Chapter Five: a life for a life, or two
Ruarí (Rory) Savage
Word Count: 1,861
Rory held her ground beneath Radek’s scowl. She gave him one of her own in return and crossed her arms over her chest. Behind her, Aeon said, “Shouldn’t the Presenter at least learn the names of those he’s presenting?”
“You both are in desperate need of some etiquette, and I for one cannot wait until Hawthorne gets to whip you into shape. Until then, don’t expect to see me,” Radek snapped, pivoting on his heel to march into an adjacent train car. The door swooshed closed and they heard the gentle click of a lock mechanism.
Rory rolled her eyes and turned back to Aeon. She wasn’t certain what to make of him just then, but something tugged in her chest when she met his eyes. She felt kindred to him somehow, but shook it off – they were from the same District, and they were about to move at roughly two hundred miles an hour to their deaths.
Of course they were kindred.
She settled into the couch and tugged the soft brown throw from the side of the couch to wrap around her shoulders. Even with the roaring fire, she felt cold. Aeon hesitated where he stood, his eyes assessing the size of the couch and how much space she’d left available, careful not to look at her as if he were asking her permission, though they both knew he was. She flipped through the channels on the big screen but found only commercials – no other stations were bold enough to run programs parallel to the Reapings. They would draw the participants for District 2 in half an hour, while Rory and Aeon sped across the country to the Capitol.
Rory told herself that the knot in her stomach was not fear, but it was impossible to ignore. Her death loomed ahead, barely a month away; with no one left at home, and no one in the future, she wondered what it would be like to die completely alone. She grew colder with the realization that she’d never found anyone to love her. She struggled to remember the last friend she had and held back tears when she came to the conclusion that she never had anyone at all.
Aeon tried not to look at her, but the single tear that trickled from the corner of her eye was enough to break his will. His heart clenched in his chest, more painful than anything he’d ever felt – and it was but a ghost of her pain, nothing except a whisper of empathy. He didn’t resist his compulsion to wrap his arm around her, and to his surprise, she let him pull her to his chest.
They sat that way, in silence, until the Reaping of District 2 began.
When the metro finally pulled into the station, the silence in the cab had drowned them both in tense apprehension. The static chemistry between them had kept them firmly at a distance for the rest of the trip, though it seemed they were both reaching out for someone’s hand as they stepped onto the cobbled road of the train station. At this point, he told himself, she was probably looking for anyone at all, he just happened to be there.
Aeon entwined their fingers and, together, faced the throng of spectators.
She didn’t know where he’d come from, she knew nearly nothing at all about him, but the warmth of his fingers nestled in each niche between her knuckles was comforting and grounding. She didn’t feel overwhelmed by the crowd as she expected, and Radek appeared from his personal metro car to clear a path for them. He smiled at the crowd and took the pressure off them, blowing kisses and shaking hands, answering the barrage of questions being shot at them by the news crews intermingled with the observers. Radek had been useless to them up until then, but she had to give him credit – the man knew how to work a crowd.
Once they reached the doors to the Hunger Games Training Center, Radek shoved the two of them inside and desperately pressed the ‘close’ button on the control panel. Instantly, the thick steel doors closed with a whoosh and they were encased in the silence of an empty floor. Turning to them, he sighed and said, “This way,” before marching off in the direction of the elevators.
Rory and Aeon were to remain on the twentieth floor, third from the top, where they would find everything they needed. Stopping in front of their separate quarters, their doors facing each other, Radek gave them both a once over before returning to the elevator. As the doors opened, he said, “Your stylist will be here within a few moments; she has the keys to your rooms.”
The doors closed and he was gone.
Rory scrunched her nose up as she watched the numbers over the elevator decrease. She said, “He seems like the one that needs his manners polished up, don’t you think?”
She was expecting Aeon’s response, but the shrill voice that sounded from behind her was too high and feminine to be Aeon’s. “Oh, Radek’s got quite the delusion of grandeur about himself.”
Rory jumped and released Aeon’s hand instinctively, wiping her palms on the sides of her jeans as she turned to face the voice. A small woman smiled at her with teeth only fractionally too large for her face; her bright red lips brought out her florescent blue eyes and contrasted nicely with her burgundy hair. Rory smiled back gingerly and tucked a stray curl behind her ear.
