2305: Heartflusters

Posted: February 11, 2013 by Kelly in deathmatching, fortress, league, stories

2305: Heartflusters

Stop, start, do not engage
with the wrong kind of nasty people
down by the rail lines
Playing games without any thought
for your heart and your body…

– Maybeshewill, “Heartflusters”

The room is bustling with activity. Apart from the twelve contestants there are lots of other people about that haven’t really been introduced yet. The smells of perfume, sweat, alcoholic drinks and food from the buffet are mingling in the air. From the position where Milan Anders is sitting, it looks like the room is filled to bursting. And all of it is recorded on cameras he cannot see. It makes him feel claustrophobic.

“So what are you in for?”

Milan looks up at the dark-haired young man that sits down next to him on one of the large shimmery lounge chairs. He can’t help but grin at the other, glad for the distraction. “You make it sound like a prison sentence,” he says, recognising one of his fellow competitors. “Are you a convict?”

“If imminent bankruptcy over gambling debts is a crime, then I totally am. How about you?”

“I’m not a convict either,” Milan laughs and raises his glass of beer. “But also bankrupt, so I know how you feel.”

“Ah, fellow gambler, then?”

“Regular bankruptcy. My business went under in the most spectacular of ways.” Milan shakes his head and can’t help a pang of sadness. It had all seemed to go so well, and now the investors and his loaners have come calling, demanding their money back. Money he doesn’t have.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” the other says.

Milan is sure he’s heard the guy’s name during the initial round of introductions, but the list of names had gone so fast that he’s pretty much forgotten all of it. It’s no matter. He’ll get more acquainted with his fellow contestants soon enough. He looks at the young man sitting next to him and smiles reassuringly. “Thanks, I guess. Nothing to do about that anymore, so now it’s onwards to amends and glory. First the money, then the bitches.”

The other man is just taking a chug of his beer and promptly misswallows. He coughs it back up, laughing in surprise. “That’s a good way to look at it. I got my girl already sitting at home, though.”

“Good for you, you’re already halfway there,” Milan says. “I’ll drink to that.” He takes a chug from his beer to demonstrate. When he lowers his glass, the other is looking at him, smiling. He has dimples in his cheeks when he smiles. His eyes are startlingly blue. /He must be a real hit with the girls./

“I’m Walter Lane, by the way,” he says, holding out his hand.

“Milan Anders,” Milan retorts, shaking his hand. “Nice to meet you, even if it’s under these circumstances.” He gestures to the busy room, where their fellow contestants are getting to know one another, aided by booze and watched over by cameras. The sponsors are watching already; as are the viewers at home. Tonight hallmarks the start of a grueling six week session of training, mock battles, and hopefully a lot of drama before the contestants will enter the Fortress at the end of their boot camp. And in the Fortress, they’ll be set to kill one another in a death match setting. If they win the Fortress, then it is on to the European League. The money they’d earn in there will be enough to solve anyone’s money troubles; even Milan’s. It was his only option left and he grabbed it with two hands. With the kind of people he’s been loaning money from, he’d probably end up dead in a ditch before summer if he hadn’t taken these measures. Dying in the Fortress or even in the League seems like a better option. If his life is forfeit together with his business anyway, he might as well go down with style, he figures.

“We still have six weeks before shit gets real,” Walter says, following his gesture and scanning the room. He sips from his own drink and shrugs. “Might as well enjoy the time we’ve got left here.”

“Exactly. Enjoyment and smiles for the camera, and the sponsors will line up,” Milan says brightly. He’s been in sales, he knows how the game works. Maybe it’s time to start playing. His eye falls on a girl that has her back turned to her. She has a full head of dark curls, but all he can see is the curves on her toned figure and her ass. It is a glorious sight. “Also, girls.”

Walter follows his gaze again. “Is that your type?”

“Hn,” Milan hums. “I wouldn’t kick her out of bed. Actually… I’d probably try to get her in there.”

“Well, you’re in luck. That’s Rune Murray. She’s one of the trainers and she doesn’t have a boyfriend.”

The girl turns around as she’s talking to someone. She’s wearing a short skirt that makes her legs seem to go on forever and he can’t keep his eyes off her.

“You know her?”

“Heh, yeah. Despite the fact that she’s one of the best trainers that this place has to offer, I worked with her brother for a while in the Amsterdam betting center and kind of ended up stealing his girlfriend. Don’t think I can get her to be my trainer, she doesn’t like me very much.”

“Ah, pity. So you can’t introduce me to her, then?”

Walter shrugs. “She’s standing next to the buffet anyway. Let’s go say hello.”

Milan takes in the room as they cross it together. Soft music is playing in the background. People are standing around the buffet table, giving each other their best assessing stares while smiling even better smiles. Everyone is sizing each other up, wondering if they will run into each other in the Fortress or the League. The testosterone is heavy in the air; from the twelve contestants there are only three women.

The handful of other women in the room is either sponsor, benefactor, or affiliated with the Corporation. And Rune Murray is by far the prettiest. Milan watches her as she throws her head back and laughs. She’s gorgeous.

“Hey Rune,” Walter greets her quietly as he goes to stand next to her, leaning over the buffet to fill up a plate. “Hope you’re well.”

Her eyes dart in his direction and Milan can see a hint of distaste around her full mouth. “Walter,” she acknowledges him. “I’m not surprised to see you here. Finally blew all your and Lannie’s money?”

He takes it on the chin and offers her a lopsided grin. “We both did. We drew straws who would enter the Fortress, I won. Lucky me. How’s your brother?”

“Fine. Laughing his ass off to see you here on the vids, I imagine.” Her gaze leaves Walter’s face and moves over to Milan. She smiles at him and it is like a ray of sunlight breaking through the clouds. “Well hello there,” she says brightly.

Milan grins back at her. It’s infectious. “And how are you doing?”

Somebody pushes glasses of champagne in their hands and he doesn’t leave her side all evening. They strike up a conversation and they just never stop talking. Rune is sharp-tongued, yet mischievous and witty. She is a delight to talk to; as intelligent and tough as she is beautiful.

