2306: Critical Distance

Posted: August 1, 2012 by Brenda in deathmatching, league, stories

It’s a city-scape this time. A place that once housed thousands of people,  now empty and abandoned save for the league competitors. Valentina presses her back against the wall and tries to ignore the bullet holes next to her head. This city must have seen plenty of battle in its time, before it was abandoned in favour of the Compound. What’s a few more dead in the grand scheme of things?

/Nothing, unless you’re one of them,/ she muses. Everything about the arena is drab and gray, from the concrete buildings to the concrete pavements to the dark skies overhead and the rain beating down on her shoulders. Her hair sticks to her face and she feels the cold water slowly dribble into her flack jacket. Her grip on her gun is solid, her breathing even as she tries to make out any sounds beyond the infuriating pitter-patter of raindrops on everything.

“I’m not having the best day,” she mutters quietly, her eyes flicking in the direction of the camera probe hovering in front of her. Its cloaking device is disturbed slightly by the rain pelting down. Its impossible to see from a distance, but up close Val can see a faint shimmer. Another thing to dislike about the rain. All she wants is clear sights, but with evening falling soon it will only get worse. She imagines Young’s face in the control room, smirking. Maybe cutting and editing what she just said, putting it over her last kill. So what if she’s not having a good day? Three streets down there’s a corpse of someone who won’t have another day, good or bad.

/What was his name again? Dale? Cale?/ She shrugs. It doesn’t matter. He’s just another smudge on the pavement, as far as the city’s concerned. As far as Val is concerned, he’s one more point behind her name and one less competitor to deal with. Two down, four to go, and one of those is Joshua. Valentina tries to feel something as she lists his name at the top of the four remaining, but all she can come up with is the same numbness that had seeped into her bones long before she entered the arena. She tries to pretend for a moment that its sadness over having to kill him, but she knows she didn’t get this far by lying to herself.

Joshua means absolutely nothing, in the grand scheme of her life. Joshua only got this far because he had been lucky, but in an arena with herself and Laurent le Blanc he’s barely a blip on the radar. A sure way to lose a few grand at a betting station for people dumb enough to bet on him. A pretty face and a decent fuck and yet here she is, wishing she could feel something for the damned fool, if only to feel something other than numb.

With a small sigh Valentina raises her face to the gray skies, enjoying the feeling of cold rain on her skin for a moment. Water pools in her eyes and she blinks, refusing to close them entirely. Above her the clouds are angry, pouring their misery out onto the streets.

The tiny crackle of static in her ear in the only warning she gets before she hears Stender’s voice in her ear. “Tired, Val?” He sounds smug and amused, as usual, but there’s also something else underneath it. A bitter twist to his voice that she doesn’t want to notice, but hears anyway. “Maybe you should’ve spent the night in your own bed?” he continues, sounding almost genuinely concerned and curious, except for that hint of something she has come to recognize so well after knowing him for more than a decade.

She’s sure now, as sure as she can be without actually seeing it with her own eyes that Young is replaying the footage of the night before. The entire world will see her slip into Joshua’s room. They will see her climb on a chair and yank the security camera out of the light fixture, just to have a few moments to herself. Of course they will still hear everything, because she hadn’t wanted to take the time to remove all the microphones.

But what’s there to hear anyway? The right amount of moaning and encouragement. Joshua, whispering sweet things into her ear and expressing his wish not to die today. The sounds of Valentina getting dressed again, and leaving the room in the middle of the night to catch a few hours of well-earned sleep. Would Young show the world that this wasn’t the first time she slept with Joshua? Would the entire world hear that she’d been in his bed three times in as many months?

/Will they give a shit?/ She thinks as a bitter taste fills her mouth.

“Contrary to popular opinion I have needs too, Stender.” Her voice is low enough to be muted by the rain, but she knows the probe will pick up on it anyway. She turns her head to the side, glancing at the end of the street while the rain streaks her face.

