Chapter Three: train cars and confessions
Word Count: 1,111
His guts twisted in his abdomen, but he ignored the strange rolling sensation and strode to the stage, his head held high. He considered backing down, vanishing into the crowd and going home; but he would never be able to face himself again, let alone anyone else.
The mere thought of her name, of her stubborn jaw and wicked eyes, pushed him further, closer to the podium. He shook Radek’s hand mechanically while the too-cheery Presenter asked him for his name. The air around him felt stuffy and hot, though he knew there was a light breeze blowing, he couldn’t feel it.
He swallowed back the tremor in his throat and said, careful to keep his voice even and smooth, “Aeon Neil.”
What had he just done? Signed his life away for people he didn’t know, he thought, that’s what he’d just done. He was a fool; he was damn near certain of it – a fool led to his death by a woman who didn’t even know he existed. Until then, he reminded himself; she would know then. What was wrong with him? He wondered if it was better that she didn’t know him at all – so that, when the time came for a victor to be left standing in the Arena, it would be easier for her to slit his throat.
Radek slapped him on the shoulder, almost proudly, and turned to face the crowd. His voice was booming, filled to bursting with fake enthusiasm, as he said, “And for the first year in the history of the Hunger Games, we have two volunteers from the same District! Let’s get a round of applause for our second participant, Aeon Nile!”
“Neil,” Aeon said, and his tone had an edge to it that he couldn’t keep back. “My name is Aeon Neil.” No one heard him; he was being herded into the train car waiting to zip him off to the Capitol. Already, a foreign urgency was bubbling to life in his veins; a hunger so primal and raw, for an instant he thought he might survive the Games. The metro car doors opened with a faint swoosh and he was standing face to face with Rory for the first time in his life.
Her eyes were almost accusatory as she studied him, blocking his entrance. The nameless blurs of Capitol vultures moved around them, but never interrupted. They let them stand in silence while Radek finished speaking to the crowd. Aeon wanted to speak; he wanted to explain to her that he couldn’t let her sacrifice mean nothing – that he could not sit idly by and watch her efforts get wasted simply because the Games were rigged in certain Districts. To spice things up, of course; the Capitol had little to no understanding of human life.
Instead, he simply met her gaze without flinching – it was all he could do.
After what felt like a lifetime, her lips moved and he had to force his body to respond, to hear her words. She said, “Why did you volunteer?”
There was something in her eyes that told him she would accept no answer, that none would prove his worth to her. So he answered, “Why did you?”
She blinked, as if a little stunned, and the haunting whisper of a smile tugged at the side of her mouth. Checkmate, he thought, and stepped around her into the plush train car. Aeon had been born into a wealthy family, his parents were distant but loving in their own way, and he’d grown up in a home of lush extravagancies and frilly decorations; anything they could spend the money on. The train car surpassed everything he’d ever seen. It was painted in warm mahogany and burgundy, with extraordinarily fine oak borders.
All around him were gleaming silver and glass tables littering the open space, with a bar stand in the far corner and a fireplace embedded in the east wall, across from the overstuffed couch and matching pearlescent recliner. Above the roaring fire was a wide flatscreen monitor; Radek’s face smiled at him silently from the screen and he refrained from swinging his fist into the glass. He let out a frustrated breath and peered out of the window to the streets of District 3. Everyone was returning home, or to work, and the streets were gradually becoming vacant.
From behind him, she asked, “How is it that I’ve never seen you before?”
He shrugged as if the answer had nothing to do with him, but didn’t bother speaking.
There was silence for a moment but she overcame it quickly. She said, “I volunteered for Hazel because the Capitol should not be able to get two for one, rigged or not.”
He had never heard someone speak so plainly of the Capitol before. Everyone spoke in hushed whispers, if ever; terrified that the Capitol had spies around every corner. It certainly wasn’t beyond them; rumors of jabberjays had travelled from one District to the next, regardless of the limited communication between Districts. People were frightened into silence by the idea of small birds capable of repeating back entire human conversations to their masters.
He turned to look at her and was struck by the power in her posture, by the uncompromising strength in the cerulean seas of her irises. There was something captivating about the way she held herself, and he felt his heartbeat in his throat.
One of them would die, soon, he reminded himself, but he could not see her taking her last breath. It was not her body the hovercraft would carry from the Arena, never to be seen again. It was only fair, he told himself, as he pushed the words from his mouth. “I couldn’t allow them to take Jadon, not when Hazel had so narrowly escaped the Games. I couldn’t watch as the Capitol broke that family.”
It wasn’t the full truth, but it was part of it. It was close. Those were the only words he could get out – as honest as his lips would allow him to be. He wondered, briefly, how she would react to the full truth, but brushed off the curiosity. She didn’t need to know. It would only make it harder, later.
He changed the subject before she could press further. “Are you ready for the Visits?”
She shrugged and the gesture was identical to the way he’d shrugged at her; he wondered if the imitation was intentional.
She said, “I doubt it will be emotional for me,” and he could no nothing except wonder what she meant.
Radek stepped into the train car and frowned at them both.