“And that, Finnick, is why I strongly discourage you from skipping prep time,” Drusus says.
I groan and yank the covers higher over my head. It’s dark out, and the light still hurts. “I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to combine that with alcohol.”
“I could have sent you in there with something to counter that. I could have sent you there with doctor’s orders. I could have sent you in there after consulting with your client or at least with someone who could have been held liable for--”
“I missed you too, Drusus.”
“I haven’t been anywhere.”
“Oh, I know you have. You’ve been leaving me hanging at the Training Center. You know, I could have come out here to you, it’s not like I haven’t before. And my phone, it has been ringing. Sometimes I wonder if our tributes are only hiding and their cannons went off to annoy me. ‘No, Finnick’s not here! Yes, I can take a message! No, of course it’s not a matter of life or death! He’s probably just out, doing whatever it is that Finnick does when he isn’t coming to prep when he’s supposed to be in prep’.”
His voice drills straight through my skull, and I grab my pillow to block out the sound. My head reels, but if I close my eyes I’m not as afraid of falling off the bed and into the black swirling thing at the edges of my vision. “Does it matter?” I ask. “They want me, they get me.”
“They get you like this, you lose them.”
“Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.”
Drusus sighs, and the bed lurches when he sits on the edge. He puts his hand through my hair, and his palm is cold, comfortable. “Look,” he says, quieter. “I know you hate it. And I thought you were over it. You shouldn’t have to be. But you’ve come so far, and you’ve dealt with it so well, and there’s no sense in throwing it away now. It didn’t make you happy then, and it won’t if you keep going down that path. So let me make it easier for you, okay?”
I’d nod, but my head’s too heavy and I wouldn’t mean it. “It wasn’t like that,” I say quietly, as quiet as Peeta was last night but without the microphones to make it louder. “I wasn’t trying to--lose myself. I was trying--” I sigh. “It’s easier to laugh at them. At myself. But sometimes I wake up and I feel like I’m going to throw up or fall and I can’t.”
“Damn right you can’t.” The bed tilts again; he must have gotten up, and I think that’s the sound of him pacing, unless it’s just the headache. “Does laughing at them really make it easier?”
“Easier by comparison.”
“Fair enough. But I mean it. Does laughing at the people who hurt you make it easier?”
My throat itches. Swallowing doesn’t help. “Sometimes.”
He doesn’t say anything, for a while, and the thudding stops, so it must not have been in my head.
Someone plods through the door. I pull the covers back enough to see it’s Mags, and even with my vision lurching every few seconds I’m glad to see her. She doesn’t usually stop by my apartment. “Hey. Sorry I’ve been so busy.”
She sits on the edge of the bed, traces the bottom of her cane on the carpet. “I know you can fit me into your schedule,” she says, smiling bright as I’ve ever seen her.
“Always.” I’d kiss her on the forehead, but the thought of sitting up makes me ill.
“You missed breakfast.”
“And lunch. But breakfast would’ve done you good.”
I sink deeper into my pillow and try not to groan again. “You’re telling me.”
She waves at Drusus, and mutters something about getting me some food. He gives her what I think is his patented since when did they make me an Avox look, but he leaves us alone.
“I missed you too,” I say. “I heard you’ve been talking to Beetee?”
The walls click, and the feedback loop starts, and I’m glad Mags knows about these already because she doesn’t miss a beat. “You’re up to something.”
“So are you.”
“When am I not?”
I laugh, even though it hurts my jaw. “Am I allowed to know?”
“Not just yet. Am I?”
“When I have more.” I glance at the walls. I know the bugs are off, but this still isn’t the sort of thing you say out loud in the Capitol. “I’m looking into Snow.”
“You’ll find something,” she says, with a glimmer in her eyes that I hope is pride.
“I think I already have.” I lower my voice. “What do you know about Argentia Usher? And Red Horse Limited?”
Her face washes a bit paler, and she takes a slow breath. “Enough to know you’re looking in the right place. I remember that scandal.”
“I don’t,” I say, and prop myself up on my elbows for about two seconds before they give out.
