2306: When smoke covers everything

Posted: February 23, 2014 by Kelly in league, stories

City streets, late spring
When smoke covers everything
That’s where we push our eyes
In front of ourselves
For being true, for being hurt

-Ef, “Hello Scotland”

In spite of her sweet smiles, Saxa Owens feels as uncomfortable and awkward as she’s ever been. She stands in the middle of the room, surrounded by people she doesn’t know, who shake her hands and squeeze her shoulder as if they are closely acquainted. They are congratulating her on the fact that she made it out of the Euroleague alive. No, that’s not true, they are congratulating her on her /victory/, because that’s what happens when you bash your opponent’s face in. You win the Euroleague and everybody loves you.

They’ve made her wear a golden dress as well. Saxa had wanted to wear silver because she likes it better, but her stylist had insisted on gold. “You’re a winner, you should wear gold. Silver is for second place.”

“Second place doesn’t exist in the League,” Saxa had retorted, but she’d given in eventually. It’s only for a night anyway, and the dress is complimented with the golden threads that they’ve wound around her dreadlocks. Together with some subtle makeup, she looks as classy as someone with her looks can be. Every time she glimpses herself in the mirror, she startles. She doesn’t look like herself. She doesn’t /feel/ like herself. But then again, she hasn’t felt like herself ever since she let go of Merle Jourin’s hair.

The music and the unfamiliar crowd don’t help. She’s on her fourth glass of champagne by now. Supposedly it’s a very expensive brand, but she hardly tastes it. She hardly has the time to drink it, either. It’s busy. Everybody wants to talk to her. She smiles sweetly at everybody and exchanges all the required pleasantries. She hardly knows who she’s talking to. Sponsors, celebrities.

When Karl joins her, he’s like a haven of rest and familiarity. “Overwhelming, huh, these parties,” he says with that lovely voice of his. His accent is tinged by the Dregs as much as hers is, and somehow it makes her feel at home.

“I don’t even know who these people are, but I’m glad they’re happy for me, I suppose.”

“Try to enjoy yourself, at least. I meant what I said when I announced your victory, Saxa. You deserve it. God knows you’ve worked hard for it.” The tall silver-haired Euroleague announcer smiles at her, and his smile is as pleasant as his voice.

“Thank you,” she says earnestly. She can almost accept it from him.

He stands with her for a while, introducing her to people, leading pleasant conversations and giving her a little rest, but at some point someone calls him away and she goes back into the crowd, talking to people, smiling and laughing on cue. By her fifth (or is it sixth?) glass of champagne she can feel the alcohol starting to do its work. She relaxes a little, she smiles a little wider. She doesn’t feels as uncomfortable in her own skin anymore.

She chats with her Fortress trainer for a while as well, who is mightily proud of his apprentice – his first protegée to make it out of the League. Duncan was nice enough to train with her this year, after her time in boot camp last year had ended so messily. He’s nice when he smiles. She half-heartedly flirts with him, until he tells her that he’s actually married. To a guy.

It’s the first time they’ve actually had a personal talk, and that’s something she’s grateful for. For all the weeks in the Fortress last year, and the two months this year, it suddenly seems like she hardly knows the guy. He inquires after her plans for using her League-earned fortune to start a dojo and gives her tips on starting her own business. It’s nice. She invites him to come visit her when her dojo is done and to have a sparring match for old time’s sake, which he accepts with a smile that is too genuine to be a pleasantry.

All in all it’s shaping up to be a nice evening, and then she suddenly meets Valentina Marin.

***

It’s a routine that is familiar to her by now. Valentina does not attend every victory party, but it would be rude not to show her face here, less than an hour away from her home in the Lowlands. It’s expected of her, and she doesn’t want to disappoint. Saxa’s victory had been deserved, and somewhat overdue, according to some analysts speaking on the matter.

“I’m glad for her,” she tells Vermeer, who is standing at her side, smiling politely at a few sponsors. “It won’t completely erase the stain on last years competition, but it should go a long way at least.”

“Well, she was definitely the best of the bunch this year. It’s a damned shame we won’t see her compete against Lane, or Le Blanc for that matter. Now that would have been a show,” he says. He places his hand on Valentina’s lower back, and guides her over to a golden Saxa Owens. “Lets get this over with, shall we?”

“Why David, if I didn’t know any better I’d say you’re not enjoying yourself,” Val says, smirking at him.

“Oh, you know I Iove a good party. I would however prefer to get out of here before you stab someone in the throat with a broken champagne glass.”

She laughs at that. “Is it that obvious? I could be training right now, but instead we’re here, shaking hands like the trained monkeys we are.”

“Lets go and be monkeys then. I’d like to be home before midnight,” he says, and guides her towards Saxa. Valentina lets herself be guided, and grasps Saxa’s hand when it’s offered.

“Congratulations. Your victory was much deserved.”

The other woman blinks at her, as if she’s startled. Then she smiles. She doesn’t relax, though. “Oh, thank you Valentina. So will yours be in a few weeks time. You’re going for six out of six, I presume?”

Valentina laughs at that. It sounds sharp even to her own ears. “No, I was thinking of letting someone kill me this year to shake things up a little. I hear people are getting bored of my winning streak.”

