Five Places Cinna Came From
District Seven: The Moral of the Story
All except one boy.
“Well, well, well.” Finnick Odair’s sweet-honey District Four twang dripped from his words like sap from a maple. He leaned up against Cinna and the younger boy’s skin was burning hot with rapturol and candycaine; Cinna could feel it through his starched black shirt, radiating from Finnick’s smooth chest. “What’s a nice District boy like you doin’ in a place like this?”
“Not tonight, Finnick,” Cinna sighed.
“Yes… tonight,” Finnick said pointedly, wrapping his arms around Cinna’s ribs and rubbing the side of his face on Cinna’s arm. Cinna finally looked down at him and Finnick’s pupils were huge. Finnick pouted and slithered up against him. “Please, Cinna… please…”
As if anyone could deny Finnick Odair.
Cinna bit his lip. Finnick slid up against him again, hard against his hip – he was always hard; how was Finnick Odair always hard?
“Okay,” Cinna said, smiling down at the beatific boy still nuzzling his shoulder. Finnick grinned up at him with those wet bow lips and huge black pupils and wild rumple of bronze hair, looking every inch like a very bad angel. He grabbed Cinna’s hand and led him back to the private rooms; Finnick had one of his own, of course, but the rest rotated out on the hour.
Sometimes, Cinna wondered exactly what a nice District boy like him was doing in a place like this.
But then Finnick Odair, in those tight, shining pants like fish scales, threw the lock on the scalloped black door and the red Occupied light clicked on outside, and he turned to face Cinna with that smile again, that heartbreaking smile that set Cinna’s heart all a-stutter, and he always remembered.
“I was hopin’ you’d be here tonight,” Finnick said, looking at Cinna steadily from under his crazy-long eyelashes that sometimes, when Cinna turned just the right way, fluttered against his cheekbones like wings. “I missed you the last couple days.”
“Yeah,” Cinna said, scrubbing a hand through his hair, “I just – you know. Places to go. People to see.”
Finnick’s lips quirked. “Someone special?”
Cinna looked away. “No. I mean, you know me, I’m not – what the Capitol wants. I’m just me.”
Finnick smiled and looked a century older than his fifteen years. “That’s what I like best about you, Cinna. I like that you’re just you. I hope you don’t ever change.” Then he winked. “That’s what you been doing the last few days, right? The design school is getting their remakes done?”
“How did you know?” Cinna asked, settling back on the soft sofa as Finnick approached with that wolf-graceful lope that had helped win him the last year’s Hunger Games.
Finnick straddled his lap. He laughed. “Varro came in last night lookin’ like a fool toucan with that bandage on his face.” He sighed indulgently and ran his hand over Cinna’s chest. “He went home all on his lonesome, that’s for sure.”
Cinna laughed back. “Well, I’m sorry I missed it.”
Finnick studied Cinna’s face with those rolling black pupils. “So what are you getting done? Not your mouth, I hope.” He bent forward and nipped at Cinna’s bottom lip. “I like that the way it is.”
Cinna felt his cheeks glow hot and red and Finnick grinned, pleased with himself, rubbing his thumbs along Cinna’s jaw.
“No,” Cinna said. “I, um – I’m actually not changing anything. That’s why I was gone for so long. They kept trying to make me pick, but… I don’t know. The fashions this year are – they’re not me, you know? They aren’t anyone. They don’t say anything, and… I come from a District where if you don’t have something important to say, you just don’t say it.”
Finnick hummed and ran his tongue along the column of Cinna’s neck. “Home’s the same. You talk too much, you scare away all the fish.”
Cinna didn’t mention that the real reason he was gone was that he had been here, waiting at the bar and hoping that Finnick might make his way over, when he saw the red Occupied light click on outside Finnick’s room.
That, he could have borne.
But when the light clicked off, it was Annika Templesmith who Finnick shushed out of the room on shaky legs. Finnick stood half-hidden in his doorway, one naked hip visible around the doorjamb, his lashes low and false-innocent and flirtatious as he ran a hand over the wide, hourglass curve barely constrained by the open-ribbed black corset she wore.
It felt like Yew all over again.
It was different in places like the Capitol – that’s a sin city, the old women always sniffed – or District Four – unavoidable with all those men out on those infernal boats – but the fact of the matter was, in District Seven, Cinna had been a black sheep.
He had rheumatic fever as a baby and was never quite strong enough to work on the skidroad, so he was abundantly aware that as far as his father was concerned, Cinna was a wasted pair of hands and an unearned empty stomach to feed. Cinna spent most of his time at the school with Miss Honey, a lovely young teacher shipped out by the Capitol when he was in his First Year. She encouraged Cinna to learn to read more than the proscribed Capitol Texts For District Seven, and by the time he was nine, he was reading her old university copies of The Literature (v. II – IX; Snow) and The Fall of the United States of America and Glorious Rise of Panem. At fourteen, she slipped him a battered old sheath of papers that had once been lessons of philosophy and theology and psychology, annotated in faded yellow and spidery handwriting that Cinna could scarcely read.
She encouraged his drawing, too, and Cinna learned how to tell his stories through color and shape in a District where people were trained not to listen.
The Peacekeepers raided houses along the skidroad when Cinna was fifteen and they found an old book of poetry in Miss Honey’s steamer trunk. She was hanged in the Dark Woods off the District square, in the direction of the high, barbed fences separating Seven from the Wilderness.
Only a handful of the thinner, smaller girls joined Cinna every day in staying at school until darkness was already falling and it took jumping cobblestones in threes to make it home in time for hardtack supper.
And then… Yew moved to the District center, and he stayed late at school, too. He knew how to write in cursive, the old writing, and he had a paint set with real violet paint. Yew had lived out in a Further Village until they were twelve and he moved into the heart of District Seven only because his dad was promoted to tyvee.
The first thing Cinna noticed about Yew was that he had hair the color of the heart of a flame, a brackish orange sort of auburn that glowed plum-purple when he turned his head just right near the windows.
The second thing Cinna noticed about Yew was that Yew didn’t seem to understand that it didn’t – it didn’t work that way, in District Seven, he couldn’t just sidle up to Cinna and chatter at him about the horrific odor of Grady’s nosebag; what’d he have in there, raw reeking fish?
He couldn’t grab Cinna’s hand as they raced home one evening with the sun shining in yellow and violent violet stripes over the high trees, cicadas buzzing in chorus around them, buried in the mud below the leaves, below the trees.
He couldn’t push Cinna up against the shady wall of the schoolhouse one afternoon and kiss him, right on the mouth, in soft, sucking pulls of lips that knew what they were doing against lips that very sincerely never thought would feel a kiss like this.
Only months after Cinna’s first kiss, Yew was caught after-hours in the Near Woods, dick still wet with Anna Irons when the Peacekeepers dragged him into the square to lash him for breaking curfew.
The next month, a new tyvee was promoted and Yew was gone, shipped back to the Further Villages with Anna Irons in tow, and a month after that –
A month after that, Cinna was nineteen and left for the Capitol.
Finnick looked up from the curved place where Cinna’s neck became his chest. “Of course, you know me. I do like it when you talk.”
Cinna smiled down at the younger boy and put Anna and Annika out of his mind.
“Kiss me,” Cinna said softly, tilting Finnick Odair’s mouth up to his. Finnick smiled and slid his hands into Cinna’s soft, brown hair, his tongue flicking into Cinna’s mouth on first blush, no games. Finnick could kiss in a hundred different ways, and Cinna thought he’d probably been kissed in all of them now – shy, brazen, wet, laughing, pecking, panting, biting, in soft and sucking pulls that assured: he knew what he was doing.
“How do you want me?” Finnick asked into Cinna’s lips as Cinna’s hands skimmed over the long sides of Finnick’s ribs. “Anything you want, Cinna. For you, anything you want.”
Cinna pulled back and stared Finnick in the eyes as the tall, thin boy rocked over his lap. “I want you however you’ll have me.”
Finnick bit his lip and his kiss-bitten pout twisted. A storm blew hot and fast behind his green eyes, but then in a flash of light it was gone and he was grinning, reaching two fingers into the pocket of his shiny pants. He pulled out a tiny bag of pink powder. “Do you have class in the morning?”
Cinna shook his head.
Finnick slid up close right where it made Cinna whimper under his breath, and skated his mouth over Cinna’s cheek to his ear. “You want me all night?”
Cinna blushed again even as he nodded, flipping Finnick onto his back beneath him on the black sofa. “Yes.”
Finnick beamed and scratched lightly over Cinna’s back, soft black material bunching under his fingers. “You wanna cut or should I?”
“Let’s just wait,” Cinna said, settling his hips down against the cradle of Finnick’s thighs. “We can save it for later… a pick-me-up.”
Finnick pouted, but started sliding Cinna’s soft black shirt up his torso all the same.
Cinna was nineteen years old when he arrived in the Capitol, but twenty before he got up the courage to visit any of the clubs his classmates talked about – Ω, Et Circus, Capital, The Rose Club. He watched the 65TH Hunger Games from the bar at ‘District Fourteen,’ trembling ice-tumbler of something blue and steamy in his hand. All four curved walls of the club projected the four cameras of the Games, and tickets for the door had been sold out eighteen months in advance. Cinna only made the crowd because the design students always got the best spectator seats for the Games; training for the jobs they were all vying to have.
Cinna had felt claustrophobic in the crush of people drinking and laughing and cheering as children died all around them, trapped in the panorama of Games footage so that it felt like the patrons of District Fourteen were in the Arena themselves.
A few months after, Cinna was in the club again, sitting at the bar alone and sketching out the bits of people’s outfits that he liked – and there weren’t many, not this season; everything was lace and it was ridiculous, like a crowd of walking marshmallows – when someone sidled up beside him, so close he could smell their sharp lemon soap. “Buy me a drink, sailor?”
Cinna had started so badly that his own drink spilled, crystallizing into crackles all along the ice-bar and making Tyson, the bartender who knew full well that Cinna was a one-drink customer, scowl. “I – you – ” He looked at the smirking boy. “You’re Finnick Odair.”
“I am,” Finnick Odair agreed, pressing up closer to Cinna and not seeming to mind that he was nearly naked in a club made of ice. “And who are you?” He trailed his finger over the top of Cinna’s sketchpad. “Thiebaud Brabantio?”
Cinna blushed so hard he thought he might melt right off the bar. “No. He’s one of my professors, though.”
Finnick’s eyebrows rose delightedly. “Well, I was just making fun, but that’s fascinating. Now… that drink?”
Cinna shook his head. “You’re fifteen. You can’t drink.”
Finnick Odair tossed his head back and laughed. Cinna liked the long, smooth line of Finnick’s throat. Then the boy leaned right on the bar and said, “Heyo, Tyson… can I drink?”
Tyson leaned over the bar and held Finnick’s chin in one blue-dyed hand. He bent down and kissed Finnick Odair soundly on the lips. “You sure can, sugar. What do you want?”
Finnick smiled beatifically and looked over at Cinna. “What are you buying me?”
Cinna flushed again and shook his head. “I – I don’t – ” He shrugged helplessly. “I just get the cheapest thing.”
Finnick made a face. “Well, that’s no good. Tyson, give us two Golden Tridents and put it on my tab.” He winked at Cinna. “There’s your proof I can drink. They couldn’t well name one after me and not serve it to me, could they?” He hopped up on the barstool beside Cinna’s and leaned his elbow on the ice of the bar, staring up at Cinna with a little smile on his face. “That just wouldn’t be fair, would it?”
“Why are you talking to me?”
Cinna winced. It came out so much… younger than he’d intended.
Finnick smiled and reached out again, this time running his fingers along Cinna’s shoulder. It felt to Cinna like the touch burned through his shirt. “I can tell a District boy when I see one. Guess I felt a little homesick. Where you from, sailor?”
“Seven,” Cinna admitted quietly, looking down at his hands. “But I’ve been here a year.”
“Why’d you leave? I thought Seven was lovely on my Victory Tour. All those trees. All that snow. We don’t get any of that down in Four, you know. Until I visited Seven, the only Snow I’d ever seen was the President.” Finnick laughed a full, fruity laugh, low in his throat, and it made Cinna laugh with him, nervous and reedy and embarrassed.
“There wasn’t anything left for me there,” Cinna said. “I’m not exactly the ideal type for a lumberjack.”
“No, you’re much too pretty,” Finnick said smoothly with a wink as Tyson delivered two Golden Tridents, something pale yellow and fizzy in a big glass with a sugared rim and two shots in shades of syrupy gold alongside.
