Chapter 1: Apollo Sends His Plague
The way our boat faces, the sun comes up in the porthole at the same time as it breaks over the horizon. The light creeps over Annie’s hair, flushing it gold at the tips. She sighs a little and curls up closer to me--not awake, but she grew up in District 4 just like I did, and even though neither of us have to wake up at dawn to work anymore, something in our blood still tugs at us when the sun rises, urges us towards the sea. I lie back, my fingers twined in Annie’s hair, and breathe with the swell of the sea.
Another moment, and Annie stirs, shifts her shoulders and tilts a little closer to my chest. “Morning,” she murmurs, like she has to blink the word awake.
“Morning.” I kiss her temple, soft and slow.
“Some.” They’re getting fuzzier every minute I’m awake, though, blurring around the edges. “I was on Dad’s trawler, casting off the side. No nets, no tridents, not even any lines. Just me and the fishing pole Mother used to use. It wasn’t much of a dream.”
Annie hums and smiles, nestles closer. “Catch anything?”
I grab her sides and haul her in closer, grinning. She laughs, and wriggles, but not away, and buries her face in my shoulder. I gather up more of her hair. We went swimming yesterday, before sunset, and traces of salt linger on her skin and tangle in her hair from that. The more time I spend with her, the more I notice little things like that about her. How she bites her lip to keep from laughing in public. How she always sleeps on her side, one arm tucked under her pillow. How she reaches out for me, drapes herself over my side of the cots when I’m not there. How her blush starts at the sides of her nose and then spreads to her cheeks and down, when I whisper in her ear.
“Is that where you wanted to be?” she asks. “Before?”
“Yeah.” I stretch out, let the sway of the boat take me back to that dream. “I don’t know if I thought about it that much. Inheriting Dad’s boat, taking it out before the dawn to fish--it felt right.” I shrug, or try to. It’s difficult with the way Annie’s nestled against my shoulder. “Why wouldn’t it?”
“It would,” she whispers. “Could we still have met?”
I sit with that one for a while, tease out different scenarios in my head. “You brought your catches a little further south sometimes, didn’t you?”
She hums agreement. “We had to. Especially after the big hauls.”
“Then we’d run into each other after one of those. We’d be moored on the same dock, and we’d both be helping to unload, and I’d see you.” As long as I’m constructing this scenario, I’d like to think I’d be quicker to see her this time around. Maybe I’d have been better at reading that kind of thing if I’d stayed a fisherman.
I feel her cheeks heating, nestled against my shoulder. “I think I’d scare you a little.”
“You would,” I agree. “That’s why I’d keep my distance at first. But your mother says that if I don’t stop looking even after you scare me, I’m allowed to keep looking, right?”
“Right,” she says. “And I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t scare you.”
“Would you have noticed me, at first?”
She laughs. “I’d have to notice you. And you’re you.” A blush creeps across her nose. “You’re hard not to see.”
"I’d wonder about you, especially if I didn’t see you again the next day. I’d wonder if I’d made you up. And that would scare me.”
“Then I’d have scared you,” she whispers, trapping my fingers near her cheek. “Would you keep looking?”
“I’d ask around on the docks first. Talk to Aunt Coral’s brothers, describe your boat, your catch, the way you stood, the way your hair shone in the sunlight.”
“They’d laugh at you.”
“They do that anyway.” And she’s laughing too, just a little, her breath ticking the tip of my nose. “If they didn’t know, I’d go to the markets, the warehouses, the canneries--anyone who knew anything about shellfish. I’d make a nuisance of myself, probably.”
She nods, nestles her cheek into my palm and traps it against the sheets. “But they’d know my mom, if you asked enough. They’d help you find me.”
I can’t help but wonder what they’d expect in return, and chide myself for it. I’d skim off a part of the ten percent we’re allowed to keep and give it to them, I suppose. It’s a fair enough trade. Straightforward. “And the next time you came into port, they’d let me know, and I’d run down the pier so I could catch you before you cast off.”
“Catch,” she repeats. “I might not let you catch me. Our boat’s pretty fast. And you’re not scared.”
“I’m scared,” I say. “But I’m, well, I’m enough other things that it balances out.”
“Scared but not scared off,” she says, like she’s testing it out.
I nod. “If that didn’t work, I’d try to pass a message to you.” I remember doing something like that when I was a kid: collecting bottles from behind the pub with my friends, sealing letters inside them, and tossing them into the sea. Most of them washed back up on the shore, but some caught the current, and we always hoped we’d see another bottle bobbing along our way a few months after.
“I could let you know where I am,” she murmurs. “Little things. Since you’re not scared. I think my mom would tease me about it, but you scare me, too.”
“What kinds of little things?”
“My name,” she says. “What we catch. When I can come to the market. But not what I think of you. Not yet.”
“It would be something. I’d take it.” I’d have to, at that point. “When would we meet?”
“The last market before winter. There’s winter, for me. Not as much for you.”
“Not as much,” I agree.
“But I’d be thinking about you. And I’d want to see you before it got cold. I wouldn’t tell you that, though.”
“What would you tell me?”
“When we met?” She lowers her eyes. “That I saw you staring, that I got your messages. That I don’t know what you want.”
“I’d say I don’t either, not really.” I lace my fingers with hers, and our thumbs circle one another; the motion’s never the same, but whatever rhythm we fall into always feels right. “But I’d like to find out more about you. Then I could figure out the rest.”
“And I’d be all right with that,” she says, keeping our hands pressed close. “So we’d talk.”
“Until the sun started to set.”
“And I’d have to leave.”
“And I’d let you go.” I grin. “Then I’d think it over and decide I couldn’t wait for you all winter, so I’d steal my dad’s boat and follow you.”
“You’d steal his boat?” she laughs.
I add the story of the time when I did just that and nearly steered it into a jetty to the list of stories I still have to tell her. Maybe I should add that one to the list of stories I need to keep her from finding out about, actually. “I wouldn’t have one of my own yet, so I’d have to.”
“And you’d try to catch me?”
“I’d sail as fast as I could and pull up alongside your boat and holler that I’d forgotten to ask you something important.”
“Uncle John would laugh in your face.”
Laughing in my face seems to be a recurring theme here, doesn’t it. “I’d ask you if you’d like to join me for dinner sometime.”
She covers her mouth and laughs, eyes wide, but just from them I know how brightly she’s smiling under her fingers.
“I can hear what your mother would say. Either he’s crazy or he’s a keeper.”
Annie nods, but doesn’t take her eyes off mine.
“So you’d have dinner with me after that? Eventually?”
“Yes,” she says. Her blush creeps past her fingertips now, all the way up to her eyelashes, like she’s lighting up from the inside.
“I’d keep the cousins and aunts and uncles off you as long as I could. Mother and Dad would adore you, though.” I settle closer to her, my lips almost grazing her neck. “We’d spend hours together on the boat, on the beach. Maybe under the pier sometimes.”
“That’s where you meet down here?” she asks, a tremor creeping into her voice. “We...up north, there’s a cave. I think it’s the same.”
“Probably. There used to be a few closed-off crawl spaces under it--for storage, they told us, but nobody’s used them for that in years.” I don’t know if it’s the same now. I’d have to ask Roarke.
Her fingers creep down from her face to mine, trace my hair, just barely touching at all. “I’d like that. I’d want that.”
“So would I.” I close my eyes, and her hands are like the thinnest edge of the waves washing up on the shore, beckoning me in. “I’d start finding odd jobs to work. I’d hate it, because it would mean time away from you, but I’d put it towards a boat of my own. One we could work on together.”
“Just us. And when I could afford the boat, I’d go to Mother and ask her for her ring.”
Annie doesn’t breathe. Her heartbeat seems to stall, especially with the way mine is pounding, like it’s trying to break out of my chest.
Then she wrenches away from me and covers her ears, curls up with her knees to her chest.
“Can’t,” she says, so small, so thin. “Can’t think.” She’s trembling, holding her head like that could keep everything still, and it doesn’t. I cover her hands with mine but it doesn’t quiet her, doesn’t stop her from shaking.
The ring. I never should have mentioned the ring..
“I’m sorry,” I say.
She shakes her head, too quick, her fingers scratching at her scalp and neck. “Can’t have,” she murmurs, over and over. “Don’t show me things I can’t touch.”
Slowly, I pry her hands from her skin, keep her nails from digging any deeper. My heart’s slowed, at least, petered out to a few hollow thuds. “I didn’t mean to,” I tell her. “I just--I wondered what it could have been like.”
Stupid habit to get into, I know.
“I do too,” she says. Her hands are tense in mine, cords about to snap. “I go there. I forget where you are.”
“I’m here,” I say, and mean it as much as I can.
“Here,” she murmurs, “here, here here,” and if her voice starts to steady her hands might too, soon.
“I love you,” I whisper, so no one can overhear it. So nothing can take it away.
Her knuckles push through mine, hold me tight. “I believe you,” she says, just as quiet, just as ours.
It’s not often that I walk in on Uncle Niall and Aunt Hannah fighting in the kitchen, though I’ve heard about it from my cousins a couple of times. And once, I saw the results, and he bought her a new rolling pin after she broke it on the countertop.
Now, I can see why.
“I don’t need his charity, Hannah—”
Aunt Hannah cuts him off, spots of color flaring in her cheeks. “Timothy and Patrick need to eat! And both of them need new shoes and Timothy’s worn through most of his shirts, so if you’re determined not to go on the trawler, you can swallow that damned Odair pride of yours and ask!”
I hang back in the doorway, just out of sight. Trawler? Why does Aunt Hannah want Uncle Niall to work on a trawler? The workers never get to keep a percentage of their catches, and I’ve heard stories about the captains, about how they keep the hands there for days when they haven’t met their quota. Roarke likes to talk about one ship that came up short and stayed at sea for ten days to make up the numbers, even though they only brought provisions for one. He says the men and women stumbled off it bright-eyed and hollow-cheeked; some had claw marks and gashes from fights over the solar stills, and some tried to drink the saltwater and withered away, drying out from the inside.
“It’s not pride when they take away a right. Why now? I’ll tell you why now, and that’s another reason I’m not taking that kid’s money.”
Me. He means me. Cold creeps into my stomach. What happened?
“Then what will you do?” Aunt Hannah slams a pot down on top of the stove, and I’m surprised it doesn’t shatter. “Tell me, Niall, because I’m out of ideas.”
Uncle Niall grabs the stovetop to steady the iron, then pulls his hands back as if it’s still too hot to touch. “I don’t know yet. Get on with Jonas, maybe. Or talk to Coral, see if there’s something on the docks. But I’m damned if I’ll let them take my boat and tell me when I can and can’t sail.”
Now’s the time to knock on the lintel, so I do. Aunt Hannah and Uncle Niall spring away from the stove and stare at me, then each other.
“Sorry,” I say. “I should’ve come in sooner.”
“Nah, then you’d’ve gotten the worst of it,” Uncle Niall says, trying to fill his face up with a smile, which turns out more like a grimace. “Guess you caught your share.”
“I did.” I step in to the kitchen. “Why did the Peacekeepers take your boat?”
”Their excuse? Underreporting.”
“Underreporting? More like overfishing, from what Aunt Coral’s been saying.” But that’s the Capitol for you; they want what they want when they want it, and when they have it they’re already hungry for the next round.
“You try telling them,” Uncle Niall sighs, leans against the countertop. “You’re there enough.”
“I will. Or I’ll talk to the Peacekeepers about your boat, at least.” It’s the least I can do, if he won’t take any of my earnings. “And I’m sure Mother wouldn’t mind looking after Timothy and Patrick for a while.” Sometimes she misses it, I think. She can watch after me as best she can, but some things I won’t let her see. Besides, I’m twenty-three. If I were anyone else in District Four I’d be married and well on my way to having either a boat or a kid.
But I’m not.
It’s useful now, though.
“Don’t you go meddling with the Peacekeepers, Finnick,” Aunt Hannah says, turning away to straighten the handle of the saucepan on the stove. “The last thing any of us want is their lot paying any more attention to your stupid proud family.”
Uncle Niall barks out a sour laugh. “They’re your stupid proud family now, Hannah Shore.”
“Not if you call me that again they’re not.”
“I’m not exactly good at not drawing attention,” I say dryly. “But I’ll try to be discreet.”
“You? Discreet?” Uncle Niall cracks me a real smile for the first time I’ve seen during this conversation. “That won’t end well.”
I smile too. “You’d be surprised.”
The Peacekeepers station their headquarters along the quayside. It doesn’t look Capitol, it’s a squat stone building with chinks for windows and a door almost too heavy to push open. Fortunately, I’m in good enough shape to, and I smile enough at the officer stationed at the front desk that she buzzes me through to the Head Peacekeeper.
“Finnick, what a surprise,” Domitiana deadpans from behind her desk. She gestures to one of the bare wooden chairs she favors. “Have a seat, air what you need to air.”
I sit, and decide to hold my smiles in reserve for now. “Your troops confiscated my Uncle Niall’s boat recently, I think.”
“Yes,” she says. “I believe he was underreporting his catches.”
“My uncle’s an honest man. If you look over the records of his catches—”
“The ones maintained by his sister-in-law, yes?”
“My Aunt Coral takes her job as seriously as my Uncle Niall does,” I say, and swallow my first retort. It won’t do me or Uncle Niall any good. “She’s a fair foreman.”
“I’m sure she is, since neither your father nor any of your other relatives have come under scrutiny.”
“He’s probably had a rough couple of weeks,” I say. “Give him time.” Give the fish time to spawn again, I think, but keep that part to myself. “I can pay the difference until he does.”
Domitiana raises an eyebrow, then shakes her head, smiling to herself. “How crooked do I look to you, Finnick? If I condone your uncle’s underreporting just because I’m on your take, that makes you and me just as guilty, doesn’t it?”
“I’m not trying to put you on my take,” I say, “I’m just trying to make sure he’s all caught up.” I resist the impulse to run my hands through my hair, barely, and settle for clenching them at my sides. None of this would raise an eyebrow, or whatever they’re using for eyebrows this season, in the Capitol. Hell, I think it’s not only encouraged but legal. Just my luck that I get a Head Peacekeeper who’s probably from District 2.
“The fact remains that you’re the richest man in town, Finnick, and I can’t afford to be pushed around. I can’t afford to show favoritism, certainly not to a victor, and especially not to you, one of the Capitol’s best beloved. It’s not a matter of catching your uncle up, it’s a matter of asserting that no one is above the Capitol’s authority.”
My hands tighten, and I try to keep my mouth from tightening too. “Believe me, I’ve never thought that.”
“Then where did you get the idea to barge in here and attempt to change my mind?” Domitiana shakes her head, and indicates with a tired little wave that I should stand. “Honestly, I should be keeping closer tabs on your family, now that I know you think you can get away with this.”
Punching Domitiana square in the jaw will do even more damage than I’ve already done, no matter how much I want to do it. “My family doesn’t know I’m here. I just wanted to look out for them.”
“That’s very pious of you,” she says. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t change my opinion, nor the fact of your uncle’s underreporting.”
I think we’ve hit the point where she’ll shrug off my smiles. Of all the times for someone to be immune to my charms, I think dryly. “Any possibility I could buy back the boat, at least?”
“For your uncle’s personal use, yes, you could. But his license will remain revoked, and if he is caught poaching in Capitol waters he will be reprimanded.”
“Understood.” I offer my hand. She doesn’t take it. I jam it back into my pocket.
“Be sensible, Finnick,” she says, motioning me out the door. “Just because you won the Games doesn’t mean we’re here to be played with.”
She has no idea how true that is.
“I don’t know how well you get this, Finnick, but getting Niall to change his mind is like trying to turn a hurricane around.”
“What, you have to go for the eye?” I ask.
Uncle Jonas laughs. It gets him in trouble sometimes, that he can crack jokes, and laugh at them, even when the situation is serious. Now’s no different. “If you can cut through the bluster, sure.”
“And you’ve been doing it for longer than I’ve been alive,” I say. “He doesn’t have to take my money, just convince him to work for you or Aunt Coral for a while. Let Mother help look after the twins so Aunt Hannah won’t feel bad about leaving them alone if she needs to work, too.”
“It’s more than that to him,” Uncle Jonas says, “more than work. It’s what it means for the District. He’s not the only one, you know. They’ve struck four other boats this week, for the same reason.”
“Underreporting.” I sigh, lace my fingers together and brace them behind my head. “It’s overfishing, isn’t it.” Which the trawlers will make worse because they harvest so much at once and don’t know how much to release, which keeps the numbers from rebounding the way they should, which makes the shortages come up even shorter, which makes the Capitol assume we’re withholding more than our share.
Haymitch says, sometimes, that he’s surprised it’s taken this long for the system to show its cracks, since it’s resting on a foundation that even a coal miner’s son can spot the holes in. Probably because you’re closer to the ground, I told him.
“And it’s not just fish they’re overfishing,” Uncle Jonas says. “You know, when the four of us got our first boat together, it was in an overfishing year? The woman who sold it to us even said, the last thing we need’s another boat out there gumming up the works, and the next-to-last thing we need’s a boat with four goddamn Odairs on it.” Uncle Jonas does voices, and I know exactly what this woman sounded like, now, and it’s always funny to hear it coming out of his throat. “But we had our plans, and we did it anyway, and we’d been saving up since Pa died so like hell we were going to let a recuperating year stand in the way of us making real money. Not to mention, Niall was still reaping age for another two years, and we’d had a scare the year before when they drew me and the Career volunteered a little too late. Now or never, you know.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Of course you didn’t, no one talks. And it’s the year Brine won, anyway, so there’s no cause. But off we went, on a fresh boat, in a rough year, and we came back with less than nothing. We didn’t make the price of our boat back. We didn’t pull in our quota, some days, even with four of us out. It plain doesn’t matter if the fish aren’t biting. And the second year was almost as hard as the first. And what’s worse is, once we got going, your dad met his first wife, and we thought that was the end of our boat, right then and there.”
Dad doesn’t talk about his first wife much. There’s a photograph I’ve seen of her, faded and creased and curling at the edges; she’s sitting in front of a window, and one of the creases runs right over her face, so I can’t see what she’s looking at. She miscarried, Dad told me. She died with the baby. Mother reached up and took his hand and pressed it to her cheek, and I decided to let them be for a while.
Uncle Jonas goes on, “It would have been if she’d stayed with us. You should’ve heard the fights your dad and Brian had about that. Funny, since in the end, Brian’s the one who doesn’t sail anymore. But if she hadn’t died, and the third year hadn’t made us our quota and then some, we wouldn’t’ve been able to start saving again.”
“Kind of a mixed blessing,” I say.
“Kind of how the sea works,” Uncle Jonas says, and I don’t know what to call what else is in his smile. “Which is better, if she takes before she gives, or takes after?”
I think of Annie, and my stomach chills. “I don’t know.”
“No one does. So she’s in a taking phase right now, and so’s the Capitol. We can’t change what she’s doing, can’t help if her timing falls flat.”
“I guess not.” I lean back, thread my fingers through my hair. “But we have to do something.”
Uncle Jonas smiles and shakes his head. “I’ll talk to Niall. Don’t worry yourself about it, Finnick.”
I grin. “But worrying’s the part I’m good at.”
Annie’s mouth is on mine, hot and insistent. “Greedy,” I manage to murmur between kisses, and she nods, grinning. She slides her hands up my ribs, pushes my shirt up and off. I start kissing the side of her neck instead, trace the sweep of her collarbones below, and she whimpers and clings to me, rolls her hips against mine, and the slow rock of the deck makes it stronger, keeps us together--
“And the siren, she screamed for me and me alone,
Singing ‘harder, harder than your human bones,’
For a saucy witch she was, but I took her in a fight,
And the seas ran whiter than the stars that night!”
Annie and I spring apart, and my skull collides with the bulkhead. I rub the back of my head, wincing, and glance out the porthole. My dad and his brothers have made their way down to the docks, and I don’t have to smell them to know they’re drunker than I ever get, and that’s saying something. They’re clustering on the barrels near my dad’s boat instead of mine and Annie’s but it’s still too close. They cheer at the end of the chorus and Uncle Brian takes the verse, his booming low voice always enough to rattle the nails and screws on the dock,
“Oh, she came up from the water, sporting scales between her thighs,
And I bet that that was deeper than the ocean of her eyes--”
Annie laughs. “I like their song.”
It’s a perfectly fine song for certain occasions that don’t include singing on the docks when I’m trying to get a moment of privacy with Annie. Hell, they’re worse than my cousins. “Hold on,” I say, grit my teeth and scramble through the hatch. I march to the rail, lean over it, and holler, “Keep it down!”
“Hi there, Finnick!” Uncle Brian waves, stopping in the middle of the verse to call me over. “Fine night for drinking, wouldn’t you say?”
“Sure is. That’s why there’s a pub. Go back there.”
“Pub’s crowded, night’s young,” Uncle Niall says. He raises his bottle, and the rest of them do likewise, then start up another chorus.
I groan and chuck a cushion at them. “Dad, tell them that this is a private dock! My private dock.”
Dad just shakes his head and laughs. “Private dock,” Uncle Jonas repeats, snickering, which sets all of them snickering. “You coming into port, Finnick?”
And here I’d thought they’d run out of innuendos to make about me and Annie years ago. I guess alcohol’s given them a second wind. I resist the urge to slam my forehead into the rail. It’s not easy. I can’t believe my dad is down there. “Knock it off.”
“Hey, Annie!” Uncle Brian yells, “You in there?”
After a moment, Annie answers them, “No!”
The uncles manage to stop laughing long enough for Uncle Brian to ask, “Finnick in there?”
Annie yells back, “Not yet!”
“It’s true,” she says.
Uncle Jonas yells, “You’d better not keep her waiting, Finnick!”
“That’s what Ruth said,” Uncle Niall adds, and if I wasn’t this pissed off at them I’d laugh about as much as they are.
“Go away so I don’t have to,” I say.
I feel breath on my back; Annie’s crept up to the deck, wearing the blankets and hiding behind me, kissing my shoulderblade. “We can wait them out,” she says softly. “They need together time too.”
“Different kind of together time,” I say, quietly enough that it won’t carry.
“Mhm,” she agrees. “But we can have all night.”
“All night, Finnick?” Uncle Jonas calls over, waving his bottle in the air.
Dad groans. “Lay off, I didn’t want to hear that about my son.”
“Then go away so you won't!” I yell back.
They laugh, point their bottles at the deck and clink them together -- isn’t it bad luck to toast with an empty bottle? Those bottles sound empty to me -- but after that, Dad says, “Come on, before I find anything else out I don’t want to know.” He ushers them off, and they start singing again, but it’s faded by the time I get Annie belowdecks again.
She nestles into my arms. “I liked their song,” she says again.
I laugh. “You mentioned. Ask Mags to teach it to you?”
“Later,” she says. “Not tonight.”
“No,” I agree, and draw her closer. “Now, where were we?”
The pub’s more crowded than usual tonight, and since it’s the end of the work week, that’s saying something. Smoke hangs thick in the air, and the laughter hasn’t stopped swelling. The hundred people in here sound like twice as many, talking too much and too fast for me to uncover more than a few drink requests or old stories everyone in the district knows. A few of the bulbs overhead need replacing, but at least there’s electricity tonight at all, and the candles on the wall hang in white wax stumps, frozen on their way to the floor like stalactites.
I order a pint and settle back, listening to what I can. Granted, sometimes it’s nice not to listen to anything at all in here, to close my eyes and drink and let the sounds wash over me. If I don’t have to work when I’m at home, then I shouldn’t work, right?
In theory, anyway. In practice, I get bored.
So I watch. The barbacks aren’t the only ones heading out the back door tonight. Since I sat down, I’ve counted four, all of them dock workers. My Aunt Coral’s oldest brother Manuel looked surprised to see me, didn’t stop to say hello, just ordered himself a tankard and headed out the back.
Five, seven, ten, fourteen. It looks like I’m the only one monitoring the traffic through the back door, other than the barbacks, who are very studiously not looking at it. Wait. I squint through the smoke. It’s not quite right to say that everyone’s carefully avoiding the back door, but enough people are, staring off to the side or at a point right above it instead like there’s a force field over it.
I drain my glass, wait a few minutes, and make my way through the crowd as inconspicuously as I can. I’ve never done inconspicuous well, though.
“Hey, Finnick,” one of the bartenders says, “the bathroom’s that way. Unless there’s something I can get you?”
Case in point.
I shake my head. “Aunt Coral told me to give Manuel something if I saw him. A scolding, I think.”
The bartender laughs. “I’ll get him for you, you just wait here,” she says, and ducks through the door herself.
I hope this works.
I get closer to the door, lean against it and listen in through the crack. I can’t make out much, not before the bartender interrupts them, but the words pay cut make it through loud and clear.
Pay cut? Looks like the docks are getting hit by the shortage, too. And they don’t seem too happy about it, if the meeting’s any indication. The talk dies down when the bartender mentions my name, and I step away from the door once it’s clear someone’s about to open it. Of course it’s Manuel, and the way he’s standing makes it clear he doesn’t want me to see who else is there.
“What are you doing here, Finnick?”
“Just wanted to talk,” I say, and shoot a significant look at the door.
He laughs. He’s a good liar, Aunt Coral says that all the time, and if I didn’t know what to look for I wouldn’t know he was putting on a show. “If it’s about Niall’s boat, believe me, I’ve already tried to throw my weight around.”
“Thanks. But it’s not.” I lean in, drop my voice. “It’s about something a little bigger.”
He looks me up and down, like he’s telling me I can’t lift that cargo all on my own. “I don’t know if this is about what you think it is, kid.”
“I have a few ideas.” I pick up a mostly-full glass, hold it at an angle to mask my lips, in case anyone’s trying to read them. Never hurts to be careful when you’re being seditious. “And I stopped being a kid years ago.”
He laughs. “Ideas.”
I smile. “Ideas. Names. Secrets.”
“And if you’re keeping their secrets so well, what’s to say you’ll keep ours?”
I don’t shatter the glass in my hand. It takes effort. “What makes you so sure I have been keeping them?”
“I don’t see those secrets on the evening news,” Manuel says. “You know what I see on the evening news? You all trussed up like one of them.”
My fingers twitch again, and I drain the glass before I do something stupid. I’ve heard worse, I remind myself, but it stings when it comes from home, from a man who’s known me since before I could swim. “You see what they want you to on the evening news,” I say. “If you want to see what they don’t want you to, we should head somewhere more private.”
He laughs again, but this one doesn’t feel like it’s at me. “Wait here, kid,” he says, pointed on the kid, and heads out back. He returns with a couple of others, men and women whose names I don’t know but all of whom I’ve seen at the docks, one evening or another. “You think you have somewhere more private? Take us there. We’ll hear you out.”
Fortunately, I own a private dock. Well. Private unless my uncles decide to celebrate there again. But I’ve searched for bugs with a few toys Beetee was kind enough to loan me and haven’t found any out here, only in the house. I’m not sure why; I suspect it might be too wet for the bugs to work properly out here.
“All right,” Manuel says. “Talk.”
Haymitch would be so proud of me. Either that or he’d berate me for jumping at the first rustle in the grass like a kid taking out his daddy’s bow for the first time, but we’ll have to see how this plays out, won’t we? “First,” I say, “nothing I say makes it past this dock. Nothing. I’ll do the same for all of you, of course.”
“Goes without saying but I’m glad you said it.”
“They’ve been cracking down here, I know,” I say. I almost add and I don’t think it’s just here, but I need to talk to Beetee and Cecelia and Chaff before I promise more than I can deliver. “They’re starting to run out of what they can squeeze from us, and the only ones who know are the ones the citizens of the Capitol are most likely to turn on if they can’t keep them supplied with what they expect to get.”
“Tell us something we don’t know,” one of Manuel’s friend says.
“You first. What do you want from them? I can tell you how likely you are to get it.”
Manuel holds out a hand to stop one of the others from speaking up first. “Fine. Say we want the pay cuts revoked. What can you say about that?”
I snort. “Not a chance, unless the numbers go up again.”
“I thought as much. Same goes for the trawlers and the tankers, I’ll bet. Tell me something I don’t know.”
I remember a conversation I had with a patron of mine a few months ago--Aldus Hawksley, fresh from an inspection of Two. A sea change, he called it, and expected me to find it hilarious. Well, I’m laughing a little more now. “There’s been some upheaval in the Peacekeepers. A lot of the old guard’s retiring, new blood’s replacing them. Young. Ambitious. Their predecessors were too soft, lots of them think.” My lip curls. “They want to make names for themselves by bringing the Districts back to standards of order not seen since the restoration of Panem’s glory.”
I don’t have to spell out what that means. They all look disgusted by it.
Manuel glances at a couple of his friends in turn, then looks back to me. “All right, you’ve given us something new. Now what was it you said about ideas?”
Now it’s time. I really am getting better at this. “If they’re cracking down here, what’s to say they aren’t cracking down in other Districts?”
“You know what’s going on in other districts?” one of Manuel’s friends asks.
“No,” I say. “But I can.” And I won’t promise more than that, not until I figure out what they want. Their pay restored, obviously. But is that the end of it? If the fish magically start swimming into our nets again in triple the numbers they did before, if we’re restored to the Capitol’s good graces, will that quell all of this? It might. I don’t know yet. I don’t want to give them so much rope that they can whip up a nice noose for me.
“All right.” Manuel stands a little closer to me than before. “When’s your next trip out there?”
“Not until the Games.”
“Fine. You come back from the Games with a better perspective on what’s going on, I’ll give you an introduction to everyone else. Got it?”
“Got it,” I say. “And if I can suggest something?”
“A lot of people here--a lot of us--” I emphasize that last word deliberately “--are struggling. Spread the word around, if you can. Tell people to start pooling the percentages of their hauls that they’re allowed to keep. They don’t have to share with everyone who’s going hungry, but if they can split it up between their neighbors, just the people who live on either side to them...it might mean fewer kids going to school with eyes bigger than their stomachs.”
“I’ll spread the word,” Manuel says. “Now you get on home, kid.”
I groan. “And here I thought I’d escaped curfews.”
When the phone rings around this time of year, it’s never a good sign. I throw my pillow over my ears for the first two rings, which don’t wake Annie up, but the phone keeps chirping at me after that, and I decide to get this damn thing over with as quickly as possible. “Hello?” I say, snatching the phone out of its cradle, trying to sound marginally more awake than I am.
“Good morning, Finnick.”
“I didn’t think anyone was awake in the Capitol at this hour,” I say, because it’s better than oh fuck. Snow. Well, I’m awake now, unless this is all a bad dream. I hope it’s a bad dream. The mussels last night did taste a little off. I glance at Annie, but she’s still asleep, her eyelids fluttering, her hair fanned out over the pillow.
“Well, what with preparation for the Games, you can imagine some of us are actually at work.”
“No doubt.” I grit my teeth, wish he’d get this over with.
“You’re mentoring this year, of course.”
I blink. “I wasn’t aware that I was.”
“It’s long overdue.”
“With all due respect,” meaning none, but he can read between the lines, “it’s been even longer since some of our other victors have mentored.” I hope Annie’s still asleep and not feigning it. I lean in closer, my forehead almost brushing hers, but she doesn’t twitch, doesn’t stir. Real, then, real and deep and peaceful. It’s rare enough that she gets that. I won’t disturb her.
“And not long enough, in public opinion.”
All right, some of them are doddering idiots, but I still don’t want to concede the point to Snow. “Any particular reason why I have to?” I ask, as evenly as possible. It’s hard to be even at this hour, when this is what I’ve woken up to.
“I’m certainly not the only one who’s missed your way with the tributes,” he says, “and who’s expected to see you onscreen during the Games, not just in the tabloids where you seem to think you belong.”
Way with the--I’m not going to throw my phone across the room. I’m not going to throw my phone across the room. I’m not awake enough to work up that kind of anger, anyway. I think. And it would wake Annie up, and I already said I wouldn’t do that. The receiver rattles in my hand. “I thought the tributes usually took up most of the screentime,” I say, “but all right. Fine. I’ll mentor. Anything else?”
I hate mentoring. It bears repeating.
“Do tell me how Annie Cresta is, Finnick. It’s not as if we’ve seen much of her since her victory.”
Now I could throw the phone across the room. I settle for squeezing the receiver as tight as I can, imagining it’s Snow’s neck under my fingers and not smooth plastic. “She’s managing.” She’s sleeping next to me right now, in fact. Which you know. I wonder what he’d do if I actually said that to him. Telling him isn’t worth getting to see the look on his face, though.
“Good for her, and you.”
I say nothing. It’s safer.
“Enjoy the Reaping ceremony, Finnick. I’ll see you in person in three days. Your stylist will tell you when.”
“Thank you, Mister President,” I say, to get it over with, and set the receiver down before he can edge anything else in. I close my eyes, breathe--the amount of space I have in my chest now almost dizzies me. That was brief, at least. Like hell I’m going to be able to go back to sleep now, but it could have been worse.
