2303: Siren

Posted: April 26, 2013 by Kelly in league, stories, the world

2303 -2304: Siren

It’s November and Shanghai is lit up like a christmas tree on acid, much like it is every day except now with more manic green and red. Khan smoothes his hands down the lapels of his jacket once more before stepping into the slylishly decorated hall. Here the theme is black and gold. It’s supposed to be sophisticated, but you can only attend so many victory parties before all the gold loses its shine. By now it just looks gaudy to him. Still, he doesn’t let the decor dampen his spirits. This years Asia League Final had been spectacular. Sure, it had been Chang’s third victory in a row, but what a victory. What a show. Khan gracefully accepts the congratulations heaped on him. It had been one hell of a broadcasting. Even Young agreed, and that is the kind of praise that Khan will take home with him to soak in for months.

He lets his eyes wander over the hall. There must be close to a thousand people milling about, trying to catch a moment with Chang or Stender or Lon Singh or himself, or any of the other VIP’s attending. It’s a logistical nightmare, and one that he’s glad that he’s not dealing with. Khan is a man with many talents and tasks, but organizing Chang’s celebratory shindig is not one of them.

The man of the hour is standing close to the bar, talking to a pudgy investor in an expensive suit that does nothing to hide his jawls. Khan represses a shudder, but Chang seems utterly unphased, even though his own physique is the opposite of the jawly man in front of him. Chang is lean but strong, tall but quick. His tuxedo jacket appears to be a little tight around the arms, which isn’t uncommon. League participants often bulk up a lot before their matches, and Chang is no exception. Khan shakes the hands of a few richly dressed socialites and shares a few jokes before making his way over to Chang and the investor.

“Look at you! All cleaned up, I see?” he says, grinning at Chang. The other man returns his grin, but where Khan is sure he himself looks charming, Chang looks like a wolf baring his teeth. He has stopped taking it personal. Chang Kun Wei is a predator, after all, and he probably doesn’t know how to smile without looking deranged.

“Well, it has been five days… plenty of time for a bath, even for me.”

The investor, whom Khan vaguely recognizes as someone owning a number of betting stations elsewhere in Asia excuses himself, leaving them to their banter. Chang shakes his head, and the way he looks after the investor leaves nothing to the imagination.

“Disgusting, right?” Khan offers, chugging back his first and probably last glass of champage of the evening. Stender is in the building after all, and he doesn’t want to make an ass out of himself in front of his employer.

“Repulsive,” Chang agrees, his eyes following a scantily clad Lon Singh as she sashays past. “Crude but effective,” the Asia League winner jokes, watching as Lon trails a hand up another investors arm. Khan represses a shudder, pleased that she’s willing to handle that part of the job. He only has to deal with a few society hags, and most of those are content to coo over him, maybe pinch his cheeks if they feel bold. If he is lucky they’ll restrain themselves to groping above the belt.

“So, Kun Wei… what are your plans for the winter?” He asks, letting his eyes wander over the crowd some more. There’s a cluster of people standing close together on the other side of the hall. That’s where Stender has to be.

“The usual…” Chang grunts, staring at his glass as if he’s wondering why it’s empty already, “more training, more publicity work, more work at the dojo. You?”

Khan shrugs a little. His gig at the Asia League is in the bag for next year, with this year’s performance to back him up. People like him, not just for who he was before he started working for the Corporation, but also for who he is now as an announcer. He may not have Huey’s flair or Karl’s humor, but people like him anyway. “Same, I guess, without the gruelling work-outs. I might spend some time in the Compound, get back in touch with the colleagues…”

“Eager to suck up to Stender, or looking for a chance encounter with Valentina Marin?” Chang smirks at him, and Khan wants to punch him in the face.

“Fuck you, Kun Wei, nobody likes you,” he mutters instead.

“Well?”

“Ugh, both.” Khan confesses. His endless desire to impress Stender is a source of constant amusement for the other man, but not as much as his fanboy-obsession with Valentina Marin is. He may have waxed poetically about her virtues within earshot once or twice, and Chang will never let him live it down.

