There’s no quiet.
The Capitol is city that never sleeps, at least according the billboards and the late-night talk shows that run any time Games reruns aren’t playing, though when he first heard it Claudius just thought that was a thing people say. People say a lot of stupid things because they sound cool like Panem’s Hottest Killer without really thinking, but no, it really is true this time. People party all night here and go to bed when the sun rises enough to touch the lower floors of the high-rises and they don’t get up until noon, except by dawn the people who aren’t partying are up and the cars are honking and some people have taken stimmers instead of sleeping and it’s just noise, noise, noise.
Tell us Claudius how does it feel, tell us Claudius what’s it like, tell us Claudius is it everything you ever wanted, will you autograph my issue of Victor’s Monthly, will you hold my baby ha ha I’m just kidding I’m worried you might eat her ha ha kidding again but really —
The crowds outside scream and chant and what is there even to party about, how can life possibly be so exciting out here in the Capitol when it’s the same thing again and again? Drugs, sex, alcohol, endless Games recaps and shiny lights and money spent like water. Claudius still doesn’t really understand Brutus and his patriotism but he does a little bit more now because he finds himself wondering what — as the line of limousines stretches below him like a glittering necklace of red jewels on the street below — these people did to earn all this, if they ever earned anything for themselves in their lives.
(Every time Claudius bites into an apple he can’t escape the sound of his teeth tearing through the flesh, the ripping and crunching going right to his head like sword through bone, like the sound of flesh searing and sizzling and hissing in the fire until he thought she would pop but she only twisted smaller, and that’s good because he’s earned it, he’s earned this, he deserves to be here —)
(The window is cool against his forehead and Claudius snaps back, eyes wide and heart hammering. Below him the lights of a casino whirl and spin through a flurry of colours.)
There’s a danger to getting something for nothing. The trainers taught Claudius and the other kids in the Centre and parents teach kids in the quarries and Claudius feels it now, this weight of all this money, all this stuff and absolutely no one earning it. And fine, not his business, he’s a weapon and a tool and a sword doesn’t give advice to the swordsman, except it’s like they’ve picked him up and are trying to use him as a wall decoration and tutting when he doesn’t match the frilly décor.
But the noise —
It’s not quiet in the mountains, that’s stupid; there’s always something, but they’re good sounds, home sounds. The birds twitter right through from the pale pre-dawn grey to the sunset, and the insects pick up in the afternoon with the cicadas humming that thrums in his bones and says yes yes you’re here you’re home welcome little killer and on to the chirp-chirp of the crickets when the sky turns from blue to black. The pine trees shiver in the breeze, branches creaking, and the leaves of the apple trees rustle and if Claudius leaves his window open then the curtains stir, soft like a whisper.
Sometimes thunder rumbles low along the mountains and the wind changes, lashing sideways and whipping the leaves of the trees so the silver undersides show. Brutus and his ilk nod in a folksy way and say things like rain’s coming and they all hurry to shut their windows before the storm hits. The sound of the rain is home, too, whether it’s a soft patter that slips into Claudius’ dreams without him realizing or the hard lashing against his windowpane that starts him awake and makes him laugh at the sky because it can’t touch him here.
(Sometimes Claudius opens his window and slips out onto the roof, lets himself get soaked until his hair plasters flat to his scalp and his clothes stick to him like a second skin. He sits in the rain and thinks of the night Nikita died, thinks of the acid rain that fell and burned against his skin in tiny bursts of pain and the girl who turned her face up to the sky and ended up on the recap a pink, unrecognizable mess. When the fear grips him and he can’t take anymore he climbs back inside and wraps himself in his robe and breathes in home and warm and safe.)
(Lyme found him once and clicked her tongue at him, called him her little drowned rat, and Claudius laughed and bared his teeth like he used to do at the kids in the Centre who looked at him cross-eyed. Lyme just snorted and threw a big fluffy towel at his head and ruffled his hair dry with it.)
This is not that kind of noise.
The noise in the Capitol never goes away, and it pokes at Claudius and keeps him awake and never lets his attention wander, never lets him relax. The Capitol makes him think of being six years old and hearing voices through the walls, the kind of low voices that sound like a shout because the only reason they’re not a shout is someone is trying very very hard, when sometimes the voices forgot and one rose up, sharp and furious like a thunderclap before coming back down. Claudius hid under the blankets with the pillow over his head and pressed his face into the mattress with his nose right flat against the sheets and hummed out loud so the sound filled his head and pressed everything else out. He’s tried that here but it doesn’t work, he’s not six years old and he’s not alone, there are cameras on every wall and Claudius doesn’t want the security staff thinking he’s a baby.
The Capitol makes him check his room every time Lyme drags him home from yet another party just in case someone is hiding in his closet or behind the door or under the bed with smiles like knives and fingernails that dig into his shoulder that he’s not allowed to brush away and voices that say tell me Claudius until he wants to scream but can’t. At the last party he drank fizzy pink stuff in tiny glasses that wouldn’t even make good weapons if he smashed them because they’d only shatter — though he could leave the shards behind like caltrops, maybe, and hope the partygoers tore their feet, the blood appearing on a time delay in long lines like ribbons, red and soothing. Claudius drank not because it tasted good or felt good but because it dulled the sounds and turned it all to a low background hum. He drank until Lyme appeared at his side, covered his hand with hers, and when he registered the pressure the glass was gone and replaced with something else that looked the same but didn’t set his insides churning.
