Cato is still dying when I make it to the Victor’s Lounge, an hour or so before dawn. Aurelia let me go early, which is one of the few good things I can say about the rest of that night.
Nobody notices when I elbow my way into the Lounge, and I have to weave through a few victors who don’t usually come down here. Some people are on the couches, but most of them crowd in front of the screen. “Stay in the back, Finnick, you’re tall enough to see over everyone’s heads anyway,” Johanna says. She elbows me to the side, or tries, but I stand firm.
The cameras zoom in on Cato, and I wish I hadn’t.
I wouldn’t have known he was Cato, to look at him. I wouldn’t have known he was anyone. Or anything. The mutts have peeled away his armor and most of the skin it was supposed to protect. Both of his legs are whittled down--they must not have had as much armor in the first place--and his head lolls into his chest twitching and staring emptily at what’s left of him. How he’s still conscious at all disturbs me almost as much as how he’s still alive at all. The mutts make a game of it, circling him, slinking forward and crawling back, and when his eyes unfocus even more they rip another chunk of flesh away. Blood dribbles out of his mouth, but no sound.
Cecelia turns away and sits slowly, one hand to the side of her face and one over her mouth. I glance down at Johanna; her mouth is in a terse sneer. “Whoever bought him that armor’s probably shitting himself about now. Just like them, set up a feast, turn the gift around.”
“She should have finished him off,” Gloss says, his lips thin. “It would have been cleaner.”
“She’s not going down there with the mutts still fucking around,” Haymitch says. “My girl wasn’t born yesterday.”
“And this is all for us,” Chaff adds under his breath. “It ain’t for Katniss.”
The camera isn’t listening to Chaff either; it doesn’t leave Cato and the mutts, and the commentary never shifts. I don’t know what’s worse, listening to how excited the commentators are after every bite and every tear, or turning the sound off and just watching him die, or turning the television off altogether and missing it.
I can’t tell how long it is before Johanna says, “Are they going to make us watch this all night? I’m going to bed. Call me when he bites it.” She yawns, but her jaw’s too tight for it to look real.
“We could all use the rest,” Cecelia says, and follows her out. Enough of the others trickle after her, alone or in pairs, making us promise to wake them up if something changes.
I could almost laugh. I don’t.
Even Haymitch gets up and goes. He claps a hand on my shoulder on the way out. “They do something more than sit on the Cornucopia and neck, you give me a call.”
Chaff laughs. “Getting sick of that too?”
“You bet your ass. Hell, I bet it’s worse when you’ve got to follow one of ‘em home. I knew both their folks, growing up. Can’t wait to see the looks they’ll give me for letting their kids hit the pay-to-view.” He’s grinning, but it’s just as jagged as Johanna’s and as tired as mine. “Come by later, if you get bored,” he adds to Chaff.
“Might,” Chaff says. “Get some sleep. You’ve earned it.”
Haymitch nods. He doesn’t look like this is the first time he’s ever been guaranteed a win. That’s probably because he hasn’t.
Once Haymitch has left, I ask Chaff, “How much longer do you think it’ll take?” Sooner or later he’ll go into shock, and if he’s lost this much blood, he’s probably not coming out of it.
Chaff shakes his head, sighs low and rattling. “Long as it takes for his heart to stop. We’ve had them slip away before, this close to the end. They’ll make her do it or they’ll make us wait.”
“Will that be exciting enough?” I ask, toneless.
“It will be if Peeta’s dying too.”
The cameras are generous enough to show Katniss and Peeta in the upper-right hand corner, jackets around each others’ shoulders and huddled close against the cold. The color slips more and more from Peeta’s cheeks but he points at the moon, marks the passage of time to Katniss in whispers that sound dangerously like death rattles. She nods, shivering, her head listing onto her chest.
“Even if he makes it out, he’s losing that leg,” Chaff says.
“Like your hand,” I say, and pause. I can’t keep looking at the screen. Not now. “How did you lose it?”
“Crushed by a mutt,” he says. “I managed to kill the thing, and once it stopped bleeding it left me with a hell of a set of brass knuckles. I stabbed a kid’s eyes out and I swear I felt it just as bad. And I wanted to win, so I raced the clock.”
“But you didn’t want your hand back,” I say. Cato whimpers, high and trembling. The sound seems too young for him--but I never asked Brutus how old he was, did I? And it’s impossible to tell now.
Chaff shakes his head, and tips back his chair. His eyes haven’t left the screen yet, and they shine with hazy reflections. “I didn’t. And I didn’t want them to give me a new one. I bought my life with that hand. Anything more than that, I’d owe the Capitol.”