“I’m surprised you haven’t arranged a meeting yet. Don’t you go to her victory parties?”

He shakes his head. “Timing’s always off. It’s always right before or after a prelim, and then there are a million things to do and all my suits will be with the cleaner on that day and it’s just… it hasn’t been the right moment, that’s all.”

Chang doesn’t roll his eyes at him, but it’s a close call.

“I know, alright. I am a sad, spineless excuse for a human being and I don’t deserve good things.” Khan sighs dramatically. “She’s just so perfect. Did you see her win this year? She completely annihilated Denzel Deveaux.”

Chang snorts and Khan is painfully aware of how much he sounds like an infatuated schoolgirl. “‘Course, he was struggling a bit under the weight of his ridiculous name. What were his parents thinking? Alliteration? Huey nearly choked on it when he made it through the prelims.”

“I think it was his… stage name, if you will,” Chang says, still grinning. “I’m sure his actual name was something sensible, like Minzholing.”

Khan punches Chang in the shoulder for that. “Why must you always disrespect my family, you Chinese dog?”

“Because you’re fun to rile up, cupcake. But I’ll make it up to you…” There’s a dangerously gleeful shine to his eyes that Khan doesn’t like, “I’ll introduce you to someone you’ve always wanted to meet, while you don’t have a million things to do and you’re wearing a nice suit too.”

“What, seriously? Wait…” Khan protests, scanning the room around him frantically. “You’re fucking with me, aren’t you?”

“Valentina!” Chang bellows next to him, and for a moment all Khan can do is stare at the man next to him, and wonder if he’s gone insane. Then he finds himself turning slowly to where Chang is staring over his shoulder, knowing full well that it has to be a prank.

“Payback will be sweet, motherfu… oh shit.” He freezes when he sees her, dressed in a black and gold gown that is in no way, shape or form gaudy, or slutty in the way that Lon’s is. It clings to her body though, showing off a narrow waist and a lean, muscular build. She grins at Chang and it’s familiar, predatory in the same way Chang’s often is. Then she tilts her head slightly and looks at him and her grin softens somehow, losing its predatory edge. She is flawless in every way, and Khan is suddenly depressingly certain that he’s drooling.

“Chang,” Valentina’s voice is warm and amused, the way Khan had heard it countless times in interviews with Stender, Huey or Berntsson. He had watched those interviews a thousand times, and it had done absolutely nothing to prepare him for hearing it in person. Next to him Chang inclines his head in a little bow, which she answers with a smile.

“Valentina, I’d like to introduce you to the bane of my long hours in the Arena…” Chang half turns to Khan and pats him on the shoulder, “Val, meet Khan, Khan, meet the glorious Valentina Marin.”

“Uh… hi,” Khan says, cringing internally at how uncertain he sounds. He offers his hand to Valentina and forgets to breathe for a moment when she accepts it, her grip firm but pleasant, her hands calloused from years of handling guns and knives. He knows exactly how long an appropriate handshake should last, but he can’t bring himself to let go first.

Valentina smiles at him, and it’s nothing like the way she’d smiled at Chang. “Hi…” she starts, and Khan imagines she sounds a little breathless too, “It’s really great to meet you. I’m sorry, this is really embarrassing, and I’m sure you’re sick of hearing it, but I loved you in Silver Skies. I think I cried for three solid hours when Lee died in season four. The team really wasn’t the same after that.”

Khan tries not to gape at Valentina, and fails miserably. Next to him Chang chuckles and claps him on the shoulder. “When we met after Bellini’s victory celebrations last year she was wearing a Silver Skies t-shirt. I figured that you two should be introduced, since you have such appreciation for each others… repertoires.”

“Yes, thank you…” Valentina mutters, and Khan hopes he’s not imagining the blush on her cheeks. “Remind me not to tell you anything ever again.”

Chang laughs, and it’s so full of genuine mirth that it startles Khan out of his Valentina-induced haze. “Don’t be mad, Val, you know I’m just trying to do you a favor. After all, you’re the one who wanted to hear all about what Khan’s like in person, and here he is, in the flesh.” Valentina’s blush deepens, and Khan tries and fails not to preen a little at that. “And on that note, I’ll leave you two to your mutual fangirling, it looks like Lon needs saving from a sponsor.”

