Title: "Panem, Mid-August"
Word Count: 4,592
Characters: Nearly all except Katniss
Timeline: Midway through Mockingjay
Summary: Thirteen lives in the margins.
Only fight battles that you’re prepared to win. That was the best advice her mother ever gave. Mother had been preparing for this battle since before Alma was born, but she died of a heart attack far too soon. Now it is Alma’s job to see it through, and she will win.
She sits at her desk, her spine in the perfectly straight line that she’d been taught years ago. It conveys authority, as does everything else in her purview. Opposite her, Soldier Samson reviews the inventory of provisions. Profoundly tedious, but one of the necessary evils that make up the Presidency.
“We’re already facing shortages in several critical areas, such as shoes and personal hygiene paper goods. And I’m concerned that the water reclamation system will be unable to meet the increased demand for showers.”
“Tell everyone to go barefoot and stop bathing.”
The other woman just blinks. Nobody believes Alma can take a joke, much less make one. She swallows a sigh. “How much longer before this becomes a serious issue?”
“We can implement rationing and hope –”
“That’s not what I meant. How long before we need to consider thinning the ranks?”
Her job as President is to ask the difficult questions and make difficult choices. Despite what Samson apparently believes, given the look on her face, Alma Coin does not want to anyone to die or be cast out unnecessarily – certainly not those of childbearing age. But they’d discussed this possibility when they chose to absorb the remains of District 12. War means sacrifice.
Samson finally replies, “Hopefully it won’t come to that.”
She straightens her shoulders. “Hopefully, indeed.”
* * * * *
The first shock makes her hair fall out.
Just a clump near the back, about the same size around as a sapling. She’s pretty sure that hair loss isn’t normal, but what the fuck is she supposed to do – ring up a head doctor and say, “Hey, I’m stuck in one of Snow’s holding pens, being jammed by a cattle prod to get information I don’t have, but I just want to know: am I gonna go bald?”
Screw it. Just hair. Not like she still has to win over any sponsors with her beauty, as if that was ever an issue. Didn’t even have many sponsors during her Games. Okay, a few took pity on her at first. Poor little kid from District 7, can’t even keep her head up, much less kill anyone. By the time they figured out how wrong they were, she was laughing her way to the Victors Village. Then Snow came for a visit, and she stopped laughing.
Gotta keep her mind off the pain or the water – fuck, the water. Might as well focus on the hair. She stares at the clump in her hands. Ten inches, give or take. Not really long enough for a noose, but Finnick taught her enough knots that she could probably make do. No way is she going to give Snow and those bastards what they want, and this cell is stripped bare of anything else to use.
She tugs at her scalp. Another couple of shocks, and she’ll have enough to make a rope. Johanna isn’t sure whether or not she hopes it won’t come to that. But the first thing a Tribute learns is to be prepared for any possibility.
* * * * *
Six years ago, her producer Jasper Honeyworth pulled her off the set of the stupid game show with stupid people answering stupid questions. “You’ve been selected for the Interview Team! Oh, Cressida, this is such a huge honor! I’m so proud to have helped make it possible!” He hugged her while she tried not to tremble.
Setting off on the train was almost interesting; she’d always wanted to see the rest of Panem. Then the interviews began. District after District of parents staying strong for the cameras while little brothers whimpered in another room. Trying to sound optimistic instead of terrified when she asked them if they were proud that their child was one of the last eight Tributes. She had to edit out a line from Annie Cresta’s weeping father about what he might say at her funeral. (First time she’d seen a Career’s parents who weren’t bursting with pride.) Annie won that year, just barely.
When she got home, Plutarch Heavensbee pulled her aside and, his voice barely above a whisper, told her about the Resistance. She shaved her head the next day, crowning herself with a tattoo of thorns. Knowledge is my curse.
Last year she broke her leg (an “accident” while jogging) so she wouldn’t be ordered to go on the Tribute interviews tour. She didn’t have to watch any of the footage to know what the families would say. But she’d heard about the Everdeen family, of course. How could you not know them? Since she arrived in District 13, she’s seen the mother and sister in the dining hall. Prim Everdeen would make a killer propo, but Katniss has all but declared them off-limits. Too bad.