“Five dead at a Gamemaker retreat,” Mags sighs. “And then a few more back home in Four, for sending out those crabs. My daughter-in-law lost her sister to that. You don’t read about that in the papers.”
My stomach twists. “I didn’t,” I tell her. “I heard Argentia’s heart gave out sometime after that.”
“It was a process,” she said. "It took her a few years, but in the end, there was nothing to be done."
“It’s a theme with Snow, isn’t it?”
Mags just smiles.
“What does Red Horse Limited do?” I ask.
“Pharmaceuticals,” she says. “And they’re the ones who give tracker jackers their venom.”
I remember the angry red blisters covering Pierra’s skin, and my skin prickles in something that isn’t quite sympathy. Yes, I can imagine what Snow would want with a company like that.
“Exciting year, isn’t it.”
She nods. I rub my temples out; some of the ache’s starting to fade, though I still feel like District 7’s moved into my skull. “Can I at least know what’s happening in Three and Eight? I haven’t gotten to talk to Beetee or Cecelia yet.”
Mags shakes her head. “You’ll know. Anything you don’t know, you don’t know because it keeps you safer.”
“Safer,” I repeat, and gesture to myself. “This is what you call safer?”
She hangs her head, but doesn’t have to nod.
I drag myself to sitting and do my best to ignore the dizzying swirl of the room, the rush of blood away from my head and the distant roaring in my ears. I wrap my arms around Mags’s thin shoulders. “I’m sorry,” I say. “That was cruel.”
“It was,” she says, and leans her head on my shoulder. Her joints creak.
“I know you’re looking out for me.” I shouldn’t hold onto her so tightly, even if I do worry that I’ll fall over if I let go. At this rate, I’ll just topple her with me. “Thanks. It’s just a rough morning.”
She nods, and covers my hand with hers, and holds just as tight as I am.
Yesterday, Katniss Everdeen and a bag of apples blew up all the food at the Cornucopia.
I was at work.
I wish I could’ve seen it. I did hear about it though, at least three times, the first of those being when my client’s housekeeper banged on the door just as things were getting heavy to report to him that the boy from District 3--who he had been sponsoring--was officially out of the Top Eight. I think I managed to convince him to switch over to Katniss and to add his name to the petition.
Haymitch Abernathy owes me.
I tell him as much when I manage to duck into the Training Center. Andrea Lobotae has me for the night, and I can’t help but wonder whose idea the timing is, despite Drusus’s insistence that my schedule books up months in advance of my visits. Until then, though, I plan to spend as much time as far away from her as possible.
Haymitch laughs in my face, though, and goes back to dealing with whoever’s on the other end of the phone. And he’s not the only one: Chaff’s got the headset Wiress rigged for him, and he’s taking notes and scribbling sums on a notepad. Brutus and Cashmere are sneaking glares over at them from their table in the corner. Johanna’s doing her best to yawn and feign disinterest, but I catch her darting glances at the screen when she thinks no one’s watching. Mags has decided not to nap this afternoon, and we’re sitting together on one of the couches while Seeder fills me in on what I missed.
“It’s been like this all night,” she explains. “Between the Top Eight interviews and--well, you’ve seen the replays.”
“I have,” I say. And I mean to catch some of those District Twelve interviews--much like the rest of Panem, I’d imagine. The cameras are still following Katniss, zooming in on the unlit woodpile at her feet as the commentators speculate about where Rue might be. They don’t cut to Rue, though, which surprises me. Maybe they want us to be as surprised as Katniss will be.
That usually doesn’t bode well.
A mockingjay trills out a four-note tune--Rue’s ‘closing time’ signal, the commentators explain, and replay the relevant clip. Another one picks it up, and Katniss follows their trail, grinning--
--until a scream pierces the trees, and Chaff puts down his pen and takes off the headset. “Shit.”
“Oh no,” Cecelia says softly. I find Mags’s hand and give it a squeeze; her fingers tremble in mine.
These moments in the Games never get easier. I’m not sure if I want them to.
