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In Laughter, In Strife

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Lyme is making her annual half-assed attempt at pruning the apple tree in her yard when Brutus stomps in from the glade around the back. “Listen,” he barks out before Lyme has a chance to finish cycling through her list of possible opening salvos (what’s the matter, that time of the month? did you fall and jam the stick further up your ass again?). “This summer, whatever you’re thinking of doing, don’t do it. Just forget it.”

Lyme raises an eyebrow and snips off a random twig to cover the fact that Brutus is, for once, shouting at her for plotting something she actually has no idea about. “I’m not in this year, you know that. D’s not ready.” That and her next tribute is guaranteed dead meat by special order of the president himself; it’s not only her Victor who’s fighting the reins this year. Lyme frowns at the branch and has to stop herself from cutting through the whole thing just because.

“That’s not what I’m talking about, and don’t play stupid with me,” Brutus snaps. “It’s twenty for me this July and I don’t want any cute shit.”

Oh. Funny how the time moved; Lyme has been so wrapped up in Claudius and balancing two Victors so Misha never feels unloved or unimportant or replaced that she forgot that the world outside keeps turning. “Is it really only twenty? It feels like the Dark Days were so long ago.”

“Har har har,” Brutus says in a flat voice with eyes to match. “I’m serious, don’t pull anything. I don’t want a party or a card or whatever else you think is funny, all right, so just nix any asshole plans you’ve got cooking.”

Winding up Brutus is always a good time, and for a moment Lyme toys with the idea of messing with him except her heart isn’t in it, not really. Ever since Claudius won she’s lost the taste of a lot of things that used to amuse her, and being an asshole to her one real friend is one of them. Not that she’ll ever tell him. Lyme sighs and sets the shears down on the top of the ladder, hopping down to the ground as her feet sink ever so slightly in the cool grass. “I hate to bruise your ego, caveman, but I actually didn’t have anything planned. You can relax.”

It’s almost worth it to see Brutus blink, since Brutus manages to be taken aback maybe once every two years, the startled expression followed by an embarrassed cough and telltale flush at his throat. “Oh,” he grunts. “Well, good. Don’t get any ideas, then.”

The stupidest part about all of it is that Lyme actually feels a pang of guilt, like she’s let him down somehow by not planning something momentous and assholish in a mocking celebration — for actually forgetting that Brutus has survived twenty years of mentoring and pulled two kids from the Arena and buried some five more without a word of complaint. Not that she’ll tell him that, either. She grunts right back and runs a hand through her hair. “Want a beer?”

Brutus shoves his hands in his pockets. “Depends, is it decent?”

“The only beer in my house is the shit you like, so you tell me,” Lyme says, jerking her head toward the house. “C’mon, then.”

Soon they’re in her kitchen, sprawled across the bar stools at the far ends of the counter with their feet propped up on the seats in between. “Is it really twenty?” Lyme asks, and normally neither of them waste their time on rhetorical questions, but shit. Brutus has been a Victor longer than he was alive before he took the crown, and if that’s not a kick in the head then what is. “That’s kind of nuts.”

“You’re telling me.” Brutus takes a swig of his beer, leans back and rests the bottom of the bottle against the counter, rolling it in a slow circle at arm’s length. “You ever want to do anything else? If you hadn’t done this, I mean.”

Lyme will put it down to the relentless march of time that Brutus is initiating a serious talk with only half a bottle inside him. “Not really. I was six the first time I pictured myself onstage with the crown.” Even then she’d known exactly what she had to do to get there, miming slaughtering other tributes with a stick she’d grabbed from the ground. Points to her for having a shitty home life, and for the Centre for knowing exactly how to use it; she’d been hooked before she ever put on the white training uniform.

She doesn’t ask Brutus his answer, she knows well enough. He would have gone back to the quarries, built himself a house near his parents with his bare hands out of stone he found himself, married a pretty girl and stood proudly by while she pushed out half a dozen blue-eyed babies. Lyme had run full-tilt for the Arena to avoid that life and she’ll never understand it, but it takes all kinds, or something.

“You ever want to call it quits?” Brutus still doesn’t look at her, focused very hard on his beer while he peels a straight line down through the middle of the label with his thumbnail. The paper puckers beneath the pressure before tearing, and he turns the bottle a fraction to the left and starts over. “I mean, we’ve both got two, that’s more than most mentors get. You ever think maybe we should stop while we’re ahead?”