“You must be Ruarí,” said the woman, “and Aeon. It’s quite an honor to meet you both. I’ve never worked with a volunteer before, let alone two.” She giggled nervously and the sound reminded Rory of bubbles in her chocolate milk, and she wondered when the last time she’d had chocolate milk had been.
It didn’t seem to matter, however, that neither of them were much of conversationalists, because the pretty woman before them rattled on, “My name is Seres, and I’m your Stylist. I’ll introduce you to the whole team later on, but I wanted to sit with you both and get to know you a little, if that’s all right? I want to give your future Sponsors a real glimpse of their participants, and that way you won’t be burdened with scripts and faking your way through the Pre-Games Events. I know you’ve got more than enough on your minds, and I’d like to make this as painless as possible for you both.”
Her smile was engrossing, Aeon thought; he could not resist mirroring her expression as she talked at them, and he struggled to keep up with the speed at which her words flew from her mouth. He wondered how a creature so small could contain such energy, but dismissed it. No time for observations, he told himself, his brain reeling to catch up to the conversation happening without him.
“Now,” continued Seres, “the West bedroom is yours, Ruarí, and the East is yours, Aeon. Your curfew is 10 pm every night, and we expect lights to be out by 10:30. You will be woken at precisely 7 am every day, and will have breakfast at 7:30. From there, you will go to your morning exercises, then to strengthening. After strengthening, you’ll go to your survival class, then lunch, and then your inclement weather survival class. You’ll follow that up with weapons training, a second strength training session, and dinner. After dinner, you’ll finish your training with evening exercises. You will be given two hours at the end of each day to yourselves before you must return to your quarters for curfew. I’ll show you both around so you don’t get lost, but you might be better off travelling together for the first day or two, just in case.”
She caught a breath, smiled again, and plunged on. “These are mostly things that Radek should have told you, but he’d rather behave like a child and leave you both clueless. I, however, am not in this business to lose participants to the Games, so you’re welcome to come to me with any and all of your questions. Do you have any questions right now?”
Rory and Aeon glanced at each other and shook their heads. Between the two of them, they were pretty certain they could piece everything she’d said back together.
“Right,” she said, “then it’s off to the Visiting rooms!”
The light in her Visiting room was blinding, and Rory blinked back the dead spots in her vision as her eyes adjusted. She’d been in the room for forty minutes of her allotted hour, and there hadn’t been a knock at the door. Just as she’d resigned herself to facing the Games alone, the softest whisper of a knock rippled through the room.
The door opened and Hazel stepped in, all long blonde hair and forest green eyes. Her engorged belly filled out the delicate chiffon top she wore nicely, and she glowed with the aura of an unborn life dwelling inside of her. The tight line she held her lips in was the only indicator that she was displeased.
She said, “Why did you do it, Ruarí? I don’t understand.”
Rory sighed; if she were being honest, she’d hoped to avoid this conversation permanently. She shrugged and dropped her eyes to the tabletop, “It’s unfair enough that twenty-three people have to die every year for this, it seems unjustifiably unfair that you should bring in a twenty-fourth. Let alone one that never had a fighting chance.”
A blanket of silence suffocated the room. After a while, Hazel braved the quiet with one last question. “Did you and Aeon plan that, somehow? Like, a pact or something?”
Rory glanced up at her, then, startled enough by the question that she could brave the pity and gratitude that mingled in Hazel’s eyes. “I didn’t know Aeon until he volunteered,” she admitted.
Hazel’s eyes widened briefly but she wiped her expression clean. “Oh,” she said.
Unable to resist, Rory asked, “What aren’t you telling me?”
Hazel’s mind worked frantically behind the glassy pools of her eyes and she offered Rory a weak smile and shrug, her loyalty clearly torn between Aeon and Rory. “I – I don’t know, Ruarí, it’s not my place…”
Rory caught on. Whatever it was that Hazel was holding back could get Aeon killed in the Games. Suddenly, Rory didn’t want to know anymore. She said, “That’s fine, Hazel. I understand.”
She was looking away again, unable to look into the face of the woman whose life she’d saved. Hazel’s fingertips were a ghost against her arm but Rory knew she’d feel that touch for the rest of her life, as short as it was looking to be. Hazel said, “Thank you, Ruari, I owe you my whole life. I owe you the lives of my entire family.”
Rory shook her head meekly, glancing up at Hazel only long enough to catch a glimpse of the tears leaking from the corners of her eyes, and said, “Just take care of your family, Hazel.”