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House of Bricks

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Vi’s shoulders ached. Not an uncommon thing when you worked with stone, came home every day with rock dust in your hair and grit that had worked its way beneath your Hextech gauntlets and dried your fingers, brittled your nails. The day’s labour - hell, the week’s labour - sat upon her sleeveless arms, the weight of it pushing her natural swagger into a stiff march through Zaun’s neon-drenched and fog choked streets. With one of her lead limbs, she shoved the double doors of The Last Drop open, swaying a little with the motion.

 

The two couples in the booths didn’t look up at her, nor the three men sitting in stools along the lengthy part of the L shaped bartop. That suited her fine. There was a time, in the way back, where she’d welcomed the challenge of stares to heat her blood. Now, anonymity was far more her speed.

 

Absently, she touched the tattoo on her cheek. A parting gift from the old days.

 

Pour one out.

 

She made her way to the short end of the L-bar, sitting in one of two stools and scrunching her body on it, making her look smaller. In the same motion, she hefted her pack - stuffed with her Hextech gauntlets, still covered in stone dust - and thumped it on the bartop. It took only a few seconds before a smaller, more hollow thump followed them, golden beer in a pint glass, neatly placed atop a coaster.

 

“One of these days,” Vander, owner and - today - the sole barman, said, “you’ll come in here without getting rock dust on my mahogany.”

 

“Aw,” Vi cooed, “am I hurting your spic and span image?”

 

Vander grinned, and Vi grinned back. The man who raised her looked good in advanced years, healthy amounts of salt joining the pepper in his hair and beard. He still kept the air of a man who knew how to handle himself, but the edge had dulled, turned from capability to wisdom hidden behind his eyes.

 

“And for what reason,” Vander continued, “do I owe the pleasure of meeting your gauntlets again?”

 

“Thought I’d give you a taste of the old days.”

 

“I never wore anything so fancy.”

 

“No, you preferred to strap an airship bulkhead to your knuckles and just give ‘er.”

 

“Those were the days,” Vander said wistfully, as Vi took a long drag of her beer, huffing out a pleasant hmm at the taste.

 

“Great pour, Vander.”

 

“You gonna answer my question?”

 

Vi lifted a finger as she drank again, and Vander busied himself wiping down the already gleaming bartop. Aside from the smudge of rock dust her gauntlets had left, of course. Smacking her lips to be extra annoying, Vi grinned.

 

“Fine motor skills are on the fritz again. I wanted to see if I could patch them up some before I handed it over to Powder.”

 

“And you’re gonna test this in my bar?”

 

Vi said, “I’ll be handling glass next week.”

 

Vander stared at her for a moment, then reached below the bar to pull out a red plastic pint glass, little bubbles ingrained in the pattern. Slowly, he set the cup beside her glass one.

 

“You know, I bet you can test fine motor skills on things that aren’t drinking.”

 

“Two birds stoned at once,” Vi said, finishing her beer. Vander whisked the glass away, poured her second beer into the red plastic cup, set that in front of her.

 

“Don’t break anything,” the barman warned, and stepped away from her to attend to his other customers. None appeared to be the regular crowd, just slow Monday wanderers in from the cold.

 

First beer done, Vi settled into her bar stool, pulling out one of the gauntlets and slipping it over her hand. She activated the Hextech, wiggling her fingers and watching in dissatisfaction as the index and middle fingers were slow to react, half a second behind her hand movements. Pulling a set of screwdrivers out of her bag, she set to work on diagnosing the problem.

 

She wasn’t nearly as good a gearhead as her sister Powder, but Vi could handle her own repairs from time to time. She’d needed to, as foreman. The rock quarry in the bowels of Zaun served as an important beacon between the uneasy truce that Piltover and Zaun found themselves in; it was the best bargaining chip the undercity had against the City of Progress. Most of the materials that went into Hextech’s products had to be mined from deep in the bowels of the quarry, and the turning over of those materials was one of the stipulations that the Zaunites conceded in order for a semblance of freedom.

 

Freedom with strings was better than no freedom, after all. There was a time when Vi wouldn’t have agreed - when she’d vehemently fought to cut every string that Piltover had attempted to put on them, when the first purge took her and Powders’ parents away from them forever. She’d been more willing to have blood on her gauntlets instead of rock dust, bruises on her face instead of smudges of grease.

 

It felt like a different age. It certainly had been a different Vi.

 

She was lost in her thoughts, thinking back to the pain of the past and the disappointment with the present when the bar door opened again, and the little hairs on the back of her neck stood straight up.