Now she sits in the editing room, splicing together old footage for the “We Remember” propos. But she has to stop every few minutes and remind herself to breathe. Even after all this time, she feels the same nausea, hears each set of parents saying, “We’re proud of our daughter. We know she’ll be the Victor and come home to us.”
* * * * *
It takes him three hours to record the narration for the first propo. He sits in the editing suite and stares at the photograph of Cashmere. He barely knew her, and they didn’t like each other very much. The first time he came to the Capitol as a mentor – as opposed to whatever the rest of his visits were called – she hit on him. Leaned in close and whispered something in his ear about Victors sticking together and watching each other’s backs, among other body parts. And sure, part of him was tempted. Who wouldn’t be with a body like hers? Then he noticed the wrist bruises she tried to hide, and the way she flinched when certain party guests looked at her. How were they supposed to stick together when all their edges were corroded?
Finnick can’t stop staring at her blond hair, the tiny star tattoo on her collarbone that matched her brother’s. He remembers watching blood spurt across it courtesy of Johanna’s axe. It’s not that he’s sad about her death – Finnick could’ve just as easily killed her himself. It’s all part of the Games, as abhorrent as they are. But memorializing her feels ... strange. And suddenly he has to swallow hard to force back the nausea in his throat.
This one has to be good. District 1 is on the verge of collapse; one more push – one perfect propo – and 13 will have them in hand. Nobody else can do these. It has to come from him.
As much as it tears through his gut, Finnick imagines what he would say if it were Annie’s face on the screen. He takes a deep breath then nods at Messalla, who’s been watching silently all this time. A green light flashes, and he begins. “We remember Cashmere....”
* * * * *
Laughter would be unseemly, wouldn’t it? Yes, of course it would. Thousands of lives are quite literally on the line. But sometimes he has to lock himself in his compartment and laugh at how brilliantly everything is coming together. The Districts are falling one by one, and he and Fulvia haven’t even gone through half the tricks in their arsenal. He’s enormously proud, not that any of the people here would raise a toast with him. Such a dour, humorless bunch. Understandable, certainly, but he is ready for this war to be over so he can walk into the Capitol’s Circle and take a bow.
Meanwhile, he hunkers down in the editing room that has become his home in lieu of that dreadful little compartment. He takes meetings with Coin and Boggs, and he supervises the editing of footage that might work even better if they could just wipe away the perpetually sour expression on Katniss Everdeen’s face. Perhaps if Peeta were to somehow escape the Capitol, he and Fulvia could stage a wedding. That boy’s love affair worked brilliantly in front of the cameras. Plutarch couldn’t have scripted it better himself.
He’s not scheduled for dinner until the late shift, which gives him plenty of time to take out his notebook and begin storyboarding his next showpiece.
* * * * *
“It’s a very pretty day. It looks like the leaves will start changing soon.”
“Yes, the weather is nice.”
Octavia has been like this since Katniss took them out of the cell. It is quite frustrating! In the Capitol, she had been such a sweet girl, easily able to talk one’s ear off. The life of the party. Now she stares off into space, a greenish tinge to her face even under her lovely skin dye.
Venia has to keep trying; after all, a prep team must always be its best. “I’m so glad they let us out for a bit of fresh air. Do you hear the birds singing? They remind me of that party you threw last spring. Remember? We all ate quail with pineapple sauce, and the musicians you hired didn’t know any of the songs on the playlist.”
“That was a nice party.” Her voice barely rises above a whisper. Oh, dear. That will not do at all. She reaches for Octavia’s hand and gives it a squeeze. The young woman says, “I hope one of my friends has looked in on my cat. I’d hate for something to happen to Fluffy while I’m here.”
“Don’t be silly. Fluffy will be fine.”
They continue their stroll for a bit longer, past trees with orange-tipped leaves that remind her of when they’d set Katniss’s beautiful dress on fire. She misses Cinna and hopes he’s still alive, though all those dreadful rumors suggest otherwise. It would be a tragedy to lose such a talented stylist! She can only imagine what he would’ve done for next year’s Games.
Just before the bell rings to call them back underground, Octavia turns to her. “They’re saying that the people here desperately need children. That they might want us to – to – breed with them.”