Two. Two kids saved and three in the ground for Lyme, three brilliant, needy boys whose bones now feed the soil. Three kids she couldn’t save and ten she killed herself, and two doesn’t even start to scratch the surface of her debt. This time Lyme exhales, runs a hand over her face. “Nah,” she says. “Two kids go in every year whether we save them or not. No such thing as ahead.”

Brutus favours her with a sardonic smile and salutes her with his beer.

Lyme finishes her drink and slides her glass down the counter to knock against Brutus’ bottle. “Now I really want to get you a shitty card, though, just because you whined about it. Or maybe I’ll get Misha to stitch you a poem on a pillow.”

Brutus lets out a sharp burst of laughter. “Now that I’d actually love to see, just for how many times she could put the word ‘fuck’ into one poem.”

Lyme grins, leans back in her chair and waves her hands in approximately artsy gestures. “Fucking fucker fuckily fucks over fucking fucked fuckers,” she says dreamily, then snorts. “It’s got a nice ring to it, I think we’ve turned on to a good thing here.”

None of this changes the fact that in a few months Brutus will be shepherding another boy toward his death. Caulder, from what Lyme has seen in his file, is a pretty standard boy, big and tough and honour-driven and absolutely itching to be allowed into the Arena to prove himself and bring home glory to his district. He’ll be a good sacrifice to continue District 2’s penance after Lyme twisted the narrative and pulled Claudius out by exposing her people’s underbelly.

Lyme isn’t going to say it, and Brutus for all his jackass tendencies isn’t going to poke that wasp nest. They drink in silence, the best kind of company, until it’s time for Lyme to check on Claudius and Brutus to head back home.

 


 

Reaping Day of the 69th Hunger Games, 10:13 am, and suddenly Brutus isn’t leading a boy to die at all, not this year. Now it’s Lyme, thrust back into the cutthroat world of mentoring and sponsorship and Capitol demands, at least a year too early and with only a few minutes’ warning. All because a dumb kid with a big mouth and not enough brains to know when to forfeit a dare signed his own death warrant.

They call her back when she tries to slip away with Claudius — of course they do, they need a sacrifice this year and Lyme wove her noose herself — and Brutus catches her eye. “I’ve got him,” he says, and heads off away from the square toward the fleet of cars that carry the Victors from the Village to the centre of town.

He doesn’t look back, and Lyme squares her shoulders and turns back to the Peacekeepers and the head of the Program with a tight smile.

 


 

 The 69th are a shit-storm from start to finish, and that’s the only way to look at it. Lyme’s boy dies in the first thirty seconds just like she knew he would, flayed open by the Two girl’s knives in a grim reversal of the year Claudius won. Just like that her duties are over, and as soon as she can she takes the train for home. Let them reprimand her for not staying until the Victor is crowned; this year Lyme has misplaced all her fucks, and it’s doubtful that anything but a gun pointed directly at her skull would help her find them.

As for Claudius — well, she’s not going to think about Claudius, about the conversation they have that night in the late-night heat, the one that sits under her skin and burns like acid and refuses to let her go. Nothing will happen for now, at least, and she does her best to put it out of her mind.

 


 

 The next week Brutus heads in to town to meet the boy who should’ve volunteered, who in all likelihood would’ve been a smear of blood and brains on pavement by now, insides cooked from the Three girl’s traps. Instead he’s alive and raging in the Centre’s post-Program detox psych ward, convinced he would have brought it home.

Lyme has no idea what Brutus tells him and she’s not going to ask, but Brutus leaves the Village with his shoulders up around his ears and comes back with a hint of a swing in his step, so there’s that. Lyme watches him walk past and almost misses the pass Claudius tosses her from across the court.

 


 

 On the first morning of August, Lyme steps out onto the porch and bends down to lace her shoes for her mid-morning run when Devon and Misha saunter into the yard. Lyme straightens back up, eyebrows creeping toward her forehead, because her girl and Brutus’ boy are always together so that doesn’t automatically mean trouble but the twin expressions of innocence definitely do.

“Morning, mentor mine,” Misha says sunnily, and oh boy, what’s on fire now? “Mail delivery.”

“Oh really.” Lyme lets one eyebrow rise above the other. Her girl turned thirty last year, and she mellowed a lot after Emory glared at her and told her to be a good role model for her new younger Victor-brother, but that doesn’t mean Misha magically transformed into some kind of angel. “What kind of mail?”

“An invitation,” Misha says.

“A challenge,” Devon counters, with a bright smile that hides a knife. “We’re having a barbecue for Brutus’ twentieth, and you’ve been chosen to be the contender.”