She hints that she’s looking for trainees and she’s had her eye on him even before tonight. They immediately, amidst loads of flirty remarks and witty banter, start talking about strategies. She’s read his file from the initial assessments, and from the comments she makes, she seems prepared.

“Thought you’d be my type, when I read your files,” she says, dark eyes sparkling with mirth. “I think I’ll claim you as my trainee. You’re different from my usual ones.” By that time they’re far from sober. They’re with only a few people left, most of the other contestants have gone to bed already. They are sitting in the shimmery lounge chairs and she is leaning against him, her hand resting on his thigh.

“Isn’t this totally illegal?” Milan teases her back. The world is pleasantly woozy and her hand feels hot to his skin, even through the fabric of his pants. “Flirting with your trainee?”

She laughs. “Not if I help you win the League. Who cares how I help you to your victory? Your sponsors certainly don’t.”

“I do,” he says, not breaking eye contact.

She smiles at him and leans in to him. Their lips meet, and it is oh so sweet. Sweetness turns to passion, and the viewers at home who happen to follow the night feeds get a good eyeful of the two of them together. Milan hardly cares; until the next morning when she drags him out of bed and his hangover is killing him.

She slips him some water infusions and tells him to man the fuck up, but she’s smiling.

And during breakfast, Walter sits down next to him with a bowl of cereal and a plate of bacon and eggs and says: “Looks like you’re halfway there, too. Good for you.”

Milan just grins at him.

***

Bootcamp is pretty brutal. Intense training sessions alternate with mock battles, in which the contestants use their real weapons, but shoot blanks. It is all meant to make sure they get used to the feeling of the weight of their weapons in their hands and to create stamina and strength alike.

They’re not taught many tactics, per se, but there are evaluations on how they do in their mock battles. Milan likes those sessions best; going over the vids together, seeing what could be improved, what stupid mistakes are. What will get him killed in the Fortress if he keeps doing this. He’s done enough shooting games in the city arena’s during his life. Paintball, laser gaming, shootouts. He knows he’s a good shot. He knows he’s a fast drawer and he can improvise situations quickly. He never knew, though, before now, that he favours his right side and that his left side is a weakness. He doesn’t check his left enough, when he takes in a situation.

Rune is merciless. She throws him in situations where she lets him battle it out with his right eye blinded and his right arm tied on his back. “Let’s see if we can get you a little more ambidextrous,” she says with a smile on those full lips and by the time he gets out of the exercise session he’s not sure whether he wants to kiss her or slap her. Slowly but surely he does get better, though. He creeps up in the rankings, too.

Every Sunday and Wednesday the rankings are revealed to the group of contestants, along with new sponsor contracts and their standings in the betting stations so far. In the beginning he finds himself between rank #5 and #7, but as the weeks progress, he sees his stats increasing. More kills, more accurate shots. Speed and stamina increases. After the third week, he gets over the worst of the muscle ache and exhaustion, and it all seems to get better. He gets the hang of his pulse gun and the mock battles become /fun/; especially when he cracks the top 5, and then goes up to #3 and #2.

The #1 never changes, though.

“Good game today,” says Milan, as he sits down next to Walter at dinner. He is freshly showered and feels like his cheeks are glowing. Rune had joined him in the shower; the only place where the cameras aren’t running all the time. It had been spectacular. The slick feeling of soap on her caramel-coloured skin. The steam around them making it hard to breathe. The way her moans echoed from the tiles. He can’t help but grin at the memory of it.

Walter looks up at him and grins back. His hair is also wet and he looks exhausted, but cheerful. “Keep it up and you’ll reduce me to a smear on the wall at some point.”

“When we enter the Fortress we should totally have a plasma battle or something. My pulse gun versus your shock rifle,” Milan agrees. He grabs a pot of mashed potatoes and serves himself a royal helping. “Want some too?”

“I’m good, thanks.”

“It would be epic to see that happen. Your blue plasma against my green. Everything exploding in fire and melting down.”

Walter laughs as he cuts his meat. “Didn’t they used to say something about not crossing the streams and stuff?”

“I’m sure the audience wouldn’t mind.”

“I hope you’re okay with me avoiding that particular scenario. Death by plasma is not how I want to end. Even if it looks ridiculously cool for the viewers at home.”

Milan takes a bite from his potatoes and nods. “Ah yeah, you have a girl to get home to.”

A smile. “Yeah. She’d be terribly upset if I wouldn’t make it back. Also, I think Rune wouldn’t appreciate your plasma-y end, either. She’d probably kill herself and come kick your ass in the afterlife. She’s intense like that.”

“Ah, I’m sure she’ll find some other trainee to have hot shower sex with,” Milan retorts cheerfully. “It’s nice though, for as long as it’s lasting right now.”

Walter shoots him a sideways look. “I’m not kidding, man. She’s not in it for these six weeks; she’ll want to be with you for longer. She won’t let you go. She’s really that intense. Wicked jealous, too, from what I remember.”

On the other side of the room, Rune enters the doorway. She shoots him a secret smile and moves on to the other side of room, where she enters one of the offices and disappears from his sight. “I’m sure it’s all fine,” Milan says, keeping his eyes on her backside as she walks. “Besides, I’m probably dead in three weeks if I have to go up against you in the Fortress. So we might as well enjoy ourselves for now. She knows what she’s getting into, right?”

“I wonder if she does,” Walter murmurs, laying his fork and knife on his plate. “But yeah, it’s your business, I won’t butt in. Just thought you should know.”

“It’s appreciated,” Milan smiles. “But right now I’m more worried about you and your shock rifle than I am about Rune’s crush. So yeah, priorities.”

“Point taken. I worry about your pulse gun as well, so we’re even.”

***

Three days later there is another ranking update. Milan is third, but he’s been slow and tired that day so it’s not very strange. Fellow contestant Saxa Owens surpassed him. She’s always breathing in his neck, but now she’s managed to overtake him. It annoys him enough that he can’t sleep that night, and Rune is not in the building to distract him from thoughts, so he goes to find Saxa and talk to her. Maybe she can tell him how she did it, his own sluggishness notwithstanding.