I nod, and my head doesn’t quite come back up.
“That’s the thing, when our people win,” he says, “the ones who ain’t Careers, the dark horses, the ones that sneak up on you. We don’t win because we trained, and we don’t win because they want us to on the outside. We win because we try, and because we get lucky once we’re in there. You, Brutus and all them--you went in with some idea of what you were. Beetee, Johanna, hell, even Haymitch himself--you all went in there and you at least had a strategy, something you could do even when the camera wasn’t on you. But the rest of us go in with one thing to do, and that’s survive, and we don’t make it out without leaving something behind.”
I close my eyes, and of course I see Annie: one of her bad nights, when she’s curled in on herself, her hands clamped over her ears, and no matter how much I coax and stroke her hair and kiss her she won’t look at me.
“I wonder what she’ll lose,” I say, but I think I know the answer.
“Up to her,” Chaff says, and leaves it at that.
The moon above the arena shines; I watch it for any shift in its light, but I think it’s only wavering because my eyes keep sliding shut. I can’t remember the last time I slept for longer than an hour or so, I realize. I should do something about that. “Wake me up in the morning,” I say, stretch across Haymitch’s couch and tune out the howls of the mutts enough that I can drift into sleep.
Either Chaff doesn’t turn the sound off, or the Arena’s somehow moved into my head, or all the way to District Four. Those mutts stalk along the beach by the Victor’s Wharf, toe at the sand, leave pawprints that the tide doesn’t erode. They don’t hurt me when I come to them, just pounce on my legs and yap like regular dogs. A couple of them hang off my arms. One paws at my back. I laugh. One hangs shyly off to the side, looks up at me with big, green Odair eyes.
I count them.
Thirteen. Maeve, Jamie, Katie, Lucy--Helen and Roarke, bigger than the rest, hanging back--Timothy and Patrick, just starting to look more like brothers and less like twins--Lindsay, Laura, Aidan, and Connor, Connor’s eyes still bug out like a squid’s--
Something bites my shoulder and I wrench it loose, spring from the couch and drive my shoulder into--Haymitch’s midsection, as it turns out.
And he lets out one of the most ridiculous belches I’ve ever heard. He wrings out his hand--I guess nothing actually bit me, just his grip. And then he says, clear as the day, “Fuck you. Ow. Get off my couch.”
“I’m off,” I say, and suit the action to the word. “What’s happening?”
“It’s going to be a big, big, big day!” he chirps, with a better Capitol accent than I thought he could imitate. “Nothing yet. Just morning.”
I don’t know whether to be relieved or not. I don’t know whether it’s relevant, because I’m not going back to sleep now, no matter what time it is or what’s happening. I stretch my arms over my head, inch closer to the screen. Streaks of dawn creep over the sky and wash the Cornucopia in pale yellow and pink. Peeta nudges Katniss awake, and releases her from his jacket.
“It can’t be morning already,” Johanna complains from the door. She bats at the tangled frizz around her head and over her eyes, but gives up soon after. I’ll bet I don’t look much better.
“Morning comes earlier than this in Eleven,” Chaff says, though the skin under his eyes is even darker than usual.
“Yeah, and it lasts six whole months back home.” She scowls. “How are the lovebirds?”
“Shaking off their little wings and snapping for worms,” Haymitch says, his eyes never leaving the screen. “I think--yeah, she’s going for her last arrow.”
The clouds in Johanna’s eyes clear. “Shit. Everyone’s going to be pissed that they slept through this.”
“They won’t for long,” Haymitch says, “that cannon’s going to go off loud as a rocket. They’ll pipe it through all the speakers, just you watch. Nice little alarm clock for us.”
Katniss crawls to the lip of the Cornucopia, Peeta holding her steady. Her hands tremble, but when Cato looks up at her and croaks through his tattered throat, her aim’s true enough. The arrow takes him straight through his skull, and sure enough, his cannon fires from all the speakers in the Training Center.
That brings the rest of the mentors running.
By the time everyone else gets here, I can’t tell who’s commenting onscreen or off, let alone whether they’ve announced a winner. Or two winners. Katniss and Peeta make their way off the Cornucopia now that the mutts are gone, and start clearing a path so the helicopter can take what’s left of Cato away.
“Guess this is where I start the betting,” Chaff jokes. “How many kids is Haymitch taking home? Two, one, or none?”
“If you’re just starting the pool now, you’re an idiot,” Gloss says.
“He has to take home someone, and the boy’s already half-dead,” Enobaria says. “A fool’s bet.”