“Mentor vs. mentor,” Misha adds, matter of fact, like any of this makes sense. “Devon or me, who has the best, most badass mentor in the Village? Obviously me, but it’s time to give everyone public proof.”

Lyme stares at them. “So you’re celebrating Brutus’ anniversary by arranging for me to kick his ass at something.”

“No, no,” Devon says. “For him to kick your ass.”

“In your dreams,” Misha shoots back, giving him a serene smile. “Look, boss, Brutus would kill us if we had anything to do with feelings, right, but he loves competition. Plus these Games sucked and everyone is all mopey and weird, and I don’t know about you but that’s a shitty way to end a decade that got us three Victors. So, barbecue and a contest, and yeah everything still sucks but at least we’re all alive and awesome.”

It’s been a long twelve years since Lyme wrestled Artemisia’s half-crazed self out of the Arena and took the matches out of her hands, but hey, here she is, and the idea isn’t half bad. Lyme snatches the invitation out of her hands and snorts at the lettering, done to look like tiny cross-stitches. “What’s the challenge?”

“That’s for when you get there,” Devon says serenely. “We don’t want anyone practicing ahead of time and trying to get an edge. Not that my mentor would do that, because we’re not the ones known for being sneaky.”

Lyme rolls her eyes at Misha, who joins her. Brutus and his kids have always been and will be a little precious. “The invite says this afternoon?”

“2pm.” Misha throws a thumbs-up. “At Odin’s, because Ronan has the bigger yard but Odin doesn’t have dogs who will try to steal all the steak.”

Lyme swings by Claudius’ house after lunch. He’s inside practicing his cello, and Lyme stands in the doorway and leans against the frame for a while, head tipped sideways against the wood as she watches him. His posture shifts in recognition of her presence, but he keeps playing through to the end of the movement without dropping a note. “Hey, boss,” he says, looking up and pushing his hair out of his eyes. “What’s up?”

There’s a tension there, an anticipation, that never quite wiped away after their conversation last month. Misha is more right than she knows; they need to get back onto a familiar keel, otherwise they’ll be tiptoeing around the edge of treason forever. Lyme might have made a silent promise to take him with her when she finally snaps, but she’s not a traitor yet and Claudius can’t be on edge waiting for her every day.

“Misha and Devon invited me over to a barbecue to kick Brutus’ ass in a mysterious contest,” Lyme says, and it takes a bit of effort to inject levity into her tone but after a second she finds her footing. “Oh, and celebrate him being twenty years out, I guess.”

Claudius laughs and sets his cello on the stand, leans back and loosens the strings on his bow. “Mysterious contest, huh? Sounds like one of Misha’s ideas.”

“Got it in one,” Lyme says, and when Claudius stands she grabs him in a headlock and tugs him in against her side. “Come with me, I’ll want an audience when I make Brutus cry.”

“Sure thing, boss,” Claudius says with a grin, knocking his head into her shoulder.

 


 

 Lyme pushes open the gate to Odin’s backyard and steps through to the familiar scene of a Village barbecue, all the Victors mingling and grabbing drinks from a cooler or flipping meat over the grill. It could be a summer version of the annual spring celebration, except for a few key differences: a pair of giant coolers set on a picnic table and labelled with a large ‘DON’T TOUCH’ sign, a clipboard set face down on the table, and a pile of swords next to two long strips of bright cloth.

“This is quite a thing you’ve got going,” Lyme says to Misha, catching her by the drinks table and pulling her in for a one-armed hug. “When are you gonna tell me what’s going on?”

“Soon,” Misha says, beaming broadly. “I think everybody’s here, so why don’t you go sit by Brutus and we’ll get started.”

Lyme snags a glass from the table and pours herself a whiskey, dropping onto a bench next to Brutus and his fist-held beer. “Any idea what they’ve got planned?”

“Nope,” Brutus says, taking a long sip to show everyone exactly how unconcerned he is. “Though I asked Emory and she wouldn’t tell me, so it can’t be too terrible.”

Soon enough Misha stands up at the head of the group, holding up a beer in a salute and a call for silence. “Twenty years ago, the Victors’ Village snagged itself one of its finest additions. Since then, six unsuspecting Victors have followed in his footsteps, unaware that they had just set themselves up for two decades of grumbling about how ‘kids these days’ don’t understand how the world works, and how the Centre exams were so much harder and the Games that much tougher because, and I quote —“ She crosses her arms, tilts her head to the side and glares down at the crowd. “‘Back in my day sponsors didn’t do everything but wipe your nose for you. We wanted a big shiny sword like the one you got, we had to do a lot more than bat our eyes for the camera and spill a little blood’.”