The Asia League champion disappears into the crowd, where Lon Singh is indeed looking more and more uncomfortable under the intense scrutiny of one of Chang’s wealthiest sponsors. Khan clears his throat, feeling shy in a way he hasn’t felt in over a decade. “So…”

“I think Chang just called you a girl,” Valentina says, smiling cheekily at him.

“Well… that’s not the worst he’s called me by a long shot. It really doesn’t even hit the top fifty, if we’re counting the abuse he generally sends my way during his matches. And I’m only doing my job, too.”

Valentina chuckles at that. “If Stender got a credit for every time I told him to shut up he’d be an even richer man.”

“Awe, you and Stender just exchange a lot of witty banter though. I love that about your games. I mean, I love your games in general, the way you draw your opponents out, and the way you move, and… I’m fangirling,” He bites his lip to hide a smirk, secretly basking in the glow of Valentina’s smile which has only grown bigger during his ode to her skills.

“I could stand to hear a little more,” she says, and somehow in the space of minutes she has moved closer to him, or they’ve moved closer to each other, and she’s got her hand on his arm and a smile on her face that knocks the air out of his lungs. “Do you…” she starts, looking up at him with beautiful eyes, “I mean… uhm… would you like to get out of here?” She looks tentative and shy as she says it. “It’s just that… It’s really crowded here, and I wouldn’t mind talking to you somewhere without sponsors, you know?”

“I’d love to!” Khan blurts out, just as he remembers where they are, and what his role actually is, “but Stender might kill me if I leave now.” He mutters, feeling his shoulders droop a little. The perfect chance to get to know Valentina better, and he’s stuck playing nice with the sponsors.

Valentina beams at him, “I’m sure Stender won’t mind.” She pulls out her handheld terminal and taps in a quick message while her eyes scan the room. It takes her approximately three seconds to locate Stender. Khan can practically see it in her body, the way her shoulders tense minutely while she’s searching, and relax again when she’s spotted the head of the Corporation.

Khan turns to where she’s looking, and finds himself in a staring contest with Stender, who has just looked up from where he had been staring at his handheld. He arches an eyebrow at both of them. Next to Khan, Valentina clasps her hands together and mouthes ‘please’ at the other man. Tense seconds pass, and Khan is fairly certain that the only time in his life he has felt more judged was when he met Nguyen Li for the first time, five years ago. Then Stender shrugs and waves his hand at them in a dismissive manner. Khan grins and turns back to Valentina, just in time to see her do a little fist-pump.

“Permission granted, I take it?” He says, smiling at the radiant woman next to him.

Valentina grins and grabs his hand. “Come on, lets get out of here. My hotel isn’t that far from here.”

Khan lets his fingers twine with Valentina’s. “Or… we could go back to my place? It’s just ten minutes by pod, and it’ll be a lot more private than any hotel in the city right now. If that’s what you want, I mean.”

“That sounds great,” she breathes, her fingers tightening in his ever so slightly, while papparazi trail them all the way to his private pod. He can imagine the headlines already, but for once he doesn’t care.

~

Her high heels are abandoned somewhere in his living room, her purse forgotten somewhere on a side table, where she had folded her legs underneath herself, sitting next to him on the couch where they talked for hours and hours. An empty bottle of wine is toppled over, forgotten like their empty glasses, his expensive suit jacket and tie and her necklace, tens of thousands of credits lying forgotten on a table somewhere.

“You did all your own stunts?” She says, smiling at him from the edge of his balcony. He watches her from the doorway. It’s not exactly cold out, but cold enough that he represses a shiver at the sight of her bare feet on marble. She doesn’t seem to feel the chill of the stone at all.

“Most of them. Some of the… less realistic things were done by droids or animatronics, but the producers always wanted Silver Skies to look real, so… yeah, lots of explosions, running, jumping off things… wire-fu…”

She throws her head back and laughs. “Wire-fu?”