“Just drop ‘em in and drink up,” Finnick said. He grinned down the bar. “Thank you, Tyson.”
Tyson blew a blue-lipped kiss and Finnick tilted a shoulder coquettishly. Cinna poured the two shotglasses into his Collins glass and took a sip.
He spluttered. “That’s really sweet!”
Finnick shrugged around the rim of his own half-empty glass. “So who’d you leave behind in District Seven, mister artist? Anyone… special?”
Cinna looked down and shook his head again. “No. Just family.”
“Who’s in your family?” Finnick asked, sliding his empty glass back down the bar to Tyson and giving him a thumbs’ up for a refill.
“Four older brothers, little sister, mother and father, three sisters-in-law, nine nephews, six nieces, three dogs,” Cinna listed, looking down at the way the blue lights pulsing overhead made the sugar crystals on his glass shimmer.
Finnick nodded slowly, a hundred unreadable thoughts clouding his green eyes. Then the second Golden Trident came slaloming down the bar and Finnick brightened, dropping the two shots into the glass with little wet sounds like goldfish mouths.
“I’ve got that many cousins,” he said. “Lots of little bellies to fill.”
“I guess your family’s really proud of you, being a Victor,” Cinna said. He took another tentative sip of his Golden Trident, and the smell of cinnamon overwhelmed him.
Finnick shrugged easily, his lean, sharp shoulders loose with booze and self-confidence. “Is yours proud of you coming here to be a designer?”
“Well, I’m not a designer yet,” Cinna said evasively. He took another gulp of the fizzing golden drink.
The only person in his family who’d ever paid him much attention was Hannie, and she wasn’t speaking to him now. Not that he really had a way to contact her besides the slow District Mail, but she hadn’t returned any of his letters.
Yet. She hadn’t returned them yet. Cinna always hoped that she would answer, that she would move here with him once she turned nineteen, even though she’d said that she would never leave District Seven.
All the same, he understood her fury at his leaving. Cinna’s eighteenth year, Hannie’s best friend Rosamine had died in the Arena, flayed alive by badger-mutts at all of thirteen years old. That Cinna was moving to the Capitol – much less to find work dressing up those Games – was unforgivable in her eyes.
Cinna understood that. He did. But he could not, would not, live in that District anymore.
“Can’t you just not be gay?” Hannie had asked, her fingernails digging desperately into his forearm.
And Cinna had kissed the side of her head. “Can you just not be a girl? Or not be from District Seven? Or not be the ferning smartest girl Panem’s ever seen?”
Hannie’s brow lowered and hardened. She shrugged deeper into the recesses of her thick, red coat. “You’re no better than the footman.”
Finnick broke Cinna from his reverie with a stroking hand up Cinna’s thigh. “You wanna dance?”
Cinna blinked. “I – okay. Are you sure you want people to see – ” He broke off. It was different in places like the Capitol – that’s a sin city – or District Four – unavoidable with all those men out on those infernal boats. Of course Finnick Odair wouldn’t mind being seen with a man.
Finnick jumped down from his perch and held out a hand. He smiled warmly and Cinna noted that his face was still real; the smile rose a little higher on the left than the right, and he had the tiniest hint of a gap between his front teeth. There were pale freckles across the bridge of his nose. Cinna took hold of his hand and let Finnick Odair pull him onto the writhing dance floor full of lacy marshmallow-people and spinning blue lights.
Cinna quickly learned that ‘dancing’ with Finnick Odair was less dancing and more kissing up against the cold club wall, feeling the bass thumping through the floor and ice and his bones. Finnick was tall and lean in a way that suggested his bones had kept growing without permission from the rest of him, all over-large hands and feet and narrow, tapered hips. His skin was soft with Capitol treatments but he still had calluses on his hands – probably just to remind everyone that he wasn’t just a fancy club kid, he was a Victor and he was a fisherman’s son. He pushed Cinna up against the slick, cold wall and slipped a hot tongue into his mouth, kissing him fiercely.
Finnick pulled back to let Cinna gulp a breath. “What’s your name, anyway, sailor?”
Finnick sucked a little mark into the smooth skin under Cinna’s jaw. “Cinna from District Seven.” He ran one of those huge hands over the front of Cinna’s black pants and Cinna squawked, turning red. “You wanna go to my room, Cinna from District Seven?”
Cinna shook his head and grabbed Finnick’s wrist. “You’re fifteen. I shouldn’t – I should go, I can’t – ”
Finnick leaned up against him, holding him in place with his weight. “I may be fifteen, but you’re a virgin.” He smiled indulgently. “Have you even kissed a boy before?”
“Yes,” Cinna said shortly.
Finnick nuzzled his neck. “Did he break your heart?”
Finnick tutted once and leaned in again, pecking a sweet little kiss against Cinna’s lips. “I won’t ever break your heart.”
“I always feel like it’s rude to air this one so close to the Games,” he muttered, tucking his head under Cinna’s chin. On the huge screen across one of Finnick’s sea-green walls, the final three top Capitol chefs sweated and sautéed in a gleaming kitchen. The amount of food on the prep table behind them could have fed all of District Seven or Four for months. It always reminded Cinna of the massive deliveries of the tessera trains: bushels of flaxen grain and blush-pink fruit from Eleven, crawling shelled things from Four and glistening, fat red meat from Ten. Everything bore the yellow Inspection stickers from Nine.
The screen flashed and switched to Annika and Claudius Templesmith discussing the previous night’s entrées with President Snow. That anyone could complain about anything with that much food available was a part of the show’s draw for Cinna – the unfathomable ignorance of the Capitol and the President’s steadfast greed was like a logging accident, stomach-turning but fascinating and incomprehensible.
Cinna lazily ran his hand up and down Finnick’s spine, measuring vertebrae with his thumb. “It is almost the Reaping, isn’t it.”
Finnick nodded, reaching for the bag of powder on the end table without taking his eyes from the screaming red lobsters on the videoscreen. “Two weeks.” He paused. “Friday, I get to go home. I’m gonna be a Mentor this year.”
Cinna nodded, watching a brunoise of white garlic, purple-red Spanish onion, and bright yellow bell peppers smoke in oil on the screen. “That’s all right. I have exams and practicals for the next few weeks anyhow, to prepare for the Games.”
“Do you wanna do District Four?” Finnick asked, dipping his fingertips into the powder and licking it up. He offered a pink fingertip to Cinna and Cinna sucked it into his mouth, eyes watering at the bitter taste of the drug. He sighed and relaxed back against the sofa, feeling the tingling light swell slowly through his veins.
“I don’t really get to choose,” Cinna said. “We’re just shadowing this year, anyway. But my last practical went really well, so I might get a Career District anyhow.”
Finnick nodded, stretching out over Cinna in a way that made Cinna groan low in the back of his throat as Finnick’s cock smeared through the mess of come on their bellies. “Well, I hope you get a good District. You really – you get it, you know? What it’s like to be a District kid. None of the other designers get that.”
Cinna laughed softly. “Well, none of them have ever been outside the Capitol. How can anyone really design for something they’ve never seen?”
Finnick pulled himself up to sit astride Cinna’s hips again. “You see people better than most anyway, Cinna from District Seven.”
Cinna yawned and slid his hands up Finnick’s long, muscular thighs. “I’m tired.”
Finnick shook the little bag of pink powder.
Cinna shook his head. “No, thanks… just lie down.” He felt his face heat. “Cuddle with me.”
Finnick suddenly looked his fifteen years old. He smiled shyly, wonderfully lopsided, and settled back down against Cinna’s chest.
“You’re the only person who ever wants to cuddle with me,” he said thoughtfully, one hand trailing shapes over the slope of Cinna’s side.
“Well – I mean, we don’t have to…” Cinna said, trailing off. “I mean, if that’s not what you come here to – ”
“No,” Finnick said. “No, with you, it’s okay.”
Cinna kissed the top of Finnick’s head, tasting the salt of sweat and the sweet soapiness of Finnick’s soft hair. “Turn up the volume on the videoscreen.”
Finnick clicked buttons on the remote and turned to face the screen, nuzzling his jaw against Cinna’s chest before settling down against him with a suppressed yawn of his own. Cinna folded his arms around Finnick’s waist, wondering absently if Finnick should be so thin. Oh, well – that was the fad this year. Next season it would likely change and poundage and curves would be in style again, if this finale of The Flavor Games was any indication.
President Snow, the Templesmiths, and Rytz Escoffier were just finishing an entire quairtridge each, twice as big as a groosling and thrice as rare – a designated food of the Capitol; Cinna’s brother had caught one wild once and they had to turn it over to the Peacekeepers – glazed in something rich and red that shone and crackled against its pale meat, surrounded by pale, quivering amber pears and parsnips. President Snow lifted a forkful of vibrant greens and ribbons of translucent, pale red meat with a look of distaste, and both Finnick and Cinna shook their heads.
The next chef stepped towards the table nervously as Avoxes ushered plates in a riot of orange, scarlet, and freckled black flecks to the Gamemakers.
“I have made for you a salad of baby squid and tigerprawns with a beetroot-tomato coulis, cracked garlic, thyme, and aniseed, on a lemongrass brochette with an orange, vanillin, and clovamom glaze,” said a nervous-looking man with a pointed face like a rat. His skin was bright green and flowering with clusters of grafted herbs. He was grotesque. “I really wanted to capture all of the flavors and textures of District Four.”
Finnick snorted. “Why would you do all that nonsense to perfectly good squid? If he wanted to emulate District Four, he should’ve just pulled its insides out, cut off the beak, skinned it, and eaten it.”
Cinna pulled a face. “Squids have beaks? Wait do you – eat them raw?”
Finnick laughed and leaned down to mouth at Cinna’s shoulder. “You’re so cute with your naïvete, landlubber. What does a person eat in District Seven, then? Baked trees and snow soup?”
Cinna turned to catch Finnick’s lips in a clinging kiss. “Potatoes, mostly. But my sister makes a mean hasenpfeffer. Rabbit stew,” he explained.
Finnick pulled back with a look of anguish. “You eat rabbits?”
Cinna chuckled. “Rabbits are a lot less off-putting than live squid.”
Finnick bit his arm lightly. “They’re not still alive.” He paused. “You don’t talk about your family much. But when you do, it’s your sister.”
Cinna made a noncommittal noise and let his eyes fall shut. “She’s the only one I really miss. I’m hoping that she might – she’s smart enough for University, if she’d apply. I try to send her letters and drawings every week to show her what it’s like here, how much opportunity there is compared to Seven, so maybe she’ll consider it.”
“Does she know about you?” Finnick tangled his legs between Cinna’s just to make his point.
Cinna sighed. “In a place like Seven… I think someone like me stuck out in all the wrong ways. So everyone suspected, but Hannie was the only one who really knew for certain. We used to be close. When she was a little girl.”
Finnick clicked buttons again and the volume lowered to a soft hum in the background, scarcely more than a gentle electric chirping. “I don’t have any brothers or sisters. But a couple of my cousins are close to my age. We have a fishing boat together.” He smiled sleepily. “It’s got striped sails.”
Cinna ruffled the fine hair at the nape of Finnick’s neck. “I learned to draw so I could make books for Hannie.” He smiled sadly. “Faerytales.”
“What’s a faerytale?”
Cinna pressed his lips to the top of Finnick’s head again. “Don’t you have faerytales in District Four?” He sighed. “They’re old stories. Older than the Dark Days. I think they might even come from the Other Countries.”
“There are no Other Countries,” Finnick muttered, drawing a five-pointed star shape over Cinna’s ribs with his fingertips.
“I don’t know,” Cinna said. “There are words in every District that don’t exist anywhere else, and they had to come from somewhere, don’t you think? But the faerytales are like… they’re just stories for little kids. About magic and monsters and lessons, I guess. I would draw them for her and we would read them every night while she fell asleep.” He smiled. “I left them all with her. I hope she kept them.”
“We have stories like that,” Finnick said. “They’re not called faerytales, though. We call them myths.”
“I used to pretend to be the faery in Cinderella, since my name’s so similar,” Cinna said, laughing a little sadly. “I think that’s when Hannie figured me out. You know… eight year old boy in a dress probably said something.”
“I don’t know Cinderella,” Finnick yawned. “We have stories like Hercules and Orpheus and Persephone and like that. They’re sailing stories. All the old men tell them out on the boats and everyone knows that there are the myths that are true, like Amphitrite and Calypso, and the ones that are for kids, like naiads and mermaids.”