“They might still let them both live.” Meadow shrugs. “Or at least long enough to leave the Arena. Peeta’s leg’s going to catch up with him.”
“If they managed to put Haymitch back together, they can fix his leg,” Seeder says, but worries at the corner of her lip.
“I don’t want to wait around for him to bleed to death.” Johanna crosses her arms. “Come on, make the fucking announcement.”
Cashmere shoots Johanna a glare that could curdle coffee even without milk.
I don’t. I know what she means. “They’re going to drag this out,” I say. “They want everyone in the Capitol, everyone in the Districts, awake to see this.”
I sit down on the couch again. Haymitch shoves me off. I don’t think anyone’s congratulated him yet, but I’m not sure I want to be the first.
Claudius Templesmith’s voice crackles over the television, and we all fall silent. All of Panem must fall silent. “Greetings to the final contestants of the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games. The earlier revision has been revoked. Closer examination of the rule book has disclosed that only one winner may be allowed. Good luck and may the odds be ever in your favor.”
Katniss and Peeta stare at each other, and every shred of hope falls away from their faces like sweat.
“Well, we knew it,” Johanna says. It’s strangely toothless for her, like the venom’s been drained out. “Congratulations to us, I guess.”
“The sponsors aren’t going to like this,” I say.
“Fuck the sponsors,” Cashmere snipes. “Oh, wait.”
I’m not in the mood for this. “Glass houses, Cashmere.”
“Let he who is without sin,” she says, and rolls her eyes toward Brutus. “How does that rule book look now?”
“It’s not in the rule book,” Brutus says evenly.
Cashmere’s lips draw tight. “Funny, weren’t you saying there was nothing in the rules against it?”
“I was. And there’s nothing in the rules for it either. It doesn’t say there can be only one--just that there has to be a victor. Or will be a victor. But it never says, just one victor.”
“Semantics,” Gloss snaps, his hand on his sister’s shoulder. “Tell me, Brutus, have you ever had an original thought in your life?”
Enobaria smiles, the points of her teeth glinting dangerously. “Have you ever had a thought your sister hasn’t had first?” she asks, moving to stand behind Brutus.
“Wow, you’d think you losers hadn’t got enough action in the Arena,” Johanna drawls with a simpering smile. “Oh wait.”
“Big talk, Johanna.” Enobaria’s smirk widens. “Hasn’t that big mouth gotten you into trouble before?”
Johanna flings herself at Enobaria, her hands tented into claws, and I barely have the space to grab her and hold her back. About the only thing that saves us both is that she’s half my size.
“Let go of me, Finnick, if that bitch wants a fight I’ll give her a fight--”
“She doesn’t,” Brutus says, with Enobaria in a half-nelson. “Not here. This isn’t the place.”
Meadow throws up her hands “It’s never the place, Brutus. You’ll never get to fight again. That’s your problem, isn’t it.”
“I didn’t start this!”
“Yeah, so let her finish it.”
“What was that, Meadow?” Cecelia snaps. “The last thing we need is a bunch of Peacekeepers charging in to break us up.”
Meadow spits. “I think that’s exactly what we need if these assholes can’t behave themselves.”
“Oh hell no,” Chaff shouts, shoving himself out of his chair and straight into Meadow’s path.
Seeder puts out an arm to hold him back. “We take care of our own,” she says, probably as much to him as to Meadow.
“Yeah. And I’ll take care of her if she threatens to drop that on us.” He stays where he is, but that doesn’t spare Meadow anything. “You have no idea what you just said.”
“Maybe I do,” she retorts, her eyes sparking.
“Bet you do, all cozy and fed in Ten. Bet them Peacekeepers’ll put a bullet through any cow you choose if you just get on your knees first.”
“Chaff, shut up,” I say. I keep holding Johanna back, though I’m not as sure why now. She looks up at me as if to say if we both go after him, we’d take him easy.
He scowls at me, tense all through his shoulders, elbows stretched like he’s still got two fists to fight with. “You don’t hold the Peacekeepers over anyone’s head in any room I’m in.”
“He’s right,” Seeder says. “But everyone needs to calm down. Now.”
“You have no idea why someone might get on their knees, so shut up,” I shout over Seeder’s protests--Johanna squirms harder than ever, but I’m holding her back as much for me as for her now. “You don’t know--”
“Kid, I’ve been alive since before your daddy got on his knees--”
“Come on, Finnick let her go, I’ll give her exactly what she deserves--”
“I’ll punch your teeth out, you fat little shit--”
“You know, I feel sorry for whatever kid makes it out of there if this is what they have to look forward to--”
“So what, you’d rather be dead? You saying you want a little help with that?”
