Chapter Twenty Nine: verbal contracts
Ruari Savage + Aeon Neil
Word Count: 1,574
The nerves fluttering around in her stomach were making her sick. In front of her vanity mirror, she tried to control her breathing, tried desperately to center herself. A figure stepped through the open door of her chambers and she was stunned silent when her eyes landed on Radek. He had been no more than a ghost in the hallways since he’d brought them to the Training Center. He stood with a regal authority that was foreign on his shoulders.
He met her eyes in the mirror and said, “I came to wish you luck, Ruarí.”
“That’s very kind,” she said, and returned to following Seres’ breathing suggestions. She shut her eyes, hoping Radek would take the hint and simply leave as silently as he’d arrived.
“I do not understand you,” he said, and his tone sounded accusatory. Inwardly, she refrained from rolling her eyes. He continued, “You and Aeon, you volunteered for this. Why?”
She opened her eyes and lifted her gaze to him slowly, turning in her chair to look at him directly. She shook her head as if she were disappointed in him somehow, and said, “There are some things that are more important than living, Radek, and it worries me how human you actually are that you don’t understand that.”
“Don’t insult me,” he scolded, “I came here with good intentions.”
“Good intentions are a weak mask for the demon beneath the surface, Radek,” she snapped, and she knew it was cold and cruel but she didn’t keep it to herself. She didn’t shield the anger in her eyes. “You can’t come here hours before I am supposed to enter the Arena and behave as if you’ve suddenly gained a heart. I’ve seen what you are when the cameras aren’t watching, and I’m not fooled by this little display.”
“By the Siblings,” he said, “you’re a spectacular cunt, did you know that?”
She rose from her chair then, and her movements were liquid smooth and quick. She was an arms length away from him without warning, her eyes burning with resentment and admittedly misdirected anger. She growled, “At least I’m not a fraud, Radek. At least everyone knows what I really am.”
He stepped back, just enough to be out of reach, and she slammed the door in his face.
He watched the door slam and smirked to himself. He couldn’t help the affection that pooled in his chest; he loved her, whether he wanted to or not. He loved her spirit, her inability to see a challenge as insurmountable. She never backed down; she never shied away from something she felt was right. It was what drew him to her, he thought; there was something fearless about her that was enchanting and mystifying. She was an enigma to him, but he knew enough to know she stood her ground.
He didn’t hold back the laugh that bubbled up in his throat, and before Radek could turn his insulted blue eyes to Aeon, Aeon shut his own door. The clock beyond his window counted down the seconds.
Three hours, forty-six minutes, and nineteen seconds until they would be sent into the Arena.
He returned to his pre-battle stretching regimen, as designed by Hawthorne, and soon the static panic in his head faded into silence and he was left with nothing but the mechanical motions of his routine and the slow burn of his muscles limbering up. The only light in the room was the unholy green glow of the timer beyond the window.
Seres let herself in, startling him out of his robotic state. He glanced at the timer and his heart sank.
One hour, exactly.
He felt anxiety well up within him like an ocean being filled for the first time. Cold, sharp, unforgiving; he swallowed it down like so much salt water and offered Seres a watery smile.
She held out his attire for the Arena and did not wait for him to set it on the table before she threw her arms around him and fat, messy tears stained his shirt. She whimpered, “I can’t bear this. You don’t deserve this.”
He sighed, and the weight of his pressing panic showed in the sound. What could he say to her? He couldn’t even comfort himself. Instead of saying anything, he wrapped his arms around her tiny little body and held her as she cried. Everything felt backwards. Why wasn’t he the one breaking down? Why wasn’t he flinging himself out of his window, hoping the net had been deactivated? Why wasn’t he drowning in terror?
After a few minutes, she pulled away and wiped her face with her palms, smearing her make-up. She looked up at him with wide, wet, bloodshot eyes and there was a wellspring of pity in their florescent blue depths. He shook his head and said, “Please don’t look at me like that, Seres; that’s not what I want to remember when I’m in the Arena.”
She reached up a still-damp palm and cupped his cheek. She sighed, and it seemed as if she was pushing all of her misery out through her lips. Finally, she said, “I hope you win, Aeon. The Games don’t favor the good often enough, and I think it’s time.”
He didn’t know what to say, but she seemed to understand. Stretching up onto her tip toes, she kissed his cheek and left.
Roxanne smiled at her and Rory felt as if the camera were about to swallow her soul. The breathing exercises weren’t helping anymore, and her pulse was thunderous in her ears.
Roxanne said, “Ruarí, you look nervous. Tell us, what are your thoughts as you prepare to enter the Arena?”
“They’re scattered,” Rory said, and smiled, “but mostly I’m just trying to remember everything Hawthorne taught me. I feel like I have a leak somewhere and everything useful is rushing right out.”
Roxanne laughed and Rory mimicked the sound. Roxanne said, “I’m certain you remember more than you think. So, I must say, this year’s Games have been very exciting with you and that charmer from District Thirteen. Would you mind giving us a little inside peek into the dynamic between you two?”
Rory tried to smile. She tried with everything in her but it wasn’t enough. Her mouth twitched, nothing more. She said, “Silas and I got as lucky as anyone in our positions could get.”
Roxanne’s face shifted into some sick half-breed of pity and love. She said, “It’s quite the tragic love story, don’t you think? What do you think would have happened if you had met outside of the Games?”
The question was like a blow to her ribs. The wind was knocked right out of her and she couldn’t conceal the pain the question brought her. She composed herself as quickly as she could, but the lapse had been there, for all to see, and recovery was harder than it had ever been. Her whole body ached. Her heart twisted in her chest. Her mind spun and spun and spun. She’d spent so long wondering the same thing, only to wind up in a pit of sorrow and regret.
If Roxanne realized the question was cruel, she didn’t show it.
Rory said, once her breath had returned, “I’m afraid my imagination isn’t quite strong enough for that. I couldn’t imagine what would happen if we hadn’t met here.” She paused for a brief inhale, and his voice echoed in her head, unbidden. Her mouth moved before she realized she was speaking, “But we did. And maybe it’s a blessing, really. I won’t have a chance to forget a single moment.”
“Are you scared to enter the Arena, Rory?”
“Of course I’m scared,” she said, and a chortle of sarcastic laughter escaped her lips, “but I’m not scared of the Arena. I’m scared of what might not come out of it alive.”
“Do you mean yourself or Silas?”
“Silas,” she answered, and there wasn’t an iota of hesitation.
“You aren’t worried about yourself?”
“Why is that, Ruarí? Do you think you’ll survive the Games?” Roxanne was leaned in close, the camera hovering beyond her shoulder focusing in on Rory’s face.
“I’m just not worried about that,” she admitted, “I’m worried about one little girl in a District no one cares about. If he doesn’t come out of the Arena…” Her throat constricted suddenly and Rory realized she was going to cry on live broadcast. She held it back for a moment but the swelling lump in her throat only grew, and soon she had no choice. She choked on her words as she attempted to wipe away tears that hadn’t yet reached her cheeks, “I can’t even… I can’t talk about this.”
“All right, dear,” Roxanne cooed, and Rory felt the warmth of Roxanne’s hand on her knee. “We can’t have you entering the Arena with blurred vision, now, can we?” Roxanne stood and, gently, took Rory’s hand in hers to help her up. “Thank you for interviewing with me today, Ruarí. You’re a darling girl, and I hope nothing but the best for you in the coming Games.”
“Wait,” Rory said, sucking in a lungful of air, “There is one thing I should say before this interview is over.”
“If I win, I want them to give Eliza my winnings,” she said, meeting the lens of the camera with all the strength she could muster.