She spits out the word in a tone Venia has never heard from her before. It sounds so dreadful that she wants to cry. She’s nearly past the age of having children, thank goodness, but Octavia is so young! The people here are not good, like their friends back home. Who knows what they might do?
Octavia is trembling, but they need to go inside. Venia gives her a quick hug and keeps her voice steady. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. Nothing bad will happen. You’ll go home and meet some man and have the most fabulous wedding the Capitol has ever seen. C’mon, let’s go back to the compartment. We can start designing your dress.”
* * * * *
Portia’s hands tremble as she brushes powder over his face. “You know what to say, right?”
He nods. There’s absolutely no chance he’ll forget. President Snow made certain of that. Every word seared into every fold of his brain, in that snakelike voice. This is what you will say. If not, this is what I will do.
They stand there, waiting. Portia smoothes down the lapels of his suit. When she and Cinna had styled him for the interviews and ceremonies, she was all business. This time, she’s different. Since she showed up to groom him earlier, she’s been very – solicitous might be the right word, but he hasn’t been able to think straight since that first time on the table. Always on this knife’s edge. Can’t sleep, can’t eat, can’t even remember his own name when the woman with the gray eyes stands over him and –
He whips around and pins her to the wall before she can come at him again. No. Not again. No more whips or water or red lights burning his eyes as she demands tell me say it what do you know –
He catches his breath, electricity sparking through his brain, and it’s Portia with her brown eyes and gold-black hair and not her. He whips back, so fast they both lose their balance, and pants her name and “Sorry, I’m so sorry.”
She looks away but doesn’t berate him, like she’s seen it all before. Maybe she has. And the only mercy to this hell is that there’s nobody else around. No Peacekeepers – yet – to cuff him and drag him back to the cell for more cuts and water and pain. Just him and Portia with her makeup brushes and the bruises he gave her, and a phalanx of guards outside, waiting to escort him to the interview with Caesar before the whole damned nation.
He can tell that she’s acting like she’s not terrified of him as she adjusts his tie and slathers makeup over his face to hide what just happened. He deserves all of it, though; if he’s learned one thing over the past four weeks, it’s that he has earned every bit of punishment the guards and the gray-eyed woman dole out.
The guards finally open the door. “Mr. Flickerman is waiting.”
As he moves to the door, Portia repeats the question: “Do you know what to say?”
Peeta nods. “Thank you,” he says, even though it’s utterly useless. She doesn’t look at him again as he walks toward the cameras.
* * * * *
Prim loves her mother more than anyone else in the world, except for Katniss. She can tell Mama almost anything, but she still has her own secrets. There are just some things Mama wouldn’t understand, like how much Prim’s enjoying her biology class, or that sometimes she sneaks into the hospital facility during meditation time, just so she can watch the medics hook up IVs and perform minor surgery. She could spend hours staring at the fancy labels on medicine bottles, full of tiny pills in bright colors like the candy they could never afford in District 12.
Even though she never says a bad word about it, Mama doesn’t really like the hospital. Prim can understand why. At first, the doctors were interested in Mama’s poultices and blended teas, but now all those bottles and packages are stuck at the back of a cabinet. Every time Prim watches one of the high-tech medicines heal someone far better than snow pack ever could, she feels a stab of disloyalty. But the guilt is drowned out by her amazement at what science can do.
One afternoon, Dr. Larkspur lets her watch a surgery to repair a torn ligament in one of the hovercraft pilots’ knee. Mama wasn’t on shift at the time, but Prim still checks over her shoulder every few minutes. Despite the distraction, it’s the most amazing thing she’s ever seen.
When she walks into their compartment that evening, Katniss isn’t there. Mama looks up at her from the bunk, a damp cloth over her forehead. Another headache. She gives Prim a tired smile. “How was your day?”
Prim wants so badly to tell her about how Dr. Larkspur had shaken her hand and said, “I’m very impressed by your interest, Miss Everdeen. I’d like to start training you for the surgical staff.”
Instead, she shrugs. “It was okay. Nothing special.”
* * * * *
While Castor finishes editing the footage from District 12, Haymitch sits at the audio station and listens to one part again and again. The walls start to close in on him, and he doesn’t want to look at the pathetic faces of all the others who’ll show up here soon to go through the propos like it’s some big game. He takes off his communicator cuff and tosses it to Castor. “Put the audio on there.”
