Chapter Twenty Six: where the malcontent overlaps
Word Count: 1,441
He was sat in the uncomfortable, stiff-backed chair for his desk, staring out the window at the constellations he didn’t recognize. He’d been losing touch with everything, lately, he thought to himself. It was easy to disconnect, and that was the best thing for him: easy. Uncomplicated. He focused on things that held only the necessary amount of his attention, and the rest he simply let waste away in the back of his mind.
Mechanically, he rose and refreshed his drink. He sipped the bourbon and wondered if anyone was missing him at the Lottery. He’d made the mandatory appearance, had polite chit chat with Roxanne, and promised Hawthorne he would watch the drawing on the television, at least. Before Seres noticed him, he slipped away and boarded himself up, figuratively, in his quarters. He’d lit a fire but he still felt cold. Even the bourbon was no more than an icy crackle down his throat. He felt fatigued and disconnected and what struck him the most was how little it mattered to him. Every day grew longer, grew more tedious and arduous and suffocating. He wanted to curl up in his old bed and sleep for eternity. He wanted nothing more than a blissful absence of awareness. He wanted to be numb, so that the hollow feeling eating away at his skeleton would not be so uncomfortable.
He had spent every waking moment in training since the Banquet. He had nothing else, it seemed; nothing except time to kill until eventually his time came. He’d resigned himself to doing the only thing he could do: prepare to go out swinging. He’d put on a ludicrous amount of muscle weight, but he never felt like it was enough. No matter how many times he sparred with Hawthorne, he never felt like he could survive a real fight in the arena. He was perpetually unprepared, in his eyes, and he did not even hear Hawthorne’s praises.
His bourbon glass was empty again, and he filled it without sparing it a thought. In the background, he could hear the television. It had been on since he entered his chambers, and it wasn’t until they called one name that his attention lifted from the window to turn to the screen.
At least she was going to be dropped somewhere she’d have the advantage. He didn’t know if he’d missed his drop point, but he could hardly care less. He drank his bourbon and let the dark emptiness beyond the window gobble him back up.
A knock disrupted his thoughts and he was out of his chair before he realized he’d even heard a noise. He swung the door open, expecting to see Seres, or perhaps it would be Radek come to berate him for being a less-than-worthy competitor, again. He was mildly surprised to find Hawthorne offering him a smile, carrying his own bottle of gin and asking with his eyes if he could come inside.
Curious, or more accurately, suspicious, Aeon left the door open and made his way back to the desk to set his glass down and resume staring out the window. Hawthorne remained quiet for a long time, content to let the night pass between sips from his bottle and the occasional anxious tap of his finger on his knee. He’d settled into the comfortable recliner a few feet away, turning it to face the window as Aeon’s chair did.
After a while, Aeon said, “Got any smokes?”
“Sure,” Hawthorne grunted, leaning forward to hand Aeon a cigarette.
They smoked half of their cigarette each before Hawthorne said, “You know, giving up isn’t always what they really want you to do.”
“I’m not giving up,” Aeon said, not bothering to turn his eyes to Hawthorne. He sipped his bourbon.
“You have on her,” Hawthorne challenged.
It took everything within Aeon not to spin and shatter his glass on Hawthorne’s smug face. He had no right coming into Aeon’s chambers and telling him how he’d failed, at yet another thing in his life. So much unresolved anger welled within him that he could taste it on the back of his tongue, sour and rotten the way jealousy was bitter and sharp.
“You shouldn’t presume so much, old man,” he rumbled, emptying his glass in one last swig.
“I presume nothing. It’s in your eyes, Aeon. You’ve been no better than a zombie, prowling the hallways looking for your next distraction until you can drink yourself to sleep. I may not be actively involved, but I’m no fool.”
“I don’t know what you expect of me. She’s made her choice. She had the right to, and she’s probably better off. He can protect her, at least,” he admitted, and the words were fat and slippery on his tongue.
Hawthorne shrugged, and Aeon wondered if he’d finally stumped him into silence. For a while, it seemed he had.
Then, Hawthorne said, “It is often the things we do not see that change everything.”
“Cryptic,” Aeon grumbled, and emptied the decanter into his glass. He wondered if he’d had the entire bottle that evening, but couldn’t remember how full the decanter had been.
Hawthorne let him drink the rest of his bourbon in an indifferent silence, but the moment he swallowed the last mouthful, Hawthorne rose from his recliner and said, “Why don’t you and I have a little boxing match?”
Aeon laughed, genuinely, for the first time in weeks.
He was in the ring, the gloves on his hands specially made for measuring the amount of force being put behind a blow, with Hawthorne dancing from one foot to the other in front of him. With the bourbon sloshing through him, Aeon felt relaxed but alert. His mind moved at an even, easy pace; not rushing ahead to find something to distract himself, nor lingering behind on the things he wished he could forget. Instead, he was centered; perfectly focused, perfectly at ease.
Hawthorne swung, Aeon dodged. The movements repeated again and again and again, Aeon’s body moving like a shimmer of light on liquid – brief, sudden, blinding. He was impossible to touch, and the longer the game went on, the more frustrated Hawthorne became. It was obvious, at least to Aeon; Hawthorne’s movements became less tactful, became more wild and loose. It was not a successful strategy. Aeon simply shifted away at precisely the right instant, every time, but he was growing suspicious that Hawthorne was testing him.
Without warning, Hawthorne stopped moving and simply stared at him. He said, “We’re going to kickbox like men. Take off your gloves.”
Aeon did as he was told, ripping one off instantly, and was taken by surprise only once for the rest of the evening. As he looked down to remove the second glove, Hawthorne swung and his still-gloved knuckles cracked into Aeon’s cheek with roughly eighty pounds of force. Aeon strained his eyes at the score board hanging on the wall, certain his vision was distorted. He could feel the air move to his left and he rolled to the ground and out of Hawthorne’s path.
Moving to his feet effortlessly, Aeon lunged and the fight began. For a while it was all swinging fists and knees slamming into every available bone. By the time blood was drawn, they’d pulled apart enough to plan their attacks, though it was still a frenzy of movement that Aeon was barely able to navigate in the swimming pool that had become his mind. He functioned solely on instinct and momentum – one blow moved into the next, moved into the next, moved into another.
His knuckles were broken and bleeding, but he couldn’t tell where his blood stopped and Hawthorne’s began. Everything was a blur of sweat and pain and stiffness. There was nothing except the heat of the fight; Aeon barely remembered who he was fighting. He was raw and vicious and before he realized it, his anger was propelling his movement – he was fueled by the starved rage that had been gnawing at his bones. He became the fight, then, in that instant, and Hawthorne seemed to recognize the shift of power.
He stepped back, away from Aeon, his swollen eyelids peeling open to carefully study Aeon’s face. Blood ran in a small river down from Hawthorne’s broken nose, his crooked smile no more than a random mess of blood and fleshy gaps between the few teeth he had left. He held up his hands, gesturing he was surrendering from the fight, and fell to his knees.
He said, a trickle of pride lacing his words, “I think I’ve made my point.”