“I don’t know those,” Cinna murmured. “In Seven, all of the stories are just for kids. We tell them to children and then… we all just stop talking as we get older. But I don’t like that. I don’t like the silence, it… it keeps things from changing. I want to change things, you know? I want to keep telling stories.”
“Tell me a story,” Finnick muttered, warm into Cinna’s neck. “A faerytale.”
Cinna hummed thoughtfully and nuzzled Finnick’s bronze hair, thinking. “They don’t have very happy endings.”
“Nothing does,” Finnick murmured, almost completely asleep over Cinna’s heart.
“Stunning, you bitch,” tutted Portia, a pretty black-haired girl in his class, with a grin as she elbowed him in the side backstage at the exam, “I don’t know where you get it.”
Cinna smiled bashfully. “Thanks for the tip about the aluminate.”
Portia nodded. “I hope we get the same District. Brabantio always prefers your designs over ours.”
“‘Yours’ who?” Cinna whispered, peeking around the curtain as his model stomped his way back up the runway.
“The girls,” Portia muttered. “Brabantio always promotes men to Designer over women, hadn’t you noticed?”
“You’ll get Designer,” Cinna whispered back absently as his silver dragon reappeared behind the curtain, beaming. Cinna noticed a drip of aluminate along the back of the dragon’s knee and quickly grabbed his brushes to touch up the effect. “Your Five is brilliant.”
Portia rolled her eyes. “It’s not hard to think to make chainmail in the shape of chemical formulas. It’s been done for Five six times in the past.”
Cinna looked up with a quirked eyebrow. “But you’re the first to model real formulas, and the first to make the whole thing glow.”
Portia pretended not to look too self-satisfied as she nudged Cinna’s shoulder with the toe of her boot. “Yeah, I knew I should have kept the light effects to myself.”
Cinna blew on the drying aluminate glaze and stood. “Why didn’t you?”
Portia shrugged. She looked down at her shoes – ultra-high green box toes with thin heels like daggers and stripes of silver feathers along the sides; Cinna could tell she’d made them herself with the way the stitching looped like quiltwork – and glanced back up at him through her tiered lashes. “Do you want to want to go to Capital after the show? I’ve got – I have two tickets for upscreen seats for the Reaping.”
“Sure,” Cinna said, checking the aluminate quickly under the dim light of the curtains. Then he looked up. “Oh, you don’t mean – oh. Portia, I’d love to go with you… as a friend. And a colleague. But – ”
Portia waved her hand. “No, don’t – I feel silly, I should have…” she laughed. “God, this is the fourth time that’s happened to me. I should start listening to Venia.”
“Well, don’t do that,” Cinna joked, touching her shoulder. “Listening to Venia… that’s just taking things too far.”
Portia smiled back and nodded as the model of Four, wearing a gauzy blue mess – Cloisette’s admittance was pure nepotism, what with her last name being Messalla, Cinna thought bitterly. She paused. “Are you – you have a boyfriend, then? You know for sure?”
Cinna shrugged a shoulder and his face got red and hot. “I don’t know whether he’d agree he’s a boyfriend, but… yeah, I’m sure.”
“Are they in our class?”
“No,” Cinna said. He glanced over his shoulder and cupped a hand over her ear. “Finnick Odair.”
“Shut up!” hissed Portia, grabbing his elbow. “He’s a fetus, Cinna.”
“He’s not a fetus,” Cinna argued. “He’s a Victor. And he’s – he’s a lot more than that. He’s interesting.”
“I thought he was seeing Atala,” Portia said thoughtfully. “She’s always going to District Fourteen in the mornings to see him.”
Cinna tried to ignore the hard-rolling thump of his heart stuttering. “I don’t know. He’s with me most nights. That’s all I know about it. We’ve never, you know, talked about it or anything. But he’s got his own room at District Fourteen, so… I’m not in charge of him,” Cinna said with a thin laugh. “He can do whoever he wants, I guess.”
“And so could you,” Portia clarified. “You just don’t want to do me?”
“I’m sorry,” Cinna said, wincing. “If it makes you feel better, I wish I did.”
Portia shrugged comically. “It kind of does.”
And she turned to her model covered in biohazard compounds and began to break tiny glass tubes, making the phenyl oxalate and hydrogen peroxide bleed into rhodamine-B and glow a violent bright red that burned the webs behind Cinna’s eyelids and made him think of a fire.
As her model stepped into the glowing red heels and stomped out past the curtain, Cinna held out his hand for Portia to slap. He pulled her in for a hug, and noticed that her hair smelled like sweet maple and bitter pine.
Capital was a different sort of club than District Fourteen. There were no private rooms, for one thing, and it was always broiling hot inside with the crush of bodies crowding the all-access dance floor. Where District Fourteen had four curved walls of polished ice and would be broadcasting the Reaping in panorama tonight, Capital had just one screen suspended from the ceiling. Its walls were scalloped silver and the bar was a long, twisted trough with live golden turtles swimming inside. The music was crushingly loud on a good day; today, the announcements of the pre-Games show were so resonant that it hurt Cinna’s teeth.
“I’ll get drinks,” Portia yelled in his ear. “We’re in the third terrace, I’ll find you!”
Cinna clambered into one of the trellised silver lifts. Annika Templesmith pressed in beside him. Her ample bosom crushed against Cinna’s shoulder and his nose filled with a talcum and rose scent that made him dearly want to sneeze.
“I know you,” Annika said sharply, looking up at him. “You always take Finnick’s nights until after-hours.”
Cinna opened and shut his mouth. He watched Annika on television; had seen her in the newspapers with her husband, wearing Brabantio originals; had seen her emerge from Finnick’s private room on shaking legs. “I guess so.”
She raised a needle-thin orange eyebrow. “You’re Cinna the design student, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” Cinna frowned.
The lift doors opened on the first terrace and Annika hustled her way out. She turned and smiled a wolf’s smile, all orange lips and diamond-veneered teeth. “So nice to make your acquaintance, Cinna from District Seven.”
Cinna caught a glimpse of the pure white terrace beyond the lift doors, filled with a colorful stick-thin menagerie of Very Important People lifting glasses of champagne, and the bearded, plump-lipped silhouette of President Snow standing in the thick of it, watching the lift doors close.
For the rest of the ride up to the third terrace, Cinna felt like something with suckers and tentacles and too many legs was crawling its way up his spine.
The third terrace was painted a matte pewter-gray, filled with rows of simple black stadium seating. Portia had gotten tickets for the third row, and Cinna squeezed his way past twenty knees and settled into his own seat, laying his black suede coat over the seat beside it for Portia. He curled his knees up under him like beech tree roots and pulled his sketchpad out of his bag, sketching the slope of Finnick’s back in long, sharp-cut lines.
“And we’re down to thirty minutes before the start of the 66TH Reaping Ceremonies,” bubbled Claudius Templesmith on the huge, hanging screen. “We’re about to tune in live with Liddy Frippery over in District One; how are you, Liddy?”
The skeletal woman in a towering blue wig and yellow-dyed skin grinned widely and Cinna grimaced; she looked like she was falling apart. “The weather in District One is just fine today and so am I! We have an excited crop of eligible youngsters coming up this year, Claudius. I’m very excited.”
“Have you met with any of the final selections yet, Liddy?”
“No, but Gloss and Cashmere assure me that Frill’s victory last year was a real booster for the this year’s eligible boys and girls and that District One is turning out patriots stronger than ever,” the talking skeleton said.
“Yes, we’ll be talking with Cashmere after the ceremonies,” simpered Claudius Templesmith. “We’re at fifteen minutes on the countdown clock for the 66TH Reaping Ceremonies, for those of you just tuning in…”
“Hey,” Portia said, pushing a crackling pink drink into Cinna’s hands and swiping her black bangs off her face. “It’s a madhouse in here.”
“It is,” Cinna agreed. “How’d you get tickets, anyway?”
Portia took a sip of her own pink drink and shrugged, settling into the seat beside Cinna and toeing off her stiletto shoes. “Professor Brabantio gave them to me… he overheard me and Venia talking and he just offered them. So, I took them. It was kind of weird.”
Cinna frowned. So nice to make your acquaintance, Cinna from District Seven. “That is weird.”
Portia settled back against her seat with a sigh as the lights dimmed. “So tomorrow we find out which of these kids we’ll be learning how to dress.” She raised her glass to Cinna and he clinked his drink against hers. “May the odds ever be in our favor.”
The swelling, drumbeat theme song for The Hunger Games blared across the screen and a great cheer rang out in Capital. Cinna shivered. The Panem flag unfurled across the huge, hanging screen and Claudius Templesmith intoned the annual introduction, the history of the Games, as a gruesome actor-montage of the Crimes of the Districts and the Annihilation of District Thirteen played out. The cameras cut seamlessly to the pink-veined white marble square of District One, and Liddy Frippery’s bones announced the names of two small children, overtaken quickly by the final Volunteers, a huge sixteen-year-old boy with icy blond hair to his waist and an obscenely curvaceous eighteen-year-old girl with a menacing scar down the side of her face.
“It’s the same every year,” Portia muttered in Cinna’s ear as Claudius, Liddy, and Cashmere Bibelot talked about gamblers’ odds and training diets. “We don’t even need to see the Tributes to know how to design for them.”
Cinna nodded, already zoning out as he started sketching a stacked pyramidal pantsuit that followed the spidering pattern of the pink veins in District One’s marble. The Reaping episode was almost six hours long, Cinna had learned last year when he was finally on the Capitol end of it, and Portia was right – it wasn’t any different this year than it had been last year.
“It’s your boyfriend,” Portia sang in his ear, elbowing him, when District Four’s Tributes had been chosen and Finnick’s face filled the screen. There were catcalls and swoons all over Capital as the camera panned, low and slow, down the length of Finnick’s toned body.
Cinna blushed. “Like I said, I don’t know if he’d call it that.”
His charcoal found paper, and he drew Finnick’s face as it had looked when he fell asleep listening to the story of Cinderella; curls askew and lips soft, lashes long and fluttering as he dreamed.
“And we’re live from District Seven,” announced Claudius Templesmith. Cinna’s head jerked up reflexively and his stomach felt sour with the sight of District Seven’s square covered in fresh snow. It covered up the mire of being the place where Miss Honey was hanged or where Yew was beaten or where Cinna had gotten his very first kiss, pressed up against the shadowed wall of the schoolhouse.
“We’ll be speaking with District Seven’s only living Victor, Blight Baecker, after the Ceremonies. And we’re turning it over to you, Tinsel.”
“Thank you, Claudius,” said Tinsel Garnish graciously. Cinna had to suppress the shudder that ran through him at the sight of her; she was fairly benign in appearance, as far as escorts went, but as long as he lived, he would never forget the fear she had inspired in him as he shivered in the boys’ pen every year.
He scanned the crowds in the pens and his eyes alighted on all of his nieces and nephews looking so much older than they had when he left. Henry had a little ugly dirt-smudge mustache now and was stroking it pensively. Cinna had to stifle his smile. Henry had always been such a clown.
The male Tribute was the younger cousin of Anna Irons, and Cinna tried not to feel some vindication as he trembled his way to the stage in his heavy green coat with its sleeves too short. He was missing three fingers on his left hand and walked with a limp, and Cinna wondered where it was chronic or if the accident had been recent.
“And lovely ladies, it’s your turn!” said Tinsel with a heart-shaped purple smile. She reached into the glass ball. “District Seven, your female Tribute for the 66TH Hunger Games is Johanna Mason!”
Cinna dropped his glass and it shattered into pieces on the hard black floor of the third terrace.
Johanna stepped out of the girls’ pen with her head down, long brown hair catching the breeze and floating like wings around her bright red coat. She wrapped held her own hands tight behind her back and walked to the stage with white knuckles.
Cinna pressed his hands over his mouth and felt the bright victory of his performance at the afternoon’s practical and the encounter in the elevator with Annika Templesmith and the electric soft hum of Finnick’s room and Thiebaud Brabantio offering these tickets to Portia and the sickly alcoholic-sweet taste of the pink drink all come rushing up his throat.
“What?” Portia asked, touching his arm. “Cinna, are you okay?”
He shook his head and leaned over the railing, showering the crowd below with sticky pink sick. He looked back up to Portia’s huge, concerned eyes framed in those tiered lashes.
“That’s my little sister.”
