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To The Slaughter

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"I have a favor to ask of you, Percival," President Snow says, as Percival kneels at the man's feet to pin the hem of his pants, ruler in hand. Just another quarter-inch off the hem, and they'll sit perfectly. 

"Oh?" He asks, and does not look up, takes a pin from the cushion looped around his wrist to place it through the fabric. At this angle, he's all too aware of the translucency of the fabric of his shirt."What would that be, Mister President?"

"One of the Games Stylists has fallen very ill - and right at the last minute."

"That's a shame," he comments non-committedly. Unfortunately, he thinks he already knows what the President’s going to ask. The extent to which he can try and wheedle his way out of it… is difficult to know. One sentence and he feels like the one getting pinned, like a moth on a cloth board.

"It is. It could not have happened at a worse time - every other stylist I could invite is already up to their ears finishing their pre-Games commissions this close to the Reaping."

Well, there goes his sole escape route. "It's a shame I'm not really a stylist, Mister President," he replies, ever so evenly.

"I know that you prefer to call yourself a tailor. Perhaps, Percival, this might be a time to spread your wings a little. Try something new. I know you and Caesar have long been finished with his wardrobe this year, and none of your other clients will be expecting different outfits every night made fresh in the next fortnight." No, but he has no interest in dressing some sniveling district kid. He doesn't even do socialites – he’s not interested in their flightiness, their need to chase any passing fad. Percival is in the business of building authoritative images. The President requested his service personally - almost everyone else he designs for receives an engraved invitation. People often want his work; they very rarely get it. Hell, he doesn't even advertise.

He does not sigh outwardly. The President is a loyal customer and also the President, it wouldn't do to upset him. "And which district do you intend me to lend my talents to?" Anything but Twelve, he thinks dismally, and does not prick the President's ankle with a pin.

"The designs have been locked in for months, so it shouldn't take much work."

"Forgive me if I refuse to waste my time with other people's designs." Snow does chuckle then; he is not comforted by it. "Which district, Mister President?"

"Ten. You'll take the boy, of course." District Ten with the ten gallon hats. Great. He makes sure to keep his head down so it doesn't show on his face. "I look forward to you doing something new with them, Percival. The old cowboy shtick has become rather tired, these days." 

"It's an honor," he replies, because what else is there to say?

"You'll get paid at your usual rush fee, all your materials will be covered, and then after the Games start you can go back to what you do best. I think it'll be good for you - a change of scenery. I've set up a meeting for you with Ten’s junior stylist in her studio once we're done here; I'm sure she'll be very grateful for your input."

Who even styles District Ten? Percival never cared to know before. He watches the Games just like everyone else, but he's never bet money or sponsored - no kid from the Districts is worth that much of his time. “Then I look forward to meeting my collaborator,” he replies, and pastes on a smile as he gets to his feet, looks the President in the eye. “Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?”

"Not at all. Thank you, Percival. Happy Hunger Games." He grins at him, all teeth. And may the odds be ever in my damn favour, Percival thinks, but only smiles back, tightlipped, and inclines his head.

Once the President's second fitting is completed, he is pretty much placed into a car outside the President's mansion and sent, presumably so he definitely reaches his destination and doesn't slip off into the Garment quarter and conveniently 'forget'. It's a wonder there's not a peacekeeper in the front seat. The Avox drives, and he sits in the back and regrets this heavily. But it's done. He should phone Seraphina and take her to dinner. For now, he opens his SketchPad and begins to write a list of things that District Ten might offer which isn't two people dressed as if they've fallen out of what the Capitol thinks happens on one of their cattle ranches.

Not that Percival has any intention of ever finding out what actually happens on a cattle ranch. The amount of dirt alone...

District Ten are chattel; they've not had a victor since Tina Goldstein barely survived a sandstorm which was probably, from what he heard from a loose-lipped client (you hear things you probably shouldn't in his line of work, but he's always been discreet), an accident on the Gamemakers' parts. Something of an embarrassment - they had a new Head Gamemaker the next year. That was - ten years ago, now, maybe. Anyway. District Ten. Cowboys, cows, sheep, chickens, farm animals of all varieties like the ones they see in books as children - it's not as bad as coal mining but there's nothing decent there for inspiration that he can think of. What is he going to do, send them tarred and feathered down the parade route? It occurs to him that someone has actually tried that one already. It went about as well as anyone would expect - two shivering, half-starved tributes trying to smile through the honor of having glittery feathers strategically stuck onto their skin. It’s not going to win anyone any support.

Fuck, he actually has to help with that now, doesn’t he.

They drive downtown to the garment quarter, past the Meadow market and the massive pair of statues which overhang its entrance: a shepherd and a milkmaid in an old Classical style, made out of alabaster and solid gold in places. He's seen them so many damn times, and laughed at the idea of them being in the Capitol, this archetype of bucolic simplicity in their midst.

Inspiration smacks him about the head.

"Stop the car," Percival tells the avox. "Now."

The avox, to his credit, listens. Percival clambers from the back seat, pulls out his SketchPad and raises it, takes photos from all manner of angles of the statues, of all the little details they'll need. Takes two minutes at it, which feels like it shouldn't be long enough but is also far too much time - he'll have to come back again, but for now the pictures are in focus and that will do. Once he's happy, he climbs back into the vehicle. "Alright. Drive on."

It's a start. Percival can't remember anyone else using it, but it's memorable. If the recreation's good enough the Capitolites will get the reference instantly, which is the point of this exercise. There is no subtlety in Games costuming; he can do something with this. It'll be hard to look bad in it, too.

He opens a new layer over the top of the best photo of the shepherd statue, and begins to sketch, jot a materials list. He's going to need a sheepskin, yards of cambric for the draping, and a truckload of sequins and beads, but he thinks it'll work. Probably. Gold or silver detailing will depend on the tribute's complexion.

Momentarily, Percival smiles to himself, until he remembers how much of a pain in the ass this’ll be.

Less than an hour into being a Games Stylist and he sort of hates himself already.

 0-0-0-0-0

"So here are the designs for the Tribute Parade," Pompadora Wilkinson, District Ten's 'junior' stylist tells him eagerly, and reveals the usual rancher outfit - in lime green, this year, apparently, which is a colour only the most foolhardy would consider a genuine option. She's getting in the way of the design projected on the wall - her wig is three times the size of her head, neon pink and stuffed full of flowers; her skin's pale blue. She's got the latest fad fashion on, all tulle and net, a skirt which looks like it was made out of marshmallow fluff. No wonder no one important will ever take her seriously. She'd maybe get into the fashion mags in that get-up, but that's about all.

There's nothing original about her. Nothing interesting, nothing you could even squint at and think it special. He's seen all of her get-up a hundred times on other people and it's just not compelling - just like her designs for the Games. Her outfit tells you nothing about her at all as a person except that she's a sheep, which he guesses is fitting for Ten, seeing as that's where they probably come from.

Percival looks across to her, and says, "you'll never move up the ranks if you keep at it with the cowboys."

She stares at him, mouth just a touch open, fingers fluttering in mid-air like an uncertain butterfly's wings. He just looks back at her calmly, waits for her to be done; she doesn't get there, so he continues regardless. Kinder, this time, he tells himself, and reminds himself not to be an asshole. She needs mentoring as much as any young designer does if she’s to come up with anything good; she's just another apprentice he's taking on. "I've got plans for something else for the boy. You can put the girl in that if you want, but if you want to get into a better district, you'd be better off changing your mind. Isn't that what you want? To move up?"

She pauses, then, and nods.

"Alright then. No one pays attention to them if they go out in that." He jabs his stylus at the screen. "They've seen that before. No one even looks twice and their faces are obscured by the hats, it's no good for the cameras. You know the statues at the entrance to the Meadow?"

She nods again.

"Good," he replies. "So will everyone else. They won't expect it, which should be enough to get their attention that late in the parade, and it'll garner you interest if the design's good enough. How long have you been in Ten?"

"Three years," she admits. Should have moved up by now, probably.

"Then let's get you into a better district. You got time now to go sketch?"

 

0-0-0-0-0

 

"So you're styling for the Games," Seraphina says, and sips her wine. She is a picture of serenity on the other side of the table, her hair wrapped in a dark turban with blonde curls strategically curled in front of her ears, her dark skin gleaming. People around the restaurant are trying not to stare at them; they make a picture, the pair of them, dark birds in the corner of a tropical aviary. Percival appreciates that she's wearing one of his creations; Seraphina’s the only woman he’s ever tailored for, and this suit – navy blue with a subtle pinstripe made of individual tiny stars - is one of his favorites he might have ever made her. It’s a challenge, tailoring for a woman, particularly a woman with her tight specifications and preferences. Seraphina, meanwhile, has a knack for finding him accessories he’ll like; he’s got her scorpion stick-pins on today. "Which district?"

"Ten."

"You couldn't do better than Ten with your portfolio?"

"Pinch hit, someone's unwell," he replies, rather than take offense. "President's personal request. One Games only." In other words: don’t shit on me, we can’t all have elbowed our way to being lead for District Two. Seraphina has always been visibly brilliant, always wanted her name in bright lights. It's not his own preference, but he respects her for it; they have always been opposite sides of the same coin in that regard. 

"You're taking the boy, I presume."

"I don't do pretty dresses."

Her smile could cut through cloth. "You make sharp suits. The kid'll need one."

"Yeah, about that," he says. "I figure this is about more than clothes. What else do I need to do?"

"First," she says, "you need to buy me another drink."

“Give you the gigglewater, huh?”

“Do you want my advice or not?”

Percival rolls his eyes, but there's no heat to it, and summons a waiter.

 

0-0-0-0-0

 

The newest odd thing Percival has been faced with is that they're given measurements before they even get to see the kid they're dressing; they've not even broadcast the reaping, and yet Percival has already drawn up the patterns for the outfit he's making for the tribute parade. He's cut the pattern twice, using white cambric shot through with silver or gold metaled thread, and now he's waiting to find out which one he's actually going to finish. He's received the sheepskin fleece he wanted, made ready to be attached over the top of the robe, he's ordered sandals in silver and gold and a pile of silver and gold long strips of leather for the thick plaited bracelet thing wrapped around the shepherd's wrist. Everything’s here, except the kid he’s dressing.

Percival did not spend this long garnering his reputation only to waste it on a damn costume, but it's only one outfit. He'll work out colorways and the suit design for the interview once he's seen the kid – he’ll be more scrutinized in that, there’ll be closer camera shots. Whatever zit-riddled teen he gets is going to need to be flaunted somehow.

He watches as the District Nine kids get reaped with disinterest, a drink in his hand - both are young, both are trying not to cry, one is failing. Pathetic. Finally, after Caesar and Claudius do some pointless pre-games analysis (even this early on you can play ‘Spot the Stiff’ with them and what is Claudius Templesmith even damn wearing this evening, breeches are not for the over fifties), the broadcast moves to District Ten via a few establishing shots of plains covered in cows, sheep in the hills. The usual bucolic bullshit.

(At least they do have sheep. To be honest, they push the cow thing so much he wouldn’t have been surprised if they didn’t).

In Ten, he notes, everyone has a hat on except the victors – of which Ten have only two, Tina Goldstein and Gellert Grindelwald, who is disconcertingly, artifically blonde, his eyes different colours and slightly crazed-looking, and mostly won his games by convincing other tributes to eat poisoned berries. Maybe it’s a district thing – the hats and the winning under less than glorious circumstances. Their escort is notionally female and dressed like she's covered in flowers and marshmallows, a trend which needs to be shanked at the knees and slit at the throat before long. She picks the girl first, as is customary. “Vossie Ambrose,” she trills into the microphone.