Despite the fact that it’s nearing midnight and the lounge is pretty much deserted and the lights are already dimmed, he finds her in the communal area watching vids on her handheld. He sits down next to her on the lounge chair. She is thoughtlessly twirling a blond dread around her finger as her green eyes are glued to the screen in her other hand. The silvery tattoos on her wrists shimmer softly in the white light of her handheld.

“What are you watching?” Milan asks her.

She looks up and smirks. She’s not an extremely attractive woman, but there is something striking about her. Milan has liked her from the start. “I’m trying to learn from the best.”

He glances at her screen and recognises images from last year’s Euroleague. The screen shows Laurent le Blanc in action, taking out one of his competitors with a long range shot. He shoots the other man in the eye. The man crumples immediately. “And? Is Le Blanc teaching you anything?”

She shrugs. Her blond dreads dance on her shoulders. “He’s good with long range. I thought I’d give him some extra attention. I’m good with up and personal, but my long range shooting needs some work. I’m not precise enough.”

“That’s…. very honest,” Milan says. He can’t keep the surprise out of his voice. “Are you sure you should be telling me this?”

“It’s nothing you don’t already know from the stats,” she says. “Everyone has points for improvement. How’s your left side coming along?”

That takes him aback. “How do you…” his voice trails off. “Do you talk to Rune about this?”

“Fuck no.” She barks out a laugh. “I have eyes in my head and I watch the competition, same as you do.”

/She watches for weaknesses and strategises. I need to keep my eye on her./ He nods and smiles his best smile at her. “Fair enough. Can I watch Le Blanc with you? Maybe he can teach me something, too.”

“Sure, I’ll hook up my handheld to the screen. Why don’t you get a bottle of wine to go with it?”

They end up sitting companionably on the lounge chair, watching last year’s Game on a large plasma screen in the communal room. The only bright lights are the ones on the screen. Explosions thunder through the room as people shoot at one another with rocket launchers and guns. Milan and Saxa watch the game with interest, commenting on the events of the game and fastforwarding through the parts that are slow going.

The cameras register the image of them, their heads close together and talking in muted tones, watching the game, pouring each other drinks and laughing softly at one another’s comments.

It is near 2 am before his head finally touches the pillow. It feels like there are only heartbeats until the next moment, when the sun is shining brightly in his eyes and Rune yanks at his arm. “Wake up,” she says sharply. “It’s almost seven and we have training to do.”

Milan rolls over on his back and drapes his arm over his face to shield him from the sunlight. “Five more minutes,” he suggests with a yawn. “Please, Rune.”

Her voice is ice and steel. “It’s your own damn fault, sitting up with Saxa all night. Now get up.”

Milan sits up and blinks at her. “How do you know that? Were you watching the feed?”

“Of course I was. You looked real cozy.”

“We were just sitting, watching the game. Is that not okay?” He pauses, cocks his head at her and regards the fury on her pretty face. He suddenly remembers what Walter told him about her. “Are you /jealous/?”

Rune crosses her arms. Defiance given flesh. “She was nearly sitting in your lap, rubbing against you.”

He rubs his eyes and sighs. He hardly remembers such a thing, but there was wine involved last night and he isn’t sure he can trust his own judgment. “We were only watching the game. Why is it a problem?”

“Because you’re mine for the time we’ve got left here, Milan.”

There are cameras and microphones in his bedroom. Milan freezes and wonders what the viewers at home are thinking, hearing her speak those words. “You can’t claim me, Rune,” he says as gently as possible. “I’m crazy about you and you’re my sunshine here, but I do not take lightly to being claimed like a possession. I’m my own man and I’m probably going to die in a couple of weeks. Cut me some slack.”

“You won’t die,” she says. Her eyes are sparkling feverishly. She hops on the bed and straddles him where he’s sitting. “I’m going to do all in my power to keep you alive.”

“Good,” Milan says and kisses her.

She kisses back furiously, full of passion. For the first time, he wonders about her – but he dismisses the thought in favour of the feeling of her soft curves under his hands. When he takes her shirt off and is rewarded with a full frontal of her perfect breasts, all coherent thought is forgotten.

He’s late to training that day.

***

That Sunday the newest rankings are revealed, which show Walter in first place again, followed by Milan back in second place and Saxa in third. There’s a huge gap between Walter and Milan, but Saxa is hot on his heels. Then there’s another gap until number four, five and six. This is nothing new; it’s been like this for weeks.

Milan is really beginning to worry about Walter and Saxa, and so is Rune. She has been giving him extra training on how to take down Saxa in a one-on-one battle. It is only a little after 7 in the morning when they find themselves sparring with hand to hand combat. She fights him like a demon. “Never get her too close,” Rune hisses. “If she’s this close, then you’re dead.” She breaks through his defenses easily – on the /left/ – and her elbow connects with his cheekbone. “Like this.”

Later that day there is a promo event. All of the contestants are subjected to a day of interviews, photoshoots, and analyses. The make up artist grumbles at him when she tries to cover up the massive bruise on his face. It’s swelled up and creeping upwards, to his eye socket. Before the day is out, he’ll have one hell of a black eye. “Leave it,” Milan tells her. “I earned that one.”

“You’ll look weaker,” his publicist says. It’s an older woman, issued by his sponsor. She’s been giving him her advice on his media appearances since he first stepped foot in here. He’s mostly gone along with her so far. She never said anything about Rune, after all.

“I’ll look like someone who is training,” he retorts flatly. “I can show weakness, I’m only second.”

She presses the issue some more, but Milan gets his way eventually. He sits down at his interview with a huge bruise on his face. Of course there are questions about that. There are lots of questions about his relationship with Rune as well. Most of the speculations are amusing and he answers them with the smile they’ve grown to know from him in the past few weeks.

“There were some discussions on Rune’s treatment of you,” one of the interviewers says. “Like she’s not going hard enough on you because she likes you too much.”

Milan cocks his head and touches the bruised side of his face briefly. “You think so? I’ll let my face speak for itself.”

“She’s been much harder on her trainees in the past. Haven’t you seen the work she’s done with Elmontz and Lenham?”

