“Well, now he’s gone and done it,” Johanna says. “Wasn’t enough to get them killed in the Arena, now he has to set them on fire before he even sends them in.”
“It worked,” Greg says, scowling. “Have you seen the recaps of the opening ceremonies? Seconds of airtime for everyone else, and then,fire, fire fire.”
“I hear they’re not doing bad for themselves in training either.” Meadow glances at the District 1 and 2 mentors across the room, hashing out pack business without me, no doubt.
Johanna shakes her head. “This is all a circus this year. More than usual, I mean. Between Snow calling us in at the crack of dawn for his boneheaded meeting and Haymitch’s flaming tributes...”
I snort; she whips her head around, smirks in my general direction. “So what’s your act?” she asks me, sweet enough to make my teeth hurt.
“This year? Juggling.”
She snorts. “What happened to your stupid rope tricks?”
“Who says I can’t have more than one talent?”
She reaches into the fruit bowl on the nearest table and throws me a bunch of grapes. “Let’s see it.”
“I meant juggling other things,” I say, but try to snatch the grapes out of the air anyway. I catch most of them, though one splatters against the back of Seeder’s head. She looks up, rubs at her hair. “Sorry.”
“Are you the one who threw it?”
“No, I just missed catching it.”
“Then you don’t have to apologize,” she says, smiling, and makes her way over to the cluster of us by the fruit, helps herself to an orange.
“So why’d Snow make all of you stay after, anyway?” Johanna asks, strips another bunch of grapes from their stem. “Did you stick chewing gum under your desks?”
“Ha,” I say, and shrug. “Who knows? He wasn’t that specific.” I flick my eyes towards the one camera we can see, stationed in the far right corner, and hope Johanna gets it.
She raises her eyebrow, but checks over her shoulder, and there, that’s all she needs. “He should probably spend more time looking after his kid. I almost tripped over her on the way out.”
“Grandkid,” Cecelia corrects. “But you’re right. Even if not him, someone should be watching her.”
Seeder sets her orange down next to Johanna and looks up. “I think Snow is watching her. Her mother’s been so sick, and her father’s been by her side.”
“That’s what Diana told me,” I say. “Do you know what it is?”
Seeder shakes her head. “Not exactly. There’s something wrong with her heart, some weakness in her aorta. She and her husband have been spending a fortune on medication, but nothing’s worked yet.”
Wait. I frown. “A weakness in her aorta?” I repeat.
“That’s what I’ve heard,” she says. “Why?”
“Seems strange, that’s all,” though I’m not going to tell Seeder precisely why. Not now, anyway. “Like the kind of thing the Capitol would normally fix in, well, a heartbeat.”
She laughs once, but there’s no mirth in it. “There are some things even the Capitol doesn’t know how to treat.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I guess so.”
It’s my last night with Venefica, so of course she wants to make it something special, and of course I want to get out of there as fast as possible. At least the vintage she’s uncorked for the occasion is good. I ignore the impulse to gulp the glass down as quickly as possible and sip instead, let the flavor break on my tongue. Venefica curls closer to me, and I decide I can put up with it for the next few hours. Let her make the most of her time.
-- on second thought, I can make the most of this, too.
“Have you considered suing that doctor?” I ask, as casually as possible, my fingers resting on her shoulder.
“Well, of course!” She swishes the wine in her glass, lets it recede back to a level circle. “But lawsuits are so tedious these days.”
I smile. “More like a circus than a courthouse, isn’t it?”
“Oh, exactly. They’ll look for any excuse to drag the issue out until they make as much as you’re trying to make back! It’s insensible.”
“You know,” I say, as though the thought’s just occurring to me -- and in some ways it is -- “maybe that does make the Games a good time to strike. Everyone’s too distracted to pay real attention to anything else.”
“--that’s an idea,” she says, and drinks a long considerate sip. “But are you sure they won’t just postpone?”
My smile sharpens. “Not if you insist on a settlement. That’s what happened -- is it gauche to talk about someone else I was seeing?” I lower my eyelids, which makes me look more sultry than chastened, but if that’s what the situation calls for. “Because I knew this doctor. One of her clients sued for malpractice during the invitation to the feast at the Seventy-second Games, and she rushed to settle because she didn’t want to miss a second of the action.”
Venefica swats me with the backs of her fingers. “Cheeky of you to tell. But that’s good, that’s very good.”
