.

“So,” Stender said when the third bottle had been finished. “Your first month has ended, you’re already one of my biggest assets to the organisation. I know that Sybil got you a place to stay. What else can we do to make sure you’re the best you can be?”

She hesitated for a heartbeat, suddenly slightly nervous. An old reaction, ten years of conditioning had drilled it in her. /Asking for favours? Already? Idiot!/ “I had hoped to bring Gershan with me. I know he’s not your man, he’ll be mine… but I want him with me.”

Stender’s eyes searched her face. “Why is that?”

“I trust him with my life,” she blurted out, thinking of a phone call four years ago. About the look on Pjotr’s face when he told her it was done, and the way he held her afterwards. How he had helped her through the realisation that she was finally, utterly free.

“I’m not sure if an assassin has a place in this organisation, Irina,” Stender said gently. “Not with the way we’re going mainstream… legal. Transparent. This won’t be the Black City politics anymore. You don’t need that anymore. What would you have him do for you?”

/Keep me safe,/ was her first knee-jerk response. She didn’t say anything, though. Her throat was choked up with emotion. When had she started caring about her right hand man and sometime bed mate? Was it when Solchov died? When had she stopped sleeping with him to make him do what she wanted, and had it become more of a need to have him close? She suddenly realised that there was no way she wanted to do this without him. “You could keep him off the payroll,” she said, desperately trying to keep her voice level. “It would be the only condition I would ask for.”

“Convince me, why I would let your pet assassin into the Compound. What would you have him do for you?” Stender repeated slowly. He leaned towards her on the couch, close enough to smell and touch. Some of the easy charm she’d gotten used to in the past month had left his face; he became all business like now. More distant. Colder. Calculating.

Her response had left her lips before she knew it. She leaned over and laid her hand between his legs before she even realised what she was doing. She squeezed softly and felt him instantly respond to her touch. It was instinct. Habit. “What would /you/ have me do for you?” she asked, her voice lower, more husky. Present and past blurred together for a moment. This was how she had been most succesful to get what she wanted. Get your boss in a good mood and he would agree to more things. It was how she got Gershan on her team with Solchov to begin with, back then. She would do it all over again. It would be worth it.

At least Stender looked and smelled nicer than Solchov did. She was close enough to kiss, so she did it. He even tasted better. Small favours.

He broke the kiss and pushed her gently away. “Irina… no,” was all he said.

She opened her eyes and was completely unprepared for the look in his blue eyes. Respect. Pity. Even though down /there/ his body seemed to say different. She blinked. “No? Why not?” /Is it the scars?/

“Because I am not Solchov, my dear.”

She blinked again, confusion and rejection battling for supremacy over her champagne-hazy brain. She sucked in a sharp breath between her teeth and looked at him as if it was the first time. Her new boss. “No,” she whispered. “No, you are not. I’m sorry.”

He patted her cheek softly and then drew back from her. “Don’t be. But this will never happen. You don’t have to treat me like /him/. I’d like to think I’m a better boss.”

“Yes,” she said hoarsely. “I guess you are.”

Later that night, she found herself connecting to Pjotr’s contact details. He looked like she just caught him while getting out of bed. He only wore faded jogging pants, which showed his bare chest and abs in all their glory. His messy ash blond hair bound back, his eyes still puffy with sleep, but alert. Awake. Looking at her. “What is it, sweetheart?” he asked. “You look like shit.”

Irina raked a hand through her dark hair and shrugged. The scars on her shoulder and upper back throbbed dully with the exertion. “I thought to take the pod over to the City in a while.” She counted the timezones in her head. “Are you doing anything for lunch?”

“I am now,” he smiled.

So don’t close your eyes, not just yet
Sleep is just a cousin of death
So throw your diamonds in the sky
We’ll stay gold forever

~ Bring Me The Horizon, “Diamonds Aren’t Forever”

I am so in the middle of my post-game management that I thoughtlessly pick up my call before I realize what I am doing. /Shit/.

Looking up, I see the familiar face of Pjotr Gershan watching me. He looks exhausted as he rakes a hand through his blond hair. There are dark circles under his hazel eyes and he looks like he’s been in a fight. There’s a cut on his cheekbone, joined by the beginnings of a bruise. It looks like it’s low enough not to create a black eye later down the line. His nose is somewhat swollen as well; there’s crusted blood around his nostrils. “I got your business with Midov sorted for you; the money should be coming over the wire as we speak,” he tells me from my screen. He even sounds tired.

I frown back at him, while making sure our channel is duly encrypted. “Ugh, couldn’t you have sent me a text? I’m in the middle of something right now. You know better than to call me right after a game.”

He shrugs. “Thought you’d like to know I got Midov in line for you, like you asked. He’ll make sure everyone gets paid. He might be trouble later down the line, though…”

I sigh as I interrupt him.. “Give me the extended recount later; I’m busy. What do you want, a kiss? Now get off the line. I’ll be in touch.” Of course he completed the task. Easily, probably, too. That’s just how good he is. Is he really fishing for compliments? /Now?/

His handsome face darkens. “Irina, the fucker had hired extra security. We might have a leak somewhere. I nearly lost Yevgeny during the scuffle tonight. Some gratitude would be nice. ”

I sigh at him and wipe my hair out of my face. It feels greasy and tangled, as if I haven’t showered in days. Which I kind of haven’t. I’ve been stuck behind my screens the past 52 hours or so. I’m twitchy from all the stimms I took. I have a couple more hours left and then I’m going to crash. Hard. I need to set my priorities straight. “Look babe, you’re catching me at a bad time. I have about a gazillion calls to make in the next hour or so and /yes/ we’ll look into the Midov stuff afterwards. You got this, as you always do. I knew I could count on you again, etcetera. We’ll talk later. I’ll take you to fucking dinner or something.”