Both of them are past Euroleague winners. Milan recognises the names immediately. “They were trained by her?”

“Bellini as well. You’re in good company.”

He can feel a flush coming up on his wounded face. He’s never paid much attention to the actual workings of the bootcamp. He usually only tuned in for the actual Fortress and League games. Some people loved all the drama and alliances that sprung up during bootcamp, he watched the summaries and the rundowns before the actual killing started. He has always been aware that Rune is a good trainer and that she’s been involved with bootcamp training since the very beginning, but he hasn’t taken the time to see who she’s trained exactly in the past eight years. Lenham’s name especially makes an impression. Lenham was supposed to have been the best thing to happen to the Euroleague until Laurent le Blanc came along. He remembers seeing the man being a menace in the Fortress and the League game both; he’d dominated completely. He remembers being disappointed to hear that the man retired immediately after his victory.

“You’re the first one to take her into bed, though,” the interviewer presses on. “And she has been a lot gentler on you than on the others. The stats don’t lie and you are regularly late to training. What do you have to say for that?”

Milan shakes his head and laughs. “I say bullshit. You’d think she has more reason to keep me alive, right?” He looks directly at the camera and smiles. “And if there’s anyone who doesn’t want to die, it’s me. So Rune and I agree on that one. I’m going to make it out of the Fortress alive, you just watch me.”

He’s glad when it’s time for the joined interview with Walter and Saxa. There’s supposed to be this vid item on the top three of the contestants. All they want is some video footage of the three of them together in their sparring gear, some quotes and some pictures. The photographer wants fierceness, but it is the end of the day and by now they’re all pretty done with the whole ordeal and they end up in friendly banter and laughter. It’s the first time Milan hears Saxa actually giggle and the sound of it is warm and infectious.

He ends up tackling Saxa to the ground and tickling her mercilessly, just because he likes the sound of her laughter. She’s not really trying to get out of his grip beyond some flailing and wriggling. “I’ll kill you for this,” she gasps between bouts of helpless giggles.

He instantly lets her go. “I have no doubt you will,” he says with all the light-heartedness he can muster up. The thought of it is sobering. “You’ll have to wait a couple more weeks to do so, though.”

That night in bed he looks at the pictures of that day on his handheld and tries to imagine actually pulling the trigger on Saxa and Walter. He doesn’t really want to kill them. He’ll do it to survive; he /has/ to survive. They’ll kill him just as easily. And they probably will. He thought that he’d come to terms with dying in the Fortress, but in the loneliness of his room, without Rune’s warm body pressing against him, the reality of killing and/or being killed becomes all that much harsher.

Sleep doesn’t come for a long time, and when it does, it’s full of dreams in which he dies.

***

“They say you’re going easy on me,” he whispers in her ear. Hot water rivulets over their embrace, nearly drowning out his words. He confronts her here on purpose, where it is hard for the cameras and audio equipment to record their conversation. Her skin is slick against his. The amount of steam in the glass cabin makes it hard to breathe.

Rune stiffens in his arms and looks up at him with a slight frown. He’s only three inches taller than she is, but it is enough that she has to look up to him when she is in his arms. “Who says that? The media?”

He nods. “Are they right?”

Her eyes harden and her mouth tightens with that same distaste that she showed when addressing Walter on the night they met. “The media is full of shit,” she says. “Doesn’t your publicist tell you not to listen to them?”

“She tells me lots of things. I’ve been going over old vids though. I’ve seen how you were with the others. You /are/ cutting me a lot of slack.”

After he’d awoken from the gazillionth nightmare he’d sat up in bed and dug in the old League archives to see how Rune had been as a trainer, something he’s never done before. At first it was fun to see her that much younger. During her time with Elmontz she had been in her early twenties; it was amusing to see her interact with the much older, battle-experienced powerhouse that Elmontz was. Despite all that, she earned his respect by going hard on him. It had been the same with Lenham, Bellini, and all of the others. Even the ones who had died in the Fortress had been trained well; none of them died in the early waves. Nearly seventy percent even made it to the League.

But to see how harsh she had been with the others, how unrelenting, how early she had dragged them out of bed – that was pretty shocking to him. Her smiles, her teases, their heated sex in the morning… that is all for him. None of the others have had this treatment. And it terrifies the living daylights out of him.

“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think you’d be okay,” she says, but to his utter horror he can see a trace of uncertainty in her pretty eyes.

He takes a step back and leans against the steamed window. “You’re getting me killed,” he whispers. /Walter and Saxa are going to do me in, and it’s your fault. I’ll be on my own out there. On my left-impaired own./

She shakes her head fiercely. Her dark curls are sticking to her wet face. “No, I won’t,” she says. Her eyes sparkle dangerously. “I’m going to make sure you survive this, no matter what. I promised you before and I promise you now. You are going to live.”

***

One week before the bootcamp ends, Saxa sits down next to him on the balcony. Night has fallen hours ago, but the light pollution from the city makes sure that he can make out her features easily. Her silvery tattoos look nearly golden in the odd amber light. She smiles at him over her shoulder as she leans on the railing of the balcony. “Sup Milan?” she asks pleasantly enough. He’s not buying it. She’s beaten him that afternoon during a hand-to-hand spar and he can see the mirth in her eyes.

“Come to rub it in?” Milan asks. He can’t keep a sulk out of his voice and he hates it. He quickly takes a swig from the beer bottle in his hand.

“What, the fact that I wiped the floor with you today?” Saxa smiles lopsidedly and shrugs. “Not really. It’s nothing new that I own your ass in hand-to-hand. I wanted to give you another consolation.”

“That’s nice.” He reaches out to the six-pack of beer bottles next to him and holds out a beer to her.

She takes the bottle with still that smile on her face. Here, in the forgiving amber light of the megacity reflected against the darkened sky, she is suddenly strikingly pretty. Milan can imagine Saxa’s fans screencapping the moment and writing love declarations to her. Hell, in that brief instant he can imagine doing it, himself.

“I’ve seen the vid feeds from what you’ve been doing the last couple of days,” she says quietly. She opens the bottle against the balcony railing without even looking at it. She turns to him and regards him.