He rubs his neck, chuckling softly. “Yeah… it’s pretty old-school. They put you in a harnass and rig you to some wires, which help with the ridiculous jumps and flying kicks. It’s all pre-calculated, of course. They used to do that by hand, you know? A couple of guys pulling a wire and the actor just had to hope they used the right amount of force, or he’d slam into a wall or something.”

“Sounds painful… and convenient. Here I was hoping you could teach me that flying kick…”

“Lee’s signature move?” Khan shakes his head, still smiling. “That definitely required the wires. We can’t all run up walls and jump down three stories and land on our feet, you know. And without a stunt-double too.”

“I know, I know… I’m impressive and a little insane sometimes,” she says with a wink while she slowly makes her way over to him. “Are you intimidated?”

He meets her halfway on the balcony, with no recollection of ever moving his feet. She’s shorter than he is by inches, but it feels like she’s looming somehow, larger than life and overwhelming his senses. “Should I be?” he whispers, leaning down while her fingers find their way into his hair.

“I’m a scary, scary person Khan,” she whispers, her lips almost touching his.

He should probably listen to her, but he’s too busy closing the last bit of distance between them, capturing her lips in an eager kiss that he’s been hungry for since he first laid eyes on her hours ago. Since he first saw her fight in the Fortress, years ago. He knows she’s dangerous, but he wants…

~

“Wake up,” she says, her voice a whisper that tickles his ear. She’s pressed along his side, their bodies touching almost along their entire length. He shifts his face towards her, but he feels himself slipping back into a slumber before he can open his eyes.

When he wakes up again she’s no longer next to him, but she’s a solid weight stretched out on his back instead. “Don’t you ever sleep?” he asks her, his voice rough. He’d been loud. She’d been loud, exuberant even. He finds himself smiling in his pillow at the memory of her voice, her laughter.

“Rarely… “ she mutters against his neck, rising and falling on his back while he breathes.

“Huh… not even after all that physical activity?” he jokes. She nips at his shoulder in retaliation.

“I slept a little, after… It’s nothing personal, I just don’t always sleep well. It’s a… thing. Like… I’m always on my guard, whether I want to be or not.”

He rolls them over, pleased when she lets him. That hadn’t always been the case in the nights before. When he looks down at her he can see she’s wide awake. She doesn’t look half as tired as he feels, and he’s the one that has slept most. “You know you’re safe here, right? This isn’t the Fortress, and no one out to kill you.”

She pokes him in the side. “I know that… duh, of course. It’s really got nothing to do with you, pretty boy. I just can’t switch off all of my instincts in one go. Besides, I did sleep a little, which is more than I usually sleep in a strange place.”

“Poor baby,” Khan says, and means it. “Guess you’ll have to stick around for a while then, make this place less strange.”

She pushes herself up on her elbows. “You have the best ideas,” she whispers against his mouth. It already feels natural for him to kiss her then, and run his hands along her body, feeling her soft skin and muscles underneath his fingertips.

His intentions are rudely interrupted by a loud alarm ringing from the bedside table. Val’s body freezes underneath his. “Fuck, that’s me… I should get that.” Khan is reluctant to move, but Val pushes him aside anyway. “That’s Stender. He doesn’t like being kept waiting, and trust me, he won’t let us get a minute of privacy until we’ve talked,” Val says, reaching for her handheld. That’s when Khan remembers that Stender isn’t just his boss, he’s technically hers as well, being her main sponsor.

“Stender, hi!” Valentina says, opening the voice connection on her terminal. She sounds oddly out of breath. “What’s up?”

“What’s up?” Stenders voice sounds distant and displeased through the terminal. “You drop off the map for three days and you ask me what’s up? Would you like to rephrase that?”

Valentina bites her lip, looking bashful when she turns to Khan. “Uhm… sorry? Did I miss something? I don’t remember having any appointments this week?”

“Very clever, Val. Where are you?”

Valentina looks down at Khan and smiles at him. He can’t help but smile back at her, feeling warmed all the way down to his bones. Even if Stender is probably going to fire him. “None of your business, boss.” She tells Stender, “Last time I checked the season was over, and I have no appointments scheduled this week. If I want to fall off the map for a few days then that’s really none of your concern.”