Annie nestles against my shoulder and murmurs, half-asleep. I kiss the crown of her head, draw her closer to me. “Foghorn,” she says. “Too high to be a foghorn.”
I kiss her again, because she’s beautiful and because she presses herself against me and sighs when I do and because I want to. “Telephone.”
She shudders. “Snow?”
I nod, my cheek sliding against her scalp. “Seems like I’m mentoring this year.”
“Why this year?” she asks, more level than I’d expect.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe too many people have been asking why I haven’t. Maybe he thinks Four’ll put on a better show if I’m there.” Aside from Annie, 4’s been doing poorly in the Games since I won, even falling out from the other Careers. Our girl last year came in fourth, but she struck out on her own early on, and that’s the best we’ve done except for winning since my time.
Annie finds my hand and intertwines our fingers, slides her thumb against mine, over and over, considering. “Maybe they just want to remember you. Or forget me.”
I don’t know what to say to that, other than, “Maybe.”
She doesn’t say anything to that either, just shifts so that her head is pillowed closer to my chest. Her eyes shut, but blink open, and she stares at our hands, or through them, to somewhere I can’t see.
“Can’t go back to sleep,” she says. “Tell me a story?”
“What kind of story?”
“A funny story.”
“Funny, huh?” I settle back into my pillow, mentally sift through the funny stories and search for one she hasn’t heard yet. “I don’t think I’ve told you about Uncle Jonas and the sea turtles, have I?”
She shakes her head, no, and kisses my chest lightly.
I laugh. “You’d remember if I had. I was around six, and I was coming home from a lesson at school about the animals who live in the sea, and I couldn’t shut up about the sea turtles. I followed Mother and Dad and my uncles and the aunts I had back then around, told them all about how sea turtles laid their young and what kind of water they liked and their migrational patterns. Finally, Uncle Jonas said, ‘But did they teach you about the special sea turtles?’
“My eyes must’ve gotten as big as eggs. ‘Special sea turtles?’ I asked.
“‘Yeah, there’s these special sea turtles,’ he said, ‘magical sea turtles.’ And I eat it all up, I’m six and I think everything my uncles say is true, you know?”
She laughs, just a little. “Everything?”
“Nearly everything. Anyway, Uncle Jonas said, ‘They only lay their eggs at full moon. If you go under the central pier then, you’ll find a special sea turtle egg, and you have to keep it warm under your pillow for three days so it’ll hatch.’ I tried to explain why you had to leave sea turtle eggs buried in the sand, but Uncle Jonas said, ‘Those are normal sea turtles, Finnick, these are special sea turtles. And special sea turtles have to hatch under your pillow so they can see what you dream about. And when you carry them to the sea later that night, you whisper a wish to them, just one. And then they swim back to the rest of the magical sea turtles and all the magical sea turtles get together and work their magic powers and make your wish come true.’”
It’s almost like I’m six again for a moment, remembering how much that bowled me over, how many wishes I already wanted to make. “So I waited until the night of the full moon and crept out of the house and tiptoed across the beach, to the central pier. And there was an egg there. A big one, half-buried in the sand. It wasn’t like the drawings of the sea turtle eggs my teacher made, but Uncle Jonas said this was a special sea turtle egg, so I thought of course it looks different. I found out later it was actually a cormorant egg. I still don’t know how Uncle Jonas got one.
“I ran home and stuck the egg under my pillow, and I think Uncle Jonas was thinking I’d end up crushing it in the middle of the night and I’d wake up with egg all over my hair and that’d be the end of it. But I didn’t want anything to happen to that egg. I wadded my blanket up around that egg, perched my pillow on top, and slept with the edge of my head just touching the pillow’s corner.” I demonstrate, scrunching under the covers, and Annie laughs. “I guarded that egg with my life,” I say, drag myself up next to her again. “I stuck a chair handle under the door, jimmied the window shut, everything I could do to keep a thief from sneaking in and stealing my sea turtle. Three days later, my room smelled like a rotten egg and it was starting to drift into the rest of the house, but Mother couldn’t tell where was coming from. And I was getting worried, because I thought it should’ve hatched by now, and I thought the smell might mean it was getting sick. So I went to Uncle Jonas again, and he said, ‘Well, Finnick, maybe your dreams were so strong that it forgot it was a sea turtle and it thinks it’s a little boy. So here’s what you have to do, you have to carry that egg back to the shore and dip it in the water to remind it what it really is.’” I shake my head. “Uncle Jonas never can let go of a good joke, even if he doesn’t know where it’s going.
“I snuck out of the house again, just before the dawn broke, and carried that stinking egg to the shore. The smell, Annie, I can’t even begin to tell you about it. I had to wad up bits of paper and stick them in my nose so I wouldn’t breathe it in too deep. But I told myself it was worth it to help my sea turtle friend, and that once he hatched, everything would be all right.
“Well, the seagulls were starting to wake up around that time, and they smelled what I was carrying, and when I was about to dip my friend into the ocean, they dive-bombed me. A whole flock of them. I screamed and ran, and they chased me down the length of the beach, pecking at my ears--” I was terrified out of my mind at the time, but looking back on it now, it is pretty funny. Annie thinks so, too; she clamps her hand over her mouth, trying to hold her laughter in.
“Meanwhile, Mother was tearing the house apart looking for me, and Uncle Jonas finally told her about the prank. Aunt Ruth was livid--she grabbed him by the beard and asked what he meant to do after that egg still didn’t hatch and he said he didn’t know, he thought this would have ended by now, he was making it up as he went along. She and my dad frog-marched Uncle Jonas to the beach--Mother stayed behind, she’d just gotten sick--and saw me, still carrying the egg, running from those seagulls as fast as my little legs could carry me. They were screaming, I was screaming, Aunt Ruth was screaming, Uncle Jonas and Dad were trying not to laugh.” I must have looked like the most ridiculous thing, I think, and have to bite my fist for a few moments. “But they helped chase off the seagulls, and Aunt Ruth made Uncle Jonas explain and apologize. And then she cracked the egg over his head.”
Annie clings to me, laughing so hard that everything about her shakes. “I can see it,” she manages to say, “almost smell it too.”
“It was pretty bad,” I say, and curl around her, laughing into her shoulder.
She nods and agrees, and holds me tight. “I’ll keep it here.”
“Good,” I say once I’ve calmed down enough to.
“It’s a here story,” she says, all seriousness but still smiling. “It’ll still be here when you come back, I promise.”
I kiss the nape of her neck. “I believe you.”
She hums and leans closer. “Can it be just us until you leave?”
“Yeah,” I say, and kiss her again. “It can.”
Chapter 2: Seven and Seven Sent to Crete
Reaping Day dawns clear and bright, with a hint of a breeze rolling off the sea to keep us from sticking to our seats. I can’t hold Annie’s hand on the podium, but Mags can, and I mouth a silent thank you to her before the cameras click on, their lenses glaring white in the sun. Mags is mentoring again, too. “We were a winning team last time, we might be one again,” she told me, and I must have spent two hours trying to convince her not to go, but Mags is even more stubborn than I am. And I’m an Odair, so that’s saying something. Then again, Mags is practically an Odair, too.
With the rest of the ceremony taken care of, the district representative reaches into the bowl with all the girls’ names, and holds the slip of paper up toward the light. “Pierra Garland.”
A girl steps forward out of the seventeens, trained and doomed but lackluster. She comes up to the podium as naturally as if she were walking between stands at the market. Annie flinches, and I think I know why.
The representative draws “Andre Ruiz” next. The boy that walks out of the fourteens is smaller than I was at that age, and shyer, has to be shoved out past the rope to get a start up to the Justice Building. Someone should volunteer for him, I think.
No one does.
The representative blinks, squints out over the crowd. The sun is in her eyes, so I don’t blame her for thinking she sees something, but the way she reaches out with her hand cupped when she calls for volunteers a second and then a third time is strangely horrifying, like watching someone drown. Silence. It’s a different kind of silence than the one at my reaping, thick and dark enough that the sun’s glare seems to falter. Even the eighteens won’t meet the representative’s eyes. The cameras click and falter, sweeping this way and that, not sure where to point.
I look at Mags, catch the slightest movement of her head from side to side. Not now.
I remember how nervous I was before I knocked on my first tribute’s door on the train. It was raining, and I never liked being on the train in the rain anyway, and I figured neither would he. His name was Howe, he was sixteen, and he’d been trained, and I thought it would be easy. So I knocked on the door, and heard a horrible denting sound, and I thought either the train had skipped on the rails or something was wrong with him. It turned out that he’d brought a knife and had just jammed it into the compartment’s window, to pry it open and get out.
First lesson of mentoring: it’s never easy.
Andre doesn’t try to attack me. I almost wish he would, wish he’d show me he had some fight in him. Even Annie did, when she balanced that knife on the tip of her finger. Now all they see when they look at her is you, Haymitch told me four years ago. Well, there’s no danger of that this time.
That thought sounds like Haymitch, not like me.
“You’re Finnick Odair,” he says. He speaks like Aunt Coral when she’s tired and her south-district accent slips out.
“And you’re Andre Ruiz.” I will remember his name. I can do that much for him, more than some mentors ever bother with. “I wanted to give you a chance to rest, but we’re about to watch the rebroadcast of the other Districts’ reaping ceremonies. Do you want to join us? See who else is going in with you?”
“I probably should,” he says sullenly. He turns to straighten up the covers on the bed before we leave.
“You know you don’t have to make your bed if you don’t want to,” I say, and try for a smile. “You can even jump on it, if you’d like.”
“Yeah.” My smile comes easier this time. “And the beds at the training center are even bouncier, wait and see.”
He smiles back, but he doesn’t take my hand. He probably knows what’s wrong as much as I do, but if he doesn’t say anything, neither will I.
Mags and Pierra are already perched in front of the screen. Our representative, whose name I really should double-check, nods curtly to us when we enter and hits play.
1’s tributes are professional, polished, poised, ready with styled hair and gleaming teeth when they step forward to volunteer. The pair from District 2 looks dangerous this year, the boy built thicker than Brutus was at his age, the girl with a smile sharp enough to cut. I take notice of the girl from 5 first because of her shock of red hair, then because of the way she walks up the steps to the podium: light and quick, testing. Calculating. The boy from 11 is almost as big as 2’s candidate, which should already start a flurry of betting in the Capitol. And the girl is small, so small, fine-boned and dark-skinned. When she crosses the podium, it’s as though the wind could blow her off it at any second, bear her straight up to the skies.
12’s called last, and I’m almost ready to turn off the television when another little girl gets called, but before I can get up, someone shouts, “I volunteer!”
“A volunteer in Twelve?” Our representative frowns. “That’s unusual.”
“Unprecedented,” Mags corrects. I translate, and lean forward. There’s no missing the volunteer--she runs for the stage, her blue dress streaming behind her like water, and shoves the little girl behind her, away from the crowd and the cameras and the train waiting just beyond. Like her arms can hold all of Panem at bay. District 12’s silent after the volunteer’s name is announced, but it’s not our silence, the stony refusal I just left behind. It’s stretched tighter than a bowstring, and I don’t know what’ll make it snap.
I don’t see the first person who touches their fingers to their lips and holds them out to the girl, but I see the rest of them follow. I look at Mags again. She’s not smiling. She’s waiting.
Haymitch lurches across the stage--how much has he had? I haven’t seen him this badly off at a reaping in years--and throws his arm around her. “Look at her. Look at this one!”
“Well, we’re looking,” Pierra mutters. I don’t laugh.
“I like her. Lots of...spunk! More than you!” He staggers away from her, to the front of the stage, to the eye of a nearby camera, and points straight at it. No. At all of us watching. “More than you!”
Mags takes my hand, still silent. I squeeze hers. I don’t know what to say, either. Fortunately, Haymitch takes this moment to plummet from the stage and the commentators, as hesitant as we were, make a joke or two at Haymitch’s expense and steer the program back on track for the announcement of the boy from 12.
“Well, that was something,” I say; Pierra and Andre look at me strangely, and I shrug it off as best I can. It might not be anything, I remind myself. A girl runs forward to save her sister’s life. Haymitch tumbles off the stage and passes out. Nothing that remarkable, when you break it down like that.
But we have a saying in District 4. Drop a stone on one shore, and the ripple becomes a tidal wave by the time it hits the next. Not always. But sometimes.
I won’t get my hopes up, but I will watch Katniss Everdeen. Whatever she is, she’s something the Capitol hasn’t seen in a while.
“So when did Snow start calling the mentors in for --” I stifle my yawn, stretch my arms over my head. “Actually, I still don’t know what he’s calling us in for, the message was vague as anything. ‘A conference about responsibilities’ or something like that?”
“He means our responsibilities for the Quell, I think,” Cashmere says, twisting one of her curls around her fingers to add more spring to it. “I think he wants to make sure we all know what’s expected of us next year.”
“He could’ve set it after noon,” Gloss groans, wiping crust out of the corner of his eye.
Johanna rolls hers. “I don’t see what the big difference is. We’re still trying to convince dumb rich idiots to throw their money at our dumb tributes, right?”
“Yeah, well, last time it was a pretty big deal if you were one mentor trying to juggle four kids,” Haymitch says.
“Not that he had many sponsors to deal with,” Chaff says, elbowing Haymitch in the side.
“And I bet you were just rolling in them, weren’t you, Chaff.”
I look at Haymitch more closely, without making it too obvious. His stubble’s as thick on his cheeks as it can grow, his skin swells under his eyes, and he smells as awful as ever. Same old Haymitch so far, but whether it’s because the lights are making his hangover worse or because of something else, his eyes are shining a little. Now’s not the time to ask, though, not when we’re assembled before the door of Snow’s conference room.
“It seems like a waste to give us this talk before we know what the next Quell is,” Meadow says.
“Yeah, and the Capitol never wastes anything,” Johanna shoots back. I put my hand on her arm and squeeze as a friendly reminder, though I’ll let the cameras decide of what. She tells me to fuck off, but her eyes are darting around the corners of the room, and I know she’s remembered who’s watching.
The double doors to Snow’s office open, and one nearly clocks Haymitch in the side of the head. “Careful, you don’t want to re-injure that,” Chaff says.
“The damage has already been done,” Snow says, without missing a beat. “Everyone, come in and take a seat.”
We shuffle in, some of us more quickly than others. I take Mags’s arm and steer her to a seat next to mine, one far enough away from Snow that he’d have to turn his head to look at us. I’m glad I did, because as soon as Mags settles in, her eyes drift closed and her head droops to her chest. She has the right idea, I think, and pick up one of the pens on the table, twiddle it between my fingers while I wait for this to start. And end.
“Chairs,” Haymitch says, taking a seat in the other far corner. “That’s a change.”
“It wouldn’t do to have you falling over,” Snow says, and even Chaff laughs. “With that out of the way, I’d like to make a few things clear about next year’s Games. Now, most of you haven’t been mentors in a Quarter Quell before, even if you were victors at the time. There are of course exceptions,” he adds, nodding to Beetee and Chaff and Seeder, then turning to glance at Mags, who I nudge awake in time. “And I’m sure they will have advice of their own. But even their experience will not prepare you for some of the technical considerations, the publicity, or even the nature of the tributes themselves. You’ll recall that, last time, for the fiftieth Games, there were twice as many tributes, and therefore each mentor had at least two to guide...”
Mags snorts a little, sinking into the back of her chair, and I don’t slump as much as she does but I do drift, dance my pen across the backs of my fingers, weaving in and out. I’m not the only one, I realize after I’ve run out of pen tricks. Chaff is running his thumbnails under each other, scraping them clean. Wiress is idly braiding a lock of her hair in a strange four-strand style that I’ve never seen before. Seeder is staring out the window at a bird that’s perched on the far side, tilting her head to imitate it. Enobaria’s listening, but snapping her gum loudly enough that Mags grunts in her sleep. And Beetee’s managed to smuggle a laser pointer in here, which he’s bouncing on the wall above Snow’s head.
“...in addition to your capacities as mentors, and as the public faces of your districts, you’ll also be contributing to the history of the Games themselves...”
I’d groan, but I don’t want to draw his attention. Across the table, Johanna catches my eye and makes a hand-and-cheek gesture that implies just how much this sucks.
I shake my head and reduce the size of the appendage in question.
Johanna snorts into her fist.
She gives him her best simpering smile and nearly sends a number of us into hysterics, including Gloss. I can’t see what Cashmere does, but from the way Gloss flinches I assume she kicked him under the table. What? he mouths at her; she gestures to Snow and crosses her arms, her lips pursed, and that sets off what I can only describe as the loudest nonverbal argument I’ve seen in a while.
Snow continues, “And as to the matter of your spending in the Quarter Quell season, in the event that you see an increase or decrease in the quantity or implied quality of tributes--that is, if the age range changes--your District budget will be adjusted accordingly. There’s also a chance that certain sponsor gifts may be prohibited. In the last Quarter Quell, food items--”
“Hey, I can’t get the doors open,” Haymitch says.
“And why would you need to?”
“Because I’m sure you don’t want me to piss in your vase.”
Snow sighs and hits a button on the side of his desk. The doors swing open, as before. “Knock if you bother coming back. As I was saying, in the last Quarter Quell...”
Beetee shines the laser pointer on the tip of Snow’s nose. If Snow notices, he doesn’t show it. Brutus glowers at Beetee, and Beetee clicks it off. Shame.
Johanna picks an imaginary hair out of her teeth. I do the same, but pretend it’s long enough to be obscene.
Which is, of course, the exact moment Snow decides to look my way. I wipe my nail on my pants, elbow Mags awake, and give Snow my toothiest, cheeriest smile.
“I don’t suppose I should ask if you have any questions, Finnick.”
“No, sir,” I say, my eyes wide. “You explained everything so clearly.”
Johanna’s nearly convulsing in her seat.
“It’s only that it’s been several years since you’ve mentored at all. Are you sure there’s not something you’ve forgotten?”
“I think I’ll figure it out,” I say. My teeth hurt. “It’s like swimming. Once you learn, you don’t forget.”
He taps his fingers on the edge of his desk, and the door opens for Haymitch again. “Sit down,” he says, and then, back to me, “Nevertheless, I think a remedial lesson might be in order. I don’t believe you have anywhere else to be at this hour, Finnick.”
Drusus is still working over my tribute, and my next job doesn’t start until an hour before the Opening Ceremonies. “I don’t.”
“Haven’t gotten called in for detention for at least twenty years,” Haymitch says, sitting back down and crossing his ankles.
“You I want out of my sight again as soon as possible,” Snow says. “Finnick, Mags, Cecelia, Baste, and Beetee, if you wouldn’t mind?”
3, 8, and us. All right, now I almost want to stay behind. What’s going on? I exchange looks with Cecelia, who appears to be as in the dark as I am, and Beetee, who I can never read anyway.
As soon as the others are gone, and Snow shuts us in again--Wiress stayed as well, Snow never addresses her directly, so I’m sure she and Beetee just assumed--then asks us to stand up. I help Mags, let her take my arm.
“This is personal reminder to you six,” he begins. “The Quarter Quells were laid down to make the message of the Games clear beyond any doubt. It seems they always come around in time to send that message home, to the Districts, where it belongs. Mags, I’m sure, remembers just how important it was to have elected tributes for the twenty-fifth Games,” he says, nodding at her, and then Cecelia, “and I’m sure Woof would have a thing or two to say about it. I encourage you to ask him, when you return home. And the importance of Haymitch’s Games can’t possibly be lost on you all. Every twenty-five years or so, the districts start forgetting just why things are the way they are.”
It’s colder than it was, in here. I wonder if there’s another button for that on his desk.
“It is your job, as victors, to be a living reminder of just that. So if I hear that you have been working counter to your duties, the repercussions will be felt not only by you and your families, but by your communities. After all, if you forget yourselves--you, the Capitol’s chosen--then they must be beyond help.”
I don’t speak. Don’t breathe, for a second. So it isn’t just 4. I need to talk to Beetee and Cecelia as soon as I can--not right after this meeting, obviously, because what better way to confirm Snow’s suspicions, but soon. Is that why Haymitch was smiling? Does he know what’s spreading under the surface in 4 and 3 and 8? I need to talk to him, too. Preferably after he’s showered.
“Any questions?” he asks again.
No one has any. Not that they want to ask him, anyway.
“Excellent. Finnick, please stay behind for now. I’ll call in the rest of you later.”
Me first. Wonderful. I should thank Snow for being so considerate of my schedule.
Mags squeezes my hand a little before she leaves. “Hang in there,” she says. I don’t translate that for Snow. I watch her leave, and Snow has to remind me to turn around an look at him, so I brace myself for a lecture.
“You know,” he says, “of all of them, I think it’s most crucial that you know your place.”
I stand straighter, brace myself, fight the urge to flinch. Not here. Not in front of him. It’s more of a victory if he gets nothing out of me at all. “Really.”
“Really.” He smiles. The tip of his front tooth is stained slightly brown, like it would be on a woman with lipstick. He licks it away with the pad of his tongue, and goes on. “You’ve enjoyed so much in these last few years, some freedoms that even the other victors aren’t party to. You’re part of Capitol society to an extent that no other victor still living has achieved. You’re here more often than any of the others, now that Cashmere’s starting to concentrate on her business back in District One--which of course I know about, don’t look surprised. I wish her and Gloss all the best. It’s good of them to concentrate on each other.”
Because you stopped selling her and Gloss when they found out about each other, I want to say, but keep my silence. Or maybe they’re just getting too old, is that it? It’s not like you’ve ever cared about sentiment.
“But you, Finnick; everything in your life seems to be leisure, pleasure even. When you’re here, you’re the talk of the town, so to speak. And when you’re home, why, you have every comfort, lazing around on a boat all day, enjoying your family. And you don’t have to mentor, or you didn’t until now, and that’s only in the interest of fairness. All in all, it’s a luxurious life, especially compared to the one you came from--unless, of course, I believe what you always say, that you came from the sea!”
Luxurious? Luxurious? I clench my fists at my side hard enough to scrape crescents into my palms, force my jaw shut. You sell me, I want to scream, but will myself not to, swallow it down until the words seethe in my gut. You whore me out to the Capitol’s finest--oh, if I could only tell you, Mister President. The things they’ve done. The things I’ve heard. I think they’ve managed to keep some of it from your ears. Or do you know what they say about you when they’re through with me, when they want to give something back because of how much I’ve given them?
“Why on earth would you want to throw that away on something that could only hurt your family, Finnick?”
I loosen my jaw enough to grit out, “I’m not throwing anything away.” That much is true, at least.
“That’s good to hear,” he says, smiling brightly now that that front tooth is clean. “It would be a shame. But I am concerned for your family. Your Head Peacekeeper has been informing me of some of the troubles you’ve come into in recent months, and I can’t help but hear a few other things.”
My fists lock even tighter, which is wrong. I can’t look like I’m holding anything in. But I can’t relax, convince my stomach to unknot and my jaw to unstiffen. “It’s been a slow season,” I say as neutrally as possible. “They happen.”
“They do. I certainly understand that, even if it seems that the rest of the Capitol does not. These things come in cycles,” he says, rounding his desk to get a look out the window. The bird Seeder was looking at before is still there, sitting on the same branch. Snow gives it a friendlier smile than I’ve ever seen him give anyone else. “Even unhappiness is a phase.”
Images of Annie come to me unbidden: the sunlight threaded in her hair, the shell-and-rope anklet I wove for her, the smile she wears just before I wake her up in the morning if it’s been a restful night. “It is,” I say. But not for the reasons he thinks.
“Why, your uncle’s property might even be restored to him in time, if he works diligently through this rough patch. What is he doing with his time, these days? Has he found work elsewhere?”
“He’s helping my uncle Jonas,” I say, and I’d guess Snow already knows that, too.
“Good for them. And your other uncle, the one that doesn’t sail? How is his family?”
His family. Aunt Coral. Or Aunt Coral’s brothers, at least, though if one of Coral’s siblings is neck-deep in something, they usually all are. “He’s doing well enough,” I say, keep my tone even blander. “I don’t know a lot about carpentry, so I can’t say for sure.”
“Little Crescent is his, isn’t she. How old is she now?”
“Almost five,” I say quietly, barely over the sick swell of my pulse. He expects me to buckle, beg, get on my knees and plead for his forgiveness. I don’t. I haven’t done anything I need his forgiveness for.
“And how many other children do they have?”
“Three.” And like hell I’m letting Snow touch any of them.
“And your aunt has an extended family of her own, doesn’t she. Do they all also work at the docks?”
I hate it when he draws this out. “Yes.”
“Some of the most virulent things happen at the docks, you know, and in the factories. Hateful people who don’t understand just how much security they have. I’m asking you to remind them of that security, Finnick. Be an example of what they can attain.”
Yeah, I’m sure they’d just love to have my job instead. “I’ll do my best.”
He smiles, like he wants me to think he believes me. “Good. And I do understand that luxury brings with it is own misery, Finnick.”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
“Well, so much the better for you. You have an example to set, Finnick. Do that, and I promise your life will be even easier.”
Oh, if only he knew how I really want to respond to that offer. Spit on his shoes. Throw up in his potted plants. Say that I’d tell him to shove it up his ass but I have no interest picturing that and I doubt it would fit, anyway.
“Do you have anything you’d like me to clarify, Finnick?”
“No. You’ve been clear.”
“Have I? Then please, tell me what you’re supposed to be doing.”
A muscle in my jaw twitches before I can stop it. “This year? Mentoring my tribute.”
My smile hurts. It doesn’t even feel like mine. “Make sure everyone in the Capitol loves me.”
“Good. And when you go home?”
“Keep out of trouble,” I say, fix my smile in place. It doesn’t mean I won’t be causing any.
“And keep your family out of trouble,” he prods.
I’m twenty-three years old, and he always manages to make me feel like I’m five. “And keep my family out of trouble,” I repeat.
“Good. I’ll hold you to that.”
Hold yourself to that, I think, I’m not the one who’s threatening them. He waits again. I know exactly what he’s waiting for. Do I want to test his patience or get out of here more? Get out of here, I decide. “Thank you, Mister President.”
“You’re welcome, Finnick. Please send Mags in. If you’d like to wait for her outside, you’re more than welcome.”
I nod once, sharply, turn on my heel, and leave. I’m impressed with myself in a distant sort of way, since I manage not to try and slam doors that he controls with the push of a button. Mags and the others are sitting in chairs lined up against the wall, and if they had a few fewer wrinkles they really would look like schoolkids waiting to get called into the principal’s office. “Mags, you’re next,” I say.
She leans on her cane to get up, and touches my cheek fondly before she takes her turn. I’ll wait for her, I decide, and wish Snow’s assistants had left magazines or something for us. Maybe Wiress will teach me that braid she was doing earlier.
When I look to Wiress, I spot someone at the end of the hall. I’ve seen Snow’s granddaughter on television before, and at some of the less ostentatious parties I’ve been to. She must be nine years old now, though she looks smaller, with thin tight features that don’t look much like Snow at all.
“Hey,” I say, jogging closer to her. “You’re Diana, right?”
She retreats around the corner a little more, but doesn’t stop looking at me. “And you’re Finnick Odair.”
I kneel so my head isn’t quite so far above hers. “Yeah. I guess I’m pretty recognizable, aren’t I?”
“We don’t use your coffeemaker,” she says. “But that’s not you either. The actor has a bigger nose. And less muscle.”
I laugh. Sharp kid. I think I like her. “Want to know a secret? I don’t use that coffeemaker, either.”
She smiles, but doesn’t laugh, and the smile’s a little heavy. “That’s not much of a secret.”
“I don’t know if your grandfather wants me to share some of the other ones,” I say, try to crack a grin for her but stop when her smile droops at the corners. “Hey. Everything okay?”
I lean in a little closer--not enough to spook her, but enough to signal I’m interested. “Is that a yes?”
“Yes,” she says with a little more certainty, and nods. Her hair is very light blonde, tipped in green. Trying to look older makes her look younger. I wonder if that’s what her parents want her to look like.
“Is it just you visiting this time?” I ask. “Or did your mom let you off the hook for the day?”
“My mommy’s not here,” she says.
“Sometimes that’s better,” I say, and smile at her like a fellow conspirator. “You get to take home a lot more sweets when your mom’s not around, usually.”
“Mommy’s sick. She gets a lot of candy but I get to eat it. It’s not as nice as that.”
Great, now I feel like an asshole. “I’m sorry,” I say; it’s the most honest thing I’ve said since I arrived in the Capitol. “I hope she gets better soon.”
“So do I. I miss her. So does Daddy.”
“My mother got sick, too, when I was a little younger than you,” I tell her, and offer her my hand. She walks closer, and I tuck my arm around her shoulder, bring our foreheads together. “But she got better, and she’s doing fine now. And that was in District 4. The doctors here are even better.”
The doors to Snow’s office open, and Mags takes time walking through. I can’t help looking, and there’s Snow, with nothing to do but watch me. He’s far enough away that I can’t tell if it’s disapproval or just amusement. Well, if nobody else seems interested in spending time with his granddaughter, including him, I don’t see why I shouldn’t. There are worse influences than me out there, believe it or not. I straighten, ruffle Diana’s hair. “I have to take Mags home now. It’s time for her nap. I’ll look for you at the Opening Ceremonies, okay?”
“Okay,” she says, stepping back around the corner. “Thank you for trying to be nice.”
“Least I could do,” I say, and mean it.
“-- and I told him, Sallustius darling, what do you mean you feel as though your heart’s about to burst, you haven’t lifted a finger all day. Of course his face was dreadfully red, and that should have been a sign, I suppose, but I thought he’d just been overindulging again. He certainly smelled like it.”
I make some kind of noncommittal noise, which Venefica takes as a sign to continue prattling on about her late husband. With all the clamor in the crowd in front of Snow’s mansion, I only catch every other word. All around me, people elbow each other for better vantage points, angle themselves for the benefits of the cameras sweeping over the throngs, whisper predictions about what the stylists have in store. I pay attention to those last, because I still haven’t heard from Cinna about where he’s been placed, though I do know he got in. I know head stylist positions opened up in 3, 8, 11, and 12 this year, which almost amounts to a regime change in the fashion world. They’d usually stick Cinna with 12 and let him prove himself from there, but with that many openings and with his level of skill, he’s good enough to get something more prestigious if he wants it. And I’m not just talking him up because of what he pulled off when he served a stint as my stylist last year, though that was a revelatory experience. For both of us, I think.
It’s interesting that two of the three of the troublemaker Districts are getting new stylists this year. Has Cinna made that connection, too? Maybe not, but the last I spoke to him, he wasn’t against stirring up a little trouble himself.
“But it was like that all night, and most of the next day, and even after we called in Doctor Halloway--Junia Halloway, you’ve met her of course, Finnick--she insisted it was just a worse case of heartburn than usual. Damn her, if she wasn’t a friend of ours I’d have her sued. But that was my Sallustius, no wonder she kept giving up, I swear the poor interns at her office must have taken to calling him the man who cried wolf. But the for once, the tests turned something up, and so I told President Snow, oh, take away my husband and give me Finnick Odair, I don’t know whether I should call that sporting or not.”
--Now I’m listening. “What?”
She laughs, a merry little trill that matches the opening notes of the processional music. “Oh, you mustn’t take me seriously, Finnick! Coriolanus and I are old friends, and we have our little jokes. You should have heard how we laughed when I pointed out that after all, he was the last person to have dinner with Sallustius, and wouldn’t that look suspicious if this were a novel?”
“Very,” I say, and pretend to be absorbed in the flashpots and fireworks that signal District One’s arrival in the chariots. They’re painted silver this year, from head to toe, and glittering with jewels. The screaming in the crowd swells, and I tune it out as best I can. “So what was the diagnosis? Heartburn?”
“No, apparently he had a weak heart all along! Well, in the aorta, whatever that is, it’s part of the heart, I think.”
“Close enough,” I tell her, and turn my attention back to the parade. Sort of. The setup’s nothing I haven’t read in the kinds of novels I usually don’t admit to reading, but even the killers in those had motives. I sigh. I’ve been jumping at shadows all day. I’ll think about it more when we get back to her place, when thousands of people aren’t shouting in my ear and thousands of lights aren’t flaring up all at once. Here’s District Two, and I swear that boy is larger than the chariot horses. Three puts on a good face, but it’s not something Cinna designed. I make sure to wave at Andre and Pierra when they come by. At least Drusus didn’t turn them into fish this year. But honestly, between Venefica’s yammering and the lack of anything new to look at, I’m starting to get bored.
Bored in a crowd of the Capitol’s best and brightest. That must be what Snow means by luxury. I almost feel sixteen again, and not in the way anyone here would like.
“Do you smell something burning?” Venefica asks me.
“No,” I say.
But then I see it.
The tributes from District Twelve are on fire.