Stender chuckles, and for the second time in as many minutes she hears something ugly underneath the mirth. “Really now? Well world, there you have it. The champion of the Northern league for five consecutive years has itches that need scratching too. That makes her almost human, doesn’t it?”

For a moment Valentina lets herself believe that he’s acting up because he’s jealous. That his bitterness is more of a personal slight, and less bitching about his investment behaving irresponsible.

/If only…/ It’s a wistful thought, momentarily seeping through the numbness. /If only he actually gave a shit, then we wouldn’t be here right now./

Instead she says: “You’re such an ass, Stender.” She means to follow it up with the kind of witty comment that makes the audience love her, but her mind is empty save for the one thought that has been driving her mad for months now.

/If only he loved her, like she…/

Stender says something else, but she’s already tuned him out. There’s something moving at the other end of the street. A shadow slipping between two four-person transportation pods, slight and nimble. The only other woman in the game, most likely. A perky blonde called Julia, toting around a shockrifle. Valentina presses her back firmer against the wall, blending in with the halflight and the rain. The sounds of the dead city slip to the background as her instincts take over. She can hear Julia’s slightly laboured breathing clearly now. A faint shuffling of her feet as she takes position, resting the rifle in the hood of a pod and aiming into a side street.

“Dumbass,” Valentina hears herself whispering. Julia is so caught up in whoever she’s hunting that she doesn’t bother to look in other directions. She never even looks up. The faint humming of her rifle is audible seconds before she shoots. Two blue orbs blast into the street, followed by a cut-off scream and an explosion. Valentina uses the noise to cover her movement. She slides along the wall, staying in the shadows. Her finger is on the trigger as she glances around the corner, finding the street behind the other competitor empty.

Julia pulls back a lever on her shockrifle and a cartridge pops out with an audible click. She looks down at it, muttering something while Valentina creeps closer. Her gun slides back into its holster as she approaches her competitor from behind. The streets are still empty, save for the burning husk of a pod.

/Please let it be le Blanc…/ Valentina utters a silent prayer. /Or Joshua…/ She’s not picky, she just needs both of them to be dead already, and this dreary excuse for a deathmatch to be over. There’s a soft hiss as she slides her combat knife out of its sheath, but that’s easily covered by the sound of Julia sliding a new cartridge into her spent shockrifle. Two more steps and Val is behind her.

Julia’s rifle clatters to the ground as Val reaches around her. Her fingers dig into the blonde’s cheeks as she yanks her head back, exposing her throat. She slides the blade along the bare skin, the pressure firm enough to open veins, sever tendons and vocal cords and lay open Julia’s windpipe. The other woman wheezes, the air from her lungs gurgling out of her open throat. She thrashes around for a moment, one of her hands on Val’s wrist while the other reaches for a gun that’s no longer there.

It’s over in seconds. Warm blood gushes over Valentina’s hand. Julia struggles briefly, but her strength fades fast. Valentina lets go of her when her body stills, letting the empty shell of a human being slide down the pod. She crouches down between the pods and wipes her hand on her cargo pants until its no longer slippery with blood. Within a minute of her kill she’s on the opposite end of the street again.

“Not sticking around for the party?” It’s Young’s voice in her ear now, making it a private conversation. As private as they get, anyway.

Valentina smirks and stays silent, slipping through the shadows of the city. The half-light will fade into darkness within the next hour. Although the game has no snipers, Joshua has a shockrifle. He can light up the sky if he wants, and he doesn’t need proximity to kill. The opposite is true. He needs distance, and Val is going to make damn sure he doesn’t get it.

/If he’s still alive,/ she finds herself thinking. Two streets back now there is a corpse in a burnt out pod, and if she’s lucky it will be le Blanc, but God help her, she will settle for it being Joshua.

The telltale crackle of arena loudspeakers fills the air. Valentina ducks into an alleyway, sinking into the shadows just as Stender’s voice fills the arena. “The endgame approaches!” he booms, loud and ominous in the otherwise silent city. “We have two more registered kills. Frank Ortiz perished at the hands of Julia Danes.”

“Fuck.” Val mutters.