“How is it your fault?”
“I book up all my time in the clubs with you and then I don’t have to take clients. It’s a warning.” Finnick leaned close to the table and took in lines of the bright pink candycaine. He looked up at Cinna with huge eyes full of tears. “I am so, so sorry Cinna. I never meant for anything bad to happen.” Finnick looked down at his bare knees sticking out from that opalescent swath of netting. His hands shook as he cut another line on the tabletop. “I never meant for anything bad to happen.”
Cinna snatched the card out of Finnick’s hand and threw it across the room before swiping his hand over the pink powder, ruining Finnick’s meticulous effort and making the younger boy whimper.
The first thing Cinna had done when the Tributes and Mentors arrived in the Capitol was try to get an audience with Johanna, but since he was shadowing for Four, he wasn’t allowed. He tried to get in touch with Blight, and Peacekeepers had shown up at his doorstep and told him that he wasn’t to interfere with the Tributes or Mentors of any District that was not under his purview.
So he returned to District Fourteen and waited for Finnick.
Cinna collapsed onto the black sofa beside him. “What do you mean… clients?”
Finnick covered his face with his hands and shook his head. Cinna grabbed his shoulder.
“What do you mean, clients?”
Finnick reached across Cinna’s lap for Cinna’s bag and pulled out the sketchpad and a stick of charcoal. He tossed through pages until he found a blank sheet and wrote, in cramped, square, undereducated letters,
President Snow threatened my family if I didn’t.
“Didn’t what?” hissed Cinna, taking his hand off Finnick’s skin.
The Gamemakers. Their wives. Their friends.
Cinna pulled back. “You’re a whore?”
Finnick’s face looked fierce and it rolled over Cinna, even in his anger, that this was still the boy who at fourteen years old had killed seven children with his own hands and his own gleaming weapon.
I am NOT a whore. Finnick wrote, underlining the words so dark that the charcoal shattered into fine black powder that stained his fingers. I’m a slave.
Cinna’s eyes closed and he fell back against the soft back of the sofa. They were quiet for a long time, except for the ever-present soft electric hum in the background airspace of Finnick’s room, and the soft hiccupping breaths that Finnick tried to hide.
“Do you even like men?” Cinna asked finally, his voice breaking. He only had the energy to open one eye and turn his head to look over at where Finnick had curled his arms around himself like he could wear his limbs as clothing.
Finnick’s young green eyes were wide and desperate and he opened his mouth once, twice, shrugging and shaking his head and Cinna closed his eyes again, defeated to the bones and – “I like you,” Finnick said shakily. “I don’t even know what I like yet. But I like you.”
One of his huge, callused hands tentatively ran up Cinna’s arm. Cinna opened his eyes and looked back at Finnick again, pushing back the hot, pricking feeling in his eyes, burying it deep.
“I like you,” Finnick repeated. He pressed his face against the side of Cinna’s shoulder and squeezed his hands. “I picked you, Cinna. You’re the only one I’ve ever gotten to choose.”
Cinna looked down just as Finnick looked up, and everything was fast – too fast – when Cinna’s lips crashed down onto Finnick’s, pushing the younger boy down flat on his back on the sofa, hips colliding and long thighs tangled. This time, it was Cinna’s lips that pulled and sucked and spelled that they knew what they were doing, and Finnick was the lost one. He dragged his mouth over the wing of Finnick’s hipbone as gold netting unknotted and slipped to the floor and Finnick pushed his fingers through Cinna’s hair, trying to lead his head –
“No,” Cinna said, already crawling back up Finnick’s body, lips and bottom teeth trailing and catching at bronze skin and flat nipples. “This time I get to choose, Finnick. You’re the only thing I’ve ever chosen, either.”
Cinna Mason would never forget the first night he lay beneath Finnick Odair on the same black sofa in the same room, walls of carved and shaded iridescent ice just barely mirroring everything and just barely showing the dance floor beyond as nothing more than a delicate glow of alien light, the silence of the ice and the ebb and flow of Finnick’s soothing voice just barely masking that infernal, incessant electric hum from behind the walls of Finnick’s room. He was scared and shaky and a little bit drunk and it hurt and Finnick had kissed him, sloppy and wet, just behind his ear and said, thank you. Since that night, only three times had Finnick been the one spread out below Cinna, mouthing at his shoulder and legs wrapped up tight around Cinna’s ribs.
“Why me?” panted Cinna against the side of Finnick Odair’s face. “Why did you have to pick me?”
Finnick looked up at Cinna with pupils that rolled like dice. “You don’t hurt me. Not ever. You’re so polite about everything. You’re a good District boy. I like that.”
Cinna crushed his mouth against Finnick’s lips. It could barely be considered a kiss – more teeth clicking together and wet-licking tongues. Cinna bit Finnick’s lip and tugged, and Finnick mewled and rolled them, holding Cinna’s shoulders down to the black suede of the soda as he slid back down onto him. Cinna’s eyes snapped shut as his hands found Finnick’s skinny, powerful hips.
After, Finnick held Cinna close, clutching him as though he thought that if Cinna left now, he might never come back.
“I am a District boy,” Cinna whispered finally, into the inches of space between his mouth and Finnick’s chest. “You didn’t think about that at all.”
Cinna didn’t speak to them as he measured and tapered and took in their hems on designs that weren’t his, and tried to keep an upbeat smile as he washed their hair and waxed their legs and underarms and patted the boy’s hand consolingly when his eyes watered at the sharp, stinging depilatory cream that would keep his face smooth until he died – even if he was crowned Victor and lived another fifty years.
Portia, he knew, was the opposite. She’d been assigned to Two, to her delight, and regaled Cinna joyously about how funny and flirtatious the boy, Ajax, was during his prep sessions, and how her girl was just the perfect human canvas.
Cinna nodded. He remembered them from the Reaping episode – both were stunning, older, confident. Enormous. Strong. Well-fed.
Either could easily kill Johanna.
“I’m so jealous you get to piece for Hemant, though,” Portia sighed, swirling her finger in the bottom of her pink drink at Capital the night the Training Scores would be announced for the twenty-four Tributes. “Her Opening Ceremonies designs are so intimidating.”
“Shut up,” groused Cinna, almost good-natured. “You’ve got Massaro, that’s one step down from Brabantio himself. You outpaced me and you know it. You… are… fishing.” He smiled at Portia best as he could and punctuated his last three words with little taps to her nose.
“I’m not fishing!” Portia smiled and dribbled more pink drink into her mouth. He looked up at Cinna from beneath her chandelier eyelashes. “Orlando asked me out for Saturday night.”
Cinna smiled and nudged her shoulder with his own. “Congratulations… he’s a catch.” He nodded encouragingly when Portia looked up. “Really. That’s good.”
Portia nodded and turned her glass over in her hands. “And you’re sure you really want Finnick? Even though – ”
“It’s not his fault,” Cinna said, his throat tight with guilt. “It isn’t, Portia. He didn’t do anything wrong.”
“But he’s teaching his Tributes how to kill your sister,” Portia whispered, glancing over her shoulder.
Cinna swallowed and exhaled through his nose. He forced a tight-lipped smile onto his face. “Yeah, but Blight Baecker’s teaching her how to kill my Fours right back. And have you seen Blight? Three times bigger than Finnick.”
Portia snorted. “He’s three times wider. I don’t know if that’s necessarily great.”
Cinder raised an eyebrow. “I have faith in my sister. And I have faith in Finnick.” He sighed again.
The lights dimmed as Portia squeezed Cinna’s forearm and rested her head against his shoulder, and the jubilant theme song of The Hunger Games made a rippling roar go up around Capital, the noise ricocheting in waves as it rose up from the general admission through the First Terrace, Second, and up to Cinna and Portia in the Third.
The stunning Tributes from One cheered and preened and earned kisses on the face from gorgeous Cashmere as they placed two 9’s. Portia let out a whoop when Ajax was called 10 and his pretty, auburn-haired partner an 8.
Finnick applauded luxuriantly from his shell-shaped lounge as Boy Four scored an 8 and Girl Four a 7. He had the slightest wisp of seafoam green froth bunched at the apex of his thighs. If he shifted an inch, it would be indecent.
“Is it even exciting to get him naked?” Portia asked Cinna dryly under her breath. “I mean, you don’t even get to see anything the rest of us don’t.”
Cinna’s cheeks stained red. “Portia!”
“What?” She shrugged innocently. “It’s true! If I tilt my head like this – ” she demonstrated – “I can definitely see a little bit of little bits.”
“You cannot,” Cinna squawked, shoving her shoulder.
“Okay,” Portia acquiesced, holding up her hands in a truce. Only once Cinna had a mouthful of his own pink drink did Portia lean over and whisper, “little bits” wetly in his ear.
He snorted alcohol up his nose and Portia snickered and Cinna coughed and spluttered and let out a nervous giggle when he’d finally swallowed, too.
But the laugh died out when Blight Baecker’s face fell as Granit Irons scored a 6. At least he looked tall and imposing in his forest-green suit with its high winged collars, and to pull a 6 with only seven fingers and one good leg? He must have some serious power. Somewhere, a Sponsor who liked long odds would choose Seven, as long as –
But standing beside Granit, half-hidden by his shoulder, the female Tribute from District Seven looked small and bewildered. Hannie was a fée wood nymph in her green dress, long brown hair teased into unnaturally thick curls around her face. She couldn’t hurt a fly.
It wasn’t the girl that Cinna remembered butchering rabbits in the snow-covered yard or hauling wood on the skidroad from the time she was six. But surely that strength was still there, her score would be seen independent from Granit; Cinna could talk her up with Tyson and the word would spread through District Fourteen and she would be fine, Cinna could fix this as long as she scored –
Johanna Mason: 2.
“I figured,” assured Cinna softly, his hands running circuits over Finnick’s back. “Not with a 2.”
“Her interviews, too…” Finnick trailed off. “Is she – you know. Is she simple?”
“No,” Cinna said steadily. “No. She’s the smartest girl in Panem. I don’t understand it.”
Finnick’s brow furrowed and he was silent, pensive, as his hips moved faster until Cinna whimpered once, softly, fingers tightening into Finnick’s smooth skin.
“The Games do funny things to people,” Finnick said thoughtfully, lips brushing Cinna’s cheek gently. An apology. “No one’s the same person once they’re Reaped. It takes your soul.”
“You have a soul,” Cinna offered, his eyes closed, fingers smoothing through the soft, wild halo of Finnick’s hair.
“It’s broken,” Finnick said shortly, lightly. “There are pieces of me in District Four, and pieces of me in the Arena, and pieces of me here. And pieces missing.” He rested his chin on Cinna’s sternum and looked down at him so intently that Cinna opened his eyes, meeting Finnick’s solemn, huge-pupiled green gaze. He didn’t say a word.
“What?” Cinna asked finally, rubbing a hand over the small of Finnick’s back, measuring the dimples at its base with his thumb.
“Nothing,” Finnick said, resting his ear over Cinna’s chest. “There’s nothing.”
A little while later, Cinna sighed heavily. “You think there are pieces missing from my sister.”
Finnick didn’t look up. “I think… I think you should be prepared for her not to be your sister in the Arena. And… I think… that might make it easier. I think – I think your sister’s already dead.”
Cinna swallowed and closed his eyes. “Stop trying to prove you don’t have a soul, Finnick.”
“I’m not,” Finnick whispered. “I’m just trying to help you keep yours.”
Cinna bent to kiss the top of Finnick’s head. “I think my sister would say it’s already gone, since I chose to be a part of the Games. You’ve got that over me, Finnick. You didn’t want to be a part of this. I did.”
Hours later, Cinna woke up to a brush of cold air and the sounds of Finnick moving around in the dark. He rubbed his eyes sleepily, confused, before he realized just why Finnick looked so strange –
“You’re wearing clothes,” Cinna yawned, thumbing at his eyes.
Finnick looked up from his perch by the icy window, staring out at the bright Capitol night. He wrapped the cuffs of Cinna’s plain black sleeves around his hands and nodded. “Sorry. I just – it’s so cold here. Your shirt looked warm. Well,” he laughed wryly, “It looked warmer than my tulle thong.”
“Go ahead and wear it,” Cinna yawned, rolling over and tucking his face into his elbow.
“I told our Tributes to ally with your sister,” Finnick said suddenly, his voice too loud in the night. “I told them not to kill her.”
Cinna looked up, taking in Finnick looking so much younger than usual and swimming in Cinna’s black shirt.
