2304: Kardusen

Posted: March 15, 2013 by Kelly in stories, the world

“Come on, Kris, I need this one! I’m not above begging.”

The owner of the Kardusen City Arena raises an eyebrow at me over his drink and he laughs. The sound of it echoes through the abandoned cantina of his arena. It’s just him and me and the cleaners downstairs in the arena; closing time has come and passed two hours ago. “That’ll be a sight to see,” he smiles. Kristian Kardusen and I go way back. I’ve been his ammo supplier for a couple of years now. I bought him many drinks to convince him to let me remain his first tier supplier and we’ve gotten drunk quite a few times together. On top of that I’ve also been a customer. Walter and I have been coming to his Arena for three years now, using up a lot of that ammunition and hanging out with Kris after closing time much like I’m doing right now.

“Do you want me to beg? Because if you want to, I will!” I get up from my barstool and set my nearly empty glass of beer on the bar, fully intending to sit down on my knees. I thought I was only half serious about this, but as I slide from my stool I realise that this isn’t a joke. I /really/ would get down on my knees to beg for this.

He holds out his hand to me to help me up. There are laughter lines crinkling the skin around his hazel eyes and his long dirty blonde hair is escaping its ponytail, hanging in his face as he leans down towards me. “It’s fine, Lannie. As long as you do it after closing time and it’s done in an hour, it’s cool with me. We’ll just clean out the other arenas first. Can you make it in an hour?”

I grab his hand with both of mine and squeeze it with the biggest, most radiant smile in my arsenal. “Thanks Kris, you’re a life saver.”

“Aw, I’m glad to do you a favour. Couldn’t you have waited till Talent Day, though? It’s only four more weeks away and there will be Corporation scouts present.”

I rake a hand through my hair and smile. “Maybe, but by then the atmosphere in our apartment will have frosted over. We really need to settle this score as soon as possible before we never talk to one another anymore.”

“You do know that Walter is the better fighter, right?” Kristian says gently. He taps a few buttons on his handheld and the glass plate on the bar promptly glows up with stats from his Arena database. I can see he’s calling up fighting stats for both Walter and myself; stats that have been gathered over the past three years.

“Right now he is,” I say stubbornly, pointing at my overall improvement. I’m making more headway than my boyfriend is; improving every single fight. My stats are improving and I haven’t hit a plateau yet; Walter seems to have done so. “But I’m still a faster shot than he is. Quicker reflexes.”

“You’re also less controlled and more impulsive. Seriously, Lannie, it’s not my place to butt in, but maybe you should concede this one. The stats don’t lie. You’re a good fighter; one of the better uncontracted ones I’ve got in the Arena here. But you’re improving more because you’re not as good as he is and you have still far to go. Your boyfriend is on a different level altogether.” He regards me quietly. “But you won’t let this go, will you?”

I shake my head and try to swallow away the lump in my throat. “He wants to sign up for the /League/, Kris. People get /killed/ in there! I can’t give up without a fight. I can’t let him go in there to risk his life without giving it all I’ve got… knowing that I could have done this, too. You understand that, don’t you?”

He smiles at me. It is a good smile, a friendly and kind one. He’s such a terribly good guy. If he wasn’t so much older than I am, I would have pursued him instead of first Roy and then Walter when I came to live in Amsterdam. “I would have done the same,” he says.

I grin wryly. “Thank you for saying so but… You would have never gotten into this godforsaken situation in the first place, Kris.”

His grin makes him look a lot younger than thirty five. He could have been a teenage boy. “Probably not. You’ve got the Arena tomorrownight after closing time if you want. Make it count.”

Walter isn’t much impressed when I tell him about this when he comes home from his night shift the next morning. “Seriously?” he asks me, absently tossing his bag in the corner. We both cringe when we hear the handheld within collide with the floor. “You’re really serious about this thing, aren’t you?”

I nod at him from my position at the kitchen table, where I’m nursing a cup of herbal tea and my breakfast before I’ll have to head off to my own job. “Let’s do this thing, babe. Give me all you’ve got, wipe the floor with me. /Then/ I won’t protest you giving the League a shot.”

He just stands there, in the door opening of the kitchen, chewing his lip in the way he always does when he’s thoughtful. The dusty sunrise light from outside makes his hair look almost as red as mine. He looks beautiful in this light. “That’s your condition?” he asks finally.

I utter a disgusted sound deep in my throat. “Well, no. I don’t want you to go. So that’s why I’m going to see if I can beat you.”