Stender continues: “And second later Julia herself fell to the tender mercies of Valentina Marin.” His voice sounds a little hollow, echoing through the street.

“Oh fuck…” Val says again, letting her head fall back against the alleyway wall. “So how’s the party?” she asks, her eyes in the general direction of the probe. She can’t discern it as easily as she could before now that darkness is settling.

Young chuckles in her ear. Apparently there are other things going straight into the livestream, for him to communicate so openly with her. Meaning also that she was probably out of the danger zone for now. The announcers, editors and facilitators have a way of giving things away without meaning to. After six seasons, Valentina knows every single one of them.

“It’s heating up a little,” Young divulges. “I don’t think you’ll have to worry about young Joshua for long. He’s poking around your last kill now.” Young sounds thoughtful. “Looks like he’s interested in Julia’s shockrifle… or… no, just the cartridges. Must’ve gotten low on ammo after that firefight with Kyrene. God, he’s not even looking…” His voice has the edge of disdain it always gets when he’s not impressed by a competitor.

“So it’s not just a party for one?” Valentina asks, hoping Young will feel charitable. She doesn’t need the exact coordinates for le Blanc, but some idea of where he is would be nice.

Young stays quiet as seconds tick away. /I’ve lost him…/ Valentina figures. Maybe Stender appeared at his shoulder. Maybe le Blanc was finishing the job that very moment. He’d told her in the past that the control room always got a little hectic right before a kill.

“Huh…” she hears him intone. “Well, this is curious. It appears Laurent has your boy in his sights, but he doesn’t seem particularly inclined to shoot him. He’s just watching.”

Val’s eyes narrow. Of course he’s watching. She remembers the way his eyes followed her every move at the pre-game dinner, as if he was studying her. She’s used to being watched, but something about his gaze had been off. It had felt oily on her skin. It’s not just that he’s mad… So many of the competitors are. There are days when Valentina herself doubts she’s sane. Then there are the days when she knows damn well that she’s not. She’s a coldblooded killer. A sociopath. She just slit a woman’s throat without a single second thought, after all.

Le Blanc, though… his madness is like ice, and she can feel it chilling her bones. “Is he conserving ammo?” she asks Young, trying to distract herself from the sense of dread rising within her. She doesn’t remember him getting involved in any of the earlier kills. Not like herself and Joshua.

“No…” Young sounds ponderous now too. She imagines for a moment that she can hear a hint of concern in his voice. “No, it seems like he’s waiting for something. I haven’t seen him fire a single round this entire match. Val, I need to go, Stender is pitching a fit here.”

Clearly not on the livestream then. The game execs would rather shoot themselves in the foot before they’d admit to being out of control. Val frowns for a moment. She hasn’t seen Stender out of control once in all of the years she’s known him.

Somehow that brings a smile to her face. Hundreds of miles away Stender is pitching a fit. The entire world is watching Le Blanc as he watches Joshua and does nothing. She’s soaked through to her goddamn underwear and sometime within the next few hours, she is going to come back to the compound victorious. She knows it down to her very core. She is going to come back with the blood of more people on her hands, and then…

/Then Stender can go fuck himself./ She thinks.

Her thoughts drift back to Le Blanc. She’s seen all of his matches, of course. He’s cold. He’s calculating. He’s a strategist to the core. If he hasn’t fired a single shot so far its because he has a plan. Valentina bites her lip, bouncing from foot to foot for a moment. Le Blanc must have played this match through in his mind a million times, anticipating her behaviour. That’s his strength. /I can’t beat him his way./ Val realizes.

/Think, Val… think…/ Le Blanc wants to win more than anything. He doesn’t want to survive the game. It’s not about survival for him. It’s about victory. About being the best. About beating the best. Valentina’s hands move to her guns. She softly caresses the cool, slick metal of the blasters. Her favoured weapon, but also Le Blanc’s favourite. She plays his stats through her mind, and finds herself discouraged.