“Try it, just try it--”
“Everyone shut the hell up and look at the screen!”
If that last one hadn’t been Beetee, I’m not sure any of us would have listened. I’ve never head Beetee shout. But there he is, red in the face, and there’s Wiress right next to him, and she’s probably been pointing at the screens for the past minute and a half.
Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark count to three, and shove a handful each of poisonous berries into their mouths.
I have no chance to figure out what I just saw, because the blast of the trumpets nearly knocks me off my feet. “Stop! Stop!” Claudius Templesmith shouts, and I’ve never heard him sound this ragged before, this desperate. “Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to present the victors of the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark! I give you--the tributes of District Twelve!”
“Well, shit,” Haymitch laughs quietly from the couch. “Someone owes me a drink.”
After the Games, people like to throw around the word “unprecedented.” It suggests there’s something new about all this, and novelty never goes out of fashion in the Capitol. This time, though, “unprecedented” is more than just a buzzword. Brutus isn’t the only one throwing the rulebook around.
“It’s an outrage,” Corbula says, and I only know that’s what she says because she’s said it five times already and for the first few her mouth wasn’t full. “An absolute outrage--they had already rescinded the rule change, never mind I haven’t heard anything about refunds, and then they just go and let it stand anyway?”
“But you couldn’t have asked for a better ending,” Hosidius says, and pauses his argument to shout “Bishop to D6!”
The Avox grips his bishop’s staff and edges forward three squares diagonally; it looks like he’s trying to cower behind it, but from the hollering and clapping in the gallery, he hasn’t managed to hide anything. I look away, pick at the square of marzipan someone set before me. Some things in the Capitol never change.
Corbula scoffs. “Of course I could have. One with a real show. That’s what I hate about all these non-endings, no show, no fight. They needed the mutts to make that girl kill Cato? She couldn’t show a little initiative? Or was she just too busy telling an insipid love story for the cameras? Pawn to E5,” she adds, and then takes a long gulp of wine. “I am telling you, Hosi, this pay-to-view sex and these lover’s trials are the worst thing that ever happened to the Games.”
Then maybe you shouldn’t have hired me, I think, and take a sip of my drink so I don’t say it.
“Hosi’s right,” Lucilla says, her chin in the air. “I never thought the Games could be so beautiful. I was at my hairdressers when Katniss offered those berries to Peeta, and we both clutched each other so desperately -- I thought I was going to faint!”
“Fine,” Ludmilla groans, “It was exciting. It was still stupid.”
“Bishop takes pawn,” Hosidius calls over, and everyone around the table raises a glass to toast. “Hm, what should the penalty be?”
“With an Avox like that?” Ludmilla snickers. “Send him outside and see if he can cross the boulevard without getting hit.”
“But then we’d have to get up,” Hosidus says. “Hm. A better idea. You, over here--and that little pawn too, there’s a good girl. Trade clothes. Now.”
She must be half his size. I drink, but can’t block out his tongueless grunts as he struggles to fit into her shift, or the tearing of cloth and the laughter from the crowd. My knuckles whiten around the stem of my glass. Fine. If they don’t see what Katniss and Peeta have done, all the better for us in the Districts.
“Your move, Corbula,” Hosidius says when it’s all done.
“Knight to B2, check,” Corbula says. While the Avoxes move around to comply, Corbula turns to Lucilla and raises her eyebrows. “You really enjoy that drivel, don’t you?”
“It isn’t drivel.” Lucilla sniffs. “Just because you’re incapable of appreciating anything other than brutality -- Finnick, darling, tell her how wonderful it was when Claudius declared them both winners!”
“It was,” I agree, and Lucilla beams. “I don’t think anyone in Panem could look away.”
“From watching the train wreck of this year’s Games, you mean,” Corbula sneers. “Or maybe the Games entirely. Crane’s gone, that’s for sure.”
I wouldn’t be surprised, but not for the reasons Corbula thinks. I should ask Haymitch what’s happened to him, though I can’t say I’ll be sorry either way.
Hosidius shakes his head “They were the most profitable Games in years. The most profitable since yours, Finnick, if I’m not mistaken. King to B3.”
“Queen to F3, check,” Corbula says.
“King takes Knight. Another penalty,” Hosidus says. “Give me a minute.”
“Were my Games really that profitable?” I ask.
“Certainly,” Lucilla says. “And they’re generating more revenue every year! Yours are some of the most frequently aired, you know.”