Vossie Ambrose is seventeen, the stats on the screen tell him. She’s stocky, broad-shouldered, tanned from the sun. She takes off her hat on the stairs up to the stage; her gingham dress tugs around the shoulders and keyholes at the bosom when she moves her arms. There's something instinctively rough about her which the ruffles on her dressfront can't camouflage. Her face is broad and plain, snub-nosed, and dotted with acne. Not, Percival thinks, a winning combination for sponsors, but the girl's not his business. He's not even going to bother remembering her name. She'd do better in the rancher get-up than the nymphish costume she'll have in the tribute parade, but the Capitol will remember the costume and not the girl if they remember anything, so it doesn't matter. Pompadora’s design is sound.

"And now for the boys," the escort announces. She dips her hand into the bowl, fingers almost choreographed as they curl into the pile of ballots, and plucks out a slip of paper. "The male tribute for District Ten..." she opens the piece of paper, then, breaking the wax seal on the back of the ballot, pauses for effect (to read the name beforehand), "Credence Barebone."

There's a murmur, a breaking of the crowd. A slip of a thing steps out of the crowd from midway back, walks to the front, head down. His clothes - a dark suit - are threadbare, and nothing he's wearing seems to fit except the hat. That jacket is too tight for his hunched shoulders and doesn't match the trousers, which are clearly too large around the hips. He remembers to take his homburg hat off on the stairs, straightens his hair self-consciously with a pale hand - it's a tragic bowl cut, but his hair is raven dark and even shorn that short Percival can see it's thick, textured. Any longer and it'd start to wave.

The kid steps onto the stage, turns to the camera, and Percival takes his first look at the boy's face.

Dark, almond-shaped eyes, irises almost as dark as his hair. That skin of his is pale as fresh cream and entirely unblemished - that bone structure... Percival opens a new artsheet with a tap of his stylus and sketches his face, without adding the hair to mar him. He's thin, of course. His neck’s a pale, snappable column, his jawline razor sharp, cheekbones jutting. His lips are plush and pink, well-shaped enough even if held taut and solemn, his gaze now fixed on the ground. There's a little too much shadow under his eyes, but that's fixable. It’s all very much fixable.

Percival can work with this. He opens his SketchPad, begins to scribble a list of what he wants the prep team to do to the kid. Fuck, he thinks. Who knew District Ten could pump that sort of beauty out?

Chapter Text

Percival is not a nervous man, but he cannot deny that he jangles with anticipation as he enters the lift in the remake center – with the kid stashed in a room upstairs ready for his attention, this is all getting a little too close to home. As he strides along the corridor, past the lines of lights, counting up the numbers on the doors - Ms on the left, Fs on the right - he wonders whether the prep team managed to do as they were told.

They were slightly scandalized at their meeting the night before, both by him and by his instructions, which they felt not enough. The request to not over-gild the damn lily nearly had them weeping in horror. “He’ll barely look human!” had been wailed unironically. Percival still can’t be sure how he didn’t just walk away.

“Octavium,” he says, surprised, stops. The hair-prep hovers just outside the door marked 10M, their face tighter than even the best plastic surgery could leave them. He didn’t expect company. "How was he?" Octavium’s hair puts him in mind of a cockatoo, a dyed blonde high quiff spiraling into the air from their otherwise shaved, lime green head, but prep teamers at least are not supposed to be leading the fashion charge. It’s almost forgivable. "Took him two hours to stop flinching. Docile as a baby bunny." They pause, uneasy. "You should know. We had to call the medics."

"Medics? Why?"

"His back." They wince. "Someone - " they drop their voice, lean in close, "one of the cuts was down to the bone. I thought - it looked like a belt buckle." Percival just stared at him. What kind of animal would do that to a kid? Even a District one? "He didn't even make a noise while they patched him up. Just let them do it. They'll heal up before the Games, they said, but his skin is – it’s revolting. He's so scarred, all over, and his hands – “ they flap at their face, agitated, then pull themselves together again. “It's worse on the right arm than the left. Ameliora's done an excellent job on him with camouflage, but the texture's hideous."

"Texture won't show too badly on camera," he replies. "His right side will be concealed.” It is – not ideal, but not necessarily a disaster. “Did his hair come out well?"

"You'll be pleased about that, at least - it drew out into gorgeous waves. He's perfection from the neck up."

"That’s more than half the challenge. Thank you, Octavium. I appreciate it." Octavium nods, greener at the gills than they've dyed themselves, and flitters away down the corridor like a hummingbird in search for nectar. No way out but through, Percival, he thinks. He doesn't knock, just opens the door and steps inside.

The boy, clad only in something akin to a hospital robe, sits curled up in the far corner of the room staring at his knees, mouth drawn tight; he startles badly as Percival closes the door, pulls his legs in tighter to himself. The prep team have done precisely what they needed to. He seems to be lightly glowing, that alabaster skin highlighted subtly to give him a sheen. Lips plump and glossy, not a sign of tiredness under his eyes.

The hair is the crowning glory. Octavium deserves at least one drink for their work. That atrocious bowl cut has become glossy, dark waves which frame his face and contrast his sharp features. All courtesy of a hair extension treatment, a fresh onto the market product courtesy of an old friend. Who wouldn’t say no to having their wares advertised in the Games?

He doesn’t look entirely human, it’s true. The boy could be an immortal's cupbearer from the old stories, caught in an eagle’s talons and dragged up the mountain to the gods, if he weren’t curled in on himself so. He could be braced for impact, hunched as he is. He’s so very vulnerable.

That won’t do.

"How's your back?" He inquires, as he crosses the room.

"It's okay, sir," the boy says, voice soft. He keeps his gaze on his knees. "Thank you for asking."

"That's alright," he replies. "My name is Percival," he says, and sits next to him, “and I am your Stylist. While you're here, I'm here to do everything I can to get people to see you."

"See me?" He asks doubtfully, with a flicker of a glance through those long eyelashes. He habitually keeps his chin tucked down, eyes averted. It’s mildly pathetic in a way that even his pretty face can’t excuse.

"People need to remember who you are, so they know who to pour their sponsor money to. My job is to make sure they won't forget."

"I'm not going to get any sponsors," he replies. His voice is soft, but sure, like a distant bell. Percival has to get in quite close to hear him.

"Why wouldn’t people want to sponsor you?" He asks. The boy glances across at him, then, surprised. Was he expecting agreement?

"Gellert said." He shrugged, resigned, looked down again.

Gellert Grindelwald is clearly mad as a sewn-up sack of racoons if he thinks the Capitol won't be all over this kid in a heartbeat. Look at him, for pity’s sake. It’s just a matter of presentation. "Well, then, I think we should ignore Gellert," Percival replies firmly. "We’re going to prove him very wrong this afternoon, trust me.” Credence glances over to him, then. “Will you try something for me?"

"Sir?"

"When someone's talking to you, or you're talking to them, try looking at their eyebrows. It seems like you're making eye contact with them, but you don't have to actually make eye contact. Start for me now, and it'll be easier later - I've got a lot of brow to look at, so I'll be good practice."

The boy, hesitant, lifts his chin, does as he’s told, and says, "yes, sir," to Percival's eyebrows. It’s a start.

"There’s a boy.” Percival’s no fool - he notes the mild flush at the top of the boy’s ears, the ever-so-slight squirm. If this is what it takes to get the kid doing what he needs to, Percival will do it. It’s no hardship, and he’s got a reputation to uphold. Kid’s chances or not, he’ll not let him embarrass him. “So. Tonight is the Tribute's Parade. This is when the sponsors first get to see you representing your district and get their first good look at you as a person."

"This is the part where we have to wear the cowboy outfit," Credence puts in. A hint of approbation slips into his voice. An expectation, Percival thinks, of a humiliation he’ll have to endure.

"Not this year. We're doing something completely different." It’s a mercy for him that Percival forced a change of plans - the thought of lime green against that complexion alone is atrocious. He leans close to him. Credence’s ears only flush more. "The cowboys were getting a little stale."

Percival can't help himself; he leans forward to brush a little of Credence's now long fringe out behind his ear. Under Percival's fingers, the extensions feel exactly like real hair - silken, smooth, and frizz-free; you wouldn't know they'd added it that morning, let alone find the seam between the old and the new. The boy sits stock still as the tips of Percival's fingers brush his face, the top of his cheekbone, and even when he oversteps completely and lifts his chin just a little more with the back of a knuckle, he doesn't so much as make a sound, doesn’t seem to breathe. He watches Percival with quiet melancholy behind his eyes. The Reaping alone cannot have caused it, that much he knows.

"How do you feel," Percival continues, reluctantly letting him go, "about shepherds?"

"Oh." He smiles just a little bit, a small quirk of the edges of his plush lips. Remembers to look up through his eyelashes. Fuck, Percival thought. This boy. "I - used to be a shepherd. Before."

"Then maybe you'll feel a little more at home." Percival wants to see him smile again. One glimpse and he's hooked on it like the worst of the club drugs; something so small and yet so heady, and Credence has no idea, does he? No clue at all what he looks like, what he's capable of inspiring. Too gentle to survive this and all the more beautiful for it. A flower in the wrong place in a field, about to be ploughed through.

Knock it off, Percival, he thinks, you're better than this.

If he’s done this to Percival, who usually prides himself on inscrutability in the face of adversity, the Capitol are going to love him. The Tribute's Parade will be nothing to worry about compared to the damn interview, which they'll need to seriously work on, but Percival knows Caesar and more importantly he knows Caesar's taste. If Percival's captivated and he knows the boy's been beaten black, blue, and bloody in the last week? Caesar’s not going to be able to help himself.

0-0-0-0-0

Percival had allotted plenty of extra time for getting into costume in case the kid got difficult about all of it, but he’s pliant as soft butter. Argument is the very least of his problems. "So,” he says, as he unzips the garment bag, “you were actually a shepherd."

"Ever since I was a kid."

"Does everyone work in Ten when they're young?" Not that he entirely cares to know, but the kid needs to be able to hold a conversation. Something about the way the boy looked at him as he began to chat over lunch, the slight confusion that someone engaged with him at all, suggested he very much needed the practice.

"School's set up so we could work around it, but if you’re needed in the fields you stop going."

“Why did you choose shepherding?"

"Oh - you don't get to pick. I liked it, though." He smiles gently, ruefully. "It was peaceful." Percival has a vague idea of the boy sitting on a grassy knoll, watching placidly over a flock (is that the word?), surrounded by wild flowers. He'll be seeing nothing peaceful in the next few days. Percival doesn't say that, though. It wouldn't be kind.

If nothing else, Credence inspires in him a desire to be kind.

Percival pulls all the accessories from their case, alongside all the references he needs, and frowns momentarily at the series of plaits he's got to wrap around Credence's wrist. There's a specific diamond shape to them on the statue, but he's not exactly one to braid, so that had to be jettisoned. It’s annoyed him that it’s not going to be perfect as a reproduction, but something so small will hopefully not be noticed by anyone but him.

"So. This is what we've got. The sheepskin’s going over your shoulders, the robe beneath, sandals.” He glances over; there’s a twist of something on Credence’s face. “You’ll not be the only one in a robe out there,” he tells him, and Credence winces, shamefaced. “There’s a belt around the waist with a pouch on - I've put a little weight in it so it hangs properly off your hip. One braid around your brow, and then the rest of them go around your wrist like this." He taps the printout of the photo he’s brought along, the close-up of the braided section. It only seems fair that he should know what the design’s emulating.