Castor nods and starts messing with some buttons. Lights slice across the monitors, bringing on another headache. Figures. The past four weeks have been the worst fucking hangover he’s ever had, and without the promise of a drink later to make it all go away. He scrubs at his face and forces back a growl or the impulse to smash something, and Castor has to say “Sir?” three times to get his attention.
Haymitch takes the communicator from him. He stares at it for a moment before standing up on legs that feel as unsteady as back when he had half a bottle of white liquor in his veins. He mutters “Thanks”, and Castor just shrugs. He’s a good kid.
An hour later, he sits in a supply closet that he saw Katniss leave a few days ago. At least it’s private; he doesn’t want to see another human being right now. He presses the button on his wrist and listens to her sing the song again, and instead of his protégé, he hears Violet.
His mother and Barnabas were dead within a week of the Quell, but Snow took his time with Violet. Long enough for Haymitch to delude himself into believing she’d be the one he was allowed to keep. They’d drifted along on this bubble, helping to chase away the ghosts of his family, and he’d loved her more than he thought was possible. She used to sit with him on the porch of his house in the Victors Village, arm draped over his shoulders as she’d sing this song. Are you coming to the tree where I told you to run so we’d both be free?
He’d tease her about her name. Violet, like violence, when she was the most peaceful person he knew. So he shouldn’t have been shocked when her name was drawn from the Reaping ball the next spring. And it shouldn’t have felt like his soul was drawn and quartered when she died at the cornucopia.
Katniss’s voice isn’t as strong and clear as Violet’s, but it’s close enough. He swore years ago that he was never again going to cry over what they’d done to him. Now he sits in the closet, tears falling as he plays the song over and over and over.
* * * * *
The people here are nice. Maybe not as nice as the people back home, but they’re cordial and nod when she passes them in the corridors, and that’s the important thing, right? Mama always said that if you forget everything else, you should at least remember your manners. Sometimes it’s hard to remember them here, but she’s trying her best. Manners are all she has left of Mama now.
The tattoo on her arm says 1800 – Dinner. She prefers the later dinner shift because it’s busier, with more people to talk to. But the crowds sometimes make Theo anxious, so they eat early. She picks him up at the first grade classroom and holds his hand as they walk to the commissary. A man in the hall smiles at them, which brightens Delly’s day considerably. She’s heard some stories of what these people have endured. While those experiences can’t begin to compare with even half of what she’s trying to forget about District 12, it’s still good to know that at least one of the people here remembers how to smile.
Theo barely says anything as they eat their stew. She asks about his day, and he says it was okay. Then he looks up and says, “This isn’t as good as the stew Mama used to make.”
Sometimes it takes everything inside her not to cry in front of Theo. She is so grateful that he was already with Gale and the others when the firebombs hit. He didn’t watch their house collapse with Mama and Papa still inside. He knows that it happened, but at least he seems to have been spared the nightmares that keep her up at night. When she jolts upright in the middle of the night, she smothers the gasps and sweat with a pillow over her face. Now she has to be strong for both of them.
“Maybe we can teach the cooks how she used to make it. Does that sound like a good idea?”
She manages to smile and coax her little brother through the rest of his meal.
* * * * *
It’s hard to believe that District 12 is less than an hour away by hovercraft. A week by foot. They could’ve made it to 13 years ago, before the Reaping and all those years of suffering. Him and Katniss, the kids, their mothers.
Across the table, Katniss pretends to listen to the strategy session, but she keeps glancing out the window. Gale wonders if she’s thinking the same thing. It’s getting tougher to read her. He can still anticipate her moves, but the why shifts in and out of focus. She finally excuses herself to the bathroom, and there’s this part of him that’s glad. It’s not that he wants her to stay away from him. Never that. Too much has changed, though, since the time when their lives ran parallel. He’ll never know what it was like to go into the Arena, and she’ll never know what it was like to watch her.
And then there’s this. Maybe the truth is that he doesn’t want her to know how much he’s enjoying this.
