Chapter Ten: the difference between chemistry and charm, and how narrow a difference it might really be
Ruarí (Rory) Savage
Word Count: 1,584
It was dusk beyond the tinted window that made up most of the North wall. Rory frowned at her reflection. She wanted to be training. She wanted to be doing something that felt more like preparing for the battle field she would soon be launched onto. The finality of recent events felt distant and surreal; as if, beneath the shimmering surface of the glitzy party being prepared upstairs, there was nothing more than a distorted hallucination. An awful mistaken future only seen by way of serious misfortune. But the pressure of it never left her, never wavered in its clarity. She felt the aching void of it inside her ribs.
Seres was beside her, smiling another unflinching smile, telling her, “You look marvelous, Rore-dear.” Her thin fingers tapped Rory’s chin lightly. “Smile.”
“What for, Seres? I’ve better things to be doing. If I train enough I won’t even need sponsors.”
“Hush,” Seres said, and her voice had an edge to it that was out of place behind her plump red lips. It vanished before she spoke again. “Not a single gamer has ever lived without her sponsors.”
Rory tried to keep the ghost of a secret from her eyes as Seres studied the delicate lines of eyeliner drawn around her cerulean pools. She’d begun wondering if she and Aeon should share their slowly-forming plan with Seres, the one person, it seemed, to genuinely be on their respective sides. Seeming not to notice the turmoil behind her eyes, Seres said, “I really have done quite a spectacular job on you, my dear,” and grinned widely. “But I’m afraid I can no longer linger here with you – Aeon needs these magic fingers.” She wiggled her digits at Rory and left, tossing a laugh over her shoulder and thanking the man holding the door for her.
Rory knew instantly that the man was Hawthorne – the one and only Games survivor to ever come out of District 3. He had eyes the color of sand and his messy black hair gleamed in the florescent lights. His mouth was a thin line of stoic patience, cutting across the long, narrow plains of his face. When he looked her over, she felt a blissful numbness settle over her; something light and pleasant but powerful enough to still the roaring tide of her blood and the constant whirring of her brain.
He said, “You look more attractive when you relax, Miss Savage. Perhaps we should practice meditation before your interviews.”
“I’m not shooting for attractive, Mister Hawthorne, I’m shooting for alive.”
When he met her eyes, she realized how stupid she must have sounded. Of course he knew that was the goal – he’d stood where she was standing, he’d faced the same trials, and he’d succeeded in winning. Perhaps he was right, perhaps she should relax her posture and soften her expression a little.
He seemed to recognize the change in her eyes and simply ignored her previous statement. “Aeon tells me the two of you wish to tackle the Games as a team.”
So Aeon had opened up. Would he also open up to Seres? Would Seres be upset that she hadn’t? Panic was rising in the back of her mind already; she could feel herself stiffen up even as she willed her body to resist it. Hawthorne said, “I think you two might be on to something.”
Startled out of her own inner panic, Rory asked, “Really?”
“Yes,” he said, and his words felt solid – reliable even in the brewing storm that had become her life. “It will not be as easy to pull off as you might believe.”
“I don’t think anything is going to be easy, Mister Hawthorne,” and the words came out with such assurance that Rory wondered when she had come to that conclusion.
The door closed across the hall and Seres knocked lightly before she stepped into the room. She glanced briefly at each of them and said, “Aeon is ready. I am to understand you two will be making an entrance together.”
Stepping forward, Hawthorne distracted Seres’ injured gaze from Rory and said, “Yes, they will. While they are at the party, we need to find Radek and have a talk.”
The hallway seemed like the best place to be, so Rory snuck around the two people with the most control in her life and pushed through the doorway. Standing with unconscious pride, Aeon observed the shifting numbers over the elevator doors. Other Districts were beginning to make their way to the roof. He looked broader in the simple dark navy blue blazer that hung, unbuttoned, around his torso. Beneath it, his black silk shirt reflected the hues of the lights overhead. It matched his eyes. He had his hands in the pockets of his dress pants, his posture so casual and easy that Rory wondered if he remembered where they were.
Beneath the hot floating lights and the artificially warm air, Rory felt stifled. Her dress was tight; her hair was down and hung heavily around her shoulders, only somewhat defeating the purpose of the open-backed gown. The drunkard slurring his speech to her right was not helping. Behind a fog of beer and onion, he was growing angry, “Fuck you both!” With a sneer and one last, lingering roll of his eyes over her body, he said, “Your loss sweetheart,” and left, muttering to himself. Relief washed over her and suddenly she could breathe again.
From her left, Dreadlocks said, “I highly doubt that.”
He smiled and, unconsciously, she mirrored the slow upward turn of his mouth with her own. She said, “Thanks. You do know you just insulted one of the best Career Gamers in the Capitol, don’t you?”
What held her attention about the stranger that had sent away the pestering advances of the drunk was the way he met her eyes as if in response to a challenge. “Doesn’t give him the right to look at you the way he was,” he said, pausing for a moment to study her before he introduced himself. “Silas,” he said, his extended hand between them reminded her of something her father used to do, but she rarely saw in recent years.
There was a weight to the brief silence between them – he was young enough to be a participant in the Games, and he probably was one, which made any attempt to be kind to each other strained and unnatural; but she liked the way he smiled with only half of his mouth and how he stood with a kind of dignity that seemed organic and real. The scales in her head were even; she did not know whether to stay or leave, to allow him the knowledge of her name or to vanish into the party and hope she did not have to face him in the arena. Without allowing herself to question it any longer, she said, “Rory.”
The playful glimmer in his eyes was what tipped her off, but she’d already caught on to how quick he was. When he asked, “Isn’t that a boy’s name?” her response was already on her tongue before he finished.
All that remained was the flick of her wrist as she gestured at his hair. “Isn’t that a girl’s haircut?”
He said, “Well played,” and laughed; the sound was strong and compelling, and it enticed one to bubble up from within her before she was able to subdue it.
In the mirror over his shoulder, she caught sight of Aeon and her guts twisted nervously in her stomach. They had an image to uphold, and she’d been floundering away precious time smiling at a man she would probably have to run through with a spear in a matter of weeks.
Then his eyes met hers again, and he said, “He was right, though. About the heavenly body.”
She hoped the cameras had better things to show on the enormous screens looming over every District as she smiled again. She pulled herself back, desperately shoving layers of stoic disinterest and cool indifference between her words, and said, “Aren’t you sure of yourself.” She turned herself away slowly, mentally preparing herself for a graceful exit.
He rolled his shoulders and she shifted her eyes to the glass in her hand; trying not to file away how well the suit fit him, or how the trinkets in his dreadlocks were a thousand little secrets she wanted to know everything about. He said, “Only in the company of beautiful women… And on Thursdays.”
She managed to keep the burst of laughter to herself and said, instead, “Are you calling me beautiful?”
There it was, again, she thought to herself, that flash of joviality in his eyes. He said, “Actually, it’s Thursday,” and smiled as a genuine, easy laugh leaked from between her teeth.
Curious then, she propped her elbow on the counter and turned the full press of her cerulean eyes to him. “Are you flirting with me?”
His expression gave nothing away. He said, “That depends.”
She hadn’t even realized she’d spoken until he answered with, “Whether or not you’re enjoying it.”
She studied him closely, briefly, attempting to pinpoint the exact shade of his eyes and failing. Her fingers searched for the glass stems to the drinks she’d gone to fetch, and she smirked at him. She could play coy, too, she mused.
“I guess you’ll never know,” she teased, and moved seamlessly into the constant flow of the crowd around them.