Now, I’ve seen those sketches, I was there when Cinna made them. You could even say I inspired them, in a way. I think that’s the first time someone’s stopped having sex with me to draw. But those helmets and capes light up the entire parade row and the tributes’ faces, bright enough that I recognize Katniss Everdeen, the girl who volunteered, before I even wonder how they’re keeping her hair out of the flames. They’re magnificent, and they’re memorable, and they’re holding hands and waving, working the crowd.
Cinna said he had to go last. He was right.
“Oh my goodness!” Venefica applauds, hands high so that the sound is right in my ear. “I’ve never seen something like that before! Is that really District Twelve?”
“Looks like,” I say. It looks like a lot of things. Like Cinna’s said, it’s now. Like Haymitch meant more than just falling off his stage. Like the meeting in Snow’s office had nothing to do with the Quarter Quell from the start.
Maybe I’m jumping at shadows because the flames are getting brighter.
Chapter 3: A Body for a War
“Well, now he’s gone and done it,” Johanna says. “Wasn’t enough to get them killed in the Arena, now he has to set them on fire before he even sends them in.”
“It worked,” Greg says, scowling. “Have you seen the recaps of the opening ceremonies? Seconds of airtime for everyone else, and then,fire, fire fire.”
“I hear they’re not doing bad for themselves in training either.” Meadow glances at the District 1 and 2 mentors across the room, hashing out pack business without me, no doubt.
Johanna shakes her head. “This is all a circus this year. More than usual, I mean. Between Snow calling us in at the crack of dawn for his boneheaded meeting and Haymitch’s flaming tributes...”
I snort; she whips her head around, smirks in my general direction. “So what’s your act?” she asks me, sweet enough to make my teeth hurt.
“This year? Juggling.”
She snorts. “What happened to your stupid rope tricks?”
“Who says I can’t have more than one talent?”
She reaches into the fruit bowl on the nearest table and throws me a bunch of grapes. “Let’s see it.”
“I meant juggling other things,” I say, but try to snatch the grapes out of the air anyway. I catch most of them, though one splatters against the back of Seeder’s head. She looks up, rubs at her hair. “Sorry.”
“Are you the one who threw it?”
“No, I just missed catching it.”
“Then you don’t have to apologize,” she says, smiling, and makes her way over to the cluster of us by the fruit, helps herself to an orange.
“So why’d Snow make all of you stay after, anyway?” Johanna asks, strips another bunch of grapes from their stem. “Did you stick chewing gum under your desks?”
“Ha,” I say, and shrug. “Who knows? He wasn’t that specific.” I flick my eyes towards the one camera we can see, stationed in the far right corner, and hope Johanna gets it.
She raises her eyebrow, but checks over her shoulder, and there, that’s all she needs. “He should probably spend more time looking after his kid. I almost tripped over her on the way out.”
“Grandkid,” Cecelia corrects. “But you’re right. Even if not him, someone should be watching her.”
Seeder sets her orange down next to Johanna and looks up. “I think Snow is watching her. Her mother’s been so sick, and her father’s been by her side.”
“That’s what Diana told me,” I say. “Do you know what it is?”
Seeder shakes her head. “Not exactly. There’s something wrong with her heart, some weakness in her aorta. She and her husband have been spending a fortune on medication, but nothing’s worked yet.”
Wait. I frown. “A weakness in her aorta?” I repeat.
“That’s what I’ve heard,” she says. “Why?”
“Seems strange, that’s all,” though I’m not going to tell Seeder precisely why. Not now, anyway. “Like the kind of thing the Capitol would normally fix in, well, a heartbeat.”
She laughs once, but there’s no mirth in it. “There are some things even the Capitol doesn’t know how to treat.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I guess so.”
It’s my last night with Venefica, so of course she wants to make it something special, and of course I want to get out of there as fast as possible. At least the vintage she’s uncorked for the occasion is good. I ignore the impulse to gulp the glass down as quickly as possible and sip instead, let the flavor break on my tongue. Venefica curls closer to me, and I decide I can put up with it for the next few hours. Let her make the most of her time.
-- on second thought, I can make the most of this, too.
“Have you considered suing that doctor?” I ask, as casually as possible, my fingers resting on her shoulder.
“Well, of course!” She swishes the wine in her glass, lets it recede back to a level circle. “But lawsuits are so tedious these days.”
I smile. “More like a circus than a courthouse, isn’t it?”
“Oh, exactly. They’ll look for any excuse to drag the issue out until they make as much as you’re trying to make back! It’s insensible.”
“You know,” I say, as though the thought’s just occurring to me -- and in some ways it is -- “maybe that does make the Games a good time to strike. Everyone’s too distracted to pay real attention to anything else.”
“--that’s an idea,” she says, and drinks a long considerate sip. “But are you sure they won’t just postpone?”
My smile sharpens. “Not if you insist on a settlement. That’s what happened -- is it gauche to talk about someone else I was seeing?” I lower my eyelids, which makes me look more sultry than chastened, but if that’s what the situation calls for. “Because I knew this doctor. One of her clients sued for malpractice during the invitation to the feast at the Seventy-second Games, and she rushed to settle because she didn’t want to miss a second of the action.”
Venefica swats me with the backs of her fingers. “Cheeky of you to tell. But that’s good, that’s very good.”
This time, I manage to look a little more chastened.
“I’ll at least pitch the idea to my lawyers,” she says, patting me on the jaw. “If there’s a case to be had and money to be made, I’m sure they’ll be all for it. And I would appreciate a little restitution, after all.”
“Just make sure there’s actually a case first,” I say. “I’m sure the lawyers don’t want to be taken away from the Games, either.”
I’m almost having fun with this. I can’t remember the last time I’ve thought that about a client.
“Oh, of course, of course,” she says. “I wouldn’t dare otherwise.”
I bring Andre a chocolate sundae with fudge and obscene amounts of whipped cream after he gets back from training. For a moment, his face glows brighter than District 12’s capes at the Opening Ceremonies. We chat about our favorite foods for a while, and I tell him that if he wants, he can have chocolate at every meal. I figure I can do that much for the kid. He says he’d like that a lot.
After the sugar rush wears off and he settles in for a late afternoon nap, I swing by Venefica’s unannounced.
“--Finnick!” she laughs when a house Avox shows me in. “And here I thought you were through with me.”
“What,” I say, my fingers splayed over my heart like I’ve been gravely wounded, “should I leave?”
“Certainly not! Please, come in, I’m going over the files just like you suggested and it looks like I might just have a case.”
The files. Perfect. I almost wish I’d taken a camera with me, but that’d look too suspicious, and besides, I’ve trained my memory well over the years. “Really?”
“Yes!” She ushers me over to the table, and really, she’s far too exuberant for someone who’s talking about suing over her husband’s death by medical malpractice, but I’m not going to complain. “I don’t understand all the jargon, of course. But my lawyers told me to circle any numbers that changed a lot from one report to the next, and I’ve been doing that all afternoon. It’s exciting! I might be done in time for the training score announcements tomorrow night.”
I bend over the files and study the numbers, try to commit them to memory. I can’t make sense of them, either, but I know enough people who can. More than the numbers, the words jump out at me, lists of chemicals and percentages, and even if I don’t remember the exact amounts I can school myself on which are high and which are low and which she’s already circled.
“Well,” I say, “it certainly looks like something.”
Unlike the rest of us clowns, Meadow Pratchett has a job. She doctors the livestock in District 10, and she used her victor’s earnings to pay for veterinary school in the Capitol. It’s not quite the same as looking after humans, but I figure she still knows more than I do. I just hope I’ve been looking for the right thing.
I corner her outside the victors’ lounge an hour or so after dinner. I’ve gotten to enjoy dinner in the Training Center for once, since it’s one of my rare nights off. “Hey, Meadow. Can I borrow you for a while?”
“Sure,” she says, and taps the other mentor from Ten on the arm as she gets up to follow me. “What’s shaking?”
I lead her into one of the auditory dead zones Beetee showed me years ago -- the cameras can still pick us up, but the bugs in the hallway don’t record the sound cleanly. “I was wondering if you could make sense of this,” I say, and hand her the paper where I’ve scribbled down everything I could remember from Venefica’s.
She blinks, and, mouths, medical records? at me, bemused.
She shrugs, and takes a minute to look the paper over. “Was this person taking heart medication?”
“Might have been. Why?”
“‘Cause it looks like he overdosed. There’s a bit too much digitalin in his blood. It comes from foxglove,” she explains when I look at her blankly. “It’s a good antiarrhythmic agent -- good at controlling irregularities in the heartbeat -- but it’s highly toxic.”
“So antiarrhythmia --”
“Arrhythmia,” she corrects.
“Can that be caused by a weakness in the aorta?”
Meadow frowns. “Not really. Arrhythmia refers to abnormal electrical activity in the heart, not aortic aneurysms. I wouldn’t use digitalin to treat an aortic aneurysm, but if it went undiagnosed --”
“Right, right,” I say. Still nothing definitive. It could all be coincidence. Then again, it’s not like I’m going to have the opportunity to drag all of this before a court. And in the Capitol, whispers can be more telling than shouts. “So foxglove’s pretty toxic, you said.”
“Very toxic, especially the leaves on the upper stem. A nibble’s enough to cause death in a lot of cases. Even drinking water from a vase with foxglove in it can be fatal.” Meadow peers at the sheet again, frowning. “And this was more than a nibble.”
Suddenly, I’m very curious about what kinds of flowers they’re sending Snow’s daughter at the hospital. “But the digitalin could build up over time too, right? Before it got fatal?”
“Sure.” She folds the sheet, crosses her arms and gives me the kind of severe look I usually associate with my Aunt Ruth. “Finnick Odair, are you asking me for advice about how to poison someone?”
I laugh. “Me? No. All I’m killing is time.”
“Are you going out?” He doesn’t look up from the palette he’s redesigning. “You could have told me earlier.”
“It was sort of a last-minute decision,” I say, run my thumbnail over the edge of the table.
“All right.” He smears a curl of green eyeshadow on the paper, fiddling with the edge. “Anything special?”
“Aurelia Usher-Wallace is hosting a Come As You Aren’t party. You know, dress outside your usual milieu. I thought it sounded like fun.” More importantly, I’ve been running through what I know and asking a few discreet questions, and I remember my evening with Hawksley last year. He’d been parroting Snow for so long that he barely knew how to form his own words, but he did have stories about the old days, back when his star was still on the ascent -- his and Snow’s and Argentia Usher’s, Aurelia’s sister. “Oh, the three of us were rascals back in the day,” he said, “you wouldn’t believe it to look at us now, but we were. Thick as thieves and quite as canny.”
“And now he’s President, and you’re his man with the Peacekeepers,” I said. “Where’s Argentia?”
He frowned -- I remember how strange it looked, to see a line form in skin stretched so carefully tightened. “It didn’t end well,” he said slowly. “She got sick, her heart ran down. And then it was just the two of us.”
I didn’t press it much then, but I can’t help but wonder now if there was more to it than that.
Drusus looks me up and down and laughs, and repeats, “Come As You Aren’t. You’re just itching for the chance to wear something you can hide behind.”
“I’m itching for the chance to wear a shirt.”
“All right. I can whip you something up. What aren’t you, Finnick?” he asks me.
Which is how I wind up at this party in a deerstalker hat and a plaid capelet. He even sent one of the prep team out to find me a calabash, and I show up at Aurelia’s with it posed in my mouth, tilted just so.
“Oh dear, Finnick,” she says, clasping her hands over her mouth. “I almost didn’t recognize you!”
I grin around the calabash. “How can you be so sure it’s me?”
“I could never miss those eyes. But if not for that, and, well,” she draws my frame in the air so that the dangling drops of stylized blood on her arms jangle against each other, “I’d have thought you were Tiber for sure! You remember that detective he played, oh, but it was before your time, Finnick, certainly...”
She escorts me in, announces me to the crowd just in case the rest of me doesn’t speak for itself. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to this many people wanting my attention all at once, no matter how many times my cousins throw themselves all over me when I walk in the door back home. But out of the hundred people already filling this house, it feels like I have to talk to fifty in the first ten minutes, and two different Avoxes thrust two different drinks into my hand in the same amount of time. I drink the one with the sugared rim, which at least five people have a witty comment about, most of them some variation on how sweet I am. I pretend the jokes are funny. The drink’s good, though, and I sip it as I try to see past the crowd to the surroundings themselves.
Aurelia’s front hall is cavernous, big enough to house most of the street where I grew up, and there’s a grand tiered staircase in back perfectly suited for sweeping entrances. Is there any less showy way of getting upstairs? If I’m looking for information on Argentia, it’s probably up there, and a few casual questions confirm that yes, Aurelia’s study is on the second floor. “Though I don’t know what on earth she uses it for, it’s not as though she’s picked up a book in ten years,” my companion says. “But I suppose she keeps it there out of sentiment. Her sister, you know.” He heaves a sigh. “Such a promising young thing -- if you ask me, if she hadn’t gotten sick, Argentia and Aurelia might be hosting this party in the presidential mansion.”
Really, sometimes they do my job for me.
“It’s not nearly as solid a space, Postumus,” someone says from behind us.
My conversant turns around and rolls his eyes. “Well someone’s on a hot streak. Since when are you doing event planning, Cinna?”
“I’m not,” he says. “But the hallways are so tight there. Hello, Finnick.”
I whip around fast enough that I nearly spill my drink. “Hello, Cinna. -- you’re wearing white.”
He stretches out his arms so that the full senatorial toga brushes the floor. It’s immaculate, and between the purple stripe and the gold laurels on his head I can see exactly what he’s doing with his eyeliner. He gives a hesitant twirl. He might be a little drunk, the screwdriver in his left hand is almost down to the bottom of the glass, but there’s a bloody dagger in his right hand and the blood is somehow confining itself to his outfit alone.
“I am not Cinna the conspirator,” he says. “And you’re apparently not that good at deduction.”
I groan for so many reasons, most of which I’m not comfortable mentioning around this many people. “Well, it’s not subtle. But you’re all about statements this year, aren’t you?”
He laughs. I’ve missed him. “I’m just making them where more people can hear.”
“I’ll say. They’re hard to miss.” I stroll towards the wall as casually as I can, try to put my back to the gossiping crowd. “Those costumes at the Opening Ceremonies were something.”
“I thought it was time,” Cinna agrees.
“Really.” I finish my drink, set the glass down somewhere, it isn’t important. I know what he’s talking about. He knows what I’m talking about. I almost want to throw caution to the winds and say it, scream it even, but instead, I say, “So you think it’s this year. This year, that girl.”
He’s too short to look over my shoulder, but I can see his eyes darting into the crowd. “You don’t?”
“I haven’t met her,” I point out. “I saw something, but -- I don’t know. I don’t know who she is.”
“Well, you’ll see. At the interview tomorrow, at least.” He lowers his voice. “But I could tell you more. It’s a little loud here.”
I nod, and throw him the kind of smile that anyone looking our way can’t mistake for anything but an entirely different set of bad intentions. “Upstairs?”
“Here?” he says, grinning back. “Then again, I’m sure she won’t mind.”
“I’m sure she’s seen worse,” I say lightly, and scan the crowd again; there are heads turned my way, of course, but not any more than usual, and not any glances that seem persistent enough to be a problem. “And I’m sure her party will survive without me, somehow.”
He finishes his drink, puts the glass down, and offers me the hand that isn’t covered in fake blood. I accept, and apparently that marble staircase is just as good for exits, because there are a few wolf-whistles and claps when I lead Cinna up it.
He slips his hand into my back pocket. I raise my eyebrows.
“This is revenge,” Cinna says, smiling, “for all the times you pulled this on me.”
I smile right back. “You liked it.”
“Oh, of course. But I never got to do it to you.”
Upstairs, it’s quieter. Noise still filters up from the celebration downstairs, but Aurelia must’ve invested in some sort of soundproofing because the volume drops abruptly when we enter the hall. Cinna looks over my shoulder, then nods when he’s sure we’re not being followed.
“It’s not just that she volunteered,” Cinna says quietly. “It’s how and why and what else she is. I can’t put my finger on it. I just know. If this was any other year, and I could bet, I’d lay everything on her.”
“It’s a lot to lay on one girl,” I say, and try the door to my left. It leads into the library. “What does Haymitch think?”
“As if I know. He knows what I’m doing and he’s letting me have a shot. That’s all, as far as I can tell.”
“I don’t even think he knows what he’s up to half the time.” It’s almost a comfort to see a room in the Capitol with this many books, shelves stretching from floor to ceiling, but the dust on the spines of the books tells me that Aurelia doesn’t keep this room around for use. For her sister, then. I really need to find that study. There’s a door to my left that seems to lead to another room; when I open it and flick on the light, I see a velvet-cushioned chair that’s lost its luster, a desk whose edges have almost been sanded away, a framed photograph of a solemn-eyed young woman with a strong nose and jaw.
“I guess that’s Argentia,” I say.
“What are you looking for?” Cinna asks.
I motion him inside, close the door behind us. “I don’t know yet. Proof. Something more solid.”
“Proof of--never mind.” Cinna shakes his head. The laurels rustle. “I’ll keep watch. Just do what you have to do.”
“Can I borrow a pin?”
“Straight, bob, or safety?”
I hope I’m still good at this.
He fishes around in his wreath and plucks out a couple of pins, slips them into my palm. “If you need more, just say so.”
“This should be enough.” I shake my head, kneel so I’m level with the desk drawer. “Let’s hope Aurelia’s neglected this room long enough that she hasn’t added anything to the locks.”
She hasn’t. I bend the pin into shape, fiddle around inside the lock until I hear the right series of clicks, and it springs open like a charm.
I don’t know what I expected to find in the drawer. It’s not organized at all, and if I didn’t know what I was looking for I’d almost think all this stuff was junk. But I’ve seen the junk drawers in my cousins’ houses and it’s the same, just piles of things to remember and to remember each other by. The year that Roarke got called up for reaping, I saw Aunt Shannon going through a drawer like this, during a rerun of the Games. I didn’t know why she was doing that after the boy that volunteered in Roarke’s place died. I guess I know now.
Underneath all that are press clippings, photographs, tapes: a chronicle of Argentia’s life, or as much of it as the cameras captured. A photograph of her and Hawksley and Snow is paper clipped on top of a thick stack of articles. Hawskley’s leaner, Snow’s lips aren’t the same shade of red, but Argentia has the same solemn eyes. I guess she never got a chance to outgrow them.
The articles date back to Snow’s election.
I don’t have time to read them.
Cinna’s footsteps pound in from the door, and I’m startled enough that I hear his heels slapping on the insole of his sandals. Before I get a chance to ask who’s coming or what to do, he bends me back over the desk and slams his mouth into mine in a kiss that probably looks much hungrier than it feels. The drawer shuts under me and even if it didn’t his toga covers everything. Smart. I kiss back.
“Oh,” says the someone in the doorway. “Oh my. Don’t stop on my account.”
I break the kiss long enough to say, “Wasn’t going to,” and grab the front of Cinna’s robes.
Cinna sputters--convincingly but not cartoonishly--and looks over his shoulder. “I might, though.”
I pout. It isn’t hard to summon one up. “And here I thought we’d just gotten started.”
“No, I mean I might stop on his account--”
“Ha, never mind,” the man in the doorway says. “I’ll let you to it.”
“Much obliged,” I say, and drag Cinna down to continue that kiss.
The door shuts on us, and Cinna doesn’t stop kissing me. His hand closes over mine on the packet of photographs, still pressed between us. The deerstalker hat Drusus gave me falls off my head and rolls to the carpet.
“You need more time to look at these?” Cinna asks, breathless.
“Yes. I don’t know if I can do it here, though.” I eye the door again. “Too many interruptions.”
“I’ll take them. Come to my place after the Games start. First night.”
“I’ll find time,” I say. Somehow. But I always manage, don’t I?
Cinna smiles and opens his robes to put the papers in a hidden pocket. “I look forward to it.”
I smirk. Old habits die hard. “Is that all you’re looking forward to?”
“Of course not. Wait until you see what I’ve made Katniss for the interviews.”
“...that’s not what I meant.”
“I know,” he says. But he kisses me again and messes up my hair and gives a little credence to what we haven’t been doing in here.
“Think you got it?” I ask Andre as I escort him into line with the other tributes. Drusus hasn’t done a bad job dressing him; the suit’s the perfect shade of blue, at least on top, and it fades to darker and darker toward the floor, until it’s almost as black as his shoes. Andre looks comfortable, which is more than I could say for my first interview suit. (He gets a shirt, at least.)
Andre nods, his lips pale. “Myself, but nicer.”
I laugh and give his hair a pat. “That’s what Mags told me, and it worked out okay.”
He nods again, but this time it’s slower, and that pallor has spread past the corners of his lips. “You think Mags told Pierra the same thing?”
“I think she just tells that to the guys,” I say. “She’s nicer to us than she is to the girls. Spoils us rotten.”
“Okay,” Andre says. He holds on to my hand a little longer than maybe he should, so our arms are outstretched between us as he steps into line.
“Good luck,” I tell him, and give him a smile, a real one. He tries to return it. He’s a brave kid, even if it’s the kind of bravery the cameras overlook.
I head back to the seating area with the other mentors, spare a look at the line over my shoulder. Andre’s small enough that the taller tributes behind him eclipse him, especially since so many of the stylists are adding some kind of volume to their tributes’ outfits this year. The gossamer wings on the small girl from 11 catch my eye, and so does the cascade of jewels on Katniss Everdeen’s dress, glittering like flames under the studio lights.
Cinna’s pulling out the stops.
I don’t have time to stop and stare because the broadcast’s about to start, and I’d really rather not be backstage with Caesar Flickerman, but I’ll get plenty of time to watch them when they’re onscreen. I take my seat a few rows behind Cinna; the back of his head doesn’t clue me in to his expression, but maybe the cameras will get a good shot of him when it’s 12’s turn. Besides, if people saw us together at Aurelia’s, I’m supposed to throw him aside like everyone else.
At this point, I’ve seen enough pre-Games interviews that I shouldn’t be allowed to place bets on the tributes’ strategies. The girl from 1 is ripping a page out of Cashmere’s book and the boy’s a collected killer. The girl from 2 somehow manages to be silent in five-inch heels, and I don’t know whether she or the boy has trained for this longer, considering their pitch-perfect sponsor-grabbing answers. The girl from 3 answers Flickerman’s questions before he finishes them and the boy wants none of the sympathy the crowd seems to be giving. Pierra’s no slouch, but she doesn’t have a clear enough angle to really set her apart from the other Careers.
Andre’s up next, and he takes his seat like he expects it to give out from under him at any minute. The set seems to swallow him up. Nicer might not have been the best advice, in retrospect. I sigh. Why do they keep letting me mentor?
“So, Andre,” Flickerman begins, “you’re a little younger than the tributes we’ve come to expect from District Four.”
Andre nods and says nothing until Caesar lifts his eyebrows, prompts him for a verbal answer. “I know.”
“Well, of course you know. I bet that makes the Capitol seem even bigger. What’s your favorite thing about the city so far?”
“I like the gym and the training center. I’ve learned a lot already, and I liked just trying the climbing ropes and wrestling.”
“Are you a good climber?”
“I’m pretty good. I used to scale the cliffs back home sometimes.”
Nothing wrong, but nothing right, either. They’re not going to remember a thing he said. I should have worked out a better strategy for him, but I don’t know if even the most dazzling answers would’ve made much of a difference. He and Caesar laugh a bit about a story about some birds, and then Caesar sends him back to his seat. I scan the faces of the crowd: they’re applauding politely, but there’s no force behind it.
The rest of the tributes go by. Some stick in my mind more than others, but I’m waiting on the last two, and I suspect I’m not the only one. Caesar calls Katniss Everdeen forward, and I lean forward, too.
“So, Katniss, the Capitol must be quite a change from District Twelve,” Caesar begins. “What’s impressed you most since you arrived here?”
He’s using that question a lot tonight. Katniss sits up straighter in her seat, blinks into the footlights, and says, “The lamb stew.”
“The one with the dried plums?” he says, and she nods. “Oh, I eat it by the bucketful. It doesn’t show, does it?” he calls out to us, and we shout no, of course not back to him and share a laugh. I smile like everyone else, but inside I’m more apprehensive. Caesar’s doing most of the work so far. Granted, it’s only the second question in, but I know Capitol audiences by now: if you don’t catch them at the beginning, you have to work twice as hard to snag their attention. She compliments Cinna on his designs, which makes me inclined to like her a little, but I can’t make any guarantees for the rest of the audience. Caesar’s dig at Haymitch keeps the audience laughing and lively, and they’re still chuckling when he brings up her training score. I want to hear more about that, too, but it looks like I’ll have to wheedle that out of one of the Gamemakers later. Her back-and-forth with Plutarch isn’t bad, and isn’t what I expected of her, but her dress is still outshining her by far.
Caesar reins the crowd in when he asks her about her sister, and this I want to hear, too. Am I imagining, or is she looking at Cinna when she says, “Her name’s Prim. She’s just twelve. And I love her more than anything”?
“What did she say to you? After the reaping?”
“She asked me to try really hard to win.”
“And what did you say?”
Katniss Everdeen looks straight at the camera. Her voice drops, and for the first time I feel like I’m listening to what she’s saying, not listening for what she’ll say next. “I swore I would.”
Unfortunately, that’s when her three minutes runs out. I saw something in her, that’s for sure--not what I was expecting, not after the way she volunteered--but something. Something earnest, defiant, determined, but there went her chance to show it to us all. I look down at Cinna, but the camera cut away from him minutes ago. His designs have captured the Capitol’s imagination, that’s clear enough, but I wonder if she can keep the flame going without Cinna’s hand to guide it.
They call the boy up next, and Peeta Mellark wastes no time in getting the audience in stitches. Was the fire meant to highlight him, not her? I try to recall his training score: eight, I think, which is perfectly respectable. Annie had an eight. I forget about training scores when he and Caesar run around and sniff each other. I’m laughing, really laughing. I didn’t expect to do that tonight.
“Do you have a girlfriend back home?” Caesar asks.
He shakes his head sheepishly, which of course invites more questions, which of course Caesar asks. It’s a neat trick. Did he plan it? Did Haymitch coach him to do it? Caesar coaxes out a few more details, and the audience is hanging on to every word.
“Winning...won’t help my case,” Peeta says at last.
“Why ever not?”
He blushes. It’s a convincing one. “Because...because...she came here with me.”
That’s a really good strategy. A really good strategy. I can’t believe no one’s thought of it before. Has anyone thought of it before? I’ll have to ask Mags, but from the way the audience gasps and groans at the revelation, I think it’s a first, or a first within their lifetimes, at least. I glance over at Haymitch, and he’s as close to preening like a magazine model as I’ve ever seen him.
“Did you coach him to say that?” I whisper, which I can get away with because there’s no way the cameras are going to give me a second look after this.
Haymitch laughs through his teeth, maybe hard enough to skim the grime off them. “Let’s just say I finally got something I can work with.”
All of us are in the victor’s lounge at what seems like the crack of dawn. I have no idea how the news anchors manage to sound so perky, considering how most of us are still rubbing our eyes and yawning, but I suspect Capitol news anchors might have some kind of modification that periodically releases caffeine into their bloodstreams. The Careers and the boy from District 11, Thresh, get passing mentions, but they can’t hold a candle to all the buzz around Peeta Mellark and Katniss Everdeen.
“The poor dear,” Ligeria Baum coos. Painted flames glitter from the corners of her eyes and the sides of her cheeks. “My heart leapt into my throat when that sweet boy told us he was in love with Katniss Everdeen. I don’t know if we’ve ever had such a pair of star-crossed lovers in the Games!”
Johanna gags. Cashmere glares. “Shut up,” she says, “I want to hear how they’re going to spin this.”
“It’s not gonna matter when the tributes decide they don’t want to hear it,” Johanna snaps back, arms folded behind her head. “At least one of ‘em’s not making it past the Cornucopia.”
“Actually, the boy’s in the pack,” Gloss says. “Assuming he doesn’t embarrass himself. I haven’t heard anything about her, though.”
My head snaps up. “He’s what?” That’s the first I’ve heard of that. I haven’t been as privy to the pack negotiations this year, but still. I glance at Mags, but I don’t know if she sees me; she’s smiling at the screen and nodding as Ligeria ramps up the histrionics.
Brutus shrugs. “He pulled an eight. He knows how to work a crowd. And he’s their best shot at taking her down.”
“And Haymitch owes us all drinks,” Gloss adds.
“I heard that,” Haymitch drawls from facedown on the couch.
I frown, and decide to focus on the first part first. “You think he’s going to abandon that strategy so soon? It worked wonders for him last night.”
“Who said he’s abandoning it?” Haymitch says. “If they don’t get her at the Cornucopia, anyway. He can play it up all he damn well wants.”
“Putting him in the pack was your idea?” I ask him.
“It’s not like anything else works these days.” Haymitch grins. “Ain’t that right, Josie?”
She rolls her eyes. “Shut up. And Annie Cresta won by hiding in a cave, didn’t she?”
“No, she won by being in the pack, and then hiding in a cave,” Haymitch corrects, probably so I don’t have to. “And then she brained some poor shit with a rock. No one wins by accident, not even you.”
I grit my teeth and steer the conversation back on track. “You really think the others will let him in?”
“They let you in, didn’t they?” Cashmere asks. “I remember just how my tributes that year felt about that.”
Looks like I can’t win today. “We’ll see how long he sticks with them, then.” The kid’s good with words; I wonder how he’ll juggle making the Careers believe they need him and making the audience believe he’s still head over heels for that girl. I settle into a chair near the front, my eyes fixed on the screen. The other commentators fall silent as Claudius Templesmith’s voice takes over, telling us the history of the Hunger Games as the cameras pan over this year’s Arena. It’s back to basics this year with a forest-and-plain setup, a small lake which at a glance I’m pretty sure is saltwater, and no major restrictions on the weapons spilling out of the Cornucopia. The tributes stand in a ring on their platforms and I can tell the air isn’t poisonous, and there aren’t any insects to be seen, at least not yet. It’s pretty clear who the Arena is favoring and who it isn’t; woodcraft is this year’s way to make it interesting, with strong contenders from 11 and 12 and Careers that aren’t any slouch at it either.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Claudius Templesmith booms, “let the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games begin!”
Sixty seconds. I hold my breath. So does almost everyone else. The tributes stand rigid on their plates, some coiled and ready to spring, others paralyzed by fear. Andre’s mouth is set in a thin line, but he’s holding himself together well enough. The rest of the Careers are stony and still, readying themselves for what’s to come. Katniss Everdeen is blinking in the sunlight, scoping out the Cornucopia, and Peeta Mellark is looking at her, shaking his head ever so slightly. Have they worked out something in advance?
The gong sounds, and the Careers sprint from their plates, making a beeline for the weapons. Peeta isn’t far behind. Andre hesitates before he runs, and my stomach sinks. To my surprise, Katniss takes a few seconds getting off her plate. She shuffles, scoops up a loaf of bread and sheet of plastic, dashes towards an orange backpack and grapples with the boy from 9 for it. The girl from 2--Clove, I think--seizes a knife from the weapons pile and hurls it at the two of them. It sticks in the boy’s back instead of Katniss’s, and she takes that as her cue to run, sprinting for the relative safety of the woods. Haymitch must have told her to do that.
For the first frenzied minutes of fighting, it’s impossible to tell who’s down and who’s dead. I watch, my breath caught in my throat, my heart loud in my ears. I dart a glance at the others and they’re watching with the same raptness, even the mentors from Districts who never win. We all remember this.
Andre knows he shouldn’t have run for the Cornucopia either, but it’s taken him half a minute too long to figure that out. He ducks to the ground to get a backpack for himself, but doesn’t make it up, and it takes him screaming for me to notice the knife in his left leg. I’m about to shut my eyes and shake my head when I see a hand clasp around the hilt and pull it out. I distinctly see Peeta Mellark say “Sorry” as he jams the knife back down, into Andre’s neck.
I can’t look away. I shouldn’t.
Andre slumps to the ground, his eyes glassy, his blood gleaming bright in the sunlight. At least it was quick, I remind myself, but it doesn’t ease the knot in my chest much. I wish I’d gotten to show him the best mattress to jump on in all of the training center--it’s on District 7’s floor, in the room their stylists and prep teams use when they spend the night.
Peeta yanks out the knife again and straightens, panting, only for the District 2 boy to seize him from behind and level his sword at Peeta’s throat. “Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you,” the boy growls.
Peeta keeps his grip on the knife. “Because you’re going to need me. Duck!”
The boy starts but does; that isn’t the kind of command you ignore at the Cornucopia. An axe thrown by one of the District 7 tributes whizzes over his head, wobbly but forceful enough, and the boy springs back up, charges to where the girl stands white-faced and trembling and runs his sword through her stomach. The boy, whose name I need to find out, looks at Peeta again: still sneering, but there’s a note of calculation in his eyes. “Guess I owe you for that,” he says.