This time, I manage to look a little more chastened.
“I’ll at least pitch the idea to my lawyers,” she says, patting me on the jaw. “If there’s a case to be had and money to be made, I’m sure they’ll be all for it. And I would appreciate a little restitution, after all.”
“Just make sure there’s actually a case first,” I say. “I’m sure the lawyers don’t want to be taken away from the Games, either.”
I’m almost having fun with this. I can’t remember the last time I’ve thought that about a client.
“Oh, of course, of course,” she says. “I wouldn’t dare otherwise.”
I bring Andre a chocolate sundae with fudge and obscene amounts of whipped cream after he gets back from training. For a moment, his face glows brighter than District 12’s capes at the Opening Ceremonies. We chat about our favorite foods for a while, and I tell him that if he wants, he can have chocolate at every meal. I figure I can do that much for the kid. He says he’d like that a lot.
After the sugar rush wears off and he settles in for a late afternoon nap, I swing by Venefica’s unannounced.
“--Finnick!” she laughs when a house Avox shows me in. “And here I thought you were through with me.”
“What,” I say, my fingers splayed over my heart like I’ve been gravely wounded, “should I leave?”
“Certainly not! Please, come in, I’m going over the files just like you suggested and it looks like I might just have a case.”
The files. Perfect. I almost wish I’d taken a camera with me, but that’d look too suspicious, and besides, I’ve trained my memory well over the years. “Really?”
“Yes!” She ushers me over to the table, and really, she’s far too exuberant for someone who’s talking about suing over her husband’s death by medical malpractice, but I’m not going to complain. “I don’t understand all the jargon, of course. But my lawyers told me to circle any numbers that changed a lot from one report to the next, and I’ve been doing that all afternoon. It’s exciting! I might be done in time for the training score announcements tomorrow night.”
I bend over the files and study the numbers, try to commit them to memory. I can’t make sense of them, either, but I know enough people who can. More than the numbers, the words jump out at me, lists of chemicals and percentages, and even if I don’t remember the exact amounts I can school myself on which are high and which are low and which she’s already circled.
“Well,” I say, “it certainly looks like something.”
Unlike the rest of us clowns, Meadow Pratchett has a job. She doctors the livestock in District 10, and she used her victor’s earnings to pay for veterinary school in the Capitol. It’s not quite the same as looking after humans, but I figure she still knows more than I do. I just hope I’ve been looking for the right thing.
I corner her outside the victors’ lounge an hour or so after dinner. I’ve gotten to enjoy dinner in the Training Center for once, since it’s one of my rare nights off. “Hey, Meadow. Can I borrow you for a while?”
“Sure,” she says, and taps the other mentor from Ten on the arm as she gets up to follow me. “What’s shaking?”
I lead her into one of the auditory dead zones Beetee showed me years ago -- the cameras can still pick us up, but the bugs in the hallway don’t record the sound cleanly. “I was wondering if you could make sense of this,” I say, and hand her the paper where I’ve scribbled down everything I could remember from Venefica’s.
She blinks, and, mouths, medical records? at me, bemused.
She shrugs, and takes a minute to look the paper over. “Was this person taking heart medication?”
“Might have been. Why?”
“‘Cause it looks like he overdosed. There’s a bit too much digitalin in his blood. It comes from foxglove,” she explains when I look at her blankly. “It’s a good antiarrhythmic agent -- good at controlling irregularities in the heartbeat -- but it’s highly toxic.”
“So antiarrhythmia --”
“Arrhythmia,” she corrects.
“Can that be caused by a weakness in the aorta?”
Meadow frowns. “Not really. Arrhythmia refers to abnormal electrical activity in the heart, not aortic aneurysms. I wouldn’t use digitalin to treat an aortic aneurysm, but if it went undiagnosed --”
“Right, right,” I say. Still nothing definitive. It could all be coincidence. Then again, it’s not like I’m going to have the opportunity to drag all of this before a court. And in the Capitol, whispers can be more telling than shouts. “So foxglove’s pretty toxic, you said.”
“Very toxic, especially the leaves on the upper stem. A nibble’s enough to cause death in a lot of cases. Even drinking water from a vase with foxglove in it can be fatal.” Meadow peers at the sheet again, frowning. “And this was more than a nibble.”
