Wonder was right out. Ymir knew or suspected that much—gaping in dumbstruck awe at the country rolling out behind them as the train put miles between them and District 7 would impress no one, least of all the Capitol stylist in the next car. Least of all her mentor. Pressing her hands to the window and watching her breath fog up the glass between her fingers would tell him, this one’s a dumb kid, this one’s grubbying up the windows with her tribute fingerprints like every other fucking tribute that steps into this cabin. She’d be staring like a goldfish on the first and last train ride of her life.
So Ymir kept her wonder to herself. She was wedged back into a rounded corner seat at the junction of a few flat trapezoidal cushions, one arm over the back of the empty seat next to her. It was the best she could do to look casual: not too casual, mind, because she was pretty sure her mentor had seen cocky tributes try to play it off like they took rides like this all the time, and that probably didn’t impress him much either. If he’s going to help me survive, thought Ymir, he’s got to believe I have any chance of surviving in the first place.
Her partnered tribute was no help: Eren had stormed out of the train car minutes earlier, his declarations of intent still hanging in the room like an awkward smell. If she were their mentor, she supposed she’d be halfway to giving up on them by now.
But—well, she wasn’t, was she. That was Bertholdt Hoover, the Boy Lovebird.
She cast a periodic glance at the young man sitting opposite. You would have thought he’d never traveled to the Capitol before, from the way he fidgeted; every so often he’d put a hand to the the back of his neck as though his obviously expensive cardigan was itching him, though it clearly wasn’t. What the hell did he have to worry about, she wondered—but then again: nothing, and so he could worry as much as he liked.
That or she was overthinking the shit out of this. She closed her eyes and summoned up Christa: Christa at the Reaping, Christa’s infuriated face.
When she opened them Bertholdt was looking at her. He had a teacup in a saucer on a side table next to him; it was almost untouched. When she met his eyes he looked away again, obviously disconcerted.
He was only three years older than her, she realized. She remembered the year he’d been reaped: no one had been there to volunteer for him. She remembered distinctly thinking he didn’t stand a chance. It figured she’d wind up here, and him on the other side of this table.
But she knew Bertholdt. Everyone knew Bertholdt because everyone knew the Boy Lovebirds. At least there was one thing she didn’t have to worry about, probably.
"Hey," Ymir tried him after a moment. "So, we have something in common, right?"
The sidelong look he gave her surprised her. He glanced away in the next moment and his hand went up to the back of his collar, again. “I really doubt that,” he said.
Ymir blinked. She’d expected—well, she’d expected a lot of things from this particular notoriously wilting violet, but frostiness hadn’t been one of them. This was not promising. She cast a look in Eren’s long-departed direction. Maybe Eren had annoyed him. Eren would manage to piss off their fucking mentor in the first three minutes.
Cool. She had to play it cool. —But not too cool, that’d be stupid. Just: cool. “Yeah?” she said, leaning back against her cushion. “Well, maybe I’m mistaken. But— I’m pretty sure you know why I volunteered for that girl at the Reaping. And it ain’t the exact reason Eren volunteered for that boy.”
Bertholdt took a sip from his now-cold tea, holding the cup in both hands. It was nearly impossible to imagine him in the Games. His only saving grace was that you didn’t have to imagine him: Panem had televised his every instant. Tearful, fearful, occasionally resourceful, and most of all—most decidingly of all—allied with another boy.
Why couldn’t Reiner Braun have been from my district, thought Ymir with a sort of black humor. But after a moment Bertholdt said, looking out the window, “Well. You’ll be the Volunteers. That’s not that often, you know. That you get two volunteers in a batch with,” he tripped on his words sometimes, and they had a tendency to come out all at once or not at all, “with each other, and, you know, not Careers. That’ll be good.”
"Yeah, well." Ymir glanced in Eren’s direction again with a face she didn’t have to feign. "At least I’ve got something."
"You’ll be lucky," said Bertholdt Hoover, "if your partner dies in the first fifteen minutes trying to break the rules."
Ymir glanced up at him in surprise.
He was fixing her with a strange, diffident look. He’d thrown a look over his shoulder to be sure that Eren wasn’t coming back, but he’d spoken clearly enough, in his faltering way.
"Is that advice?" said Ymir after a moment, at a temporary loss for coolness.
"No," said Bertholdt with a fussy little grimace, like he was dealing with an unpleasant bit of bureaucracy. A tedious form, or a very long line. "It’s an observation of. Anyone killed by the Gamemakers is somebody you don’t have to kill. You’d be lucky."
This uneased her, and she wasn’t sure why; she felt a sudden twinge of disturbance, possibly on Eren’s behalf. “I thought you were supposed to be sponsoring both of us,” she said dryly. “Picking a winning horse already?”
"Mentoring," said Bertholdt quickly, almost under his breath.
Ymir blinked at him again.
"Mentoring," he repeated. "Sponsoring is what happens at the Games. You need to get the words right."
She was ready with another wisecrack in his direction, though in truth she was more uncertain of how she should be acting with him than ever, but he pre-empted her for once: “And yes, I am. Eren’s not in the room right now. I’ll tell him something different when you’re not here.” Again with the avoidance of eye contact. “But here are the options: someone else kills both of you. Someone else kills you. Someone else kills him. You kill him. He kills you. That’s how it works, Ymir.” It was the first time he’d addressed her by name, though still without eye contact; again, the words rolled out in a rush. “All of this ‘pretending we have a team’ the other districts do—it’s just because acknowledging that would be awkward. You understand that, don’t you?”
"Of course," said Ymir for lack of anything else to say. Because she did, obviously. Everyone did. But if she had to put a name to her expectations—to what she’d been expecting of the inter-district star-crossed Boy Lovebirds—she’d, well. She’d expected—
—she’d expected to be the cynical one, hadn’t she.
At least it wasn’t Christa. At least it wasn’t Christa sitting here. Maybe Armin’d have had a better chance, maybe not, with Eren, who cared— at least it wasn’t Christa.
"Christa said she’d kill me if I came back alive," she remarked to Bertholdt after a moment, dryly.
"Well, if it makes you feel better," Bertholdt took another long drink of his Earl Grey, "um, statistically speaking, odds are she won’t have to."
Ymir was starting to regret Eren’s departure after all. This was turning out to be a train car full of awkward silences. Eventually their mentor folded his hands in his lap, then rested one of his arms on the table, and finally put an end to his apparent arm-related indecision by crossing them; he looked up at Ymir, and away, and then at Ymir again.
Then away. “The Volunteers,” he echoed. “You both chose to be here.”
It took her a moment to realize what was coloring his tone of voice was disbelief.
Ymir crossed her arms behind her head. “Eren chose to be here,” she said, dully. “I chose for Christa not to be here. It’s not the same thing.”
Bertholdt regarded her for a moment with a pained furrow in his brow. He had the look of someone being forced to study something that made him uncomfortable: every mentor to every tribute, she supposed, but it’d gotten worse in the past few minutes. There was an unhappy twist to his mouth now. “Well,” he said. The awkwardness at least hadn’t just been for the cameras. “You wouldn’t be the first one.”
Ymir sat back and turned her face to the glass to watch the country roll by—why the hell not, she supposed. Odds were it’d be her last time. Statistically.
"Go and get your friend," said Bertholdt from behind her, a little muffled. It took her looking back to realize he was talking through his hands, in which he’d buried his face, like he had a hangover. Or had just made a very bad decision. "Go and get your friend and we’ll talk about the Games."