“I’ll hold you to that.” He smiles a charming smile at me and I know it is all right between us again. He knows my moods and vices as I am familiar with his; over the years we’ve had a lot of time to get used to one another. First as bodyguard and guardee, then as colleagues in Solchov’s corporation, and in the past two years secretly as lovers, too. I’ve involved him in my embezzling; he deserves this money I’m stealing as much as I do. When I told him about it, he immediately jumped on it. He wants this ticket out of here as much as I do – he wants to tell his boss ‘fuck you’. My rebellion, his taste for danger. What a lovely couple we make.

The connection dissolves before my eyes and my call screen goes empty for a second. I stare at my own faint reflection in the plasma screen. A dark haired young woman looks back. She looks just as exhausted as Gershan did. I blink at myself. A few seconds of nothing – that’s all I need before I go back to work. Solchov will have my hide if I don’t finish this well.

Not only that, if I mess this up, it will be a tell. I /never/ mess up. It’s why I’m so fucking good at what I do. Controlling flows of information and money takes a certain kind of clear-headedness, especially during big matches like one we had tonight.

If I mess up, Solchov will know what we’ve done, Gershan and I. Gershan is the one that covers my ass while I manipulate flows of money into accounts they shouldn’t go. My accounts. It’s just percentages of margins, the tiniest bits here and there. But all of it together… all of it together it’s accumulating into substantial amounts. We’ve been doing it for years. Gershan is keeping up the appearances, taking over some of my work, while I have a double job with clearing my tracks in the system, talking to people, threatening others. Permanently silencing some of them.

So far Solchov hasn’t noticed. He’s been busy with his businesses in Shanghai and leaves the betting stations to me. I glance at my acocunts. It depends a little bit what I can arrange today, but at this rate it won’t be too long until I can wrestle this company away from Solchov. This company, and myself. I’m so fucking sick of his fucking face and everything he’s done for and to me in the past six years.

/Niki died six years ago. Why the hell should I still be bound to you, Alek Solchov? I’ve paid my fucking dues ten times over by now./

Maybe I’m sentimental. I could just kill him and get it over with. Gershan has offered it often enough. /Let me kill him, I could do it. We could disappear together,/ he whispered in my ear during the dead of night, while I was lying in his arms. /You’d never have to be here again./

He doesn’t see the full picture, though. Solchov and I have an arrangement. If I were to leave, he would hunt me down. He wouldn’t stop at anything to find me. I know he would. And if Gershan would kill Solchov first, then all that I’ve built over the past six years would collapse. I want this empire. It is mine. I bled for this; I built this with my two hands. This is the only good thing that’s come out of the past six years of hell. This is the only good thing that’s come out of /me/.

So I want to take over. I have enough money to buy the place and the rest of management respects me well enough for my skills. It’s not the time yet.

Three weeks ago Solchov gave me a diamond bracelet and asked me if I would stay with him forever. He was almost vulnerable as he told me he loved me and that he would never let me go. It’s all just headgames, I /know/ that. I should know that. And yet I hesitate. /Call it Stockholm Syndrome, pride, or just being that fucked up./ I thoughtlessly toy with the bracelet. The elegantly cut stones shimmer in the light from my screens. He never forgets my birthday. He always gives me diamonds. /Fucking idiotl,/ I tell myself. /He doesn’t give a shit, never did. He just likes to play headgames with you, fucks you around while he fucks you. And once he finds out what you’ve done…/

He won’t, though. He never did, so why would he find out now? I need maybe two or three more matches before I can make my move. I won’t kill him – apparently I’m too weak, broken and fucked up to give Gershan the order – but I will break free. It is about fucking time. And in the meantime, the truce holds and I’ll hold out.

I turn back to my screens and my administration. The money is pouring in, it’s lovely to see. All I need to do is make sure it goes to the right places. People to pay, people to buy. It’s what I do.

Time passes. I’m not sure how much – enough for my last stim to wear off. For a moment I debate taking another and to hell with the consequences – but I have only an hour more to go. I weather through the sudden headaches, twitchiness and exhaustion and finish up my work.

Eventually it all looks good enough, finished enough to take a nap. And a bath. I’m not sure in which order. Maybe both at the same time. I shoot off a quick message to Solchov that the money is in the right places and I’m signing off to bed, but he doesn’t respond. I shrug at my screens and I’m grateful he doesn’t give me the third degree about it. He has very definite micromanagement tendencies and he can drone on about details for hours. And I /really/ want to go to bed.

I click my comms around my ear and turn off the lights. Grab my bag and close the office. I’m the last one left, as usual. Yawning and rubbing my eyes I exit the building, slotting my keycard through the computer. To my surprise it’s morning. I blink bleary-eyed against the grey light of dawn. /Oh wow, that makes for nearly sixty hours without sleep, then. Must be a new record./

I look up at the office building in the morning light. The building is a marvel of post-war architecture. The glass windows reflects the gray sky perfectly, almost as if it isn’t there anymore. The first employees of the new day will probably come in soon. I yawn again.

Pleased with myself I cross the road to the docking station for the pods. I’ve got my own pod assigned to me. Usually I work from the office at home, but post-game management is best done at the office. I hit the start sequence and tap the button for ‘last used location’. Home. Solchov’s house. The pod computer acknowledges my query and begins its work.