Suddenly, I’m very curious about what kinds of flowers they’re sending Snow’s daughter at the hospital. “But the digitalin could build up over time too, right? Before it got fatal?”
“Sure.” She folds the sheet, crosses her arms and gives me the kind of severe look I usually associate with my Aunt Ruth. “Finnick Odair, are you asking me for advice about how to poison someone?”
I laugh. “Me? No. All I’m killing is time.”
“Are you going out?” He doesn’t look up from the palette he’s redesigning. “You could have told me earlier.”
“It was sort of a last-minute decision,” I say, run my thumbnail over the edge of the table.
“All right.” He smears a curl of green eyeshadow on the paper, fiddling with the edge. “Anything special?”
“Aurelia Usher-Wallace is hosting a Come As You Aren’t party. You know, dress outside your usual milieu. I thought it sounded like fun.” More importantly, I’ve been running through what I know and asking a few discreet questions, and I remember my evening with Hawksley last year. He’d been parroting Snow for so long that he barely knew how to form his own words, but he did have stories about the old days, back when his star was still on the ascent -- his and Snow’s and Argentia Usher’s, Aurelia’s sister. “Oh, the three of us were rascals back in the day,” he said, “you wouldn’t believe it to look at us now, but we were. Thick as thieves and quite as canny.”
“And now he’s President, and you’re his man with the Peacekeepers,” I said. “Where’s Argentia?”
He frowned -- I remember how strange it looked, to see a line form in skin stretched so carefully tightened. “It didn’t end well,” he said slowly. “She got sick, her heart ran down. And then it was just the two of us.”
I didn’t press it much then, but I can’t help but wonder now if there was more to it than that.
Drusus looks me up and down and laughs, and repeats, “Come As You Aren’t. You’re just itching for the chance to wear something you can hide behind.”
“I’m itching for the chance to wear a shirt.”
“All right. I can whip you something up. What aren’t you, Finnick?” he asks me.
Which is how I wind up at this party in a deerstalker hat and a plaid capelet. He even sent one of the prep team out to find me a calabash, and I show up at Aurelia’s with it posed in my mouth, tilted just so.
“Oh dear, Finnick,” she says, clasping her hands over her mouth. “I almost didn’t recognize you!”
I grin around the calabash. “How can you be so sure it’s me?”
“I could never miss those eyes. But if not for that, and, well,” she draws my frame in the air so that the dangling drops of stylized blood on her arms jangle against each other, “I’d have thought you were Tiber for sure! You remember that detective he played, oh, but it was before your time, Finnick, certainly...”
She escorts me in, announces me to the crowd just in case the rest of me doesn’t speak for itself. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to this many people wanting my attention all at once, no matter how many times my cousins throw themselves all over me when I walk in the door back home. But out of the hundred people already filling this house, it feels like I have to talk to fifty in the first ten minutes, and two different Avoxes thrust two different drinks into my hand in the same amount of time. I drink the one with the sugared rim, which at least five people have a witty comment about, most of them some variation on how sweet I am. I pretend the jokes are funny. The drink’s good, though, and I sip it as I try to see past the crowd to the surroundings themselves.
Aurelia’s front hall is cavernous, big enough to house most of the street where I grew up, and there’s a grand tiered staircase in back perfectly suited for sweeping entrances. Is there any less showy way of getting upstairs? If I’m looking for information on Argentia, it’s probably up there, and a few casual questions confirm that yes, Aurelia’s study is on the second floor. “Though I don’t know what on earth she uses it for, it’s not as though she’s picked up a book in ten years,” my companion says. “But I suppose she keeps it there out of sentiment. Her sister, you know.” He heaves a sigh. “Such a promising young thing -- if you ask me, if she hadn’t gotten sick, Argentia and Aurelia might be hosting this party in the presidential mansion.”
Really, sometimes they do my job for me.
“It’s not nearly as solid a space, Postumus,” someone says from behind us.
My conversant turns around and rolls his eyes. “Well someone’s on a hot streak. Since when are you doing event planning, Cinna?”
“I’m not,” he says. “But the hallways are so tight there. Hello, Finnick.”
I whip around fast enough that I nearly spill my drink. “Hello, Cinna. -- you’re wearing white.”
