Chapter Twenty Four: too little, too late
Aeon Neil + Ruarí Savage
Word Count: 1,671
He was sitting in the hall, his back pressed against the wall and his head hung shamefully, forehead pressed to his forearms as he propped his elbows on his knees. What was he doing?
What had he done?
A roll of nausea swept through him at the memory, and even though he’d sobered up hours ago it still tasted vaguely of whiskey. The healing shot could only do so much, he supposed, and wondered if he ought to expel the contents of his stomach anyway. He didn’t know how long he waited there, in the smothering gloss of the hallway surfaces, waiting for her to show up. He wondered if she was already locked into her quarters, if she’d heard his knocking, heard his pleas, and had still remained silent. He deserved it; it was a punishment that fit the crime – but his heart was crumpling into itself inside of his ribcage and the misery and agony and self-hatred was astoundingly sharp and real.
He glanced at the glittering watch Seres had bestowed upon him before the Banquet and squinted, certain he was reading it incorrectly. “It can’t already be four in the morning…”
He got up, despite his urge to never leave that spot, to never move or face the world; he strode across to her door and knocked for the umpteenth time. When no answer came, he called, in his best Hawthorne voice, “Time to get up, Savage.”
Still, no response came. He frowned at the ornately carved door and knocked again, allowing frustration to seep into his voice as he continued the impersonation. “SAVAGE! UP OR I OPEN THIS DOOR NOW!”
He looked both ways down the hall and, his concern for onlookers sufficiently blotted out, he turned the knob. It was unlocked and the heavy door swung inward without as much as a creak. The room was dark and empty; her bed was made and untouched, the bathroom door ajar and the light off.
The rage that swallowed him up was the kind of rage that caused otherwise sane folk in District 3 to black out and wake up covered in someone else’s blood. He knew it well; it was the same kind of rage that his lab attempted to treat. Uncontrollable, relentless and vicious. It scalded the inside of his skull, scorched the tender lining of his veins. It swallowed him up, whole.
He kissed the side of her throat, his breath tickling her skin, and she giggled quietly. “Stop that,” she scolded. “I have to go or we’ll both be put to death.” She had no idea, of course, whether or not either of them would be – but they certainly would be in for a world of punishment, at best. She squirmed out of his reach and rose from the sheets; a frown already tugging at her lips as she realized the dress she’d worn was ruined and torn. Inwardly berating herself for not thinking her wild plan all the way through, she lifted the blood-stained satin from the floor and turned it over in her hands, puzzling over any potential modifications to it that would allow her to make the potentially-stupid trip to her floor.
“How are you getting to your level?”
She lifted her eyes to him only to find that he’d risen as well and was buttoning his pants. She tried to ignore the long lines of his torso as the pre-dawn light trickled into the room like so much dirty water. “The window,” she answered. “By the way, can I borrow a pair of pants?”
The chortle of laughter that bubbled up from his throat was simultaneously the most embarrassing and heartwarming sound she had ever heard. “You plan to scale the side of the building?”
She shrugged and pulled the ruined dress over her head and settled it into place. At the waist, she ripped it in a reasonably even, albeit jagged, line and dropped the scraps into the garbage in the corner. She pulled on the pants Silas tossed to her and rolled down the waistline until they fit her. “There are a lot of mountains around District 3. I taught myself to climb early on because the view was better.”
She looked up, then, running a hand through the tangled curls of her hair, and caught Silas staring at her. She grinned stupidly at him and attempted to shift the focus to him. “What are you looking at me like that for?”
He smiled but it was slow and gentle – an appreciative tilt of his lips instead of the usual playful grin – and he said, “No reason.” The softness in his expression gave him away.
It seemed as if gravity had shifted; where, before, she’d felt a compulsion to have her feet on solid ground, she now felt a compulsion to have him within reach. All she had to do was extend her hand and he came to her, crossing the gap between them in a few easy strides, to knot their fingers together.
He was so close she could smell his skin and she battled with herself to not fall back into the bed. She wanted to know what he was thinking, if he was struggling with the same turmoil of opposing urges that she was. She stretched up and kissed him, once, softly, and stepped back.
“I have to go,” she said, and the words were like slivers of razors on her tongue.
He watched her slip through the window, a pair of men’s pants buttoned around her waist and folded over until they stayed in place. He could feel a snarl twisting his upper lip but he tried to erase it from his expression. “Nice to see you’re still alive,” he said, careful to keep his tone entirely void of all inflection. Empty, sterile.
Her eyes snapped over to him instantly and he watched as their warmth dissipated the millisecond her eyes registered him. Her lips pursed in a dissatisfied twist and she said, “What the fuck are you doing in my chambers, Aeon? Haven’t had enough barging in, have you?”
“Oh,” he cooed, leaning back in the chair and settling in. “I see he’s revealed the secret to his razor wit. I bet that’s not the only thing.”
“Get out,” she growled, and he had to admit to himself that the very sound of it sent shivers down his spine. His body tensed instinctually, ready to flee, and the understanding that there was something hard and predatory about her was unnerving.
He floundered for his previous confidence briefly and said, “What, so I can’t address your exploits?”
Her response filled the space between them before his question was finished. “No, in fact, you have no right to address me at all!”
“I think we should talk. Or would you rather me find Hawthorne, first?”
She rolled her cobalt eyes and for the first time since she’d climbed through the window, he realized there was a foreign bump on her nose. He was almost certain it hadn’t been there before.
He bolted from the chair and found himself mere inches away from her, his hands cupping her chin as his eyes roamed over the damaged cartilage with a desperate concern. “Did he hurt you?”
Her palms touched his chest, and for a fraction of a second, he thought maybe things were not as strained between them as they felt. But then the pressure grew and he stumbled backward, shoved out of range, and he was looking into the coldest cerulean eyes he had ever seen.
She said, “I’d rather if you didn’t touch me, Aeon.”
He kept the wrenching pain from his face at the declaration and returned himself to his chosen seat in silence. Once settled, he crossed his ankle over his knee and said, “We really need to talk.”
“No,” she corrected, and there was a bite to her words. “You want to talk. I don’t need this, none of it. I want you to leave.”
He shook his head, and there was nothing but sadness in the gesture. He said, “Please, okay? I will sit here and not touch you. I will not take this to Hawthorne. I will not complicate the thoughts in your head by sharing mine. I will not hunt down your lover and rip him into shreds, like I want to. Just please, talk to me.”
He wasn’t certain if it was sympathy or pity that clouded the sharpness of her eyes, but it was irrelevant – he would take either, and happily. He said, “I just want to explain last night.”
“I don’t need it to be explained, Aeon,” she said, and some of the coarseness had gone from her tone.
“No, I guess not, but I need to explain it. I was unfathomably out of line, and I’m so sorry for putting you in that position. I,” he took in a shaky breath, unable to contain the self-loathing that had begun to percolate in his chest, and continued, “I wish I could take it back.”
“Do you really?” Her voice was barely a whisper, and it took every ounce of strength within him to force himself to meet her eyes.
Unsteadily, he said, “Yes. I do.” It was quiet for a while and the sun began to crest on the horizon. He shook his head as if dismissing an argument with himself and said, “I am willing to continue our…” he paused, scavenging for the right word and coming up with nothing, a small creak of pain fracturing the word he was stuck with, “charade in the hopes of actually making it into the Games with some sponsors, with some hope of making it out. I’ll ask nothing of you except to allow the façade to appear genuine for the cameras. I’ll do all the work, and once we’re in the Arena I won’t ask you to choose between your Scarecrow and I. You have my word.”
“I’m not certain the façade is salvageable, Aeon.”