For her, it’s a necessary evil – or just an evil. Gale understands that. But it’s different for him. After all those years of railing against the Capitol with nothing to show for it, now he can do something. Plutarch and Coin would be within rights to treat him like some kid from the sticks, but they listen to him. It’s not a power trip; he’s more than willing to cede authority to the experts. It just feels so damned good to sit here at this table with the others, going over the Districts’ status reports and devising strategies for the next set of propos. Katniss would probably understand if he told her, but something keeps him from it. Maybe because she still sees herself as a tool, and he’s complicit in using her as one.
So he sits there with Plutarch and Cressida, going through the maps in painstaking, fascinating detail. When he spots Katniss’s finger tracing the outline of District 12, Gale looks up, startled. He hadn’t noticed her return.
* * * * *
When he finally walks through the door, Vinca greets him with a kiss and a nod toward their three-year-old. “You’ve had the past week off. Time to get back on duty, Soldier.”
Pahl rolls his eyes, and she just laughs before grabbing a towel for shower time. He takes off his shoes and lines them up in the proper place, then wedges himself into a too-small chair next to their son’s bed. “What kind of story do you want tonight, Horace?”
He’s finally stopped grimacing every time he says the kid’s name. It’s an awful name for such a cute boy, but Vinca had insisted. Something about her ancestry or whatever. He’d been so dazed the first time he held the boy that he probably would’ve agreed to Poppycock or even worse. After little Holly died of the pox all those years ago, he’d never expected to hold a child of his own again. And if bedtime stories are part of the call of duty, he’ll find a way to write a thousand tales.
Horace wiggles under his blanket. “Tell me about the water, Daddy.”
Good call. He could manage that. “Well. If you go up in a hovercraft and fly for a very, very long time, you’ll reach the ocean. It’s blue, just like the pond on the surface, but it’s much bigger. There’s water as far as your eyes can see, with waves like this.” He tilts his hand back and forth to mimic the waves.
Horace smiles. “What’s it smell like?”
Smell? Pahl hasn’t a clue. He’s only ever seen it from above, when they did a surveillance run last month to check on District 4. But that won’t mollify the boy, so he uses his imagination. “It smells like salt and fish. So many fish that you can go up and touch them, or you can use a giant fork called a trident to –” He stops himself just in time. “Uh, to play with the fish.”
He’s running out of things to say; his imagination has never been that good. Fortunately, Horace’s eyelids are drooping. “Can we go play with the fishes, Daddy?”
Pahl leans down to kiss his son’s forehead. “When all this is over, I’ll take you to the ocean.” After all, isn’t that why they’re fighting?
* * * * *
Finnick will come.
She says it over and over, sometimes just in her head and sometimes aloud even though nobody is listening. Not to her. But she hears everything else. Screams, mostly. They rattle the walls throughout the days or maybe nights. She lost track of time ages ago, night and day and night again all on those bare white walls and oh she wishes they’d give her a window so she could gaze out upon the sea.
They never come for her. It’s always someone else. She doesn’t recognize the sounds of the others’ voices when they call out in pain, but there’s that familiar bite underneath that says victor. Could be anyone. So many of them to choose from... well, maybe not as many now. Never Finnick’s voice, though. She knows that voice too well, etched too deeply into her bones. When the screams slide into deep, choked breaths, she closes her eyes and imagines its him gasping her name as he slides over her, kissing her, deep inside, slick and perfect like the newborn seals back home. That’s the only time she smiles. It’s awful, but it drowns the sounds for a while.
Today, someone has been screaming for hours. It might be a man. She tries and fails to push it away. Then there’s a loud thud and a rolling sound, and when she blinks it’s Henrik’s head at her feet and her screeching and flapping away like a fish to hide under that rock in the Arena all those years ago. Now she stays under her metal cot until the head is gone and her throat is raw, and she’s alone, always alone.
When her mind is clear – and it is clear once in a while – she decides that she’d rather be there with the others. Screaming, pounding her fists, refusing to answer their questions. But the people on the other side of the door are too smart. They know that leaving her in here to listen will hurt Annie Cresta the most, and electrical shocks or shackles never even enter their small minds.
So she sits there against the windowless wall as her mind fades out again to drown out the screams, and when she closes her eyes she sees Finnick walking through the door of her house in the Victors Village, tracking sand all over the carpets. Finnick. Healthy and grinning and light, so much redgoldblue light.
* * * * *