“Val…” Stender starts.

“No, seriously, I really don’t think you have a leg to stand on here. Off season. No obligations. I’ll call you when I feel like making an appearance, ok?”

Khan can almost picture Stender shaking his head. “Ok. Can you do me a favor though, Val?”

She rolls her eyes at the terminal in her hand. “I’m sure I can, boss.”

“Tell Khan that he’s missed his meeting with Lung yesterday. I expect him to make amends within the week.”

The connection severs with a click, and Khan can feel his face heat up in shame. “Busted…” he mutters. Valentina drops her terminal on the bedside table and crawls into his lap.

“My my… skipping meetings and ignoring your boss? I’m beginning to think I’m a had influence on you.”

~

“Khan! Khan! A moment please!” The reporter that appears in front of him is a young, sharp looking man that has been following him around for weeks. Ever since Valentina Marin had left Chang’s victory party with him he has gained several new shadows, this particular one being the most persistent. He feels like he can’t even take a piss without the paparazzi asking after the color of it at the moment. Valentina shrugs it off as if it’s nothing, but Khan can’t help but wonder if it was ever this bad when he was still on Silver Skies. Maybe he’s just repressed it.

“Mike…” He says, hoping he remembers the name of this particular reporter correctly. He looks like a Mike, anyway. “What would you like to know today? Whether Valentina prefers dark chocolate over light? How she drinks her coffee? What she wears to the gym?”

Mike chuckles. “Nah, man, I just wanted to ask you how you feel about her relationship with Stender.”

“How I feel about her relationship with her sponsor?” Khan echoes, resisting the urge to scratch his head. “I’m sure its fine? Just like any relationship between a sponsor and an athlete?”

“So the rumors that she’s switching sponsors are untrue? She was spotted with David Vermeer in Amsterdam yesterday.” Mike’s smile borders on creepy, sure as he is that he’s on to something. Khan shakes his head. All Mike is accomplishing so far is reminding him of how Val is miles away, and he hasn’t spoken to her at all in the past two days. Media obligations. His favorite.

“Do I look like Valentina, Mike? Do I look like Stender? Maybe you should pose these questions to the people involved, instead of harrassing me with it. Now if you’ll excuse me… I’ve got to see a man about a goat.” He pushes Mike aside and makes his way into the enormous sky-scraper from which the Corporation’s Asian operations are handled.

An hour later Lon Singh forwards him a vid-excerpt titled ‘trouble in paradise?’. He sees himself glowering at Mike, basically telling him to fuck off. “Ugh, seriously?” He complains to Lon, whose smile is bright on his terminal.

“You’d really think that someone with your experience would be better at dealing with the paparazzi. Don’t sweat it, babe, Young’s cut it off before it could go global. A lot of people are watching you very closely at the moment, gagging for news about you and Valentina. Did you know there are polls about you two in the betting stations?” Lon looks at her nails, as if she’s already bored with the conversation. As if she’s not one of the people gagging for more news about him and Valentina.

“I’ve heard,” he mutters. “Creative polls, too. I really don’t know why people are so obsessed with our relationship.”

“Oh honey, you really don’t know?” Lon rests her chin on her hands. “You two are sooo dreamy together. Just think about it, you take the woman that everyone in the world wants to either fuck, marry, be or kill, and you take the man that billions of girls and boys have swooned over in their youth… what did you expect? Everybody’s going to have an opinion about you two.”

Khan rests his head on his terminal. “Fuck my life. Alright, lets hear it, what’s your opinion?”

“I give it until August. Enjoy it while it lasts, sweetheart. You two are so damn glorious together, but you know it’s not going to last once she goes back to the league.”

“What, you think I can’t handle it? I’ve seen all of her fights, you know.” Khan says, frowning at his terminal.

“I know you have, but you haven’t seen her fight while you were together. You haven’t watched her put herself in danger time and time again for the sake of entertainment. It’ll break you. Take my word on this, Khan. I’ve been in your shoes. You’ll try to keep a straight face and support her, but you’ll want to beg her to stop, and she won’t. Not for you or for anybody, and that will tear you apart.”

