2300: Change of Heart

Posted: January 21, 2013 by Kelly in deathmatching, stories

The thing was, Peter Delmont noticed, that once you kept winning the amount of people that didn’t know you decreased rapidly. You started to get used to the fact that every restaurant could arrange a table for you despite the place being packed with people. There would always be bottles of the finest champagne on the house. Hotels always had the suite with the best view for you – once people knew that it was Peter Delmont who was asking for it, suddenly everything was possible.

And he got used to that. So when he met someone who didn’t treat him like a mixture between a war hero and a rock star, someone who saw the real Peter – the person who he was before he started winning – someone who didn’t want anything from him but himself, it shook him to the foundation of his being. He was a winner, he was a rock star. He felt alive in the arena; like a god that couldn’t be touched. As long as he kept winning, the world was at his feet and it felt like a drug to him. It gave the world a glow, it infused him with confidence. It gave him wings and he loved flying. Intellectually, he knew that one day his wings would fail and that reality would come calling. It would be brutal, it would be painful, and then it would be all over.

But it was all worth it. The druggy feeling of victory was worth everything to him. Until he met Sasha.

Sasha Tiselle. He met her in a restaurant in Eclat, where he’d been for some press-riddled gala event that his agent had wanted him to go to. With only weeks until the prelims of his third League tournament and him in the form of his life, they’d decided that his time would be best spent making friends with the paparazzi. Peter went where his sponsors wanted him to go. He liked the media attention almost as much as he liked the feeling of victory.

He had a bite to eat in the restaurant and was offered a bottle of red wine that must have cost a fortune; but that night he’d been alone and he wasn’t in the mood to drink on his lonesome. His handheld device was full of phone numbers he could call – people who would love to join him in those two hours before the gala would start, but he just happened to look at the table next to him, and the girl that was sitting there was just so gorgeous that he couldn’t help but invite her to join him.

Dark hair, hazel eyes. A dusting of freckles on her pretty face. A body that curved in all exactly the right places. And when she smiled at him, Peter felt his knees go weak. “Hi,” he said. “I couldn’t help but notice your lack of table partner and I just got this bottle of fine red wine and I had no one to share it with. So I thought you might be interested.”

“What, do I look like a drunk?” she asked, amusement sparkling in those gorgeous eyes.

That took him aback – he realized that she thought he was just a common flirt. She didn’t know him! It had been ages since that happened for the last time. He forced himself to smile and rose to the challenge. “You look like someone who could appreciate a fine wine. I’m not sure about the amounts of it, I’ll leave that up to you.”

Still, she allowed him (allowed him! Ha!) to sit down next to her and they chatted away the two hours that he had to kill. They talked about all kinds of things, but never once did her eyes light up in recognition, not even when she learned his name. He enjoyed getting to know her better; she had a rich laugh and commented wittily on whatever he had to say. She was a damn enjoyable conversation partner; much better than most escort girls and groupies he’d spent time with in the past few years. And this girl worked in social services, with juvenile teens. It was a rather lost cause and she was aware of the irony of trying to help kids in a lost cause, but it was just the way she ticked. “It’s what I do,” she explained with a shrug. “I can sit and bitch about the situation, or I can try and do something about it.”

His buzzer went off about an hour after the gala had already started with a reminder to get his ass over there if he still wanted to get noticed by the press. “Ah sorry,” he said to the gorgeous girl at his table, “I have to go, there’s this event where I have to be.”

She smiled, but he could see the disappointment in her eyes. “Duty calls,” she murmured. “It was nice to meet you, Peter.”

“I could just call my agent and tell him to go fuck himself, of course,” he offered. The thought was suddenly very appealing. “Or, I could ask you to join me.”

“It depends,” Sasha answered, her expression suddenly guarded. Her slender fingers let go of her crystal wine goblet. “What is the event?”

“Just some gala event from one of my sponsors, I’m not even quite sure. They wanted me to be there, and I go where they tell me to go.”

Sasha blinked. “What is it that you do anyway?”

He smiled faintly. There it was. “You’re not much of a League fan, are you?”

There was some confusion in her eyes. “No, my parents are anti-League activists. I never watched the games much. I’m not a nut as they can be sometimes, if people want to kill themselves in the Arena then that’s their stupid choice but-…” she trailed off. “Why are you asking?”

He bit on the inside of his cheek. Anti-League Activists. Great, just great. His agent would bite his head off if anyone had spotted him with this girl. It might be on the net already, gossip could already be running rampant. Who the hell would have thought such a thing? Anti League Activists in the middle of Eclat, less than twenty miles from the biggest Arena in old Europe? He had to tell her, though. And if she freaked, he could handle himself. “I’m the current reigning Northern League champion, Sasha. Two years in a row.”