Credence looks at the braids, and then at the images. He then clearly decides to say nothing at all.

"Yes?" Percival asks; he’ll not have any of that.

"I could - make these into that, if you wanted," he says hesitantly, gesturing to the printed photograph.

"How long would it take?"

"Twenty minutes?"

"We've time," he replies. "Go ahead.”

Credence nods, and with quick fingers undoes the pair of lengths of plaited leather. He then folds them all in half, makes a loop and ties it off. He glances at Percival, just for a moment, before he hooks the loop between his teeth and begins to braid with quick, practiced fingers. Percival watches his hands work. Those fingers are hypnotizing, even as he can see the bumps of the scars across them under the make-up; there’s no hesitation as he works. The initial six stranded braid the kid started off with splits halfway down into a pair of three stranded pieces, which form the diamond shape as they converge apart; Credence brings them back together into the six strand. He ends the piece in a large knot. It’s good workmanship: flat, neat braiding.

"What is it, exactly?" Percival asks, as he trims away the trailing strands. "I presume it's not just decorative."

"Oh - it's - just something we use to control sheep." Credence, halfway through his sentence, remembers to look up, only manages glancing through his eyelashes. It’s more than good enough - almost coy, though he can’t mean it that way.

"That?" Percival says dismissively, looking at it. What is it, a muzzle of some kind? He finds he doesn't care to ask. He’ll never find an interest in sheep husbandry. "Well, you learn a new thing every day. You make them out of leather?"

"Cord, mostly. Even tree bark, sometimes."

"Tree bark?"

"You have to dry it for a day or two, but it works if you need it." He shrugs.

They're so backwards in Ten they have to make things out of tree bark. Percival doesn't know what to say to that, so he doesn't bother.

"Well, then. Let's get you dressed and ready to go. Gown off, please."

The boy reluctantly pulls the gown over his head and stands in front of him, awkwardly, in his underwear – still hunching, hands clutched in front of him. “Good boy,” he says again, gets the reaction he wants from the kid; quiet pleasure at the praise, though it doesn’t change the set of his shoulders. Percival takes a step back, and assesses the situation carefully.

Credence is skinny as a rake, all sharp angles from the knobbles of his knees to the jut of his hipbones, but he's not completely emaciated - Percival had thought he would be. His ribs show from his torso but his belly's not concave - just perfectly flat, taut. Some of the poorer District kids in the past have come swollen-bellied (a nightmare to fit someone for an outfit with that, he imagines), but this boy isn't one of those. What he is, Percival thinks, is lithe. There's not an ounce of him spare - corded strength in his arms, thin sinew in his shoulders, and a hint of muscle in his slim legs, but nothing showy - no oversized bulges, no fat to overlay it like you see from the volunteers. He has, by his own admission, been out in the fields since he was a child, and that’s the body he has.

Percival is not going to stare at his nipples.

It's a shame about the horror show across his back, which makes Percival want to retch when he walks around him to see it for himself. Scars upon scars upon scars, and fresh-left scabs, some with additions from stitches – neat rows of pinpricks. It’s no less wretched for it. No one has to see it but him. The Capitol will never know how marred he is. “You’ll do nicely, my boy,” he says, coming around to face him again. “They’re going to love you once I’m done with you.”

He scoops up the most important part of the outfit first: a back brace. Percival called a friend straight after the Reaping to get it made on a rush order, knowing it would be vital to this entire enterprise. Good posture will improve matters intensely. “First," he says, "we need to get you standing up straight." At least the leather's butter soft, slightly padded, even if the boning inside it is solid. Percival doesn't think twice before moving the boy to where he needs to be to make the brace sit properly as he fastens the straps into place, pressing carefully along his hairless sternum to straighten him up. The boy doesn’t seem to breathe. His skin quivers under Percival’s fingers.

There's a decent backplate to the brace, which extends up the nape of his neck, straps over his shoulders to keep them down. Percival fastens the straps one by one around the boy’s slender torso, and steps around the boy to face him, lifts Credence's chin with a finger to secure the section around his neck, which is held in place by two thin straps across his throat. The boy gulps; Percival is briefly transfixed by the bob of his adam’s apple. " Much better." He's taller than Percival thought, now he's upright. "How does it feel?"

"Strange," Credence offers, after a moment. He appears far stronger than he did ten minutes ago, now his shoulders are back and his chin’s high. Less liable to shatter.

"You'll get used to it. You'll wear a version of this for the interview, too - I'll be fitting your suit over something similar. Just let it do its job. It's there to help you, so you don’t even have to think about it." He takes the robe off its hanger, and helps the boy slip it over his head. It falls to his knees, draping over his chest, revealing his sharp clavicles; Percival is glad he put a lining in, the material’s so thin his nipples would have shown through, let alone the brace.

He probably shouldn't need to help the boy dress, but he's not been told otherwise. It's an excuse to touch him - Percival is only human, and the kid needs to stop flinching if he’s going to have any luck. Percival needs to be here to make sure it’s done right; he ties the belt into place around his slim hips. No one will see the pouch, but he wasn’t about to leave it off. It’s the principle of the thing. This is a costume about the specifics: a detail out of place and the illusion would be ruined. "Okay. So the loop of this," he says, taking the sheep-muzzle, referring to the design, "goes over your middle finger and across your palm." He carefully twists it all around Credence’s wrist, so the diamond’s visible and the knot tucks under the loops of the leather to hold it in place. He wraps one braid on an elasticated band around the boy’s forehead, and hides the dark elastic in his hair. Can't help carefully straightening the strands out again after he's mussed them.

Finally, the sheepskin, which Credence has to hold in place while Percival buckles it around his body. It hangs well enough, though, and gives a certain heft to his slim shoulders. It doesn't overbalance him. He looks – just right. "There we are," he says, stepping back to regard what he has created. "Perfect."

Credence stares at himself in the mirror when Percival reveals his reflection, eyes wide, disbelieving. He strokes his fingers reverently over the edge of the sheepskin. “Thank you,” he says, softly, earnestly, looking across to him. Percival has taken a hunched, scared thing and molded it into a lissome youth to be slavered over. The kid's very clearly not a fighter, and it would be a disservice to him to pretend otherwise. Percival will at the very least offer him up as a lamb to the slaughter, not spit him like a piglet. “Now all you have to do for me, my boy, is smile as much as you can when you’re out there.” There's a knock on the door. "That's our ten-minute call. Come on. Let's go and see the others."

0-0-0-0-0

Ten’s female tribute stands beside Pompadora and scowls, arms crossed over her chest. She’s ruining the lines of her dress. The girl's wearing a lot of makeup: gold swirls all over her face, down her neck, over her arms and breasts. Her costume is all gold. Gold eyelashes and eyebrows, gold lips. Acne camouflage, no doubt. Not what Percival would have done at all - perhaps under the circumstances Pompadora’s prep team could see no other option.

The boy stands out even more in comparison: fresh, pure. Percival watches as the girl's jaw clenches, and her eyes widen and then narrow. She knows it, too.

"Credence," Tina Goldstein says, smiling, as she approaches. "Wow. You look wonderful – you both do."

"We've not met," Percival says smoothly. "Percival Graves." He offers her a hand to shake.

"You're our new lead stylist?"

"For this year, yes. Is Gellert here?" Percival would very much like to give him a piece of his mind.

"No, it's just me this afternoon," she says, reaching for cheery and hitting the wall hard at awkward. That doesn't seem... regular. Still. What does he know? "You'll meet him later."

"I can't believe they made you wear a wig," the girl jeers at Credence.

A flicker of something hard crosses Credence’s face, before his expression settles smooth again.

"Okay," Tina tells the girl before he can reply, "that's enough. There's going to be a lot of flashing lights and the crowd will be loud - don't worry about that. All I need you both to do is smile and wave. Everyone will want to look at your outfits, because they're new and they're – well, they’re really great. Just - try to enjoy it. You’ll get swept up in the atmosphere, trust me. Okay?"

The call to mount up comes. Percival gives one last nod to Credence before the procession starts, and they step to the side to their booth in the monorail, compartment number ten, to watch the live footage. "Excuse me - I must powder my nose," Pompadora says. She slips away.

"How did you do it?" Tina asks.

Percival doesn't have to ask what she means, as they sit next to each other and each take a headset, eyes on the screen. "A protein extension treatment on his hair and a little kindness did wonders." No need to mention the brace. He needs to have some secrets. Does he tell her about the medical intervention? After a moment, Percival decides not to. She's likely not his mentor - she's got to think about the girl first, and they might use it against him. He can't countenance that. "So why isn't Gellert here?"

"Gellert will be Gellert," she says. She smiles; it doesn't quite reach her eyes. Nothing Tina does seems to stick the landing. She aims for it, but doesn't hit the mark. It's - odd. Shouldn’t a Victor, difficult circumstances or not, have the confidence to hold a decent conversation?

Pompadora joins them as the camera pans down across the chariots, district by district; even at this stage, the editors choose who to focus on, singling the pack down to a small number of recognizable faces. Percival scrutinizes each outfit as they're presented - from the volunteers, who come dressed to kill (Seraphina's sent gladiators in), to the fodder not even dressed to wound. Too many strange headpieces or incomprehensible theme choices. Some deranged idiot seems to have dressed Six's pair as train carriages with moons around their faces.

Nine's tributes come literally costumed as sheathes of wheat. It's more unfortunate than effective. "Well, they'll be stalking their prey," Claudius puts in after a moment, and laughs insincerely at his own joke. If that's all he can manage to come up with, you know it's gone poorly.

"And now, onto District Ten - " the sound Caesar comes out with is, frankly, indecent, somewhere at the intersection of a sigh and an unexpected orgasm. Percival doesn't bother suppressing his smirk. The camera starts wide to take them in as a pair, swoops in to see the detail of their costumes and, once they've seen enough of both of them, fixates straight on Credence.

"What a beautiful young man," Caesar says, with a teenage lover’s fervent conviction.

Credence's head is up, chin high, and he is smiling just wide enough to see the edges of his teeth, eyes shining from the lights. He gleams with youth, cheeks blooming pink. The crowd in the background of the edit rise in volume, just as they had for One, Two and Four, the boy from Seven who's pretty much built like a tree. The crowd hurl roses at him as he passes them.

"That's the shepherd from the Meadow," Claudius says, after too long a pause, as they take him in. "With the milkmaid beside him. What a spectacle!"

"He's certainly herding me closer, Claudius. Doesn't Ten have a new lead stylist this year?"

"Yes, they have - a mystery designer.” He quirks his eyebrows. “What a triumph for Ten! And, well,” he says, tone sliding down a notch or five in enthusiasm, “here comes District Eleven."

Eleven and Twelve remain their usual dismal selves, so the last thing they'll remember is Credence, with luck. Job done. Their train trundles slowly along as the procession finishes, and the President rises to open the Games, wearing the newest suit Percival has made him; two minor victories today in the Graves column.

"I need to schedule in two suit fittings in before the interview," he says to Tina, once President Snow's speech has finished.

"Come join us for dinner, there'll be plenty of time after – we’ll eat at about half seven every evening." She pauses, adds dubiously, "two fittings?"

"Two is the minimum I countenance." The interview suit will only be visible for three minutes on stage, but those three minutes are so vitally important in this whole enterprise he refuses to compromise. Percival can also pretend to be an altruist: seeing as Gellert clearly can't be bothered to even turn up to do his damned job, someone needs to keep an eye on the kid. Tina's clearly going to have her hands full with the girl.