A smattering of laughter spreads through the assembled Victors, and Lyme coughs into her fist. She’d missed that conversation, thank goodness, since she would have leapt into snarling protective mentor mode in a matter of seconds, but Misha’s rendition carries the spirited vindictiveness of truth.

They all turn to Brutus, who refuses to be cowed. “Well, it’s true,” he says. “You kids are soft.”

Misha’s grin turns sharp. “I’m glad to hear you say that, because today, in honour of your many years of service to your district and your country, we’ve decided to turn back the clock. Welcome to your Centre Exam, redux!”

Lyme chokes on her whiskey just in time to catch Brutus’ goggle-eyed look of shock. Brutus sets down his beer with exaggerated care. “You wanna run that by me again?”

“Well, minus the animal killing, since we figured the barbecue counts,” Misha says, smiling sunnily. “You think kids these days have it easy? We’ve taken the basic tests from last year’s Centre entrance exam and brought them here just for you. Calisthenics, blind sparring, recitation of the death list — updated to match the year, of course — and everyone’s favourite, pain tolerance. And because no competition is fun when it’s solo, we’ve rounded up a challenger in the form of Lyme. Two mentors head to head, here to prove that ‘age before beauty’ isn’t just a saying. Unless you’re chicken.”

The entire Village turns to look at them, and Lyme tosses her glass onto the table. “All right then, caveman,” she says. “You’re on.”

Lyme wins the first challenge — first to 100 pushups — because her specialty is speed while Brutus’ is endurance and no one wants to wait over an hour for one of them to drop. She wins again at the chin-up bar, though that doesn’t really count because Brutus wrenched his shoulder at eighteen and can’t get up to his pre-Games record. But then Nero brings out the weights, and Brutus grins at her and manages to deadlift another three sets after Lyme drops out.

They come out of the physical round at a dead heat, and then it’s on to the list. “Shit,” Brutus says, reaching for another bottle of beer. “This ain’t fair, the list was a hell of a lot shorter when I had to memorize it.”

“We have a special extra challenger for this round,” says Devon brightly. “Here to represent the younger generation is Claudius, our latest Victor. Let’s see which if one of you can outlast him!”

“Aw, come on,” Brutus exclaims. “Kid’s a baby, he had his test, what, yesterday?”

“We’ll count total correct, so if you miss just keep going,” Devon says in a conciliatory tone that makes both Lyme and Brutus shoot him a look. “Don’t think of Claudius as a ringer, just someone to make it interesting.”

Claudius drops down onto the bench between them and makes a show of cracking his knuckles and stretching out his neck. Lyme jostles him with her shoulder. “You knew about this, did you?”

“Not until the party started,” Claudius says, and he’s a skilled liar like the rest of him but no one can pull one over on their mentor, and Lyme doesn’t smell any bullshit. “I wouldn’t want to cheat. That’s not going to stop me from winning, though.”

They all start solid through the first decade, and on through to the Quarter Quell with no slip-ups. The thirties were Two’s decade, and Lyme and Brutus in particular had watched the tapes of the golden trio hundreds of times during their stints in Residential. She’s feeling good until they get to the late forties, and there Brutus shows his first sign of hesitation; he’d entered Residential after Nero’s win, and stopped officially memorizing after that while Lyme was gearing up for her own test.

Brutus stumbles for the first time in the forty-sixth, but catches himself soon enough. A few years later and Lyme is in the same boat, no more pressure to memorize after she took her exam, and her memories of the later Games are based on actually watching, not rote learning. Claudius flashes them both a cocky grin and keeps going without missing a beat; after tapping out, Lyme and Brutus only pitch in on the years they mentored.

Brutus has two more rounds in the mentor ring over Lyme, and when Claudius finishes with a triumphant, flawless rendition of the 68th and a bow to match, Misha and Devon tally up the counts.

“Brutus wins by two,” Devon announces, making a mark on the tally board. Brutus turns to grin at Lyme, and Lyme bares her teeth in response.

Next up is blindfolded sparring, each of them with a cloth tied over their eyes and the other’s Victor — Brutus against Claudius, Lyme against Devon — as an opponent. Two points for a body shot, one for limbs, and three for the head, with the time set for five minutes.