“You know you won’t,” he says matter-of-factly, as he walks over to the kitchen table and pours himself a cup of steaming hot tea. He never drinks coffee after a night shift. Says it’ll keep him awake. It’s bullshit, of course. He’s usually still high on stimms for hours anyway.

“I beat you a couple of times in the past few years,” I retort, trying to keep my voice even. “Also? You’re an asshole.”

He grins widely at me and raises his cup of tea to me as a toast. “I love you too, Lannie.”

***

It is the next evening, three hours before Walter’s night shift begins, two hours after my work day ended. I’m pretty exhausted after a long day of work but the stimms should be kicking in any time now. It probably means that I won’t sleep much tonight, but it’s going to be worth it. I sit on a bench and tiredly watch Walter finish gearing up. We haven’t said much to each other this night.

Kris walks over with his handheld and gives Walter and my sensors a quick checkover with one of his diagnostic tools. Usually he leaves this kind of stuff to his staff, but most of them have gone home by now. “Instagib, non-lethal, sensors are in working order. You play for two out of three; kills and moves in this match will count for your overall tournament stats,” he rattles off with the cadence of routine in his voice. Then he smiles. “Are you two ready?”

I grin at my boyfriend, who is casually inspecting his faux shock rifle. “Ready for victory.” A standard response.

“Always,” Walter says almost at the same time, his response just as standard. He smiles his dimple smile at me and I want to kiss him, hold him. Tell him how I really feel. How we are two stupid idiots dragging each other down into death and stupidity, whichever comes first. Maybe Roy was right after all. Still, neither of us wants to stop or back out. We’re so damnably fucked up together and I am such an idiot for loving our intensity.

What kind of braindead morons gamble away all their money on League matches to the point that they feel obliged to /enter/ the League? /Only us… only us./ I cross the distance between us and throw my arms around Walter’s neck, instagib rifle and all. I smooch him sloppily on his cheek.

“What’s that for?” he asks, smiling.

I smile stupidly at him. I love him so goddamn much. “Consolation, because you’ll need it after losing the match.”

He kisses me back. “Then this is for good luck, because you’ll need it.” He chuckles as he nuzzles my neck and his breath tickles.

“Once you two lovebirds are done,” Kris says mildly, “the arena is waiting for you. I’ve put the timer on five minutes. Walter, you have the north entrance. Lannie, you’ve got south.”

I grin at him, even though Walter’s face is still buried in my neck. “Thanks Kris.”

Kristian laughs and exits the dressing room, muttering something about young love and idiots.

Five minutes later the south entrance opens and I sneak through, intently listening into the twilighted arena for any sounds that Walter might be making. He isn’t making any, of course. As if my too talented boyfriend would ever slip up. He’s been working with me on strategy; trying to get into the other’s mind, anticipating what they might do and plotting out how to respond to any courses of action. I’m usually too impatient for that stuff, and Walter knows me well. As a person, but also as a fighter. He might be anticipating either my impatience and brashness, or he might be anticipating that I am trying to be more careful. Or he might figure out that I want to do the exact opposite of what he anticipates and take /that/ in account…. /argh, this isn’t going anywhere!/

I carefully round a corner within the maze and slide past the white glowing walls. They are purple in the blacklight-riddled darkness. I breathe slowly and shallowly, to quiet down my racing heart. The stimms are kicking in, I can feel them coursing through my system. The exhaustion vanishes as the adrenaline ramps up. I smile in the darkness as I plot out my first strategy: I won’t engage Walter… I will let him come to me this time. I’ll hole up and prepare for him, draw him out. See if he can measure up against my defenses when I’m waiting for him. I’m a faster shot than he is. It’ll be interesting.

Five minutes later I nearly have him, but he recovers and manages to nearly nick me. I’m forced to leave my hideout in the maze and we have a firefight while I’m on the run. Bright yellow and green streaks from our rifles light up the twilight around us, my heart is pounding in my throat and I’m shouting curses at him. He just laughs, and I have a stupid grin on my face. /God, I live for this./ But of course then he hits me in my left arm and my sensors flare up a violent red.

“One point for me, babe!” Walter shouts gleefully.

I hate him a little bit for it, but he won his point fair and square, so I’ll let him have this one. I still have two more games to make up the score, I tell myself firmly and resolve to do better.