“Why?” he asks, not breaking her gaze while he takes another swallow of his drink.

She shrugs again. “You’ve been moping ever since the day we had those promotional interviews. I wondered what was up. So I checked it out.”

“What do you think I’ve been up to?”

“Worrying over the fact that Rune isn’t training you hard enough. Badgering her to ride you harder. No pun intended.”

He tilts his head. “Nice pun, though.”

She smiles again, raising her bottle to her lips. “Am I right?”

“You are. And you’re trying to console me over that? I thought you were a strategist, Saxa. Why would you help me with this?”

“I’m also an athlete, and I like you enough to want to beat you fairly in the Fortress. Is that enough of a reason?”

He barks out a laugh. “I sure as hell am not complaining. What consolation can you offer?”

She hops on the railing and is backlit against the city lights. Her bare feet dangle in the air and he notices she is tattooed on her feet and ankles as well. “Rune has been softer with you because you don’t respond well to pressure. It’s in all the psych evals. You’re not Lenham or Elmontz. You don’t have a military background, you’re rebellious by nature.”

“What are you saying?”

“She’s softer with you because you respond better to honey and kisses than you would respond to strictness.” She takes a sip from her beer. “So do not worry. She knows what she’s doing.”

“She says she’ll keep me alive no matter what.”

Saxa laughs. “I think that’s ultimately up to us, but it’s good she’s trying, isn’t it? She’s more motivated than my trainer is.”

He cracks a smile and laughs with her. “Yeah, I guess that’s something. Thanks, Saxa.”

“Anytime, Milan,” she says warmly, and he wonders what the viewers at home will think of this exchange.

***

“Fuck!”

The pulse gun clatters as Milan throws it on the ground. “Piss-cunt of a piece of crap!” he shouts at the innocent weapon lying on the concrete. Around him, the dimmed lights are turned up, indicating the end of the practise session. He yanks the sensors off his body, which are glowing accusingly red. /So damn close./

“Sorry about that, Milan,” Walter says. He puts his shock rifle back in the holster on his back. He looks disheveled and exhausted; dark hair wetly sticking to his sweaty face, but his blue eyes are sparkling and alive.

“Oh, fuck you Lane,” Milan growls. “I nearly had you.”

Walter pats him on the shoulder. “Not near enough, I’m afraid. You’re the one glowing red, not me.”

“If not for that /fucking/ gun being off-balance again…”

Walter nods in commiseration. “I’ll be glad when we have real bullets to shoot with. Those blanks are just off. I can’t believe they can’t get it right. It shouldn’t be that hard, should it?”

Milan shrugs and toes his gun, pushing it forward over the concrete with a scraping motion. “It’s not as if you let that stop you.”

Walter doesn’t respond to that. “Come on man, let’s take a shower and a celebratory beer. We were the last two standing again, that’s awesome.”

Milan follows him quietly. It isn’t until they are both standing in their respective shower stalls that the conversation continues, shouted out over the cascading water. “It’s just that I wished to beat you one last time before the final rankings.”

“We still have the one-on-ones tomorrow,” Walter calls back encouragingly. Milan can make out his shape through the fogged up windows of his stall. His rival looks healthy, standing up straight, eagerly rinsing himself off. Like he never played a game at all. Like Milan and the others were no competition at all. He teases himself one moment thinking about legends like Le Blanc and Marin and Delmont, and he wonders idly if he’s looking at the next champion through foggy windows. And then he looks at his own reflection as he leans against the window and leaves clear handprints in the fog. The trails his hands leave would look like blood if they had been red.

“Yeah,” he murmurs. “There’s still tomorrow.”

Tomorrow they will have the final face-offs that will determine the rankings. The rankings technically don’t do anything, but it will give the betting stations a final rundown on favouritism in the Fortress and a first view on what might be happening in the Arena during the actual League game. Where it comes down to fan popularity, Milan beats Walter as often as not. He knows he is likable and knows how to play a crowd even better than Walter does – Walter is quiet and friendly and has a girl waiting for him at home, but Milan has sales experience, wit, and is, quite frankly, better looking. Yet where it comes to the betting stations, when the real money is involved, nobody is looking at fan popularity. There the stats rule supreme and where the stats are involved he loses to Walter every single time. He hasn’t laid a hand on the other young man in the five and a half weeks they’ve been here.

Saxa has, but her overall stats are lower than Milan’s. She had another of her off-days today, too. Milan is hoping she’ll have an off day in the Fortress as well. If she has a good day, she’ll wipe the floor with him. At least he has a chance with her, though. He’s just hoping Saxa will take Walter out before he has to face him. That would be sweet.

He muses for a long time while the hot water massages the muscles in his back, until Walter shouts at him that it is time for beer. They share a beer together, toasting to their success.

/Heh. Success./ It gives Milan a bitter taste in his mouth. He toys with the idea of asking for an alliance, but Walter doesn’t really seem like a team person to him. Maybe Saxa would be interested in joining up to take Walter out. She seems to like him enough for it. An alliance would perhaps be the only thing that would give him an actual chance. Either that, or dumb luck. He doesn’t count on luck anymore ever since his business went under.

He spends some time in the gym with Rune afterwards, trying to ignore the sluggishness and the heaviness of his limbs after a couple of bottles of beer.

“Do you want a water infusion?” Rune asks, always sharply knowing what is going on.

He shakes his head and just beckons her to attack him. “I deserve to feel like ass after losing from Walter today. Again.”

“You don’t,” she says firmly, attacking his legs. He manages to dodge the attack on his ankles and grins at her while he goes for her face instead. She blocks his punches effortlessly, but the shock of flesh connecting on flesh sends tremors through them both. He surprises her by embracing her and kissing her full on the mouth under the bright lights of the gym. There are other contestants around, but he ignores them.

“I guess I’ll feel like ass when I’m dead,” he says with a smile when he ends their kiss.

“Not gonna happen,” she reminds him, wriggling out of his grip and taking on another fighting stance. “Come on, big boy. Fight me if you can.”

