22. Piece by Piece
Alec did not anticipate this.
Little, immature, scatterbrained Lai should not be able to match him in any way. Until now, she never has. Not in intellect (she’s smart enough, but she so rarely uses her brain); not in resourcefulness (she doesn’t have a single useful skill to speak of); and certainly not in physical prowess (he can’t count the number of times he’s seen her trip and fall flat on her face, mostly due to her trying to combine the processes of walking and reading). With his superior focus, discipline, and strength, this spar should be quite easy to win. In theory.
And “in theory” is the realm in which easiness will remain, because so far, Lai has managed to keep him running.
He is never able to lay a hand on her again. The two of them remain entrapped in a swirl of frenetic movements, always striking and blocking, both of their attempts constantly thwarted until the fight becomes akin to a ballet: graceful in execution, dazzling to look at, and utterly and completely pointless.
As his own mouth gradually inches down into an agitated grimace, Lai’s lips creep in the opposite direction. Is she actuallyenjoyingthis? Does she derive some twisted pleasure from her various methods of slipping from his grasp, from the near-hits and near-misses, from expending so much energy while fruitlessly hoping that she can beat him?
Of course, it is hard not harbor some fondness for an activity that you are good at, and Lai is undeniably good at combat.
A beep sounds in his em-comm, causing him to bristle involuntarily. That sound is the sixty-second warning, which is now whipping the entirety of Squadron 3 into a frenzy as everyone struggles to become the victor in their respective matches. Alec strains against his adversary, all the while thinking that this isn’t right, that he should have been able to overpower her from the very beginning. It’s time for one last ditch effort. Perhaps he should use his strength, since she seems to be banking on her speed and flexibility to get her through this.
As she steps back from him and assumes a stance, he tosses all formalities aside, bending his knees slightly and clenching his fists into hard bludgeons. He lunges at her, allowing his momentum to carry him nearly off the ground, both swift and powerful, and…
He suddenly finds himself sprawled out on the Arena’s scratchy turf, facedown, with a petite armored foot pressed against the center of his back.
His ear clip hums with an alarm noise. The final sixty seconds have ended.
“I win,” smirks Lai, stepping off of him airily in order to let him up. Several Uniters turn towards her, releasing rude cheers or brief heckles of laughter. It is as if they were rooting for her the entire time, even though no one has ever really paid attention to Lai before. Of course, absolutely no one has ever liked Alec, so she is “the good guy” in this situation.
Alec gets to his feet slowly, disbelievingly. Clearly, Lai was in possession of a trump card that she waited to play when the time was right, but he isn’t even sure of exactly what she did. He sifts through his perfectly archived memories, painstakingly analyzing every motion, but he still can’t ascertain how she managed to pin him like that.
He glares at her coldly as she flounces off, no doubt wanting to bask in the adulation of her peers. And yet he knows that his frustration with her is irrational. After all, this training is not about foolish competitions, it is about acquiring the skills that will be needed to restore the order of humans and imps. So why should he fault Lai for making herself useful for once? She is fighting fairly, listening to her superiors, and doing as she is told.
And it’s only taken a potential war to instill some semblance of a work ethic into her.
So as he watches her preen herself for her new admirers, Alec’s gaze softens slightly, and he folds his arms behind his back. This new turn of character is admittedly intriguing…perhaps he should do his best to take advantage of it.
“I would be most gratified if you would explain to me how exactly you accomplished your success earlier today.”
Lai’s head swivels around like that of a startled owl, as if she thinks she’s mistaking some random piece of dialogue for a sentence aimed at her. The Arenaisrather noisy at the moment, as training has just been concluded for the day. Without em-comms to neatly channel each sound, the Uniters have lapsed back into shouted conversations, loudly spilling their reports and opinions and stories of the day into the air. But Lai has reverted back to her usual introversion, packing up her things without a word to anyone, not even Ema. She clearly wasn’t expecting anyone to talk to her…especially not Alec.
So he makes sure to clarify it for her. “I am speaking to you, Lai-unit.”
Lai turns to face him, and his brain automatically records the details of her appearance, the way it always does with everything. Her face is attractive in the usual imp-pretty way, but nothing about it is particularly remarkable. Her hair is dull and black, cropped short, and always in disarray. And her creators set the color of her irises to a cool blue-gray, the shade of a cloudy morning sky, which perfectly suits the chilly stare that she is giving him now.
“What is it?” she sighs, exasperated. She seems hard-wired to believe that if he’s talking to her, then the situation is obviously bad. “Are you coming to tell me that you’ve analyzed some statistics or something and now you have proof that I cheated, Mr. Know-It-All?”
“Negative,” he responds, choosing to ignore her less-than-courteous tone. “I merely wish to ask you how you executed your final move in our sparring match this afternoon.”
She pauses. Her eyes narrow. “You mean, you want me to tell you how I did it?”
“Yes, that is indeed the question at hand.”
Her eyes refuse to remain still. They traverse the sweeping arcs of the domed ceiling, drink in each strut and support bolted to the walls, crawl over every blade of artificial turf on the ground. At last they return to his face, and she declares, “Tell me something about you.”
Alec frowns. “Lai-unit, do not change the subject.” Of course, the one time he assumed that she might give him a straight answer for once, the first thing she does is try to pry that old story out of him again…
“I’m not changing the subject,” she insists. “If you tell me something about you, then I’ll tell you what I did at the end of the spar.”
He presses the tip of a finger against his temple. “Must you turn this into an ordeal?”
“I don’t like to give away something for nothing. I think that this is a fair trade, don’t you?”
“In my opinion, you are merely overcomplicating things, as usual.” Lai’s plan possesses all the subtlety of a brick to the head. He can see what she intends to do: she wants to weasel his story out of him, piece by piece, until her ill-advised curiosity is sated. Well, he’ll play her little game, just this once; it’s not as if this will become a frequent thing. “But very well, I shall comply. If you truly wish to learn something about me…I was formerly employed on an orbital.”
She blinks. “An orbital?”
“Oh.” Pause. “I’ve always been curious about orbitals. What was it like?”
A corner of his mouth pulls upwards. “I do not believe that I am required to answer that in order to fulfill our agreement.”
She frowns, her eyes flashing briefly, and he wonders for a moment if he has given her too much credit in trusting her to keep her word. But then she begrudgingly says, “You want to know how I got you on the ground before? Fine. It was a two-leg takedown.”
“A two-leg takedown?” Alec repeats, his one eyebrow furrowing. “Not possible. That sort of technique would be far more…obvious.”
“You’re pretty fast, Alec,” Lai smirks. “But you’re not as fast as Lady T made me.” She leans down and hoists up her messenger bag, allowing it to swing from one shoulder with the maddening rhythm of a pendulum.
He brushes aside her smugness with his usual show of indifference. “Regardless of the outcome of our sparring match…you have performed competently today.”
“Competently, huh?” She raises her eyebrows, and they jump beneath her black bangs like skittish insects afraid of the light. “I thought I was an ‘irresponsible, scatterbrained, foolish young woman.’”
Without waiting for a response, she trots off, radiating disregard for his approval in all directions. Alec shakes his head at her, even though he knows that she isn’t looking at him. Truth be told, he has only ever seen her this driven when she is dealing with something inconsequential, such as her fairy tales. This is the first time that she has put effort into something that actually matters.
And maybe, just maybe, he shouldn’t always trust his first impressions, because even if you know someone for ten years, they can still reveal a side of themselves that you’ve never seen before…