Lyme wins that round by a full twelve points, and judging by the bulging muscles in Brutus’ jaw, the competition is getting to him. Lyme licks her finger and marks an invisible tally in the air, enjoying the slow purpling of the veins in Brutus’ neck.

“Last up, pain tolerance,” Misha announces with a touch of her Arena-enhanced sadistic glee. “Devon, the coolers, if you please.”

Claudius ushers Lyme and Brutus into side-by-side lawn chairs while Devon and Emory haul over the large containers. The lids come off and Lyme groans; they’re filled to the brim with ice water, and the kids set the coolers up in the middle between the two chairs.

“You can flinch, curse or shout all you want,” Misha says, going over the rules. “But cry or take your arm out of the ice bath and it’s over. Ready?”

Lyme hisses out a long breath through her teeth, shaking out her arm as Brutus does the same. She and Brutus both aced their cold exposure tests, and both of them suffered through Arenas with temperature drops below freezing. That doesn’t mean either of them has been fool enough since winning to plunge their arms elbow-deep into ice water to prove a point. That’s a bit too much preparation for even their drunken macho fights.

“Ready,” Lyme says grimly, Brutus echoing.

She sucks in a lungful of air, clenches her fist, and shoves her arm into the water.

It’s just one limb but the cold hits her in the chest anyway, and Lyme squeezes her eyes shut and starts calculating sponsor numbers in her head to keep her mind busy. Beside her Brutus sits stoic and silent, occasionally driving his free fist into his leg. Misha and Devon both keep an eye on their stopwatches but don’t announce the time — it’s a tactic, as hearing the minutes counted off often gives a second wind — and Lyme does her best to keep count in her head but it all fades out.

The burning in her arm flares up until it drives everything else away, and the funny thing is it’s almost nice. No more hesitation, no grieving over dead tributes, no mess of confused anger and sympathy over poor, idiot twelve-year-olds who volunteered on a dare and ended up with their blood splashed across the camera lens. None of that, only pain and glaring whiteness in the back of her mind, clean and clear and calming. For once this is a test that requires no thinking, the less the better, and Lyme revels in it.

Finally Brutus lets out a flurry of swearing and yanks his arm free, leaning forward to dunk it in the bucket of lukewarm water that the kids placed helpfully between his knees. Lyme laughs in triumph and, just to rub it in, counts off an extra thirty in her head before doing the same. The feeling returns to her fingers slowly in a creeping series of prickles, then all at once until it’s all she can do not to shout all over again.

“Fuck me,” Brutus mutters, massaging his arm with his other hand. “That was a bitch and a half.”

Lyme’s jaw locked in the middle of the thawing process, and she manages only a grunt in return while Devon and Misha bend their heads over the clipboards.

“Our overall winner is Lyme! This concludes the contest portion of today’s festivities,” Misha says with a flourish. “Devon, it looks like my mentor can beat up your mentor, ha ha times infinity, but since this is Brutus’ celebration we won’t make fun of him too much, and Ronan has agreed to let him do the grilling.”

“And,” Devon says, giving Misha a significant look, “That means we take our meat the way Brutus cooks it, no complaints. That means medium rare, no well done allowed, Misha.”

Misha makes a face, but waves a hand in acquiescence, and Devon hands over the steak tongs to a satisfied Brutus.

Claudius wanders over with a towel, and Lyme dries off her still-dripping arm, glad to see her fingernails returning to the proper colour. “So you won the badass contest,” he says, grinning. “Not like I doubted or anything.”

“In fifteen years or so this could be you and Enobaria,” Lyme says, and the alarm that crosses Claudius’ face at the idea causes her to crack up. “This was a good idea,” she says, looking out across the yard and noting the heavy weight of tension finally gone from everyone’s shoulders. She slides her arm around Claudius’ waist, and he leans his head against her arm with a small sound of contentment. “I think everyone needed to relax a little.”

Claudius says nothing, only nuzzles her shoulder, and Lyme grins a bit at the ache now making its way through her muscles, simple and everyday and easy to understand. A little while later Brutus stops by with a pair of plates, dropping them on the table. “One whiskey glazed for Lyme, since you’re a bitch-ass whiner about your sauce,” Brutus says, “and one with onions for your boy. Enjoy.”

Lyme salutes Brutus with her fork, then cuts into the steak and hums in satisfaction at the stripe of red in the centre. “He does know how to cook a steak, I’ll give him that,” she says loud enough for Brutus to overhear, but only because it’s his anniversary.

“I’ll get Misha to put that on a cushion for me,” Brutus says, reaching for another pinch of salt, and Lyme grins.