The people just want things here, all the time, they want cars and jewels and fancy parties and so they have them, they want the latest Victor not to clash with the wallpaper and so his stylist dresses him to match. They want their killers close so they can taste the blood and drink in the murder by proxy but keep their hands clean, their soft pink hands that grip too hard because they know Claudius can’t say no.
(Except he can say no, can’t he, Finnick Odair went home with a lady whose hair sparkled with diamonds and whose dress dipped low to her navel, she curled her soft soft fingers around his arm and steered him out and he’d smiled and laughed even as his eyes turned hard like sea ice, but Claudius is here alone. Once someone said something he didn’t quite understand, not right away because no he doesn’t like that, why would she think he liked that, but then Lyme was at his side again, silent and disapproving. She steered him away and hid them behind a pillar, just for a second, so she could press his shoulders against the wall and whisper you’re mine they can’t have you until he nodded and the roaring cleared.)
The crowds roar outside the window now, and Claudius covers his ears with his hands and bends until his forehead touches his knees, bare feet flat against the carpet and back tucked into the corner. If he had his music he could shut it out, he could play the cello and let the low, sweeping sounds fill the room until nothing else existed. But the music is his, it’s real, and if he brought it here — if the cameras caught him playing — then the music would never be his again and so he left it home.
The door slides open and Lyme steps in, her tread heavy on the floor. She doesn’t belong here either, this tall, muscled, stern-faced woman in a city of fluff and feathers, and she drops down next to him and presses something into his hands. “Here,” Lyme says.
It’s a pair of headphones and a small box, and Claudius frowns, turning it over. There are buttons but no words on them, only arrows facing one way or the other and a square, but the headphones are big and weighty and feel good and solid in his hands. He can’t imagine anyone here wearing anything so bulky.
“What is it?” Claudius asks finally.
Lyme gives him a small grin. “It’s music.”
“Bullshit it’s music,” Claudius says without thinking, because it’s just a box, where are the strings, how are you supposed to play it, but Lyme’s grin only widens.
She takes the headphones and slips them over his ears, then presses one of the buttons on the box. “Get ready,” Lyme says, and then —
— and then the outside disappears, the cars and the shouting and the laughter, the howling and cackling and blaring of horns, all of it is gone. Even the rustle of Lyme’s clothes as she settles is gone, and in return there’s nothing but music, sweeping strings and rising brass and how, it’s just a box but Claudius doesn’t care anymore. The music is here and everything else is gone and he closes his eyes and lets it carry him.
Lyme wraps her arms around him, tugs him in to lean against her chest, and starts talking. He can’t hear a word but he can feel the rumbling at his back, and Claudius lets his head fall to her shoulder and her arms hold him steady. She talks and holds him and the music swirls inside his head and nothing else matters, not the president and not the people with their shiny smiles and never-ending wanting. Claudius is safe on his island and no one can grab him here.
He wakes up in the morning on his bed, the headphones still awkwardly skewed on his head and the music playing softly. The silk sheets are soft and slippery and make Claudius dream of blood but there’s something else there too, something solid and real that quells the confusion and whispers home. It takes Claudius a second to blink and grope around with his fingers — heavy fabric, soft but not like the Capitol is soft, soft like rough things worn down and made comfortable — and finally he registers it as Lyme’s sweater, draped over him like a blanket.
Claudius sits up, slides the headphones down to rest around his neck, and pulls the sweater over his head. Another day in the Capitol and they’ll be home again, back to the Village and the mountains and the pine trees. Home with the snow that glistens white and cold with the crust that breaks under his boots and sends him sinking down to his knees, trapping him floundering only it doesn’t matter because there are no mutations in the Village. Nothing to catch him and tear off his arms, no blood hissing against the snow in a hard red spatter like the first woman he killed at the age of fourteen.
At home there’s Lyme’s sweaters and her smile and a warm mug of cocoa pressed into his hand as the heat seeps through the ceramic through to his chilled fingers, and the latest odd remedy from Emory sitting on his counter because he’s new to real winter and she doesn’t want him to catch the sniffles. There’s Brutus and Lyme crunching through the snow in nothing but jeans and sweaters, shoving and calling each other names while Claudius follows in his big winter coat and gloves and rolls his eyes at the sky that two living legends could be so ridiculous in real life. At home there is no shouting or partying or club music thumping in his bones, only the tree branches creaking with the weight of snow and the winter birds jabbering over the feeder in the yard.
He’s not home yet but he will be soon, and Claudius pads out into the main room to find Lyme reading at the table next to a giant tureen that smells of milk and sugar and the rich, heavy scent of cooked oats. “Morning,” Claudius says, and Lyme looks up at him and smiles.