She took it better than he’d thought she would. Her eyes just widened and she nodded. “Okay,” she said. There was no disappointment or anger or disgust, just that simple admission.

“I take it you won’t join me to the event, then?”

She bit on her lip and regarded him thoughtfully. “Why the hell not. I’m staying in the hotel above this restaurant… give me half an hour and I’ll have a change of dress.”

That was the hotel where he was staying as well, so they went upstairs to refresh themselves. He knocked on the door of her hotelroom half an hour later, flowers in hand. And when she opened the door, Peter suddenly realized he might very well be in love. “You look beautiful,” he said dumbly, because it was true. She was wearing a wine-coloured silken dress of simple cut and design, but there were little crystals sewn in with the silk that shimmered whenever she moved. She was wearing diamond-studded hairpins as well, which only enhanced the effect. He was pretty sure she’d also done something with makeup to her face, because her eyes were more accentuated and the cute freckles didn’t show as much. She looked like something lovely out of a fairytale.

“Thanks,” she smiled. “Let me get my purse, and then we’re out of here.”

There were people at the event. Faces, meaningless conversations. Men in smokings and women in stunning dresses that could probably feed a streetblock in the Dregs for the next thirty years. Toothpaste smiles and empty chatter and champagne. Peter hardly registered it; his eyes were on Sasha, all night long. He waved away his publicist, who was hissing who the hell Sasha was, and what her story was – what spin he had to give on this girl. “She’s not important for you,” Peter mumbled, never taking his eyes off her.

“The paparazzi think differently, Delmont.”

“Fuck the paparazzi,” Peter smiled blithely and then went to get new glasses of champagne for himself and Sasha.

From that moment on, nothing else seemed to matter as much anymore. They’d ended up in bed at the end of the night, and didn’t get out of there until Peter’s personal trainer literally dragged him out of it three days later, snarling things about a training schedule and the prelims. He had a hard time bringing himself to care. He was in love, head over heels, and the rest of the world seemed so very far away. Being in love was perhaps even better than the feeling of a victory. But still; he had to train. He had duties to get to, training to do, interviews to give.

Sasha understood completely; she also had a life to get back to. She kissed him goodbye and whispered: “Call me.”

And he did, even before his shuttle had left the Eclat station. Before the week was out they had exchanged “I love you”’s. The feeling of it was intoxicating. Everything was amazing.

Every free moment, they’d spend together. It was suddenly a lot harder to pay attention to the League and it nearly got him killed right there in the prelims. The paparazzi had a field day with him. The announcers were snarky during his games and started to turn the public tide against him. He managed to shield Sasha from the worst of it and took most of the extra attention on his own shoulders, but it was inevitable.

As time went by and he qualified for the League by the skin of his teeth, she began to grow restless. By that time they were together for the better part of a year.

The night before he would leave on the pod to the Compound, she was quiet. They lay spooned up between the covers of his bed, only illuminated by the bright lights of the city outside. Outside, the wind was howling around the skyscraper. He held her tightly in the darkness. “Talk to me, Sasha,” he whispered. “You’ve been withdrawn for weeks. Is it the game tomorrow?”

She turned around in his arms and faced him. Her face was in the shadows, but he could tell her resigned mood easily. “Of course it is the game, Peter. I’m very much aware I could lose you tomorrow. It’s been so dangerous so far already. I really wish you wouldn’t do this.”

He gently wiped her dark hair out of her face. “It is who I am, Sas. I live for this stuff.”

“You’ll die for it.”

He smiled. “No, I won’t. I got someone to come back to, right?”

She clung to him and buried her face in his chest. “Don’t you think the others don’t? Peter, you nearly got killed in the prelims. How can I cheer you on in the game when I know this might take you from me? I just found you. I can’t imagine my life without you. Please cancel. Please stay with me.”

He thought of his sponsor, his trainer, his team of attendants. His prize money was paying their salaries. All of them had worked towards this point for so long; him as well. If he would step out now, years of work would go down the drain. He couldn’t do it. He didn’t even /want/ to do it.

Much as he adored Sasha and he couldn’t imagine his life without her, he wanted the game. He’d been working so hard, he so loved the thrill of the life-or-death situation. Death seemed so far away, so unreal. All that existed was his minigun and the sound of the explosions. The adrenaline, some sharp pain to keep him on edge. It was a thrill like nothing else in the world. And even though he’d realised that the world surrounding the game was shallow like a pool of piss; the game itself was pure. The blood and the adrenaline were real. The victories were real. It was a different drug than she was, but he wanted that, too.

“I can’t step out now,” he said softly.

To his horror, he saw her dark eyes well up with tears. She furiously blinked them away. “You know that I’m trying very hard to support you, right? The Game goes against everything I’ve been taught. It’s senseless violence and horror. I don’t want my boyfriend to be in the middle of it. The thought of it is killing me.”