“Did you talk to Blight?”
Finnick shook his head.
Cinna gnawed at the inside of his cheek. “I guess it doesn’t matter. Not when she got a 2.”
During the bloodbath of the Cornucopia, ten Tributes die. The Arena was a forest not unlike Seven, but Seven in a dream world – the Seven of faerytales: day and night lasting only a few hours each, the moon ever-changing as the nights rose and fell, trees all black-fingered curved spindles with sharp spikes like porcupine spines, the floor littered with colored trails that vexed the Tributes who chose to flee the carnage… to follow the path, or to stray?
Johanna Mason curled into a little ball on the ground a few inches from where her plate receded into the ground, covering her ears and eyes until the Cornucopia fell silent. She shook so hard she could barely walk as she delicately plucked a yellow backpack from the cadaver of Girl Three, peered inside, and limped off into the topsy-turvy forest.
Barely into the copse of spired trees, Johanna Mason, the simple Tribute from District Seven, sat down in the leaves near a stump. She dug through the dirt, pulling up the heavy pink stones and blue bricks that built one of the Gamemakers’ paths, and arranged them fancifully in a pyramid, smiling and humming softly all the while.
Back at District Fourteen, Cinna Mason stared with a contemplative look on his face.
Finnick wrapped his arms around Cinna’s waist and kissed the expanse of skin between Cinna’s shoulders. “I’m sorry. I told you… the Games do funny things to people.”
“Are the backpacks empty?” Cinna asked.
Finnick shook his head, soft hair tickling the back of Cinna’s neck. “No, they have some supplies in them, usually. Sometimes a weapon, if that Three girl got to the horn before she went down.”
Cinna nodded and turned in Finnick’s embrace. He kissed the younger boy’s forehead.
The next morning, Boy Eleven was missing. There had been no cannon in the night, but when the cameras panned over to follow him – he seemed to be hiding in a tree – there was only a squirrel mutt with strange, sharp little fangs. It chattered at the camera and scampered away.
Four of the pink stones were missing from Johanna Mason’s pyramid.
She had mysterious bloodstains all down her arm, but had fashioned a tourniquet from the huge, softly silver leaves that drooped from the trees. Johanna Mason, the simple Tribute from District Seven, was still alive.
Four days into the Games, Girl Four desperately needed a tetanus shot, and somewhere in the Capitol, a fat purse needed a night-long dose of Finnick Odair. Cinna ate dinner alone in his small apartment just around the corner from the design school, and kept the volume low on the videoscreen as he dipped bits of eggy bread into simple cabbage soup – something sad and nostalgic of Seven; the Games were doing funny things to him that night.
There had been three more unexplained, cannon-less disappearances. All of the Tributes’ tracker signals were still moving around the Arena, but the cameras couldn’t seem to find them. Seven Tributes were still alive, Johanna Mason among them. Aside from the tourniquet around her arm – high up near her shoulder on the meat of her tricep – she was sporting a bruise on her cheek and a split lip. But the cameras hadn’t indicated her brawling with any fellow Tributes. Claudius had even taken to a steady stream of jokes about Johanna Mason, the first Tribute from District Seven who runs into trees. She was a laughingstock. The comedic relief of the 66TH Hunger Games.
No one was laughing when Ajax from District Two, smiling a cheeky, bright smile, sliced Granit Irons in half – lengthwise – with a katana. Simple Johanna Mason cowered beside him, splashed with thick red blood.
She covered her eyes when Ajax turned to her, twirling his katana like a dance-hall cane.
“You wouldn’t even count as a kill,” he laughed, nudging at Johanna’s chin with the toe of his boot. “You don’t even count as a person.”
Johanna didn’t say a word.
Ajax chuckled dismissively, sheathing the katana and turning to retreat into the forest as a bright full moon rose overhead. “Criminy, I can feel my Sponsorship going down just standing by you.”
When he was gone, Johanna raised her head. She closed Granit’s left eye, then turned and crawled the few feet over to close his right eye. Then she looked up, right at the cameras, and unzipped her yellow backpack, tucking some blood-spattered white stones from the gap between Granit’s halves into the satchel.
The tea kettle whistled and Cinna started, shaking his head as though to clear his ears of water before he poured himself a cup. He drank in the sweet-scented steam as he waited for the amber liquid to steep.
Once upon a time, there was a little hamlet tucked along the side of a great woods. It was a happy place, full of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, and they were all woodcutters. Every family had enough to eat because the hamlet had built good, bright paths through the wood, and on these paths people could travel, and with them grains and wool and goats and cattle, back to the village.
Then one day, a horrible witch and her two horrible fat children – a boy and a girl – moved into a house outside the village, set far away from the paths. It was a strange house, high in the hair on tall animal legs. Every day, the fat children would roll off the porch and come down to the village to steal from the happy people. They never walked on the paths, and the woods were endlessly dark and deep and full of hiding places for the wicked children, so there was no way the villagers knew to stop them.
One day, the horrible witch’s children stole a family’s very last goat. The family had their own children, a brother and a sister, who were so angry that they took up their axes and hacked the witch’s children to pieces. When they realized what they had done, they were frightened and hid the pieces in the woods, far away from the path.
When night fell, the witch realized that her children had not returned home. This would not have bothered her much, because she had no love in her heart, but without her children, she had no one to bring her food stolen from the village, and she was very angry. She flew off her porch and wandered the woods, far off the path, until she found the pieces of her children. She decided to punish the happy village for killing her children and depriving her of goods.
She brought the pieces back to her house in the forest and used her terrible magic to reassemble their bodies. But their legs would not work. So she built her house into a fortress that blocked off the path completely, and took those animal legs and attached them to her children, and they were wolf-muttations.
The next night, when the villagers were celebrating the first day that they had not had thievery, she sent the wolf-muttations through the forest. When they reached the hamlet, they killed the brother and sister who had killed them, and they told the villagers that from then on, they could only get grains and wool and goats and cattle by sending one boy and one girl every month to the fortress. If they could survive the forest and its dangers, they could bring back riches for the village.
And so it went for many years after: month after month, a boy and a girl were sent into the forest to bring staples back to the village, and month after month, the witch had her big, bad, wolf-muttations kill them all. The once-happy hamlet grew mean and cold, and the people all began to starve. This made them turn against each other, and delight in sending the others’ children off to the woods.
Then, one full moon, it was the occasion for the smartest, prettiest girl in the hamlet to be sent to the woods. She was well-loved by her family, who had made her a bright red cloak to wear on cold winter nights. It suited her so nicely that everyone only called her Little Red Cloak. It was a very cold night, this full moon, and she put on her red cloak to stay warm.
‘Remember, dear Little Red Cloak,’ said her mother, fastening the cloak beneath the girl’s chin, ‘Do not stray from the path. That is your best chance to make it to the castle and bring us back some grain.’
And she handed her daughter a little basket.
‘Don’t worry about me, mama,’ said Little Red Cloak. ‘I’ll come back.’
“Good girl, Hannie,” Cinna whispered into the pure velvet-dark silence of his own little apartment, the only light coming from his sister’s face reflecting on the little videoscreen humming softly on the wall.
“Cinna,” called a pitiful little voice outside the door. “Cinna – ”
He sat up and winced at the crick in his neck, rolling his shoulders. “I’m coming.”
Cinna opened the door and Portia, her black hair all askew and limp with grease, collapsed into his arms.
“I can’t do this,” she whispered, sounding like her voice had broken apart somewhere inside her chest and only the smallest shards were able to make it out into the air. “Cinna, I can’t do this. Those are – I met those kids, I’m – I can’t do this.”
Cinna held her up and kicked the door shut before half-dragging her over to the little sofa. “Sit.”
Portia sat, her head in her hands, digging her thumbs into her temples. Cinna knelt and started to unlace her high, winged, glass-and-chrome boots.
“I didn’t realize what it meant when I told him – I told him I hoped he won,” Portia whispered, resting her pale forehead against her thin knees. “I didn’t know what that meant.”
Cinna rubbed the back of her calf. “You couldn’t know. You were born in the Capitol.” He brushed her limp bangs back from her forehead. “Portia, it’s not your fault.”
“It is, Cinna. It’s all of our faults.” She breathed out shakily and Cinna lifted one of her hands, gently pressing rolling circles into the fleshy, Capitol-smooth muscle between her thumb and index finger. “I have such a headache.”
“I know,” Cinna said, still massaging her hand. “I’ve had a headache for weeks.”
They were silent for a long time. Cinna kissed Portia’s fingers.
“I don’t know how you let him touch you,” she whispered. “Knowing what he’s done.”
Cinna breathed in deep through his nose and kissed her hand again. “Worse has been done to him.”
“Your sister is in there,” Portia said, turning her head to look at Cinna with one lashless eye. “Do you want her to win?”
So Little Red Cloak set off for the forest with her basket. The boy being sent to the castle stuck to the path and tried to convince Little Red Cloak to follow alongside him, but she smiled and refused, saying that she preferred to walk alone.
Little Red Cloak stepped off the path.
He thought about Finnick, fifteen years old and slamming back drinks in District Fourteen. He thought about Ajax slicing Granit Irons in half. He thought of Johanna piling small rocks by that ash stump, and how five Tributes had gone missing between last night’s and tonight’s ending montages.
“No,” Cinna whispered, his lips barely resting on Portia’s skin. “I don’t want her to win. But I don’t want to watch her to lose.” He laughed hollowly. “I’m stuck. We’re all stuck.”
The next day, Finnick’s red light was on when Cinna arrived at District Fourteen, exhausted and skirting the edge of rage from staying awake with hysterical Portia all night. He forced her to skip her design team meetings in the morning. She didn’t need to spend the day drawing gladiatorial victory tour outfits for Ajax to wear as he lorded over the parents of his victims. Instead, Cinna took Portia to breakfast, sat her at the only table not facing a videoscreen, and spent more than he could afford on a student’s stipend to let her order whatever she wanted.
“You’re a good date,” Portia laughed sadly, pushing a forkful of runny eggs with sweet vanilla hollandaise across her plate. “Better than Orlando. Just so you know.”
“I don’t doubt that,” Cinna said, winking. He nibbled at a slice of toast, wondering why Capitol bread had to be so white and fluffy and flavorless. He missed the heavy, dark, eggy black bread of District Seven. “I’m very polite, being a District boy. Or so I’ve been told.”
“Ugh, did Finnick tell you that?” Portia wrinkled her nose. “What a line.”
“It’s not a line,” argued Cinna. “I am very polite. Note that I stayed awake with you all night, did not try any funny business, and will still be paying for your very expensive breakfast.”
Portia dipped a sausage into her egg yolk. “True. But considering I think it’d be all over the headlines if Finnick Odair was spotted out for breakfast with a lowly design student, I would guess that his idea of your manners differs from mine.” She held up a dismissive hand. “And I don’t need to know.”
Cinna grinned and delicately popped a piece of toast in his mouth. “Suit yourself.”
When Cinna finally left Portia off on her own doorstep, he headed straight for District Fourteen. He’d been awake for the last forty hours, but Portia’s words had struck a chord –
Exactly how was he any more polite than anyone else who Finnick took behind those doors? (Aside from being the only one who wanted to cuddle, which still made Cinna blush to think of it.)
He sat at the ice bar, waiting for Finnick’s red light to click off, drinking quiet, cheap blue drinks.
An hour passed. Johanna stayed alive.
Then two. The Games raged on in the background; a herd of snow-white leonine muttations taking down three Tributes in the blink of an eye. Cinna clenched the edge of the ice bar so tightly that his skin began to feel the sharp burn of freezing: three of the mutts had turned on Johanna and were stalking towards her, silent paws on the pink stone path.
Johanna opened her hands and reached out, letting the mutts smell her. Her long hair floated in the breeze. Her face was calm and composed.
One of the mutts licked her fingers with its horrible black tongue. Another nudged at her muddy knee.
Johanna Mason stayed alive.
She wandered through the forest, seeing tooth-edged beech trees; soft, thick, carpet moss; tall, bushy spoonwood trees like upside-down pyramids; little red weasels, white-tailed deer, tiny striped chipmunks; and so many lovely flowers.
‘Oh,’ said Little Red Cloak loudly into the woods, ‘All of these creatures are just so lovely!’
And the wolf-muttations, hearing her, stepped out from the shade of a tree.
‘My, my,’ said the wolf-muttations, ‘What a little girl to be traversing the woods alone. And what a lovely bright red cloak.’