And that’s when several things happen at once. I smell something. Something… off. Like electricity, or chemicals. Burning wires. /…What?/

My comm rings and I automatically pick up. “Irina watch out, he knows!” Gershan. He’s screaming like a girl, and then the connection gets cut off.

/Shit./

My body knows what to do before my mind registers exactly what is happening.

Before I know it, I kick the door open and throw myself out of the pod, which was just starting its ascend. And even quicker, I find myself colliding with the concrete.

There is no time to brace myself. No time to even remotely consider what the hell is going on.

And then my pod explodes above me, shrapnel is hurtling towards me, and for a while there’s nothing.

***

The light is bright in my eyes. Pain and blood everywhere. The taste of blood in my mouth. The wailing sound of an ambulance.

“Don’t worry miss, we’re going to take care of you,” someone says. A medic? “You’ll be in the med center before you know it.”

“No,” I groan. My words are slurred. My face isn’t working along. Everything is swollen and torn. Talking is agony. “Not the med center.” The med center is Solchov’s place. I don’t want to go there. “Please.”

Someone is hanging above me. I can’t see his face, outlined against the bright sky. He’s a shadow. “I’m sorry miss, but…” he starts, but somehow I find the strength to transmit my ‘in case of emergency’ instructions to his comm. It’s only one button. It feels like hell. I hold my hand up before my face while the data uploads. The blood on my hand looks nearly black in the sunlight. The blood on the diamond bracelet, however, is the brightest red I’ve ever seen.

“Ah, right. Miss Weisz? We’ll follow your instructions. Please relax. We’ll give you something for the pain as soon as we know it’s safe.”

“Am I dying?” I ask over swollen lips. It sounds like I’m drunk. I /feel/ like I’m dying.

“No,” the medic says gently. “You’ll make it.”

I close my eyes and I try to believe.

***

“Oh God, Irina.” Gershan is standing in the doorway, flowers in his arm. His face is as ashen grey as the walls of my sick room. “Your pretty face,” he gasps.

“Shut up about my face,” I growl. The muscles in my jaw throb dully with the exertion.

He sits down on the chair next to my bed and rakes a hand through disheveled ash blond hair. “I am so sorry, sweetheart. I wish I knew sooner. As it was, I barely escaped with my own life.”

“Your warning saved mine.” I close my eyes for a moment, shutting out the sympathetic look in his hazel eyes. “Now, are you sure you weren’t followed?”

He toys with thoughtlessly the blankets. “Don’t worry. I’ve been off the grid since I called you. I destroyed whatever evidence I could. Thank God for your contingency plans.”

“Yes; at least we made it out.” I would nod, but moving my head hurts. They’ve got me in braces until my face and my shoulders heal. “I know.” The doctors that I privately hired for my well-being said something about reconstructive surgery and skin grafts; maybe even a regen treatment, if we could get ourselves out of hiding. They said they could try to fix me, if we could go aboveground. I said that they could go piss themselves; I’m not taking the risk. I will heal the old-fashioned way, I will get out of this. What’s a few more scars? Proof I survived this, that’s what.

“His discovery completely blindsided me, there were no indications prior. I just saw the red flags go off in the system, the orders that he issued… His team responded so fucking fast, as if he’s been planning this, too. I still can’t believe we got away with our lives. Will he be able to find you here?” he rattles. Gershan’s distraught, he’s out of his element. I know him with an easy smile, confident and nearly lazy in the face of danger. This is completely different. When he looks at me, there’s a spark in his eyes; one that that goes deeper than what I’ve ever seen of him. It reminds me somewhat of how Niki used to look at me when he was high as a kite and telling me he loved me.

“No. I am pretty good at covering my tracks as well. There was no time to put a body in my exploded pod, obviously. But all Solchov knows is that the pod exploded and that I vanished.”

He sighs. “You know he will never stop hunting for you, right?”

“Yeah, I know. I don’t think he ever planned to let me go. Work for him or die.” The illusion of being able to buy my freedom had just been one of his many lies. He owned me. He used me. He used my mind and my body a million times, and it still wasn’t enough. Even without taking this betrayal in account, this must have been a sealed deal since the beginning – if I wasn’t working for him, I would be dead. I could still hear him say it, that night on my birthday, just weeks ago. /I don’t think I could stand the thought of you not here with me,/ he had murmured in my ear.

I had underestimated just how serious he’d been. He had really meant death, when he told me that I should never dream of betraying him. Had he known, back then, three weeks ago? Had he just been planning to take me out, before my betrayal became serious and I would break free? /I should have known. I could have killed him in his sleep a million times already. I could have let Gershan do it. I was so fucking naive./ “Which is why I called you.”

He looks up. “Hmmm?”

No more time for sentimentalities. Solchov isn’t extending me any, and I’ve learned my lesson. “I want him dead. Can you arrange it?”

Most of the time, Pjotr Gershan looks like a little boy. It’s his baby face. I don’t think he even has a full beard yet. Yet when he narrows his eyes, there is a dangerous ‘don’t-fuck-with-me’ gleam there and his killer persona surfaces. “Yes, I can. It might take a while, but I will take him down for you, Irina. It’s about fucking time.” He’s a professional. He has connections. And when he drops his charming boy persona, he’s as dangerous as Solchov is; just in completely different ways. That’s why Solchov initially hired him when Gershan was still a teenager. It’s why I asked him to be my partner in this whole heist thing, to start with. He’ll take care of it. I have no doubts.