It's not that he likes having his hands full of the boy. It's not. It's more important than that.

"There's - not usually a fitting at all."

He looks to his stylist partner pointedly, adds, "Pompadora will need to properly fit the girl’s dress as well." The girl's clearly got feathers which are easily ruffled; no use letting her feel she’s at a disadvantage. Pompadora needs to learn to go a little further with her tributes.

"Well, I suppose," she says, sniffily.

"He'll go on that stage looking as good as I can get him," Percival tells Tina.

"Thank you,” she says, and does genuinely mean it.

"It's my pleasure." Probably too much of one. But - well. He's only human.

0-0-0-0-0

With too much work to be done to stop once Percival gets back to his apartment, he reclines in the bath up to his chest in spiced hot water, a glass of firewhiskey at his side, flipping idly through fabric samples for the suit with a dry hand. He still hasn’t quite decided how he’ll present the kid for the interview. Nothing has hit him just yet for it.

His phone rings. "Seraphina," he says, when he picks up. “Nice gladiators.”

"Are you watching the highlights?"

"No?"

"Graves. Put it on.”

When Seraphina says jump you don't even ask 'how high'. You spring as far as you can manage and hope it's enough. He dries his other hand, and pulls the after-show analysis up on his SketchPad. Caesar and a panel of experts, arranged around a desk, sit dissecting the evening's spectacle; Caesar is still wearing his opening ceremonies suit. President Snow gets first billing, of course. Percival’s ego would be flattered were they not practically obligated to praise him.

In the background behind the panel, there's the usual image of the array of the tributes they’ll discuss. The careers usually make up the bulk of them, and Seraphina's girl is in the mix, but tonight there's also the boy built like an oak tree from Seven and on the edge of the graphic, his boy, gleaming. Percival raises his glass to him, drinks deep.

"Did well for a first time," Seraphina tells him – high praise.

"Got a good canvas to work with."

"Prettier than my girl. She’s furious." The girl is only quite beautiful.

"Hardly matters - he’s dead meat either way."

She hums her agreement. "It’s good that you know that. Is your interview suit up and running yet?"

"Construction's all done.” His assistants, who are far too excited to be involved with the Games, have worked on it all day, texted to say it was done. He wasn’t about to send the boy in front of a camera with a glued suit, it had to be half-canvassed at least, and that sort of thing takes time; at least the pattern wasn’t up for debate in his mind. He has a notion for what he wants instead of a necktie, too; he’s already sent that over to the best silversmith he knows. It’s just the fabric he’s not settled on.

"What are you planning?"

He barks a laugh. It’s like being in college all over again, jostling shoulders in competition. "You'll have to wait and see. I guess you've had yours designed for months."

Seraphina's been to Two plenty of times before, and her tribute even won last year. The girl’s face was so sliced open in the end it was difficult for the medics to fix it; they had to delay the final ceremony for three weeks before she was presentable enough to be put in front of a camera. "Since last year's Victor's celebration in Two," Seraphina confirms. "We met, talked strategy and options, I had everything made by the end of February."

"Well. Some of us get to clothe a no-hoper at short notice, Seraphina."

"And Caesar Flickerman."

"And Caesar Flickerman," he concedes.

"Who looks very debonair tonight, incidentally.”

"Flatterer."

"What's he wearing for the interview? Caesar, that is."

"Florals," he replies. Percival flicks through the book at his side for the fabric - bold red roses on midnight blue, loose-woven wool so it’s not too hot under the lights. So many stylists use cotton and linen for the tributes, and all Percival can do is fixate on the wrinkles. He stares at the sample a long moment, and thinks, my boy deserves flowers. Roses. Just like the ones which they hurled at him in the Tribute Parade.

"Good to know," she says. "I have to go; I've a party to be celebrated at. Can I tempt you?"

She should know better. "No. Work to do. Thanks, though, Sera."

"My pleasure, Perce. Have a good night."

He hangs up, and sets his phone aside. His boy deserves flowers. Bouquets of them. He considers the roses which the crowd threw, and thinks, not for the suit. The suit itself needs a solid color, some notion of seriousness; it's the shirt which needs the pattern – and he’s got just the material.

Percival jots himself a note for the morning and takes himself to bed; he’s not built for all-nighters any longer, but he’ll get up early and be at work by the time his team come in. Never mind pajamas - he climbs under the covers, leans back on his pillows and takes himself in hand. He has done his job so well that the Capitol wants to know his name, he deserves a little ‘rest and recuperation’.

Percival strokes himself until his cock's hard and heavy against his belly, pauses a moment as he gropes for lubricant from the nightstand drawer, and settles in at a languid pace, hand slicked. After a moment of casting around for a mental image to help himself along, he finds himself imagining a former young lover, the first time they fucked.

Attalus was so beautiful before he dyed his skin lilac. After that, Percival didn't want him anymore - he was too ordinary, no longer precious. He thinks of the boy's hands - he was a boy, really - stroking through his chest hair, rubbing at his five o'clock shadow. Curious. Pleased. Biting at his thin, pale lips as he sat in Percival's lap, fluttering his eyelashes like a coquette as he ground down.

Those lips bloom, plush and pink, the skin around them transforms into alabaster. His eyes darken from blue to chocolate brown. Attalus morphs in his mind, piece by piece, into Credence, those feline eyes of his wide with wonder as he tangles with his own desire, his palms flat against Percival's bare chest. Percival speeds his strokes - he can't help himself, caught in the idea. The way he held his breath when Percival touched him and the divot in his waistline; his dark, tight nipples; the thought of his scarred hands around Percival's cock - Percival comes, hard, quite unexpectedly. Sprays his chest up to his neck, panting helplessly.

He slumps back into the pillows and thinks, shit.

Chapter Text

Percival starts cutting the fabric for the suit at six o'clock the next morning - he only really has a morning to get this all done, his first appointment is at two - and tells himself, over and over, no. No more thinking about the boy. He's got a busy day and the boy is an inconvenience to his normal working life, he is not going to think about him unless absolutely necessary.


The problem is, of course, that with every fabric piece he cuts, he can't think of anything but the slim lines of Credence's body: the taut sinew of his shoulders; the slight swell of muscle in his right arm; the flat pane of his stomach. His darting, dark glances, the plush pillow of his lips. Credence is a gift to dress - a sylph handed to him on a platter. In all honesty Percival could send him out in sack cloth and he'd still look like a mirage.  


In all honesty, once the work is done and everything is handed to his assistants, he's almost grateful to have an appointment to have something to keep his mind focused. Of course, all the conversation steers one way.


"Found an interest in the Games this year, Percival?" Augustus asks wryly.


Augustus Peterson has clearly forgotten the purpose of purgatives, but Percival doesn't comment as he pulls his measuring tape from around his neck because he is a professional, and in courting gout (a badge of honor amongst Augustus' set) he'll keep Percival's assistants employed another year. Measuring up again is no hardship. The man himself is in no way contrite: why should Augustus be? He could get it fixed easily if he wanted to. Choosing not to is in itself another statement.


"I enjoyed the more bizarre tribute parade costumes last night," Percival replies, which is not a lie. "Are you sponsoring this year, Augustus?" Augustus directs some of the best movies in the Capitol; Percival is very happy to dress him, has even made suits as costumes for his actors in the past. He adores the Games, and edits the highlights reel together every year. He's not so involved that he can't pour money on his favorite, though.  


"Of course. That boy from Two - Decimatus, isn't it? What a specimen. I've never seen a tribute like him - the size of him, I don't know how they manage it." Two's boy is built like a mountain. Steroids by the bucketful, probably, Percival imagines, to be that size. "He'll be batting them off like flies at the Cornucopia - it will be a Bloodbath to remember. Last's year's almost wasn't worth it, only ten dead."


"Oh, but darling, Credence," the bright little bird says from the leather sofa across the room, looking over the fashion magazine clutched in her gaudy talons. She's all pastels - blue hair spiraling out like spun sugar, skin lemon yellow. Her dress barely deserves the term - it's strung together from a ticker-tape of embroidered butterflies which clearly show both the extent of her plastic surgery and that she is wearing very little in terms of underwear. Someone is going to have to clean his sofa before his next appointment.
Percival would have ignored her completely had she not known Credence by name.


"Was that the shepherd?" He asks, as if disinterested, and marks down another measurement on his pad.


"You can't have laughed at him, surely," she replies, almost aghast at the notion.


"Donatia intends to waste all her sponsorship money on the boy from Ten, Percival," Augustus says, fondly.


"You said I could spend my allowance however I wanted," she shoots back, pouts as if she's a toddler and not a grown woman of at least twenty.


"Of course you may," Augustus tells her indulgently, looking down his beaky nose at her. "But not a penny until the Bloodbath is over, my darling. I don't intend to waste all my money."


"It's not a waste if Tarquinius is sponsoring him this year."


"Tarquinius Askem," Augustus replies, "hasn't sponsored a boy since Theseus Scamander's little brother turned out to be a mutt-whisperer." Quite the story, that - near enough ten years ago now. Reaped from Four and no one would volunteer for him, spent most of his time in the water, drowning his prey like a merman. Theseus must have been very relieved to see him out the other side.


"Well, Tarquinius is this year. He told me himself at Portia's Parade party last night, we are all in raptures over Credence, my love. He said he's already put a hundred thousand in the account and he'll happily spend more - and he wasn't the only one." A hundred thousand. Percival can't even fathom spending that amount of money in one go. And if there are more people willing to put into the kitty...


"The man's gone mad. The girl in Ten would be a far better bet for victory."


"That trollop?" Donatia laughs, a chittering call. "She was so dirty - did you see her face? It was vile. We wondered if she slept with the pigs. No one could want her to win, why would they sponsor her?"


"I like a good return on my investment. Anyway, it hardly matters, the Victor is clearly in sight. Two years in a row, by the looks of it. Whatever Albus Dumbledore is doing to them in Two, it's certainly working."


"And where is the fun in that? Who cares about investments? It's the Games!"


Percival should have gone out last night to get the gossip; Seraphina is always right about these things. "So Two's Boy, obviously," he says, "and Ten's shepherd's got everyone's hearts beating. Who else is the talk of the town?"


---


Percival steps into Ten's apartment in the training centre at eight o'clock on the evening of the second day of training, a suit protector and a carrying-case in his hand. The anticipation of seeing his boy (who shouldn't be his, who isn't his, and yet he has for now) leaves a pleasant tingle in his lower back (not his belly, certainly not; he is not a schoolboy with butterflies in his stomach).


He expects it to be louder inside, to enter into a bustle of training of some sort under way (he doesn't know what he expected - as if he knew anything at all). The main living space is mostly quiet, but for the avoces clearing the dinner table and a murmured conversation under way on the couch by the television. Tina and Credence sit side by side, speaking softly together. Her hand on his shoulder.


They make a good pair. Maybe it's the Ten look, dark hair and dark eyes and skin like ivory if they've stayed out of the sun. There's one for every district; they learnt them in school, like an animal spotting guide for the Games, but he never bothered to remember them. Tina says, "oh, hey, Percival," and then Credence visibly perks up just a little, which the preening idiot in him finds pleasing.


Keep it together, man.


"Am I interrupting something important?" He asks, leaves his luggage by the door, and crosses the room to join them.


"No, not at all," Tina says, with a smile. Her shirt is bright yellow and it's slightly picked at the front in vertical lines, as if there were something taken off it with a pair of nippers. "A glass of wine?"