Despite the alcohol, he manages to work her to the ground a solid thirty minutes later. She laughs delightedly when he does so, even though her violent collision with the mats must have knocked the wind out of her. “Well, that’s a good note to end upon,” she announces breathlessly. “It’s nearing midnight and you have a big day tomorrow.”

He holds out his hand to pull her up. “Stay with me tonight?”

She smiles a brilliant smile at him. “No other place I’d rather be.”

Their lovemaking that night is slow and sweet. By the time she is laying in his arms, heavy and languid with afterglow, it’s nearing 1.30. Way too late to still be awaket, but for some reason they both do not want to go to sleep yet. When they’ll wake up tomorrow, it will be the last day of mock battles. After that, it’ll be over. The bootcamp will end and there will be only one more week in which the contestants go home and do whatever the fuck they like to say their goodbyes, before they enter the Fortress. Bootcamp is ending and he’s not quite ready to let go of Rune yet. It seems to be mutual.

“So what do you think of Saxa?” she asks him thoughtfully. Her hand is tracing patterns on the skin of his chest. “As a person?”

“Is this a trick question?” he counters. He remembers all too well how she responded to his friendship with Saxa a couple of weeks ago.

She shakes her dark head slowly. “No. I know you like her. If you’d wanted to fuck her, you would have already. I meant genuinely in your friendship. Between you and her as human beings.”

Milan kisses her in her hair, grateful for her understanding. /Looks like you were wrong after all, Walter./ “Saxa is a great gal. I think we wouldn’t have been friends if not for boot camp and our situation, though. Different lives and goals and such. But here in boot camp she’s the closest thing I have to a friend. I think we understand one another. We’re both so close to the top, and it’s going to be so edgy if we live. We’re in the same boat and we understand that to live, the other must die – and we both do not like it but will do it anyway.”

“Do you think you’ll be able to kill her?” Her face is turned away from her. He can’t see the expression on her face, but her voice is guarded. Neutral. He can only feel her embrace clench around him, a little tighter than before.

“It depends on whether she has one of her good days or not,” Milan says softly, playing with her hair. He twists a lock around his finger and looks at the contrast of his slightly tanned skin against her dark hair. “I do not know. I honestly don’t.”

“And Walter?”

“Pretty much the same. I know you don’t like him, but I really do. He’s a good guy. Despite that I’m kind of hoping Saxa will take him out before I have to face him.”

She lets out a sound that holds the middle between a chuckle and a sigh. “Your hope and mine.”

Her answer bothers him. He had hoped for reassurances like she’d given him earlier, but she remains vague. And staking faith in hope is not how he knows her. She is better than that. She should trust him more than that. She should trust her own training more than that. /Why don’t you?/ “You’ve trained champions,” Milan whispers.

She snuggles up against him and lays her head on his chest. Her breath is warm on his skin. It should feel like a comfort, but it doesn’t. “Yes, I have,” she answers, but she doesn’t say anything else anymore. He can hear her breathing slow down and he knows she is falling asleep.

It takes a while before he can do the same.

***

The one-on-ones are incredibly tense. The draw is pretty random, but it’s going to end with the three top dogs in the end; Saxa will fight Walter first, then Milan will fight Saxa, and then it’s Milan is going to try and see one last time if he can take Walter down.

Watching the fights through the soundproofed glass, Milan calculates how badly he needs to win to beat Walter’s #1 ranking and realises it’s pretty much impossible. He fights well that day, though. He’s fighting better than Saxa is, but she confides him him that she doesn’t care about the rankings behind her. “The gap with Fedres is large enough that I can afford to lose some points earlier, so I’m fresh when I fight you and Walter,” she confides in him while they watch Fedres and Diven duke it out behind the glass. Fedres is #4, Diven is #6. They fight well; they are motivated to improve their rankings. Maybe they hope to improve their chances.

Milan wonders what it’s like to be such an underdog. Would he give up, if he would be so far behind? His position with Saxa and Walter alone is enough to give him nightmares, and he leaves ten people behind him. If he would be lower in the rankings, his death in the Fortress would be so much more probable. Slim as it might be, he has a chance. The others notwithstanding – he can take them on anytime, he’s proving that with ease today – if Walter and Saxa take each other out, if he has a good day, if he’s lucky and focused… anything can still happen.

As the day progresses, exhaustion sets in. He sees the wisdom in Saxa’s approach, but he needs it, for himself, to bridge that gap between himself and Walter. If he doesn’t, he won’ t be able to sleep all week before he enters the Fortress. He is struggling with his pulse gun all day. The balance remains off, no matter how he tweaks it. It drives him nuts and keeps him from being as good as he can be.

Saxa struggles with the same problem. She spends a lot of time not watching the matches because she’s with the techs, looking at how to balance out her assault rifle and her blank rounds. Her trainer is making a huge fuss out of the whole thing, shouting at the techs.

Milan is glad that he’s not the only one with this problem; everyone is suffering from it and thus it doesn’t skew the rankings. Still, it’s annoying as all hell. Rune isn’t very impressed by it either. She also spends a lot of time with the techs and with the weapons, giving advice on how to balance the loads better. He doesn’t see much of her today, but after last night’s awkwardness he’s not quite sure on what he would have to say to her anyway. Her training is done, there’s not much she can do for him anymore – and he has the sinking feeling she doesn’t have enough faith in him. He’d rather not be confronted by it when he looks her in the eye.

He’d rather hang out with Walter and Saxa today; sizing up his opponents. Enjoying the last time of mock fighting and the thrill of battle without the deadly consequences. After today, they’ll be shooting /real/ bullets at one another. It’s not real yet – today they can still be friendly rivals and fellow competitors. After today this will all be over. Milan wants to savour the moment.

It is nearing 9pm when it is finally time for the top three fights.

Saxa is fighting Walter first; then Milan will fight her – and finally he’s going up against Walter. Milan leans against the wall next to the entrance, water bottle in his hands, when he wishes them luck. Walter gives him that dimpled grin that his fans have grown to love over the past six weeks.

Saxa just frowns and shifts her rifle in her hands. “Now the damn thing /really/ feels off,” she complains.

“Don’t be a baby and just fight me, Saxa. One last time,” Walter tells her, but his smile is gentle enough that it’s not an insult. “Enjoy the imbalance, it’s the last time.”

