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.

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