"Why not," he replies. And then, because it's strange that there's no one else in evidence, he adds, "are you two the only ones here?"


"Gellert's mentoring Vossie and he's decided that he's training her separately," she says, handing him a glass, "so you won't see much of them from now on." She says this very evenly; possibly for Credence's sake, to pretend it's usual. Maybe it is. Who knows.


On the one hand, Percival tells himself, Gellert is clearly an awful human being. He's been terrible to Credence before, possibly as he chose the girl to favour, as she is seventeen and looks better fed of the pair - Augustus was not wrong when he chose it as a criterion for success. On the other, he did win with a well-executed strategy. It may not have brought him much love from the Capitol, persuading people to poison themselves, but it worked.


It's kindness Credence needs for the next few days, though, not hopeless strategizing which will come to nothing. Tina can provide that. He's clearly been starved of it before, and of touch, and all the things he deserves to have. All things considered, Tina's probably ineffectual advice is worth more to him than Gellert Grindelwald's sneering.


"Well, I think we got the better deal," Percival says, as if conspiritorial, and sits down on his other side, accepts a wine glass gladly. "Was your day productive?" He'd considered that one on the way across. It might have been awful, after all, so better to ask if he'd learnt anything and go from there.


"Yes, thank you," Credence replies with a wisp of a smile across his solemn face. Sweet thing. He clasps a mug between his hands with the dregs of hot chocolate and cream at the bottom, and Percival is cheered by that much - he deserves all the treats he can get while he's here. Seraphina's tributes always have meal plans they're obliged to stick to until the bitter end - why not enjoy what the Capitol has to offer, while they're here? While they still can?


"Excellent. Your interview suit is ready for its first fitting."


"Really?" Tina asks. "So soon?"


"My assistants are more excited to be involved in the Games than anyone ought to be, they worked themselves to the bone to get it all ready. I thought we'd seize the moment." He smiles a little, sips his wine. Doesn't say, I wanted to lay my hands on this boy again. He's not a fool. Well, he is a fool, but then he's never been good at not having the things he wanted. "Tina, where's the best place for me to work?"


"Um - Credence's bedroom, probably, if Credence is happy to have you in there."


"That's fine," Credence says, shrugs. "We can go now, if you like."


"If you're ready. I wouldn't want to disrupt if you're in the midst of something vital." How vital anything can be, he doesn't know.


Tina seems to go a little pink at the cheeks. "I was just telling Credence how well he did at the parade. I've been fielding phone calls non-stop from sponsors for the last couple days, so we're in a really good place." She smiles, and even though she should be happy, she still seems rueful.


"I - didn't really do anything," Credence adds, voice soft. Which is not untrue. But doubtful does not a goodinterview make, so it's another thing to do what they can to erase it. But - and this is important - he keeps his chin up. "It was the outfit."


"Well, you must have done something," Percival replies, "because it takes a lot to get the attention of people in the Capitol, believe me. And a costume alone does not make people make note, though I concede it was very good."


Tina chuckles at that. "It was." The cell phone on the table rang, and she smiles. "Excuse me, I have to take a call." She takes the phone away and down a corridor, closes a door behind her.


"Shall we, then?" Percival asks. "Lead the way, my boy."


---


Credence's bedroom is modern and luxurious and everything he deserves; Percival hooks the suit protector over the wardrobe, sets down the suitcase of accessories.
"So. Interviews. Have you thought about it at all?"


"I'm not going to be very good at it," he says, softly, arms crossed over his chest almost protectively. Perhaps it's good that he doesn't go breezing into this and think it'll be fine (Percival cannot imagine Credence breezing anywhere), but he is a beautiful young man and that will help immeasurably. Percival cannot fathom how he can be so aware of himself in other ways and not know that. Probably comes with spending most of his life with sheep.


He reaches to squeeze his shoulder lightly, and leaves his hand there. Credence almost seems to lean into it. Hesmiles at him, warmly as he can. "We've got time to work out what you're doing. And this," he adds, "will more than help matters. This is what you'll be wearing."


Percival steps away to open the suit protector and glances over to catch Credence's first reaction - a flicker of complete relief, gone as quick as it came, which he replaces with a cautious little smile instead of his usual solemn expression. No wonder he's relieved. Last year Ten's boy wore aqua satin and chartreuse polyester and that is the only reason Percival remembers him. Can't even recall his face, let alone his name.


His stylist should have been hanged, drawn and quartered for that monstrosity. Perhaps they were.


Most male tributes go up on that stage looking awful, another spectacle for the Capitol to enjoy, and that is fifty percent Percival's fault; he remains unrepentant. Percival dresses Caesar, after all, and Caesar always looks impeccable because Percival would allow nothing less. Any other suit walking onto the stage goes into flat comparison with his work and always, always loses. Thirty percent more of the problem is down to stylists who aren't menswear specialists and wouldn't know proper suit construction if it bit them on the ass, let alone taste. The last twenty percent is all on the tribute.


In other words, Credence can rest on his cheekbones and still get eighty five percent or more of the way to success, because Percival is behind him doing the heavy lifting. The rest... is something they'll have to work on.


"If I have my way - and I will - you will be the best dressed person they see that night. This is an open-weave wool - give it a feel." He presses the leg of the trousers into Credence's hand, and he rubs the cloth carefully between the very tips of his fingers. "It's not the softest thing in the world, I'll grant you, but it'll be cool under the lights. Hunter green isn't a color they've seen on the stage, but I wanted something darker for you. I want them to take you completely seriously, my boy."


A lesser stylist would take one look at Credence and place him straight in the 'doomed beauty' stereotype, dress him in soft pastels in spite of his skin tone. Once you've reached for it you may as well have exposed the tribute's belly and ripped it open, for all the good it will do. You've told the audience that your tribute is a pretty face and that's all, capable of nothing more, made them bay for their death as they have nothing more to offer. It is not a way of getting sponsors in your tally.


No matter what how badly that training score comes out, Credence deserves better than instant visual dismissal, and Percival would not stoop to something so expected. Percival is going to push Credence up on that stage for them to covet. Make him look expensive, make him look desirable but not quite theirs, out of reach on a pedestal. They can have him, even keep him, if they're willing to pay enough, and they will be willing - they'll do it because Percival is going to make sure Caesar is all over Credence, and where Caesar goes, others follow.


"Is that why you wear dark colors?" Credence asks tentatively.


"Exactly so."


"You - don't look like other people in the Capitol." He cringes a little at himself at that, tenses.


Percival smiles, smooths a hand over his shoulder, soothes them down again. "I don't go in for the usual Capitol fashion. It tells you nothing about a person; they're all precisely the same even though they think they're daring. If you wear darker colors, you stand out of the crowd. And that's what we're going to do here, for you - but green is a little more youthful, and we'll add some lighter contrast with the shirt."


"Why roses?" Credence asks, looking at the fabric of the shirt. He pauses, glances for permission, reaches out to touch it.


"Because roses, my boy, have thorns," he says. He thought of that, too. It's a white lie, but no bad one. If Credence is a flower, he is not a rose. Roses are manicured, need plenty of work to make them bloom. Credence has grown up mostly, it would seem, in spite of himself. A most determined weed, with beautiful flowers.  


"Tell you what," he continues, "go and slip the trousers on, and I'll help you into the brace. It's a new one - you'll be able to move more in it."


"Okay," Credence says, and takes the proffered hanger. "Excuse me."


Percival sets the rest of the accessories out on the ottoman at the end of the bed, opens the shoebox and finds a note from one of his assistants - "all worn in for Credence" - which he squints at, not quite able to believe what he's read. He checks the backs of the shoes. True to form, the leather has been worn in - probably, he thinks, with the back of a spoon. They'll be comfortable. How long did that take? Didn't they have anything better to do? Did an avox do it? He shakes his head to himself, pockets the note, and then Credence emerges from the ensuite bathroom, wearing the trousers - and they are precisely the right tone for his skin. Beautiful already. He takes off his shirt, shy again, but Percival doesn't look away until he has to this time.


They tighten the brace - an elasticated contraption with a small leather plate to hold it together between his shoulder blades - until Credence is properly upright, and Percival hands him the rest to put on. He watches the stretch of skin over his ribs, the taut line of his stomach, and is almost relieved as Credence carefully pulls the under shirt on, then the shirt.


He looks a vision already, and as Percival helps him put the jacket over his shoulders, he cannot help butsmirk.  He turns him to face the mirror, and says, "how do you feel?"
Credence stares at himself for a long time, stunned. "Not - like me," he says, after a long moment.


"No?"


"I've never worn anything this nice before. Not that the parade costume wasn't nice," he adds hurriedly.


"It was only a costume," Percival says, holding his shoulders. The tension has gone from him, and when he steps in close Credence seems to lean into him without realizing, like he's starved for it. "This is something different. That was all about your district; this is all about you. I had to meet you before I could design this."


"I've never had anything made especially for me before," he murmurs softly. Catches Percival's eye in the mirror, rather than look around to him. Feels the silk of his shirtsleeve almost reverently.


"Other tributes might not know until the day before what they're wearing, or they might not even get a fitting at all, and they will itch and overheat and feel self-conscious. But you, my boy, will have worn this suit often enough that it will be completely comfortable. Every detail - I have cufflinks being made, and an accessory rather than a tie - will be in place. Someone's even worn in your shoes for you. I don't want you to have to think of what you're wearing, because it won't be an inconvenience. I've worried a lot about it so you don't have to."


Credence looks at himself in the mirror again, and nods. "Just like the brace," he offers, tentatively.


"Just like the brace," Percival says with a smile. "The truth is, you see, that the first ten seconds is the most important part of the interview, even before you talk. People make their minds up about someone as soon as they see them. Think about how you reacted when you saw yourself for the first time - and the suit's not even done yet. That, my boy, is how they're going to react. Probably times ten, because we don't do anything by halves here." Credence smiled a little at that, but he still looked doubtful. "Now it just needs to be perfect. Which is why I've come."


He slides his jacket off, sets it aside, gets out his kit, and sets to work. Credence's breath seems to hitch as he touches his chest, abdomen jumping as he marks the buttonholes, first with a pin, then lines of chalk. His boy watches him work, quietly, doesn't interfere or intercede. That's not his way. Percival describes what he's doing anyway, step by step, and after a little while he relaxes completely. Lets himself be manoeuvred.


"May I ask a question?" He asks, tentatively, once they're finished.


"Of course you may," Percival replies, entirely charmed. It's rare Credence manages to say anything at all.


"In your sewing kit, you have a lot of long spiky things - I wondered what they were."


He's been so very good - so very obliging - that Percival thinks, why not? "Oh - these?" He picks one up. "These are wild boar bristles. For very, very detailed work, I sew with them - they're very flexible, very sharp, and they make a tiny hole in the fabric, smaller than a metal needle can." He hands it across; he buys them in bulk, after all. He's not sure which district they come from. Possibly from Ten, come to think of it.


"How could you you thread one?" He asks, after a moment of careful inspection. Percival shows him, step by step, because Credence is clearly interested, and it's rare that anyone is so captivated by this persnickety part of his work.


When Credence steps out of the bathroom after they're done, his suit nicely hung and ready for alterations, he's wearing a sweet striped set of pyjamas. That image follows Percival all the way home and into bed with him under the covers.


Percival curses himself after, as he cleans himself up, but he can't help himself.  The only consolation is that he's probably not the only one.


---


Percival chooses to do the second fitting after the private training session and before the results are announced. Just to make sure Credence is alright.


"So? How did it go?" Percival asks, as Tina pushes a chocolate brownie on Credence, who smiles a little, and uses a fork to take a piece off the corner.