‘Thank you,’ said Little Red Cloak, staring up at the hideous beasts. ‘I’m on my way to get grain from the witch at the castle.’
A Golden Trident slid its way down the bar and Cinna looked up. Tyson, with his bright blue face and serious eyes, inclined his head towards Finnick’s door.
“He’s waiting for you, sugar,” Tyson whispered, barely moving his blue lips. “You ought to head right in. Be quick at the door, don’t let anyone see him.”
“Why?” Cinna asked, his heart pounding in his chest.
Tyson reached across the bar and slipped the two shots into Cinna’s glass. “You’ll see for yourself.”
Cinna took the ice glass and made a beeline across the dance floor, shouldering past gyrating bodies in the thick of the crowd and squeezing past the factory line of fucking that lined the walls. He pressed the button next to Finnick’s door.
“It’s me,” he hissed.
The lock clicked and Cinna slipped through the door.
He tripped over a short, distractedly-dressed man in thick spectacles, adjusting something with wires poking out from the baseboards.
“Oh!” cried the bespectacled man, brushing off Cinna’s pant legs as he pushed himself up. “So sorry! I didn’t realize the – I should have realized that buzzer was the doorbell, I’m just distracted, so sorry.”
“Right,” Cinna said, blinking at him. “What are you – ”
“Mags stepped in,” croaked Finnick’s voice from the sofa. He sounded rough, like he’d eaten sandpaper. “That’s – ”
“Don’t talk, Finnick, you’ll make it worse,” the man said sharply. He wiped his hand off on his chest and stuck it out for Cinna to shake. “I’m Beetee. I’m – ”
“The Victor of the 55TH Hunger Games and the lead mentor for District Three,” Cinna finished. “I know, I’m in – ”
“The design school, yes! Mags told me you did some wonderful braidwork for the Interview costumes,” Beetee said graciously, smiling. “Now sit, sit, tend to Finnick.”
Cinna crossed around to the black sofa and stopped short, almost tripping again – this time over his own feet.
Finnick’s face and neck looked like ground meat. His lip was bloody and swollen, hanging like lichen, and purple, scabbed-over rings rounded his wrists and ankles. His head was propped on what at first blush looked like a black-and-brown leather pillow, but was actually Mags, wearing her usual tunic. She ran her gnarled hands gently through Finnick’s greasy hair.
“What happened?” Cinna breathed, kneeling by Finnick’s side. Heavy red lines licked up Finnick’s sides from his back.
“Farra needed a Sponsor,” Finnick croaked. “Fast.”
Cinna looked up at Mags. “You let him go do this?”
Mags grumbled something indignant and long-drawn out, and spit over her shoulder.
“She told me not to,” Finnick translated wryly. He took a deep breath and winced. “Wish I‘d listened.”
Mags grumbled something else and tugged lightly at his hair.
Finnick’s good eye brightened in what should have been a smile. “I know.”
“Who – what – and what is he – ” Cinna pointed to Beetee, fiddling with wires on the floor.
“I am creating a feedback loop,” Beetee offered from the floor, taping off a little bundle of black wire. “So that Finnick can have some privacy and dignity once in a while.” He looked up at Cinna and his glasses slipped down his nose. “From what I understand, you’ll benefit from that, too.”
Cinna flushed and looked back to the mess of Finnick’s face. “Who did this to you?”
Finnick opened his mouth to answer and dissolved in a coughing spell.
Mags reached down for Cinna and lifted his chin so he was staring into her murky, whip-smart eyes.
“Thiebaud Brabantio,” she said. She pronounced it strangely, like she did everything, like ‘Theobald.’
On the huge videoscreen on the wall, Johanna dove behind a boulder, slipping into a crevasse in the stone walls of the Arena, fleeing the fierce melee combat of Ajax and his cronies. Claudius Templesmith and Couric Ombudsman cackled in the split-screen about silly, simple Johanna Mason, running head-first into rocks next. Cinna’s hands shook as he stared, his eyes flicking from Johanna’s bright Games uniform to Finnick’s wrecked face to Mags’ serious, milky eyes and the floating, lingering sound of his own mentor’s name on her lips. Thiebald Brabantio did this. Annika Templesmith did this. The Capitol did this. Panem did this.
Cinna swallowed. “What can I do?”
Beetee’s head popped up from behind the sofa. His collar was cockeyed, but his eyes were bright. “Ah… now there’s a good question.”
The wolf-muttations smiled with many teeth. ‘Aren’t you a bit young and a bit small? Don’t you know you should never leave the path?’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Little Red Cloak. ‘But I left the path because I wanted to meet you. I have something for you in my basket.’
‘Is it cake?’ asked one of the wolf-muttations.
‘Better,’ said Little Red Cloak.
‘Is it cookies?’ asked the first’s brother.
‘Better,’ said Little Red Cloak.
‘What could it be?’ cried the wolf-muttations.
Little Red Cloak smiled and pulled back the cloth in her basket. ‘It’s the best treat we have in the village!’
More snow-white leonine muttations ate Tributes in the topsy-turvy forest Arena. Otherwise, they followed Johanna Mason like a ghostly, fanged Honor guard.
And so Johanna Mason stayed alive.
And she took up her axe and hacked the wolf-muttations to pieces, filling their bodies with heavy stones and burying them beneath the moss in the forest floor. Being quite sure they were dead, Little Red Cloak ran as fast as she could to the castle. She climbed the high walls and swung in through the window. Upon entering the castle, all she could see was a great lace curtain.
‘Hello?’ called Little Red Cloak. ‘I’ve come to collect grain for the village.’
‘Come along inside, dear,’ called the witch behind the curtain. ‘I keep all of the goodies in here where I can guard them.’
So Little Red Cloak pulled back the lace and there, in a great brass bed, lay the witch. On the other side of the mattress as wide as a redwood trunk were huge barrels of grain, cows and pigs and goats tethered to poles, and skeins and skeins of bright-colored cloth. The witch herself lay almost buried in blankets. Little Red Cloak could just barely see her face, and gripped her basket tighter.
‘My,’ she said, ‘What big eyes you have, madam.’
‘The better to watch for thieves and murderers like the children who killed my own, my dear,’ said the witch.
Somehow, Johanna stayed alive.
After three harrowing days of footage – eight cycles of false day and false night in the Arena – Ajax and his final cohorts, two girls he’d convinced to love him and a boy who clearly thought he could defeat Ajax in the finale, fell asleep.
‘My,’ said Little Red Cloak, beginning to edge around the big brass bed towards the grain, ‘What big hands you have.’
‘The better to keep hold of my goodies, my dear,’ said the witch.
Johanna Mason stood, straight and proud, and whispered silently through the trees. A few yards away from their fire, she unzipped her backpack and emptied it, pink stone by blue brick by white stone, and took a hatchet from its depths.
Her eyes blazed in the lying night as she beheaded both girls faster than the time it took for Ajax and the other boy to wake. The boy was dead before he spoke.
“What the hell?” Ajax stuttered, struggling against his own confusion to sit up. “How are you still alive?”
“You were right,” Johanna sang, sing-song, her hatchet blade tracing over the hollow of Ajax’s neck. “I’m not a person.” She knelt on his chest, holding him to the ground. The cameras zoomed in to her lips as she leaned in and whispered in Ajax’s ear as she brought the hatchet down. “I’m the big bad wolf.”
Little Red Cloak opened her basket and carefully scooped a portion of grain. ‘My,’ she commented, ‘What big teeth you have.’
‘The better to eat you with, my dear,’ cackled the witch, throwing off the covers – for she herself was a wolf-muttation, too, but Little Red Cloak was ready with her axe.
There was a great scuffle, but Little Red Cloak was fortunate to be a woodcutter and knew well how to swing her axe to bring down the witch-wolf without harming any of the precious grain or wool or goats or cattle. When the big, bad witch-wolf was dead, Little Red Cloak fashioned the big brass bed into a sledge and piled it high with grain and skeins of cloth, and urged the goats and pigs and cows on to follow her along the path back into the village.
Ajax’s cannon sounded and Johanna stood, dropping the hatchet in the dirt. She blithely adjusted the silvery-white leaves that wrapped a tourniquet around her arm. She brushed the mud from her knees.
Johanna Mason snapped her fingers, and a herd of white, leonine muttations thundered out from the thicket of lush trees, descending on the orgy of human flesh her hatchet left for them.
She straightened her uniform top and tossed her long hair behind her shoulders impatiently. It was the same look she’d worn when Cinna boarded the Capitol train.
“C’mon then,” she called up to the sky, “Announce it. The Victor of the 66TH Hunger Games. Johanna Mason. District Seven.”
Finnick turned to look at Cinna in shock. “She won.”
‘Mother!’ Little Red Cloak cried when she made it home, ‘I have killed the witch! We’re free of her cruelty now!’
Cinna nodded. The hovercraft lowered over the twirling-gnarled trees and his stomach lurched: they always stayed far away from the Arena itself, high in the sky like a reflective beacon of Capitol might. A trophy.
They weren’t supposed to send the dirt up in gusts around the Victor’s feet.
Seneca Crane was not supposed to descend from the shining silver ladder. Johanna Mason measured his every step with shrewd eyes.
“Where are the bodies?” Seneca Crane asked. His voice was stolid and cold but his face was locked in the eternal Capitol smile.
Johanna blinked, low and slow. “I cut the trackers out for a reason.” Her lips twitched. “You aren’t going to find them and make those bodies go away. You can’t pretend those Tributes never existed. They’ll be here, hidden somewhere you won’t ever find.”
Seneca Crane’s eyes fluttered in politely contained malice. “Where did you put the trackers?”
Johanna’s mouth almost smiled. “Check the bellies of your muttations. Tributes aren’t the only things that starve in the Arena.”
Seneca Crane’s nostrils flared.
Then he clapped Johanna on the back and beamed out to the cameras, his lizard-green eyes dancing. “Ladies and gentlemen… The Victor of the 66TH Hunger Games… Johanna Mason of District Seven!”
The village rejoiced soundly that night and reveled in their new riches. There was a great roasted pig and sweet apples and loaves upon loaves of black bread.
“Beetee!” The screws turned. Finnick turned to Cinna. His face was ashen. “They aren’t going to like that. Not at all. Cinna, you’ve seen what happens when they get mad.” He clutched Cinna’s forearms. “Stay here. Stay with me. If you’re with me, they can’t hurt you without hurting me and they – they like to keep me.” His eyes narrowed. “Do you know where the bodies are?”
Cinna looked at the last flickering credits of the Arena: the panorama of curlicue trees and multicolored candy pathways and beyond, the shimmer of the dam, water rushing in icy currents through the diversion tunnels to cascade into the Capitol reservoir below.
He swallowed. “No.”
Finnick tightened his hold on Cinna’s wrists. “Please don’t go home tonight. Please. Something bad is going to happen.”
“Finnick – ”
“Please!” Finnick hissed. “Cinna, all I did was not die, and my parents lost their boat to ‘an unexplained fire.’ That’s the only thing we had, the only way we could support ourselves – I can’t even send money from this back to them because I never see it. But your sister – she did something just as bad Haymitch. And Beetee told you what they did to him.” His green eyes were young and wet and afraid. “Don’t. Leave. Here. Tonight.”
Cinna wrapped his arms around Finnick’s shoulders and pulled him in close, hugging him tight. “Okay. Alright, I’ll stay here.”
But slowly and surely, the stores of food ran out. Little Red Cloak asked her mother, ‘But why are people not traveling the paths to bring back the food?’
‘The witch’s castle is still blocking the way,’ said her mother. ‘The woods surrounding it are dark and deep, and the witch built her castle over the only path. The men are afraid to disturb the woods there, because we don’t know where the wolf-muttations are hiding. We can’t disturb their bones or they might come to eat us.’
‘I know where they are! Let us go burn down her castle so we may open up the path once again!’ cried Little Red Cloak.
The next morning, when Cinna arrived at the design school, still wearing yesterday’s clothes – a cardinal sin on most days, but after the finale of the Games, he wasn’t the only one – Thiebaud Brabantio himself was waiting for Cinna just inside the studio doors.
“Mr. Mason?” he asked, a maudlin expression of sympathy creasing his brow. He reached out with his hamlike white hands and gripped Cinna’s slender fingers. “I have heard excellent things about you from Hemant… I am so dreadfully sorry that our first meeting need be under these circumstances.”