“I thought you didn’t give a shit about Kwon?”

“I didn’t, but after we almost firebombed him to death I still asked him to stop, because it’s impossible to watch someone you’ve slept with risk their lives over and over again for something as trivial as ratings.” Lon yawns. “Seriously, Khan. Either you get her pregnant before she starts her season preparation, or you say goodbye to her in July. Anything else will just end in heartbreak for the both of you.”

“What, there’s a poll about babies too?” Khan quips.

Lon chuckles, “Of course there is. You’ll have a boy and a girl, and you’ll name the boy after Stender and the girl after your sister, and they’ll be adorable. Don’t call me when you need a babysitter.”

“Sweety… you would be the absolute last person I call for that.”

“And that’s how I know you love me. Now go on, call Val. I know you’re pining for the sound of her voice.”

“Ugh, I really am.” He sulks.

“Enjoy it while it lasts, ok?” Lon says before she closes the connection.

“Yeah yeah… pessimist.” He mutters, her warnings forgotten by the time he sets up a vidlink with Valentina.

~

“It’s too bad Val couldn’t make it.” Bai calls out from her kitchen. In her living room her three year old son stares up at Khan. His cheeks are still red and his nose still wet from his temper tantrum earlier.

“Yeah…” Khan says, smiling wryly at the little boy. “I’ll tell her that Beng is heartbroken.”

“You do that,” his sister says as she reappears from the kitchen, handing him a cup of coffee. “I swear, I’ve never seen him take to one of your girlfriends as swiftly as he’s taken to Valentina. Then again, she is great with kids. Surprising, really, when you think about it.”

Khan shrugs. “I don’t think being good with kids and being good in the arena are mutually exclusive. Anyway, you know she really wanted to come, but her sponsorship obligations couldn’t be rescheduled.”

“Chang is terrible with children,” Bai reminds him.

“Chang is a different animal all together.” Khan mutters into his coffee cup.

“Is he?” Bai says, looking at him with all the concern a big sister has to offer. “Or are you looking at Val with rose tinted glasses? She’s won as often as Chang has, and with the same kind of brutal efficiency. You know I like Val, but I have to worry about my little brother’s heart, if he’s determined to give it to a killer.”

“She’s not just a killer, alright? I can’t believe we’re having this conversation again. She’s no better or worse than anyone alive in this world today. The only thing setting her apart from Joe Average is that she’s an athlete, and she’s the best at what she does. Everyone she faces in the arena knows exactly what they’re in for. It’s not like she’s out on the street, killing innocent bystanders.”

Bai holds up her hands in surrender. “I know, I know. Maybe I’m letting my feelings towards the League show too much. I’m sure all the competitors give their full consent to being cut down in the arena by your lady love or your bestie, but that doesn’t make it normal, and that doesn’t mean I’m not going to worry about you. I mean, all that killing has to influence her in some way.”

“She’s no different from a soldier or a police officer. They’re forced to pull the trigger just as often.”

“And none of those ever suffer from ptsd, do they?” Bai counters.

“For fuck’s sake, will you stop bitching about it already? I love her, she loves me, she’s fine, I’m fine, we’re all fine!” Khan shouts, regretting it instantly when his nephew starts bawling. Bai picks the boy up and soothes him in the time it takes Khan to start feeling like a wretched human being.

“I’m sorry,” he says, taking Beng from his sisters arms and bouncing him on his knee. “I know you’ve got my best interests at heart. I’m just tired of having to defend my relationship at every turn. And I haven’t been sleeping well lately.”

“Oh? How come?”

“Valentina’s training regime kicked off again last week. She barely sleeps, either training or watching old footage. It’s… she calls it hypervigilance, something she picked up as a child, growing up. She says it’ll settle down soon enough, but in the meantime it doesn’t make for peaceful nights.”

Bai gives him a considering look. “And? I’ve known you longer than today, Khan, that’s not the only thing keeping you up.”