He stretches out his arms so that the full senatorial toga brushes the floor. It’s immaculate, and between the purple stripe and the gold laurels on his head I can see exactly what he’s doing with his eyeliner. He gives a hesitant twirl. He might be a little drunk, the screwdriver in his left hand is almost down to the bottom of the glass, but there’s a bloody dagger in his right hand and the blood is somehow confining itself to his outfit alone.
“I am not Cinna the conspirator,” he says. “And you’re apparently not that good at deduction.”
I groan for so many reasons, most of which I’m not comfortable mentioning around this many people. “Well, it’s not subtle. But you’re all about statements this year, aren’t you?”
He laughs. I’ve missed him. “I’m just making them where more people can hear.”
“I’ll say. They’re hard to miss.” I stroll towards the wall as casually as I can, try to put my back to the gossiping crowd. “Those costumes at the Opening Ceremonies were something.”
“I thought it was time,” Cinna agrees.
“Really.” I finish my drink, set the glass down somewhere, it isn’t important. I know what he’s talking about. He knows what I’m talking about. I almost want to throw caution to the winds and say it, scream it even, but instead, I say, “So you think it’s this year. This year, that girl.”
He’s too short to look over my shoulder, but I can see his eyes darting into the crowd. “You don’t?”
“I haven’t met her,” I point out. “I saw something, but -- I don’t know. I don’t know who she is.”
“Well, you’ll see. At the interview tomorrow, at least.” He lowers his voice. “But I could tell you more. It’s a little loud here.”
I nod, and throw him the kind of smile that anyone looking our way can’t mistake for anything but an entirely different set of bad intentions. “Upstairs?”
“Here?” he says, grinning back. “Then again, I’m sure she won’t mind.”
“I’m sure she’s seen worse,” I say lightly, and scan the crowd again; there are heads turned my way, of course, but not any more than usual, and not any glances that seem persistent enough to be a problem. “And I’m sure her party will survive without me, somehow.”
He finishes his drink, puts the glass down, and offers me the hand that isn’t covered in fake blood. I accept, and apparently that marble staircase is just as good for exits, because there are a few wolf-whistles and claps when I lead Cinna up it.
He slips his hand into my back pocket. I raise my eyebrows.
“This is revenge,” Cinna says, smiling, “for all the times you pulled this on me.”
I smile right back. “You liked it.”
“Oh, of course. But I never got to do it to you.”
Upstairs, it’s quieter. Noise still filters up from the celebration downstairs, but Aurelia must’ve invested in some sort of soundproofing because the volume drops abruptly when we enter the hall. Cinna looks over my shoulder, then nods when he’s sure we’re not being followed.
“It’s not just that she volunteered,” Cinna says quietly. “It’s how and why and what else she is. I can’t put my finger on it. I just know. If this was any other year, and I could bet, I’d lay everything on her.”
“It’s a lot to lay on one girl,” I say, and try the door to my left. It leads into the library. “What does Haymitch think?”
“As if I know. He knows what I’m doing and he’s letting me have a shot. That’s all, as far as I can tell.”
“I don’t even think he knows what he’s up to half the time.” It’s almost a comfort to see a room in the Capitol with this many books, shelves stretching from floor to ceiling, but the dust on the spines of the books tells me that Aurelia doesn’t keep this room around for use. For her sister, then. I really need to find that study. There’s a door to my left that seems to lead to another room; when I open it and flick on the light, I see a velvet-cushioned chair that’s lost its luster, a desk whose edges have almost been sanded away, a framed photograph of a solemn-eyed young woman with a strong nose and jaw.
“I guess that’s Argentia,” I say.
“What are you looking for?” Cinna asks.
I motion him inside, close the door behind us. “I don’t know yet. Proof. Something more solid.”
“Proof of--never mind.” Cinna shakes his head. The laurels rustle. “I’ll keep watch. Just do what you have to do.”
“Can I borrow a pin?”
“Straight, bob, or safety?”
I hope I’m still good at this.
He fishes around in his wreath and plucks out a couple of pins, slips them into my palm. “If you need more, just say so.”
“This should be enough.” I shake my head, kneel so I’m level with the desk drawer. “Let’s hope Aurelia’s neglected this room long enough that she hasn’t added anything to the locks.”
She hasn’t. I bend the pin into shape, fiddle around inside the lock until I hear the right series of clicks, and it springs open like a charm.