“Sir?” Cinna asked, his skin crawling.
Cauliflower-collagen lips shellacked in teal pulled back from Brabantio’s teeth. Each tooth was veneered in pearl. “Mr. Mason, there’s been an accident in District Seven. The Main Skid is suffering a forest fire. Your family’s homestead burned down last night.” His teeth glistened. “There were no survivors.”
Her mother looked sad, despite the great riches her clever daughter had brought home. ‘Dear Little Red Cloak, if we burn down the castle, we take the forest with it.’
Cinna wobbled a nod. “It’s – not forest fire season. Sir. It’s not dry this time of year.”
Brabantio’s smile did not fall. “That’s right. It’s hurricane season. You’re lucky that you didn’t leave family behind in Four. I hear lost trawlers are never found.”
Cinna’s jaw clenched. “I understand, sir.”
Brabantio squeezed Cinna’s hands. “You have quite an eye, Cinna Mason. Did you notice anything in this year’s Games that the average viewer might have missed that could be incorporated into next year’s design schema?”
Cinna did not waver. Did not blink. Did not loosen his grip. “The stones of the path…”
“The shades of pink were ever-so-slightly mismatched. Were they manmade or mined?”
Brabantio dropped his hands. “Manmade. I’ll pass your criticism along to Seneca Crane.”
Cinna’s hands were sweaty and shaking. He sorely wanted to wash Brabantio’s slime from his skin. “I appreciate it. If you don’t mind, sir, if it’s no trouble – I have class…” he gestured towards the door of the studio, where Portia was waiting for him with her fingernails in her teeth.
Brabantio smiled again. “Yes, of course. You have an eye, Cinna Mason. We won’t forget that.”
Victor a wide berth at the Closing Ceremonies party. Johanna stood off to the side of the dance floor, back straight as a board, resplendent in her gown: long, flowing, white, dipped in red like the bloody snow witch who haunted that winterland in a story that Cinna remembered half-making up as he went along, drawing it for her when she was on the cusp of too-old-for-faerytales.
A long stole of white fur wrapped her shoulders.
Cinna’s stomach twisted.
“Go,” Portia urged softly, rubbing his back. “You need each other now.”
Cinna nodded and wiped his hands on the sides of his pressed black trousers.
“Approach on her right, where she can see you,” Finnick whispered, whirling past him on the pretense of picking up another plate of prawnoustines and another bright orange emetic cocktail. “Never approach a Victor from behind.”
Cinna nodded absently and turned away. He heard Finnick swirl back to the party, his most flirtatious Capitol self for the festivities. He was wearing a snow-white chiffon toga; little silver briefs and curls silver and pearl body paint climbing his torso beneath the sheer fabric. If the theme of the evening was blood and snow, then Finnick was a glacier crashing into the sea.
Cinna crossed the dance floor to Johanna. He approached from her right, reaching out to touch her arm, but thought better of it and pulled back.
“Hannie,” he said softly.
“Johanna,” she corrected. Then she glanced over and inhaled sharply. “Cinna.”
He nodded. “Hi.”
She looked straight ahead to the gilded wall. “I killed our family.”
“No,” Cinna breathed, reaching out to touch her elbow. “Hannie, you didn’t. It wasn’t – ” He lowered his voice. “It’s what they do to Victors. If you want to move here and live with me, I can make space – ”
“No,” Johanna said steadily, shaking her head. “I have to go back to Seven. I don’t belong here, Cinna, any more than you felt like you belonged there. And – ” She blinked and looked skyward, her jaw set. “I made you feel like you had to move here just to be happy.” A muscle in her jaw ticked. Her long hair had been treated with something by her prep team and it shone like black ice. “But I kept your drawings… More kindling, in the end.”
“I think it’s my fault you were Reaped,” Cinna whispered.
Johanna’s nostrils flared and her head whipped around to stare at Cinna. Her eyes flashed. “What do you mean, it’s your fault? It’s a lottery.”
“You were Reaped to punish me for moving here to be happy,” Cinna said, looking across the room to where Finnick was laughing raucously at one of Caesar Flickerman’s jokes. “So… you didn’t kill our family, Hannie. I think… I did.”
“Did you know?” Johanna hissed, her hands curled tight. “When you did whatever you did – did you know that they would pick me? Is that why… were you trying to get us all back for how you felt growing up?”
“No!” Cinna cried, then checked hastily over his shoulder. “No, Johanna. I had no idea – ”
“Yes, you did,” Johanna said flatly. “You knew what they do here from the minute Rosamine died. You knew and you didn’t care and you came here anyway and you – do what you do.”
“They do it Seven, too,” Cinna hissed back. “That’s where they killed Miss Honey. And that’s where they beat Yew, and where Granit lost his fingers, and where everyone stops talking. Do you know – that’s not how it is, everywhere else? People don’t just stop talking like that, to their own families. That isn’t right either, Johanna.”
“I said I was sorry for that,” Johanna said stiffly. “You haven’t said you’re sorry that our whole family is dead.”
Cinna shook his head. “I am, Johanna. And I’m going to fix it.”
“This isn’t a ferning faerytale, Cinna,” Johanna said, turning away.
Cinna took a deep, cold breath and looked across the dance hall. “You should talk to Finnick Odair. Blight can get you a meeting.”
“I don’t think getting laid is really going to fix this,” Johanna said dryly.
Cinna suppressed a small smile. “He’s good for other things, too. They have good faerytales in District Four. But they call them ‘myths’ there. Ask Finnick to tell you about Hercules and the hide of the Nemean Lion.” Cinna touched her arm, fingering the snow-white fur that draped her shoulders. “I’m going to fix it, Johanna. I’m going to fix everything.”
Johanna blinked and her eyes slid away from him, back to the vacant wall, and Cinna turned to go. Portia was waiting for him across the room, already holding his coat.
“Cinna,” Johanna called, softly enough that it could have been an accident.
He turned, hope and guilt warring in his chest.
Johanna turned her head just enough that he could see her profile. She had the same nose as she ever had, that bump across it like she’d been hit even though she hadn’t. When she was the littlest kid, she would bang her fingers against Cinna’s nose and look cross, like she was angry she couldn’t put his face on instead of wearing hers.
“This is how faerytales end, isn’t it.” It wasn’t a question. “When brothers and sisters step off the path.”
Cinna met her gaze just long enough to nod once, curtly, before letting Portia wrap his coat around his shoulders. He left Johanna standing in the corner of the ball room, Finnick waltzing with Annika Templesmith nearby.
So Little Red Cloak was sent to live in the witch’s castle and parcel out the grain and wool and goats and cattle for her villagers, and though now the woods were safe and the villagers well-fed and happy once more, Little Red Cloak’s life was never the same, for she knew where the wolf-muttations were buried, and she had been left all alone.
Johanna Mason cut off her hair and always wore red. She moved back to District Seven and lived amongst the rubble of the Main Skid, high on a hill in the Victor’s Village: just Johanna and Blight.
When Cinna watched the 70TH Reaping episode – holed up in his small apartment, Portia curled into his side without any makeup, shredding a slice of black bread between her fingers – his heart broke a little. As much as a heart could still be broken in Panem.
The look on Finnick Odair’s face when Alamela Marple called the name of the girl Tribute, a pretty, waifish brunette with flyaway hair in the breeze, spelled every feeling Cinna had ever had for Finnick, clear enough that the letters L-O-V-E might as well have been written across Finnick’s face.
Cinna was assigned to Four again that year for the first time since Johanna’s Games. Portia gave up her spot on Brabantio’s team for One and joined Cinna and Finnick and Mags. They dressed Annie and her hulking Career partner in dark, dripping tendrils of seaweed and tentacles; nowhere near beautiful or light or sunshiney, Annie Cresta and her partner were monsters of the deep, black-eyed and awesome.
Exactly the sort of monster Finnick had told Cinna about years ago on a black sofa surrounded by ice when he told Cinna the myth of Perseus, the only hero ever to live happily ever after.
Annie Cresta treaded water for three and a half days before the hovercraft pulled her from the water.
Cinna and Finnick were tangled naked and writhing on that old black sofa – Cinna’s teeth tearing at the armrest and the sofa legs skittering hard across the floor, back and forth – when the last cannon sounded and Annie slipped beneath the surface for her third and final time before the silver ladder scooped her up.
Cinna did not see Johanna in person until the 73RD Hunger Games. Granit Irons’ little sister trembled her way into the Capitol, shaking like a leaf, and Johanna chose to Mentor for the first time. Cinna begged his way onto the District Seven prep team. He prepared notes for all the things he wanted to say and practiced his words on Portia first.
But Johanna Mason did not say a word to her designers or prep team. Cinna settled for leaving her a little hand-sewn book of faerytales, at least as far as he could remember them from so many years ago. He drew Cinderella, hiding her bloody feet; Little Red Cloak, resplendent on her sleigh of goods; The Little Landvættir, with her collection of forks and clocks and doodads, trading her voice for human legs to run on. He left it folded gently within the thick sleeves of Johanna’s red coat on his way home the night before the Opening Ceremonies.
Cinna woke the next morning to a loaf of black bread he had not baked tucked against his doorjamb, and he ate it slowly, bit by bit, over the course of those Games.
It tasted like faerytales and icy wind whipping around a one-room schoolhouse, and the smell of hasenpfeffer drifting over the porch of a log cabin.
He could have delegated the dress to his assistants, but he was always the best at piecework and he wanted to make this dress with his own hands. Finnick had his trident. Johanna had a hatchet. Cinna had a delicate, fine-gauge needle and eleven thousand little gemstones: red and yellow and white with bits of blue.
Miss Honey, whose face Cinna had forgotten, let Cinna read books of poetry that were forbidden. He lost most of the words to a bonfire when she was taken by the hanging tree. But he remembered tongues of flame and the sanctity of spirit, and that is what he would pass on to Katniss Everdeen.
He had watched her Volunteer for her little sister, Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith chattering about the rarity of volunteer Tributes from the lower Districts, as he sat beside Portia at Capital, in the second terrace with the other Head Stylists. When Katniss Everdeen Volunteered in the place of her family, she saved her family; something Cinna had failed, something Johanna had failed, something Finnick had failed, something Haymitch had failed.
So many Victors had been set on fire by the Capitol for failing to protect their families. But this time, the first one to succeed was going to burn Panem to the ground.
Before they’d even finished the anthem, back at Capital, Cinna had picked up his pencils and begun to sketch.
Cinna smiled pleasantly. “You would have to ask Katniss. Although she’s so young, I’m sure she has no idea what sort of bird it could be. She’s a young girl… she probably just thinks it’s pretty.”
“Hmm,” sniffed Prudence. “She could blind someone with the pin.”
Cinna laughed richly. “Really, Prudence, that’s just splitting hairs. What harm could a little gold bird do?”
The ‘satin shortage’ was his first sign that everything was really working. The shops on the couture row had to postpone all commissions until a suitable replacement was found – which was how Cinna ended up pioneering the foam rubber skirt craze – and the design school was in utter disarray as their fall premiere collection show was cancelled altogether.
There could be no new hires for the 75TH Hunger Games.
All District styling and prep teams would remain as they had been for the previous year. Cinna, Portia, and their colorful birds were safe and intact.
When the design school gala had no prawnoustines or turtle soup or huge, gleaming swordfish, Cinna called Finnick – urgent and hushed – to make sure that he and Annie and Mags were safe. Finnick promised they were, although the riots in the streets scared Annie badly and Mags’ had to chase angry marchers off her lawn with a paddle. Cinna laughed with him as Finnick described hunched little Mags running after huge, overexcitable fishermen, waving an oar and yelling obscenities.
“It’s really happening,” Cinna whispered after, just before the screws turned and he had to hang up the phone.
“We did it,” Finnick agreed. “It was all you, Cinna. Really. I feel like – you know, nothing can go wrong now, you know? I know you didn’t save your family, and I know things are bad with Johanna and everything, but… we’re all safe now, and it’s because of you. Everything that happens now, it’s because of you.”
Cinna nodded, twisting his fingers into a stray thread on his tablecloth. “I miss you.”
Finnick laughed softly through his nose. “I miss you, too.”
“I’m going out to Twelve tomorrow to fit Katniss for those wedding dresses,” Cinna said, looking out the window at the woolly gray sky. “I’ll tell Haymitch you say hello.”
“Don’t,” Finnick said cheerfully. “I’ll tell the ugly bastard hello myself. But you can tell him what’s going on here. Make sure you really act out the Mags bit. I want to imagine you waving an oar at him.” Finnick snorted.