“I’m coming!” Katniss shouts, tears through the trees and breaks into the clearing. Now they show us Rue, struggling to crawl out from under a net. It’s not one a tribute wove, the knots are too evenly spaced for that, but watching her reach through the mesh, the spear taking her in the chest--
--I don’t close my eyes. I wish I could. I can smell the salt from that river, feel my trident solid in my hand, hear Pacifica telling me I hate you. You better win after this.
I want to.
Then do it. And I do. Did. It’s hard to tell right now.
Katniss shoots the boy who threw the spear almost as soon as he lets it fly. I don’t even know--or care, at this point--if he was from 1 or 2. But her arrow skewers his throat and he rips it out like an idiot and the cameras pay him about as much mind as Katniss does. No one’s cannons have fired yet.
“Oh dear,” one of the commentators says. “I’m glad we got their Top Eight interviews already!”
Johanna and I look at each other, and the only reason neither of us smashes the television is that we have to see what happens next.
“Sing,” Rue says, her lips bright with blood.
Of all the things I never expected of Katniss Everdeen, this takes the cake. She does, she sings, and not even the commentators interrupt. Not even the birds interrupt. It’s hard to make out the words through her accent and her tears but the tune rings out clear, here is the place where I love you.
The cannons fire. I almost didn’t think they would.
“She sings like her father,” Haymitch says, and his voice creeps out of nowhere like a flood under your door. “Well, don’t that beat all.”
“Her father?” I ask.
He nods. “Old friend.”
“Right,” I say, and resolve to talk to him as soon as possible about all of this.
Haymitch claps a hand on Chaff’s shoulder, but no one else is saying a word. Onscreen, Katniss is gathering flowers, and the commentators still haven’t quite found their tongues--or if they have, they’re using them off-microphone. She carries them to Rue. I wonder if she’s going to leave them on her chest, the way some stories say about heroes sent off in funeral boats instead of burned, but she spreads them all over Rue’s body, tucks them into her hair and outlines her face with them. Once she starts to hide the wound with their blossoms, the cameras cut away and the commentators offer some stock phrases about death and beauty, but I see their smiles straining.
“She’s crazy,” Johanna says.
“Yeah, and I want to see it,” Meadow says. “Beetee, do you think you can--”
“Already on it.” He types something in to one of his devices. “Give me a minute.”
Gloss calls over, “So, Haymitch. Anything else you got up your sleeve?”
“I’m just getting started,” he says.
Beetee says, “Done.”
Katniss is onscreen again, touching her fingers to her lips to say goodbye. As she leaves, the mockingjays whistle to warn for the hovercraft’s approach, and all of Panem watches its claw lift Rue from a pool of flowers.
Seeder lets out a hard breath. She must have been holding it. “That’s not going to go over well.”
I’m sure everyone in the room has something to say to that. No one gets to: Chaff’s phone rings instead.
“Hello? Yeah,” he says, once he’s got the headset on. “I figured--yes. Wait. You’re sure?”
I swear it’s almost as quiet in here as it was when Katniss was singing.
“Well, I think I can do that,” he says, and pulls the headset back off without turning off the phone. “Haymitch. It’s for you.”
About three of us say “What?” at once, myself among them. Not that Haymitch misses a beat; he hauls himself out of the chair next to me and takes the headset from Chaff with the biggest shit-eating grin I have ever seen on any face but my own.
“Yeah? --Sure, there’s nothing in the rules against it. But you don’t want to send it to Thresh?” He waits, nods, reaches for Chaff’s notepad. “Uh-huh. Yeah, he’s got it right here. That should be enough.--Sure, she’s a smart girl, she’ll know who it’s from. Let me put that call through right now. And thank you. Thank you so much, you hear?”
I can’t remember the last time I heard Haymitch say thank you. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard him say thank you. From the looks on everyone else’s faces, they haven’t either.
Haymitch hangs up, and takes the notepad back to his own station.
“Okay,” Johanna says, “who are you and what did you do with Haymitch Abernathy?”
“You ain’t seen shit of Haymitch Abernathy,” he says, already ringing up the parachutiers, and then he completely ignores her. “All right. You reading me? I’ve got authorization from Chaff Jackson to transfer his funds allocated from the people of District Eleven to my own, and they want to give my girl something.”