“Tell you what,” Peeta says, rubs the red line on his throat the boy’s sword left, “let’s work out the details later.”
The boy nods, curt, and he and Peeta dive back into the fray. The fighting’s slowed but hasn’t stopped; the weakest fighters lie dead, which leaves the stronger ones to battle. The Careers, Peeta among them, form a loose circle around the remaining supplies, their backs to each other, their weapons readied against anyone foolish enough to charge in. A spear sticks in the sand between the tributes from 1, and when they spring apart, the girl from 9 charges through the gap, her head tucked and her elbows out. She nearly makes it out again, but Clove seizes her hair, wrenches her head back, and slits her throat.
“Hunt down any stragglers,” the boy from 2 says to his District partner and the boy from 1. “Don’t go more than a hundred yards from the Cornucopia. If you find any obvious trails, tell us.” They nod and head off in opposite directions, scouring the bushes for any tributes trying to wait it out.
“Good thinking, Cato,” Brutus says, nodding his approval at the screen. Cato. He’s one to remember this year.
Johanna stretches, yawning. “I’m out again. I’m going back to bed.”
“You have fun with that,” I say. “How’s the taxidermy?”
She pauses, her fingers laced over her head. “Not bad,” she says, and unless I’m mistaken a guarded note slips into her voice. “It’s hard to find the right kind of stuffing out in the middle of bumfuck nowhere, though.”
“If anyone can find it, it’s probably you.”
Right, I need to have a less-coded conversation with her soon. My mentoring duties might be over, but I still have a lot to do this season.
Chapter 4: The Gods on the Walls
I show up at Cinna’s apartment with more files tucked into my bag and a bottle of very good champagne.
Two hours later, we’re sprawled out on his bed, the files scattered around us, polishing off the last of the champagne. Cinna turns the television back on; the screen flashes through the tributes who died on the first day, including Andre. Cinna squeezes my hand, and I smile at him. The rest of the Careers are still alive, as are Chaff's two, as are Katniss and Peeta. "Think they'll make it through the night?" I ask.
"Depends on how much the Careers feel like hunting," Cinna says. "You'd know that better than I."
"They'll go after anyone who makes their location too obvious, but they need to rest, too," I say. "How much do you know about Twelve's strategy?" I figure it's a fair enough question to ask, since I'm off the hook to mentor.
He laughs. "Haymitch doesn't tell me anything. But if he's doing what I think he's doing, it's brilliant."
"I seem to remember you saying 'what if they cared about all the tributes?', actually."
"Well, Haymitch can't make them care about everyone." Cinna smiles, and reaches off the bed for a folder of photographs. "Come on. Let's get started."
I pull a pile of newspaper clippings closer and mull over them. The Games must have settled down for the night, because the station's switched to recapping the events of the first day: panning over the bodies, replaying the most dramatic moments, speculating about Peeta Mellark's alliance with the Careers, though they don't call them Careers. There are mentions of past Games in the clippings, too, but I don't pay them much mind until I run across a photo of a Gamemaker's retreat. The caption talks about how a number of the businesses and laboratories who sponsor the Games sent representatives, and I catch Snow's and Argentia's faces in the crowd, smiling at the camera.
"Interesting," I say, and read on, Cinna leaning over my shoulder.
TRAGEDY AT GAMEMAKER'S RETREAT, the next article in the stack reads. A number of attendees fell ill from a tainted shipment of crabmeat, and five died. I write down their names, but one sticks out.
"Cinna," I say, "can you look for Bellator Wheelwright? I think I saw his name in an article a few years before this one."
"Sure," Cinna says. He flips back through the files he's already scoured, skims them with an ease I wish I had. A lot of people in the Capitol read faster than I do, I've noticed, or at least the ones who seem to read at all. "Gamemaker, right?"
I glance at the article again and drop it on top of his stack of files. "Gamemaker. Might as well check for these other four names while you're at it, unless that's too much to do at once."
He laughs. "I can handle it, but I can't promise anything. The last time I did an investigation like this, I didn't even know who Gallus Heavensbee was."
"Lucky you," I mutter, but don't hold onto that thought for long. Instead, I dive back into the files—was all this really in that drawer? It didn't seem like this much when Cinna tucked it under his robes. I glance at the television, but the only new footage is statistics. There are columns of numbers in the next file I pick up, too. Argentia's stock portfolio? I groan and toss it aside, snatch up another article and nearly throw that away too before a name at the bottom catches my eye.
"Cinna, hand me that article again? The one about the food poisoning?"
He plucks it out from the bottom of the pile without looking up from the one he's skimming. "You found a match?"
"Not exactly." I run my finger down the column until I hit the sentence I'm looking for and read it aloud: "The Master of Ceremonies, Collatinus Sedgwick, assisted the Peacekeepers in their investigation and paid for and arranged the victims' funerals himself. It says the Peacekeepers ended up bringing charges against the distributor, but you'd think that would wreck Sedgwick's career, too, wouldn't it?"
"Only if he actually did anything—but it would have at least caused a scandal, even if he wasn't implicated."
I set out the next article and beckon him closer. "Well, he got promoted two months later. Cushy job in the private sector with Red Horse Limited."
"I have to wonder why Aurelia is keeping track of this."
"Her or Argentia. I don't know whose papers these are." An idea hits me, and I dive for the stock portfolio, ignore the numbers and pay attention to the names.
There. Red Horse Limited, at the bottom of the list. I might not be a financier, but those look like some pretty steady increases. "Look," I tell Cinna.
He does, then covers his mouth and laughs, just once. "Well, whichever sister it was, she wanted dirt."
“And she got it.” I flip the file closed. “I’ll look into this more. You want to keep these, or should I take them back with me?”
“If Aurelia was the one looking for dirt, I think she’ll be missing these. You should probably put them back. Are there any names you want me to look into?”
I think. “We might as well keep looking into the five who died at that retreat. Let’s sift through the rest of these and see if any more mysterious deaths pop out.”
We read in relative silence for a while. The Games go on, and the commentators are past statistics and into speculation. Mellark’s apparently moved up in the ranking since teaming up with the Careers, and I try not to think about whatever Andre’s odds were. The commentator’s voices fade out, and I’m not sure whether it’s intentional or whether it’s because I’ve stopped paying them mind until a spark flares to light onscreen. Katniss, I think at first, but it’s another female tribute, stretching her hands over the blooming fire.
“Not the best move,” I mutter, then glance at Cinna. “How are you holding up?”
Cinna laughs, just once, mostly breath. “I can keep reading, I don’t have anywhere to be until after noon tomorrow. You?”
“I meant about them,” I say. “I know it’s hell to wait.”
“It is. But...well. If I could bet, I’d bet on her, you know?”
I give his shoulder a squeeze. “I do.”
On the fifth day of the Games, I’m out of tributes, and Haymitch is crowing like a rooster.
It’s not the goriest way one of my tributes has gone out, but it’s definitely the most gruesome. The pack chased Katniss Everdeen up a tree, and instead of trying to hack it down (which is what I would have done, I like to think) or setting it on fire, they made the mistake of waiting her out and she dropped a nest of tracker jackers on their big heads. The cameras paid almost loving attention to Pierra and Glimmer’s faces the whole way through. If you go by the commentary, they haven’t had a death by tracker jackers since the Sixty-sixth Games, let alone two. Even Brutus is grudgingly impressed.
“You’ve got to hand it to her,” one of the commentators says, replaying the clip. Digitized red circles highlight the blisters on Katniss’s hands, just barely healed, as she saws back and forth through the branch. “Though I don’t know if they’re going to count these two as her kills.”
“Oh, why on earth wouldn’t they?”
“Deaths via muttation are sometimes tallied as deaths via a passive means...”
“Oh come on,” I groan, not that they can hear me from the victor’s lounge. “The branch wouldn’t’ve cracked and fallen on its own.”
Johanna chortles. “Hands up if you think that freckle-assed camera whore had money on the Girl on Fire going down without a fight.”
“This freckle-assed camera whore says yes,” I say.
“Ooh, there are freckles? Guess I never kissed close enough to tell.”
I roll my eyes. “Change that if you want.”
“Get a room,” Chaff says. “And it doesn’t matter anyway, they’re out and she’s in.”
“Hold that thought, ladies and gentlemen, because there’s new action on that front!” The commentators’ window at the bottom of the screen winks out, and Katniss shoves her hands under Glimmer’s body to wrench the quiver of arrows free. Green pus leaks from her stings, congeals on the sheath, and even Enobaria winces at the camera’s last loving sweep over the wreckage of her corpse. Katniss fumbles with an arrow but can’t bend her bow back enough--someone crashes through the foliage and she blinks, wavers on her feet, the sting on her hand swelling, throbbing. Peeta breaks through the trees first, and someone says, “Oh, this should be good.”
“What are you still doing here?” he hisses. Katniss stares at him mutely, and he prods her to her feet. “Are you mad? Get up! Get up! Run! Run!”
The camera isn’t sure who to follow, so the screen splits. One side shows Katniss stumbling into the woods, clawing at her arms and neck, flinching at things the rest of us can’t see. The other side shows Cato, his hand over his eye, his sword aimed at Peeta’s throat. Peeta blocks it with the shaft of his spear, but Cato wrenches his sword free and chops at him again, nicks Peeta’s outstretched arm. Peeta winces, falters just long enough for Cato to lunge at his leg and strike home.
Peeta crashes to his knees in the pool, and blood seeps into the water, staining it. Cato stands over him, and Cashmere says, “It’s over,” but the venom must be taking hold now; he howls and holds his face, slashing blindly at the air until Clove shrieks his name. He follows the sound of her voice, crashes back through the trees.
I swear, I can’t tell whether the commentator or Haymitch says, “Well don’t that beat all” first. Haymitch is definitely the one to laugh, though, and that rings out through the lounge loud and clear.
“What’s so funny?” Johanna asks, her eyes still fixed on the screen. “You have one tribute bleeding to death and one trying to rip her own face off. So much for star-crossed lovers.”
“Just something the kid said to me before he went in,” Haymitch says. He taps the bottle nearest him with his heel. I don’t know how long it’s been empty. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen him take a drink all afternoon. “Looks like he’s playing a more serious game than I thought.”
Seeder asks, “What did he say?”
The ringing phone interrupts Haymitch’s answer, whatever it would have been. Haymitch heads over to the 12 station at the console and picks it up, grinning all through, as if it couldn’t be a Gamemaker on the other end. “You got me,” he says, and I can’t help eavesdropping. “Yeah, I can accept that. You got anything in mind?--Nah, I can hold onto it. Is it for her or is it for him?”
Now, I wasn’t here when Haymitch got the money for Katniss’s burn medicine. But the way he’s handling himself on the phone right now makes me wonder just how many sponsorship calls he’s been taking this year.
“Well, if it doesn’t matter to you either way, I’m dropping it on her.--Well yeah, and she ain’t bleeding from the femoral. You want a return on your investment, yeah, I get you. I’ll be in touch.” He hangs up, and if it weren’t for the Games you could hear a pin drop.
Finally, Enobaria says, “I have never in my life heard you field a sponsorship call.”
“Yeah, you weren’t here last night.”
We all exchange looks: some of us of grudging respect, others of bewilderment. I keep my expression more guarded. So does Beetee, I notice, and so does Cecelia, and so does Mags.
“Who’d you have to blow to get sponsors this year?” Johanna asks. Leave it to Johanna, I think. At least she cuts right to the point.
“Ha. You think they want to take me for a whirl?” Haymitch makes one of the most obscene faces I’ve ever seen him make, and frankly he gives some of my clients a run for their money. “Honestly? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just my year. Every dog has his day after all.”
“You’re licking yourself like one,” Johanna mutters.
I step in before this degenerates further. “So who came up with the strategy, Haymitch? You?”
It should not be possible for Haymitch to look like an innocent child with his hand in the cookie jar. It isn’t. “What strategy?”
“The romance, shit-for-brains,” Johanna says.
I raise my voice. “If you don’t want to talk strategy around these clowns, I get it. Let’s take this somewhere else.”
“Can’t hurt,” he says, “seeing as you’re out and all.” He swings away from the console and sweeps up his bottle from the floor. “Your place or mine, kid?”
“Do you have a place?”
He doesn’t, so we catch a cab back to my apartment. “I think you know where the drinks are,” I say as I unlock the door, “considering.”
“Yeah, but I’ll hold off, if you don’t count it something against your hospitality.” He bypasses the kitchen completely and folds himself into one of my living room chairs, props his feet on the table.
“You holding off? I never thought I’d see the day,” I say dryly. “I can only imagine what Chaff would think. Or Beetee.”
The walls click and whirr.
Haymitch tilts his head to the side and grins at me like he’s got the whole crescent moon in his face. “Yeah, what they don’t know won’t hurt ‘em. Let’s just say I’m keeping a promise.”
I cross my arms and lean against the kitchen island, stare him down. “I’m out of tributes, so you might as well tell me what that is. What’s going on?”
“Well, District Twelve finally has a couple of fighters,” he says. “And it’s about time I banked something on ‘em.”
“And what’s that?”
“You’ve spent enough time with Cinna, you’ve heard his rigmarole.”
I don’t bother to deny it, but I don’t uncross my arms, either. “You can only bring one of them home, you know. What’s your plan? Persuade the boy to protect the girl so she can win?”
“I can tell you right now the boy didn’t need any persuading.”
“I can believe that.” And I can; I heard how he screamed himself hoarse telling her to run, saw how he stood his ground against Cato while she escaped. There are some things you can’t play up for the cameras. I wonder if he’s dragged himself out of the pool yet, if the Careers have returned to finish him off or chose to leave him for dead. I should turn on the television.
“And as for the rest? I’m winging it as much as they are.” He laughs, bitterly, and drums his fingertips on the arms of the chair. “You’ve been fishing, Finnick. You know you never get a say in what fish you reel in.”
“You have to be in the right place at the right time,” I say, mostly to myself. I move away from the kitchen island, sink into the couch. “Is it the right time?”
“Can’t say.” Haymitch shrugs. “But it’s the only time we’ve got.”
My clientele is skewing older this year. I can’t say I have any particular feelings on it; they’re more patient than the younger ones, as a rule, but more set in what they like and want. Different challenges, but they boil down to the same thing. I could ask Beetee to run numbers on it if I wanted to, average out the demands and the chatter and the petulance and the ignorance and come up with a baseline for Capitol insufferability. Or I could take something for the headache building behind my temples as I listen to Tacitus Jones prattle on about how his daughter wants a synthetic fire cape just like Katniss Everdeen’s.
“-- so I said, Clementia darling, you saw what the dear girl’s leg looked like after it was burned, do you want blisters on your skin like that?”
Some of his companions titter, and I smile, try not to grit my teeth too noticeably.
“Oh, but I can hardly blame the girl,” Lucilla says, lifting her head from her couch. Finally, something’s distracted her from the dancers and their trained hydras. “One must suffer for beauty, after all. And little Katniss is so lovely she’s captured Peeta’s heart. Of course your daughter’s falling all over it.”
“It’s not as if we’ve never had lovers in the Arena before,” Ludmilla groans. She’s been sullen ever since she came back from the restroom. Apparently nothing’s happened in the Games at all since the fallout at the tree. She summons an Avox to her side, says, “Bring me something stronger--and give a steak to the mutt in the leftmost holding pen, I think he’s a winner.”
As if on cue, the cage in the center of the room shudders and screeches--one mutt, some kind of cat with impossibly long claws and teeth, spears an overgrown frog-creature through its outstretched tongue and rips it loose. I look away, but not in time to miss the black blood burbling from the creature’s mouth, dripping to the floor.
“Look, Ludmilla!” Lucilla crows. “That creature’s better at making Avoxes than our entire Ministry of Justice.”
Everyone nearby bursts into laughter. I want a purgative.
“Now that’s entertainment,” Ludmilla agrees. “None of this teenaged romance.”
“I think it’s darling,” Lucilla says. “What about you, Finnick? You must have some insight into Peeta and Katniss!”
I shrug, pluck a grape from a nearby plate and roll it between my fingers. How do I want to play this? “He whispers her name when he sleeps,” I say, and give a sensual half-smile. “I wonder what he’s dreaming about.”
Everyone in earshot chortles--well, except Ludmilla--and Lucilla applauds. “Ooh, I do wish they’d come up with some way for us to see inside the tributes’ heads! There’s got to be some truth drug.”
“They could lace parts of the Arena with it,” Tacitus agrees. “Though it would have to be very well-timed.”
“Very.” I suppress a wince. I’m glad there aren’t any Gamemakers present at this party. I glance behind me as the cat-thing tackles the frog-creature and rends its throat open. The cat-thing lowers its muzzle to the wound and drinks, its chops wet and shining. I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand, eat a few more grapes to get the sour taste off my tongue. The Hunger Games aren’t spectacle enough, I guess, and fight the urge to spit. “But do you really want the truth out of him?”
“No, I want it out of her!” Lucilla says. “If she does love him back, wouldn’t it be so awful?”
“Perhaps that’s why she’s been avoiding him,” Tacitus says, and flips a coin to the winning beast’s owner, who catches it. “She can’t bear the thought of having to fight him.”
That’s a good angle. If Haymitch has any sense, he’ll play it. I make a mental note to tell him later, in case he’s not already pouring out sob stories to sponsors. (The idea of Haymitch talking to sponsors is still plain weird.)
“And it would be dreadful if it came down to just the two of them,” Lucilla goes on. “Can you imagine? After all the trouble he’s gone through to protect her already?”
“If that happened and he did really want to protect her, I suppose he’d best slit his own throat,” Ludmilla says tartly. “Only one of them can win, after all.”
I don’t stop toying with my grape--it would be a dead giveaway--but I do listen. Intently. There’s a right thing to say here, a way to plant a suggestion or encourage an idea, but I don’t know what it is yet, and if I screw it up it all comes crashing down. So I wait.
“Oh, but if she cared for him, she’d never let the knife touch his skin,” Lucilla says.
Tacitus shakes his head, and looks away from the nearest hydra-dancer. Not that I blame him for looking; the snakes twine up her arms and curl around her curves, fanning their heads across her ribcage. “It’s not as if it matters. The boy will be dead in a ditch if he doesn’t receive medical attention soon. She has to return the favor if she wants him to live.”
“And she’s got no reason to want him to live,” Ludmilla says. “So that’s that.”
I set the grape down and say, very carefully, “Maybe she’d go back for him if she thought she could keep him.”
I expect the silence. And I expect Lucilla to look at me with stars in her eyes.
But I don’t expect Tacitus to say, “Well, that is something new.”
Ludmilla sniffs. “It’s inconceivable. The Gamemakers would never allow it.”
“Oh, but they’d have to! Can you imagine the ratings?” Lucilla clasps her hands together so hard it startles the Avox behind her. “I can name fifteen people off the top of my head who would pay to see just that.”
“Start up a collection,” I suggest, smirk enough that it could look sarcastic or sincere depending on the angle. It’s a page out of Annie’s book. “That’s something the Gamemakers will listen to.”
“Oh, I think I will do just that,” she cheers, and reaches for her glass. “Here’s to the power of the people!”
If only you knew.
About half the times they tie me up, they tie too tight. I could probably make a chart of who does and who doesn’t, and bracket everyone up by age and gender and the phases of the moon, but there’s really no point. Tonight is one of those nights, and when Gemella finally undoes the knots the blood rushes back into my hands and sears every crease in my palms.
She pats me on the cheek and excuses herself to the bathroom, and I sink back onto the bed and rub out my wrists. At least she didn’t leave me tied up. I figure I can get away with poking at the things scattered on her nightstand, so I do. I pull out something tucked between the pages of a magazine: a heart with a flaming arrow, with the arrow positioned about where it is on Katniss’s mockingjay pin. It’s tacky as all hell, but then again, that’s about what I expect from the Capitol.
Gemella comes in towelling off her hands, and I don’t bother to hide the charm. “Oh, you found it,” she says, and sighs the way Lindsay does over whoever her crush is this week. “They’re so heartbreaking, aren’t they? I do wish they’d do something to get the two of them together -- have you heard him whispering stories about her when he’s about to go to sleep?” She dabs at her eyes with the towel. “I barely had the heart to watch Cato and his friends chase that little Ramsay after that.”
Heaven forbid. I keep from rolling my eyes. “You know Lucilla Braintree, don’t you? She and some of her friends started up a collection. I think they’re petitioning the Gamemakers to allow two winners this year, if they’re both from the same District.”
Gemella blinks; she must have had some kind of surgery on her eyes, they’re as wide and round as a doll’s. “Oh! Wouldn’t that be lovely?”
“It would,” I agree. “I’ll get you two in touch.”
People really have been doing my work for me lately. Maybe that means I’m getting good at my job. The thought makes me want to throw up, but I’m used to that.
“I didn’t know you were such a romantic, Finnick,” Gemella says, eases herself back onto the bed and runs her finger up my chest.
I avoid thinking of Annie. “I can be,” I say, and study the ceiling. “And it makes a good story.”
She laughs and slaps my arm. I pretend to wince. “Well, I’ll talk to Lucilla,” she says. “And I’ll bring it up at the Red Horse board meeting tomorrow--a number of Gamemakers work with us, you know--”
Sometimes I’m thankful for how much people in the Capitol love to namedrop. “Red Horse? The one President Snow--” I begin, and hope she’ll cut me off and tell me what the connection there actually is.
“Oh, that was years ago, but yes, he was on the board,” she says. “It was a few years before my time--my mother knew Bellator Wheelwright, and oh, the fights we had when she learned they’d offered me a position!” I wish she’d stop laughing in the middle of every sentence, but I’m not about to tell her that. “Don’t tell my mother this, but if you ask me, he did more with the company than Wheelwright ever did.”
“Was this before his election, or after?”
She frowns. It doesn’t create any lines on her face. “Before he became President, yes, but he held some office or other. He’s always held some office or other, but he’s been President for so long that you can barely remember what he was before.”
You can’t, I think. But there are people who can. “Well, you know politicians,” I say. “They never want anyone to know how long they’ve been around, until it’s time to run again.”
She titters. I want to stick my fingers in my ears, but then I’d miss the rest. “Oh, you don’t even know the half of it! And actors are even worse! About the only people who are allowed to be old are those dreary scientists.”
“Dreary scientists? I don’t know, I know plenty of scientists out to have a good time.”
“Well, they can’t all be Domus Arleigh or Andrea Lobotae.”
The sweat on my skin chills. Out to have a good time, I said? Well, that’s one way to describe Lobotae. I remember what she said to me during that auction at Tantalus, when they cuffed me to the Saint Andrew’s cross and let the winners take turns. “A good thing she never has to see you like this. You must feel so proud to protect her.”
She didn’t make me bleed. She didn’t have to. And I came for her like I do for all the rest of them.
I want to go home. I can’t. I have to find out more. “Sounds like you have personal experience,” I say, force my voice to lighten.
“With Lobotae?” She snickers, and if her laugh hasn’t made me sick even now, I just might get home without hurling. “Oh, I know her from the board. I swear she enjoys her job! Not that I can make head or tail of her fiddling around with genesets, give me marketing any day.”
“You and me both,” I say. “I don’t know how anyone can stand it.”
“Practice, no doubt, and a certain perverse interest.” She covers her mouth, but for once she doesn’t laugh. “Don’t tell my colleagues I said that.”
“I won’t,” I promise, and mean it.
“I swear they have to deal with this every year.” Chaff tilts his glass at the wall of screens. The commentators take up three quarters, with Katniss and the girl from 11, Rue, pushed to the bottom right. The way they’re huddled together by the fire reminds me of me and Cinna over his sketchbook, and the way Katniss keeps looking up like she could find the cameras doesn’t help. “Every time one of yours gets with one of mine, Haymitch. Every time.”
“If they last long enough to do that, you mean,” I say, and glance at the clock. Two hours before I’m due at Barbariccia’s apartment. Technically I’m supposed to be in prep now, but my prep team probably wants to catch up on the Games, too, so hopefully they won’t miss me much.
Haymitch laughs. “More like every five years, Chaff.”
“Sure, if you’re the one counting.”
I’ve done my homework: Chaff’s closer to right. Usually one of the tributes from 11 makes it past the Cornucopia at least, to the top eight more often than not. I can’t say 12 ever does well, but I know I’ve seen Elevens and Twelves whispering in the shadows of their Arenas before, and reports of them hooking up in the Training Center before the Games even start, so it can’t be that rare.
“How much of the conversation airs?” I ask.
By way of answering, Haymitch just waves his glass at the screens. (I haven’t seen him drink from it yet tonight, but I could’ve missed it.) The commentators fill in the gaps with a lot of chatter about odds and friendship and the pending Top Eight. For all we know, Rue and Katniss could be talking about the weather.
“They never show us the good parts,” I say in my best Capitol accent, and take a sip.
Haymitch tsks. “Aren’t you supposed to be hobnobbing?”
“Not for another couple of hours. Aren’t you two? You have two tributes headed for the Top Eight.” Cashmere and Gloss and Brutus and Enobaria must be cozying up to sponsors as we speak, and I’ve spotted Beetee and Gregory about town, too.
“I’ve got it taken care of,” Haymitch says. “Chaff, though? I don’t think he’s got an excuse.”
“I just got off the phone with the mayor.” Chaff puts his glass down, glances at the screens. “We’ve got something going. Out there, the fish don’t bite.”
“There aren’t any fish. We’re in the mountains.” I lace my fingers and lean my head back, think of the last time I took Annie fishing in the Branwen. She caught the biggest swordfish I’ve ever seen, and I almost wished I’d remembered my camera so I could’ve captured the moment. We managed to saw off its nose and mount that on the cabin wall, though.
I hope she’s doing all right this year, especially since Mags is in the Capitol, too. But she still has her mother and father and her sister and Mother and Dad and my aunts and uncles and all of my cousins. She probably wishes she had less people looking after her.
“Figure of speech, kid,” Haymitch says.
“How are your fish biting?” Chaff asks.
I’m glad he asked. “Not so well,” I say. “The catches have been shrinking, but the quotas haven’t been. A lot of people are losing boats.”
Chaff winces. “I hear you. But you can’t do much for that. Sometimes there’s a blight year, same with you as it is with us.”
And with 3 and 8 too, I wouldn’t wonder. I glance at where I know the cameras are and wish there was some way to turn them off. “Looks like a tough year all around.”
I haven’t seen Katniss Everdeen smile the way she’s smiling now. During the parade and the interview, she was delirious, awkward. But when Rue snuggles against her side after the anthem plays, it warms through all the grime on Katniss’s cheeks. She rests her chin on top of Rue’s head, closes her eyes, and for a moment I can picture how she might have looked in District 12 at the end of a long day, with her little sister falling asleep on her shoulder.
The screen splits and Peeta fills the other side. The cameras have trouble spotting him at first, and eventually they have to outline him in gold to show where he ends and the bushes begin. It’s good he’s got a knack for hiding, but the berry juice and mud can’t entirely hide the angry red lines threading up his leg. “Katniss,” he whispers. “Katniss--”
“You haven’t sent him anything, have you,” I say to Haymitch. It’s not a question.
Haymitch shakes his head, no. “Thin on the ground,” he says. “She’s got a chance and he doesn’t.”
“I know you can’t hear me,” Peeta says; they have to filter out the rest of the noise, because his voice isn’t strong enough to carry over it on his own. “But--maybe when you win, they’ll let you see this. So I’m going to tell you a story, okay? Have I already told you the one about singing in school? I think so. I might tell it again, but I’ll save it a little longer.” His cheeks flush under the berry juice. “It’s stupid, but I think I want to save that one for when--if--I see you.”
“He’s born for the cameras, Haymitch,” Chaff says.
“Yeah, I know. Pity he didn’t stay alive long enough to milk ‘em dry.”
He’s not pretending, I realize. Like I wasn’t.
“I’m going to tell you about the first cake I decorated,” Peeta continues. I have no idea how he’s smiling. “It was for Madge Undersee’s eighth birthday--you remember Madge, don’t you, Katniss? You ate lunch with her sometimes.” He looks down, laughs softly. “I always wanted to ask if I could sit next to you, but I never figured out how to say it.
“Dad and Leven did the baking, and usually Wash frosted, but he had a fever and Mom was upstairs looking after him. So Dad took me aside and said I could stop kneading, because he had something he wanted to show me. He boosted me onto his shoulders so I could open the top cabinet and take down the pastry bags and tips for frosting.” He laughs. “We had cheese and cream and honey. It wasn’t a good year, which must be why they let me do it. But Dad showed me how to mix everything together, and I asked him if I could draw the design, too, and he said yes.
“It was mostly just sheet frosting. Lumpy sheet frosting.” He smiles crookedly. “But I wrote Happy Birthday Madge on it in cursive--Leven made me add the t into birthday--and I drew mockingjays in the corners, like on her pin. Your pin,” he adds. “Like the ones your father used to sing to. Leven said they looked like balls with beaks, but Madge knew what they were. And that’s the first cake I frosted.
“This is going to sound stupid--stupider--but I always hoped you’d come in and ask me to design a cake for you. I don’t even know what flavors you like. Or I didn’t know until the reaping. You had hot chocolate. So I guess you like chocolate. It would have to be a good year, if you wanted chocolate, but I’d bake you something chocolate all over, the cake and the frosting and the filling and everything. Everything you wanted. And Wash taught me how to make designs out of chocolate, so I’d freeze them and pile them on top of the cake after everything was done. Chocolate everywhere. That’s what I’d do.” He sinks deeper into the bushes, sighs. “Good night. I know you’re still alive. I know...”
And like he’s planned it, he falls silent after that, presumably asleep.
We haven’t touched our glasses since Peeta started talking; now that he’s finished, none of us seem to want to pick them up again.
The District 12 phone rings.
Haymitch hauls himself to his feet and slogs over. “Sponsorship call,” he sing-songs, “you jokers better keep quiet.”
The commentators haven’t heard him, because Suetonius sniffs about how perfectly awful it is to see the poor dear languish like that, and if only there were some way to bring him and Katniss together, one last time. “Can you imagine?” he asks his co-anchor. “Our star-crossed lovers together again.”
“I think all of Panem’s waiting for that meeting,” she says. “Well, Suetonius, you never know what the Gamemakers have up their sleeves next, but for the sake of all of us watching, let’s hope they have something planned for our tributes from Twelve.”
Chaff turns the volume down. “Heard a few rumors,” he says. “People in the Capitol are pushing for a rules change. The guy who bought Thresh’s whetstone said they got a few corporations raising a fuss now.”
“For two victors instead of one?” I trace the rim of my glass. “It’s unprecedented.”
Chaff snorts. “No kidding.”
I lower my voice. Probably not enough to keep the bugs from picking me up, but the question’s not too damning, I hope. “Do you think they would?”
Haymitch laughs into the phone, says something about a couple of changes, but the timing’s too good for it to be for his sponsor’s ears only.
“Make it stick?” Chaff asks. “No. Not for the life of me. Make a change though? They’ve changed rules before. It’s their rules, they can do whatever they want.”
And if they dangled the possibility in front of Katniss and Peeta and snatched it away just when they got close enough to touch it--well, that’d put the Districts in their place, wouldn’t it? Business as usual. Nothing changes.
I stand. “Tell Haymitch I’ll grab him later. Me and Johanna both, probably.”
“Don’t give up on your kids yet.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice.” Chaff grins. “I get a pair like this, I don’t let ‘em go easy.”
Chapter 5: Three Apples
“And that, Finnick, is why I strongly discourage you from skipping prep time,” Drusus says.
I groan and yank the covers higher over my head. It’s dark out, and the light still hurts. “I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to combine that with alcohol.”
“I could have sent you in there with something to counter that. I could have sent you there with doctor’s orders. I could have sent you in there after consulting with your client or at least with someone who could have been held liable for--”
“I missed you too, Drusus.”
“I haven’t been anywhere.”
“Oh, I know you have. You’ve been leaving me hanging at the Training Center. You know, I could have come out here to you, it’s not like I haven’t before. And my phone, it has been ringing. Sometimes I wonder if our tributes are only hiding and their cannons went off to annoy me. ‘No, Finnick’s not here! Yes, I can take a message! No, of course it’s not a matter of life or death! He’s probably just out, doing whatever it is that Finnick does when he isn’t coming to prep when he’s supposed to be in prep’.”
His voice drills straight through my skull, and I grab my pillow to block out the sound. My head reels, but if I close my eyes I’m not as afraid of falling off the bed and into the black swirling thing at the edges of my vision. “Does it matter?” I ask. “They want me, they get me.”
“They get you like this, you lose them.”
“Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.”
Drusus sighs, and the bed lurches when he sits on the edge. He puts his hand through my hair, and his palm is cold, comfortable. “Look,” he says, quieter. “I know you hate it. And I thought you were over it. You shouldn’t have to be. But you’ve come so far, and you’ve dealt with it so well, and there’s no sense in throwing it away now. It didn’t make you happy then, and it won’t if you keep going down that path. So let me make it easier for you, okay?”