"Okay, I guess," Credence replies, and doesn't look down before he looks up to answer. Eats his dessert. Whatever happens, it hopefully won't be too embarrassing for everyone involved.


"And how is the suit?" Tina asks. She seems - almost cheerful, actually. Percival can only presume the sponsorship money is coming thick and fast.


"Finished completely; we're just doing the final check-over."


"Do I get to see it tonight?"


"I don't see why not. What do you think, Credence, do we show her a preview?"


After dinner, they step into Credence's room, and Credence goes to get changed in the bathroom; he can do up his brace himself, though Percival will do it for him tomorrow. Because he can. Because Credence actively relaxes when he's around and he needs not to be tense before he goes on stage. "So. Are plans in place for the interview?" He inquires.


"They are, yes. I mean, it'll be a quiet interview, but we've things to say. He said you and he had a challenge on eye contact - I wanted to thank you. You've really gone over and above."


"He's a good kid, he just needs polish - which is my job. And he seems to be remembering, so there's something." All bets are off for tomorrow, though.


When Credence steps out of the bathroom, shyly, sliding through the door and closing it softly behind him, Tina says, "oh, Credence, you look great." Credence smiles a little, awkwardly.  "Percival, you're a wonder, I don't know what we'd do without you."


He considers the suit. "I'm still waiting on the final pieces but I'm assured they'll be ready for tomorrow, or heads will roll. Is there anything that feels odd?" Percival asks him. "Anything you want to ask about?"


Credence pauses, says, "I don't think so."


"Okay then. I think we're in good shape."


"Credence and I need to talk before this evening's broadcast," Tina tells him.


"Then I'll make sure there's space for you on the couch - hang everything up for me, Credence, you know how I like it. I'll see you in a few minutes."


Pompadora enters the apartment as he steps out of Credence's room, and he almost doesn't recognize her - she's changed her hair so much. Her wig is long down her back and the color of flamingo feathers; there are matching feathery tufts threaded through her eyelashes. It's a poor branding choice, if nothing else.


She airkisses him, left and right, and he says, "Beautiful hair." She preens. "How's the interview gown - fitting go well?"


"Percival," she said, in a way which was more familiar than he liked, almost condescending. "You and your fittings.”


"And how are things in your camp?" He asks, instead.


"Oh, you know. Gellert is confident that she will do well this evening; she's seventeen, you know. We even had a couple of sponsorship calls, which was encouraging." She pauses, adds, "I'm told your costume didn't lead to expected dividends."


Didn't it? Percival thinks. Is Tina lying to him? No, he has it on authority from other sources. "No, which was a shame."


"Only expected though, with a fifteen-year-old." It almost hurts to hear. It's true no one fifteen has got through the Games before, but still. Plenty of calls, a hundred thousand from one sponsor alone... Percival decides to luxuriate in Tina's lie being accepted rather than watch Pompadora fluff herself up.


"Still," he adds, "we'll see how it goes."


"We will," she says, and they walk to the television space side-by-side, a good foot of space between them.


Gellert Grindelwald is sitting in the armchair at the end of the sofa set, looking very pleased with himself. Holding court. Grindelwald has an atrociously ratty moustache without enough hair in it, and his hair is probably a bleached job, cut close at the sides and spiking on top, vile against his tanned skin. His eyes are mismatched, and he's wearing a long tailcoat jacket. He looks ridiculous. Percival knows precisely what he should be wearing, but wouldn't sew a stitch for him. Not for what he said to Credence within less than two days of meeting him.


Thankfully, Tina and Credence arrive on the scene at that point and sit down, Credence perching next to him on the cushions, face taut. They sit in silence, waiting.


"It's time, it's time!" Their escort trills, turns on the television, and settles in, between Tina and the girl, pleased. No one else is.


Caesar is wearing his serious face and the dark suit he'll be wearing for the entire Games to keep continuity for the camera, sat behind the desk. He intones, rather than speaks. This is too important an occasion for jokes; this is how the odds are calculated for the Games. Never mind sponsor money. It's the most important broadcast this week.
"May the odds be ever in your favour," he finishes his opening speech with, and opens the envelope with all the cards inside.


The volunteers score highly - Two's boy gets an eleven next to his menacing face on-screen and everyone else hits a nine. Three's girl only gets a three but Caesar doesn't comment on it - not the time, they'll do that in the commentary later. Four's pair both score eights. Caesar only pauses between scores to let the bookmakers update their odds, and moves on.


Percival's heart is in his throat, he swears. He keeps his hand on Credence's knee. Credence is staring at his feet and not the television, face set in a frown, but Tina is relaxed into the cushions, not too much tension in her, which is strange. Maybe she doesn't care, but that's unlike her - Tina cares an awful lot. Maybe she's done this too many times to be bothered.


District Seven's boy scores a solid ten, so he's probably good with an axe. It's a high point in the masses.


"And from District Ten, Credence Barebone," and Credence's solemn face appears on the screen. Credence looks up, at last, gripping his hands in his lap. Caesar pauses, and Percival immediately wants to throttle him, the sorry bastard, wants to yell – just tell us and get it over with - "a score of," Caesar lifts his tone, smiles a little, so it can't be too bad, "seven."


"That will do," their escort says, without much excitement.


"Well done," Tina says with a smile.


"Congratulations," Percival whispers in his ear, low, squeezes his knee a little. He wonders briefly what Credence did to score it. And if he scored that, then what will the girl get? Their much vaunted seventeen-year-old - what skill does she have? How high does she go?


"From District Ten, Vossie Ambrose. A score of four."


The room goes silent.


The girl jumps out of her seat and storms away. They can just about hear her begin to sob as she slams her bedroom door behind her. Percival keeps his hand protectively on Credence's knee; the boy curls into himself, cringing.


"Well," Gellert says, rises from his seat, "it was inevitable." He looks to Credence. "You and I need to talk tomorrow and come up with a strategy which might get you through the first few days."


"No thank you," Credence replies, and looks straight at him. "Tina and I have plans already."


Gellert stares at him a moment. Laughs, and turns to leave. "You might as well throw yourself into the Bloodbath, for all the good she'll do you," he shoots back over his shoulder, just before he closes the door.


Tina rises from her seat and goes after him, hands balled into fists - it suddenly occurs to Percival that she did actually kill someone to win her Games, smothered him in the sand, and he's not getting between that altercation for love nor money. Credence has curled in on himself, shaking a little. Their escort mutters something about manners and flutters away to sort it out.


Pompadora, frozen, averts her gaze from the scene as if she can put her head in the sand and it'll all go away.


"Will you go and see if the girl's alright," Percival says to her.


"It's hardly my fault - "


"I know it isn't," he says. No one's fault except the girl's own, for not being good enough. "Pompadora, please."


She gets up, huffs, and stalks off across the room.


While that mess went on, the broadcast continued, relentless. The odds stack up, first by district, and then by ranking, the board shaking itself up - things don't change much at the top but the bottom shakes itself around, two tributes rising towards the top of the table. "Well, my boy," he says, moves to wrap an arm around Credence's back, to rub it soothingly, because he is not the one who screwed up this evening, and he doesn't deserve to be faced with all this. "Look." Even with a seven, Credence has got into the top ten on the odds table.


"We don't listen to Gellert," Credence says, after a moment staring at the screen. He pauses a moment, and tucks himself cautiously into Percival's side, looks up with a firm look in his eye. "He doesn't know what he's talking about."


"No, he doesn't. Why doesn't he think you have sponsor money? Tina said the phone was ringing off the hook."


"We figured - it might upset Vossie, if she knew." Doesn't quite ring true. Percival lets it pass. "It's hard, having to be here," he adds, almost on a whisper. "Knowing what's going to happen. She's not handling it very well."


"We'll get to that when we get to that," Percival replies, because he doesn't want to think about it much either, and Credence is not throwing himself around in a strop over it - Credence probably wouldn't know how to. "I think scoring in the top ten gets you a double helping of whatever you want this evening; have you got a favorite dessert yet?"


Credence considers this very seriously. "The cheese and crackers are nice. And - the hot chocolate?"


He makes it sound as if he's pushing his luck. Percival smiles at him, looks pointedly across the room to the avox, and says, "and two large glasses of red wine."


By the time Tina returns to the apartment, Credence is curled up on the couch next to him contentedly nibbling from a platter, and her knuckles are very red. He proffers her a glass of wine. Pompadora's gone home, and whether she did anything or not to help isn't his business.


"Thank you," she says, and accepts it as she sits down.


" You break anything?" Percival asks her.


"Me? No." She smiles, swigs her wine. "Sorry about that."


"You don't have to apologize to me," he replies. He pauses, tries his luck. "I hear you two have been keeping things to yourself."


"We are being very sneaky. But all for a good cause." Credence nods his agreement to that.


"Sounds like a plan," Percival says, and thinks, is it though?

Chapter Text

Less than eighteen hours until he loses his boy.

Percival feels the pang of it reverberating under his sternum when the thought flashes into his mind, his bowels diving somewhere below his buttocks. He takes a pill in the bathroom to recover himself and pushes the thought away.

Seraphina's going to have a field day with him if she finds out.

He dressed to the nines this morning. Credence deserves to see him at his very best. Right now his boy is in prep, being readied for his last chance to appeal to the sponsors - and how well it'll go is - well, who knows. Anything could happen. He's done his part, and all the rest is on Credence, and whatever he and Tina have planned. There's money already in the kitty; they're not relying on this as a last ditch source of help. It doesn't lift the pressure: the sponsors who've given money will be looking for a return on their investment here, if nowhere else.

Percival pushes that thought out of his head immediately. This isn't make-or-break. It's all going to be fine. Tina has said explicitly that there are plans, and he must trust in that. Credence will look a vision, if nothing else - Percival has ensured that. Even if he can't get a damned word out of his mouth, there's something to look at.

He tells himself that, and pushes through the remaining minutes, on the way back to the Training Centre. He will look beautiful and there's money enough already. It will do.

---

When Percival sweeps into their dressing room, to yet another room marked 10M, Credence is curled up in the chair in his underwear (silk, picked purposely, everything in this is purposeful - though this is only for Percival, so help him). His boy's jaw is set, and he is staring at the ground, tense as anything. Poor thing. Percival doesn't know if it's panic or not, but he can't carry that onto the stage, it'll be the end of him.

"Oh, my boy," he says; Credence jumps out of his skin again, looks around, those feline eyes wide. "Let's get you loosened up."

He settles down on the table in front of him, between Credence and the mirror, and takes his left hand, first. Begins to massage it with his thumbs, ignoring the raised scars under his fingers, until the tension begins to seep out of him.

His prep team have done exactly as they were told - his skin has been rendered pearlescent, again, gleaming a little under the lights, and Octavium has trimmed his hair so it'll rest above his collar line. He looks fresh as a dew drop. He'll have to send them flowers, tomorrow. Once all is said and done.

Don't think about it, Percival, he tells himself sternly. It doesn't help.

Percival works up his arm to loosen the tension, and rises, then, to place his hands on Credence's shoulders. "I know Caesar Flickerman very well," he says. "His job tonight is to help you to do the best you can, and he is very much looking forward to meeting you."

"I'm not going to be able to be funny, or anything," Credence replies, after a moment, frowning. His voice is very quiet, but he doesn't stutter, his voice is clear as a bell. That's to his credit. Percival begins to press out the knots of his shoulders, looking over his healed back. The skin has sealed, scarred over with fresh, pink flesh. Savour it, he thinks. He wants to kiss the sharpness of his scapula. This will be the last time you see him like this.