“If you do, make sure it happens after you take out Le Blanc, please. Can you do me that favour?” Saxa’s green eyes narrow with sudden clarity. She seems to mean it.

“Would you like me to smash his head in against the pavement, or can I just feed him a bullet?” Valentina says, her smile softening slightly, “I’m versatile, so I’m sure something can be arranged. You surprise me though, I thought you’d have more love for your fellow Euroleague victor.”

“Kidding, right? The guy’s a total son of a bitch.” Saxa shakes her head, making her gold-threaded hair dance on her shoulders. Then she sighs. “He also killed Milan, so he deserves some agony for that one. Come see me after your victory. If you’ve made it hurt, I’ll buy you a beer.”

“Come to my victory party, and you can hand me a drink there,” Val says, snagging a glass of champagne from the hands of a waiter. “I’m still surprised though. If it hadn’t been Le Blanc it would have been Lane or yourself who killed Milan. There were only two people in that bootcamp that had a chance at winning, and your friend Milan wasn’t one of them. He was good, don’t get me wrong there, but he wasn’t that good.”

The other woman flushes unexpectedly. “A lesson learned too late. Turns out that killing your friends is a bitch… Turns out that seeing your friends die is even worse. You’ve only done bootcamp once, right? It’s a nasty piece of business, making you care for people and then kill them. Anyway, I…” she shrugs and shakes her head, before downing her glass of champagne in one go. “I just wanted to wish you good luck in the Northern League. Make sure you win. I’d rather see you than Le Blanc take that title.”

Valentina’s smile softens slightly, but only in the curve of her mouth. Her eyes haven’t reflected her smile at any point during the evening yet. “Thank you. Congratulations in your victory again. You were good, and I hope you’ll stay the hell out of the arena from now on. It’s not for everyone. You seem like a good person, Saxa, I’d hate to see you lose yourself in the League.” She reaches for Saxa’s hand and gives it a squeeze. “If you do decide to go back to the League, come see me. We’ll talk about it without the buzz of all these social butterflies.”

Saxa smiles back warmly and squeezes back in Valentina’s hand. “I will. I suppose this is the part where we smile and pose for the cameras, then?”

As if on cue, they turn around. Saxa lays her arm around Valentina’s shoulders – slowly, telegraphing her moves clearly – and they smile at the cameras together. Like the League winners they are. As if it doesn’t cost anything.

***

After the exchange, Saxa feels weak in her knees. She makes her way out of the too-hot venue and sits down on a bench in the meticulously maintained garden. A patch of flowery green in the middle of Eclat, where hardly any green is to be found. They must be spending tons of money and effort to keep those bushes in bloom. It’s nearing 10pm and the sky above her is dramatically painted in the colours of sunset. The shadows in the garden are dark.

It’s just her and the spring evening, there is no one else in the garden for now. No one followed her. She stays aware, though. Part of her will probably always /be/ aware, since the Euroleague.

Saxa lays her head in her neck and stares up at the ribbons of bright pink and red in a lavender sky, trying to process what she’s actually feeling right now. She feels shaky and unsettled, and it’s not only because she’s overwhelmed and tipsy. It’s not even because she’s star-struck at meeting a legend like Valentina Marin.

It is the look in the other woman’s eyes. That empty look of a killer, that complete void of compassion or anything resembling caring. She knows what it’s like, to just turn off a switch and let go of all empathy. To see human beings as /things/, as something to compete with, to not think of pain and death as something that destroys lives. Just as a tool to win. She’s been there.

Duncan had called it the kill zone. She had been there, when she bashed Merle Jourin’s face in on that concrete ridge. It was cold, and empty, and almost animal-like. Just survival. Acting on instinct. That instinct, that brief flash of killing before you are killed, she will forever remember what that feels like. Just like the moment that the illusion of emptiness shattered, and her fingers were tangled in the hair of a corpse and there was blood everywhere. She’ll remember that forever as well.

/Why does this bother me so much?/ She’d killed other people in the Fortress and the League. Merle Jourin hadn’t been the first. She killed three people in the Euroleague. Two in the Fortress. She’d almost killed Walter in boot camp. It’s just that Jourin had been the last.

And then suddenly she knows what the difference is: the others were killed by bullets. Merle had been a hand-to-hand combat situation. Just like her unexpected shot at Walter – it had just hit so much closer to home, because it was unexpected and more visceral. A long distance shot is a thrill. Something up close and personal – to see the pain and the light go out in the eyes of the others… “I can’t do that,” Saxa whispers to the red sky.

/I’d hate to see you lose yourself in the League,/ Valentina Marin had said, with empty eyes that were firmly in the kill zone.

Sitting there on that stone bench, Saxa understands what the five-fold Northern League champion means.

She hears a sound behind her; the sound of the glass doors opening. She stands up and finds her trainer in the door opening. Duncan smiles at her, music streaming around him. “There you are!”

Saxa smiles faintly. “Just needed some air, sorry.”

“No problem, it’s your party. You can have air if you want to. Are you coming back?”

/No,/ she nearly says, but then realises that he means coming back to her victory party, not to the League. “Yes, yes of course I’ll come back,” she says, and walks over to join him.

Not to the League. She doesn’t want to lose herself anymore.

—-

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