2306: A Fine Day To Exit

Posted: August 3, 2012 by Kelly in league, stories

She becomes aware of her surroundings slowly. The first thing she notices is the light. It’s stark and white, the way the lights of a medical facility would be. It hurts her eyes, so she keeps them closed. That’s when she becomes aware of the sounds around her. People speaking. Medical terms, she’s sure, but they have no meaning to her. Nothing has a meaning, and for what seems like an eternity she just floats in this place with its painful light and confusing voices.

It doesn’t last. One moment she’s seemingly floating above herself and the next she slams back into her body, gasping through blinding pain. The throbbing in her side is secondary to the fire that courses through her veins. Somewhere far away someone screams. Her back arches off the bed she’s on. Her vision goes white, far brighter and more painful than the led-light.

Hands press her down onto the bed and soft voices murmur in her ears, urging her to calm down. Another needs slides into her skin. It’s a sedative, pulling her under. The fire in her veins dulls down to a manageable throb, and she lets herself fall into a cool, dark unconsciousness. Voices murmur in her ears. She thinks she recognises a few. Stender seems to be there non-stop, but she also hears Young and Weisz. Then again, she also hears Joshua and le Blanc, and the latter two are definitely dead. She killed them.

Maybe that’s the problem. “I killed you too.” le Blanc had said. Maybe he had been right. Maybe she’s dying now. Stender’s voice in her mind tells her that she’ll be alright, but he sounds  oddly unsure of himself. Joshua tells her that everything is okay, but what does he know? He’s dead. She feels his fingers brush her hair out of her face, and it’s exactly the way it was when she last saw him, except that she is the dying one now.

The next time she wakes up it’s to the sound of her name spoken by someone she doesn’t know. She opens her eyes slowly. There’s a blurry haze of a person hovering over her, blocking out the bright light. She doesn’t recognize him, but his clothing identifies him as part of the medical staff. “Am I dead?” she asks, or tries to ask. That’s when she realizes there’s a tube in her throat. Her eyes widen for a moment.

“Easy there, Valentina. We’ll remove the tube in a little while. You needed a bit of help breathing, that’s all.” He picks up a pad and starts jotting down some information. She narrows her eyes at him. “My name is Jonathan Cedeira, and you’re in the Compound medical facilities. We’ve met before, but I don’t blame you for forgetting. Your memory will be a little hazy for a while, I’m afraid. It’s the radiation treatment. It’s effective, but unfortunately we haven’t been able to eradicate all the side-effects.”

Valentina arches an eyebrow at him, hoping to express exactly how impressed she is by his words. Although she’s only just woken up, she already feels the sweet lure of sleep trying to pull her back in its arms.

Cedeira offers her a faint smile. “I know. You’re thinking: ‘radiation treatment? what’s that got to do with the bullet wound I sustained?’” He walks to the other side of the bed, and Val flinches when he stops blocking the too bright light. He notices, and turns it down a little.

“You did sustain a bullet wound. It shouldn’t have been problematic. It’s not the first time you’ve been shot, and it really was something a regen device should have fixed in about five seconds.” She blinks a few times, but she can’t get his face into focus. Cedeira seems to frown, though it’s hard to see. “Go back to sleep, miss Marin. We’ll talk more when you’re feeling better.” She wants to protest, but sleep pulls her under within seconds.

She dreams of voices again. Joshua tells her he wants to live. He tells her what he wants to do with his life. She wants to tell him to withdraw from the game, but she can’t. She can only tell him the things she told him before, the last night she spent with him. She listens to Stender as he tells her to kill Joshua over and over again.

With a gasp she wakes up, sitting upright in her hospital bed. The tube is no longer in her throat and she coughs, feeling parched. Her cheeks feel wet, but when she reaches up to wipe them off she notices old fashioned IV-lines plugged into her veins. She moves to yank them out, but a hand closes around her wrist.

“Don’t do that yet.” It’s Cedeira. He helps her sit upright and brings her a glass of water which she chokes down. Afterwards he wipes her face clean of tears that she doesn’t remember spilling. He looks pensive. She arches an eyebrow at him again, as if to say ‘what?’. He shakes his head, smiling faintly. “It’s nothing. Just… you look almost human. Not what I expected.”