Percival cannot allow him to be this vulnerable on stage, he'll get eaten alive.

"You mustn't try to be anything you're not," he replies, firmly. "They want to know you just like I know you - the real you." Credence's charisma isn't the same animal as the cultivated, breezy personae of the volunteers. It is innate - unforced, unpractised. If he were to try to be anyone but himself - it would be unspeakably ugly, should he play to the crowd. A waste of the work Percival has put into his suit. "Don't worry about the audience," Percival tells him. "You don't even have to look at them. Look to Caesar - he'll look after you, he's the one you're having the conversation with. Have you and Tina worked out what you want to tell him?"

Credence nods, eyes averted.

"Then you'll be just fine. Tina won't steer you wrong." He can't even remember her interview, or even what she wore on the day, but that doesn't matter. Tina is clearly doing all she can for him, and there might only be whatever can be done to make it not a trainwreck, but that will be something. Whatever happens, Percival will tell him it went just fine after, but - fervently, he hopes he'll do well. That the audience will see what he does, and prove he isn't going mad with desire for the boy. "As long as you smile just a little," he adds, with a smile of his own, "you'll manage that first impression. Trust me."

As long as he doesn't look scared. Scared will do him no good. He cannot look intimidated by any of it, or they'll aim straight for his liver.

Once he is satisfied that his boy is relaxed enough, he helps him into the brace, and gently tugs his back straight until he is held upright. "Is that comfortable?" He asks, squeezes Credence's shoulder. Places his palm where he would like to press his lips, until his boy nods, and they move on.  

There's only so much time left until he is called away. He must savour this. Every touch, every brush. Every breath Credence takes.

His boy pulls on his undershirt as Percival opens the suit protector, removing the perfumed tissue paper around the hanger. He does up each diamond-shaped button on Credence's shirt for him, up to the neck; he doesn't need to, but - he wants to piece him together, have a hand in everything he can until he is made to step away. Credence puts on the socks himself, as instructed, and then climbs into his trousers. He shrugs his suspenders over his shoulders, straightens them self-consciously and settles them against his chest. Percival tightens each one to be sure his trousers hang properly. Steps back, to look him over.

Everything is in place.

"A friend of mine delivered me a few things for you today," Percival tells him, and steps to the box on the table. Argentia had nearly refused him until he said it was for the Games, and then she barrelled on board and waived half her fee. He opens the box for Credence to see. It's a beautiful thing that Percival has had designed instead of a tie - plaited strands of silver which bifurcate and widen at their centre to a single diamond at their centre.

"It's just like - " Credence says, and stops himself, eyes wide with wonder.

"Just like the one from the parade. I thought you might like something from home." He smiles down at him. "There are cufflinks, too."

Credence offers him each wrist, sweet thing, and lets him fasten his cuffs, one after the other. Percival flips up his collar once he is done, cups his chin, and says, low, "turn around for me." Credence swivels obediently and he must let him go, and it is as lovely as it is agonising. His hands are held awkwardly at his side, fists almost clenched as he faces the mirror.  

Percival takes the neck-piece, and unhooks the fastener. Steps in close behind him, within an inch of touching chest to back; Credence inhales sharply and it almost presses them together. Time seems to slow between them, oozing like syrup. Percival cannot help but touch his neck, brush the tendons there. He revels in the tender bob of his adam's apple when he settles the silver around it. Credence doesn't dare even to breathe until Percival fastens the piece into place and flips his collar down over it, savouring those last touches of his flesh against the tips of his fingers. He squeezes his shoulder, and the clock restarts again.

"Almost done," Percival says, and presses his hand to his arm.

Percival kneels to help him into his shoes, laces each one with a double-knot, so Credence won't crease his trousers. That done, he rises. "One last thing."

"There's more?" Credence asks, eyes a little wide.

"This one isn't for the camera." He takes the atomiser from his inside pocket. "Cologne. I picked it for you myself."

He sprays the air and lets Credence inhale it.

"It's - sweet."

"For my sweet boy," he replies, and watches Credence pinken at the cheeks, shift from foot to foot. "May I?"

He nods. Percival spritzes him four times; one on each wrist, and both sides of his neck - just enough to make an impression. Only now that Percival is satisfied does he take the jacket and help Credence into it.

"So," he says, as he fastens the button for him. "Tell me what you're going to do tonight."

"I'm going to be myself and remember to smile," he says, first. "I'm not going to look at the audience, just Caesar. And - I'm going to follow the plan."

"Excellent."

"Will you be watching?" He asks anxiously.

"I'll be right there with Tina," he says, reassuringly. "You won't be able to see me, it'll be too bright to see into the audience. Don't look for me, alright? Eyes only for Caesar."

He nods.

"I'll be there when you come off the stage, I promise."

There's a knock on the door. "Are you ready, darling?" their escort calls through the wood. He still doesn't know her name.

"That's our cue," Percival says, grants him one last smile. "I'll see you soon, my boy."

Credence looks steady enough, and that'll have to do. Percival squeezes his shoulder one last time, and takes his leave.

---

He sits down next to Tina in the auditorium, clutching his pass; it would ruin his suit to wear it. The mentors are dotted amongst the audience, not in a separated space for Victors - they're on the end of a row, but otherwise they could have paid to be here. Her dress is lime green and covered in ruffles. The one at her knees has been scrunched between her hands.

"Pompadora make that for you?"

She shrugs; it's not a no. "How was he?" she asks, voice lowered, urgent.

"Fine when I left him," he replies frankly. "We'll hope for the best." She nods, brow furled.

The lights go down, and that's that. He settles back into his seat. The opening music starts playing over the speaker, the cameras begin to move. Caesar strides onto stage to rapturous applause which Percival contributes to half heartedly.

He looks good. The suit is bold against the dark stage, and he dazzles under the light; even the kite shapes at his collar gleam. Percival takes a moment to pat himself on the back for a job well done. He saw the suit in a dress rehearsal a fortnight ago; it really shouldn't seem that different now. And yet - and yet. He's created something else, tonight.

"Good evening, Panem!" Caesar announces, as the applause dies down. "Tonight's the night! The final time for our brave tributes to shine for us before they go into the arena - and I cannot wait to find out what we'll learn. So many surprises! Are you ready, folks?"

There are cheers. Percival shakes his head.

"Then let's get to it!" He grins. "Our first interviewee blinded us with her beauty - and her training score struck us dumb. Here from District One - Dazzle!"

She strides onto the stage, all giggles and grace and a froofy, aqua excuse for a skirt, and Percival settles in for the ride through her double entendres and wide eyes. One's Boy is a joker in a quilted harlequin jacket - it's an interesting idea, but all the stitches on the quilting are so tight they've completely puckered the fabric. He brings the house down, regardless. You wouldn't think he'd scored a ten in training.

Seraphina's girl is sheathed in something like a purple nightgown over her stilettos - it's stark, with a hell of a smoky eye, hair drawn back in a tight, high ponytail to suit her slender, angular looks. It's a hell of an ensemble; Seraphina will be the talk of the Capitol for this. She reclines in her seat with catlike grace, ready to spring, smirk dancing around her lips. Every question is answered coolly, as if she's debating eating Caesar alive rather than replying. The crowd whistle for her when she leaves; she gives one last, challenging look over her shoulder at them, eyebrow raised. Percival can't help but think it's a little too much for a seventeen year old.

Two's Boy lumbers onto stage in comparison to the girl, and Percival takes one look at his suit and winces, a little. He's built like a house, and that's a challenge to fit even for an expert. The stylist responsible for this wasn't an expert. Percival would personally not have compounded his problems with a fabric that shiny, but each to their own. The jacket needed to be two inches longer so as not to protrude over his buttocks, and one less vent in the back would have helped him look less blocky around the waist - as it is, he's got a butt-flap and a crumpled shirt, trouser legs which hang badly. It could be worse. It could be too small. But - this isn't great, regardless.

"I just can't wait to snap a neck," he tells Caesar with a sick grin, about a minute in, and laughs at the idea of it. Tina, next to him, clutches at her skirt, eyes wide with horror.

"Good to know," Caesar replies with a grin, completely unfazed. He holds out his hand. "You wanna try your grip?"

Bloodthirsty and not that bright. It's one way to stick in the mind.

Three's girl cries for the whole three minutes; there's always one. Out of the corner of his eye, Tina's face twists in sympathy.

Four's pair are perfectly adequate and not much more. The boy isn't wearing a shirt; it's a touch desperate. He hasn't got the definition to justify it.

After the volunteers are done, they begin the parade of no-hopers. This year, however, he can't look away and get a stiff drink, or just turn it off. Percival lets them blend together in a haze of mediocrity. He looks at his knees instead, sparing only a glance to the tributes themselves.

He stops paying attention again until Ten's girl is announced and Tina looks at him pointedly, so he stops averting his eyes (why should he endure every minute of this horrorshow? He's not the only one looking away, this late in the day). The girl clomps onto the stage in heels which wobble slightly with every step, wearing a peach, froofy concoction bunched up to the neck and well past her knee. It's a twelve year old's party gown made large, and the bust pulls across her chest, at the seams of the dress.

Tina sighs. He rolls his eyes. She's seventeen, for goodness' sake. She - needs to look stronger than this, even with a four. What the hell was Pompadora playing at?

The girl throws herself into the seat opposite Caesar and scowls at him, crosses her arms over her chest. It looks more like a tantrum than an attempt to intimidate. She throws answers more than offers them. Caesar tries his best. The audience give nothing back.  

It's not what they want in a female tribute. The Capitol don't want brusque and broad, they like their female victors delicate but deadly, and this girl is not that. She isn't strong, or interesting, or dangerous. She'll die and they won't notice. They might even be pleased.

"You and Credence have a plan for tonight, he said," he says to Tina, softly. No one else is listening to her, why should he?

"We have a plan," Tina says. "He knows what he has to do, even if he doesn't want to be on that stage at all."

"Don't blame him," Percival said, "I can imagine nothing worse than having a camera shoved at me."

"I was awful in mine," she admits easily. "But he'll get through it, and plenty of money is already pledged in the account, so things could be worse.” Yes, Percival thinks, they could be in far worse straits. He doesn't know what's going to happen now, but he does know that he'll dread every moment of it.  Who knows what could happen, and ruin everything?

There's something like a sigh of relief when she leaves. Gellert's not in evidence anywhere. Bastard.

"What a character," Caesar says, to lighten the mood. Next to him, Tina tenses up, and he settles in his seat, crosses his arms over his chest. "Next up - oh, we loved him at the Tribute's parade, folks." There's scattered clapping. "He herded our breath clear away. Our shining shepherd boy from District Ten - Credence Barebone!"

Credence walks onto stage and his back is straight and his chin is up and there is something of a smile pulling at the edge of his lips. The audience pauses, gasps as they see him, and erupts; the cheers grow louder still as he meets Caesar in the middle of the stage and doesn't trip over mid-way. Percival smirks to himself, presses his fingers to his lips. There they are. First impression complete.

They look good together. Of course they do - Percival made sure of it. Where Caesar's suit is bold in its contrasts, Credence is all about careful coordination. Percival traced the roses off Caesar's fabric and shrank them in the design he printed on silk for Credence's shirt, and they're pale blue, compared to the flourish of the red blooms on Caesar's jacket, which match his hair. Percival even used the same pattern for their suits, though he slimmed it down when he sized down for Credence. They're not identical, not by any means, but these suits clearly belong in the same collection. They sit together beautifully because they belong side by side. Similar neck accessories, similar shoes. Credence belongs on that stage, next to him. Hell, Percival even made sure the socks were right - he went to the same maker for a pair with the same pattern in a different colourway.