I don’t know what I expected to find in the drawer. It’s not organized at all, and if I didn’t know what I was looking for I’d almost think all this stuff was junk. But I’ve seen the junk drawers in my cousins’ houses and it’s the same, just piles of things to remember and to remember each other by. The year that Roarke got called up for reaping, I saw Aunt Shannon going through a drawer like this, during a rerun of the Games. I didn’t know why she was doing that after the boy that volunteered in Roarke’s place died. I guess I know now.
Underneath all that are press clippings, photographs, tapes: a chronicle of Argentia’s life, or as much of it as the cameras captured. A photograph of her and Hawksley and Snow is paper clipped on top of a thick stack of articles. Hawskley’s leaner, Snow’s lips aren’t the same shade of red, but Argentia has the same solemn eyes. I guess she never got a chance to outgrow them.
The articles date back to Snow’s election.
I don’t have time to read them.
Cinna’s footsteps pound in from the door, and I’m startled enough that I hear his heels slapping on the insole of his sandals. Before I get a chance to ask who’s coming or what to do, he bends me back over the desk and slams his mouth into mine in a kiss that probably looks much hungrier than it feels. The drawer shuts under me and even if it didn’t his toga covers everything. Smart. I kiss back.
“Oh,” says the someone in the doorway. “Oh my. Don’t stop on my account.”
I break the kiss long enough to say, “Wasn’t going to,” and grab the front of Cinna’s robes.
Cinna sputters--convincingly but not cartoonishly--and looks over his shoulder. “I might, though.”
I pout. It isn’t hard to summon one up. “And here I thought we’d just gotten started.”
“No, I mean I might stop on his account--”
“Ha, never mind,” the man in the doorway says. “I’ll let you to it.”
“Much obliged,” I say, and drag Cinna down to continue that kiss.
The door shuts on us, and Cinna doesn’t stop kissing me. His hand closes over mine on the packet of photographs, still pressed between us. The deerstalker hat Drusus gave me falls off my head and rolls to the carpet.
“You need more time to look at these?” Cinna asks, breathless.
“Yes. I don’t know if I can do it here, though.” I eye the door again. “Too many interruptions.”
“I’ll take them. Come to my place after the Games start. First night.”
“I’ll find time,” I say. Somehow. But I always manage, don’t I?
Cinna smiles and opens his robes to put the papers in a hidden pocket. “I look forward to it.”
I smirk. Old habits die hard. “Is that all you’re looking forward to?”
“Of course not. Wait until you see what I’ve made Katniss for the interviews.”
“...that’s not what I meant.”
“I know,” he says. But he kisses me again and messes up my hair and gives a little credence to what we haven’t been doing in here.
“Think you got it?” I ask Andre as I escort him into line with the other tributes. Drusus hasn’t done a bad job dressing him; the suit’s the perfect shade of blue, at least on top, and it fades to darker and darker toward the floor, until it’s almost as black as his shoes. Andre looks comfortable, which is more than I could say for my first interview suit. (He gets a shirt, at least.)
Andre nods, his lips pale. “Myself, but nicer.”
I laugh and give his hair a pat. “That’s what Mags told me, and it worked out okay.”
He nods again, but this time it’s slower, and that pallor has spread past the corners of his lips. “You think Mags told Pierra the same thing?”
“I think she just tells that to the guys,” I say. “She’s nicer to us than she is to the girls. Spoils us rotten.”
“Okay,” Andre says. He holds on to my hand a little longer than maybe he should, so our arms are outstretched between us as he steps into line.
“Good luck,” I tell him, and give him a smile, a real one. He tries to return it. He’s a brave kid, even if it’s the kind of bravery the cameras overlook.
I head back to the seating area with the other mentors, spare a look at the line over my shoulder. Andre’s small enough that the taller tributes behind him eclipse him, especially since so many of the stylists are adding some kind of volume to their tributes’ outfits this year. The gossamer wings on the small girl from 11 catch my eye, and so does the cascade of jewels on Katniss Everdeen’s dress, glittering like flames under the studio lights.
Cinna’s pulling out the stops.
I don’t have time to stop and stare because the broadcast’s about to start, and I’d really rather not be backstage with Caesar Flickerman, but I’ll get plenty of time to watch them when they’re onscreen. I take my seat a few rows behind Cinna; the back of his head doesn’t clue me in to his expression, but maybe the cameras will get a good shot of him when it’s 12’s turn. Besides, if people saw us together at Aurelia’s, I’m supposed to throw him aside like everyone else.