Val lets her head rest against the pillows as she watches him. She faintly remembers him now. “You don’t like me.” She states. It comes out as a hoarse whisper. Cedeira chuckles, shaking his head slightly.

“Hmm. No, I don’t mind you personally, I think. I just don’t care about what you stand for.” She regards him silently for a moment. He shrugs. “You know… pointless death. It goes against my nature.”

The chuckle that escapes Valentina sets her throat on fire, and despite his dislike for her career, Cedeira is there with more water. She swallows it down greedily, almost choking on it twice. “That’s too bad.” she finally utters. “I kind of like you.”

Cedeira pats her on the head, which makes him the bravest man alive. “You’re just mistaking gratitude for affection. I did save your life, after all.”

“Yeah, about that…” Val sounds pensive. Cedeira sighs and moves to the end of her hospital bed, picking up the pad that no doubt contains all her medical records.

“I don’t suppose I can convince you to let this rest until  you’ve regained your strength a little?” The grip he has around the pad is so tight that his knuckles are white. Valentina shakes her head.

“I need to know.” Cedeira looks at her for a moment. He seems to be weighing her motives and resolve. “I need to know, before I talk to Stender.” She presses. She doesn’t have to see her face in a mirror to know her face is twisted in bitter resolve.

Cedeira’s mouth twitches into a small smile. “Yes, I suppose you do. Right… what do you remember?”

Valentina looks at her hands as she ponders on that question. “It’s blurry. I remember parts of the match. There was something about le Blanc’s bullets. Stender wanted to warn me about something, but I didn’t want to hear it.” She shrugs, feeling a little defensive. “It would have been cheating.” she mutters.

“Oh, you’re absolutely right, that would have been very unsportsmanlike.“ Cedeira says, his voice completely blank. Val rolls her eyes.

“Right. Either way, he managed to get behind me somehow and he shot me. He would have caught me in the chest, but I figured it out just in time so I dodged. Then I shot him, he had his little monologue about killing me anyway, and then I put a bullet in his head. I think. It’s a little hazy.” Val brings her hand up to rub at her forehead, but is once again surprised by the tubes stuck in her.

“Irradiated fluids to counter the reaction you’re having.” Cedeira explains when he notices her confusion at the tubes. “I know that Stender’s warning skirted the edge of legality…” he doesn’t even bother to hide the sarcasm in his voice, “but you should have listened to him none the less. Le Blanc managed to smuggle  a highly illegal and experimental type of irradiated bullets into the arena.”

He looks at her as if that should explain everything. Maybe it should, but she can’t put her finger on what it is exactly. Luckily Cedeira seems to catch on swiftly, and he continues. “These bullets were used by the Eastern Alliance towards the end of the war. They trigger a reaction when faced with the impressive qualities of a regen device.” Val gives him a blank look. “Which means that as soon as you step into a regen chamber, as you are inclined to do when you’ve been shot, they cause the body’s auto-immune system to go haywire. Hence the ‘I killed you too’ oneliner that le Blanc threw your way, I’m sure.”

“But it didn’t kill me.” she says, looking down at her hands. To her surprise she sees them tremble slightly. She swallows, trying to get rid of the sense of dread rising in her throat. “You may have pricked me full of holes, and I’m sure this messes with the schedule of my victory-tour something awful, but I’m alive.”

“Lucky.” Cedeira states. “Or lazy, that works too. The reason you survived is because you were in the Compound when you stepped into a regen chamber. It means that you were two minutes away from the best medical facilities in the world when the reaction kicked in. Had you followed Stender’s advice you would be dead now.”

Valentina’s nails dig into the palms of her hands. “You mean, if I had stepped into a regen device in the arena, I would not have survived this match? I would have been dead no matter what?” Her throat feels tight, as if a set of hands has wrapped itself around her neck.

