Chapter Fifteen: glitz and glamour and competition
Aeon Neil + Ruarí Savage
Word Count: 1,507
Seres was fidgeting with his blazer, her fingers nervously dancing over his chest almost in rhythm with his heartbeat. “I can’t believe we had to upgrade you three sizes in two weeks, Aeon.” She made a gentle tsking noise at him and shook her head. “I’ve never seen anyone bulk up so quickly.”
He wasn’t even listening. His stomach was twisted into a knot. He said, “I have to outdo the party, Seres.”
“I know, darling,” she murmured, pressing out the crinkles in the material with the palms of her hands. “Don’t worry, you’ll be magnificent.”
“But how, Seres? What am I going to do? I’ve been thinking about it all week and I haven’t come up with a thing.” He scowled and she sighed. “And if he even gets close to her, I’m ruined.”
“Now don’t be silly,” Seres chided him, but even she knew how empty the consolation was. They’d both seen the recap of the party a trillion times, as it aired on HGTV seemingly every twenty minutes, and the sight of it had begun to haunt him. The more he saw his own dance with Rory, the more he wondered how he could ever top that – things had fallen into place so easily that night, everything felt effortless.
How could he live up to that? He hadn’t even done it on purpose the first time.
She hated being on television. Her heartbeat fluttered in her chest frantically, and she wasn’t even on camera yet. Still seated at the chair in front of her vanity, Rory twisted a single curl around her finger idly. She tried not to think about the banquet, and even harder not to think about who would be there. She picked up her electronic cigarette from the glass table and puffed for a few moments, leaning back to blow water vapor circles up at the ceiling. She’d caught Hawthorne with his, and convincing him to get one for her had not been very difficult.
He seemed to be of the mind she should do as she wished, at least until the Games, so long as it wouldn’t inhibit her chances of winning. The sleek black cigarette made her look older, and it soothed her nerves.
In the mirror she could see the dress selection hanging on the movable rack against the wall. Her hair fell in messy, damp curls around her shoulders. Seres was taking care of Aeon, and Rory had a few moments to herself. The window beyond her vanity mirror was open and the tint was off – the sky had been blotted out for three days with the ever-thickening grey clouds of a storm that hadn’t broken yet. It reminded her of a pair of eyes, shielded beneath black lashes. Indecipherable and mysterious.
She shook the image from her mind and took a few more puffs.
Seres appeared out of nowhere and frowned disapprovingly at the vapor cigarette between Rory’s lips. “I suppose Hawthorne got you that.”
“I’ll never tell,” Rory teased, and winked at her stylist in the mirror.
“No,” Seres said with a smile, “I suppose you wouldn’t. Well, let’s get on with it. Which dress did you decide on?”
“You’re going to think I’m ridiculous,” Rory said, shaking her head. “Please won’t you just pick it out for me?”
“Absolutely not,” Seres said, her deft fingers fluttering over the dresses on the rack. “Which did you like?”
“I particularly liked the rust and cerulean one, but the horizontally pleated turquoise and silver is lovely, too.”
“Why would I think you ridiculous for picking either of those? They were my favorites, too.”
Something about hearing that settled Rory’s nerves. It felt good to be on the right track, even if she doubted herself.
“I’ll tell you what, let’s save the turquoise and silver one for the Lottery. Tonight, you should wear the first one. Everyone else will be toning it down since it’s the Banquet not the Ball,” she grinned mischievously, “You’ll be glorious.”
Rory rolled her eyes and laughed, shaking her head at Seres’ outrageous expectations. Glorious was such a strong word.
Once the dress was on and she was standing in front of the mirror, however, Rory understood Seres’ vision perfectly. The dress was of a different world, it seemed; it hugged her body with a desperate adoration for the curves and dips of her figure. The satin laid over her as a second skin, flowing outward at her thighs to part at her knees and float around her ankles. The outermost layer was a shimmering, metallic rust, and the softer, looser bottom layer reminded Rory of the depths of the ocean.
The strapless torso fit her exactly, the material twisting around her chest to accentuate the subtle shape of her ribcage. Seres had pulled her curls back from her face to hang over her right shoulder, pinned back behind her ear to keep the shorter strands from falling in her face too much.
Seres had put up more of a fight over the make-up than the last time; claiming that if she was going to wear such a dress she ought to match her face to the glamorous gown. Rory felt ridiculous walking out into the hallway with her eyes done up and a thin layer of crimson lipstick smudged across her mouth. The edges of her eyelids were lined with the tiniest diamonds she’d ever seen, lain over the onyx smears of eyeliner, and they shone like stars above the shadowy sapphire pools of her irises. Her eyelashes were long and dark, and they framed the small galaxies of her eyes well. Seres had done an exquisite job, but Rory was no less self-conscious.
Aeon waited in the hallway for her, a familiar comfort she’d already grown used to in a few short weeks, and when he turned his tawny olive eyes to hers she immediately accepted her appearance. He looked at her as if the whole of the planet had ceased rotation and she was the only thing moving. She’d been worried the outfit was too much, but it seemed she needn’t any longer.
He let out a long breath and said, “There are no words for your loveliness tonight, Ruarí.”
She smiled and hoped the heat in her cheeks didn’t show. “I see Seres has worked her magic on you, too.” She wasn’t exaggerating – his suit fell against him as if he had been made wearing it; the sharp contrast of the white button up beneath the ashen gray blazer was crisp and flattering. The narrow tie he had loosely knotted around his collar pulled the outfit together in a messy, casual way.
The elevator ride up to the banquet hall was quiet but Rory was grateful. She didn’t feel like polite chit chat, not with the pterodactyls flapping around in her stomach. She tried not to think about what was making her nervous; she knew the slither of expectation too well and disappointment was always bitter. She didn’t want to be bitter.
The doors opened and her eyes sought him out within an instant, and as she realized she was searching she found him at the far end of the banquet hall, having a drink at the bar. He wasn’t difficult to spot. Before she could open her mouth, Aeon leaned down to whisper in her ear, keeping his lips close enough to her that she could feel his breath brushing against her hair.
Although she was certain the audience suspected differently, all he said was, “I’ll go fetch us some drinks.” And then he was gone, vanished into the crowd without as much as a second for her to protest. For a moment, she let her gaze linger on Silas at the bar, but as his eyes rose from his glass, she turned her attention away.
He waved down the server behind the bar, a small woman with nearly-white eyes and a tiny nose, and ordered two champagnes. He kept his gaze away from the man to his left, but did not jump when a low voice broke through the background chatter of the crowd.
“How you doin’, twinkle toes?”
Careful only to allow the right side of his mouth to smirk, Aeon turned his gaze to Silas as if giving him attention would only be enabling him. “Are you going to pick me up at the bar too, stud, or are you just hoping to get closer to my date?”
“I could, but I really don’t think you’re worth the effort,” Silas retorted smoothly, a taunting grin on his lips. “Answer me this: did she think that, in dancing with and kissing you, you would turn into a handsome prince?” He sipped from his glass as if indifferent about his mockery, and added, “Because it really didn’t work.”
Aeon let out a laugh and accepted the drinks from the server. Turning to leave, he met Silas’ gaze and said, “At least she knows I won’t turn into a scarecrow at midnight,” and melted into the crowd.