At this point, I’ve seen enough pre-Games interviews that I shouldn’t be allowed to place bets on the tributes’ strategies. The girl from 1 is ripping a page out of Cashmere’s book and the boy’s a collected killer. The girl from 2 somehow manages to be silent in five-inch heels, and I don’t know whether she or the boy has trained for this longer, considering their pitch-perfect sponsor-grabbing answers. The girl from 3 answers Flickerman’s questions before he finishes them and the boy wants none of the sympathy the crowd seems to be giving. Pierra’s no slouch, but she doesn’t have a clear enough angle to really set her apart from the other Careers.
Andre’s up next, and he takes his seat like he expects it to give out from under him at any minute. The set seems to swallow him up. Nicer might not have been the best advice, in retrospect. I sigh. Why do they keep letting me mentor?
“So, Andre,” Flickerman begins, “you’re a little younger than the tributes we’ve come to expect from District Four.”
Andre nods and says nothing until Caesar lifts his eyebrows, prompts him for a verbal answer. “I know.”
“Well, of course you know. I bet that makes the Capitol seem even bigger. What’s your favorite thing about the city so far?”
“I like the gym and the training center. I’ve learned a lot already, and I liked just trying the climbing ropes and wrestling.”
“Are you a good climber?”
“I’m pretty good. I used to scale the cliffs back home sometimes.”
Nothing wrong, but nothing right, either. They’re not going to remember a thing he said. I should have worked out a better strategy for him, but I don’t know if even the most dazzling answers would’ve made much of a difference. He and Caesar laugh a bit about a story about some birds, and then Caesar sends him back to his seat. I scan the faces of the crowd: they’re applauding politely, but there’s no force behind it.
The rest of the tributes go by. Some stick in my mind more than others, but I’m waiting on the last two, and I suspect I’m not the only one. Caesar calls Katniss Everdeen forward, and I lean forward, too.
“So, Katniss, the Capitol must be quite a change from District Twelve,” Caesar begins. “What’s impressed you most since you arrived here?”
He’s using that question a lot tonight. Katniss sits up straighter in her seat, blinks into the footlights, and says, “The lamb stew.”
“The one with the dried plums?” he says, and she nods. “Oh, I eat it by the bucketful. It doesn’t show, does it?” he calls out to us, and we shout no, of course not back to him and share a laugh. I smile like everyone else, but inside I’m more apprehensive. Caesar’s doing most of the work so far. Granted, it’s only the second question in, but I know Capitol audiences by now: if you don’t catch them at the beginning, you have to work twice as hard to snag their attention. She compliments Cinna on his designs, which makes me inclined to like her a little, but I can’t make any guarantees for the rest of the audience. Caesar’s dig at Haymitch keeps the audience laughing and lively, and they’re still chuckling when he brings up her training score. I want to hear more about that, too, but it looks like I’ll have to wheedle that out of one of the Gamemakers later. Her back-and-forth with Plutarch isn’t bad, and isn’t what I expected of her, but her dress is still outshining her by far.
Caesar reins the crowd in when he asks her about her sister, and this I want to hear, too. Am I imagining, or is she looking at Cinna when she says, “Her name’s Prim. She’s just twelve. And I love her more than anything”?
“What did she say to you? After the reaping?”
“She asked me to try really hard to win.”
“And what did you say?”
Katniss Everdeen looks straight at the camera. Her voice drops, and for the first time I feel like I’m listening to what she’s saying, not listening for what she’ll say next. “I swore I would.”
Unfortunately, that’s when her three minutes runs out. I saw something in her, that’s for sure--not what I was expecting, not after the way she volunteered--but something. Something earnest, defiant, determined, but there went her chance to show it to us all. I look down at Cinna, but the camera cut away from him minutes ago. His designs have captured the Capitol’s imagination, that’s clear enough, but I wonder if she can keep the flame going without Cinna’s hand to guide it.
They call the boy up next, and Peeta Mellark wastes no time in getting the audience in stitches. Was the fire meant to highlight him, not her? I try to recall his training score: eight, I think, which is perfectly respectable. Annie had an eight. I forget about training scores when he and Caesar run around and sniff each other. I’m laughing, really laughing. I didn’t expect to do that tonight.
“Do you have a girlfriend back home?” Caesar asks.