“It’s only for one more game,” he said.

“And next summer, the prelims of next year. Time and time again, until you die. Eventually your luck will run out.”

He stared at her. He really /looked/ at her, the gorgeous dark-haired woman in his arms. The love of his life; his chance of love, of something real that was not violence and death related. She was giving him a chance to be loved for who he /really/ was, not the image of a guy winning the League games. One that would be forgotten if he would slip up in the League. Sasha would be there; she would remember him. Maybe they could have kids at some point or something. He could build a legacy. A real memory. “One more,” he promised in the darkness. “One more, and when I get out, I’m going to damn well marry you and have a normal life.”

Her eyes grew wide and she almost giggled. “Are you proposing to me, Peter?”

“If you want me to. Would you say yes?”

Her smile was radiant. “Of course I would. We can pick out rings once you get out of the Arena.”

***

Sasha was nearly right after all. It was a close call that year. Closer than it had ever been. He had been down to his last regen, down to his last stimm. It had been Livington who nearly did him in. He’d been a pain in the ass in the prelims as well. The bookies and the betting stations had him pegged as the new winner; they’d given him higher chances than Peter himself.

At first he had been offended, but after Livington had hunted him like an animal for hours, Peter understood what they had been getting at. The guy was merciless. Those oddly coloured light green eyes in that chocolate face would haunt him forever. In the end Livington’d had him trapped; completely cornered.

No way out except down into the chasm they were standing at. He’d retaliated, faster than his reflexes had ever been able to do it before. He’d been full of lightning and thundering gunfire and Livington had gone down. The guy had gotten cocky near the end. He had not expected Peter to fight back with all he had. /I fucking have someone to get home to, and you don’t,/ Peter sneered in his thoughts.

Half a second later Stender called the victory. His third victory over the Northern League in a row. And, as Sasha would have it, his last one.

The media and the Corporation officials made disappointed noises when they heard about his resignation, but he was let go relatively easy. He had to pay off some sponsor contracts but at the end of the line he still had more money than he knew what to do with. Three League victories would do that to one’s bank account.

Sasha and Peter married on Valentine’s Day of 2301 in Eclat. They held their wedding reception in the same restaurant where they first met and vacationed in a hotel room near a southern European beach, surrounded by strawberry and champagne. Those first three months were like a dream. They traveled, they drank in each other’s presence, they were madly in love and the world was at their feet.

And then they came home, back in the State. And all the memories were there. People still recognised him on the street. His gear was locked away in a closet but he would find himself getting up at night, when Sasha was asleep. He would open that closet and stare at the closet light illuminating his gear. Sometimes he would pick up his old minigun and stare at it, revel in the weight of it in his hands.

He started dreaming of the League again. Sometimes he woke up in the morning and his muscles would be aching with the phantom weight of his minigun. He would still smell the scent of blood in the air of their bedroom and he would be bursting with energy and adrenaline. He didn’t tell Sasha about this, but she could see him shooting looks at him once in a while.

As the weeks went by, it became the elephant in the room. He would work out a lot, spend whole days in the fitness wing and the shooting range in their house. God, he missed it so much. Yet he never said a word.

Until in May, the signups for the prelims started and things came to a head. He became grumpy, on edge. Bad-tempered like he had not been in /years/. His sponsor and trainer kept calling him, whether he didn’t want to change his mind. That there was so much great new young blood being pitched for admittance in the prelims. That it would be so great to have him back here. He listened to their voicemails over and over again, until he knew every cadence of their sentences and every intake of breath by heart.
.
“You can’t help it, can you,” Sasha said sadly, leaning against the doorway with her arms crossed.

He looked up from his terminal and removed the earbuds from his ears as if he’d been caught doing something illegal. “Sasha,” he said, but he couldn’t think of anything else.

“I’ve been watching you, sweetie. You’re going nuts.”

“It’s hard,” he admitted. “But I made you a promise. I’m staying with you.”

Sasha just nodded. It didn’t look as if she believed him, but for now it was enough. “Come to bed with me then, it’s after midnight.”

The next morning he got a call from higher up. The management of the Corporation personally invited him to join in on the Northern League. The money they offered was outrageous, but he didn’t care a bit about that. He had more money he and Sasha could ever spend anyway. When he replied in kind, they played the game differently. They talked about the glory of the victory, how his fans missed him, how life in the Arena was the most intense kind of living, only given to the selected few.

He /knew/ they were manipulating him. He /knew/ that they knew how to play him because of his psych evals. Peter Delmont, in search for glory and remembrance. The thrill-seeking attention whore. They knew how to talk to him. He knew that they knew. And still, it was working.

He sat with his head in his hands until Sasha came to sit with him that afternoon. She looked apprehensive and distant, as if she knew what he was thinking of. As if she knew he’d made his decision already and he was just wondering how the hell he should tell her. He knew damn well that he would break her heart with this. He would break his own as well; but still he couldn’t help it. He had to go.