After he’s gone, I stare at the blood-crusted diamond bracelet on my night stand for a long time. Once or twice, my eyes even mist over. But then I touch the ravage that is my face and the angry red scar that runs from my jaw to my hairline and the tears evaporate before they can roll.

/You will never give me diamonds again, asshole. Never./

***

The medical staff worries about my heartrate and my nausea today. I keep telling them I’m fine, apart from the discomfort that is to be expected. They want to give me painkillers and they chide me when I ask them for stimms instead. They stay polite enough, though. The money I give them for their care and their silence will make sure they’ll never want for anything in this life. When I ask them to leave me the hell alone, they do.

I sit up in bed, all braced up and nowhere to go. I need to sit awkwardly to be able to look at my tablet while I nuke all the attacks that Solchov has been doing on my financial identity. Bit by bit, I am able to cut off all of my financial ties to his organisation. I don’t want to remind him too much that I am still alive and out there, so I keep a wide berth of everything related to him. I keep consolidating on my own existing private accounts, my own financial setup. I’ve been able to shield him from 90% of my embezzled profits; he probably didn’t even know the money had been earned to begin with. Following the pod explosion he’s been checking though. He has been able to track some of it down, to yank some of it back to him – but if it’s not more than 10%. Most of it is hidden en completely mine, as it should be. He never paid me anything for all the money I earned for him. The medical bills – the ones he used to cement my position with him – have been paid off years ago.

That’s how the whole heist started. I created these accounts because I wanted to make sure that I could pay my financial dependence off. And when I’d reached that point, I wanted to pay off my freedom and I went on, siphoning money away, setting up my own position. Creating a doorway to my independence. Some place where he’d never have a hold on me anymore.

Little did I realise that he would never let me go. He even said as much with his “I’ll make this last forever”. I was so naive.

I have to work harder than I ever did to make sure I can take that last leap to freedom; despite my sickbed and the ghastly gashes in my face and shoulder. Despite the knowledge that he would have /killed/ me if he could have. I resolved to wear the scars as a reminder of my foolishness and my trust that it couldn’t get any worse. The scars could have been healed or lessened. The medical staff keeps trying to sell me these skin grafts and regen treatments. They don’t understand. Nobody does, not even Gershan.

Gershan.

He’s out there right now. It’s been nearly a week since he told me he would take care of Solchov and that it was about fucking time. Nearly a damn week since he went off the grid and I’m starting to realise that he could be dead by now and I wouldn’t know.

Gershan is /good/ at what he does. He has been Solchov’s own pet assassin longer than he’s been my bodyguard by now – he’s a killer. It’s who he is. I’ve seen him wash the blood off his hands. I’ve washed the crusted blood out of his hair once. I’ve watched how he moved, how he fought. I’ve ordered him to take care of business and I heard the reports of the things he’d done. He doesn’t give a shit. Yet I’ve also watched him laugh in unguarded moments and I’ve felt his kisses and I’ve heard his voice telling me to let it go, that it would be alright, that it was just another fucking headgame.

Now that he’s gone to do my bidding it is suddenly dawning on me that I sent out my only true ally into the den of the beast. Physically speaking, If it would come down to a one-on-one between Pjotr Gershan and Alek Solchov, then it would be easy. Solchov would go down before he knew what hit him. But all that I’ve learned about security, distrust and contingency plans, I learned from Solchov himself. It all depends whether Gershan can even get close.

And it’s been a week since he went off the grid. It figures that he probably won’t be in touch until Solchov’s blood is congealing on the ground, but I had not expected it would be this bloody hard to wait. Despite all of the work that Solchov’s retaliation brought with it, despite all of the physical pain and discomfort. I’m going nuts here. Time has little meaning in a bunker like this one. There are no windows. The only indication of time passing at all is when the medics bring me food and water and the clock in my tablet.

I am setting up e-mails and messages with a list of favours to call in the moment Solchov is dead when the door opens for what seems like the gazillionth time that day. My food and water from the last staff visit is still on the nightstand, untouched.

I want to tell them to piss off, leave me be. I am tired and I want nothing more than have a quick snooze. Losing consciousness seems like a great idea; my head is pounding, my eyes are sandy and I am so antsy that I am nauseated and I promised myself I wouldn’t be afraid anymore, but /fuck/…

But I look up and it’s not a medic. It’s Gershan and he has blood in his hair and he seems to be limping and he looks tired, so tired… but he is /here/.

“Pjotr,” I breathe. “Thank God.”

He cracks a smile. A slow smile, the lazy smile I know so well. “God had nothing to do with it,” he retorts as he walks over to my bed.

I want to hug him, I want to kiss him, but these braces around me keep me pretty much immobile. “I’m so glad you made it.” For a split second I don’t even think about Solchov, I don’t even care if he lives or dies. Then my ratio kicks back in and I ask: “is it done?”

He takes my hand in his and nods. “It is done.”

I don’t even have to look at my tablet. I hit the execute command on my financial files and all of my prep work takes flight, starts buying stock, calling in favours, sending out messages. Everything that was prepared is taking action now. That one button; it buys my freedom. Gershan started it, the money should finish it.

I look up at Pjotr Gershan. “Did he suffer?”

And now he smiles that brilliant smile he only reserves for me. It looks glorious, despite his exhaustion and the blood in his hair. “I had only seconds, so I couldn’t make it last. But I sent him your regards. The look on his face was priceless.”

The world swims for a moment as reality seems to adjust around me. I gasp for breath like a fish out of the water. “I’m free.” The oxygen burns in my lungs and I’m not sure whether I want to laugh or cry or scream. I shudder and shake, as if I need to sob, but it can’t tear itself loose from the bottom of my stomach. “Oh God.”