“Hey, don’t discount the battle against me,” Milan speaks up. “We all still have two battles left.”

“We’ll make your downfall glorious,” Walter promises Saxa with a mischievous grin.

She nods and smiles back at him. “No, you’ve got it backwards. I’ll wipe the floor with you today. I’ve been waiting for this one,” she says. The worried look is still in her eyes, but Saxa Owens is always one for a challenge and they all know it.

The buzzer goes off and they all grin at one another.

“That’s our cue,” Walter announces perhaps a bit superfluously.

“Have fun,” Milan says, and then the doors open.

Behind the glass, Walter and Saxa take their positions in the arena. It’s not a big venue; basically just a large room with platforms, stairs, walls and places to take cover or to stake one another out. There are cameras everywhere, although for Milan and the others they are not really needed. They are looking down on most of the room through the glass, and very few corners are hidden from sight. The sound equipment, though, that is sorely needed. The glass doesn’t let any sound through – sound travels two ways and the contestants shouldn’t be distracted during their battle. And God knows it can get rowdy on the side of the spectators. Milan is not above shouting encouragements and curses during a match, either – and he’s one of the quieter ones.

Milan watches closely how they draw their weapons and wait for the buzzer to go off. Both of them are tense, focused, coiled like springs. It’s a mock battle but soon enough it will be a real war, and they need to gauge their opponent. Every mock battle is a setup, a tell, something they can use during the real fight in two weeks. He can feel his heart beating in his throat with them.

The buzzer goes off and it is /war/ down there. The cameras drink in all of the images. Stalking, taking cover. Spiraling around one another. They know the layout so well by now. Which corners can be used to keep track of your opponent. Which angle is ideal to shoot your opponent just so; enough to take him out when he or she stands just there. By now, everyone knows all the best spots and there are battles fought for them.

Not so in the case of Saxa and Walter. They are both strategically so damn sound. They never shoot their guns unless they are completely sure their prey is in sight. It is hair-raising and nail bitingly awesome to see them stalk one another like predators.

At some point, Milan realises that Rune is standing next to him. For a moment, he tries to catch her gaze, but she doesn’t look at him. She doesn’t say anything, she just frowns at the vision below as she watches Walter and Saxa.

His fellow competitors chatter excitedly behind him and around him. He can imagine the announcers filling the viewers at home in on what’s happening, eagerly sharing their excitement on how awesome this is, how tense. How this forebodes an epic fight in the Fortress; how they can’t wait to see these two duke it out for real.

All Milan can think of is that he really doesn’t want to be the one caught in between when they decide to take each other out. He’s going to stay the fuck away from them in the Fortress. Let others try to take these two, he’ll be safely far away from them. /How’s that for a winning strategy, Rune?/ he thinks, absently chewing on the inside of his cheek as minutes tick away in there.

Walter is the first one to pull the trigger, but he misses by a hair. Saxa has lured him in and is nimble enough to move out of range – and then she whirls and she is glorious enough to be able to cock her assault rifle at /him/ and she looses her own shot.

It is a sight to behold to see her move so fast. Saxa /doesn’t/ have an off day today. She is brilliant – and for that one moment, before the delay of the sound system actually allows him to hear her shot, Milan is half in love with her because she is just a thing of beauty.

The next moment Walter is jumping off his platform because he heard it earlier; but he is too late.

The sound of Saxa’s gun going off is not the one they’ve gotten used to over the weeks. It is so much louder. So definitive. So deadly.

Her gun is /not/ shooting blanks.

And Walter is too slow.

Mid-jump, the bullet tears into his left leg and his knee explodes in blood as he tumbles down, hitting his head against a wall. He is unconscious before he hits the ground five feet below.

“Oh my God,” Milan whispers, while around him the room erupts in chaos.

Somebody screams for a medic. Is that Saxa’s horrified voice?

Next to him, Rune lays her hand on the glass window and doesn’t say anything.

***

Dawn finds him sitting on the edge of his bed in his own apartment with his head in his hands. He hasn’t slept a wink tonight. It’s all been a blur; from Saxa’s tears and Walters blood to the hurried and messy ending of the bootcamp and the podride home. There was supposed to be one week before the Fortress but God knows what is going to happen now.

According to the newsfeeds that are glowing on the screen next to his dresser Saxa has been disqualified and taken in for questioning, and Walter is out of the fight, possibly for good. He’s in the hospital and he’s in stable condition, but he is in surgery all night. He can’t sleep – not until he knows Walter is alright. He’s frozen one of the screens on a candid tabloid shot of the tearful face of Walter’s girlfriend as she jumps off the pod next to the hospital. Milan can’t stop looking at it. /I have a girl waiting for me at home,/ Walter had said. Seeing the utter devastation on her pretty face makes it worse.

The most horrific thing about it that he is deep down inside a little relieved that he won’t have to fight either Walter or Saxa. Rune even said as much to him, while everyone watched an unconscious and bleeding Walter being wheeled away. She had stood next to him, twining her fingers with his and squeezing his hand. “Well, this is convenient,” she had whispered. “Suddenly you’re number one.”

“That’s so inappropriate,” he had hissed at her, but she had just smiled apologetically at him.

“It’s true, though,” she had whispered back and squeezed his hand again.

He keeps thinking of the convenience of it all, and he hates the mixture of relief and bile he feels in his throat. Convenience for him and the end for Walter and Saxa. /Oh, Saxa./ He doesn’t believe one bit of what the newsfeeds are implying about her guilt. Even though she pulled the trigger, she is not responsible for what happened. She wouldn’t have taken Walter out like this. He still remembers what she said to him on the balcony, only a week ago. /I like you enough to want to beat you fairly in the Fortress,/ she had said, backlit by the light pollution in the evening sky. He believed her. Saxa, sitting on that balcony, had nothing to lose. She hadn’t been worried about him or Walter. She had been /looking forward/ to meeting them in the Fortress and measuring her skills against them.