He shakes his head sheepishly, which of course invites more questions, which of course Caesar asks. It’s a neat trick. Did he plan it? Did Haymitch coach him to do it? Caesar coaxes out a few more details, and the audience is hanging on to every word.
“Winning...won’t help my case,” Peeta says at last.
“Why ever not?”
He blushes. It’s a convincing one. “Because...because...she came here with me.”
That’s a really good strategy. A really good strategy. I can’t believe no one’s thought of it before. Has anyone thought of it before? I’ll have to ask Mags, but from the way the audience gasps and groans at the revelation, I think it’s a first, or a first within their lifetimes, at least. I glance over at Haymitch, and he’s as close to preening like a magazine model as I’ve ever seen him.
“Did you coach him to say that?” I whisper, which I can get away with because there’s no way the cameras are going to give me a second look after this.
Haymitch laughs through his teeth, maybe hard enough to skim the grime off them. “Let’s just say I finally got something I can work with.”
All of us are in the victor’s lounge at what seems like the crack of dawn. I have no idea how the news anchors manage to sound so perky, considering how most of us are still rubbing our eyes and yawning, but I suspect Capitol news anchors might have some kind of modification that periodically releases caffeine into their bloodstreams. The Careers and the boy from District 11, Thresh, get passing mentions, but they can’t hold a candle to all the buzz around Peeta Mellark and Katniss Everdeen.
“The poor dear,” Ligeria Baum coos. Painted flames glitter from the corners of her eyes and the sides of her cheeks. “My heart leapt into my throat when that sweet boy told us he was in love with Katniss Everdeen. I don’t know if we’ve ever had such a pair of star-crossed lovers in the Games!”
Johanna gags. Cashmere glares. “Shut up,” she says, “I want to hear how they’re going to spin this.”
“It’s not gonna matter when the tributes decide they don’t want to hear it,” Johanna snaps back, arms folded behind her head. “At least one of ‘em’s not making it past the Cornucopia.”
“Actually, the boy’s in the pack,” Gloss says. “Assuming he doesn’t embarrass himself. I haven’t heard anything about her, though.”
My head snaps up. “He’s what?” That’s the first I’ve heard of that. I haven’t been as privy to the pack negotiations this year, but still. I glance at Mags, but I don’t know if she sees me; she’s smiling at the screen and nodding as Ligeria ramps up the histrionics.
Brutus shrugs. “He pulled an eight. He knows how to work a crowd. And he’s their best shot at taking her down.”
“And Haymitch owes us all drinks,” Gloss adds.
“I heard that,” Haymitch drawls from facedown on the couch.
I frown, and decide to focus on the first part first. “You think he’s going to abandon that strategy so soon? It worked wonders for him last night.”
“Who said he’s abandoning it?” Haymitch says. “If they don’t get her at the Cornucopia, anyway. He can play it up all he damn well wants.”
“Putting him in the pack was your idea?” I ask him.
“It’s not like anything else works these days.” Haymitch grins. “Ain’t that right, Josie?”
She rolls her eyes. “Shut up. And Annie Cresta won by hiding in a cave, didn’t she?”
“No, she won by being in the pack, and then hiding in a cave,” Haymitch corrects, probably so I don’t have to. “And then she brained some poor shit with a rock. No one wins by accident, not even you.”
I grit my teeth and steer the conversation back on track. “You really think the others will let him in?”
“They let you in, didn’t they?” Cashmere asks. “I remember just how my tributes that year felt about that.”
Looks like I can’t win today. “We’ll see how long he sticks with them, then.” The kid’s good with words; I wonder how he’ll juggle making the Careers believe they need him and making the audience believe he’s still head over heels for that girl. I settle into a chair near the front, my eyes fixed on the screen. The other commentators fall silent as Claudius Templesmith’s voice takes over, telling us the history of the Hunger Games as the cameras pan over this year’s Arena. It’s back to basics this year with a forest-and-plain setup, a small lake which at a glance I’m pretty sure is saltwater, and no major restrictions on the weapons spilling out of the Cornucopia. The tributes stand in a ring on their platforms and I can tell the air isn’t poisonous, and there aren’t any insects to be seen, at least not yet. It’s pretty clear who the Arena is favoring and who it isn’t; woodcraft is this year’s way to make it interesting, with strong contenders from 11 and 12 and Careers that aren’t any slouch at it either.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Claudius Templesmith booms, “let the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games begin!”