Cedeira’s hand wraps around her wrist, and he coaxes her hands open. The Crescent shapes of her nails are dug deep into her palms. Blood wells up where the skin is broken. She looks up at the doctor’s face. His eyes are sad, somehow. As if he’s truly grieved by the events. As if he really cares that she nearly died in that Arena. He nods, a barely perceptible movement. “There is no way we would have arrived in time to save you. Not in an urban area like that arena.”

“Jesus.” Val mutters. She tries to smile, but her muscles fail her. “Close call.” It’s supposed to sound like a joke, but instead it sounds like she’s in tears. “Oh God…” Her vision blurs and she presses her eyes closed, unwilling to weep in front of Cedeira, but unable to stop the flow of tears all the same. “He fucking told me to go to a regen point.” She whispers.

The room is silent save for her hitched breathing. If Cedeira judges her for her tears, he does so quietly. “There is of course the possibility that he didn’t know the exact properties of the bullets.” He offers, once she can breathe again. “Maybe he just received a tip that the bullets were tampered with?”

She shakes her head. “It’s not possible.” She whispers, her voice as hoarse as it had been when she first woke up without a tube down her throat. She looks up at Cedeira, her eyes bright. “All weapons are handed in before the start of the match and checked. You see, it wouldn’t have been the first time someone brought off-spec weaponry or ammunition to the arena. The Asia League once had to deal with tracker-bullets. A simple GPS-dot that would give competitors an exact view of where their opponents were. And then there were the Ion painters, directly linked to satellites. And…”

“I get your point.” Cedeira interjects. The wry twist is back around his lips. “It would give people an unfair advantage. So what you’re saying is that all weapons are checked beforehand. It was just a bullet though, is there no one he could have hidden it? In his clothing or somewhere inside his body? Stranger things have happened, after all”

Valentina looks up at him. There’s a dejected slump in her shoulders now. “With all the scanners we have in the league? With the probes and the med-check before the match? With the seclusion we face during transport?” She closes her eyes for a moment. “You tell me, doc. Is it possible for him to smuggle even one illegal bullet into the Arena?”

His silence seems to stretch forever. “No.” he finally says, his voice softer and kinder than it has been ever since she woke up. “Not without help from the inside.”

/And who better to help him than Stender?/ Its a bitter thought, but she can’t shake it. Cedeira leaves her alone after this. She can hear him move around on the other end of the room. After a while she’s lulled into sleep by the sound of his pen tapping against the tablet.

“I killed you too.” Stender says to her in her dreams, right before he shoots her in the chest. She sinks into a deeper darkness after that, not haunted by voices and visions for the first time since the Arena.

When she wakes up again her arms are free of needles. She shifts slowly, keeping up the pretense of sleep. Somewhere to her left she can hear Young. He sounds the way he always does when he’s explaining something. Also to her left she can hear Irina’s laugh. Smoky and rich, with the hint of mirth she always seems to reserve for Young or Stender. The latter makes his presence known to her right. His fingers softly caress the skin of her wrist. Familiar, sure fingers with callouses from war and politics. She resists the urge to break them.

“The doctor said it might take a while, Stender.” Youngs voice is clear now. “The regen device really messed with her system. We’re lucky enough that she’ll come out of it without permanent damage.”

“Or a permanent regen allergy.” Weisz offers. “Imagine how awkward that would be, a league competitor who couldn’t use a regen device for fear of dying. Either way, we should let her rest. She deserves it.”

“No…” Stender sounds unsure of himself. Valentina can hear him shift next to her, but the pressure of his fingers on her skin never changes. “She’s awake.” There’s a hint of confusion in his voice now.

She opens her eyes and slaps his hand away from her. His eyes widen momentarily. She smirks at him for good measure. “I forgot you can always tell. You should really spend less time watching me sleep.” It’s barely more than a whisper, but she hopes the displeasure is clear in her voice none the less. “It makes you look like a creeper.” she adds. When she turns her head to look at Weisz and Young she sees Stender’s confusion reflected in the eyes of the younger man. The other woman looks the same as she always does, calculating and cool. As always, Valentina’s mind provides her with the suggestion that Weisz looks reptilian even in her most sympathetic moments.