Credence sweeps his gaze across the audience once, and then looks to Caesar. Finds a larger smile for him as he settles in his seat, oh, sweet thing.

Caesar, mouth slightly open, stares at him as he sits. He's almost dazed. The man keeps staring, even as the applause dies down to a trepidant hush, and the seconds begin to slip away.

"Are you alright, Mr Flickerman?" Credence asks after a moment, eyes wide with concern, and leans forward a little - the most he can, with the brace - reaches a hand out to touch. His voice is soft, but the microphone catches it, and so does everyone else, with a hint of a coo from the audience. His eyes are up, they're not fixed on the floor, and Percival thinks this might not actually be a complete disaster.

Come on, Caesar, take the bait. He watches, keenly, as Caesar inhales a whiff of that cologne, and sighs to himself. It's Caesar's favourite - he douses his lovers in the stuff. So much of this was done for Caesar; more for Caesar than for Credence, in truth.

At last, Caesar remembers he's there to do a job, and leans forward, takes the hand Credence hasn't completely offered. Credence looks rather prim, feet tucked together, hands resting in his lap; not necessarily nervous, but not casual. He was never going to be able to do casual. But he sits beside Caesar and, body language or not, he looks like he belongs on that stage.

"So, Credence," he says. "What is your favourite thing about the Capitol so far?"

He drops his eyes, dammit. "I guess - " he remembers himself, looks up, a flicker of his gaze. Finds a smile. Blood lurches from Percival's head to his groin in one glance. "I like the lights, at night. They're like the stars back home."

Caesar honest-to-god sighs, and sinks into his seat - along with just about everyone else - it covers over a little of the hesitance. He gets it immediately - Credence is shy, and he'll never be loud - he needs winkling out. His tone drops somewhere quiet, measured. "Did you spend a lot of time star-gazing at home?"

He smiles, and that chin is up, good boy. "Sometimes. When I was out on the hills, with the sheep."

Next to him, Tina smiles to herself, pleased. It's not poetry, but it'll do. The notion is romantic, and the audience exhale at the idea of it.

"Credence - oh my goodness, folks," he adds, as an aside, glancing out to the crowd as if to remember they're there, "are you telling me you're actually a shepherd?"

"I used to be," he offers, forgets himself for only a moment as his eyes drop and remembers to look back up again, and - it's almost coy. Flirtatious. His heart knocks into his sternum. "I spent all of last year out with the sheep, up in the hills."

Two seats across from him, a woman with her hair plaited into a cage around her scalp pulls out her handkerchief to dab at her eyes.

"Wasn't that cold?"

He looks amused by that. "Sometimes it is, but you learn to keep warm."

Percival imagines that if someone's ripped the shit out of your back with a belt, getting sent up into the hills in midwinter must be downright pleasant in comparison. Not that anyone else in the room knows that. Their stargazing shepherd, out alone with his sheep on a hillside - a bucolic fantasy, and it's something he can talk easily about, which is probably why Tina is pleased it came up. That Credence brought it up.

Credence keeps forgetting about his eye contact but it's glorious, it's - half the crowd are weeping into their hankies, and the other half shifting uneasily in their seats. It almost doesn't matter what he says, Caesar's mooning at him has led everyone else to follow. The thing is, none of it is affectation. The short pauses and the eye contact difficulties which don't actually look bad, they're all Credence. It is completely natural, and that is what makes him so appealing - because there's no guile in it, no clumsy attempt to flirt. If he knew he was beautiful and tried to use it, he would be so very ugly.

But - he's used to being out in the elements. All year around. That's how he got his seven. There's substance to him, though in all truth he didn't need it for tonight. Percival saw to that.

By the time Caesar lets him go, and his three minutes are up, the crowd have to take a moment to process the loss of him. Caesar needs it too, before he recovers himself and continues.

It's their cue to go, to slip behind stage and find him, standing alone in the atrium, wringing his hands.

"Was that - okay?" He asks, nervous again, now, ready to slump. Like a marionette with its strings cut, now he has performed. Face taut, anxious.

"You did just what you needed to," Tina said, and smiled. "We're all good."

He nods, anxious.

"We need to get an early night. Big day."

Percival nods. "I was proud of you tonight," he says. "I'll see you in the morning." He finds a smile, squeezes his shoulder.

Tina nods at him, and that's that. They part ways. Percival has places to be.

---

There's a drinks reception for the prep teams and stylists after the interviews are said and done. Once they have filed in and taken a drink from the table on the way in, a prerecorded message from the President plays. He thanks them for their work and service.  

Percival makes small talk with his glass in his hand so Seraphina can’t top him up. He listens appreciatively, doesn't acquit himself terribly or get drunk, but his mind is thoroughly elsewhere. Pompadora stays on the other side of the room with the stylists from Eleven and Twelve, and he's glad for it. He couldn't compliment the thing she put on stage tonight with any sincerity.

Tomorrow morning he will get five minutes with Credence before he goes into that arena and the last he'll see of him will be on a screen, and he cannot stop thinking about it. Not as he climbs onto the holocraft at midnight - an opulent floating hotel which will take them to the arena's launch station - and takes half a sleeping pill so he does get some rest before the day ahead. He needs to look completely put together, for Credence's sake if nothing else. He's got five minutes to make sure the boy's calm, and that his head is in the right place, before he goes into a tube which will take him up into the arena. Percival will do every last thing he can to help him if he's panicking. Soothe the way, as he has before.

They don't get to know anything about the arena before anyone else: all they can do is talk about the fabrics the coat in the room is made of, and what they should expect from that. There are strict parameters for what he can and cannot say, and he wishes he knew more - anything he could do to help him, to see him through the first ten minutes. Percival sleeps for six solid hours thanks to the pill, and then spends the rest of the time drinking coffee and dressing himself to the nines, making sure he is picture perfect for his boy. He packed one of his best suits for this. Credence deserves nothing less.

Percival shaves twice, takes more time than usual over styling his hair, irons his suit with the one he brought with him. Breakfast is brought to the room, and it is a relief to not have to deal with anything but the turbulence of his thoughts until the time comes, waiting for release. Anything to relieve the pressure.

(Anything but that.)

A peacekeeper with a gun escorts him to their launch room, which seems a little much. They're all scrambled up, no rhyme or reason to the order of the rooms, but Credence's tube is at the very end of the arcing corridor - which is no bad start, really. He looks to the coat. Pointedly ignores the plexiglass tube in the corner of the room.

It's a thick parka-style coat, waterproofed, the hood trimmed and lined with faux fur. There are plenty of elasticated toggles to tighten it up, and two hooks inside the coat on either side of the zip. Surely they're not going to redo the tundra? The winner hid inside a dead mutt's ribcage until everyone else died, it was all very disappointing to anyone who cared. It was an awful Games, the tributes huddled out of the chill and freezing to death with nothing to enjoy. This coat is lighter than the arctic puffer coats they had then, he's sure. So - maybe not too cold. But still cold enough. He checks it for any other details he needs to point out, any other notable features, but that's it.

He hangs it back up again on its peg, and thinks, suddenly, Credence spent all last winter up in the hills . His boy can endure so very much. If he can make it past the bloodbath... but no need to think of that, as his stomach lurches again.

Percival lets the notion of it hearten him, anyway, as he waits, and the door opens.

Credence is escorted in by two Peacekeepers, and he's wearing a dark fleece, waterproofed trousers, practically soled but not overly heavy boots. Mountain gear. The door closes behind him. Privacy.

"My boy," Percival says, and strides to him, to embrace him. Credence clutches him tight, and his shoulders are shivering, just a little. Percival keeps his eye on the countdown clock, which has started running, and strokes a hand over his hair once, twice, before they step apart.

Credence's fingers quiver by his sides.

"I have a token for you," Percival says, and retrieves it from his jacket. "A little thing. I hope you'll find comfort in it." It's not much - a braided band of lamb's wool, just long enough to slip around his neck, too snug to get a finger beneath. Credence holds his chin up, lets him tie it with a careful knot under his Adam's apple. Credence closes his eyes for just a moment as he binds the ends, opens them again as Percival zips his fleece over it. "Our secret," Percival tells him. It makes the boy stand up straighter, like he did the day before. Steadies him, visibly. Percival is glad for it, strokes his cheek because he cannot help himself, allows himself a trace of his thumb over his jaw.

He's so very tense. But tense is better than anything else, probably. Tense and wound to spring is better than crying - some of the tributes will cry. Credence will not.

Percival checks the countdown, a quick steal of a glance. Nearly half their time gone.

The coat next. He takes it off its hook, and helps Credence into it, one sleeve and then the other. "It'll be cold in there," he says. "There are a couple of hooks inside at the front, on either side of the zip; you might find them useful to carry things inside it." He does the zip up, first, and then the toggles, to keep the heat in. As much heat as he can keep, for now. Puts up the hood for him, tightens it so it'll stay.

Credence looks down at it, strokes the material. "I've never had a proper coat before," he says, softly.

"Oh, my boy," Percival says, because how could he not, and pulls him into another embrace. They stay there a while; Percival watches the clock tick down to seventy seconds. Shit. He slips back, just a step, cups Credence's pale face in his hands. "It has been a privilege, and an honour, to dress you," he says, looking straight into his eyes. Keeps steady, sure. He has to be an anchor. "Whatever happens in there, Credence, whatever you have to do to survive - I will be so very proud of you."

"Thirty seconds," the announcement calls. They both glance around, and then back to each other.

"Stay strong," he says. "You and both I know how much you can endure. I know you can do this."

Percival leans in, and presses a last, lingering kiss to his forehead - one last thing to give him, to selfishly take for himself. Then, because he must, he lets him go.

Credence walks to the tube with his head up, and when he turns there is something like resolve on his face. They share a nod. Credence jumps when the tube seals around him, when he is lifted upwards, balls his hands into fists. Percival stays rooted to the spot watching until he ascends out of sight.

The Gamemakers have provided a tablet and earphones, and once he cannot see his boy Percival slips the buds in his ears and leaves the room, screen in hand. There are peacekeepers waiting to escort him back to the hovercraft; he pays them no mind, guns or not.

He has more important things to worry about.

The cornucopia this year is at the top of a rocky mountain peak, and it is already snowing lightly in there. It must be cold. He can't see anyone's face, not from this wide shot, but the tributes are labelled and Credence's grey coat and number ten in a blue circle is on the very edge of the semicircle. It's not a bad spot to be.

"They've been generous with supplies this year at the cornucopia, apparently - particularly within the backpacks - to make up for the weather. It's a little chilly in there, barely forty degrees.  But there's one major restriction to the weaponry on offer," Caesar says. "Three guesses, Claudius?"

"I can't see any spears ranks, Caesar," Claudius says jovially.

"No long distance weapons this year. No spears, no bows, all the knives are weighted so they can't be thrown. It's hand to hand or nothing, folks!"

Don't you dare go near the cornucopia, Percival thinks, hopelessly. Don't make me lose you yet.

The gun sounds. The tributes hare off their platforms. He looks for Credence desperately but the cameras don't share his interest. Their gaze zeroes straight in for the bloodbath, into the middle of the cornucopia. Percival can't see him. The careers are ploughing through tributes but none of the corpses look like Credence. All he can look at is the racking up of numbers as the body count rises.  

A ten slides into place at the side of the screen.