 

The figure that entered the bar was short, barely reaching five feet with the worst pattern of balding she’d ever seen - hair shaved low and smooth aside from two tufts of grey that shot out on either side of his head. He coupled this with a pair of goggles that made his eyes owlish and huge, and reminded her of Claggor. He seemed to bristle, eyes darting everywhere around The Last Drop, finally settling on where Vi sat, in one of two stools at the short end of the L.

 

Vi didn’t acknowledge him, and observed him from the corners of her eyes. Something was here, crackling under her skin simmering her with nervous energy. She curled the gauntlet into a fist, let it rest lightly on the countertop as she set the backpack with the second gauntlet on the floor, out of the way. Lots of space if she needed to swing suddenly.

 

The stranger made his way down the bar, and - because of course he did - swung himself up on the stool beside Vi.

 

It only took a look from Vi to communicate to Vander that there was a problem, age-old instincts from fighting enforcers back to back through the smoke of molotovs and tear gas, but Vi held her gaze in check as he sauntered over. No need to worry him, and maybe it was all in her head. He was just a stranger. Nothing he’d done implied a threat.

 

“What can I get you?” Vander asked the stranger.

 

“Hmm,” the voice that came out of him was thin and reedy. “A beer?”

 

“Great,” Vander said, with thin patience, “I’ve got Heineken, Budweiser, and Molson on tap.”

 

“I - guess, Heineken?” came the confused response, punctuated by a slightly manic giggle.

 

Vi’s non-gauntleted hand tightened on her beer, raising it to hide her observation of him. A quick scan showed no visible weapons, his business casual dress and elegant Hextech watch pegged him as upper class, way too upper class to be from around here. Piltover, then. What would a businessman from Piltover with a too-fancy magi-tech watch be doing here?

 

Vander slid a full glass to the stranger, and the stranger laid a twenty on the bar. “Keep the change.”

 

No second round, then.

 

As Vander pocketed the bill and moved back towards his other regulars, the stranger closed a fist around the beer and said, “I’m early.”

 

Vi didn’t react, set her own brew down, waited. The words didn’t seem to be directed at her, but there was nobody else at their little corner of the darkened bar, so waiting seemed to be the thing to do.

 

“I didn’t think I’d be nervous, but I am.”

 

Vi took another beat, glancing at his beer, then shrugged her left shoulder. “It’s best to just dive right in. The longer you wait, the worse it is.”

 

The stranger nodded. “That makes sense. It’s just my first time.”

 

Vi worked her jaw muscles, trying to shake away the tension in her body, trying to comprehend it. First time with beer? Or first time drinking in Zaun? Both, she guessed, could be intimidating. But she clocked this guy for at least fifty, sixty.

 

“Everyone has a first time,” she said, drinking again.

 

The man nodded again, and relinquished his beer, reaching inside the breast pocket of his suit jacket. Nearly imperceptibly, Vi slid her beer into her gauntleted hand, in case his hand came out with a gun and she needed to disabuse him of that notion quickly. Her other hand laid flat on the countertop, ready to grab if needed.

 

When his hand came free with a manilla envelope, Vi slid the beer back to her bare hand, passing the movement off as idle, even playful.

 

“You are her?” the man said, his voice a lilting question.

 

“Who else would I be?” Vi answered, trying to inject her voice with confidence.

 

The man nodded. Nodded again. “Here’s half now - ten thousand. The rest when she’s gone.”

 

The man laid the envelope at Vi’s free hand. Drank his entire beer. Left quickly.

 

All Vi heard was ringing, a pinging sound between her ears. The shattering of glass in her mind’s eye, flame erupting over an enforcer’s squad car, Vander and Claggor’s shoulders at each of her own, the three of them fighting through gas and smoke, pummeling anyone who came close in a uniform.

 

“Hey, wait,” she said, her words hollow, voice thin, way too late. The envelope felt heavy, thick.

 

Vi looked up, looked through the large plate glass that acted as a window front to the bar, but the man was long gone, disappearing into the neon streets of Zaun. Vi popped the envelope open, found a wad of bills and a 5x7 photograph. The picture was of a woman, staring straight into the camera - dark navy hair, face mostly sharp angles, an intelligent gleam to blue eyes.

 

Vi shuddered out a breath, downed the rest of her second beer, and flipped the photo of the woman marked for death over.

 

Caitlyn Kiramman. An address in Piltover - one of the less snobby areas, an apartment building.