“You’re free,” Gershan says. The look on his face is oddly tender.

My fingers clench painfully around his hands. Like he’s driftwood in a stormy ocean. Like he’s always been in the past five years or so, ever since Solchov introduced him to me. Ever since he held me tightly, in the dark and whispered /It’s only fucking headgames, let it go…/. Ever since he fell asleep next to me and I woke in the early morning, gasping that if Solchov found us together like this, we’d both be dead – before I realised that he’d /fallen asleep/ next to me as if he trusted me. And now there is never that worry anymore. That shadow that has been hanging over my life for nearly seven years; it is gone. The man is dead. His blood /is/ congealing on the ground and I will never, /never/ smell oranges on his breath again, never have to stand his touch, bear his pain, never have to play his games anymore. And Gershan did that for me.

“This is the most…. precious thing…. you…” I wrench out of my throat, and now I’m crying for the first time in years. He wraps his arms around me, as much as he can around the braces, and he holds me silently, rocking me slowly.

And I love him. I love him for his gift of death and freedom, I love him for his quiet understanding.

In the back of my head a voice screams at me that love /is/ death, that it is betrayal and pain that I should remember what I have learned from Niki and Solchov. Niki’s betrayal and Solchov’s headgames. Emotions make me a punching bag for others and I should stomp on them, I should have learned by now but I can’t stop crying, and I can’t stop loving this one instant.

I cling to Gershan and I whisper my thanks through my tears.

He smiles that lovely boy smile of his and kisses me softly on my lips. Despite the ugly cuts and scars on my face, despite my fucked up everything. It is so very, very sweet.

Tomorrow I’ll go back to these things I’ve learned but right now, I allow myself the moment.

I close my eyes and do not think of the blood-crusted diamonds on my nightstand and what I’ve learned from them.

This one moment, I am free.

~~

2286: Fix The Sky A Little

Posted: August 27, 2012 by Kelly in stories, the world

He is fading fast, I can tell.

His pulse is too irregular and slowing down under my trembling fingers. “Niki, goddammit,” I shout at him, trying to get him to respond. His eyelids flutter open, but his eyes are rolled upwards and it only looks creepy and alarming to me.

Also, the breathing. He’s not breathing enough. I shake him to try to get him into breathing, and there’s just nothing happening. His respiration is slowing down with his breathing.

/Fuck. I need to get him to a med center./

I rake my fingers through my dark hair and try to think clearly. I’m not all that sober, myself. The panic and the adrenaline doing a good job of giving an edge to my thoughts, but I’m having a tough time staying focused. We need a med center, but to get him to check in there I need money – which is something we definitely do not have. We just blew the lost of our money on the drugs that are killing Nikolay and clouding my judgement. So how the hell am I going to get them to accept him? How will they save his life?

/Can I let you die here?/ I ask myself, staring down at his body. To anyone else he’d be just sleeping. He seems kind of peaceful. No. He wouldn’t seem like he was sleeping. Not here in this alleyway behind the betting station, in clothes that have seen better days, half-starved, obviously doped up. He looks like the junkie he is… that we /are/, and he looks like he’s either dying or dead. And I gave him this shot. I was the one who robbed that couple from their winnings at the betting station, I was the one who scored our last hit. It’s my fault. /I can’t let you die here,/ I think through a veil of frustrated tears. /Goddammit Niki, not now! I can’t do this on my own, I can’t lose you too!/

Time to make a decision. The med center might be six blocks away, but there’s a pod I can use on the other side of the building. There was a pod pass in the wallet of that couple I robbed as well. “Time for a trip, Niki,” I say, while I struggle to get him upright. It’s a whole different thing to get his arm around my shoulders and to drag him along with me. Malnourished junkie or not, the damn guy is /heavy/.

I manage to get him to the pod on sheer willpower alone. Niki is a dead weight against my body as I drag him along. In the pod it is even worse. He starts shaking uncontrollably until I realize he is having a fucking seizure in the cramped pod. It’s all I can do to make sure he doesn’t bang his head against the door or the controls or any of the gazillion sharp edges around the pod floor. /Will he even make it to the med center?/ I am crying now. Hot tears of anguish are running down my face but I do not have time to wipe them from my face – Niki is spasming so badly.

I can see people look at us from other pods and nobody does anything.

/Just two fucking junks. They should be working, schooling themselves, rebuilding the city after the war – yet here they are, shooting up and staring at the sky instead of doing their duty. Let them die./

I can hear their thoughts. Or maybe it’s the substances in my own system that fill in the blanks in my brain. I’ve been on illegal substances for so long that I don’t even know anymore what it’s like to be alone with my own thoughts. It’s been all instinct for the past four years.

The pod arrives next to the med center. It towers before us as the pod docks. I look up and squint my eyes. The concrete looks nearly greenish under the steel grey skies over the Black City.

Niki’s shivers have subsided, but there’s blood-flecked froth on his lips and he still hasn’t regained consciousness. /Pulse, is there a pulse?/ I lay my fingers on my neck but my hands are trembling so much that I cannot find one. I burst into tears in hopeless frustration and wonder dimly if I am having a seizure, too. Is it adrenaline? Fear?

I can’t waste time. I can’t think.

I hoist him up again, stumble against the pod door, and drag him outside. We’re right before the entrance of the first aid and I can already see security guy standing next to the scans. /KEEP YOUR MED PASS READY/ it says in green neon windows next to the entrance. I don’t have a med pass. I don’t even know what a fucking med pass is. I’ve never seen one, not even in the wallet I stole earlier today. Still, I’ve got to try.