I’d nod, but my head’s too heavy and I wouldn’t mean it. “It wasn’t like that,” I say quietly, as quiet as Peeta was last night but without the microphones to make it louder. “I wasn’t trying to--lose myself. I was trying--” I sigh. “It’s easier to laugh at them. At myself. But sometimes I wake up and I feel like I’m going to throw up or fall and I can’t.”
“Damn right you can’t.” The bed tilts again; he must have gotten up, and I think that’s the sound of him pacing, unless it’s just the headache. “Does laughing at them really make it easier?”
“Easier by comparison.”
“Fair enough. But I mean it. Does laughing at the people who hurt you make it easier?”
My throat itches. Swallowing doesn’t help. “Sometimes.”
He doesn’t say anything, for a while, and the thudding stops, so it must not have been in my head.
Someone plods through the door. I pull the covers back enough to see it’s Mags, and even with my vision lurching every few seconds I’m glad to see her. She doesn’t usually stop by my apartment. “Hey. Sorry I’ve been so busy.”
She sits on the edge of the bed, traces the bottom of her cane on the carpet. “I know you can fit me into your schedule,” she says, smiling bright as I’ve ever seen her.
“Always.” I’d kiss her on the forehead, but the thought of sitting up makes me ill.
“You missed breakfast.”
“And lunch. But breakfast would’ve done you good.”
I sink deeper into my pillow and try not to groan again. “You’re telling me.”
She waves at Drusus, and mutters something about getting me some food. He gives her what I think is his patented since when did they make me an Avox look, but he leaves us alone.
“I missed you too,” I say. “I heard you’ve been talking to Beetee?”
The walls click, and the feedback loop starts, and I’m glad Mags knows about these already because she doesn’t miss a beat. “You’re up to something.”
“So are you.”
“When am I not?”
I laugh, even though it hurts my jaw. “Am I allowed to know?”
“Not just yet. Am I?”
“When I have more.” I glance at the walls. I know the bugs are off, but this still isn’t the sort of thing you say out loud in the Capitol. “I’m looking into Snow.”
“You’ll find something,” she says, with a glimmer in her eyes that I hope is pride.
“I think I already have.” I lower my voice. “What do you know about Argentia Usher? And Red Horse Limited?”
Her face washes a bit paler, and she takes a slow breath. “Enough to know you’re looking in the right place. I remember that scandal.”
“I don’t,” I say, and prop myself up on my elbows for about two seconds before they give out.
“Five dead at a Gamemaker retreat,” Mags sighs. “And then a few more back home in Four, for sending out those crabs. My daughter-in-law lost her sister to that. You don’t read about that in the papers.”
My stomach twists. “I didn’t,” I tell her. “I heard Argentia’s heart gave out sometime after that.”
“It was a process,” she said. "It took her a few years, but in the end, there was nothing to be done."
“It’s a theme with Snow, isn’t it?”
Mags just smiles.
“What does Red Horse Limited do?” I ask.
“Pharmaceuticals,” she says. “And they’re the ones who give tracker jackers their venom.”
I remember the angry red blisters covering Pierra’s skin, and my skin prickles in something that isn’t quite sympathy. Yes, I can imagine what Snow would want with a company like that.
“Exciting year, isn’t it.”
She nods. I rub my temples out; some of the ache’s starting to fade, though I still feel like District 7’s moved into my skull. “Can I at least know what’s happening in Three and Eight? I haven’t gotten to talk to Beetee or Cecelia yet.”
Mags shakes her head. “You’ll know. Anything you don’t know, you don’t know because it keeps you safer.”
“Safer,” I repeat, and gesture to myself. “This is what you call safer?”
She hangs her head, but doesn’t have to nod.
I drag myself to sitting and do my best to ignore the dizzying swirl of the room, the rush of blood away from my head and the distant roaring in my ears. I wrap my arms around Mags’s thin shoulders. “I’m sorry,” I say. “That was cruel.”
“It was,” she says, and leans her head on my shoulder. Her joints creak.
“I know you’re looking out for me.” I shouldn’t hold onto her so tightly, even if I do worry that I’ll fall over if I let go. At this rate, I’ll just topple her with me. “Thanks. It’s just a rough morning.”
She nods, and covers my hand with hers, and holds just as tight as I am.
Yesterday, Katniss Everdeen and a bag of apples blew up all the food at the Cornucopia.
I was at work.
I wish I could’ve seen it. I did hear about it though, at least three times, the first of those being when my client’s housekeeper banged on the door just as things were getting heavy to report to him that the boy from District 3--who he had been sponsoring--was officially out of the Top Eight. I think I managed to convince him to switch over to Katniss and to add his name to the petition.
Haymitch Abernathy owes me.
I tell him as much when I manage to duck into the Training Center. Andrea Lobotae has me for the night, and I can’t help but wonder whose idea the timing is, despite Drusus’s insistence that my schedule books up months in advance of my visits. Until then, though, I plan to spend as much time as far away from her as possible.
Haymitch laughs in my face, though, and goes back to dealing with whoever’s on the other end of the phone. And he’s not the only one: Chaff’s got the headset Wiress rigged for him, and he’s taking notes and scribbling sums on a notepad. Brutus and Cashmere are sneaking glares over at them from their table in the corner. Johanna’s doing her best to yawn and feign disinterest, but I catch her darting glances at the screen when she thinks no one’s watching. Mags has decided not to nap this afternoon, and we’re sitting together on one of the couches while Seeder fills me in on what I missed.
“It’s been like this all night,” she explains. “Between the Top Eight interviews and--well, you’ve seen the replays.”
“I have,” I say. And I mean to catch some of those District Twelve interviews--much like the rest of Panem, I’d imagine. The cameras are still following Katniss, zooming in on the unlit woodpile at her feet as the commentators speculate about where Rue might be. They don’t cut to Rue, though, which surprises me. Maybe they want us to be as surprised as Katniss will be.
That usually doesn’t bode well.
A mockingjay trills out a four-note tune--Rue’s ‘closing time’ signal, the commentators explain, and replay the relevant clip. Another one picks it up, and Katniss follows their trail, grinning--
--until a scream pierces the trees, and Chaff puts down his pen and takes off the headset. “Shit.”
“Oh no,” Cecelia says softly. I find Mags’s hand and give it a squeeze; her fingers tremble in mine.
These moments in the Games never get easier. I’m not sure if I want them to.
“I’m coming!” Katniss shouts, tears through the trees and breaks into the clearing. Now they show us Rue, struggling to crawl out from under a net. It’s not one a tribute wove, the knots are too evenly spaced for that, but watching her reach through the mesh, the spear taking her in the chest--
--I don’t close my eyes. I wish I could. I can smell the salt from that river, feel my trident solid in my hand, hear Pacifica telling me I hate you. You better win after this.
I want to.
Then do it. And I do. Did. It’s hard to tell right now.
Katniss shoots the boy who threw the spear almost as soon as he lets it fly. I don’t even know--or care, at this point--if he was from 1 or 2. But her arrow skewers his throat and he rips it out like an idiot and the cameras pay him about as much mind as Katniss does. No one’s cannons have fired yet.
“Oh dear,” one of the commentators says. “I’m glad we got their Top Eight interviews already!”
Johanna and I look at each other, and the only reason neither of us smashes the television is that we have to see what happens next.
“Sing,” Rue says, her lips bright with blood.
Of all the things I never expected of Katniss Everdeen, this takes the cake. She does, she sings, and not even the commentators interrupt. Not even the birds interrupt. It’s hard to make out the words through her accent and her tears but the tune rings out clear, here is the place where I love you.
The cannons fire. I almost didn’t think they would.
“She sings like her father,” Haymitch says, and his voice creeps out of nowhere like a flood under your door. “Well, don’t that beat all.”
“Her father?” I ask.
He nods. “Old friend.”
“Right,” I say, and resolve to talk to him as soon as possible about all of this.
Haymitch claps a hand on Chaff’s shoulder, but no one else is saying a word. Onscreen, Katniss is gathering flowers, and the commentators still haven’t quite found their tongues--or if they have, they’re using them off-microphone. She carries them to Rue. I wonder if she’s going to leave them on her chest, the way some stories say about heroes sent off in funeral boats instead of burned, but she spreads them all over Rue’s body, tucks them into her hair and outlines her face with them. Once she starts to hide the wound with their blossoms, the cameras cut away and the commentators offer some stock phrases about death and beauty, but I see their smiles straining.
“She’s crazy,” Johanna says.
“Yeah, and I want to see it,” Meadow says. “Beetee, do you think you can--”
“Already on it.” He types something in to one of his devices. “Give me a minute.”
Gloss calls over, “So, Haymitch. Anything else you got up your sleeve?”
“I’m just getting started,” he says.
Beetee says, “Done.”
Katniss is onscreen again, touching her fingers to her lips to say goodbye. As she leaves, the mockingjays whistle to warn for the hovercraft’s approach, and all of Panem watches its claw lift Rue from a pool of flowers.
Seeder lets out a hard breath. She must have been holding it. “That’s not going to go over well.”
I’m sure everyone in the room has something to say to that. No one gets to: Chaff’s phone rings instead.
“Hello? Yeah,” he says, once he’s got the headset on. “I figured--yes. Wait. You’re sure?”
I swear it’s almost as quiet in here as it was when Katniss was singing.
“Well, I think I can do that,” he says, and pulls the headset back off without turning off the phone. “Haymitch. It’s for you.”
About three of us say “What?” at once, myself among them. Not that Haymitch misses a beat; he hauls himself out of the chair next to me and takes the headset from Chaff with the biggest shit-eating grin I have ever seen on any face but my own.
“Yeah? --Sure, there’s nothing in the rules against it. But you don’t want to send it to Thresh?” He waits, nods, reaches for Chaff’s notepad. “Uh-huh. Yeah, he’s got it right here. That should be enough.--Sure, she’s a smart girl, she’ll know who it’s from. Let me put that call through right now. And thank you. Thank you so much, you hear?”
I can’t remember the last time I heard Haymitch say thank you. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard him say thank you. From the looks on everyone else’s faces, they haven’t either.
Haymitch hangs up, and takes the notepad back to his own station.
“Okay,” Johanna says, “who are you and what did you do with Haymitch Abernathy?”
“You ain’t seen shit of Haymitch Abernathy,” he says, already ringing up the parachutiers, and then he completely ignores her. “All right. You reading me? I’ve got authorization from Chaff Jackson to transfer his funds allocated from the people of District Eleven to my own, and they want to give my girl something.”
I am pretty sure the parachutiers say the same what that half of us just did.
“One loaf of bread. One loaf of District Eleven bread. The kind with the molasses and the seeds. And yeah, I know they’ve got enough.--Sure, I’ll put him on.” He holds the phone to Chaff’s ear. “Chaff, tell ‘em I don’t have a knife to your throat.”
“They want this,” Chaff tells the parachutiers, “and I am happy to hand it over.”
None of us says anything. I don’t think most of us are breathing.
“You got that?” Haymitch practically crows into the receiver. “You got that, sweetheart? Good. Now get Katniss’s position and make the drop. I want to see that money move from one column to another, and I want my girl taking a bite of the bread the next time I look at the television.”
He hangs up. Someone mutes the Games. They aren’t showing Katniss now, so none of us gives a damn.
Haymitch smiles wide enough that we can see just what the Capitol did to fix his teeth twenty-four years ago. “What’re all you jokers looking at?”
“That isn’t legal,” Cashmere says slowly. “That can’t be legal.”
“It’s legal,” I say. “Mags did the same thing for me during Annie’s Games.”
“That was for a tribute from your District,” Gloss says. “Transferring to another District--”
“There’s nothing in the rules against it,” Brutus interrupts. That’s almost as startling as the fact that it’s happening in the first place. “This has never been done.”
Mags nods, confirms it.
Johanna says, “Turn the sound back on, they’re showing Wonder Girl again.”
Whoever turned it off turns it back on, and the chatter of mockingjays creeps back in through the speakers. The cameras follow Haymitch’s parachute as it falls right at Katniss’s feet, and she stoops to unwrap it and pick it up. Sure enough, that’s the bread Haymitch asked for, and the slow wash of recognition over Katniss’s face is almost terrifying.
“My thanks,” she says, her voice trembling, “to the people of District Eleven.”
“Well, isn’t she a smart one,” President Snow says from the lounge door.
About half of us snap our heads around fast enough to get whiplash.
Snow waves a hand behind him to keep the Peacekeepers in the hall--or at least to let us all know they’re there--and stalks in, looking over each of us with the cold precision of a camera. “So if there’s nothing prohibiting an action in the rules, then there isn’t a rule at all?” he asks. “Well, Haymitch, it seems you’re up to the same old tricks.”
Beetee coughs. “If there’s no precedent, there can be no rule.”
“Then I suppose we should have thought of that before we let Panem’s best and brightest set this sort of precedent,” Snow says. Johanna snorts, and I can’t blame her. “I thought we talked about this. Perhaps I should have brought in District Eleven when I kept the rest of you after.”
“They didn’t need to hear it,” Wiress says, more to her shoes than to him.
Snow ignores her. “Or perhaps I should be glad that you kept our conversation to yourself, Beetee. That’s a value I wish more of you would practice. Don’t you have pride in your own Districts? Didn’t you all win your Games on their behalf?”
“No,” Johanna says, and I could almost kiss her for it. Almost.
“Then I should take back all the gifts and concessions I gave to Seven on your behalf, Johanna.”
“Do you have a time machine?” she asks, with the sweetest smile I’ve seen her wear since before her Games started. She’s completely crazy. Mags and I exchange a look, and I can tell she agrees, but I can also see her pressing her lips together so she won’t laugh. I give her hand a squeeze.
Snow laughs. “No. But I do have everything else I’d need. Is there anyone else in here who’s rescinding his right to represent his District?”
No one speaks.
“Once again, Johanna, you have set yourself apart. I do hope this time it isn’t all talk, particularly since no one else seems willing to stand with you.”
“So?” she asks, the muscle in her jaw twitching.
“It only works once, Johanna. And only if you have the power to back it up.”
The look Johanna gives him should burn clean through him, but he barely seems to notice.
“Haymitch,” Snow goes on. “I do hope you’re not just looking to start another round of Gamemaker replacements.”
“There’s nothing in the rules against it,” Brutus says again, this time stronger.
Snow turns to him instead. “I am disappointed in you,” he says. “I thought you enjoyed the Games as they are.”
“I do,” Brutus says.
“Then don’t put up such a poor showing. And that goes for you too, Gloss, Cashmere. Your tributes’ deaths were pathetic. I can only assume they weren’t trained well enough to overcome a starving girl from District Twelve. To say nothing of how far down the chute Four’s gone these days.”
He turns to me. I hate him, I hate his mouth, I hate his smile, and I can’t do a thing about it.
“Shouldn’t you be at work?” he asks.
“I am at work,” I say, grit my teeth hard enough that my jaw shakes. “I’m a mentor.”
Snow shakes his head. “Your tributes are dead, Finnick. At the hands of that same starving girl from District Twelve, no less.”
Mags’s hand tightens around mine, and I hold hers back as tight as I can. “Well, then maybe I should take over mentoring for Haymitch.”
Snow laughs, bitter and sarcastic. “You’re right, as long as there’s nothing in that against the rules either.”
Wiress speaks up, “I don’t think...”
Beetee rests his hand on her shoulder; Snow ignores her. “Chaff,” Snow sighs dramatically. “I should have know you had a hand in this.”
Chaff laughs just once, but I swear he’s not standing as tall as he was before. “Was wondering where I left that. Can I have it back, sir?”
“At least you ask. I’ll admit, it’s reassuring when someone remembers what power I have. Thank you, Chaff. But no. It’s funny how one thoughtless act can negate years of good service.”
“Our people decided where that gift should go,” Seeder says.
Snow doesn’t ignore her. “Your District has no right to decide anything.”
“None of them do. All these decisions go through you, as mentors entrusted with the well-being of your tributes and the overall progress of the Games. But how can I expect you to follow the spirit of those laws we’ve put in place for your reprimand and your protection, when in this very room I’ve assembled almost two dozen people who think they are exceptions--no, who think they’re exceptional. Because isn’t that what we’ve been telling you, ever since you won? The best. The luckiest. The smartest. The most desired,” he adds, looking clear at me, and then, “The wiliest,” at Haymitch. “And you think you control the Games, because, once, you did.”
Haymitch doesn’t say anything. Haymitch hasn’t said anything since before Snow got here. I swear they’ve replaced him with a mutt.
Mags drops her cane onto the floor, loud enough to ring through the room like a shot. Her eyes say more to Snow than her words ever could.
“Finnick,” Snow says to me while looking at Mags, like he’s talking about a four-year-old, “are you sure her being here is good for her health?”
My free hand curls into a fist, and I need to keep a firm hold of Mags’s hand so I don’t get up and punch Snow. Again. “She has as much right to be here as any of us.”
“You all keep talking about rights,” Snow sighs. “You seem to get those confused with privileges. Mags is privileged to remain among you, after all she’s been through. After all that all of you have been through. But is it her right to be here, in this Capitol, in this exalted position? No. It’s a privilege that she earned, not a right that she had from birth. Mags should know that better than any of you. But perhaps age and infirmity have made her forget.”
I picks up Mags’s cane and give it back to her. She won’t shove it down Snow’s throat, and I’m far too tempted.
Snow doen’t seem to notice. “And my question continues to hang in the air unanswered, Finnick. Shouldn’t you be at work?”
Everyone’s staring at me. I avoid them as best I can with the lounge as full as it is, which means there aren’t many places I can look and not see them. They know, I remind myself. It doesn’t matter if they hear this. They already know. “You know my schedule better than I do.”
“The flagrancy of your disregard makes that difficult knowledge to keep.” He enunciates each word, sharp enough that I see the gold glimmer of blood around his gums. “Shouldn’t you be at work.”
I don’t say anything. I wish someone would turn the sound back on; even the commentators droning on about the next development in the Games would be easier to listen to than this. I should say no, I shouldn’t. I want to. Some of the others probably want me to. Snow is still smiling at me, smiling like he has all the time in the world.
I breathe, barely. “Not for another few hours.”
“Are you sure? It must take less prep than it used to. Is it getting any easier? I’d hope, since you’ve adapted so well over the years. I’m glad to see your continued enthusiasm. Who are you seeing tonight?”
Snow laughs. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him laugh like that. I don’t want to see it again. “I’m sure she will be honored to have you. Treat her well.”
Johanna stands up, almost kicking her chair from out under her, and marches to my side. I didn’t expect that. She grips my shoulder, and I really didn’t expect that. “Yeah, Finnick,” she says, but she’s looking at Snow. “Give that cow exactly what she deserves.”
Snow raises an eyebrow. “And what would that be, Johanna?”
“Criminal charges or a boot up the ass. Your pick.”
At least Johanna’s acting like herself. That scares me too, but it’s a kind of scared I’m used to.
“Finnick’s pick,” he corrects, still smiling. “It’s his choice, isn’t it?”
My choice? My choice? Johanna’s nails spear into my shoulder, Mags looks ready to crack her cane across Snow’s skull, and if Haymitch isn’t going to cut through this crap, I will. “Then it’s my choice not to go.”
“All right then, Finnick. If you want to dispense with your obligations to the Capitol, by all means, retire back to District Four,” Snow says with open arms and an earnest, almost benevolent smile, the kind I remember from the photographs Cinna and I have been looking through. “Take out your boat. Fish. I know your mother has an engagement ring waiting for you, so just go home and pick it up. Marry Annie Cresta with my blessing. I hope you have many children. You know, that’s something the Capitol’s never seen before, the child of two victors. I’m sure any child of yours will be just as capable and competent as you and Annie were in the Arena. Perhaps even just as desirable afterward.”
Someone turns the Games back on.
“Which reminds me.” Snow turns to Cecelia. “Taffeta should be due for reaping soon, if I recall.”
Reaping. No. No. I can’t. I can’t do that to Annie, can’t do that to our--
“Should I call Andrea Lobotae on your behalf, Finnick? Or will you be seeing her tonight?”
I can’t. “Yes.”
“Yes. I’ll be seeing her.”
“Your generosity, as always, is appreciated.”
“Thank you, sir.” My voice doesn’t feel like it’s coming out of my throat.
“Again, Finnick. You always forget.”
“Thank you, Mister President.”
Snow doesn’t leave: Chaff’s headset catches his eye, and he strides over, unplugs it from the console. Wiress protests in the corner, and Snow finally says, “Beetee, would you be so kind as to keep her quiet?”
Beetee swallows, slides his glasses up his nose, says nothing for a while. He takes Wiress’s arm and leads her to the couch furthest away from Snow.
“I had no idea the equipment in this place was so out-of-date,” Snow says, and takes the headset toward the door with him. “I’ll have to send a contractor down before the Quarter Quell. You should all feel free to tell me if something in this room isn’t to your liking. Good day.”
“Good evening,” Haymitch corrects.
Snow sneers, and stops in his tracks.
“I’m just saying,” Haymitch goes on. “It’s evening. Sun’s going down. Been a full day for all of us. Any minute now, Templesmith’s gonna play some faces across the sky.” He grins. “And it’s Wednesday.”
“I liked you so much more at the bottom of a bottle,” Snow says, private, but loud enough for all of us to hear.
“Funny, so did I,” Haymitch says.
He stands aside to let Snow pass, but Snow catches him on the shoulder, and leans up to whisper in Haymitch’s ear. I don’t think anyone else is supposed to hear it, just them and maybe me. “Have you forgotten that everything you touch turns to dust?”
“Couldn’t possibly.” Haymitch doesn’t bother to whisper. “That’d take more drink than money can buy.”
“You’d be surprised what money can buy,” Snow says as he leaves. “I think you just bought something that once upon a time, you didn’t have to pay for.”
I think, somewhere, the commentators have a lot to say, but I can’t make out a single one of those words. Snow leaves, and the Peacekeepers leave with him, and no matter how much noise there is filling this room, not a single word is coming out of any of our throats.
And then Johanna shrieks, and throws a remote control clear through one of the television screens. It shatters, and smokes, and stinks like hell, and no one makes a move to clean it up.
Chapter 6: Persephone in the Underworld
This chapter deserves an additional warning for noncon, at least for the first scene. (Subsequent scenes in this chapter reference the aftermath but don't depict the event itself.) Use your best judgment about what, and how much, you're comfortable reading.
Andrea Lobotae and Cinna have the same taste in drinks. I feel like it shouldn’t bother me, but I get the feeling it will. She only drinks one, with dinner, just the one screwdriver, so thick with pulp that it clings to the wall of her glass. I wonder if she planned it.
She makes easy conversation, doesn’t talk about things that go over my head or people I don’t care about. She doesn’t even mention today’s death toll in the Games. They’re on in the corner of just about every room, so I know she knows, but she doesn’t mention Marvel or Rue. Her house Avoxes serve us a light meal course by course and stand just out of sight, watching like guards. They probably are guards, or were. Lobotae doesn’t talk about them, either.
She apologizes to me in the middle of dessert. I’m startled enough to drop my spoon into the bowl, and I ask what she means. She says, “Oh, you can’t possibly have forgotten our dalliance in Tantalus. I wanted to apologize for any damage I did to your clothing. If you like, you can send me an equivalent bill.”
My glass chatters in my hand, and I have to set it down before I shatter it. “Don’t worry about it,” I say, force my voice to even out. “I wasn’t wearing much clothing.” Apologize to Cinna for ruining his design, I want to tell her, but the last thing I want to do is drop his name in front of her.
She smiles, lips just slightly parted around the rim of her glass. “I only mention it because I plan on taking precautions against that tonight.”
“Your dry cleaning bill,” she says. “And mine, for that matter. I have no intention of fucking you.”
Well. I haven’t heard that from a client before. I blink, try to make a joke out of my confusion. “So are we going to be playing cards?”
She laughs. “No. I only said that I have no intention. You will be performing your intended function.”
My intended function. I look down so she won’t see the color rise in my cheeks. She probably does, anyway.
“Just not with me,” she clarifies, and drains her glass. One of her Avoxes, a young blond woman, comes by to clear the glass away from the table. Lobotae raises a hand to stop her. “Take off your clothes.”
I push back my chair and stand.
“I didn’t mean you, Finnick,” Lobotae says.
I remain standing. I don’t trust myself to sit.
The young woman looks at Lobotae, then at me, and I can’t bring myself to meet her eyes. She doesn’t say anything. Of course she doesn’t say anything, she’s an Avox, she can’t stop this any more than I can and I have to grip the back of the chair hard so I don’t double over and get sick. I still can’t look at her directly. Out of the corner of my eye, I see her unzip her bodysuit and peel it off her shoulders and I want to cover her back up, throw the tablecloth over her, anything, but I stare at the chair instead.
Lobotae thanks her, low and even and unperturbed. “Good. Now kneel.”
The Avox does, right where she was standing, until she’s almost in the shadow of the table. She folds her hands in her lap, and I realize that she’s waxed down almost everywhere just like I am: no pubic hair, no blemishes, not even stretch marks along her sides. This Avox was a Capitol citizen once.
It doesn’t make me feel any better.
Slowly, I ease my hands off the chair, straighten. I’m still trying not to look at her. And then Lobotae tells me, “Finnick, she can’t undo her hair on her own. Do it for her.”
I’m sorry, I want to tell her, but the words wither in my throat. I clear it, or try to, but nothing happens. Her hair’s soft and thick and curls near the bottom, the way some of my cousins’ hair does. I’m not going to think about my cousins right now. I don’t want to think of anything right now.
“It’s lovely hair, isn’t it, Finnick?” Loboate leans one elbow on the table. “Hold it tight and fuck her mouth.”
She doesn’t have a tongue. Something awful and dark claws at the pit of my stomach, and I can’t help trembling. Lobotae must see it. She doesn’t care. I thread my fingers through the young woman’s hair; she’s shivering too, right under her skin. And she’s doing her best not to look at me. I don’t blame her.
I take as deep a breath as I can, and it clogs my throat. “I’m not hard enough yet,” I tell Lobotae. “I can’t.”
“Oh,” she says. “A pity.”
And she waves the other Avox over.
“Take care of that,” she tells him. “And Finnick, would you rather he stimulate you manually, or via your prostate?”
I close my eyes, wish I could close my ears, too. “Whatever he wants.”
“He doesn’t get to decide. You do,” she says. And I know Snow’s spoken with her, even before she adds, “It’s your choice.”
Hatred washes through my veins, sick and hot, but when I think I want to kill them all it’s perfectly cold. Sharp. Clear. Like the water in the river during my Games.
I don’t say anything. I take her male Avox by the hand and guide it to my groin. He hangs his head, and undoes my pants, and though I do hear Lobotae commanding him to get my clothes off entirely it’s distant and echoing somewhere in the back of my mind. He gets me hard enough, I’ve managed that before and I’ll manage it again and when Lobotae tells me to I hold her girl Avox by the hair and guide myself into her mouth. It’s more spacious without a tongue. She has nothing to block her teeth.
Lobotae makes sure I finish. It takes longer than I think she’d have preferred.
It’s not the only thing she has me do to her Avoxes. To tell the truth, I don’t believe most of what I do, no matter how hard she tells me to thrust or how many fingers she tells me to shove in. I’m not the one giving the commands, I’m not even the one obeying them. It’s not my body. It’s not. I wouldn’t do this.
But I am.
My name is Finnick Odair. I am twenty-three years old.
There’s supposed to be more to it than that.
I offer her a cigarette.
She says she has her own.
That’s fine; I drugged them too.
Lobotae’s almost smoked the cigarette down to a stub before she starts yawning. “Finished?” I ask her.
“Apparently,” she says. “It looks as though you’ve worn me out after all.”
I nod, take the cigarette from her, grind it out and pocket the stub when she’s not looking. I’d rather not have her look too closely at what was in it, and I know she has the equipment. She beckons me to follow her as her Avoxes escort her to bed. I don’t look at them. I hope they’re not looking at me. They probably are. I’m sorry, I want to say, but words are as useless for me as they are for them right now.
She lies down but doesn’t invite me into bed. Small mercies. She sends her Avoxes out, has me kneel by her bedside, and runs her fingers through my hair until her hand slackens and slips from it. I’d shove it off faster, but I can’t risk waking her up. I stand, slower than I’d like, stare down at her. The drug isn’t a paralytic, but even if she woke up with my fingers wrapped around her throat, she couldn’t fight me off in time, couldn’t call her Avoxes to--
--no. No. I almost slump back to my knees; my throat dries and the space behind my eyes pounds. That’s not who I am.
Please let that not be who I am.
My hands aren’t shaking. Much. That’s good. I rest my head in my arms and breathe in, the same way I do when I swim. In for one stroke, out for three. In. Out. It’s not enough, but it has to be. I don’t have much time.
Loboate’s personal computer is in her study across the hall. I don’t have any trouble getting there, and it’s not like the Avoxes are going to stop me. I sit down at the console, bring up a search window, and start hunting up files on Red Horse. Honestly, that’s about as much as I can do with computers, and Beetee once said that my typing is the slowest he’s ever seen on a two-handed man, but he was probably teasing, and at least I have an excuse. It’s not as if my family boat had any ranged navigational equipment.
It would help if I could spell Red Horse correctly. I think I’m hitting the right parts of the keypad. I look down. I’m not.
There’s a subset of folders: too many to look through in what time I have. I run a second search for “Snow”, which I type one finger at a time like I’m punching the touchscreen. That at least shrinks the Red Horse folders from two dozen to two.
Two folders. They’re small enough, I can steal one of her drives and get them both. I tap and drag them off to copy them first, and only look after I know they’re secure. They’re lists of chemicals, which doesn’t surprise me given what Lobotae’s into, but if I just went through all that to steal the components of the President’s rose cologne, it wasn’t worth it. I start to laugh, then clap my hand over my mouth. It’s not that funny.
Have I missed anything? Yes. Argentia Usher. Once I manage to spell “Usher” without reversing the s and h, it links to about five files, probably too many to transfer to the drive. I quickly page through the first four files, and they’re more lists of chemicals like Snow’s. The last one is a jumble of nonsense text and symbols. Well, whether it’s encrypted or corrupted, I’m sure Beetee and Wiress will know what to do with it, so I drag it in.
That’s everything, I think. I withdraw the drive, slump in the chair and stare at the console for--I’m not sure how long. None of it makes any more sense no matter how long I look.
My fingerprints are all over the thing. Shit. I pad down the hall to the bathroom, take out a washcloth, bring it back and wipe the console down. There, that should do it. I can explain a used washcloth a lot more easily than I can explain a fresh set of prints. Do people even check for those anymore? What else could I have left? I don’t see any strands of my hair near the computer, but flakes of skin, even sweat--
Forget it. I don’t know how to get rid of any of that, and I’m not going to learn before she wakes up. I sit down again, ball the washcloth in my fist, hug my knees to my chest. The computer’s light doesn’t warm my skin at all. I want to go home.
I’m going to steal her credit information first. Just in case.
Drusus doesn’t tell me I look like hell warmed over, which must mean I really look awful. He hands off my overnight bag to an Avox and sweeps me into a hug. He hasn’t done that in--I don’t think he’s ever done that. I can’t lift my arms to hug him back the way he’s holding me, but I’m not sure he wants that anyway, so when he lets go I don’t try.
“What happened?” I ask. There’s a smile that should accompany that, but I can’t quite manage one.
“Nothing,” he says. “Come on. You want a drink before or during?”
Drusus laughs, a little. That’s got to count for something. But he has one of the prep team get me something and ushers me off to the bathroom. He starts programming the shower. “I haven’t ever seen your eyes like this.”
I should turn that into a joke. I can’t think of a punchline. Maybe I am the punchline. “I’ve slept better.”
“Yeah.” He sets it up, lets the steam start running. It’s hotter than he usually makes me take. “Cinna said you saw her last year. Lobotae, I mean.”
“Guess she liked what she saw.” Drusus hands me a candle; I forget for a second what he’d want me to do with it, but once I get a whiff of it I remember, and breathe deeper. It smells fine. I nod and hand it back to him. “Did you get to watch any of the Games while you were there?”
“No,” I say, rub my arms. My skin still isn’t settling right; it feels like there’s a gap between it and my muscles, like the rest of me’s shrunk but I’m supposed to stay the same size. “But I think I caught the parts I was supposed to see.”
He nods. Someone puts a drink in my hand.
Drusus looks me over for bruises. I think he’s surprised when he doesn’t find anything at all. He even looks between my fingers and under my heels. I finish my drink and take off my pants so he can keep looking, but when I let them fall to the ground something in their pocket thunks.
“Wait,” I say, and scoop them back up. “I forgot. There’s something--” How do I explain? Better not to. “I just need to take care of this.”
He says it’s fine, and once he turns away to check the shower I take the drives and her credit information out of my pocket and bring them to the bedroom. The running shower’s pretty good cover, so at least Dru won’t pick up what I’m saying.