He’s as good as she is, in terms of statistics, and he’s a proven winner. The Euroleague had been a cakewalk for him the season before. Valentina replays the dinner from the night before in her mind. She remembers the way he watched her and weighed her. The way he’d no doubt been perfecting his strategy.

/Be unpredictable./ That’s what her conclusion had been. Be unpredictable, break his strategy. /But what if that’s what he’s counting on?/ She’s always unpredictable, that’s her strength.

“It’s like betting against a Sicilian when death is on the line…” she whispers. There is no telltale crackle over her earpiece. No sign that anyone is listening in. Whatever’s going on in the control room, they’re too busy to comment on her wisecracks in the face of death. She rolls her shoulders and straightens herself against the wall. “That’s alright. I’m sure Le Blanc will have a good laugh about it, before I stab him in the throat.”

She turns on her heel and slips out of the alleyway. Darkness has settled over the city now, and her footsteps sound loud on the wet pavement to her own ears. Her competitors know that she was the one to dispatch Julia. They must also know that the rules of common sense demand that you don’t hang around a kill. Therefore it would be logical for her to get the hell out of dodge. Whether they will count on Val’s impatience and recklessness to weigh out her common sense remains to be seen.

She knows damn well she has a reputation. Betting station managers and analysts around the world comment time and time again that the only reason she’s won five consecutive championships is because she can surprise people. Because she’s reckless and wild, and it’s a miracle that she’s lived this long.

/God, let him know that’s not true…/ She thinks. Le Blanc has watched her. He’s studied her every move. He of all people should know it’s a facade to mislead people. A calculated farce to cover the fact that she’s been killing people for nearly two decades. She is corporation trained, but deep inside her the rugged streetkid that had made her first kill long before she even met Stender still lives.

Right now she needs Le Blanc to believe that she’s a corporation trained robot, and that her impulsiveness is a mask. She needs him to think he’s figured her out. Then she needs to slide in behind him and stab him in the heart, before he realizes she’s back. All while avoiding Joshua.

“Just kill him already.” She growls. The city is silent except for the rain. She pictures Joshua sneaking through the empty streets, skulking from pod to pod, occasionally glancing behind him because he’s feeling watched. He has to feel watched. But his Belgian competitor won’t reveal himself. If he’d been a sniper, Valentina would know where to find him. He’d be on a rooftop. But he’s not… he’s like her, a close proximity fighter. He wants to see the light go out in his enemy’s eyes and know that he’s won.

/But he’s nothing like me…/ She realises. Whatever his motivation is, for whatever reason he chose dual guns as opposed to a rifle, he is not like her. She’d learned to kill up close long before she learned about ranged combat. She’d felt blood on her skin and seen life fade from people’s bodies up close, years before she learned that there was another, less visceral way to do it.

Laurent le Blanc hadn’t started out that way. She remembers the briefing clearly, the well-sculpted pr-videos showing people about his life. He’s ex-military. Black ops. He didn’t see his first up-close kill until he’d been at it for five years. His close-range combat skills are impressive, but he’s had to work hard to get there. It’s not in his veins the way it is in Valentina’s.

She can’t decide whether that makes him more or less dangerous.

“Val,” Stender utters her name in a clipped tone of voice and she freezes. There is no echo, so she knows he’s only speaking to her. Slowly she raises one of her guns in front of her. Blocking the view of the probe from her face. With only three competitors left in the game there’s no way her movements aren’t broadcasted into the livestream, and she’ll be damned if she lets on that Stender and Young are speaking to her directly. There’s too much gossip already, without offering further incentive.

“What?” she whispers, inching forward. She’s on edge. They have to be close now. She can almost taste her next kill. The adrenaline is coursing through her blood, and it feels like her heart is pounding a million miles an hour. Joshua and Le Blanc are close, she can tell. She doesn’t have time for this.

“There’s a problem,” Stender says. He sounds tense. Not like before, when he was bitter and snarky for unknown reasons. This time she hears a twinge of concern in his voice. She halts again, her memories pulling her back years ago and miles away, to her first deathmatch, when is voice was nearly constant in her ear, until she’d pulled the receiver out because she’d nearly gone mad listening to him worry about her safety.