People on the street are looking at us. Nobody does anything, nobody says anything. I’m alone with Niki’s dead weight in my arm. /Is he dead? He can’t be dead. I can’t be alone out here!/

With my free arm I wipe my tears from my eyes and I walk up to the entrance. “Please, help him. He’s dying,” I try to explain to the man in his enforcer armour. “I don’t know what to do.”

He regards me coolly. “Med pass please,” is all he says.

“I don’t have one.”

The expression on his face doesn’t change. He must hear this stuff a million times a day. “Then please leave, you’re holding up the line.”

“No, wait, please-” I start, but his eyes already leave me and he looks at a man that’s walking up behind me. He’s already ignoring us. Niki might as well be dead already. I might be invisible for all that I exist before him. “Hello, sir,” he says to the business man that appears behind us. “Med pass, please.”

The man seems to be in his late thirties. Thinning hair, a face with hard lines. His suit looks like it costs more than all the food I’ve eaten in the past two years. His eyes are as green as mine. He looks rich and smart and he produces a fucking med pass from his pocket.

Niki starts shaking in my arms again. “Please,” I beg of the enforcer. “Please let us in. They have to help him, he’s dying.” It’s utterly futile and I know it, but I can’t help it.

The enforcer ignores me while he scans the med pass, but the businessman looks me up and down. I totally recognise the predatory look in his eyes, but I’m far beyond caring at this point. “Can you help me please, sir?” I ask him with all the humility I can manage. “P-please. I don’t know what I’d do without him.” My voice breaks with a sob.

“Is he your boyfriend?” the man informs. He seems genuinely curious.

“Yes,” I answer before I can even think about it. He’s more than my boyfriend. He’s my everything and I don’t know what I’ll do if he dies now. His shudders in my arms make me want to cry even more. The desperation is so tangible on my lips I can almost taste it. It is sour. Like acid.

I don’t say the latter bit out loud, but he seems to read it from my face. He leans in a little. There’s amusement dancing in his green eyes. Control. The predatory instinct’s still there, too. “What would you do to save him?” he asks me in a conspiratorial tone of voice. His eyes are roving over my body, taking in my desperate situation. He knows what I am going to answer.

In return, I immediately know what he’s offering and it seems like a fair price to me. “Anything,” I say hoarsely. “I’ll do anything.”

“Are you really sure?” he asks me, just to make sure he’ll be able to sleep at night.

Niki jerks in my arms. I nearly soil myself in desperation. “Fuck yes. Please help him,” I sob.

The man turns to the enforcer. “They are with me,” he says, as if it’s been that way all along.

“Of course, mister Solchov,” the enforcer says smoothly. “The Emergency Room is the first door on the right. Have a great day.”

He turns to me again. I don’t like his smile. “Come on,” he says. “What is your name, sweetheart?”

“Irina,” I tell him honestly, as we pass through the scanner and the gates. “Thank you for helping us.”

“The pleasure’s all mine,” he responds, as the ER personnel put Niki on a stretcher. “Do you even know what you agreed to?”

They take him out of the room in a flurry of activity. The room spins around me and I lean against the wall for support. “I think it depends a little on how high Niki’s hospital bill will be,” I respond, hoping to cut a deal out of it. The sourness of desperation is still on my tongue. “And it depends on you what you will ask of me. But it doesn’t really matter what that is, because I agreed to it in advance. I’ll do it, don’t worry. I said I’d do anything.”

“I am sure our little arrangement will work out perfectly, Irina,” Solchov says. The deceptively gentle smile on his face tells me that my gut feeling was right. I’ve sold my soul to the fucking devil to save Niki’s life.

/Oh, Niki./ It better be fucking worth it.

2306: Walk Away

Posted: August 4, 2012 by Kelly in league, stories, the world

She finds herself knocking on an unfamiliar door in Cidade twelve hours after Cedeira discharged her from the hospital. The city that stretches itself along miles and miles of the South American coast is as quiet as it’s ever going to be. It’s four a clock in the morning, and she doesn’t know what she’s expecting, but it’s not for Ruiz to actually open the door and look at her as if she’s a figment of his imagination.

“Val?” he even sounds disbelieving. He must have been sleeping before she knocked on his door. He stands in front of her now, clad in a pair of grimy boxer shorts. There isn’t a hint of shame in is posture. It’s as if he always opens the door this way, no matter who is on the other end. Then again, he does have an alarm system. He probably saw who it was before he opened the door. He still looks surprised though.

Valentina shrugs, readjusting the duffelbag on her shoulder. “I don’t know where else to go.” she says, her voice fragile even to her own ears. Her entire body aches. No surprise there. She’s still healing, after all. Cedeira had told her to take things easy for a while. Arriving on Ruiz’ doorstep in the middle of he night doesn’t feel like taking it easy. It feels like she’s finally lost her mind. She shrugs, a tiny movement that sends a throb of pain through her side. Right. Bulletwound. “And you said I should come by sometimes, between seasons.”

Ruiz stares at her for a few long seconds before stepping aside and pulling the door open further. Valentina lets go of a breath she didn’t even know she was holding and walks inside. The spacious apartment is mostly dark, but it seems mostly clean. There are a couple of glasses on the small coffeetable in the centre of the livingroom, and a few empty bottles as well. The light in the bedroom appears to be on.