I turn on the television, check the sponsorship directory, and dial in.
“Hello!” someone far too cheerful says on the other end of the line. “Thank you for calling in to the Sponsorship Offices for the 74th Hunger Games! We appreciate in advance any contribution you’re willing to make.”
If they put me on hold, I’m going to kill them. I want to laugh again, and have to stifle it.
“If you would like to contact the mentor for a specific District, state the District number and I’ll put you through! If you would like to make a general donation, or sponsor a muttation or non-tribute combatant, just say ‘Seventy-four’. If you have questions concerning odds, kill counts, and total accrual by District, just say ‘Races’. If you’re calling to get in touch with the representative Gamemaker, announcer, commentator, or another staff member, and you don’t know your party’s extension, just say ‘Directory’. For all other calls, please say ’Operator’ or wait on the line--”
I grip the phone tight enough to throttle it. “Operator.”
“You have selected ‘Operator’. A representative will be with you shortly. Thank you for your participation in the seventy-fourth Hunger Games! Please hold.”
They have no idea. They really have no idea. I double over and don’t know I’m going to start laughing until I do. What else can you do here? Ask people if they’d rather sponsor a tribute or a mutt, I guess. That thought sends me into another fit of laughter, and then I wonder if someone funded the crack down the dam in Annie’s Games, or the vines that almost killed me.
I stop laughing.
“Seventy-fourth Hunger Games sponsorship offices, Fulvia speaking.”
I cough and remember to raise my voice about an octave before I say, “Iustinian Warbeck. I’m Andrea Lobotae’s secretary.”
“I’m sorry, if you can’t reach her personally, you won’t be able to contact her through us.”
“I’m not here to contact her,” I say. I wish I’d written this down. Too late now. “I’m here on her behalf. She’d like to make a donation.”
“That isn’t precisely legal for a Gamemaker, you know--”
“She’s not trying to sponsor a tribute. This is about the rule change.”
“The rule change?”
“Aren’t you taking up a collection to allow a rule change? Two tributes from the same district can win? I saw it on Capitol Beat and Circus Minimus. And Wear and Tear,” I add for good measure, “Dr. Lobotae mentioned something about it there too.”
“Yes,” Fulvia says, “a lot of people have been calling in about that. It’s called the Gemella fund. The Head Gamemaker said he would concede to the rules change if a certain amount was reached--”
“How close are you?”
She tells me.
“Then let my boss be the one to put it over.”
“But she’s a Gamemaker--”
“If a Gamemaker can’t throw her weight in on a Games-related decision, who can?”
“You have a point. But are you sure you’re authorized to--”
“Andrea Lobotae is recovering from a night with Finnick Odair.” That’s technically true. I still have to grit my teeth to say it.
“Oh.” I can practically hear her blushing. “Did you get to see him? In his--”
“Yeah,” I tell her, and look down at myself. “And out of it.”
“Well! Okay. Ah. Just give me Dr. Lobotae’s credit information and I’ll page that in. Bear in mind that the rules change might not be announced officially until it passes through Head Gamemaker Crane.”
“Of course,” I say, and reel off the information. My head’s reeling, too, and it’s a minor miracle that Fulvia can’t hear my heart hammering through the phone. I hope I’m right about Lobotae, that she wouldn’t take a matter like this to the authorities if the rule change turns out to be a success. I have to be right. If I’m wrong--I don’t want to think about it.
“All right, then!” Fulvia’s voice isn’t as steady as it was before. I have to wonder what she’s up to. “Thanks for your--well, her--contribution, and may the odds be ever in your favor!”
I nod, though she can’t see it, and hang up. The phone slips from my fingers. I breathe. Well. I did it. I can’t believe I did it, but I did.
Drusus coughs from the bathroom doorway. “Finnick.”
If he’s not saying anything, neither am I. I stand, force my hands to uncurl. “All right,” I say. “I’m coming.”
“That was a contender for the second-worst day of my life,” I tell Cinna, and I don’t elaborate. Aloud, anyway.
Nothing, as far as I know, can top the worst day of my life, which is the day Mags had a stroke and Annie broke down and I still had to be at work, both before and after, and couldn’t tell either of them about it. But that means that this day, since it’s up for second-worst, is in competition with the day I was reaped, the day I killed Pacifica, the day I killed three tributes who weren’t Pacifica, the day I got shot twice, the day I had to watch my Games, the day that included the night with Johanna in Augustus’s Daughter, my first day at work (not that I knew it then), that one really awful fundraiser (which also involved Lobotae), and the day I told Annie just what Snow wanted me to do in the Capitol.
I think the odds are pretty good. In fact, I’d bet on it. That was the second-worst day of my life.
Cinna helps me not think about that, for a while. I didn’t bring champagne this time, since I couldn’t swing by my apartment on the way, but we make do with what we’ve got.
He doesn’t even bring her up until long after, and that’s just to say, “I wish I’d tripped her out the door of Tantalus. Into heavy traffic.”
“That doesn’t sound like you.”
“I know. Maybe Haymitch is a bad influence.”
“He’s a terrible influence.” I stretch out and reach for the remote. “We should leave this on.”
He nods, and slides up to straddle my back and rub out my shoulders. I remember the first time he did this, though it’s a bit hazy considering how drunk I was. It surprised me. He surprised me. Then I almost fell asleep.
“Thanks,” I tell him quietly.
“Of course,” he says, just a whisper behind my ear.
“How have you been?”
“I sent the dress and the suit to the machinists,” he says. “Just in case one of them wins.”
I smile into the mattress, but I think Cinna feels it anyway. “Well, the odds seem to be in your favor.”
“I won’t jinx it.” He shifts his weight down, starts kneading under my shoulders. “When do you have to be at--work?”
I crane my neck to look at the clock. “Another hour and a half? Two? Looks like I’m starting to pull night shifts.” I smile again, mean to laugh, but all that comes out is a sigh.
“You should be in prep.”
Now I let him see me smile, the kind that makes Annie crack up. “Why don’t you prep me?”
He coughs, blushes. “Am I encroaching on Drusus’s territory?”
“I’d worry more about encroaching on Annie’s, and no, you’re not.” I’m surprise how easy it is to bring Annie up, and how little it takes, but then Cinna’s always brought out the best in me in one way or another. I can talk about her here. I can share that part of me with him.
Cinna’s smile softens, washes over his jaw. “Tell me something about her?” he asks, and doesn’t stop working the knots out of my back.
There’s so much to tell, but one image floats to the top. “I love the way she dances,” I say. “I think I fell in love with her the first time I saw her dance. Or I was already in love with her, and that strengthened it.” I laugh. “She’s so free when she moves. Her hair floats around her and she swings from partner to partner and she spins so fast I’m always afraid she’ll fall, but she never does. Looking at her--”
I am looking at her now, her bare feet and sun-flushed cheeks and her arms raised over her head, signaling me closer. Dance with me, Finnick. And I want to. I want to so much.
This is why I try not to think about her when I’m in the Capitol.
“Looking at her, you think anything could happen,” I finish, when I can.
Cinna’s hands settle on my back. I barely feel his fingertips.
“I’ll make something for her,” he whispers. “To wear when she dances. Is that all right?”
“Yeah,” I say. “That’s more than all right.”
He traces the ridges of my spine, and I crane to look up at the television. The screen’s split to six places: Cato and Clove together, Katniss up a tree, the girl from Five and Peeta barely visible under their cover, and Thresh, Chaff’s last tribute, skewering a snake over a small fire. The commentators in the top-right corner are chatting, and there’s text running across the bottom of the screen, MASSIVE IMPACT ANNOUNCEMENT SHORTLY, TUNE IN.
“Early for a feast,” I mutter.
Cinna hums low in his throat. “Final six.”
“Still early.” I stretch out for the remote and turn the volume up.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Gamemakers have heard your voices, and I am pleased to announce that they’ve instituted a rule change in this year’s Games.”
Rule change. My head snaps up, undoing all the work Cinna put in to loosen it, but I’ll apologize later. He’s half-watching the screen and half-watching me, mouthing the words along with Templesmith--and with the entire Capitol, no doubt. No. With the entire nation. What I wouldn’t give to be in the square back home right now, watching the news ripple across the crowd.
“For the first time in the history of the Hunger Games, if the last two tributes remaining alive are from the same District, they will both be declared victors.” He pauses. “I repeat: if the last two tributes remaining alive are from the same District, they will both be declared victors.”
The tributes are hearing it the same time we are. I almost forget to watch them, until Katniss screams Peeta’s name.
The other tributes might be too far away to hear that, but we all did. I glance at Cinna. He’s beaming.
“She’s as genuine as he is,” he says, like he needs to convince himself. “She just doesn’t know it.”
“Well, she might now.” Maybe. I’m hardly one to criticize other people for being slow to realize what their feelings mean.
“I think she’d better run.” Cinna points at Peeta’s corner of the screen, where the camera has honed in on his face, and his sweat leaves cold streaks in the dirt and leaves. “He didn’t hear it.”
Katniss smiles at the camera now, her face tilted toward the moonlight. I’d peel all the grime off her face if I could, so everyone could think of her for just one second as a normal teenager, up a tree, who’s finally been told she can have something she wants.
I turn to Cinna instead. “Let’s get something to drink.”
“I think we have to toast to Andrea Lobotae.”
I haven’t seen the victor’s lounge in this much of an uproar since the dam broke during Annie’s Games, and Johanna and I had gotten into a fistfight before that, which ratcheted up the tension more than a little. It’s been at least half a day since the rule change by the time I manage to make it in, no thanks to my schedule, and everyone is still up in arms.
“There’s nothing against it!” Brutus shouts from the corner. Gloss seems to be restraining Cashmere from clawing Brutus’s eyes out.
“There’s nothing against it, or there’s nothing against it because you can bring two of them home?” Cashmere snarls. “It’s ridiculous, it’s a cheap ploy--”
“No shit it’s a cheap ploy, it’s the Games,” Johanna says, rolling her eyes. “Raise your hand if you think the change is gonna last.”
Chaff raises his stump. “This count?”
“Ha, ha.” Johanna sprawls all over Haymitch’s usual couch with her feet over the back, and taps her ankles against each other. “Like it matters to you.”
“Thresh’s got as much a chance as any of ‘em.”
“As any one of them,” Beetee says. “I don’t buy it for a second.”
“Mags?” I ask.
She shakes her head, no. “Maybe for Two. Never for Twelve.”
I decide not to translate that as-is, considering how murderous some of us look. I wonder if we look more like ourselves now: Brutus tensed and ready, Cashmere’s hands forming into claws at her side, Johanna’s smile too sharp for anyone’s comfort, even the cool remove of Beetee’s eyes behind his glasses. Even Chaff, sitting placid at his console, looks about two seconds from throttling someone with a telephone cord. It’s impossible to forget who we are, but sometimes it’s easier to remember.
And where the hell is Haymitch?
“What are we even arguing about?” I ask.
Everyone concerned answers at once, but Brutus’s “The rules!” and Johanna’s “Your crazy nymphomaniac girlfriend!” stand out more than the rest.
I ignore Johanna. “Is there actually a precedent?”
“No,” Brutus says. “That’s what I’ve been saying. If there’s no precedent, there’s nothing against it either. Like with Chaff transferring the money to Haymitch. Nothing against it.”
“So what happens when the sponsors decide to kill them all?” Cashmere scoffs.
“They kill them all,” Brutus says. “That’s the precedent this sets. We’re here for them.”
“We’re here for us,” Gloss snaps. “Once the sponsors can pay enough to change the rules--”
“The sponsors already pay to change the odds,” Seeder cuts in from the corner. “I don’t see how changing the rules is any different.”
Cashmere rolls her eyes, but at least she turns away from Brutus. Mostly. “That’s why we have Gamemakers. Once the people buy them out, there’s no one actually in control of the Games. It’s a ridiculous precedent to set.”
“No one used to control them at all,” Mags says. That, I’ll translate so everyone can hear. Mags is old enough to remember the first, if she tries, and the Games before the tenth at the very least.
“But I’m not sure I agree,” I add. “Gamemakers, sponsors, Snow--either way, the Capitol’s setting the rules.” I look Gloss and Cashmere over. They’ll know what I mean. “You’d just prefer the Gamemakers to do it.”
Between that, and Gloss’s hand on her shoulder, Cashmere backs down; once she settles back into her chair and turns away, Brutus drops his guard and goes back to his console.
I almost hadn’t noticed Cecelia was here, but she sighs, and the cushion of her chair sighs with her as she settles deeper into it. “It’s awful,” she says. “Dangling something like this in front of the kids, I mean.”
Enobaria takes off her headset and looks up from her console. “What do you mean?”
“You don’t believe for one second that they’ll let the change stand, do you?” Cecelia turns her head away from the screens, closes her eyes. “Giving those children hope--”
“--is exactly what the Games are about,” Enobaria finishes for her. “I can’t believe you’ve forgotten that.”
“I haven’t forgotten.”
“Right, can’t forget something you never knew. How did you win your Games anyway?”
I guess I should accept it as proof that everyone’s a little crazier than usual that someone said that aloud. Cecelia may be a wife and mother now but she isn’t any less a victor and--well, usually how we deal with that kind of insinuation depends on who’s in the room. I saw Brutus break a man’s nose once when someone implied he was getting soft. And Mags, I remember the last time Uncle Jonas said it in front of Mags, and he was trying to be nice and make a joke and he still walked around like he had his tail between his legs for a week.
Cecelia just taps her nails against the arms of her chair. Her voice is like ice. “Say that again. Say that like you mean it.”
Enobaria grins so that all the points of her teeth show. “I said, I have to wonder how someone with that perspective won her Games.”
If Cecelia had hackles they’d be standing on end. Not to mention Brutus and Gloss and Cashmere, still seconds away from tearing out each others’ throats. Even Mags’s knuckles are whitening around the handle of her cane. I hold her shoulders. Someone has to lighten the mood. It’s probably going to be me.
But at this point, I might want a fight as much as the rest of them.
“She tracked him down yet?” Haymitch bursts through the door and straight for his console. He smacks Johanna’s outstretched legs on the way, and she squawks at him, but all he does is give her a filthy grin and smooth out his pants as he sits. “Well? Anyone gonna answer me?”
“A few minutes ago,” Seeder says, like she’s tripping over the words.
“Well shit,” Haymitch says. “I’ll catch the replay.”
The tension hasn’t disappeared from the room, but at least it’s thin enough that I can try to change the subject. “Where were you?”
“Having a word with Crane. Thing is, Crane thought he was having a word with me.” Haymitch laughs and holds his hand out to Chaff to swipe his pen. “Looks like I’ll have to convince him otherwise.”
“What happened?” Cecelia asks.
“Rules change,” he says. “Seems some of the money came from the inside.”
“We caught the rules change,” Cashmere says icily, but Gloss overlaps her with, “From the inside?”
I wonder if I should pretend not to have heard. No, that’ll draw too much attention. I glance over instead, much like everyone else is doing.
“Like Gamemaker politics matter to us down below.” I swear Haymitch is smiling brighter than the television screens. “For what it’s worth, the change stands until it doesn’t. And until then, I’ve got two to keep alive, not one.”
“Two?” Johanna raises an eyebrow. “You didn’t give Peeta shit.”
“You’ve gotta forgive me, sweetheart, I’m used to putting all my eggs in one tight little basket.”
Now I pretend not to have heard.
“Also, advance notice to the rest of you clowns,” Haymitch goes on. “There’s gonna be a feast in a couple days, if enough of ‘em are still alive. So start saving up.”
“Who’d you blow to figure that one out?” Johanna, of course. At least it’s not directed at me, for once.
Haymitch laughs. “Only got one mouth, but I got two ears.”
Johanna rolls her eyes. “That’s an image I didn’t ever want to see.”
“I swear it goes in one and out the other.” Haymitch props his feet up on the console, which blocks out one of the televisions, and starts making notes and calculations. But the way he’s turned, I can see him shading in a big bold 4, so I keep my eyes on his paper.
3 days for Beetee to decode, he writes. Good job.
Haymitch crumples up the paper once he’s sure I’ve seen it, and starts on the next page, new numbers, new notes. I really have to wonder how much of this he’s planned, how much he’s winging like the rest of us.
It occurs to me that I’ve never seen Haymitch’s Games. It would probably explain a lot about him.
The next time Haymitch looks my way, I scratch my arm, or that’s how it should seem to the cameras. I hope Haymitch can see the letters I’m scratching out on my skin, the lines flaring white before they vanish: meeting?
He smirks, and writes a simple TBD in the corner of his page.
Some of the other victors might have the free time, but I don’t. I sink into my chair, twist my neck to get a better look at the clock. “I can’t believe I only have an hour left,” I say. “I thought I had more than that. Every time I think I have free time these days, it slips away before I realize I have it.”
“You’ve gotta sleep sometime,” Haymitch says. “Either now or when you’re dead.”
Chapter 7: Open Wounds
Diana is rolling a small furry creature down the hall when the guards walk me up to Snow’s office. She doesn’t seem all too happy, and neither does the pet, who comes out of the tumble dizzy and promptly flops onto its fat belly when it tries to walk.
“Cat got your tongue?” I ask, squatting down next to her.
She looks up and gathers her pet back into her arms. “Catadillo,” she says. “And no, his tongue’s big enough on its own.”
I can see the difference now, at least. It’s rounder than any cat I’ve ever seen, with a wide flat face and long whiskers and short pudgy legs. I’m less inclined to pet it than I was, but I don’t shove it away. “Is he new?”
She nods, her lips pressed together. “Grandfather got him for me.”
“Does he have a name?”
“Not yet. I want to name him after whoever wins.”
“What if we have two victors this year?” I ask her.
“Then he gets both names, I guess. Some people have two names.”
“That’s true,” I have to concede. Sometimes kids make sense of the world a lot better than the rest of us do. I wonder if I did, but it’s hard to look back at yourself and tell for sure, knowing what you know when you’re older.
“I have a friend named Roscia Claudia. We just call her Arcee though. Everyone except Mrs. Schermerhorn. She’s our teacher.” Diana hugs the catadillo close. “Are you here to see Grandfather?”
“Yes,” I say. “Are you?”
“Mother’s still sick,” she says. “I can’t show her my pet until she’s better.”
Is she now. I should figure out if we have any acquaintances in common. I’m sure some of them have a better insight into her condition than her daughter does. “Does she like cats or armadillos better?”
“Cats,” Diana says. “She likes cats. She had a big grey one when she was my age. I saw a picture. Her name was Maysilee.”
“Diana,” Snow says, stepping through the doors to his office. “What did I tell you about talking to strangers?”
I straighten up. Diana just looks up at him and smiles. “He’s not a stranger. He’s Finnick Odair. Everyone knows Finnick Odair.”
My smile freezes, but I manage to shrug naturally enough, as if to say you have me there.
“Oh, no,” Snow says. “But everyone certainly wishes they did.” He smiles right back at me. “Come in, Finnick, please. And Diana, let’s see if your new friend can help you with your homework.”
“Yes, Grandfather,” she says, and hugs him, with the catadillo smushed between their bodies. He pats her on the head and sees her off.
I’m more familiar with Snow’s office than I’d like to be by now, but entering it still makes me feel like I’m being hauled before the principal, magnified a hundred times or so.
“Finnick,” he says, and doesn’t offer me a chair. “I’ll get right to the point. I’ve been getting some complaints.”
Please don’t let one of them be Lobotae. “Funny, no one’s ever complained to me.”
“I have it on good authority that people have, actually. Your prep team, for one. They’re concerned that I’ll be cutting their stipend since you haven’t been taking advantage of them. Are you dissatisfied with your prep team, Finnick?”
“I’ve never had a problem with my prep team,” I say, which is more or less true. It’s prep itself that I hate.
Snow raises an eyebrow. “But what other explanation could there be for your showing up to work half-dressed and unprepared? Don’t think the tabloids are beneath my notice. Either you’re growing dissatisfied with them, or they are with you. Have you even been sitting for prep?”
I grit my teeth. “Sometimes.”
“Not nearly enough, then.” He rounds his desk and sits at it. “Perhaps I should get you a new stylist, then, and have him pick a new team.”
Like hell I’m letting him get rid of Drusus. Is that what this is about? “Drusus and I work well together.”
“But these days you don’t seem to work at all.”
Ask Andrea Lobotae what kind of work I’ve been doing, I almost snap, but check myself just in time. My hands won’t stay still at my sides; they curl in, trembling. “I’ve seen everyone on my schedule, Mister President. Everyone. And before my tribute died, I was making contact with as many sponsors as I could.”
“Well, now that you don’t have to mentor anyone, I hope you’ll spend more time concentrating on your other social obligations.” Snow tsks between his teeth and shakes his head, and takes a pen out of the BEST GRANDFATHER coffee cup. “Considering how the following year is shaping up, your current schedule may fill out a great deal before the season ends.”
He knows. No. He might not know, but he suspects, and he doesn’t want to give me time to see any of the other victors. I hope Haymitch picks a good time for that meeting.
“And in light of that,” Snow goes on, “I will be informing your stylist and your prep team that they will be relocating to your apartment. You have the space for them, I’m sure. No more getting stuck in traffic for you, all right?”
“All right,” I say, fake as much conviction as I can. He really doesn’t want me seeing the other victors. Well, he hasn’t explicitly told me not to, and I can’t imagine spending the rest of the Games without them. They understand; it’s as simple as that.
On the other hand, if he wants to keep me in my apartment, he must not know about the override Beetee installed. He only wants me to think he knows everything, I remind myself. But he can’t know that I’ve been looking into him, or we’d be having this conversation somewhere in a cell in Peacekeeper headquarters.
“Good,” he says. The pen he chose seems to be out of ink, so he slides it into the nearest wastebasket and picks out another one. “Keep up with the Games as much as you can, Finnick. They’re proving to be quite the upset.”
“They’re hard not to follow,” I say as neutrally as possible.
“It’s always like this, when an unwritten rule gets broken somehow,” he says.
“Like what, sir?”
He smiles. His lower lip is far too red. “I thought you said they were hard not to follow.”
I swallow. It doesn’t do much. “It’s going to be a memorable year.”
“It is,” he says. And he waits.
For the love of everything holy, he hasn’t even dismissed me yet. He hasn’t given me anything this time, either--no, I suppose I technically have to thank him for filling the holes in my schedule and transferring my prep team to my apartment. I wish I could spit on his desk. Instead, I say, “Thank you, Mister President.”
Better to get it over with, considering what I’m probably in for for the rest of the Games.
“You’re welcome, Finnick,” he says, like it means nothing. It probably does. “You’re dismissed.”
I don’t get much sleep for the next three and a half days. In that respect, it’s not so different than usual.
What’s different is that I see ten separate clients. Of the hundred or so hours after when I walk out of Snow’s office, I’ve definitely spent more than half of them in bed--eight different beds, none of which were mine--but the rest have been in cars, against walls, and in the prep team’s vanity chair. They let me sleep. Only for an hour at a time, but they let me sleep.
My life would be funny, if it weren’t mine.
Drusus packs a cold compress with my things on the third day. I don’t get to use it. I do manage to sneak a few of the pills he packed, mostly to keep myself awake. None of the people I see seem to have that problem; most of them don’t want to go to sleep, in case they miss part of the Games. I could almost be thankful for the Games, because when my clients are glued to the screen during particularly heart-stopping moments (or intimate storytelling sessions, from what I can pick up) they forget to pay attention to me for a few minutes. Then I remember, and wish I’d never thought that.
As far as I know, though, Katniss and Peeta are still in that cave.
I have to admit, I was confused and out of the loop and asked one of my clients where the District 2 girl was, since I hadn’t seen her for a while. Turns out I missed the feast Haymitch was talking about. By now Cato and Thresh are hunting each other out in the woods, both wounded, and everyone has something to watch: either that fight, or Katniss and Peeta necking.
My clients tend to prefer the necking.
Pomponius seems riveted enough by the chase, though. I lean over his shoulder during a moment of downtime to watch. Cato charges through the grass, smacks stalks out of his way and slices them off when they won’t move fast enough. He knows some basics of tracking, because he pauses sometimes to examine stalks bent at strange angles or flattened to half their height and determines what direction to head in from there. If he keeps chopping down branches, he’ll miss some other signs of where Thresh went. The screen splits to show Thresh running, vaulting over the exposed root of a half-burnt tree. He takes cover, flattens his back against the trunk and glances over his shoulder. I wonder how far apart they are.
Pomponius’s mouth moves, but I don’t register the words until a few moments later. “Quite the display of athleticism, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yes,” I agree, choke back a yawn.
“I wish I’d had my bets on Cato from the beginning.” Pomponius sighs. “If only it hadn’t seemed too good to be true.”
I’m almost tired enough to say it still might be out loud, but I check myself in time. “It seems like he’s had more bad luck than good.”
“Yes, losing Clove was a blow. But he’ll make that boy pay, and Twelve after.”
Apparently not everyone in the Capitol’s a romantic. Should I press it? I blink at the screen again. Thresh moved out from behind the tree; now he’s digging a hole as fast as he can, using the handle of his scythe to break the dirt and shove it out of the way.
“I haven’t seen a chase this good since five--no, four Games ago,” Pomponius goes on. “That could have been a banner year.”
My jaw locks tight. A banner year? I bet he’s the only person in the Capitol who thinks of them that way. “I don’t even remember,” I say, study my nails so he can’t see if my face lets anything slip.
“A girl from Three,” he says. “She had a hunt going on before it all went to hell--the best chase, I think, was her putting the usual one-two-four alliance to rout. What a way to make a splash. A pity things turned out the way they did.”
“A pity,” I grit out. I need a break from this. I stretch, wince at how loudly my shoulders pop, say, “I need a few seconds to freshen up.”
“Don’t dawdle,” he says.
I smile. I can still manage that, at least. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
It is tempting to slip into dreams once I’m on the other side of the door, or at least drift into sleep. I turn the cold water tap all the way up and splash my face, but the shock only slaps me into awareness for a few moments before it fades. Do I need another pill? Probably. Another pill, and maybe a twin. We could have rotating shifts. I wonder why I’ve been laughing so much at awful jokes these Games.
This time when I turn on the cold water, I let the basin fill and dunk my head in. For a moment, it almost feels like I’m swimming again, letting the water wash over me and hold me and welcome me home, but my chin bumps the basin and the stone’s the wrong texture and I snap out of it.
I’m getting too old for this. It’s a ridiculous thought, but feels so true.
Pomponius is still engrossed in the fight when I come back into the bedroom. He barely acknowledges me, and his eyes are wide enough that I can see the Games reflected back on them--
“See?” he asks, as Cato hacks off Thresh’s arm at the elbow. “I told you so.”
I’m late. The others should be used to it. But between yet another client this afternoon and the stalled traffic in the President’s Square as Thresh finally died onscreen, it was impossible to get from one side of town to the other.
I’m late, but by the Capitol’s standards the night’s barely started, so the bar’s at only about quarter capacity. Better than empty, though, and I’m less likely to get mobbed this way. I sidle up to the bar, signal for a drink, and when the bartender serves it I ask, “Have you seen a girl, about yea high, probably up to her teeth in fur and not wearing much else, looks like she might rip your balls off?”
“Hi, Finnick,” says the bartender. “Johanna’s downstairs.”
I thank him and throw off a few winks at the people who leer in my direction. They probably think I’m going to the janitor’s closet or the ladies’ bathroom, and I let them.
Haymitch has been a genius about this. This is one of the busiest blocks in the Capitol--it’s about a mile of storefronts, if you take the whole perimeter into account, and most of the stores are bars or restaurants. But their basements are connected, if you know where to look. So the cameras can catch me walking in at The Rubicon, and pick up Beetee at some gadget shop and Haymitch and Chaff at Messalina’s, and no one would be the wiser for us congregating in the cellar. It’s all grey concrete down here, racks of condiments and lightbulbs and coffee stacked high as a house. I’m surprised that there aren’t cameras, but then, who in the Capitol would steal food?
I open the door as slowly as I can, but the hinges still creak, and Haymitch cuts himself off before I can make out what he was saying. “Who is it?” he asks.
“Hello to you too,” I say, and close the door behind me. It’s fluorescent and bright down here, so the grey walls are almost white and I can barely see the corners. Haymitch and Chaff are here, and Beetee and Wiress and Cecelia and Mags. That probably means Baste and Seeder are on lookout.
And Johanna greets me with, “You’re late.”
“Some of us work.” I unsling my overnight bag from my shoulder, wince as the muscle seizes tight.
“Yeah, yeah,” she says. There’s an empty folding chair next to her, so I take it.
“Speaking of work, does anyone have any painkillers? Or a massage, that works too.”
“Give me a sec.” Cecelia reaches into her purse and pulls out a bottle of acetaminophen. “Is this enough?”
“Yeah,” I say, swallow two dry. “What did I miss?”
“A lot,” Johanna says. “Mags covered for you.”
“Then you were in good hands.”
“You’re shameless, Finnick,” Mags says. That I don’t need to translate.
Haymitch laughs. “But I’m pretty sure you’ve got a few things you know about what’s going down seaside that she doesn’t.”
“I might,” I say, look around for cameras out of reflex. Nothing I can see, and if there were any Haymitch or Beetee would’ve taken care of it long before I got here. “The Capitol’s been overfishing. A lot of families can’t meet the quotas, and their boats are getting confiscated. My uncle’s was. And some of the dockworkers are getting laid off, because the Peacekeepers think they’ve been letting the private fishermen underreport.”
“Yeah, Mags told us about that,” Haymitch says. “What do you know that we don’t?”
I wonder if this is how my clients feel when I ask them for secrets.
“Well, what happens when you tell a bunch of dockworkers they’re crooked?” I smile. “They get crooked. And they get organized.”
“And then they get even,” Cecelia says. “Glad to know we’re not the only ones.”
“What’s going on in Eight?”
“A new round of foremen at the factories. Peacekeepers only. All the civilian ones are stepping down or shunted out.”
Given what I know about the changes in the Peacekeepers, I can’t imagine that going well. I draw in a sharp breath. “And Three?”
“Believe it or not, they’re shaving a quarter off the school day and mandating work shifts,” Beetee says. “Every child older than twelve has to put in six hours a day at one of the factories or hubs. Not to mention the pay cuts. And the kids who aren’t smart enough for the hubs wind up cleaning the hardware or the floors.”
“Chaff?” I ask. “Johanna? Haymitch?”
Johanna rolls her eyes before either of the others can answer. “Since when are you driving the truck?”
“Since you started the meeting without me.”
Haymitch groans, gets up, and stretches. “Someone bring him up to speed, I’ve gotta see a man about a dog.”
“Same story in Eleven as ever,” Chaff says, while Haymitch shuffles out the door. “And that’s the problem. The days ain't getting any shorter and the whips ain't getting any gentler, and there's only so much a man can take before it breaks his back.” He lifts his chin, meets my eyes. “Or he straightens it.”
“So life sucks. What else is new?” Johanna leans forward in her chair, all sharp jutting angles. “What are we going to do about it?”
“Something, for once,” Cecelia says. “It’s been long enough since we tried.”
“You’ve tried?” Johanna and I ask at the same time.
She smiles, but the corners of her mouth creep into shadow. “Not me. But in the years before my Games, there was a worker’s strike. One of the victors between me and Woof spurred it. She’s dead now--dead during, I mean, most of us think--but we did try something. And it’s been twenty years or so since anyone’s had the guts to try.”
This is the first I’ve heard of it, which as good as tells me how it went.
“Is that what they’re gonna write on our gravestones? At least they tried?” Johanna snorts, crosses her arms. “We’re victors. We don’t try. We win.”
“We won,” Mags corrects, and I don’t have to translate that.
Beetee nods, taps and scratches his thigh like he’s working on an equation on it. “The question, then, becomes what it means to win. What are our objectives? How are we defining victory?”
“Snow’s head on a pike,” Johanna says, and for a moment I’m tempted to second her.
“I’m not sure if...” Wiress starts to say, then trails off, blinking, but Beetee squeezes her hand and picks up for her.
“I’m not sure if assassination is our wisest course of action, given what we have to work with,” he says.
“And what we have to work with is a pair of idiot lovestruck teenagers, you’re saying.”
“Well, fuck me with a chainsaw,” Johanna says.
“Later,” Haymitch says, wiping his hands on the front of his pants. He grins, and swings back into his chair, props his feet up in her lap. “I think if we polled this room, you’d have to roll a die instead of flip a coin to have your chance at killing him.”
Even Wiress smiles a little at that one.
“I think Finnick’s caught up now,” Cecelia says. “Should we pick up where we left off?”
“Yeah.” Since Johanna hasn’t swatted Haymitch’s feet down, he wriggles them, but slides them off on his own and leans forward, looking directly at me. “I’m guessing it comes as no surprise to you that I’m pulling about ninety percent of this out of my ass.”