She didn’t take it well when he tried to explain.

“This is who I am,” he said again, the age old argument.

“No, it isn’t, Peter. Unless you’re just a selfish shit who loves his glory more than he loves his wife. Are you?”

He didn’t answer. What could he possibly say to that? It was the truth and he didn’t want it to be; he didn’t want to admit that he was a horrible person. He had blood on his hands, he’d killed many people in the League for sport – and yet; /this/ was the lowest moment of his life.

Sasha’s eyes shimmered with tears, but her face held a steely, deathly determination. “If you love the League more than me, then I think we should end it here, Peter,” she said softly. “I can’t do this. I can’t play second fiddle to the League; knowing that it might kill you.”

“I know,” he whispered over bloodless lips. Divorce. She was going to divorce him. The horrible thing was that he was going to let her.

The silence between them was as raw and sharp as broken glass. Finally, Sasha rose from her chair and left the room. She walked away from him and he let her. He just sat there while she packed her bags. When she walked past his room, he called out to her. “I love you,” he offered.

She wiped tears from her eyes with the hand that wasn’t holding her suitcase. “I love you too, Peter. Too much to watch you die. I am sorry.”

And then she was gone.

He sat there like a pillar of salt for half an hour before he called his manager. “I’m in,” was all he had to say.

“Good,” his manager said with satisfaction. “I’ll send Seelie to your house tomorrow morning. Let’s get you fit for the prelims.”

***

“It turns out that fighting with a broken heart works just as well for Peter Delmont,” some announcer said on television, some insight piece on the upcoming Northern League final. “He’s been vicious in the Fortress. He’ll do well.”

Peter leaned back in his reclining chair and hovered with his hand over the remote of his terminal, not changing the channel just yet. It was always interesting what the media had to say. He always read the articles, he always watched the vids. He wanted to know.

“He has a lot of competition this year, though,” a smiling yellow-haired woman said on the screen. He recognised the woman as a sports journalist that never had anything good to say about him. He never liked her. “The prelims have been fierce and a lot of potential champions stood up this year.”

“You’re referring to Marco dos Santos and Valentina Marin, I assume,” her conversation partner offered.

“Especially Marin,” the woman nodded.

“Too young,” the man said. Images appeared on the screen of the two contestants. His words became a voice over while the audience could see recordings of their victories in their respective prelims. “Santos is battle-hardened. He’s been in the war, he’s been an enforcer for years. That girl? It doesn’t matter that it was David Lenham who trained the girl. She won’t make it. No experience. She won’t last against experienced fighters like Delmont or Santos.”

“And thank you,” Peter muttered. He’d seen the stats; he’d seen their fights. He worried about the both of them; Santos because of his vicious ruthlessness, but the Marin girl because of her crazy antics in the Fortress. She’d been a terror. Sleek, deadly. Never a movement that was unnecessary. So very precise. Like an assassin, almost.

“She’s spectacular, and I think Delmont should start to get worrying. Even though he’s gotten over the slump he was in last year, the stakes have been upped. Let’s see if his broken heart can give him the edge he needs.”

Peter flipped to another feed and left their speculations for what they were. He didn’t feel like watching anymore. Maybe it was time to get back to the shooting range or the gym, so he could work off the nervous energy that was building in the pit of his stomach. He didn’t want to think about possible defeat or how empty the world was without Sasha in his bed, in his arms, in his life. He needed to make sure that he would /win/. It was glory or nothing – now more than ever.

A week later he officially met his fellow contestants during a formal dinner the night before the match. They seated him next to Valentina Marin and to his surprise he found her friendly and likable during the whole meal. She was so young; she couldn’t be much older than twenty one. How could one so young be willing to step in a death match? She didn’t seem like she craved the glory; it was more like a challenge. One she had confidence she could meet, too; but at the same time she was enough of a good sport to congratulate him with his victory in the prelims and compliment him on some of his actions in there.

“I enjoyed seeing you in action in the Fortress as well,” he said honestly, while he took a healthy swallow from his champagne. “Go easy on an old man in the League arena, okay?”

She chuckled. “I can’t promise you that, though. I’m here to win.”

He grinned at her in understanding. “Fair enough, so am I.”

He thought of Sasha and wondered if she was watching him. She probably wasn’t; his now ex-wife was nothing if not full of principles. But he wanted to let her know that he was here and he would go all the way for his glory. This was what he was, after all.

And when he jumped out of the drop ship the next morning and found himself a wheat field near a forest and a huge abandoned factory building; killers and potential death everywhere, with the familiar feeling of adrenaline chasing through his veins, he knew he had done the right thing.

He was back, and it felt so very right.

This was what he lived for.

——

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