He runs a hand through his hair and sighs. “You’re going to love this. Lenham suggested that we should take a break until the season is over. He thinks I’ll be a distraction to her while she’s preparing for the fortress.”

“Lenham?”

“Her trainer when she first joined the league. We went to his wedding last December, if you recall?” Khan shrugs, as if the words of the other man hadn’t phased him at all. “Either way, Valentina really respects him… I don’t think she’ll take his advice and dump me, but it’ll play in her mind none the less.” He scoffs and shakes his head. “He didn’t mean bad, it’s just… that’s all I’ve been hearing, you know? A couple of months ago Lon pretty much suggested that we wouldn’t make it if Valentina competes this season. I know Stender doesn’t approve, he’s constantly harping about focus and distractions…”

Bai settles on the couch next to him and wraps her arm around his shoulder. “I’m sorry… I really don’t want to put even more pressure on you and Val. It’s hard enough as it is, with her upcoming participation and the constant media attention. You really don’t need this from me as well. Will you accept that I’m just worried about my baby brother? I don’t want to see you get hurt, and even though Valentina is amazing, she is going to fight in a deathmatch. A lot of people die in deathmatches every year. I don’t want you to be left behind if she doesn’t make it this year.”

“She’ll make it,” Khan says, sounding absolutely sure of himself, “She’s Valentina Marin. She always makes it. It’s kind of her thing.”

~

“Good luck,” He had told her just over two hours ago, before she made her way to the fortress for her preliminary. She’d smiled at him and told him that she’d see him soon. The contestants in her prelim are average. Some good, some bad and overall average, no more or less dangerous than any other preliminary. The odds had looked good for Valentina, as they always do.

He’d been nervous either way, his palms clammy with anxious sweat. Huey had taken one look at him and laughed his ass off, before passing him a glass of whisky that Khan downed in one gulp. And here he was, in the control room of the compound, watching Valentina’s preliminary game. Stender leads the match with the ease of experience, narrating first blood and the unexpected alliance of Sykes and Lahey.

“Come on, come on, come on…” He urges Valentina on although she can’t hear him. She’s stalking the only other remaining female competitor, staying in her blind spot as Carla Waverly makes her way deeper into the fortress. Waverly doesn’t stand a chance against Valentina’s guns, and Khan can’t resist cheering when Waverly goes down. Although it’s only Valentina’s first kill of the match, it’s a good one.

“Just two to go,” Young reassures him. it’s grating, how even Young can see that he needs that reassurance.

“That alliance is holding out nicely,” Stender comments. “She’ll hate that.” He sounds almost pleased with the prospect. Khan only just stops himself from glaring at his boss. “What do you think, Khan? Do Sykes and Lahey stand a chance?”

Khan swallows back his first and second thoughts and tries to look at the match the way he would if he’d been the announcer handling the footage. “Maybe,” he finally admits. “Neither of them is good enough to best Valentina individually, but between them they have a pretty decent skillset.”

A loud gunshot echoes through the fortress, and Valentina stumbles forward. Khan inhales sharply, seeing her grab her thigh. Blood pushes out between her fingers. Not far from her Lahey lowers his railgun, looking frustrated. “Shit…” Khan breathes, leaning closer to the viewscreens, as if that will help Valentna.

“Just a graze,” Young tells him, pointing at the replay of the footage. The bullet from the rail gun barely nicks Valentina in the leg. “Lucky too, if that had hit it would’ve ripped her leg right off her body.” The mental image is enough to make Khan feel nauseous. Valentina keeps moving despite her wounded leg, trying to keep distance between herself and the other two competitors. Sykes takes the lead in the chase now, and he’s fast, eating up the space between him and his prey.

Valentina is taunting her competitors, her eyes locked on the probe as she tells Sykes… something. Khan can’t hear her over the sound of his own breathing. Sykes responds, shouting at her and picking up his speed, and Khan barely sees it. For a moment Valentina had looked right into the probe, right at millions of viewers at home. Right at Khan. She had grinned, bared her teeth in a way that always reminds him of wolves. Of the way Chang looks at people. For a moment he barely recognizes her.