Mags and I share a grin. This might all be treason of the highest order, but at the same time I can’t remember the last time I felt this good about being in the Capitol. “None at all.”
“But, well, you know what they say,” he goes on. “If your shit doesn’t stink, they won’t smell it coming.”
I don’t usually hear it phrased like that, but I figure I can tease Haymitch more on my own time, what little of it there is. “They’re never going to let both Katniss and Peeta win,” I say, and Johanna nods.
“Whether they do or not, they’re gonna want to,” Haymitch says. “Or at least the people are. The way I see it, if it comes down to her having to kill him, or him having to off himself so she can win--now that they’ve announced the rule change, if they renege on it, they’re the ones to blame, and sure, they’ll just take out Crane and be done with it, but so long as one of my kids wins the people are gonna remember. And not just here--they’ll remember it back home. Back at all of our homes.”
I remember something Cinna said, not so long ago: Then two. Two people the Capitol needs to live. Or three. Or all of them. If the Capitol cared about every single one of the tributes, knew them and cared and thought of them as people--
It’s not the Capitol you need to convince, I told him. It’s the Districts. It’s not about shifting power, it’s about taking it.
“You think this will be the last straw,” I say. “You think this will be more than they can take.” It’s not a question, but maybe it should be one.
He grins. “If it isn’t, we’re all either much stronger or stupider than we think.”
“She has to be able to take it, though,” Mags says, sharper than I’ve heard her in years. “She can’t break. She can’t kill that boy.”
“Then we better hope she ain’t just playing it up for the cameras,” Chaff says.
“So we want her to win the Games, but she can’t win the Games by winning the Games?” Johanna rolls her eyes. “Some plan you’ve got going there, genius.”
“Worked for me,” Haymitch says with a shrug.
I do need to find out how his Games went.
“Then there’s not much we can do at this point, is there?” Cecelia asks. “Other than watch, and wait?”
“We should be used to that by now,” Beetee says.
Wiress shakes her head. “It’s different when you’re waiting for something.”
“Least we have something to wait for.” Chaff stands, straightens his shoulders. “It’s been a while.”
“Meeting adjourned, I’m guessing?” I ask.
Haymitch nods. “Stagger your way out. Chaff and me are staying here a while.”
“I’m out,” Johanna says almost immediately after.
“No surprises there,” I say, and she punches me in the shoulder, but since she’s smiling when she does it can’t be too unfriendly of a punch.
“See you later, if you can catch a break,” she says.
Cecelia helps Mags out of her seat. “The stairs were difficult,” Mags explains as they pass me. “If I leave now, I’ll still be climbing whenever you decide to turn in.”
“Later, I think,” I say, and glance at Beetee over her shoulder. He gives me the barest of nods, but it’s enough.
He taps Wiress on the shoulder, and motions me into a corner, away from Haymitch and Chaff. “You’ve got a right to know,” he says. “The Usher file was a toxin. The Snow file was an antidote.”
I let go of a breath I didn’t know I was holding; it rattles in my throat almost loudly enough to drown out the hammering of my heart. So he did kill her, I almost say, but I’m half-expecting Peacekeepers to pounce on me the moment the words leave my mouth. If they haven’t arrested me for anything I’ve said so far tonight then they can’t be listening in, I try to remind myself, for all the good it does. “Thank you. What does it --” I look around, drop my voice even lower. “What does it do?”
“I assume you mean the poison. It’s a hemotoxin—it destroys red blood cells and stops them from clotting. If enough of it gets in your system, it can damage tissue and cause organs to decay."
I think I understood that. “Organs like your heart?”
“From what I understand, yes."
I nod, but my head doesn’t come back up. “And the antidote in Snow’s file is the antidote for that poison?”
“Yes,” Beetee says. “It can’t reverse the effects, but it can counter them. Depending on the strength of the initial poisoning, you’d have to take the antidote weekly, perhaps even daily.”
I remember Snow’s mouth, the red flecks at the corners of his lips, the stains on his teeth. I can almost smell him now, coppery and cloying all at once, and nausea crawls up my throat. “I guess he thought it was worth it,” I say. “And he uses the roses to mask the smell, I’d bet.”
“I couldn’t say.” But the way Beetee’s looking at me, he doesn’t have to say.
I have proof. It’s solid, I know that somewhere, but the idea of it isn’t; when I try to imagine what this means, what I can do, I meet a solid white wall. What can I do? Blackmail Snow? Never. No matter how popular I am in the Capitol, if he knew I knew this he’d kill me. Or he’d line my family up one by one and bleed them dry and make me watch, and throw Annie to the worst of my old clients before --
I close my eyes. I have enough nightmares. I don’t need to give myself new ones. All right. I breathe. I’ll save this like any other secret, lock it in a vault with all the others. And I’ll see just who else might want Snow dead, if they knew what he’d done to their friends and parents and children.
“Finnick, lean back. I can’t reach your hairline.”
I roll my eyes.
“Your head, Finnick.”
“Good. Thanks.” He all but attacks me with the concealer. “You haven’t had a client this particular at all this season. I have to wonder if she’s testing me.”
“What did she ask for?”
“Yes makeup, no fixative. She wants it to run. Good thing you’ve been sticking to your diet, your skin’s as healthy as it’s ever been.”
At least they haven’t cut me off sugar yet. I sigh. She wants my makeup to run? Some people like it when I look used, I guess. My hand clenches and I resist the urge to punch something, because Drusus doesn’t deserve that and he’s not the one I want to hit, anyway. Now that the tributes are gone, maybe I should head down to the gym when I have free time. Spar. Sweat out everything I don’t need.
“What else does she want?” I ask. “And who is she, anyway?”
“Aurelia Usher,” he says. “And you should see the list of specific scents I had to pack for you.”
My head falls back, and I hit Drusus’s tube of concealer with my chin. It splatters all over my face, which hopefully hides the red creeping into my cheeks. Does she know? Everyone said she never went to her sister’s study, and I didn’t notice any cameras, and I’m good at spotting cameras. Maybe someone else saw me, someone other than the man who interrupted Cinna and me. Maybe she’s had me booked for the past eleven months and this is just awful timing. Maybe I should call Cinna and see if I can get my hands on the papers before I go over there. No, if they’re watching Cinna then they’ll know what we’ve been up to, and he’s put himself on the line enough. And besides, what if I can’t make the switch? I don’t know, and the possibilities click through my head, whirring and whirring until I can’t think straight.
Meanwhile, Drusus is yelling at me and smothering me with a washcloth. “Back to the start,” he sighs.
Aurelia’s house is no less impressive this time around; even more impressive, with fewer people in it. I step into the marble foyer and wonder if the soft echo in the room is the dying sound of my footsteps or the sound of my heartbeat.
“Finnick,” she drawls, descending the stairs. “So good of you to join me.” She looks magnificent for a woman her age, polished in that Capitol way, with hard lines for cheekbones.
“My pleasure,” I say, my knuckles white and hard as the marble.
“Have you eaten?”
“I’m not terribly hungry.”
My stomach growls. I wish I could kick it.
She laughs. “It’s not an imposition, I swear. I’ll have something brought up. Come with me,” she says, already on her way to the dining room. I remember the layout, from the party, but I still feel like I’m pushing through a crowd to get there even if it’s just us.
Claudius Templesmith’s voice filters down from somewhere above us. I strain to make out the words, but he doesn’t seem to be shouting, so I doubt I’m missing something crucial. Besides, no one else is cheering or gasping -- then again, if anyone is watching the television right now they’d be Avoxes and of course they wouldn’t make any noise and I’m an idiot.
Pull yourself together, Finnick.
“Is bread all right to start?” She waves an arm at the table, and there is already a basket of rolls sitting in the center of the table. She pulls out a chair for herself, not at the head, just one of the seats immediately beside. “You mentioned you weren’t hungry.”
I sit across from her -- across feels safer -- and pick one up but don’t eat it, turn it over and over in my hands instead. You can have bread or you can have sugar, Drusus told me once. Pick. I’d still rather have the sugar, but I don’t know how to tell Aurelia that, or whether it’s prudent to. She’s smiling faintly at me, but it stops short of her eyes.
She takes a roll for herself--a 12 roll, it turns out, with charred streaks on the crust--and dips it in a little bowl of oil. “From what I’ve seen of you lately, you ought to be exhausted.”
“A little,” I decide to tell her, “but I’ve been through worse.”
“Of course you have.” She takes a bite of her bread, licks the oil off her lips. “Oh, to be young.”
Between the cricks in my back Drusus didn’t quite rub out and the cracking in my joints and the puffy skin under my eyes, young is one of the last things I feel now, and the knots drawing tighter in my chest don’t make me feel young either. I smile, hope it’ll stay put. “The water’s always clearer on the other side of the pond.”
“Oh, you can’t mean you want to be old and infirm,” she laughs. “Why, then I’d have to poison you more than you poison yourself!”
I sputter, throw the roll down and push the glass of -- I don’t want to know what’s in that glass -- as far away from me as possible.
She laughs. “Did I frighten you?”
“Poison’s a sensitive subject,” I manage to say, find the line of scar tissue hidden under my skin where the vine muttation tore into me during my Games. She knows. She knows and she’s drawing this out. Why? To make me sweat? To give the Peacekeepers time to assemble? To give Snow time to arrive? My heart slams into my ribcage again and again and I’m sure it’s going to crack. What if they’re rounding up my family right now, what if they’ve already brought my family here, what if they’ve already brought Annie here, what if--
“Of course it is, Finnick. Otherwise you wouldn’t have gotten this far going after Snow.”
There’s a knife by the butter dish. Not as sharp as I’d like, but sharp enough. If I palm it without her noticing, if I hold it to her throat so I can make it past the Peacekeepers -- it’s worth a shot. I inch my hand towards it slowly, agonizingly slowly, but I can’t draw her attention too soon.
Her eyes are steady on mine. I keep them there. “You went through my files,” she says, clear and crisp and cutting. “I find it hard to believe you stopped there. You’ve always seen things through to the end. You’re a victor. It’s why you’re here.”
“You’re right,” I say. My voice doesn’t shake. Neither does my hand, when I seize the knife and vault over the table and grab Aurelia by the hair, trap her against the back of her chair and bare her throat. The knife’s tip reddens her skin.
“Call off Snow,” I tell her. I hope she hasn’t already called him. If she has --
If she has I might as well hold a knife to my own throat.
“He’s not coming,” she says, and that tremor in her voice sounds a little too much like laughter. “He’s not anywhere near here. He’s not welcome in this house.”
I didn’t expect to hear that, but I don’t let my grip on her slacken. “What do you want, then?”
“It’s not what I want, it’s what you want.”
She breathes, and her throat presses to the knife’s edge. It doesn’t cut. “If you wanted dirt on Snow, Finnick, all you had to do was ask.”
I can’t have heard her correctly. I keep my grip on the knife, but my jaw gapes like a fish’s.
“Finnick,” she says again, soft, just wary enough that I can tell she knows she hasn’t made herself clear. “Finnick, why else would I keep all those files in my drawer?”
I mumble, “It was your sister’s drawer.”
“She didn’t care for him so much either, in the end,” she says. “And it’s still my house.”
I ease the edge of the knife from her throat, not enough to turn her loose but enough to give her more space to breathe. She hasn’t called for any of her security yet. That might mean something. It might mean she’s trying to lower my guard so I won’t have a chance against the Peacekeepers when they storm in. I’m holding the knife all wrong, I realize, clenched tight in my fist, but I can’t adjust my grip now. “He killed her, didn’t he?”
“Yes, not that I could prove it in court.” She relaxes back into her chair, turns away from the knife with a careful eye. “And certainly not with all my evidence missing.”
“How did you know?”
“That it was missing? I looked. That it was you? Common gossip about you and a young man in a toga taking advantage of my hospitality.”
At least she hasn’t mentioned Cinna by name, though she wouldn’t have to look hard to find it. My fault, my heart seems to beat out. My fault. Cinna never would have gotten mixed up with the resistance if it hadn’t been for me. Some days, when I marvel at the intricacy of his work and the messages he stitches in, I’m proud of that. Today isn’t one of them. “And how did you know Snow killed your sister?”
“Because he had the same symptoms she did.”
I blink. “I thought he had the antidote.”
“I’m sure he does, that’s why he’s alive. I would know the scent anywhere--I watched my sister’s flesh eat itself away, I saw the sores and the bruises, and what she used to treat them until it was too late. He reeks the same. But I can’t prove it.” There’s steel in her voice, sharper than what’s in my knife.
“Why did he do it?” I ask. “Was she blackmailing him?”
“Hardly. She might have considered it--between her and Hawksley, she might have had enough to shake him down. Argentia was ambitious--she always bit off a bit more than she could chew, I told her. She always said she could do a much better job with Panem than Cori could. I took her death as a confirmation that he thought so too.”
Cori. I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that. “So everything in that file--”
“--was mine, yes.” Her mouth twists up at the corner, a parody of a smile. “I gathered it in a more innocent time, when I thought there was still justice in Panem.”
I laugh, short and sharp and nothing at all like the one I let the cameras hear.
“Did you bring all the perfumes and makeup I asked your stylist for?”
“And are you wearing fixative?”
“Then let me up,” she says, “and please, come with me.”
I glance at the hall, listen for the sound of footsteps echoing off the marble, but find nothing. All right, she wants Snow dead. I can understand that. I can believe that. I’m still not letting go of the knife, but I lower it.
She thanks me, and lifts herself out of the chair; “The bathroom is just this way,” she says, and gives me time to get my overnight bag from the hall before she beckons me to follow. The bathroom turns out to be almost as large as the kitchen in my apartment, easily larger than my prep room, white and gold tile all over and a raised dais with a deep tub, and mirrors on every wall.
“Shut the door,” she says. “Just in case.”
I comply, but tilt the handle down so I can push it open quickly if I need to.
She doesn’t seem to notice, and reaches into one of the bathroom drawers for something she holds out in my direction. It’s a white hollow tube about the size of a toothbrush, with a metal filter at one end and a faint whirring sound I hear even this far away.
“Is that what I think it is?” I ask.
“If you think I’m going to use it to make you come, then no.” She smiles. “It’s an olfactralyzer. It enhances your sense of smell and taste and lets you zero in on specific sources. Come over here, I need your foundation.”
I lean over, and she scrapes a smear of it off my cheek with the metal section of the device.
“Good. Now, from your toiletries, Charity, Hydracinth, and Bloodlust.”
I take the three bottles out of the bag Dru packed, and she sprays them on the frame. She holds the device out to me, shows me which end to smell through, and the scent of all three perfumes at once is so noxious and awful I come up coughing.
She laughs. “So now you know it works. Try to zero in on the smell of your foundation, just that.” I do, and I tune all three of the perfumes out. She presses a button on the side of the olfactralyzer and the frame at the end spins. “Now try and remember Cori’s perfume and see if you can pick it out of this mess.”
I try, sift through the overripe berries and tobacco and distilled plant extracts, search for the scent of those fake roses. I smell flowers, jasmine and hyacinth and notes of lilac I’d never be able to pick out otherwise, even poppies like the ones back at home. I don’t find roses underneath them, though. All I get is a cloying, sweet copper smell. I recognize it, but it’s too subtle to be what he wears. “I’m not getting it.”
“Yes, you are,” she says. “You’re getting the scent of the antidote he takes to suppress his mouth sores. It blends with the perfume he uses to cover it up.”
“This is three different perfumes.”
“And each of them has one different component in common with the antidote, as does your foundation. You’re just able to pick out the specific scent right now. You’d miss it if you were just smelling all three perfumes.”
I put down the olfactralyzer. “Who makes these?”
“Who do you think?” She and all of her reflections grin.
“It must be convenient to have a pet pharmaceutical company,” I say. “Argentia owned stock in Red Horse too, didn’t she?”
“She did,” Aurelia says. “We both did. I don’t anymore.”
“Did she know why he wanted it?”
“I’ll never know.”
“Did she know about any of it?”
Aurelia shakes her head and sighs. “Well, she certainly knew that her death was someone else’s choice.”
Isn’t it always, I almost bite back, but don’t. Murder must seem so inconceivable in the Capitol, with its gates and locks and cameras, where people tweak themselves tighter and cover themselves in outlandish colors to ward off death. It’s such an unpleasant accusation here, isn’t it? And at home--well, what else do you call it when the Peacekeepers drag you off in the middle of the night, when the trawler captains work you at sea until you wither from thirst, when your children’s lips crack and bellies swell from hunger because you can’t meet your quota? What else do you call the Games? What else do you call its victors? Haymitch, Johanna, me? Either way, wherever you are, no one talks about it. Not where anyone can hear.
I still haven’t set the knife down. I didn’t realize until now. It feels so natural in my hand.
I don’t know what I planned to ask Aurelia, but it wasn’t, “What was she like?”
Aurelia leans a hand beside one of the sinks, like she couldn’t stand otherwise. “Stronger than I was,” she says quietly, “with stronger dreams. She loved this city, and its potential, but wasn’t afraid of you people in the Districts. She loved trains, ever since we were little, anything that moved fast. She kept her hair short so she could feel it against her cheeks whenever the winds grew strong.”
“She sounds like my cousin Maeve,” I say, though I’ve never been sure whether Maeve keeps her hair short so she doesn’t have to tie it back when she runs or whether she wants to look like Jamie. From the pictures I’ve seen of Argentia, she could have looked like Maeve when she was younger.
“Perhaps,” Aurelia says, as if she isn’t quite listening.
I put the olfactralyzer down on the ledge as gently as I can. “I’ll go to my apartment and get the files for you,” I say.
She looks up with a start. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“I paid for you,” she says. “You’re staying the night.”
As Haymitch would say, The Capitol wipes your ass with one hand and feeds you shit with the other. It takes a solid minute before I convince my fingers to uncurl from the knife’s hilt. Not today. Not yet. Watch, wait, work.
Her bedroom isn’t far from the bathroom, and she leads me by the hand once it’s in sight. The television’s on in the corner. Peeta and Katniss are approaching the Cornucopia, and the Games are a mood-killer if ever I saw one but it’s not like I can tell Aurelia that, and besides, I doubt anyone cares about whether I’m in the mood. Aurelia pulls me down to her, kisses my neck and slides her hands all over me, and I wish I’d taken something to help me clock out but the overnight bag is in the bathroom and I can’t really ask her to stop when we’ve just gotten started. Great. Well, at least I can get this over with quickly. Maybe she’ll let me take something before round two. At least the mockingjays on the television sound happy; they trill the four-note melody Rue taught to Katniss, their voices blending and building, and if I listen to them I can tune out the rest--
Their songs transform into shrieks, and I sit bolt upright. So does Aurelia. “What’s happening?” she asks, and I’m more than happy to scramble off her so she can see.
Cato tears through the forest, barreling towards Peeta and Katniss--no, barrelling past them, heading for the distant gleam of the Cornucopia. Katniss turns, and the cameras pan around to show us what she sees.
They’re muttations, wolves and something else I can’t place until the cameras zoom in and the commentators invite the genetic engineers to talk about their “remarkable creations.”
The texture of their fur. The shape of their eyes, and the glimmers of something that’s almost intelligence. The glittering numbers stamped on their collars. They’ve spliced in the dead tributes’ DNA in, stamped the mutts with their personalities and skills and who knows what else.
I’m glad I didn’t eat anything.
Aurelia’s skin chills against mine. “Brilliant,” she says.
“Brilliant?” I echo flatly.
“For the ratings,” she says. “Everyone will want to see what their favorites turned into.”
Of course. I nod once, stiffly. I shouldn’t be surprised. We’ve never been human to them. That’s something they don’t let us keep, either.
Chapter 8: From the Forges of Lemnos
Cato is still dying when I make it to the Victor’s Lounge, an hour or so before dawn. Aurelia let me go early, which is one of the few good things I can say about the rest of that night.
Nobody notices when I elbow my way into the Lounge, and I have to weave through a few victors who don’t usually come down here. Some people are on the couches, but most of them crowd in front of the screen. “Stay in the back, Finnick, you’re tall enough to see over everyone’s heads anyway,” Johanna says. She elbows me to the side, or tries, but I stand firm.
The cameras zoom in on Cato, and I wish I hadn’t.
I wouldn’t have known he was Cato, to look at him. I wouldn’t have known he was anyone. Or anything. The mutts have peeled away his armor and most of the skin it was supposed to protect. Both of his legs are whittled down--they must not have had as much armor in the first place--and his head lolls into his chest twitching and staring emptily at what’s left of him. How he’s still conscious at all disturbs me almost as much as how he’s still alive at all. The mutts make a game of it, circling him, slinking forward and crawling back, and when his eyes unfocus even more they rip another chunk of flesh away. Blood dribbles out of his mouth, but no sound.
Cecelia turns away and sits slowly, one hand to the side of her face and one over her mouth. I glance down at Johanna; her mouth is in a terse sneer. “Whoever bought him that armor’s probably shitting himself about now. Just like them, set up a feast, turn the gift around.”
“She should have finished him off,” Gloss says, his lips thin. “It would have been cleaner.”
“She’s not going down there with the mutts still fucking around,” Haymitch says. “My girl wasn’t born yesterday.”
“And this is all for us,” Chaff adds under his breath. “It ain’t for Katniss.”
The camera isn’t listening to Chaff either; it doesn’t leave Cato and the mutts, and the commentary never shifts. I don’t know what’s worse, listening to how excited the commentators are after every bite and every tear, or turning the sound off and just watching him die, or turning the television off altogether and missing it.
I can’t tell how long it is before Johanna says, “Are they going to make us watch this all night? I’m going to bed. Call me when he bites it.” She yawns, but her jaw’s too tight for it to look real.
“We could all use the rest,” Cecelia says, and follows her out. Enough of the others trickle after her, alone or in pairs, making us promise to wake them up if something changes.
I could almost laugh. I don’t.
Even Haymitch gets up and goes. He claps a hand on my shoulder on the way out. “They do something more than sit on the Cornucopia and neck, you give me a call.”
Chaff laughs. “Getting sick of that too?”
“You bet your ass. Hell, I bet it’s worse when you’ve got to follow one of ‘em home. I knew both their folks, growing up. Can’t wait to see the looks they’ll give me for letting their kids hit the pay-to-view.” He’s grinning, but it’s just as jagged as Johanna’s and as tired as mine. “Come by later, if you get bored,” he adds to Chaff.
“Might,” Chaff says. “Get some sleep. You’ve earned it.”
Haymitch nods. He doesn’t look like this is the first time he’s ever been guaranteed a win. That’s probably because he hasn’t.
Once Haymitch has left, I ask Chaff, “How much longer do you think it’ll take?” Sooner or later he’ll go into shock, and if he’s lost this much blood, he’s probably not coming out of it.
Chaff shakes his head, sighs low and rattling. “Long as it takes for his heart to stop. We’ve had them slip away before, this close to the end. They’ll make her do it or they’ll make us wait.”
“Will that be exciting enough?” I ask, toneless.
“It will be if Peeta’s dying too.”
The cameras are generous enough to show Katniss and Peeta in the upper-right hand corner, jackets around each others’ shoulders and huddled close against the cold. The color slips more and more from Peeta’s cheeks but he points at the moon, marks the passage of time to Katniss in whispers that sound dangerously like death rattles. She nods, shivering, her head listing onto her chest.
“Even if he makes it out, he’s losing that leg,” Chaff says.
“Like your hand,” I say, and pause. I can’t keep looking at the screen. Not now. “How did you lose it?”
“Crushed by a mutt,” he says. “I managed to kill the thing, and once it stopped bleeding it left me with a hell of a set of brass knuckles. I stabbed a kid’s eyes out and I swear I felt it just as bad. And I wanted to win, so I raced the clock.”
“But you didn’t want your hand back,” I say. Cato whimpers, high and trembling. The sound seems too young for him--but I never asked Brutus how old he was, did I? And it’s impossible to tell now.
Chaff shakes his head, and tips back his chair. His eyes haven’t left the screen yet, and they shine with hazy reflections. “I didn’t. And I didn’t want them to give me a new one. I bought my life with that hand. Anything more than that, I’d owe the Capitol.”
I nod, and my head doesn’t quite come back up.
“That’s the thing, when our people win,” he says, “the ones who ain’t Careers, the dark horses, the ones that sneak up on you. We don’t win because we trained, and we don’t win because they want us to on the outside. We win because we try, and because we get lucky once we’re in there. You, Brutus and all them--you went in with some idea of what you were. Beetee, Johanna, hell, even Haymitch himself--you all went in there and you at least had a strategy, something you could do even when the camera wasn’t on you. But the rest of us go in with one thing to do, and that’s survive, and we don’t make it out without leaving something behind.”
I close my eyes, and of course I see Annie: one of her bad nights, when she’s curled in on herself, her hands clamped over her ears, and no matter how much I coax and stroke her hair and kiss her she won’t look at me.
“I wonder what she’ll lose,” I say, but I think I know the answer.
“Up to her,” Chaff says, and leaves it at that.
The moon above the arena shines; I watch it for any shift in its light, but I think it’s only wavering because my eyes keep sliding shut. I can’t remember the last time I slept for longer than an hour or so, I realize. I should do something about that. “Wake me up in the morning,” I say, stretch across Haymitch’s couch and tune out the howls of the mutts enough that I can drift into sleep.
Either Chaff doesn’t turn the sound off, or the Arena’s somehow moved into my head, or all the way to District Four. Those mutts stalk along the beach by the Victor’s Wharf, toe at the sand, leave pawprints that the tide doesn’t erode. They don’t hurt me when I come to them, just pounce on my legs and yap like regular dogs. A couple of them hang off my arms. One paws at my back. I laugh. One hangs shyly off to the side, looks up at me with big, green Odair eyes.
I count them.
Thirteen. Maeve, Jamie, Katie, Lucy--Helen and Roarke, bigger than the rest, hanging back--Timothy and Patrick, just starting to look more like brothers and less like twins--Lindsay, Laura, Aidan, and Connor, Connor’s eyes still bug out like a squid’s--
Something bites my shoulder and I wrench it loose, spring from the couch and drive my shoulder into--Haymitch’s midsection, as it turns out.
And he lets out one of the most ridiculous belches I’ve ever heard. He wrings out his hand--I guess nothing actually bit me, just his grip. And then he says, clear as the day, “Fuck you. Ow. Get off my couch.”
“I’m off,” I say, and suit the action to the word. “What’s happening?”
“It’s going to be a big, big, big day!” he chirps, with a better Capitol accent than I thought he could imitate. “Nothing yet. Just morning.”
I don’t know whether to be relieved or not. I don’t know whether it’s relevant, because I’m not going back to sleep now, no matter what time it is or what’s happening. I stretch my arms over my head, inch closer to the screen. Streaks of dawn creep over the sky and wash the Cornucopia in pale yellow and pink. Peeta nudges Katniss awake, and releases her from his jacket.
“It can’t be morning already,” Johanna complains from the door. She bats at the tangled frizz around her head and over her eyes, but gives up soon after. I’ll bet I don’t look much better.
“Morning comes earlier than this in Eleven,” Chaff says, though the skin under his eyes is even darker than usual.
“Yeah, and it lasts six whole months back home.” She scowls. “How are the lovebirds?”
“Shaking off their little wings and snapping for worms,” Haymitch says, his eyes never leaving the screen. “I think--yeah, she’s going for her last arrow.”
The clouds in Johanna’s eyes clear. “Shit. Everyone’s going to be pissed that they slept through this.”
“They won’t for long,” Haymitch says, “that cannon’s going to go off loud as a rocket. They’ll pipe it through all the speakers, just you watch. Nice little alarm clock for us.”
Katniss crawls to the lip of the Cornucopia, Peeta holding her steady. Her hands tremble, but when Cato looks up at her and croaks through his tattered throat, her aim’s true enough. The arrow takes him straight through his skull, and sure enough, his cannon fires from all the speakers in the Training Center.
That brings the rest of the mentors running.
By the time everyone else gets here, I can’t tell who’s commenting onscreen or off, let alone whether they’ve announced a winner. Or two winners. Katniss and Peeta make their way off the Cornucopia now that the mutts are gone, and start clearing a path so the helicopter can take what’s left of Cato away.
“Guess this is where I start the betting,” Chaff jokes. “How many kids is Haymitch taking home? Two, one, or none?”
“If you’re just starting the pool now, you’re an idiot,” Gloss says.
“He has to take home someone, and the boy’s already half-dead,” Enobaria says. “A fool’s bet.”
“They might still let them both live.” Meadow shrugs. “Or at least long enough to leave the Arena. Peeta’s leg’s going to catch up with him.”
“If they managed to put Haymitch back together, they can fix his leg,” Seeder says, but worries at the corner of her lip.
“I don’t want to wait around for him to bleed to death.” Johanna crosses her arms. “Come on, make the fucking announcement.”
Cashmere shoots Johanna a glare that could curdle coffee even without milk.
I don’t. I know what she means. “They’re going to drag this out,” I say. “They want everyone in the Capitol, everyone in the Districts, awake to see this.”
I sit down on the couch again. Haymitch shoves me off. I don’t think anyone’s congratulated him yet, but I’m not sure I want to be the first.
Claudius Templesmith’s voice crackles over the television, and we all fall silent. All of Panem must fall silent. “Greetings to the final contestants of the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games. The earlier revision has been revoked. Closer examination of the rule book has disclosed that only one winner may be allowed. Good luck and may the odds be ever in your favor.”
Katniss and Peeta stare at each other, and every shred of hope falls away from their faces like sweat.
“Well, we knew it,” Johanna says. It’s strangely toothless for her, like the venom’s been drained out. “Congratulations to us, I guess.”
“The sponsors aren’t going to like this,” I say.
“Fuck the sponsors,” Cashmere snipes. “Oh, wait.”
I’m not in the mood for this. “Glass houses, Cashmere.”
“Let he who is without sin,” she says, and rolls her eyes toward Brutus. “How does that rule book look now?”
“It’s not in the rule book,” Brutus says evenly.
Cashmere’s lips draw tight. “Funny, weren’t you saying there was nothing in the rules against it?”
“I was. And there’s nothing in the rules for it either. It doesn’t say there can be only one--just that there has to be a victor. Or will be a victor. But it never says, just one victor.”
“Semantics,” Gloss snaps, his hand on his sister’s shoulder. “Tell me, Brutus, have you ever had an original thought in your life?”
Enobaria smiles, the points of her teeth glinting dangerously. “Have you ever had a thought your sister hasn’t had first?” she asks, moving to stand behind Brutus.
“Wow, you’d think you losers hadn’t got enough action in the Arena,” Johanna drawls with a simpering smile. “Oh wait.”
“Big talk, Johanna.” Enobaria’s smirk widens. “Hasn’t that big mouth gotten you into trouble before?”
Johanna flings herself at Enobaria, her hands tented into claws, and I barely have the space to grab her and hold her back. About the only thing that saves us both is that she’s half my size.
“Let go of me, Finnick, if that bitch wants a fight I’ll give her a fight--”
“She doesn’t,” Brutus says, with Enobaria in a half-nelson. “Not here. This isn’t the place.”
Meadow throws up her hands “It’s never the place, Brutus. You’ll never get to fight again. That’s your problem, isn’t it.”
“I didn’t start this!”
“Yeah, so let her finish it.”
“What was that, Meadow?” Cecelia snaps. “The last thing we need is a bunch of Peacekeepers charging in to break us up.”
Meadow spits. “I think that’s exactly what we need if these assholes can’t behave themselves.”
“Oh hell no,” Chaff shouts, shoving himself out of his chair and straight into Meadow’s path.
Seeder puts out an arm to hold him back. “We take care of our own,” she says, probably as much to him as to Meadow.
“Yeah. And I’ll take care of her if she threatens to drop that on us.” He stays where he is, but that doesn’t spare Meadow anything. “You have no idea what you just said.”
“Maybe I do,” she retorts, her eyes sparking.
“Bet you do, all cozy and fed in Ten. Bet them Peacekeepers’ll put a bullet through any cow you choose if you just get on your knees first.”
“Chaff, shut up,” I say. I keep holding Johanna back, though I’m not as sure why now. She looks up at me as if to say if we both go after him, we’d take him easy.
He scowls at me, tense all through his shoulders, elbows stretched like he’s still got two fists to fight with. “You don’t hold the Peacekeepers over anyone’s head in any room I’m in.”
“He’s right,” Seeder says. “But everyone needs to calm down. Now.”
“You have no idea why someone might get on their knees, so shut up,” I shout over Seeder’s protests--Johanna squirms harder than ever, but I’m holding her back as much for me as for her now. “You don’t know--”
“Kid, I’ve been alive since before your daddy got on his knees--”
“Come on, Finnick let her go, I’ll give her exactly what she deserves--”
“I’ll punch your teeth out, you fat little shit--”
“You know, I feel sorry for whatever kid makes it out of there if this is what they have to look forward to--”
“So what, you’d rather be dead? You saying you want a little help with that?”
“Try it, just try it--”
“Everyone shut the hell up and look at the screen!”
