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That Certain Look a Victor Has (The Burning Bird Remix)

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“Hey, little birdy,” Iulia calls to her charge, mustering her sunniest smile. It’s not as good as one of Effie Trinket’s, but then, Effie is a remarkable woman. And with everything she’s had to deal with– working with Twelve year after year, poor woman! Iulia’s prep team has been rotated out to Twelve before, and it’s always a bit sobering, more than a little disappointing, not that Eleven was much nicer. Rue was a welcome change, the first time at least, bright-eyed and curious and brave. Iulia always thought, privately, that she was at least as fiery as that Everdeen girl; she spent hours telling everyone how she knew it, just knew it, after they teamed up in the Arena.

Of course, that was before. Iulia sighs, shakes her head. Rue has yet to take any notice of her, still staring out the train window with her forehead pressed against the glass, curled in on herself as if she still has to hide. Poor child. “You’re safe here, little birdy,” Iulia tells her gently, on a whim, settling herself on the seat beside her. “The danger’s over now, all right? You won.” Rue’s shoulder twitches, and she somehow curls herself even a little tighter, inching away. “You won, honeybird. You can be happy now! You’re going to have everything you could ever want for the rest of your life, plenty of food and pretty clothes and lots of toys and books, and other than the Tribute training you’ll never have to work for so much as a day if you don’t want to! You’re lucky, you know. I have to work.” Rue twitches again, glances back over her shoulder for the barest split-heartbeat – Iulia only just catches a glimpse of her eyes before she’s sliding down the car, barely uncurling. Iulia sighs, catches herself, stretches out a hand and twitches her fingers at Rue’s back. “Come on, silent little birdy,” she coaxes, “come on, it’s okay now, you’re safe, you can be happy, you can smile, you can talk, it’s all right, it’s all over, it’s all gone. The muttations are gone, the – the tracker jackers are gone, the fires are gone, the woods are gone, the other tributes are gone, they’re all gone. You’re safe now. Just smile for me, okay, huh?”

Rue shudders, shudders again and slowly unfolds herself to stand, and Iulia catches her breath – maybe she did it? Did she do it? Is Rue finally going to – to wake up, talk a little bit, realize what she’s saying is true?

Then Rue turns to her, and Iulia shrinks back against the seat. The look on her little bird’s face scorches into every inch of Iulia’s tinted skin, and she feels like she’s going to be sick, like every little scrap of breakfast and snacks and tea she’s eaten today is surging out of her stomach like the tidal wave the Gamemakers sent through the sixty-eighth arena. Rue, tiny on her tip-toes and quivering, fists clenched and teeth bare and eyes worse than any of those last monster dogs at the Cornucopia, Rue looks – well, like she could kill a person. Like she could kill Iulia, like she would. Like she wants to.

There are knives on the table. Rue could grab one in seconds. Iulia doesn’t know how she would lift a finger to stop her, doesn’t even know how she could possibly stand up and run.

Instead Rue pivots on one heel, stalks out, perfectly steady and perfectly slow, slower than she ever was when she scampered through the Arena’s whip-thin treetop branches.

Iulia sits, and shakes, and shakes, and shakes, staring at the train car’s carpet – blue and gold, inches thick, she’s always found it comforting before – until the edge of a shadow overlaps one of the little brilliant roses. Seeder. Iulia doesn’t realize till she looks up that she’s sitting a lot like Rue, her arms curled around her knees just the same way.

Seeder stares at her for a long, long moment, lips thin as the edge of a knife. Iulia doesn’t dodge the slap, and her head crashes into the window; she half expects the glass to crack, but of course it doesn’t, that’s reinforced, if it’s even glass at all. And – oh. That hurts, doesn’t it, rather a lot, the sting sinking into her think, spreading across far more of her face than Seeder’s hand could possibly have hit. Maybe it will bruise. Iulia hasn’t ever had a bruise before.

“If you ever,” Seeder proclaims, velvet-soft and utterly unquestionable, “try to make that child react in any way other than how she’s already reacting, any way at all, I will make the grisliest tribute death you’ve ever seen in all your years of watching look like a mercy. Do remember you are talking to a victor.”

But I only meant for the best! But she could be happy now! But why shouldn’t I try to make her smile?

Do you actually think I’d try again after she looked at me like that?

Iulia doesn’t say any of it; she simply nods, slowly once and then again and again and again. Seeder sighs, walks away like one of the bent old woman Iulia sometimes sees on tours like this.

----

Haymitch settles his hand on Rue’s shoulder, letting his fingers brush through the tangles of her hair. “Hope you’re ready for this, firebird,” he tells her, skin prickling with the glare of the camera lens behind him, the three before. Rue shrugs, not quite enough to dislodge her hand, and tilts her head at the great glass window, at the brilliant lights – ember-orange, molten gold, sickly green and stranger shades – spreading out below. Some folks mutter that her mind, basically everything but her body itself, died in the games. It’s possible that it’s a muttering that helps the – a muttering that helps. It’s possibly a rumor that started deep underground, below the ashes.

Rue gnaws her lip, pinches the thin gold gauze of her skirt between her fingers, and her eyes the size of the whole damn planet flicker back and forth across the shape of the Capitol, and Haymitch bites the inside of his cheek until blood bursts across his mouth, steps up to settle his hand on her shoulder. She tilts her head back and regards him, eyes wide in a way that makes him long for a drink and determined not to touch one both at once. Her hands flicker, half-hidden in the folds of her skirt, a trick he didn’t teach her: I can’t just play along with this. I can’t. The last two words are in the tiny shrug of her shoulder, not the Avox’s hand-language, and Haymitch closes his eyes and crouches down, spreads out his arms and does his best to slide a point across with just his eyebrows. She quirks her own and curls against his shoulder, tiny as a hidden gun.