He can still hear her horrified screams for a medic. He can still see how she rushed over to his side and the utterly anguished expression on her face as she fell on her knees next to him, apologising like there was no tomorrow. As if he could hear her through the depths of unconsciousness. How she had stayed by his side until they had pulled her away from him, handcuffing her. Even as they led her away she had kept looking over her shoulder. The naked emotions in her green eyes told volumes.

Rune has been shooting him messages all night. He can see the messages glow on the side of his screen. She had wanted to spend the night with him, but he had declined. He really doesn’t want to talk right now. It isn’t just Rune. There’s numerous messages from his publicist and sponsor as well. Friends. Family. His mother. He ignores them all. He just waits for a word from the news, something that will tell him that Walter will be alright at least.

Around 10am his feed starts glowing. Walter’s publicist looks grave. The man looks frazzled, as if he has slept as little as Milan has. There are shadows under his eyes and his hair is unkempt. Milan can see Walter’s girlfriend in the background of the room, obviously on the phone with someone. Her face looks tear-streaked. The camera focuses on the publicist. “Walter Lane is out of surgery. He is stable, awake, and has medication against the pain. The surgery and the cell replication treatment proved to be as successful as can be hoped for, considering the damage to his knee. He will walk again, with revalidation. He will, however, never enter the Fortress. His destiny lies not with the Arena. Not anymore. If there are any questions, I will happily answer them.”

Milan falls back on his bed and closes his eyes. /That’s convenient,/ Rune whispers in his memory. He hates himself, because in his heart of heart he agrees.

***

Ten days later Milan finds himself pulling the trigger on the back of his fellow contestant, Jonas Diven. The room glows green with plasma and Diven crumples before he’s even had the chance to turn around. Despite being sixth in the rankings, this guy was the one who held out the longest. /Shows just how much the rankings were worth,/ he thinks numbly as he stands over the corpse of a young man who has shared his meals for six weeks.

“Victor of the northwest Euro Fortress of 2305: Milan Anders!” echoes the voice of announcer Karl Lorentz over the speakers. “Milan, congratulations. With three kills, that was a fantastic display.”

“Thank you,” Milan says absently. He wipes the sweat off his face and grimaces when his hand comes back grimey and bloodied. Looks like that rebounding flak on the wall managed to nick him after all. “Is there a medical check at the exit?”

“They’ll take good care of you, don’t worry. Do you need directions to the exit?”

“No, I’m fine. I think.”

He ends up following the light indicators on the floor to the exit anyway. Karl plays a cheerful victory song for him over the speakers, but it is a surreal experience anyway to walk in an empty Fortress, only accompanied by the smell of blood, shit and gunpowder. He keeps his gun in his hands, keeps looking over his shoulder, expecting attack at any moment. There is nothing. The Fortress is empty, save for himself and the corpses. Three of those are made by his own hands. He wonders if he should feel something about it. He’s mostly numb and high on stimms, adrenaline and paranoia. He wants to hurt something, he wants comfort. He is so alive he doesn’t know what to do about it.

/Holy shit, I’m still alive!/

/I’ll keep you alive no matter what,/ Rune’s voice resounds in his memory.

“You did, Rune, you kept your promise…” Milan whispers at the empty hallway. “You kept me alive.” He finds himself smiling at nothing, forcing himself to try to believe that his life hasn’t ended. Forcing the adrenaline to go down, the paranoia to quiet in his mind. He’s alive. He is really alive and he’s made it so far. He’s fucking done it. “Oh God…”

And there it comes; the rush, the delirious realisation. He is alive, and he did it, and it is oh so very goddamn sweet that it takes his breath away. He stumbles and leans against the concrete wall, barking out breathless laughter.

“Are you okay there, Anders?” Karl asks over the speakers.

Milan looks up at where he thinks the cameras are and smiles brilliantly. “Just dealing with overwhelming relief here. It’s fine.”

“Feels good, doesn’t it,” the announcer commiserates.

“Fuck yes.”

The rest of the walk to the exit is a breeze. A dream. He feels like he is walking on clouds. He’s survived the Fortress and he hasn’t had to kill any of the contestants who were his friends. The other contestants couldn’t even touch him. It is onwards to the Arena and the League for him, and he owes it all to one person.

There are people waiting for him at the exit. The automatic doors slide open and there’s a team there; his sponsors, some of his friends, his mother. Press, of course there is press. Camera’s in his face, microphones nearly jammed down his throat and questions on how does he feel right now, in this very moment.

He hardly acknowledges them. He’s searching for Rune in the throng of people, but he doesn’t see her face among the crowd. She is not running forward to hug him. No congratulations and smiles from the one person that taught him how to survive this experience. He owes her everything, and she’s not here.

/Something is wrong./

It is not a gradual realisation. Rune is not here and there is something manic about the congratulations and the pats on his shoulder. Something forced. Something /off/.

He asks his publicist about it, and she just shakes his head and mutters something about “not now”.

And that’s when he /knows/ something is terribly wrong. In the pit of his stomach, he knows that things have gone horribly wrong. In his heart of hearts, he has an inkling of what might be wrong, but he forces himself not to think about that, because that would be horrible and he doesn’t want it to be true.

The sweet feeling of victory is fleeting out of his grasp, though. It doesn’t last under the suspicions. So he asks again, because he doesn’t have a choice.

He gets his answer. Amidst the crowd of people, his publicist looks at him with something akin to pity in her dark eyes. “I”m sorry, Milan. Rune has been arrested on suspicion of the attempted murder on Walter Lane. She’s still a suspect, but rumour has it that there is video footage of her sabotaging the rifle.”

And his world shatters.

—–

Comments
  1. […] So, I present to you, the thing I made. I’m kind of proud of it. Maybe later I’ll hate it, but tonight I’m really pleased with this. Here you go: Heartflusters, a League story. […]

  2. […] So, I present to you, the thing I made. I’m kind of proud of it. Maybe later I’ll hate it, but tonight I’m really pleased with this. Here you go: Heartflusters, a League story. […]

  3. […] Later misschien niet meer, maar vanavond ben ik heel erg in mijn nopjes. Nieuwsgierig? Check hier: Heartflusters, a League story. let op, hij is wel in het […]

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