If that last one hadn’t been Beetee, I’m not sure any of us would have listened. I’ve never head Beetee shout. But there he is, red in the face, and there’s Wiress right next to him, and she’s probably been pointing at the screens for the past minute and a half.
Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark count to three, and shove a handful each of poisonous berries into their mouths.
I have no chance to figure out what I just saw, because the blast of the trumpets nearly knocks me off my feet. “Stop! Stop!” Claudius Templesmith shouts, and I’ve never heard him sound this ragged before, this desperate. “Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to present the victors of the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark! I give you--the tributes of District Twelve!”
“Well, shit,” Haymitch laughs quietly from the couch. “Someone owes me a drink.”
After the Games, people like to throw around the word “unprecedented.” It suggests there’s something new about all this, and novelty never goes out of fashion in the Capitol. This time, though, “unprecedented” is more than just a buzzword. Brutus isn’t the only one throwing the rulebook around.
“It’s an outrage,” Corbula says, and I only know that’s what she says because she’s said it five times already and for the first few her mouth wasn’t full. “An absolute outrage--they had already rescinded the rule change, never mind I haven’t heard anything about refunds, and then they just go and let it stand anyway?”
“But you couldn’t have asked for a better ending,” Hosidius says, and pauses his argument to shout “Bishop to D6!”
The Avox grips his bishop’s staff and edges forward three squares diagonally; it looks like he’s trying to cower behind it, but from the hollering and clapping in the gallery, he hasn’t managed to hide anything. I look away, pick at the square of marzipan someone set before me. Some things in the Capitol never change.
Corbula scoffs. “Of course I could have. One with a real show. That’s what I hate about all these non-endings, no show, no fight. They needed the mutts to make that girl kill Cato? She couldn’t show a little initiative? Or was she just too busy telling an insipid love story for the cameras? Pawn to E5,” she adds, and then takes a long gulp of wine. “I am telling you, Hosi, this pay-to-view sex and these lover’s trials are the worst thing that ever happened to the Games.”
Then maybe you shouldn’t have hired me, I think, and take a sip of my drink so I don’t say it.
“Hosi’s right,” Lucilla says, her chin in the air. “I never thought the Games could be so beautiful. I was at my hairdressers when Katniss offered those berries to Peeta, and we both clutched each other so desperately -- I thought I was going to faint!”
“Fine,” Ludmilla groans, “It was exciting. It was still stupid.”
“Bishop takes pawn,” Hosidius calls over, and everyone around the table raises a glass to toast. “Hm, what should the penalty be?”
“With an Avox like that?” Ludmilla snickers. “Send him outside and see if he can cross the boulevard without getting hit.”
“But then we’d have to get up,” Hosidus says. “Hm. A better idea. You, over here--and that little pawn too, there’s a good girl. Trade clothes. Now.”
She must be half his size. I drink, but can’t block out his tongueless grunts as he struggles to fit into her shift, or the tearing of cloth and the laughter from the crowd. My knuckles whiten around the stem of my glass. Fine. If they don’t see what Katniss and Peeta have done, all the better for us in the Districts.
“Your move, Corbula,” Hosidius says when it’s all done.
“Knight to B2, check,” Corbula says. While the Avoxes move around to comply, Corbula turns to Lucilla and raises her eyebrows. “You really enjoy that drivel, don’t you?”
“It isn’t drivel.” Lucilla sniffs. “Just because you’re incapable of appreciating anything other than brutality -- Finnick, darling, tell her how wonderful it was when Claudius declared them both winners!”
“It was,” I agree, and Lucilla beams. “I don’t think anyone in Panem could look away.”
“From watching the train wreck of this year’s Games, you mean,” Corbula sneers. “Or maybe the Games entirely. Crane’s gone, that’s for sure.”
I wouldn’t be surprised, but not for the reasons Corbula thinks. I should ask Haymitch what’s happened to him, though I can’t say I’ll be sorry either way.
Hosidius shakes his head “They were the most profitable Games in years. The most profitable since yours, Finnick, if I’m not mistaken. King to B3.”
“Queen to F3, check,” Corbula says.
“King takes Knight. Another penalty,” Hosidus says. “Give me a minute.”
“Were my Games really that profitable?” I ask.
“Certainly,” Lucilla says. “And they’re generating more revenue every year! Yours are some of the most frequently aired, you know.”
I need to stop drinking when I don’t want to answer people if I’m going to stagger out of here sober. I grind my teeth instead, hope the twitch in my jaw doesn’t show. “I’m surprised they haven’t gotten tired of me yet.”
“Oh, we could never,” Hosidius says. “Penalty! Sir Knight, do the Lady Corbula some credit with a demonstration of your fighting skills. Feel free to choose your opponent from any of my captured pieces.” He turns to Corbula with a sly smile. “Since you didn’t get enough action in the Games.”
“Oh, ha,” she says, but sits back to watch.
Five days until I get to go home. Five days until Peeta can walk and Katniss can stand and they can reunite blissfully on camera and I can go home. Four more nights of clients. I’ve gotten through worse, and even if the Capitol’s behaving exactly like the Capitol, I know District 4’s in for a turning of the tide.
The Avoxes trade blows--half-heartedly at first, but Hosidius shouts at them that this is going at least until first blood, and they pick up the pace. I take a long drink and close my eyes so I don’t have to watch.
“Really,” Lucilla says. “As if we hadn’t had enough of this already.”
Ludmilla snatches a grape from Lucilla’s plate, and says, “Then give me your seat, I want a better view.”
Lucilla shifts over, even nestles against my side and puts her head on my shoulder. “At least you agree with me that the entire thing was romantic.”
“Well, romance isn’t my specialty,” I say, and the group bursts into laughter. If only they were the Avoxes. “But it was moving, I’ll admit. I’ve never thought of the Games as a love story before now.”
“That’s because it’s not supposed to be a love story,” Corbula says, just as one Avox knocks the other to the chessboard. “It’s supposed to punish the Districts and entertain the rest of us.”
“I’d assume people were entertained, if the Games made money.”
“The Games made money because of that scam operation with the rule change,” Ludmilla says.
“Now, now, it wasn’t entirely a scam.” Hosidius chuckles. “The rule change did go through--though I don’t think anyone anticipated that turn of events.”
He’s more right than he knows. It took all of us in the Victor’s Lounge long enough to process what just happened, partially because we all started shouting again after Claudius Templesmith’s announcement. Well, except Haymitch, who was laughing his head off, and Beetee and Wiress left the room, and Mags wasn’t shouting, exactly, just holding her head in her hand and sighing something about all of us ungrateful young people. But it was pretty awful.
“I certainly didn’t,” Lucilla says. “It was even better than I’d anticipated! I mean, it would have been an awful anticlimax if they’d just let the two of them walk away after Cato died.”
“They know how to ratchet up the excitement,” Ludmilla admits, though from her expression you’d think she just swallowed a lemon whole. “But if the Quarter Quell is all flaming capes and star-crossed lovers, I doubt I’ll be contributing.”
“Oh, they’ll pull out the stops for that,” Corbula says. “They have to. The Quells, more than anything, are meant to remind the Districts just what they did to us. And anything is better than another tawdry love story. Oh, Hosi--can we tell them to stop fighting over there? I think that Avox is already dead. And I know my next move.”
So do I.
“Certainly,” Hosidius says, and waves a hand to call the duel off, even if it’s not so much a duel anymore. “Just wait a moment, they’ll have to clean the floor.”
“The victors from the Quells aren’t much to look at, though,” Lucilla says, nestled against my shoulder. I don’t shove her off, but I don’t snuggle back much. Two other Avoxes bear the dead one away; his head lolls at an impossible angle, twisted around too far.
“We might need to look at Haymitch again,” I say, and tear my eyes away from the corpse before I start wondering who he was. “He did just bring two tributes home. No mentor’s done that before.”
“Because of that stupid scam,” Ludmilla insists.
“Oh, but you haven’t done so badly yourself, Finnick! I’m ashamed to say it now, but I never
thought much of your chances in the Seventieth Games, and you brought the girl home, didn’t you?” Lucilla gives me what she must think is a winning smile, but I only see the unnatural evenness of her teeth. “That was almost as unlikely of a win as this was.”
“No, this one was worse. Is the floor clean yet?” Corbula cranes her neck to see. “Good. Bishop takes Queen. And someone get some of those nightlock berries for the penalty. Because apparently Hosi hasn’t seen enough of that.”
“Excuse me,” I say, my smile more a flash of teeth than anything else. I grab a vial of purgative so they won’t see how much my hands are shaking. “The food’s too good, Hosidius. I need to make room for more of it.”
“Of course,” he says, and waves me off.
I march through the hall, past the bathroom, and out the door into the afternoon sun. I don’t look back.
Cinna’s apartment is the messiest I’ve ever seen it. He’s not a messy person--the opposite, really--and I’m sure the workroom would be pristine if I took a look back there. But his living room is in (as my aunt Ruth would say) a state. The coffee table has three mostly-empty orange juice glasses and several cans of protein shake on it and a flurry of scraps of fabric spilling off over the edge, the carpet is littered with edges of thread and corners of bias tape, and I just sat on a pincushion. It hurt.
“Did a typhoon hit while I was out?” I ask.
“Maybe,” Cinna says, He doesn’t look up from the jacket he’s altering. “I missed it. I missed a lot of things. But I finished your scarf. Annie’s, I mean. It’s over there on the wall, the one with the beads and the tassels. What time is it?”
“Morning or evening?”
“Evening. Cinna, when was the last time you left the apartment?”
“Interview? Yesterday. I think.” He turns the jacket over and stoops to squint at a hem. “What day is it?”
I pluck the jacket out of his hand. “Cinna. Take a break.”
“I don’t even know if he’s going to wear the damn jacket,” he says, swiping for it like a cat with no claws. “Careful with that, it’s got a dangling needle.”
“I’ve been stuck by worse.”
“--You sat on the pincushion.” He breathes. Twice. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I say. He has enough to worry about, from the looks of it. “You’re making alterations?”
He sighs, and now that he doesn’t have the jacket in hand he reaches down to the basket beside his seat to pull out a pair of pants in the same dark fabric. “Have to. They’re holding the closing ceremonies earlier than I expected. Peeta’s already awake. So Portia fit his suit.”
I drape the jacket over a nearby chair. Cinna’s about to spring up and snatch it back, but I block him. “How is he?”
“Taking pretty well to the prosthetic, glad to be alive--gladder that Katniss is alive, by all reports.” I have no idea where Cinna got another needle and thread from. Maybe they were already in the hem. Annie pre-threads her needles too. “She’s still unconscious.”
I nod, and fold the jacket over in my hands. It’s lined with a gently flickering yellow fabric, like a distant lighthouse, but the suit itself is a sturdy shining black. I can tell just by the thickness of the fabric that it’s meant to conceal the shape of the body instead of revealing it. “You’re putting them in black?”
“No, gold,” he says. “Katniss’s dress is in the workroom. It’s probably too large. They wanted to augment her bosom and Haymitch put his foot down, so now I have to shrink it or pad it. It would suit her better, anyway. Not having big breasts, I mean. I’m rambling.”
“Yes.” I draw him up from the chair, which is easier than it should be. Has he been eating enough? Probably not. “Come on, take a break, at least for half an hour. You’re going to sew through your fingers at this rate.”
He laughs, but he doesn’t stop sewing, and sits back down. “I did that once. On the overlock machine, back in design school. I never went to class hung over again.”
“Good plan. Cinna?”
“Put it down.”
“Your powers of persuasion, while admirable, have ceased to work on me,” he says, deadpan.
I grab the pants and dangle them out of his reach. He strains up out of the chair and actually makes an effort to swipe them back, which means shoving me back and trying to step up on the coffee table, but he slips off the corner. I catch him and pin him to the chair with a kiss, which at least stops him babbling about hems. And it takes a couple more seconds and a few deeper swipes of my tongue for him to start kissing back, but he does, like a drowning man coming up for air. I slide my fingers through his hair and he leans into my hands, draws me down closer, and for a while we set everything else aside. Except the pincushion. I have to kick that aside when I accidentally wind up on top of it again.
After, Cinna plucks a loose yellow thread from my hair. “I need to clean up in here.”
“You need to relax,” I say. “Or you need someone to clean up for you.”
“I can’t relax,” he says. “Well, any more than I just did. Thanks. Um. But I can’t. They’ve already pushed up the closing ceremonies since Peeta didn’t reject the prosthetic, the Head Gamemaker’s been fired, Haymitch is just as demanding as he was before but now he isn’t sober, and I have to sit interviews. I hate interviews. The work should speak for itself, and I haven’t even designed all the work, I have to build lines around them--them, there are two of them, two victors, and they’re both mine, and Portia’s going to be a great help, I know, but I’m the one that does the designing, I always have been--”
“Cinna. Slow down.”
“Okay. Sorry.” He sinks back into the couch, and finds another loose thread, this time plastered to the sweat on his thigh. He runs it under his thumbnail, like flossing teeth. “They’re asking a lot of questions in the interviews about what it means--about what what Katniss did means,” he clarifies. “And I can only say you can ask her when she’s awake so many times. I’m not supposed to be on camera, Finnick. Not with how much I know. I can’t hide it like you all do.”
“Let’s hope she can,” I say. I’m no expert on Katniss Everdeen, but I didn’t see undying love when she held those berries to the sun, to the cameras, to all of Panem. This is what I think of your Games, she said.
But a fistful of berries can mean so many things. So many possibilities...
“Are you kidding?” Cinna laughs, bitter and low. “She’s got less guile than the people who buy your coffeemaker.”
“It’s a good thing she’s got Haymitch.” I pause. “I can’t believe I just said that.”
“I took back most of the awful things I said about Haymitch a few nights ago,” Cinna says. “But I’ll still stand by that he needs to shower about twice as often as he does and should let me make him some new clothes. And drink less. But he’s less pleasant when he doesn’t drink.”
“No arguments there.” I stretch, toss the jacket back onto Cinna’s lap. “How much trouble are you all in?”
Cinna lowers his voice. “A lot. The President himself came in to talk to us and the prep teams about how precarious our positions are. He threw around a few if something should happens. At least no one laughed.”
I don’t bother to hide my wince. “Neither of them know what they just did, do they?”
“You mean Katniss and Peeta? No. Or if Peeta does, he hasn’t shown it.”
I nod, sink back into the couch. At least I’m not stabbed with anything this time. “This is insane,” I say. “I know I’m one to talk, considering what you’ve been up to, but--”
“It is,” he says. “But you know what? It’s right. It’s the right time, they’re the right kids.” He sighs, looks at his hands. “I did it. I set her on fire.”
“Congratulations, Cinna Ward. You started a revolution.”
“Not yet,” he says. “But I provided the spark.”
I came in through a different bar this time, and I’m not the last one here either. Johanna’s still out, and Beetee says Wiress won’t be coming. And Haymitch wanders in with Chaff, bottle in hand like it never left.
“We’re still doing this?” he says, showing more teeth than I thought he had.
“Looks like,” Chaff says, “since this pack of losers all showed up. Me included.”
“Well, looks like we’ve got ourselves a conspiracy.” Haymitch shuffles over to a chair by the shelves in the corner, and I swear he does a little dance on the way. “So how many of you have gotten a state visit this week?”
“Snow visited Baste and me,” Cecelia says. “Briefly, but he made himself clear.”
“Not us,” Beetee says. “But he went to Two, oddly enough.”
“Not us either,” I say, “unless there’s something you haven’t told me, Mags?”
She shakes her head.
“I was half-expecting him to, honestly. But I guess he’s busy these days.”
“Well, he came to us,” Seeder says. So she’s not on lookout this time--that must be where Johanna is. “And he didn’t mince words either.”
“And I’d pay to watch the replays of the rigmarole he gave my team,” Haymitch says. “Hell, I’d sell tickets. I swear he turned colors he can’t plant in his garden.”
“What did he say?” I ask.
“After the laundry list of responsibilities we’ve all got now? Well, he made it plain that everything we do is gonna be his to see, so we’d better all be the Junior Peacekeepers helping old ladies into their fancy cars, or else.” He snickers. “You know how that speech goes. And then he pulled me aside and showed me just what he did to Seneca Crane.”
“Do you have any word about what’s going on in the Districts?” Cecelia asks.
Haymitch shakes his head. “Not yet. You got anything?”
“Only rumors. Baste got into contact with Woof. He said the victory celebrations at home turned almost riotous, and that a few more of us are starting to get in on the planning. But nothing’s been set up, as far as I know. I think we’re trying to figure out where to go next.”
“That makes all of us,” Seeder says. “My husband back in Eleven, he told me about the new curfews, new Peacekeepers shipping in. Can’t stop us talking, but they’re making it harder to meet.”
“Mags?” I ask. “Anything from back home? All my contacts run in the other direction.”
Mags smiles, and tells me, and I translate for the others. “Your cousin Manuel wants to talk to you.”
“So it looks like sparks are starting to fly,” I say, and hope Cinna doesn’t mind me stealing his turn of phrase. “But if you don’t mind me asking, where the hell do we go from here?” I can’t say I’ve ever been involved in a revolution before. I can’t say I ever thought of being involved in a revolution before a few months ago.
“Hey,” Johanna yells from the door. “They’re busting up a fight upstairs in Messalina’s. Time to split.”
“Goes where it goes,” Haymitch says, and shoves out of his chair. “Like I said before. Do what you can back home, and I’ll do anything I can to keep those kids alive. The Games haven’t changed--”
“--just the Arena,” I finish for him, and help Mags to her feet before we part ways in the corridor. I kiss her cheek, and ask, “Ready for this?”
“Always,” she says, and walks off with Cecelia.
I don’t know if I am. But I don’t know if I was ready for half the things I’ve been through, or ever could have been ready, and I’m still here. That’s something, at least.
“What’s the fight about?” I shout at Johanna once I’ve muscled my way into Messalina’s.
“What else?” she sneers. “Instant replay. Sometimes I wish she’d shoved the berries down her throat just so I didn’t have to watch her spit them out fifty times a day.”
I duck a clumsily thrown bottle and lean in. “Preview, do you think?” I ask, loud enough for her to hear but soft enough that no one else should.
“Let’s hope. You wanna go somewhere else?”
“Where’d you have in mind?”
“Somewhere we can dance without dodging bottles.”
I laugh, step back a few inches so the man staggering dangerously close to my feet doesn’t fall on them. “I thought that was your favorite part.”
“It is when I’m throwing them,” she says. “Come on. How much more free time do you even have?”
“About two hours,” I say, and sigh. “Forget it. I’m just supposed to show up at a party, and they’ll all be too busy talking about the Games to notice whether I’m there or not.”
“Good.” She leans up close to me, stands on her tiptoes. “Looks like someone’s finally getting a taste of rebellion.”
Peeta isn’t wearing the jacket. I can picture Cinna backstage, prying it off Peeta’s shoulders and giving up and saying something about how little he cares that he worked on it for hours. I’d laugh, but then I’d have to explain the joke. On the other side of the stage, Katniss looks younger and smaller than she has since I first saw her, in a flickering gold dress that hides all the fire Cinna wove into the fabric, like a lantern just about to topple over. Everyone cheers as she throws herself into Peeta’s arms and kisses him like she hasn’t noticed he’s holding himself up on a thin silver cane.
Come to think of it, she might not have noticed.
But either Haymitch told her what’s going on, or she really does need Peeta the way she’s showing us all. Up there, on that stage, she’s a teenager in love, who proved to the world that her love was worth more than her death. She played the Games, and she changed the rules, and between Cinna’s styling and Haymitch’s coaching she’s convinced enough of the audience that it’s no more than love. She sits close to Peeta, and leans on his shoulder, and watches her own Games with the eyes of a stranger.
I remember my own Games, and how horrified I was, that that creature was me. I remember someone once said that that fear made the Capitol love me even more.
Katniss isn’t afraid.
I wonder if she should be.
“You’re going to ignore everything I’ve told you to do about your hair, aren’t you.”
“Just getting that out of the way,” Drusus says, and smiles at me the way that shows his developing crow’s-feet. “Do whatever you want, I won’t be there to stop you.”
“I solemnly swear not to shave my head, Dru.”
“If you want to, I won’t stop you,” he says. “I will, however, subject you to accelerated growth treatments when you return.”
“When’s that going to be, anyway?” I ask. “I haven’t heard anything about my schedule for next year.”
“Neither have I. It’s probably under review.”
I manage not to roll my eyes, but only barely. “Well, I guess someone will tell me.”
“I’ll be in touch,” he says. “But if the way you’ve been loopholing your schedule says anything, it’s that you need some time without it. I’ll give you a couple of weeks before I even think of calling, all right?”
“You’re a miracle worker, Dru,” I tell him, and kiss him on the cheek.
“Then you gave me the best materials a master could work from.” He hugs me back, and gives me a gentle push toward the platform. “Go home.”
I slump into my seat once the train doors hiss shut behind me. Less than a day until I’m home, and until then I don’t need to smile at any more cameras or wave at any more reporters or flatter anyone else who makes my skin crawl.
Mags is already sitting cozily in an armchair, eyes closed, a relieved smile on her face. “Not asleep yet?” I ask.
“Not yet. I’ll have plenty of time to do that on the way.”
I concede the point. “It’s going to be an interesting homecoming.”
She glances out the window as the train groans to a start. “It is. But for once there will be something for you to do once you are there.”
“You’re telling me,” I say, and prop my feet up on the table next to her, mostly because I can. “What about you?”
“I will do what I can,” she says. “And I plan on sleeping in the sunshine.”
“You know,” I say, “I think Annie and I just might join you.”
She smiles, drifts off, and neither of us says much for the rest of the trip but we don’t have to. I watch the mountains give way to lower ones, then to rolling green hills, then at last to the sand and cliffs of home.
The windows are open, so I can smell the ocean drifting in with the wind. That never fails to make me smile, not even when I came home from my own Games, or from Annie’s. I nudge Mags awake, and help her out of her chair and down the platform.
“We’re home,” I say --
My family is here. I expect the smiles, and the sun, and the rush of cousins up the stairs, grabbing my knees and hands and pulling me and Mags down. And I do hear a couple of them shouting, “Finnick! Finnick’s home!”, but that’s just Timothy and Patrick, and mostly I just hear the sort of forced “Hi”s and “Hey”s that I used to throw off when I shut myself in my room.
I count everyone’s faces, and only come up with twenty-two.
And then I realize that Aunt Ruth is wearing black.
I expected the skies to be overcast today. They aren’t. They’re as bright a blue as I’ve ever seen, and the water sparkles in the clear sunlight. There’s enough of a breeze to stir the sails but not enough to guide them home, so I turn on the motor to take Annie and me back to shore.
She curls up at my feet, in the shadow of the bench, while I work the till. She’s stayed wrapped in the sheets all morning, dragged them up onto the deck with her and everything. I know I should tell her we have to get dressed for the funeral but frankly I don’t want to, either.
“How did it happen?” I finally ask. My throat is cracking--from the salt or from something else, I don’t know. I just know the burning hasn’t stopped yet.
“Fire,” she whispers. “The boat caught fire.”
Of all the things you’d expect to face out at sea. I nod, can’t bring myself to say anything else just yet. The Branwen cuts through the waves easily enough, and the gulls flock towards us when we get nearer to the shore, circle the mast and caw. I’m going to have to wear a suit. With a shirt underneath. The thought almost makes me smile, but I remember Uncle Jonas ribbing me about my fashion choices in the Capitol and I can’t.
“Was it just Uncle Jonas on the boat?” I ask.
“No,” she says, muffled in the sheet. “Niall was with him too. But he got away. I was watching. They screamed...” she trails off. “They screamed at each other, but I couldn’t hear the words.”
“So it wasn’t that far offshore.” I want to swallow again, but my throat won’t let me. Aunt Ruth hasn’t said more than two words to me since I stepped off the train; before I took the boat out with Annie, I saw her sitting at the kitchen table, Aunt Coral’s hand on her shoulder, staring through the screen on the door.
Annie leans against my shins. “No. Not far. Close enough for the tide to bring pieces in.”
I’m dreading the next question, but I have to ask. “When?”
She doesn’t answer at first, just tightens up. We’re nearing the docks, I’ll have to get up soon, but I don’t want to pull away any, don’t want to leave her or the ocean or anything.
“Three days ago,” she finally says, barely louder than the hum of the motor cutting out. “The night before the Closing ceremonies.”
The night of the meeting. Snow hasn’t visited, I said then. Well, he’s left his message loud and clear now, hasn’t he? I asked Mags if she knew something I didn’t, I remember--did she know about this? No. No, Uncle Jonas was as good as her nephew, she’d never hide this from me.
This is my fault. My hand slips from the till, hangs limp at my side. He as good as warned me, didn’t he? And I ignored him like an idiot, like the worst kind of idiot imaginable, because I thought I had something on him.
Fire. He’s turned our weapon against us. I know he meant that as a message.
I draw Branwen to the docks, nudge Annie so I can climb out and hitch the boat. She climbs out after me, still wrapped in the sheet, and presses herself against my back. I lean in, I’ve missed her so much, and right now I don’t care who’s looking or what they see.
“I’ll walk you home,” I say.
“You’re home,” she says, but takes my hand anyway, rubs our thumbs together in slow circles.
I don’t let her hand go, not after we’ve walked through the door and Dad is holding me tight and Uncle Brian is trying to lead us upstairs so we can get dressed. “Not yet,” I say, and Annie’s thumb nestles against mine. Aunt Shannon is embracing Aunt Ruth more tenderly than I’ve seen her hug anyone. I wonder if Aunt Shannon’s remembering Uncle Douglas, and how he dashed his boat against the jetties years ago. “You never know what will happen at sea,” she whispers, her lips bloodless, her eyes shining.
Aunt Ruth shakes her head, and it drifts on the way to hang like her neck can’t hold it up anymore. “It wasn’t the sea that took him.”
“Ruth,” Aunt Coral whispers, coming over to join them.
“I’ll say it even if no one else will.” She shoves Aunt Shannon off and sits at the table again, pours herself a glass of water. It spills over the edge and she doesn’t seem to notice at all. “It wasn’t.”
I nod to Annie and cross to the table, rest my hand next to her, lean down to whisper, “Not here.” I look at the corners of the room, and hope she’ll follow my gaze. “It’s not safe.”
“Then what is?” Aunt Ruth snaps at me, glares over the dark circles under her eyes. “What’s safe, Finnick? Would you know?”
Annie squeezes my hand. Her hair tickles my shoulder, her breath warms my skin. How did I get by so long without her? “I’m sorry,” I say. I can’t look at Aunt Ruth, and the floor’s blurring dangerously. “Let’s get dressed, Annie.”
She nods, and I can’t tell which of us is leading the other upstairs. She keeps some of her clothes in my room--Mother says that Annie sleeps here a lot, when I’m away, and she hasn’t been home since Uncle Jonas died--and we put on our clothes in silence. I have trouble buttoning the shirt, and my fingertips leave streaks of sweat around the buttons when I slip. Annie helps, but keeps making the buttoning motions with her fingers even after she’s done. I cover her hands, bring her fingertips to my lips. “I never wanted this,” I say, and my voice won’t hold steady at all. “I tried so hard--”
Someone knocks. “Finnick, you decent?”
It’s Roarke. “Yeah, and so’s Annie. Come in.”
He pushes the door open, steps inside. “My tie’s too short,” he says, “do you have a spare?”
His suit strains at the shoulders, and the sleeves stop a half-inch short of his wrists. He’s almost as tall as I am now, I realize, and he hasn’t put on as much muscle as I have but he’s getting there. For a moment I can’t do anything but stare. You’re a kid, I want to tell him, but he’s already too old to be reaped next year. I wonder if my parents feel that way when they look at me, like I can’t have possibly grown so big so soon, like every time they think they’ve gotten to know me I’ve changed again.
“Check my closet,” I say.
He nods, pats Annie on the shoulder as he makes his way over. “She’s right, you know,” he says. “I mean, Aunt Ruth.”
“You think so?” I try to keep my voice neutral, though I haven’t been very good at it lately.
“I’m not the only one who does,” he says. He pulls a red tie off the rack on my door, holds it up to ask for my approval, and I nod. “But it’s just thinking. We can’t know.”
“Yes you can,” Annie says. She looks at Roarke, but past him, like she could see into the mirror through his body.
I rest my hand on her shoulder, as much to steady myself as anything else. “Don’t talk about it,” I say, and tap my ear, they’re listening. “You can’t put too much stock in rumors.”
“If we did, everything would happen because of ghosts,” Annie murmurs, “or things that come out of the ocean. Or us. Ghosts.”
Roarke smiles, and finishes knotting his tie. “I know. I shouldn’t bring it up.”
“I like your pin,” Annie says.
“Thanks,” he says, and then I finally get a look at it, just a small gold tie-clip I never thought he had.
He’s wearing a mockingjay.
I missed sleeping with Annie curled up against my chest, more than I’ll ever let myself admit. Even after all the horrors of today, the funeral, dinner after, listening to Dad and Niall and Brian and Ruth getting drunk, listening to Connor crying and Lucy sniffling and Katie slamming her door--at least I can still lie next to Annie and know that, even if my dreams try to tear me apart, she’ll be here when I wake. I bury my face in her hair, kiss the top of her head lightly enough that I won’t wake her up. She sighs, shifts against me, but doesn’t wake. “Love you,” I whisper, and even though she doesn’t say anything back the way her arms circle me and her leg twines with mine say I love you clear as anything.
The sun hasn’t risen yet, but outside, it’s grey, lightening every minute. I can’t sleep, now that I’m awake, but I don’t want to move from here, from her, from this.
So of course the phone rings. The sound cuts through my ears like an arrow through my skin, and I remember it the same way.
I wrap a sheet around my waist and run to the downstairs phone, because I don’t want to wake Annie up this early. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing by the time I reach it. I didn’t expect it would.
“Good morning, Finnick.”
The ocean roars in my ears, loud enough that I nearly stagger back. “It’s early,” I say, because everything else I can think of might get someone else in my family killed.
“Yes, but you weren’t asleep. And besides, Finnick, I wanted to speak to you alone. Your family must be exhausted--grief is always exhausting. My condolences.”
How would he know? I doubt he’s grieved a day in his life. Not over his enemies, not over Argentia, not over his own daughter. “I’ll let them know.”
“Thank you. Now, with that out of the way, you must imagine I have some concerns.”
“I do,” I say, dig my nails into my palm to remind myself not to say anything stupid, no matter how much I want to.
I can hear him smiling, can practically smell the blood at the corners of his mouth, now that I know what’s hiding it. “In light of your behavior these past Games, I will not be calling you back to the Capitol until the Quarter Quell.”
I almost drop the phone. “Thank you,” I manage. It’s as close as I’ll get to genuine with him.
“I’m glad you appreciate the gesture, Finnick. But I’m afraid, once you come back to the Capitol, it will be a permanent relocation. You have one year to remain in District Four--and it will be up to you whether your family is still there to see you leave.”
I don’t say anything. I can’t. The ocean isn’t just in my ears anymore, it’s around me, swallowing me, deep and black and stabbing me through with ice.
“Don’t presume that I am unaware of the sentiments that these past Games have aroused in your District,” Snow goes on. “I do have eyes and ears, you know. When I said I expected a certain standard of behavior from you in the Capitol, I meant it, and you betrayed my trust. You’ve paid the price, and you know that I won’t hesitate to remind you of that price, just as I remind you of those standards. It’s really very simple, Finnick. You behave as a victor should, and you will be rewarded as a victor should be rewarded.”
“Victors never live in the Capitol permanently,” I say. It’s all I can think of. It’s the only defense I have. I can’t think of the rest. I can’t.
He laughs. “Victors seem to be doing things differently of late.”
I lean against the wall. I have to. I can’t breathe. The ocean’s crept into my lungs now, and every breath I take is so cold.
“One year,” Snow repeats. “One year, to make it clear to me that you know whose country you live in. And I don’t have to tell you what will happen if you decide you stand against me.”
“No,” I say, numb, and struggle to clarify: “You don’t.”
“Good. I’m glad we understand each other.”
I can’t. I have to. I can’t.
I rip the phone from the wall and dash it to the ground. Sparks fly. There’s your thank-you, Mister President. There, a bunch of tattered wires in my kitchen wall, and broken plastic on the floor.
Smoke curls out of the socket, sour and awful, and drifts toward the screen door. I follow it--
--and Annie’s reflection stares back, hazy in the glass.
I turn, leave the kitchen, find her at the bottom of the stairs. She’s holding the banister, her knuckles as white as wavecaps.
“It’s not over,” she says, shaking her head but keeping her eyes on mine.
“No,” I agree. “But now we know who the enemy is.”
A bit of a cliffhanger, I know, but don't worry, there's a sequel on the way that picks up Finnick's story from here and follows him up until the Quarter Quell. Stay tuned, and thank you for reading!