I am pretty sure the parachutiers say the same what that half of us just did.
“One loaf of bread. One loaf of District Eleven bread. The kind with the molasses and the seeds. And yeah, I know they’ve got enough.--Sure, I’ll put him on.” He holds the phone to Chaff’s ear. “Chaff, tell ‘em I don’t have a knife to your throat.”
“They want this,” Chaff tells the parachutiers, “and I am happy to hand it over.”
None of us says anything. I don’t think most of us are breathing.
“You got that?” Haymitch practically crows into the receiver. “You got that, sweetheart? Good. Now get Katniss’s position and make the drop. I want to see that money move from one column to another, and I want my girl taking a bite of the bread the next time I look at the television.”
He hangs up. Someone mutes the Games. They aren’t showing Katniss now, so none of us gives a damn.
Haymitch smiles wide enough that we can see just what the Capitol did to fix his teeth twenty-four years ago. “What’re all you jokers looking at?”
“That isn’t legal,” Cashmere says slowly. “That can’t be legal.”
“It’s legal,” I say. “Mags did the same thing for me during Annie’s Games.”
“That was for a tribute from your District,” Gloss says. “Transferring to another District--”
“There’s nothing in the rules against it,” Brutus interrupts. That’s almost as startling as the fact that it’s happening in the first place. “This has never been done.”
Mags nods, confirms it.
Johanna says, “Turn the sound back on, they’re showing Wonder Girl again.”
Whoever turned it off turns it back on, and the chatter of mockingjays creeps back in through the speakers. The cameras follow Haymitch’s parachute as it falls right at Katniss’s feet, and she stoops to unwrap it and pick it up. Sure enough, that’s the bread Haymitch asked for, and the slow wash of recognition over Katniss’s face is almost terrifying.
“My thanks,” she says, her voice trembling, “to the people of District Eleven.”
“Well, isn’t she a smart one,” President Snow says from the lounge door.
About half of us snap our heads around fast enough to get whiplash.
Snow waves a hand behind him to keep the Peacekeepers in the hall--or at least to let us all know they’re there--and stalks in, looking over each of us with the cold precision of a camera. “So if there’s nothing prohibiting an action in the rules, then there isn’t a rule at all?” he asks. “Well, Haymitch, it seems you’re up to the same old tricks.”
Beetee coughs. “If there’s no precedent, there can be no rule.”
“Then I suppose we should have thought of that before we let Panem’s best and brightest set this sort of precedent,” Snow says. Johanna snorts, and I can’t blame her. “I thought we talked about this. Perhaps I should have brought in District Eleven when I kept the rest of you after.”
“They didn’t need to hear it,” Wiress says, more to her shoes than to him.
Snow ignores her. “Or perhaps I should be glad that you kept our conversation to yourself, Beetee. That’s a value I wish more of you would practice. Don’t you have pride in your own Districts? Didn’t you all win your Games on their behalf?”
“No,” Johanna says, and I could almost kiss her for it. Almost.
“Then I should take back all the gifts and concessions I gave to Seven on your behalf, Johanna.”
“Do you have a time machine?” she asks, with the sweetest smile I’ve seen her wear since before her Games started. She’s completely crazy. Mags and I exchange a look, and I can tell she agrees, but I can also see her pressing her lips together so she won’t laugh. I give her hand a squeeze.
Snow laughs. “No. But I do have everything else I’d need. Is there anyone else in here who’s rescinding his right to represent his District?”
No one speaks.
“Once again, Johanna, you have set yourself apart. I do hope this time it isn’t all talk, particularly since no one else seems willing to stand with you.”
“So?” she asks, the muscle in her jaw twitching.
“It only works once, Johanna. And only if you have the power to back it up.”
The look Johanna gives him should burn clean through him, but he barely seems to notice.
“Haymitch,” Snow goes on. “I do hope you’re not just looking to start another round of Gamemaker replacements.”
“There’s nothing in the rules against it,” Brutus says again, this time stronger.