The second point is for me. By that time I’m completely in the zone. I don’t have to regulate my heartbeat or my breath anymore. The world around me is crystal clear and my movements are almost lazy in a world that seems to have slowed down. Everything seems slower and I dance around the maze, laying the smackdown on Walter for once. Maybe it’s pure luck that I nick him in the shoulder, maybe it’s skill and my superior reflexes. I don’t know, but I feel like I’m walking on clouds and I’m just /fast/ today.

All I know is that it’s immensely gratifying to see /his/ sensors glow red for once.

“Maybe I should give you your consolation kiss already,” I tell him brightly.

Walter laughs. “Can I have that kiss anyway?”

We kiss, in the middle of the Kardusen City Arena. Walter tastes like clean sweat and stimms and adrenaline. It’s the best taste in the world and for one crazy moment I feel immensely aroused and I want to drag him into the dressing room for a quick shag, but then I remember where we are again and that we have a score to settle. We let go and he grins at me. “Let’s do that again sometime,” he says breathlessly.

“Later,” I promise him.

When we part ways to take our positions at our gates again, I look up and I see Kristian looking down at us from behind the glass of the cantina. Next to him stands a man that looks faintly familiar. They are talking and laughing and they’re looking straight down, watching Walter and me with interest. I don’t pay much attention to it; I’ve got a match to win after all.

So does Walter, apparently. He goes completely quiet and for the longest time, nothing happens. I try to hold on to my feeling of being in the zone but I can tell that my nerves are starting to fray. I /need/ this point. If I manage to win this one, I’ll have beaten him and he won’t try to sign up for the League. Maybe I should, then. Or maybe we should tough it out while we get better. We probably won’t have the chance to train in the arena, then. Not with the amount of money we’re in the red at the moment. Paying the rent is already a big problem. I really don’t know how we’ll manage otherwise. The betting stations are not accepting us anymore at the moment, because of the outstanding loans. We’re really quite desperate here; but I don’t want to let Walter just enter the League like that. Not without a fight. Not without proving that maybe we should go back to the drawing board first, or that maybe I should be the one to go.

I imagine watching him on my feed, dying, and my heart starts pounding in my throat. It makes me feel lightheaded and dizzy just to think about it. I can’t lose him. I can’t watch while he dies. I absolutely refuse. Not unless he proves to me he’s that good in the arena. Not unless he wipes the floor with me. Dammit, what is /keeping/ that boy?

The coast is clear. I slide around a corner and press myself against the purple glowing wall. The air is growing stifling. I can feel sweat sliding down my back, drenching my shirt. There is no sound in the arena but for my own carefully controlled breathing. I slowly creep forwards.

I’ve lost my focus. I can feel it.

For some reason I feel the urge to look up, at Kris and his visitor. I can see them, outlined against the tinted glass, intently looking down at me.

And then Kris startles; I can see it happen just in that fraction of a second before I know what’s going on, why he is surprised. I know it instantly. I whirl around, but Walter is right in my face, barrel pointed at my chest and grinning apologetically as he pulls the trigger.

I sigh dejectedly as my sensors flare red.

“Sorry, love,” he says, taking the barrel of his instagib rifle away from my chest. He stands awkwardly before me, bathed in blacklight. The whites of his eyes and his shirt look impossibly bright and purple. He doesn’t look like my boyfriend. “You got distracted.”

“Well, that’s it, then,” I say flatly, clenching my fingers around my rifle. “I fucked up and you’re going to try to enter the Fortress. Damn you, Walter. You better not die in there.”

He tosses his rifle against the ground and wraps his arms around me. “I won’t,” he promises, burying his face in my sweaty hair. He doesn’t seem to mind that I’m sticky and warm. I hug him back and he feels alive and strong and beautiful.

“Don’t make promises you’re not sure you can keep,” I whisper in his neck.

Suddenly, the lights go on. Walter and I both blink against the butter-coloured light. The arena now just looks like a maze of white plastered walls. All of the magic of the blacklight and the energy beams is gone.

The match is over; time to see our statistics and have a beer with Kris. I don’t feel like it at all. I feel like crying my eyes out.

Walter holds my hand while we walk back to the dressing room. He doesn’t say anything, which is just as well.

***

Twenty minutes later we enter the cantina, freshly showered and a lot sweeter smelling. I haven’t really applied much makeup to my face. Kris is used to seeing me with smudged makeup after a match anyway, and I don’t care about his visitor. I really don’t care much about anything right now. My stimms stopped working and I’m crashing. I am exhausted, emotional and I have a hard time letting go of my boyfriend’s hand.

“Good game,” says Kris from where he is sitting with his visitor. He gestures to two drinks on the bar. “Help yourself, it’s on the house.”