“Is the arena compromised?” she asks. It wouldn’t be the first time deathmatch arena’s were tampered with or invaded by third parties.

She hears a rustle of clothing and she imagines Stender shaking his head. “No. It’s Le Blanc. He’s… There’s something about his bullets you should kn…”

With a growl Valentina yanks the receiver out of her ear and drops it onto the ground. With narrowed eyes she looks at the cloaked probe. “I’m sure they’re deadly,” she whispers, her voice oddly calm, “but I don’t need to hear it from you, and you know it.”

Two steps to the side and she slides between two stationary pods. Her gun hits the pavement with a thunk as she presses her hands to the cold alloy of the pods. They’re shaking. Between the natural adrenaline coming from the knowledge that she’s going up against one of her most dangerous competitors to date and Stender’s odd behaviour the past week her nerves feel shattered.

“Get a fucking grip.” she says both to Stender and herself. “This isn’t my first time around the block. I’ve been doing this for six years… Have a little faith. I will not let this be the end of me.”

Two breaths later she reaches down and closes a steady hand around her gun. Without the earpiece she feels calm. Her focus is back on the streets around her, and the battle at hand. Two competitors left. Two kills, and then it’s over. She takes a few more seconds to collect her thoughts, remembering the lay-out of the city.

Le Blanc can’t be far away. Moments ago he apparently had Joshua in his sights. Joshua had been collecting the cartridges from Julia. There are three streets leading up to the streets where Julia’s corpse was cooling. Val had been in one, initially moving towards the intersection, and then away once the other woman was dispatched. That leaves two streets.

In her mind’s eye she can see Joshua keeping to the shadows, no doubt thinking him himself alone and obscured from hostile eyes. Not far behind him Le Blanc would be following, slinking from pod to pod. /Why won’t he shoot?/ Joshua has to be an easy target now, for a hunter like Le Blanc.

“Are you using him as bait?” Valentina muses. Although Joshua isn’t a poor competitor, he’s not on the same level as herself and Le Blanc. Without the both of them there, he’d have a shot. As it is he’s the underdog. He knows it. He said as much the night before. She tries to remember the exact cadence of his voice now. He’d told her about his victories in the preliminaries. Even Joshua had known that it was a matter of luck, not skill. Valentina had expected to face Emmerson in the finals. Emerson had slipped while he was stalking Joshua. Joshua took advantage.

“I want to live, Val.” She remembers him saying. His hands had been warm on her skin, and his words soft, full of longing for that sweet chance at survival. She doesn’t remember her exact response, but it was something along the lines of ‘leave, then.’ They both knew that if Joshua entered the arena, the only thing he has going for him is luck. He might hope for mercy from her, but rationally he has to know that she hasn’t survived as long as she has by having a soft heart. The thought of Le Blanc showing mercy is laughable at best.

She’d said as much, and yet he is in the arena now. She can’t even pretend to understand what motivates him. Someone like Le Blanc, who wants to be the best, or someone like Julia, who was in it for the fame, that she can understand. Emmerson had been in it for the money. Joshua might need the money, and he might like the fame and the victory, but she doesn’t feel the same hunger in him that she feels in most other competitors.

Not for the first time in the past months she wonders if she’s so far out of touch with humanity that people like Joshua feel alien to her. She’s a predator, a hunter. A killer. Joshua is prey.

A small smile arises on her lips. He /is/ prey. He’s bait. He’s a tool, and she is a fool to let Le Blanc be the only one to use him like that. And unlike Le Blanc, Valentina knows what he wants. He wants to live. He hopes to survive against all odds. It has happened before, after all. Emmerson was never supposed to slip, but he did, giving Joshua the chance to survive and move on.

/That is what he’s hoping for,/ she thinks, turning on her heel and sprinting into an alley leading to another sidestreet with a determination that she hasn’t felt since the start of the match. She feels like laughing with glee. With her decision made the world seems oddly light all of a sudden, although the city is plunged in darkness. Halfway down the alley she finds herself jumping into a puddle, giggling softly as the water splashes up. Her footsteps echo through the abandoned street, louder than any sound she’s made all match. It feels glorious.