Snow turns to him instead. “I am disappointed in you,” he says. “I thought you enjoyed the Games as they are.”
“I do,” Brutus says.
“Then don’t put up such a poor showing. And that goes for you too, Gloss, Cashmere. Your tributes’ deaths were pathetic. I can only assume they weren’t trained well enough to overcome a starving girl from District Twelve. To say nothing of how far down the chute Four’s gone these days.”
He turns to me. I hate him, I hate his mouth, I hate his smile, and I can’t do a thing about it.
“Shouldn’t you be at work?” he asks.
“I am at work,” I say, grit my teeth hard enough that my jaw shakes. “I’m a mentor.”
Snow shakes his head. “Your tributes are dead, Finnick. At the hands of that same starving girl from District Twelve, no less.”
Mags’s hand tightens around mine, and I hold hers back as tight as I can. “Well, then maybe I should take over mentoring for Haymitch.”
Snow laughs, bitter and sarcastic. “You’re right, as long as there’s nothing in that against the rules either.”
Wiress speaks up, “I don’t think...”
Beetee rests his hand on her shoulder; Snow ignores her. “Chaff,” Snow sighs dramatically. “I should have know you had a hand in this.”
Chaff laughs just once, but I swear he’s not standing as tall as he was before. “Was wondering where I left that. Can I have it back, sir?”
“At least you ask. I’ll admit, it’s reassuring when someone remembers what power I have. Thank you, Chaff. But no. It’s funny how one thoughtless act can negate years of good service.”
“Our people decided where that gift should go,” Seeder says.
Snow doesn’t ignore her. “Your District has no right to decide anything.”
“None of them do. All these decisions go through you, as mentors entrusted with the well-being of your tributes and the overall progress of the Games. But how can I expect you to follow the spirit of those laws we’ve put in place for your reprimand and your protection, when in this very room I’ve assembled almost two dozen people who think they are exceptions--no, who think they’re exceptional. Because isn’t that what we’ve been telling you, ever since you won? The best. The luckiest. The smartest. The most desired,” he adds, looking clear at me, and then, “The wiliest,” at Haymitch. “And you think you control the Games, because, once, you did.”
Haymitch doesn’t say anything. Haymitch hasn’t said anything since before Snow got here. I swear they’ve replaced him with a mutt.
Mags drops her cane onto the floor, loud enough to ring through the room like a shot. Her eyes say more to Snow than her words ever could.
“Finnick,” Snow says to me while looking at Mags, like he’s talking about a four-year-old, “are you sure her being here is good for her health?”
My free hand curls into a fist, and I need to keep a firm hold of Mags’s hand so I don’t get up and punch Snow. Again. “She has as much right to be here as any of us.”
“You all keep talking about rights,” Snow sighs. “You seem to get those confused with privileges. Mags is privileged to remain among you, after all she’s been through. After all that all of you have been through. But is it her right to be here, in this Capitol, in this exalted position? No. It’s a privilege that she earned, not a right that she had from birth. Mags should know that better than any of you. But perhaps age and infirmity have made her forget.”
I picks up Mags’s cane and give it back to her. She won’t shove it down Snow’s throat, and I’m far too tempted.
Snow doen’t seem to notice. “And my question continues to hang in the air unanswered, Finnick. Shouldn’t you be at work?”
Everyone’s staring at me. I avoid them as best I can with the lounge as full as it is, which means there aren’t many places I can look and not see them. They know, I remind myself. It doesn’t matter if they hear this. They already know. “You know my schedule better than I do.”
“The flagrancy of your disregard makes that difficult knowledge to keep.” He enunciates each word, sharp enough that I see the gold glimmer of blood around his gums. “Shouldn’t you be at work.”
I don’t say anything. I wish someone would turn the sound back on; even the commentators droning on about the next development in the Games would be easier to listen to than this. I should say no, I shouldn’t. I want to. Some of the others probably want me to. Snow is still smiling at me, smiling like he has all the time in the world.
I breathe, barely. “Not for another few hours.”