“Fuck…” he breathes. Huey hands him another glass of whisky. The liquid trembles in the glass, his fingers in a white knuckled grip aroud it.

“Keep your cool. She’s got this.” Youngs voice is barely a whisper. Khan finds it hard to believe, seeing the woman he’s shared so much of his life with in the past months running down corridors, bleeding and hunted by two other competitors. She goes down again, throwing herself into the courtyard just in time to avoid being torn apart by Sykes flak cannon.

“Ooh, she’s backed into a corner now.” Huey says, sounding gleeful, as if he’s looking forward to seeing Valentina die.

Stender shakes his head. “After all the years you’ve known her… you still doubt her talent for survival?”

“I’m just saying that it’s not looking alll that good for our girl. Wanna make a bet? I say Sykes and Lahey get her this time. What do you say, Young?” He smirks. “How about you, Khan? You wanna put some money on the survival of your girl?”

Khan can only stare at the man in disbelief. “What?”

“Woops, too late.” Huey crows, grinning at the screen like a maniac. Khan almost gives himself a whiplash trying to look at all the screens at once. Valentina is no longer in the courtyard. She is no longer in the courtyard because she has managed to run up a wall.

A dozen feet below her, Sykes and Lahey are raging. Sykes unloads his flak cannon at the wall, but he’s not even close to hitting Valentina. Khan lets out a shaky breath. “Ah, a moment’s reprieve,” Huey says, picking the still full whisky glass out of Khan’s hand and downing it himself. “There’s still time for that bet, you know.”

“No there’s not,” Young offers, sounding pleased with himself. Another gunshot echoes through the controlroom, cutting off Sykes mid-rant. Khan whips back to the screen, just in time to see Valentina leap of the ledge to the courtyard below, and put three bullets into her last remaining competitor.

She sags down to her knees and Khan follows her example, sliding down the wall and putting his head between his legs to breathe through the panic grabbing at his throat. He doesn’t hear Stender exchange words with Valentina, and he barely feels it when Young pats him on the shoulder on his way out.

It’s not until Stender clears his throat that he realizes he’s alone with the man, the controlroom filled with the sounds of Valentina giving her post-victory interviews.

“Does it ever get easier?” He asks Stender.

The other man looks at the screen, his eyes filled with unguarded affection for the woman talking her way through a maze of questions. “No,” he finally responds. “No it doesn’t.”

~

“I don’t understand.”

Khan can barely look at her, knowing that he’s the one breaking her heart. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, knowing it’s hopelessly inadequate.

“No,” she says, stepping into his space. “You can’t do this to me, ok? You have to… just talk to me. Tell me what I can do. Just…. anything. You can’t just leave me like this.”

“There’s nothing you can do, Val… it’s not you, It’s me. Fuck, I’m such a cliché. It’s me. I thought I could handle it, seeing you in the Arena, but I can’t. Every second you’re out there I can’t breathe for fear of losing you.”

“So you’re just going to let me go? You can’t stand the thought of losing me, so you cast me aside?”

“It’s that, or I ask you to stop… and you won’t. Or maybe you will, for a while, but you’d resent me for it. This is what you do, Val. This is what you’re best at, and what you love, and what I always loved watching you do, before I realized what it meant… what the risks were. And I just can’t do it. I can’t watch you walk into that Arena knowing that you might die. That there are people opposing you who will do anything to see you fail. I don’t have the heart for it.”

“So that’s it? That’s the end of us? I get shot one time and you give up?¨ She looks more damaged now that she had coming out of the fortress. Khan brushes her hair out of her face and pulls her close, knowing it’s the last time.

“I’m sorry. More than I’ll ever be able to say.”

She pushes him away with a gentleness and restraint that he’s come to know so very well over the past months. Her smile is faint when she looks at him. “It’s alright. It was never going to last, was it? Everybody said so… I was just a fool for thinking otherwise.”

With those words she turns away from him, leaving him standing alone on the Compound dock. His shuttle back to Shanghai is leaving in minutes. He looks back one last time, his eyes following Valentina until she disappears inside the building, knowing he’ll never see her again. His resignation is already on Stenders desk.

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