She dashes through two more streets, putting distance between herself and the intersection first before circling around until she hits the main street where, three blocks away, Julia Danes killed Frank Ortiz. She stops in the entrance to the street, her eyes trained to the  East. There is a faint orange glow in the distance. Despite the rain, the destroyed pod must still be burning. The closer she gets, the more it will hinder her eyesight. Not the best position for her to be in at all. Valentine briefly wonders if her cheeks will be sore from grinning after this match.

The street appears to be empty. Her competition is likely staying close to the buildings, just as she would do if she was the one stalking prey. “Be predictable,” she whispers, thinking of Joshua. “You want to live… be predictable and come here.” It feels unnatural to base her plan around the hopes and dreams of another. Joshua desperately wants to live. She hopes that he’ll follow his instincts.

Frank Ortiz died by the hands of Julia Danes. Julia had her eyes on the West when she died. She didn’t look into the East, where her death had waited for her. Joshua will want to put distance between himself and Julia’s killer. “You want to move West,” Valentina says, as if Joshua can hear her. “You want to come to me now.”

She crouches down next to the wall, her eyes on the street. Her shadow interrupts the sharp lines the buildings leave. A rookie mistake. She resists the urge to hum to herself. It’s obvious enough already. “I bet you’re freaking out now,” she says to the probe and to Stender on the other side of it. “I hope you are. At least one of us should be worried about my survival.”

Seconds stretch into minutes. Valentina pushes her doubt aside, more persistent with every passing moment. /He’s already passed. He’s moved East. Goddamn it Val, you’re a sitting duck!/ The hairs on the back of her neck rise. /What if he’s behind you?/

The thought seems to knock the breath out of her. In a flash she can see it before her mind’s eye, as if it’s real. She can see Le Blanc standing behind her, his gun trained on the back of her head. Smiling and watching and weighing, the way he had the evening before. The muscles in her neck tense as she fights not to turn around. /You would have heard him. Steady now, you would have…/

She turns her head. The alley behind her is as empty as it was before. She lets go of her breath in a half-laugh before turning her eyes back to the street.

The soft orange hue of the fire flares up bright blue. “Fuck!” she exhales and throws herself backwards. She lands on her back in a puddle just as the blast from a shockrifle spears the air where she’d been less than a second ago. It shatters loudly against the building next to her, sending debris flying throughout the alleyway.

/Rookie mistake,/ Valentina thinks, her ears ringing from the blast. /Stupid…/ She coughs twice, forcing the sound from her lips. She steps away from the street, into the darkness of the alley. She plays up a limp, lets her foot drag and scrape a little over the concrete. A whimper escapes her as she presses her back to the wall, her shadow blending with the perfect straight angles of the buildings again.

/Come on…/ Her breathing sounds harsh to her own ears. She plays it up a little more. Over the sound of the ringing in her ears and her own breathing she can hear footsteps in the street. Rushed. Her hand tightens around the grip of her knife. “Come on…” she whispers. He’s close now. She exhales through her nose. Her breathing quiets down. He rounds the corner.

“Val!” he gasps. There’s something in his voice she can’t identify. His eyes search for her, moving from the busted wall to the debris and finally further into the alleyway. “Oh shit…” he utters, his voice tight somehow. “Val…”

She rushes out of the shadow without making a sound. His arms are raised, holding up the shockrifle. She slides her knife between his ribs before he can turn. His blood pours onto her hand while he stares at her wide-eyed. She grabs hold of the rifle with both hands and tears it out of his.

“Val,” He chokes out, falling forward to his knees as his fingers slip from the rifle. His hands scrabble for the knife between his ribs.

“You’ll bleed out.” Valentina says, readjusting her grip on the shockrifle after checking that the cartridge is full. “Leave it there. I’ll come back for you,” Her voice is flat. He looks up at her, his eyes bright. Full of hope. He nods once. She turns and walks deeper into the alley. Her footsteps are silent this time.