“It’s not playing their game,” he whispers in her ear, blessing the curls of her unbound hair for hiding his lips from the cameras. “It’s baiting a trap. Draw ‘em in, sweetheart. Think about what you look like up there. Tiny fragile silent victor, that’s what you call an image. We catch their imagination, draw ‘em in, everybody loves you and everybody listens to you.”

She draws back a little, looks at him down the full length of her nose and drags her hands between them. I don’t talk. He wonders if no one told her the hand-speak for idiot, or if she’s just too polite to say it.

“Since when do you have to talk to get a point across?” he whispers, gesturing, his hand spread out. “Did Katniss have to call herself the girl on fire?”

Rue tilts her head, and Haymitch holds back a wince at the way she doesn’t wince, the exact same way she doesn’t wince when President Snow smiles at her and when the music booms like cannonshots. He can watch her add, divide and multiply the various strands of Capitol power, and then she waves her fingers at his nose and asks: Do I have a name like that?

“Not my department,” he murmurs. “Pick your own when you get out there, if it’s easier. Good to know exactly what you’re trying to put out there.”

But I don’t, she signs back, scowling, thanks be to all the gods and little fishes because she’s gonna need some fire in her to survive this any better than she did the games. (She might not survive this any better than she did the games. She did pick the revolution, and that might count for something, please be to any God the Capitol couldn’t take over.) I don’t know what will work.

“Innocent victim?” he offers, leaning in close enough that he can hear his beard scraping her earlobe. She doesn’t pull back, and he doesn’t have space to sign and this, this cannot be heard. “Living martyr? Child ruined beyond all repair? Take your pick, sweetheart. You got plenty to work with.”

But then I have to help them. The –  And she pauses, hands clenching and unclenching on the air as she searches for the word. The others?

He shrugs, spreading his hands out in front of him. “I don’t have much advice for that one. Don’t show up roaring drunk. They don’t like that much.”

She snorts, rolling her eyes before the worry drops back over her. I don’t want to be fragile for them.

“Well.” He sighs, rubbing his chin, and twists so his hand is hidden from the cameras. Your call. Martyr could have a tough side, I guess. Guardian angel, maybe. Think on the train.

The elevator chimes. She tilts her head, bites her lip and nods at him, first slowly and then quicker. He smiles, the elevator chimes again a little more insistently, and she sighs and scampers to it, eyes focused on something out of sight and distant.

The doors whisper shut behind her, and Haymith leans against the wall and sighs.

-----

“She’s quite something,” Cinna murmurs, old-fashioned (quaint) pad of paper in his lap rustling as he leans in, hitting replay on the video before him. The lights of District Thirteen hum behind him in the quiet, and then the screen flickers up: Rue standing on Eleven’s reaping stage, capitol gold and rose-pink tumbling from her shoulders, Chaff and Seeder standing with their arms folded beside her.

A short-framed girl with close-shaved hair and sturdy shoulders sways and shudders up the steps until she’s standing on the stage. “Gaia Miller,” she announces herself, wrapping her arms across her ribcage like it’s colder than the grave up there. Rue steps forward, pries her hands gently from her arms and draws her close to center stage, fingers clasped. No one speaks, even the green-haired man with golden eyes standing by the reaping ball makes no move to disturb them.

Rue leans in, kisses Gaia’s forehead, soft and light, pulls back and drops Gaia’s outside hand to turn them crowdward. Simply, plainly, she drags her hand and Gaia’s, clinging to hers, towards the sky.

The video shows nothing of it, but the watchers kiss their fingertips and raise them towards their tribute.

“Yes, she’s definitely something,” Cinna murmurs, as the boy is called, as Rue repeats her actions with a solemnity that screams of ritual. Again there’s silence, again the camera hides the dance of lips and fingertips. Cinna stabs a button and the screen goes dark. He leans back, closes his eyes.

He knows every frame and heartbeat, all the studying he’s done in the months since the Reaping.

It’s near a year after that Reaping when he gets to really meet her, no one listening and no one watching but those in the room with them, pale in the harsh light of District Thirteen.

“I don’t know the hand-speak,” he tells her, settling cross-legged on the ground. She pulls herself from the rough wall with suspicion fading from her – fading, nowhere close to gone – and folds herself across from him with her fingers laced together. “I’m sorry. But I’ll do my best to understand whatever you try to tell me, and as soon as Haymitch’s arm heals up enough to leave the infirmary, he can come down and translate for us. For now we’ll stumble along together, and I promise you can kick me in the shins until I get it right.” He smiles, hoping for an answer, but she just nods and settles her hands in her lap, inspecting him from the feet on up. He sits and lets her.

She digs a hand under the thick belt of her dress, pulls out a creased-up piece of paper and stretches out to him. The edge trembles, though he can’t see it in her fingers. He raises his eyebrows, takes the paper and unfolds it, fold after fold after fold.

Can you combine a mockingjay costume with something like what you did for Katniss?

It wasn’t what he had in mind at all.

He reads it thrice, turning the idea over, and looks up. She’s watching him, as creased-up as the paper with anxious anticipation.

He smiles. “I can do that. The burning bird. The mockingjay on fire.”

-----

Months later, all of Panem watches a tiny dark-skinned girl plant her feet on a ridge and stare the camera down, a golden pin outlined in fire shining brilliant on her shoulder.

The miners and the farmers shake the sky down with their cheers.