“Give me a few minutes.” Ruiz grumbles. “Have a seat, make yourself at home or something. You want coffee? I’ll make some coffee.” he rambles on, not leaving any room for her to get a word in edgewise. His voice is strangely gentle. It’s that, far more than the continued ache in her entire body that tells her she’s a wreck.

She can hear him putter around in the kitchen, before disappearing in the bedroom. A woman’s voice emerges. Val winces. Of course he had company. The woman doesn’t seem pleased with what Ruiz is telling her, if the yelling in Portuguese is anything to go by. Seconds later the door to the bedroom slams open, and the woman stalks out. It’s a gorgeous curvy Latina, with eyes like fire. She’s as naked as the day she’s born. She freezes before she’s two paces into the livingroom. Her eyes are wide as she looks at Valentina.

Val barely has the time to arch an eyebrow before the woman whirls around and storms back into the bedroom. She’s still yelling at Ruiz. Valentina tries a little harder to understand what she’s saying. Her Portuguese is a little rusty, but she can catch the general gist of it. Ruiz’ companion appears displeased that he didn’t deign to inform her that it was ‘Valentina, the legend’, waiting for him in his livingroom. Valentina shrugs and winces again, feeling anything but legendary at the moment.

Minutes later the woman emerges again, fully dressed and awash with apologetic smiles as she slinks out of the apartment. Ruiz smirks as he watches her go. “Girlfriend?” Valentina offers.

“Nah. Groupie.” he counters, puttering around in his kitchen for a moment before joining Val with two steaming mugs of coffee. “So. I heard you got shot.” he says, watching Valentina closely. She hides her face in her mug for a moment.

“Yep. And I don’t want to talk about it right now.” She mutters, glaring at her coffee.

“Tough shit. Waking me up at four in the morning with an ‘I don’t know where else to go’ days after you get shot means you don’t get a say in the matter. You’re talking.” Ruiz sounds like his usual gruff self again. It’s that more than anything that settles Val’s nerves.

“Screw you too, asshole.” she says, grinning at him. “Just… don’t tell Hugh or anyone else from the corporation I’m here, alright? I don’t want to deal with their shit right now.”

Ruiz chuckles. “You mistake Hugh for someone who gives a shit about what his competitors do off-season. Though how you expect to escape notice is beyond me. Unless you swam here from the Compound there’s no way the boys don’t know you’re in Cidade.”

“They know I’m in Cidade, I just don’t want them to know exactly where in Cidade I am right now.”

“And you figured this would be the last place they looked?” Ruiz looks a little impressed. “Good call. So, talk to me, what the fuck happened and why do you look like you’ve been stuck in a blender?”

Valentina sags back into the surprisingly fluffy pillows on Ruiz’ couch, her hands wrapped around her coffee. “You saw the match?” she asks. Ruiz offers her a little nod. “You know about the clusterfuck that preceded the match?” Her next question receives half a shrug.

“Some of it. You know I don’t really pay attention to the gossip, Val.”

“I know.” she offers an appeasing half-smile. “Either way, it was a complete fuck up. The corporation pulled Le Blanc in from the Euroleague because apparently last year’s league was too boring and people wanted to see a more satisfying battle. Which, you know, I get. Le Blanc was pretty good at what he did, so… yeah, I got that. He was a complete psychopath though.” She shrugs dejectedly. “Then again, who am I to pass judgement on that? I’m sure people say the same thing about me.”

Ruiz sinks into the cushions next to her. “I’m not going to lie to you Val, mostly people just talk about your tits.”

That startles a laugh out of Valentina. “I’m sure they do. Anyway, I hooked up with Joshua, which I’m sure you’ve heard all about because it’s such an important factor in the grand scheme of things. Whatever. And Joshua, he’s one of those kids that really has no place in the league, you know? He’s not like you and me or even Le Blanc. He’s one of those kids that has hopes and dreams and thinks the world is made of fucking rainbows or something.”

“Just another fucked up hopeful, you mean.” Ruiz interjects. “So what about him, Val? You fucked another league contestant, well done, welcome to the club. And then you killed him. Again, well done, welcome to the club. That’s not why you’re sitting here though.”

Valentina shakes her head. “That’s just a tiny part of it.” She sighs. “Joshua liked to talk. Fuck, I don’t think he ever really shut up at all, and the nights before the match he got to talking about how he wanted to live. I’m sure you’ve had that before. People get second thoughts, and all of a sudden they’re looking at you, as if you can somehow save their lives, when all they have to do is withdraw from the goddamned match.”

“Yeah, I’ve been there too,” Ruiz confirms, “and I agree, what the fuck is up with that? Don’t they know who we are by now? We’re killers. You, me, Chang, Le Blanc and dozens of other hardcore motherfuckers. We kill people. It’s what we do. I’ll never understand why people still expect us to hold back in a life or death situation.”

“I could have done it though.” Val interrupts. “I mean… I know the game inside and out. That match could’ve ended with Joshua and me alive and off in some far-off corner of the world.”

Ruiz gives her shoulder a comforting squeeze. “Like fuck it could have ended like that. Come on, Val. Technically? Sure. There are a dozen different ways to trick the probes into thinking you’re dead and gone. But you never would have done it. It’s not in your nature.”

“Stender disagrees with you.” Valentina says, her shoulders slumping. “He was convinced I was going to do it, so he… took measures.”

“What.” Ruiz’ voice is frighteningly calm.

“He thought I was going to let Joshua live somehow, so he sent Le Blanc in there with an irradiated bullet to make sure Joshua would die either way.”