The darkness seems cloying the further away from the streets she gets. She moves swiftly, thinking le Blanc won’t be far behind Joshua. The shockrifle needs distance, the kind of distance Joshua couldn’t create once he rounded that corner. The darkness seems to swallow her whole, and the world seems to have gone still. The calm before a storm. As if millions of people worldwide are waiting with baited breath.

Valentina throws herself to the side just as the gunshot echoes through the darkness and a muzzle flashes bright in front of her. She feels a hot stab of pain in her side, but her finger is already on the trigger. A bright blue orb from the shockrifle lights up the narrow street, and she sees him. Laurent is less than twenty feet away, crouching on one of the narrow steel staircases leading up to the building. He smiles and aims at her, just as she releases a second beam of energy from the rifle.

A blue explosion shatters the metal he’s standing on and he’s blown backwards, his arms uselessly flailing for grip. He lands on the pavement with a sickening crunch. Val drops the rifle and presses a trembling hand to her side. “Fuck. So fucking stupid…” she whispers, her vision swimming for a moment. She bites her lip, trying to focus away from the pain in her side.

Slowly she moves towards Le Blanc, with one hand pressed to her wound and the other firmly on the handle of her gun. The arena is still quiet. Joshua hasn’t bled out yet, and apparently Le Blanc isn’t dead either. /What luck…/ She thinks. /Both mortally wounded, and yet both not dead./

“Time to change that.” Several feet away from her Le Blanc is sprawled on his back on the pavement. His hands are empty and he’s not moving. When she approaches him she sees his eyes are open. He rolls his head towards her. He’s still smiling, but his breathing sounds laboured.

“Spinal injury,” he whispers as she approaches him. “Looks like you got me. Clever Valentina. You should have looked up sooner.” He gazes at the sky for a moment. The fact that his spine is busted doesn’t seem to bother him much. “It’s ok though. I still win.” His eyes turn back to her. His gaze still feels oily on her skin.

“You win?” Valentina scoffs. “You’re dead. That doesn’t count as winning in anyone’s book.”

Le Blanc chuckles softly. “I killed you too. You just don’t know it…” A gunshot cuts off whatever he’s trying to say. His eyes keep staring at Valentina, dead now because of the bullet lodged into his head.

“Shut up,” She grumbles, looking down at her side. She is bleeding, but it doesn’t feel lethal. Nothing a few seconds in a regen device won’t fix. “Seriously, where do you find these assholes?” She asks out loud, glancing at the now de-cloaked probe that’s hovering over the corpse of Laurent le Blanc.

“And here I thought you two were bonding.” Stender’s voice echoes through the street. He sounds off as he announces the death of Le Blanc to the world. The strange undertone of worry still colours his voice. “I guess that just leaves your friend Joshua,” he tells her.

“Yes, thank you Stender. I can count.” Valentina checks her gun, even though she knows she’s got rounds left. She can indeed count, thank you very much. Slowly she makes her way back to the street. Rationally she knows she has no real reason to worry. Joshua had been mortally injured and disarmed, after all. But he had also been so damned lucky before.

She finds him sitting with his back against the wall. The knife is still stuck between his ribs and his breathing comes in shallow bursts. He is already dying, but he looks up when she approaches anyway. He smiles and breaks her heart a little. “Hey. I guess you win,” he whispers.

Valentina nods, not trusting her own voice. /Why did you come here?/ She wants to ask. She wants to shake him and scream at him. /If you wanted to live then why did you come here?/ Instead she crouches down in front of him. His eyes flick down to her side for a moment.

“You should get that looked at,” he says, still smiling.

She swallows once before speaking. “Just a scratch.” Her voice is hoarse in her own ears.

“Stop stalling, Valentina.” Stender’s interruption is offered in clipped tones. “Some of us have places to be.”

She glares at the pod. “Jesus, Stender, why don’t you fuck off for a while?”