I need to stop drinking when I don’t want to answer people if I’m going to stagger out of here sober. I grind my teeth instead, hope the twitch in my jaw doesn’t show. “I’m surprised they haven’t gotten tired of me yet.”
“Oh, we could never,” Hosidius says. “Penalty! Sir Knight, do the Lady Corbula some credit with a demonstration of your fighting skills. Feel free to choose your opponent from any of my captured pieces.” He turns to Corbula with a sly smile. “Since you didn’t get enough action in the Games.”
“Oh, ha,” she says, but sits back to watch.
Five days until I get to go home. Five days until Peeta can walk and Katniss can stand and they can reunite blissfully on camera and I can go home. Four more nights of clients. I’ve gotten through worse, and even if the Capitol’s behaving exactly like the Capitol, I know District 4’s in for a turning of the tide.
The Avoxes trade blows--half-heartedly at first, but Hosidius shouts at them that this is going at least until first blood, and they pick up the pace. I take a long drink and close my eyes so I don’t have to watch.
“Really,” Lucilla says. “As if we hadn’t had enough of this already.”
Ludmilla snatches a grape from Lucilla’s plate, and says, “Then give me your seat, I want a better view.”
Lucilla shifts over, even nestles against my side and puts her head on my shoulder. “At least you agree with me that the entire thing was romantic.”
“Well, romance isn’t my specialty,” I say, and the group bursts into laughter. If only they were the Avoxes. “But it was moving, I’ll admit. I’ve never thought of the Games as a love story before now.”
“That’s because it’s not supposed to be a love story,” Corbula says, just as one Avox knocks the other to the chessboard. “It’s supposed to punish the Districts and entertain the rest of us.”
“I’d assume people were entertained, if the Games made money.”
“The Games made money because of that scam operation with the rule change,” Ludmilla says.
“Now, now, it wasn’t entirely a scam.” Hosidius chuckles. “The rule change did go through--though I don’t think anyone anticipated that turn of events.”
He’s more right than he knows. It took all of us in the Victor’s Lounge long enough to process what just happened, partially because we all started shouting again after Claudius Templesmith’s announcement. Well, except Haymitch, who was laughing his head off, and Beetee and Wiress left the room, and Mags wasn’t shouting, exactly, just holding her head in her hand and sighing something about all of us ungrateful young people. But it was pretty awful.
“I certainly didn’t,” Lucilla says. “It was even better than I’d anticipated! I mean, it would have been an awful anticlimax if they’d just let the two of them walk away after Cato died.”
“They know how to ratchet up the excitement,” Ludmilla admits, though from her expression you’d think she just swallowed a lemon whole. “But if the Quarter Quell is all flaming capes and star-crossed lovers, I doubt I’ll be contributing.”
“Oh, they’ll pull out the stops for that,” Corbula says. “They have to. The Quells, more than anything, are meant to remind the Districts just what they did to us. And anything is better than another tawdry love story. Oh, Hosi--can we tell them to stop fighting over there? I think that Avox is already dead. And I know my next move.”
So do I.
“Certainly,” Hosidius says, and waves a hand to call the duel off, even if it’s not so much a duel anymore. “Just wait a moment, they’ll have to clean the floor.”
“The victors from the Quells aren’t much to look at, though,” Lucilla says, nestled against my shoulder. I don’t shove her off, but I don’t snuggle back much. Two other Avoxes bear the dead one away; his head lolls at an impossible angle, twisted around too far.
“We might need to look at Haymitch again,” I say, and tear my eyes away from the corpse before I start wondering who he was. “He did just bring two tributes home. No mentor’s done that before.”
“Because of that stupid scam,” Ludmilla insists.
“Oh, but you haven’t done so badly yourself, Finnick! I’m ashamed to say it now, but I never
thought much of your chances in the Seventieth Games, and you brought the girl home, didn’t you?” Lucilla gives me what she must think is a winning smile, but I only see the unnatural evenness of her teeth. “That was almost as unlikely of a win as this was.”
“No, this one was worse. Is the floor clean yet?” Corbula cranes her neck to see. “Good. Bishop takes Queen. And someone get some of those nightlock berries for the penalty. Because apparently Hosi hasn’t seen enough of that.”
“Excuse me,” I say, my smile more a flash of teeth than anything else. I grab a vial of purgative so they won’t see how much my hands are shaking. “The food’s too good, Hosidius. I need to make room for more of it.”
“Of course,” he says, and waves me off.
I march through the hall, past the bathroom, and out the door into the afternoon sun. I don’t look back.