“Glad to see you’re awake.” Young says. Although not a warm and caring man by any standard, he seems to mean it now. Val takes a little comfort from the thought that there might still be someone in her room that doesn’t wish she was dead instead.  She offers him a small smile and a nod.

“So, irradiated bullets, huh?” She offers to Weisz.

The other woman shrugs. “They’re not impossible to come by. Difficult, but far from impossible. Illegal in the league, obviously, but far from the strangest weapon we’ve ever laid eyes on.” She offers no further explanation.

On the other side of the hospital bed Stender shifts in his seat. He clears his throat, but Valentina can’t bring herself to turn her head and look at him. She locks eyes with Young instead, silently pleading with him for unattainable things, like a trip back in time. Maybe she missed something. There had to be some point in time, some critical moment where she lost Stender’s trust, but she can’t put her finger on it. She knows it can’t have happened overnight, but she doesn’t see when it started either. The corner of Young’s mouth twitches into a small smile. He doesn’t seem to notice her desperation.

“Lets give her some rest, ok?” Stender’s voice retains that unsure quality. Valentina despises it, she realizes. Her eyes follow Young and Weisz as they get up. Young touches her shoulder briefly and smiles again, seeming genuinely happy to see her awake. The look Weisz gives her is no warmer or colder than usual. She closes her eyes again, hoping to hear three sets of footsteps leaving the room. There are only two, and the click of the shutting door that follows is almost deafening in the silence between her and Stender.

“Will you look at me?” He asks. For a moment she’s tempted to deny him, to keep her eyes fixed on the far wall. Instead she slowly turns her head, taking in the way he looks for the first time. There’s more stubble on his cheeks than she has seen on him in years. His suit is rumpled, and there are bags under his eyes. He looks like he’s aged a decade in just a few nights. She can barely stand the sight of him.

She swallows against a tightness in her throat that is rapidly becoming familiar to her. When she speaks she sounds small and tired to her own ears. “Why?” She asks, “So I can look at the man who almost killed me? Do you want to finish the job?”

“Val, I…” His voice is pleading. He reaches for her hand again, but she pulls away. “Let me explain.” It’s a question. A request. He knows she has already reached her own conclusions.

“Explain what, Stender? Would you like to explain how le Blanc got his hands on illegal ammunition in the Arena? Because I already know the answer to that.” she bites at him, her eyes bright with anger. “Or would you like to explain that you wanted me to go to a regen device right away? I already know the answer to that too.”

Her hands are clenched into fists at her side, and it takes every ounce of willpower she has not to reach out to him. To scratch at his eyes, to hit him until he bleeds. Every fiber of her being wants to hurt him, to somehow transfer the ache she feels inside. “What I want to know, Stender, is why. I’ve known you for over a decade. I /trusted/ you. You were supposed to have my back, and you fucking betrayed me? Why?” Her voice trembles with the effort it takes not to scream at him.

Stender’s eyes are wide as he takes her in. His hands are clenched around the railing of her hospital bed, his knuckles white. “Jesus, Val…” he breathes, sounding as shaken as she feels herself. “It wasn’t meant for you. You have to believe… Christ, of course it wasn’t meant for you. I’d never… I never thought that he would use it on you.”

“You give the only person in that Arena with the skill to beat me ammunition that gives him an edge, and you never thought he would use it on me?” Valentina snarls at him. Stender bows his head, seemingly unable to look at her. “Then tell me what you were thinking, because you’ve lost me.”

“He was supposed to use it on Joshua.” Stender continues, oddly subdued now. “We gave him the bullet so he could take Joshua out of the equation.” He shakes his head briefly. “No… I gave him the bullet.”

Val snorts. “Not even trying to pin this on Weisz? That’s kind of you. If anything I expected her to come after me this way. Not you, Stender. I never saw it coming. Well played.” She shakes her head, furious all of a sudden. “It was about Joshua? Don’t fucking lie to me. Joshua was never a threat. He was never going to win, and you know it. Everyone knows it. Have you checked the odds at the betting stations? He never stood a chance, so why don’t you stop insulting me for a minute and tell me the truth.”

