Chapter Twelve: the season for illusions
Ruarí Savage + Aeon Neil
Word Count: 1,384
She knew the moment that changed everything. She recognized it as it slowly unfolded before her with the delicate motions of a fairy tale. She could practically taste Seres’ perfume, as if the small woman had appeared and vanished, supplying Rory with the fresh drink in her hand, and the proper lighting for Aeon. The artificial atmosphere crackling above the crowd had shifted into evening, the moon hanging low and bright in the sky; small translucent candles flickered above their heads, emitting a soft bluish-white glow. Glitter floated down from the animated galaxy above them, cascading down like so much star dust.
Rory didn’t know if the static electricity humming to life in the space between she and Aeon was real or fake but it crackled and buzzed on her skin with a ceaseless, burning, energy. He held her gaze and she was locked in, held fast to the ground as if gravity had quadrupled on her. With the stardust raining down, breaking up the eerie radiance of night, he stood apart from everyone else around her. When he held his hand out to her, she took it, and she knew with all the certainty she could possess, that they were being watched on the enormous holoscreens looming over every District in Pangaea.
Somewhere outside of the training center’s little artificial bubble, crowds were screaming in applause.
She did not notice the subtle click of change in her brain. Her body relaxed as the rough tips of his fingers grazed against her palm and she stepped into his arms as the prattle of the crowd died down to a low murmur; the orchestra that had been playing distantly became the only sound in the room louder than her heartbeat.
It registered to him that what they were doing would be a first in the history of the Games. Two contestants sharing a dance was entirely unheard of – even rarer still: two contestants from the same District sharing a dance. Yet, there he was, close enough to feel her hair against his neck, the gentle press of his fingers against her skin a silent anchor into reality. He could feel the tremble of her heartbeat through the smooth skin of her exposed back. With his right hand, he held hers at shoulder level.
He began the dance, and she followed his steps as if she were meant to be his shadow. She held his gaze as they glided across the floor, the crowd parting as they moved; every camera lens focused solely on their easy movements - zooming in on the graceful slant of her collarbone, on the static gaze held between them. He could see in his peripheral vision as the screen held on the image of her curls arcing around her as she spun away from him, only to be caught with his fingertips and drawn back to orbit around him.
She laughed and it was elegant and free.
The band stopped playing and for a long moment there was no sound at all.
“My, oh my,” Roxanne said conspiratorially, leaning in close as if they weren’t on camera. “Weren’t you just the Queen of this little ball?”
Rory offered her a politely awkward smile but said nothing. It was taking all of her focus to keep her expression relaxed. Roxanne held a finger to her ear as she tried to hear her director in her earpiece. Without warning, she was beaming at the camera in front of them and saying, “And here we are with the evening’s unexpected stars! Aeon Neil and Ruarí Savage, you have surprised us all, I must say. What do you think of the festivities this evening?”
“The party was lovely,” Rory said, and she couldn’t seem to raise her voice above a low rumble in her throat. She wondered if the audience could even hear her. “I feel like I’m in an entirely new world.”
Roxanne did not give Aeon a chance to answer before jumping into her next question. “How is your training going? I understand that you are training together, is that true?”
“Yes, it is,” Aeon said, and smiled into the camera.
“I have to ask, Rory, may I call you that? It seemed you and Aeon had a moment this evening. Would you like to tell us about it?”
The nervous twitch of a grin on her lips was automatic, and she couldn’t help the soft burn of heat beneath her cheeks. “He is a surprisingly wonderful dancer. “ Between the two of them as they sat on the couch, Aeon entwined their fingers for all of Pangaea to see.
Roxanne smirked knowingly and gestured as if she were the last one to dispute Aeon’s dancing abilities. “I think we were all taken by surprise there, Rory.” Then she laughed, and Rory wanted to get out of the sight of the camera, to flee the eyes of Pangaea until she could wash the sickly feeling from her skin.
Roxanne gave them a playful shake of her head and said, “Now, you two, what is it that makes you different from all the other contestants in this year’s Games?”
Rory’s mind spun wildly. She had no answer.
Aeon leaned back into the couch as if settling in for a comfortable conversation, and said, “Our ingenuity, I would say. Rory and I have the advantage because we can cover each other’s back, so to speak.”
“That’s a bold statement,” Roxanne said, and she leaned forward in her plush chair. “What happens at the end of all this? There’s only one winner in the Games.”
This Rory could handle. These were emotions she could manifest on command. She let her eyes glaze over subtly, her thumb rubbing against his knuckles. She said, careful to let her voice crack halfway through the sentence, “We can only hope for a miracle, Roxanne; I think that’s how every Gamer feels, if they’re honest about it.”
She glanced up to Aeon in the corner of her eye and was not surprised to find him looking at her. Roxanne said, “The best of luck to both of you. We’ll see you again for the Participant Interviews in a few weeks!”
Aeon rose and as Rory moved to follow, Roxanne held up a hand to stop her. “Excuse me for one moment, but might I ask you one more question, Rory? In private?”
It had not been in the plan, Rory wanted to argue, so no, it really was not all right. But Aeon nodded at her discretely and she settled back into the couch as if she were grateful to be there a moment longer. “Of course, Roxanne.”
Roxanne’s eyes followed Aeon out of the room and she waited until she heard the door close before she turned her piercing gaze to Rory. “The audience and I are dying to know. What was going on between you and the mysterious Silas from District 13?”
Rory’s heart stopped in her chest, stopped dead. Her body was frozen, stuck to the couch, her muscles unresponsive to her desperate pleas to flee the area. She tried to keep her expression soft, but anxiety lined her eyes; she hoped it looked like curiosity. “Silas?”
“Yes, dear! The man with the dreadlocks, the one you were laughing with at the bar.”
“Oh, him,” Rory said faintly, attempting not to shift her gaze too much or swallow too hard. “He just came to my rescue, is all. Quite the gentleman.”
“Looked like quite the charmer to me,” Roxanne chirped. “How could you possibly decide between them?”
“Silas and Aeon, of course!”
Rory offered a meek, confused smile, rolling her left shoulder up once in a non-committal shrug, and said, “I never realized I was at such a crossroad.”
She just wanted to go to bed, she thought. She didn’t want to sit on the over-stuffed couch with all of Pangaea’s attention on her, scrutinizing every twitch, every flutter and breath and word. She was grateful when Roxanne’s attention shifted to the voice in her earpiece again, and she gave Rory a politely uncomfortable smile and said, “Well, darling, I’m afraid we are out of time. Best of luck, dear.”
And just like that, Rory was free to seek out the quiet confidence of her quarters.