I give him a weak smile as I take the drink and put the glass to my mouth. It’s a replenisher, full of salt, electrolytes and whatever makes you come down from a stimm high in a more gentle manner. It never tastes good, but tonight it tastes like tears.

The two men patiently wait for us to finish our drinks before they address us. I need that minute badly to regain my composure and to try and stomp out the anxiety about what Walter and I are going to do. Next month, he’s going to compete on Talent Day and see if he can get himself a sponsor contract. With that, he might be able to enter bootcamp for the Fortress and then, if he lives, the League (where even better competitors might kill him after all). It’s another gamble, and it’s the first one in my life I feel unhappy to make. There’s such a difference when a life is on the line. I glance at Walter. Two lives. I don’t know what I’d do if he’d die.

“I’m sure you want to see your stats,” Kristian says when we’re done with our drinks. “It was a spectacular game, you guys. You both were brilliant, doing what you do best. Which is why I’m glad I invited my friend David here to watch.”

The man sitting next to him nods. He’s somewhere in his mid thirties like Kris is, with slicked back dark blond hair and gray eyes. He’s wearing a casual sweater and jeans, but for some reason it looks like he belongs in a suit. At first I wonder where Kris knows this guy from, but once he sticks out his hand and smiles at us I immediately know what kind of person he is. I know that smile, I smile it often enough myself. He’s a businessman. Sales. I’m pretty sure this guy is a sponsor. /Holy shit. I should have put on that make-up./

“David Vermeer, nice to meet you,” he says while he shakes my hand and then Walter’s. He confirms my suspicions. Vermeer is not just /a/ sponsor, he’s one of the best ones in the area. Loaded, gives great benefits. This guy sponsored Donny Wellington, before Donny flipped the fuck out. Before his meltdown, Donny had it all. “Kris told me I should watch your game today so I could perhaps snatch you up before any other sponsors would fight over you on Talent Day.” And he’s looking at Walter when he says it.

“You’re offering me a contract?” Walter asks incredulously, shooting a quick glance at Kris, who nods.

“You? Yes, immediately. It’s yours if you want. I drew up the contract while you were fighting. Feel free to read it on your leisure. I already sent it to your account.” His gray gaze shifts to me. “Lannie, I’ll be keeping an eye on you as well. You have definite potential. If you keep this up you’re going to be League material in a year or two. Feel free to call me around that time.” He grins somewhat disarmingly while he both insults and flatters me. “It doesn’t happen that often that there’s so much gold in one household.”

Everything is still inside. I blink from Kris to Vermeer, then resting my eyes on my boyfriend. Walter looks back at me. His face is an open book to me: he looks equal parts excited and terrified.

“What, are you both speechless now?” Kris teases gently. There’s concern written on his face, though. “That doesn’t happen very often.”

I find my voice back first. “Sorry, it’s just that this is pretty huge.”

Walter nods. “I’ll read your contract tonight, mister Vermeer, if that’s okay with you.”

“Take your time,” Vermeer says brightly. “I wouldn’t want to rush you. I’ve sent you my contact details, call me if you have any questions. And please, call me David.”

Once Vermeer is gone, Kris looks at us both and says: “I hope you don’t mind. David and I have known each other for a long time, and he’s one of the best in the field. I thought I should match you guys up. At least let him see you. He started drawing contracts as soon as you had your first point, Walter.”

Walter nods absently. He’s already sitting with his handheld in his hands, scrolling through the terms of agreement.

“How are you holding up, Lannie?” Kris asks. My face must be an open book, too.

I stare at my boyfriend. My eyes are burning. Dry like the desert. “Well, I think it’s fair to say that Walter is indeed the better fighter. So he deserves this and I am so glad for this break. This is what we need to keep paying the bills. I don’t mind that you called Vermeer. In fact, it’s incredibly nice of you.” My voice sounds robotic. I feel robotic. “I guess it’s just hard to grasp that Walter is going to do this. He’s going to enter the League.”

Walter lays his handheld on the table and puts his arm around my shoulder, pulling me close. “He’s going to /win/ the League,” he says with all the confidence of the world in his voice. “There’ll be a bootcamp first, and training. I’ve been comparing my current stats to a couple of bootcamp participants and I can take them. Otherwise I would have never even come up with this idea. I can do this, Lannie.”

“Of course you can,” I tell him. “You defeated /me/, after all.”

He laughs and kisses me. I imagine his blood splattering over concrete and I feel nauseated.

——

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