 

Vi drummed her fingers on the table, looking between the envelope and the photograph quickly. The sounds of fire and feelings of impacts against her fits intensified briefly, accompanying a pounding headache between her temples. She nodded, once, folded the photograph up and placed it in her sweater pocket, shoved the money back in the envelope and placed it in her other pocket.

 

Vi unclasped the gauntlet, shoving it into the bag at her feet, and then slung the bag around the bar, dropping it behind and out of sight. She did her best with a bar napkin to wipe up the traces of rock dust the gauntlet left behind, whapped at her clothes, her hair. A glance at the clock showed her it was ten to seven, meaning that if the weirdo was early , then whoever was supposed to take this contract and kill this Kiramman girl hadn’t arrived yet. He also had no idea what he was looking for, meaning she had a chance to stop this before it started.

 

She straightened in her chair, then slouched, frowned at herself, prepared to try and save a life.

 

The door to the bar opened at five to, and in walked a tall, brown skinned woman with a left arm made of metal and gears. She was built like a brick shithouse, angry gleam in her eyes, dark hair pulled in a ponytail. Vi immediately marked her as exactly the type of person who’d be paid twenty thousand to kill a Piltoveran.

 

Vi lifted two fingers in a small salute, and the woman sauntered over, boots clomping against the scarred wood of the bar.

 

“Budweiser,” she said to Vander as he was halfway over, and he poured her drink effortlessly, with practised movements.

 

When they were left alone, the killer said, “You’re early.”

 

“You too,” said Vi, making a guess on the time.

 

The killer hmm ’d, and took a long drink of beer.

 

“Look,” Vi said, “I’ve had a change of heart.”

 

The killer pursed her lips, shook her head lightly, and appeared to try not to smile. “Is that so?”

 

“It is,” Vi said, “but not to worry. We’re - I’m still paying you the half up front, for doing nothing.”

 

“Because of your change of heart.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Normally, that’s not how this works. The change of heart is after it’s done - you regret what you did after.”

 

“Well, call it pre-guilt then. Either way.” Vi removed the envelope, sat it on the bar top.

 

There was a beat.

 

“There’s no way it’ll be tied to you,” the killer continued, “I’m very good. She won’t suffer. Or she will, your preference.”

 

“My preference is you sitting tight on this. Ten thousand for no work.”

 

“I’ve already bought the knife,” the killer said, an idle, easy complaint. Like having bought too many groceries. Nausea boiled in Vi’s stomach.

 

“An investment in the future,” she said.

 

“Mm,” the killer responded, pocketing the envelope.

 

They sat in silence, and then the killer lifted her glass, swallowing her entire beer in scarcely a second.

 

“I’ll see you around, then.”

 

Vi nodded. “You got it.”

 

They walked out the door, and Vi stood from her stool on wobbly arms and legs, ignored the sound of glass smashing against a window in her brain, and skulked to the plate glass, peering out of it. The killer walked towards a car, sat in the driver’s seat - nobody else was in the sedan. The killer opened the envelope, thumbed through the cash, seemed to be searching for something else.

 

The photograph burned a hole in Vi’s pocket, and she touched it to ensure it was still there.

 

The killer then reached below her seat, pulled a device out from under it. A small cylinder, it looked like, that then was stuck onto the roof of her white sedan. The cylinder flashed blue as the sedan pulled away from the sidewalk, into the dark Zaunite roads.

 

An enforcer, Vi thought, as she pulled all the way back, walked towards her pack, hefted it onto her shoulder. There went informing the authorities, though the only crimes she could’ve possibly reported was a disrespect of beer and the confession of buying a knife.

 

“Leaving?” Vander said, and Vi hesitated, watching him. His expression changed as he took in her own, eyes scanning her face, recording the distress.

 

“Vander,” Vi said, “if someone comes looking for me in the next few days, tell them that you’ve never met me before.”

 

“I wish,” Vander snorted.

 

“I’ve never been before, just a standoffish lesbian who got rock dust on your counter.”

 

“You are a standoffish lesbian who got rock dust on my counter.”

 

“Well. Say that. Okay? I’m gonna be unavailable for a while.”

 

“Violet,” Vander said, bringing her full name into this because he was serious , “what’s going on?”

 

The crashing of a molotov against glass. The impact of her fists hitting uniformed flesh. Reacting to adrenaline, the heat under her skin.

 

“It’s about a woman,” Vi said in response, and turned to leave.