“Are you sure? It must take less prep than it used to. Is it getting any easier? I’d hope, since you’ve adapted so well over the years. I’m glad to see your continued enthusiasm. Who are you seeing tonight?”
Snow laughs. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him laugh like that. I don’t want to see it again. “I’m sure she will be honored to have you. Treat her well.”
Johanna stands up, almost kicking her chair from out under her, and marches to my side. I didn’t expect that. She grips my shoulder, and I really didn’t expect that. “Yeah, Finnick,” she says, but she’s looking at Snow. “Give that cow exactly what she deserves.”
Snow raises an eyebrow. “And what would that be, Johanna?”
“Criminal charges or a boot up the ass. Your pick.”
At least Johanna’s acting like herself. That scares me too, but it’s a kind of scared I’m used to.
“Finnick’s pick,” he corrects, still smiling. “It’s his choice, isn’t it?”
My choice? My choice? Johanna’s nails spear into my shoulder, Mags looks ready to crack her cane across Snow’s skull, and if Haymitch isn’t going to cut through this crap, I will. “Then it’s my choice not to go.”
“All right then, Finnick. If you want to dispense with your obligations to the Capitol, by all means, retire back to District Four,” Snow says with open arms and an earnest, almost benevolent smile, the kind I remember from the photographs Cinna and I have been looking through. “Take out your boat. Fish. I know your mother has an engagement ring waiting for you, so just go home and pick it up. Marry Annie Cresta with my blessing. I hope you have many children. You know, that’s something the Capitol’s never seen before, the child of two victors. I’m sure any child of yours will be just as capable and competent as you and Annie were in the Arena. Perhaps even just as desirable afterward.”
Someone turns the Games back on.
“Which reminds me.” Snow turns to Cecelia. “Taffeta should be due for reaping soon, if I recall.”
Reaping. No. No. I can’t. I can’t do that to Annie, can’t do that to our--
“Should I call Andrea Lobotae on your behalf, Finnick? Or will you be seeing her tonight?”
I can’t. “Yes.”
“Yes. I’ll be seeing her.”
“Your generosity, as always, is appreciated.”
“Thank you, sir.” My voice doesn’t feel like it’s coming out of my throat.
“Again, Finnick. You always forget.”
“Thank you, Mister President.”
Snow doesn’t leave: Chaff’s headset catches his eye, and he strides over, unplugs it from the console. Wiress protests in the corner, and Snow finally says, “Beetee, would you be so kind as to keep her quiet?”
Beetee swallows, slides his glasses up his nose, says nothing for a while. He takes Wiress’s arm and leads her to the couch furthest away from Snow.
“I had no idea the equipment in this place was so out-of-date,” Snow says, and takes the headset toward the door with him. “I’ll have to send a contractor down before the Quarter Quell. You should all feel free to tell me if something in this room isn’t to your liking. Good day.”
“Good evening,” Haymitch corrects.
Snow sneers, and stops in his tracks.
“I’m just saying,” Haymitch goes on. “It’s evening. Sun’s going down. Been a full day for all of us. Any minute now, Templesmith’s gonna play some faces across the sky.” He grins. “And it’s Wednesday.”
“I liked you so much more at the bottom of a bottle,” Snow says, private, but loud enough for all of us to hear.
“Funny, so did I,” Haymitch says.
He stands aside to let Snow pass, but Snow catches him on the shoulder, and leans up to whisper in Haymitch’s ear. I don’t think anyone else is supposed to hear it, just them and maybe me. “Have you forgotten that everything you touch turns to dust?”
“Couldn’t possibly.” Haymitch doesn’t bother to whisper. “That’d take more drink than money can buy.”
“You’d be surprised what money can buy,” Snow says as he leaves. “I think you just bought something that once upon a time, you didn’t have to pay for.”
I think, somewhere, the commentators have a lot to say, but I can’t make out a single one of those words. Snow leaves, and the Peacekeepers leave with him, and no matter how much noise there is filling this room, not a single word is coming out of any of our throats.
And then Johanna shrieks, and throws a remote control clear through one of the television screens. It shatters, and smokes, and stinks like hell, and no one makes a move to clean it up.