Sixty seconds. I hold my breath. So does almost everyone else. The tributes stand rigid on their plates, some coiled and ready to spring, others paralyzed by fear. Andre’s mouth is set in a thin line, but he’s holding himself together well enough. The rest of the Careers are stony and still, readying themselves for what’s to come. Katniss Everdeen is blinking in the sunlight, scoping out the Cornucopia, and Peeta Mellark is looking at her, shaking his head ever so slightly. Have they worked out something in advance?
The gong sounds, and the Careers sprint from their plates, making a beeline for the weapons. Peeta isn’t far behind. Andre hesitates before he runs, and my stomach sinks. To my surprise, Katniss takes a few seconds getting off her plate. She shuffles, scoops up a loaf of bread and sheet of plastic, dashes towards an orange backpack and grapples with the boy from 9 for it. The girl from 2--Clove, I think--seizes a knife from the weapons pile and hurls it at the two of them. It sticks in the boy’s back instead of Katniss’s, and she takes that as her cue to run, sprinting for the relative safety of the woods. Haymitch must have told her to do that.
For the first frenzied minutes of fighting, it’s impossible to tell who’s down and who’s dead. I watch, my breath caught in my throat, my heart loud in my ears. I dart a glance at the others and they’re watching with the same raptness, even the mentors from Districts who never win. We all remember this.
Andre knows he shouldn’t have run for the Cornucopia either, but it’s taken him half a minute too long to figure that out. He ducks to the ground to get a backpack for himself, but doesn’t make it up, and it takes him screaming for me to notice the knife in his left leg. I’m about to shut my eyes and shake my head when I see a hand clasp around the hilt and pull it out. I distinctly see Peeta Mellark say “Sorry” as he jams the knife back down, into Andre’s neck.
I can’t look away. I shouldn’t.
Andre slumps to the ground, his eyes glassy, his blood gleaming bright in the sunlight. At least it was quick, I remind myself, but it doesn’t ease the knot in my chest much. I wish I’d gotten to show him the best mattress to jump on in all of the training center--it’s on District 7’s floor, in the room their stylists and prep teams use when they spend the night.
Peeta yanks out the knife again and straightens, panting, only for the District 2 boy to seize him from behind and level his sword at Peeta’s throat. “Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you,” the boy growls.
Peeta keeps his grip on the knife. “Because you’re going to need me. Duck!”
The boy starts but does; that isn’t the kind of command you ignore at the Cornucopia. An axe thrown by one of the District 7 tributes whizzes over his head, wobbly but forceful enough, and the boy springs back up, charges to where the girl stands white-faced and trembling and runs his sword through her stomach. The boy, whose name I need to find out, looks at Peeta again: still sneering, but there’s a note of calculation in his eyes. “Guess I owe you for that,” he says.
“Tell you what,” Peeta says, rubs the red line on his throat the boy’s sword left, “let’s work out the details later.”
The boy nods, curt, and he and Peeta dive back into the fray. The fighting’s slowed but hasn’t stopped; the weakest fighters lie dead, which leaves the stronger ones to battle. The Careers, Peeta among them, form a loose circle around the remaining supplies, their backs to each other, their weapons readied against anyone foolish enough to charge in. A spear sticks in the sand between the tributes from 1, and when they spring apart, the girl from 9 charges through the gap, her head tucked and her elbows out. She nearly makes it out again, but Clove seizes her hair, wrenches her head back, and slits her throat.
“Hunt down any stragglers,” the boy from 2 says to his District partner and the boy from 1. “Don’t go more than a hundred yards from the Cornucopia. If you find any obvious trails, tell us.” They nod and head off in opposite directions, scouring the bushes for any tributes trying to wait it out.
“Good thinking, Cato,” Brutus says, nodding his approval at the screen. Cato. He’s one to remember this year.
Johanna stretches, yawning. “I’m out again. I’m going back to bed.”
“You have fun with that,” I say. “How’s the taxidermy?”
She pauses, her fingers laced over her head. “Not bad,” she says, and unless I’m mistaken a guarded note slips into her voice. “It’s hard to find the right kind of stuffing out in the middle of bumfuck nowhere, though.”
“If anyone can find it, it’s probably you.”
Right, I need to have a less-coded conversation with her soon. My mentoring duties might be over, but I still have a lot to do this season.