Next to her Joshua chuckles softly, sounding pained. “I don’t think he likes me much,” he muses. “I don’t know why… You’d think that… if you give the almighty Stender a reason to dislike you, you’d remember, right? I’d like to think that I’d remember.”

“He’s just an asshole sometimes,” Val offers as she reaches over and brushes his hair out of his face. She’s too close, and she knows it. If their roles had been reversed, she would yank the knife out of her chest and kill him with it. She would be like Le Blanc, smug about stealing the victory even as she was bleeding out. Joshua is still smiling up at her and she knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that he won’t try it. He can’t. It’s just not in his nature.

“I think he’s jealous,” Joshua whispers. His hand moves and for a moment she thinks she’s misjudged him completely. Her own hand flits towards the knife, but her movements still when she feels his fingers wrap around her wrist. “Hey… it’s ok. I’m done here.”

His grip is weak. She snorts, and shakes her head. He tugs on her wrist, and she’s forced to look at him again. “He should be, you know. He should be jealous.” She can barely hear the words, but she reads them from his lips anyway. The corner of her mouth twitches as she tries to smile, and fails miserably. Eventually she settles for placing the muzzle of her gun against his chest.

“Okay?” she asks, her throat so tight she feels like she might choke on the words. Joshua’s smile wavers, but he nods. He brings her hand up to his face and kisses her knuckles.

“Yeah. You should. The league needs a winner, after all. And I’m glad it’s you. It was always going to be you.” He closes his eyes and lets his head fall back against the wall. “It’s okay.”

She makes herself watch his face as she pulls the trigger. The gunshot is loud in the night, but the sound of her gun clattering to the concrete feels even louder. Stender’s voice fills the arena to congratulate her with her last kill and victory. To congratulate her on her sixth consecutive league championship. Val drags herself out into the street and sits down with her back against one of the abandoned pods. /Victory./ The thought leaves a bitter taste in her mouth, and leaves her reeling.

“Get yourself to a regen point, Val.” It takes her a moment to realize that Stender is talking to her. She shakes her head. The wound isn’t mortal, and she’s too tired to move. She feels like she might be too tired to move ever again. A bone deep weariness settles over her as the night turns silent once more.

“Just send someone to pick me up, will you? I’ll get it looked at in the compound.”

“Val…” Stender doesn’t sound like he wants to give up the argument so easily. His voice is worried again. Valentina interrupts him.

“Just… send someone, ok? I’ll be right here.” She closes her eyes. A part of her realizes that Stender is still talking to her. It sounds urgent. /He can wait./ She thinks. She’s done everything he could have asked for her, and now he can bloody well wait.

The darkness she’s in seems to deepen around her, even though she rationally knows that there should be no change. She’s got her eyes closed, after all. It’s not important. Nothing is. Her breathing evens out, and all thoughts seem to slip away. There was something though. Something Stender said that had seemed trivial before.

/I still win./ She hears le Blanc’s voice clearly, as if he’s sitting next to her instead of lying dead in the alleyway. She shakes her head. There are more voices around her now, but she can’t bring herself to open her eyes. Everything feels heavy. What did Stender say? There’s something about his bullets. Something…

She feels like she’s moving. When she finally opens her eyes she finds herself looking up at the sky. From the corner of her eye she sees the buildings move, and she realizes she’s being carried. “What…?” she starts. The word feels thick on her tongue.

A medic hovers over her, his face a mask of concern. “She’s fading fast,” he says to someone else. The sky above her blacks out for a moment as her eyes slip closed. When she opens them again she sees the inside of a medical pod. There are wires attached to her chest, and the wound in her side is throbbing.

“What…” she tries again. The medic is at her side again. She vaguely feels a needle slide into her arm as he shushes her, and reassures her that she’ll be fine, once they get her into a regen station.

She closes her eyes again, feeling darkness pulling her under. She can see Le Blanc smiling at her, blood dripping from the hole she left in his head. “See?” He says, still smiling that awful smile, “I killed you too.”

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