Cinna paused. “You really think that I did something right?”
“It’s all you,” Finnick repeated. “I’ve gotta go, I haven’t heard Annie in a while. I wanna make sure she’s just asleep.”
“Yeah, of course,” Cinna said. “Go.”
“Things are happening, and they’re all because of you… that’s amazing. You did good, Cinna,” Finnick said fiercely.
And then they are all Reaped.
“You don’t have to stay on with me,” Cinna said softly, pressing his lips to Portia’s forehead. “I can’t ask you to do that.”
Portia took in a deep breath and held it a few seconds before exhaling. “They will kill you, Cinna. You know they will.”
Cinna nodded. “That’s alright.” He smiled. “What do you think of the dress?”
Portia looked at the designs and blueprints and swatches spread over his drafting table. White feathers, black feathers. And pearls: everywhere pearls.
Her eyes filled with tears. “It’s the most beautiful, most reckless dress I’ve ever seen.”
Finnick’s words could mean a hundred things – he’d taken up poetry at twenty, when he was transitioning off drugs for Annie, and his words tended to be double-edged forever after. That was alright: it was to be expected of a slave, and necessary for a freedom fighter.
It had been a long time since he’d met Cinna in this same club.
It had been a long time since Cinna had come to him this way, soft-eyed and wanting.
It had been a long time since Panem was free.
Cinna smiled and pushed a hand through his short, dark hair. “It has.” He paused. “I shouldn’t have come here… I know you have Annie.”
Finnick cupped his palm over the side of Cinna’s face. “She knows about you. She doesn’t really understand what I do here, but she understands… you. What you’ve always been to me here.”
Finnick smiled. “We’ll see each other again, Cinna. It’ll all be over soon and I’ll see you in Thirteen. And after – After, I think you’d love Four.” He twined his fingers through Cinna’s. “Come to Four. You’d love Annie. She smiles whenever I mention you and she doesn’t even know you. But you’d love each other, too.” He kissed Cinna’s cheek. “Say you’ll come to Four.”
Cinna took a deep breath. “I have to show you something.”
Finnick tightened his fingers. “Say you’ll come to Four.”
“Finnick – ”
“No,” Finnick whispered fiercely. “Say you’ll come to Four. Say we’re both getting through this and you’ll come to Four to be with me and Annie. Cinna. Please.”
Cinna swallowed. “I’ll come to Four, Finnick. We’ll see each other every day again, like – before. And you can teach me how to swim. And I’ll even try eating a live squid for you.”
Finnick laughed wetly. “They aren’t still alive.”
Cinna smiled. He squeezed Finnick’s fingers. “And I will love you until I die.” His smile turned sad in the slightest downturn of his lips. “I have to show you something.”
Finnick nodded. “Okay.”
Cinna reached into his bag and pulled out the battered old sketchbook: the drawings of the wedding gown for Katniss; detailed plans for its transformation. The draped sleeves of a cloak for Johanna. Pearls for Four, for Finnick, for Annie Cresta. Feathers for Katniss and Peeta and Rue.
Fire for Panem.
Finnick covered his mouth absently with shaking fingers. “Cinna – you can’t – I thought it was going to be like last year, just the pin. Or… gold. A gold gown.” He looked up and his eyes were fifteen years old again, scared and wide and fierce. “Cinna, they will kill you.” Finnick shook his head. “I won’t be able to save Katniss and I won’t be able to save you.”
Cinna gently wrapped his hand around Finnick’s wrist and brought it away from his mouth. He smiled encouragingly. “You’ll save her. You’ll save everyone, Finnick. That’s not my part. And I can’t – I can’t just sit here alone, pretending to smile and be okay, while you and Johanna and Katniss are in there. I’m -- angry, Finnick. I’m so angry.” He squeezed Finnick’s hand. “And I’m not going to hide it anymore.”
Finnick’s eyes welled up. “You know, it doesn’t mean as much to say you’ll love someone ‘til you die if you have a day left.”
Cinna folded his arms around Finnick’s shoulders, pulling him in close.
“Finnick Odair,” he murmured. “It means that I can say with absolute clarity that you were the love of my life.” He pulled back just enough to look Finnick in the eye. “And I just wanted to finally tell you.”
Finnick sniffed and hugged Cinna so tightly it was hard to breathe. “I think the only reason I’m even able to love Annie is because of you. You’re the only other person who has ever even tried to love me. And you respected me when I didn’t deserve respect – ”
“You always deserved it,” Cinna whispered.
Finnick kissed him, simple and sweet and impermanent. “You caused the love in my life, Cinna Mason.” He kissed him again, teeth just barely pulling at his lower lip. “And I do love you. I chose you, and the whole world is better for it.”
“Is it?” Cinna asked. “A lot of people have been hurt because of me loving you.”
Johanna. Finnick’s mother. The Mason family, all wiped out. Annie Cresta gone mad.
Finnick let go of Cinna and picked up the drawing of Katniss’ gown. “Maybe they have,” Finnick said, “But there aren’t a lot of people who can say they set a whole country on fire for each other.” He smirked. “Really, just us and Peeta. Poor kid.”
“She’ll learn how to love him back,” Cinna said confidently. “You and Annie can show her someday what it’s like. You can cause the love in her life. I hope you do.”
Backstage at the interviews, Cinna only caught the flash of pain in Finnick Odair’s eyes because he knew Finnick so well.
“I can’t believe Cinna really put you in that thing,” his old friend, his old lover, and his hero said. Cinna felt Katniss bristle and he knew she thought Finnick was making fun of her (again) and maybe, just maybe, even took umbrage on Cinna’s behalf. But Cinna knew better, and he met Finnick’s eyes steadily.
Katniss’ words could not have expressed his meaning more clearly.
“He didn’t have any choice. President Snow made him.”
What Cinna would have wanted to do, more than anything, in that moment, would be to have been able to hug his little sister. Kiss her cheek. Tell her that she turned out beautiful and that she was stronger than she thought and that he was sorry. And that he loved her most of all.
“Make him pay for it, okay?” Johanna Mason said in a gruff whisper as she straightened the pearl necklace of a baffled Katniss Everdeen.
Johanna asserted that no one could be so cruel as to sever such a deep bond.
“Isn’t it the most beautiful thing?”
The dress ignited at the hem, fire stripping away white silk and the strings of pearls coated in phosphorus, burnings its way up Katniss’ legs and hips and up the long cape sleeves in spirals of flame, tongues of fire licking and blazing until the hideous wedding dress is gone, the cruel power play of Snow over Katniss and Peeta’s lives is gone, the dress the Capitol wanted Katniss to wear is gone, and in its place is the radiant Mockingjay, wings spread wide enough to fly.
A small, gracious bow.
The Victors, the Districts, Panem stood in an unbroken line across the Capitol, Cinna’s flame still blazing.
He took a deep breath to steady his hand as he dabbed the thin brush of his eyeliner into its gold pot and highlighted the bird’s all-knowing eye with his color. He capped the pot again slowly and thought of the first time he wore eyeliner, and the way Johanna had almost wet herself laughing at him before taking pity and showing him how to put it on with a steady hand.
Johanna would be alone.
But Cinna thought of Finnick and all of Annie’s pain, and how Peeta would forever be leverage against Katniss Everdeen, and maybe – maybe it would be better for Johanna this way. With no one left to protect, she would be free simply to fight.
Cinna felt his heart lighten considerably as he took up his charcoals for what he knew would be the last time and wrote, I’m still betting on you.
Just after one o’clock in the morning – in any of the Districts, it would be hours after curfew, but there were no rules in the Capitol – Cinna stood in the door of Johanna’s room at the Training center. He held a finger to his lips and indicated the corners of the room, miming towards his ears.
Bugs? mouthed Johanna, looking stricken.
Cinna nodded. He glanced over his shoulder and opened his sketchpad.
A drawing of Johanna as a baby, wrinkle-faced and scowling, in a green rompersuit. She had a clump of dirt in her chubby fist on her way to her mouth. She sat in a fussy little Cinna’s lap, sunlight and pine-tree shadows freckling his face.
Cinna smiled at Johanna and turned the page.
Johanna’s first day of school, frowning in her plaid dress, with bruises and scrapes all over her knees. She clung to Cinna’s hand, her grubby fingers all wrapped around Cinna’s thumb.
Johanna pursed her lips, her eyes bright.
On the third page, Cinna had drawn Johanna as he saw her: soft-lined but radiant and fierce, with sharp intelligence behind her eyes. She looked just on the precipice of happy, and was unfailingly beautiful. He drew her wearing a shocking bright poppy-red cloak that billowed in the wind and trailed behind her like a great veil.
Johanna opened her mouth, but Cinna chook his head and turned to the last page.
I love you. Remember. They cannot burn that out.
Johanna stepped forward and grasped his arm. This would be the closest they would ever share again to a hug. “Wait,” she whispered, too soft for the bugs.
Johanna riffled through her trunk for a moment and when she stood, a single piece of old, crumbling paper was clutched to her chest. She turned it around and showed Cinna the old drawing, smudged and faded now but still flared with bright orange and red paint made from the autumn leaves outside their window, and the familiar soft line of his drawing hand.
A great castle, taller than the trees and with endless black windows like yawning maws, on fire – spreading in dancing arcs to the trees and village around its stone walls.
Dear Little Red Cloak, if we burn down the castle, we take the forest with it.
“Breakfast?” he asked, smiling at her early-morning growls. “I’m an awfully good date.”
Portia yawned and grabbed the back of his neck, pulling him down so she could kiss him, her mouth sour with sleep and a crease from her pillow crisscrossing her face.
“I just wanted to do that once,” she whispered, smiling even through her teary, tired eyes. “Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” Cinna said, stroking back her hair. “I’m glad you did. Now get up! I want an omelet and toast and rabbit stew and a slice of chocolate cake. And coffee. I want everything this morning.”
The Capitol sky was a darkly neon blue, the bright club lights obscuring the stars and the dark hulking shadows of the mountains. Cinna and Portia sat at one of the small tables at the café, checked tablecloth between them, fingers tangled amiably. They talked about everything that was not the Quell, not Katniss, not Peeta. Not dresses or flames.
Cinna had the strange sense that he was a Tribute in this Quarter Quell, too; like his lifetime had been made up only of moments that led him to this Arena, in this Rebellion, with these former Victors as his allies, and he would die today to protect them, and that was alright. It was peaceful, knowing that his life had been lived well.
The sky looked bluer.
His coffee was smooth and sweet.
The street outside the café was bustling with mockingjays: on bags and shirts and watches and belt buckles and facial tattoos and gaping earrings and manicured nails and every single videoscreen.
“It’s time,” Portia said finally from beside him. “I’ll bet you twenty that they’re in the same bed when we get there.”
Cinna smiled. “I’ll take that bet. Buy me lunch with my twenty?”
Portia kissed his cheek. “Even if you win.”
He’d forgotten that until now.
“What do you think?” Katniss asked, holding out her jumpsuit.
Cinna frowned. “I don’t know. It will offer little in the way of protection from cold or water.”
“Possibly. If it’s been treated.” He pulled the small mockingjay pin from his pocket. “Oh, I almost forgot this.” He affixed it to Katniss’ collar, where cameras couldn’t miss it.
Katniss Everdeen took his hand and squeezed it unconsciously, her little fingers curled into his, and Cinna held onto her, too. On their plates across the stretch of veneered flooring, Finnick and Mags were waiting, and Johanna, and Portia with Peeta closest of all. The Capitol liked for it to look like Tributes entered the Arena alone, but Cinna had never felt closer to everyone by whom he was loved. And whom he loved – fiercely enough to set a nation on fire.
Katniss’ eyes were locked on Cinna as he helped her to her plate. She shouldn’t have stayed up all night with Peeta, he thought; no one could afford for her to be distracted.
“Remember, girl on fire. I’m still betting on you.” He kissed her forehead. The glass cylinders around each tribute slid down, locking them into place.
And then came the blow.
Cinna saw Finnick trying to break his glass, trying so hard to get free. Katniss reaching for him, wings stretching out. Portia beseeching and forgiving with her big eyes. Johanna’s fury was like a rabid animal, a beautiful wild thing that would always resist being tamed.
Before the world went dark, he thought he might have smiled at them all one final time as he thought, in a deep, soaring, plea; a sigh of satisfaction –
Live happily ever after.