When she looks at Ruiz his face in twisted in an angry snarl. Val’s voice is flat as she continues the story. “As you’d expect, Le Blanc didn’t give a shit about Joshua. I mean, Joshua was never a real threat to him. Me on the other hand… I was a five time league champion at the time, and he could use any advantage he could get. By the time the corporation figured out what he was going they were too late to interrupt the game. So I got shot, but luckily I passed out before I could get to the regen station, or I would have been dead.”

“Motherfucker.” Ruiz whispers.

“I know, right? Either way, both Joshua and Le Blanc are dead, I’m a six time league champion now, and I just spent the last few days in a hospital to deal with radiation sickness and whatnot.” She sighs. “And now I’m out, Ruiz. Stender can go fuck himself. If he wants me dead he can come do the job himself. I’m done making it easy for him.”

“You’re out?” Ruiz sounds stunned for a moment, as if a life outside of the league never occurred to him. “What, you’re going to switch leagues or something?”

Valentina shakes her head. “No, you’re not listening. I’m out. Done. They can find themselves a new stooge, because I’m done letting them fuck with my head. I almost died out there, Ruiz. Not because someone was better than me, or smarter than me, or because I fucked up… No, I almost died because fucking Stender didn’t trust me enough. Because he intervened. And I refuse to die because some asshole on a powertrip decides to flip a goddamn switch.”

“Hey, easy…” Ruiz’ voice is eerily calm, as if he’s talking to a wild animal instead of a person. “I get it, you know. I really do. And I don’t think I would have reacted any differently if I’d been in your shoes.”

Valentina snorts. “Bullshit. You would have wrecked the building before ripping Stender’s head off and pissing down his neck. You would’ve… hell, you would’ve done something, at least. I just yelled at him for a while, then gave him the silent treatment for a while and then I ran off. And here I am.”

Ruiz takes her hand in his and gives it a squeeze. “Here you are, depriving that son of a bitch of your company. That sounds like punishment to me no matter how you look at it, kiddo.”

Val smiles weakly at him. “The guy tried to get me killed. I don’t think he cares as much as you seem to think.” It’s a bitter realisation. She really did think she knew him better than that.

“Can I ask you something personal?” Ruiz asks, his voice still gentle. Valentina nods slowly, her thoughts miles away. “How long have you known Stender?” He asks, and it’s the last question she expects. “It’s just that I always got the impression that you two were close. More than what six years of semi-employment would allow for.”

The room blurs before her eyes and Val knows with absolute, mind-numbingly embarrassing certainty that she’s going to cry in front of Ruiz, the hardest man she’s ever met. “I… fuck, it’s been years…” She can’t help but remember the first time she saw him in the flesh, all those years go in Rotterdam. She’d saved his /life/, for all the good it did her now.

“Thirteen years.” she finally manages to croak out. Before she really knows what she’s doing she has her face buried against Ruiz chest. Much to her surprise she survives that impulse, feeling his calloused fingers card through her hair. The last thing she hears before she falls asleep is Ruiz’ voice, telling her it would all be alright, eventually.

~

She wakes up with the afternoon sun in her eyes, stretched out on Ruiz’ couch and covered in blankets that she doesn’t remember him getting. All she remembers is her breakdown the night before. Her cheeks feel red with embarrassment, and yet at the same time she knows it won’t matter to him. He’s already seen her far worse, covered in someone elses blood. Hell, he’d seen her roaring drunk at his first victory party. And now he’d seen her weak. She finds herself incapable of being upset about it. If anyone could handle seeing her fragile it would be Ruiz, who had seen some dark places himself throughout his life.

Valentina pulls herself upright and rubs a hand across her face, feeling as of she’s been on a 24-hour bender. Cedeira had warned her about the aftereffects of her hospital-stay, but she blissfully ignored the warning voice in her head now. /What’s a little radiation poisoning in the grand scheme of things anyway?/

Rationally she knows her problems are small in light of the grand scheme of things. So what if she quits the league? She’s rich enough to never have to worry about money again. She’s still young, even though she feels about a century old in the bright afternoon light. She could start over, still.

Without really consciously deciding to she finds herself wandering over to Ruiz’ bedroom. The door is half-open and the Southern League champion seems to be sleeping like a baby, one arm thrown over his face to block out the light. As she looks at him Valentina realizes that he would be next. If she stays with the league… if she returns to Stender and accepts his worthless apologies, he’d find her some other worthy opponent. It might not be next season, or even the one after, but eventually they would go up against each other.

It reminds her of all the matches she’s seen Ruiz win. The relentless mindfuckery with his opponents. All his flawless kills. Reckless. Fearsome. Truly an opponent to fear and respect. Young would cream his pants over such a match-up. Two perfect killers, matched in so many ways.

His eyes blink open, fixed on her. Always seeking out a potential thread. “Time’s it?” he mutters, glancing around for his alarm clock. Valentina leans against the doorframe, smiling. Ruiz fusses around for a moment, clearly not awake yet. “Alright, kiddo. What’s on your mind?” he finally grunts as he’s pulling himself in an upright position.

“I was thinking of killing you in your sleep.” She says, smiling warmly at him.

It startles a laugh out of Ruiz. “Heh. Where’s the fun in that?” He swings his legs out of the massive bed and heaves himself up. She can almost hear his joints creak. “Nah, kiddo. If it ever gets to that it’ll be in a good fight. I’ll die horribly, and you’ll cry and cry because you’d have no one to get drunk with anymore. Now get dressed, there’s a cantina in Salvadore that needs our patronage.” He slaps her on the ass as he walks by.

She doesn’t break his wrist. Maybe there’s hope for her, after all.