Stender runs a hand through his hair.  He seems unable to look at Valentina now. “It’s the truth.” His voice is so small she can barely hear him. “I thought… After hearing you with him…” He shakes his head briefly. “I thought you’d let him live, somehow.” He raises his head and looks at her for the first time since his confession. “You… you’re smart, Val. You’re experienced. You know the system. I couldn’t let you risk everything for a fling.”

“A fling?” Valentina’s voice is like ice. “You nearly killed me because I had a fling?” The word tastes sour in her mouth. “You… what, you thought I was actually going to let him win? That I’d throw the last six years and my life away for a guy I’ve slept with three times?” A wry laugh escapes her.

“I didn’t know!” He almost shouts. Abruptly he rises from his seat by her bed. “How was I supposed to know?” he turns back to her. He looks even paler now, as if he’s the one that’s suffering from radiation poisoning. “Fuck, Val… how was I supposed to know it didn’t mean anything. You’ve never slept with an opponent before. How was I supposed to know you weren’t compromised?”

“You could have asked!” She yells at him. “Fuck you, Stender. You could have just asked me, instead of interfering with the game. Instead of almost killing me. I have /never/ given you a reason to doubt me, and this is how you repay me? With a bullet in the back? And then one attempt wasn’t enough?” Her nails dig into her hands again, but she welcomes the pain. “I can still hear you say it. ‘Get yourself to a regen point, Val.’ How concerned you sounded, when you knew it would kill me.”

“Valentina, please…” he starts, trembling now.

“Shut up! Just shut the fuck up, Stender. I don’t want to hear about it.” She twists slightly and reaches for the control pad next to her bed. A sharp stab of pain shoots through her, reminding her once more of the gunshot wound she had to endure because of him. She presses a button on the pad, calling for a nurse. “I want you to leave now. I have nothing more to say to you.”

Whatever Stender tries to say next is drowned out by the sound of the doors sliding open. Behind him Cedeira steps into the room, his face serious. He arches an eyebrow at Valentina, before walking over to the other side of the bed to check the readings  on the screen next to her. She imagines her bloodpressure is a little high at the moment. Stender looks at her for a moment longer. Then he turns on his heel and marches out of the room.

“Did you get your answers?” Cedeira asks after a minute of silence.

“Some.” she answers. He hums softly, moving around the room to adjust some settings. She tries to swallow around the lump in her throat. “I’m done.” she says when Cedeira fails to fill the silence that fills the room. “I’m just going to collect my winnings, and then I’m out of here. Fuck him.” She snarls the last words. “Thirteen years and this is how he wants to end things?”

To her dismay she can feel her lips tremble, and her vision start to blur. Cedeira is by her side in an instant. She presses her hands against her eyes, refusing to shed the tears that are welling up. The doctor awkwardly pats her on the shoulder, muttering things like ‘there there’ and ‘shhh’. Val feels her mouth curve into something like a smile.

“You’re only comforting me because I’m leaving the league, aren’t you?” She says, looking up at him. He shrugs, giving her another oddly sympathetic look.

“Maybe you just deserve a little comfort.” He offers solemnly. “You’re healing nicely, by the way. I wouldn’t recommend any strenuous activities for a while, but it looks like you’ve been lucky. There’s very little permanent damage.”

The tiny smile that had formed itself fades from her lips again. “Little permanent damage… if only that were true.” Behind the ache of the gunshot wound she feels a different kind of wound, less likely to heal swiftly or neatly, if at all. She turns to Cedeira again. “I think I’d like to be alone for a while, if that’s ok.”

He pats her shoulder again, less awkward this time around. “No problem, miss Marin. Shall I tell the nurses to keep potential visitors at bay as well?”

She nods, looking down at her hands. “There’s no one I want to see right now, and I don’t imagine that will change while I’m still healing.”

With a nod Cedeira leaves her on her own in the sterile hospital room. For the first time since waking up she is alone with her thoughts. For the first time in over a decade she is free to do as she pleases. To go where she wants.

She looks down at her hands, and tries to imagine them free of blood.

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