Chapter Sixteen

16.

Haymitch grips my wrist as if anticipating my next move, but I am as speechless as the Capitol's torturers have rendered Darius. Haymitch once told me they did something to Avoxes' tongues so they could never talk again. In my head I hear Darius's voice, playful and bright, ringing across the Hob to tease me. Not as my fellow victors make fun of me now, but because we genuinely liked each other. If Gale could see him ...

I know any move I would make toward Darius, any act of recognition, would only result in punishment for him. So we just stare into each other's eyes. Darius, now a mute slave; me, now headed to death. What would we say, anyway? That we're sorry for the other's lot? That we ache for the other's pain? That we're glad we had the chance to know each other?

No, Darius shouldn't be glad he knew me. If I had been there to stop Thread, he wouldn't have stepped forward to save Gale. Wouldn't be an Avox. And more specifically, wouldn't be my Avox, because President Snow has so obviously had him placed here for my benefit.

I twist my wrist from Haymitch's grasp and head down to my old bedroom, locking the door behind me. I sit on the side of my bed, elbows on my knees, forehead on my fists, and watch my glowing suit in the darkness, imagining I am in my old home in District 12, huddled beside the fire. It slowly fades back to black as the power pack dies out.

When Effie eventually knocks on the door to summon me to dinner, I get up and take off my suit, fold it neatly, and set it on the table with my crown. In the bathroom, I wash the dark streaks of makeup from my face. I dress in a simple shirt and pants and go down the hall to the dining room.

I'm not aware of much at dinner except that Darius and the redheaded Avox girl are our servers. Effie, Haymitch, Cinna, Portia, and Peeta are all there, talking about the opening ceremonies, I suppose. But the only time I really feel present is when I purposely knock a dish of peas to the floor and, before anyone can stop me, crouch down to clean them up. Darius is right by me when I send the dish over, and we two are briefly side by side, obscured from view, as we scoop up the peas. For just one moment our hands meet. I can feel his skin, rough under the buttery sauce from the dish. In the tight, desperate clench of our fingers are all the words we will never be able to say. Then Effie's clucking at me from behind about how "That isn't your job, Katniss!" and he lets go.

When we go in to watch the recap of the opening ceremonies, I wedge myself in between Cinna and Haymitch on the couch because I don't want to be next to Peeta. This awfulness with Darius belongs to me and Gale and maybe even Haymitch, but not to Peeta. He might've known Darius to nod hello, but Peeta wasn't Hob the way the rest of us were. Besides, I'm still angry with him for laughing at me along with the other victors, and the last thing I want is his sympathy and comfort. I haven't changed my mind about saving him in the arena, but I don't owe him more than that.

As I watch the procession to the City Circle, I think how it's bad enough that they dress us all up in costumes and parade us through the streets in chariots on a regular year. Kids in costumes are silly, but aging victors, it turns out, are pitiful. A few who are on the younger side, like Johanna and Finnick, or whose bodies haven't fallen into disrepair, like Seeder and Brutus, can still manage to maintain a little dignity. But the majority, who are in the clutches of drink or morphling or illness, look grotesque in their costumes, depicting cows and trees and loaves of bread. Last year we chattered away about each contestant, but tonight there's only the occasional comment. Small wonder the crowd goes wild when Peeta and I appear, looking so young and strong and beautiful in our brilliant costumes. The very image of what tributes should be.

As soon as it's over, I stand up and thank Cinna and Portia for their amazing work and head off to bed. Effie calls a reminder to meet early for breakfast to work out our training strategy, but even her voice sounds hollow. Poor Effie. She finally had a decent year in the Games with Peeta and me, and now it's all broken down into a mess that even she can't put a positive spin on. In Capitol terms, I'm guessing this counts as a true tragedy.

Soon after I go to bed, there's a quiet knock on my door, but I ignore it. I don't want Peeta tonight. Especially not with Darius around. It's almost as bad as if Gale were here. Gale. How am I supposed to let him go with Darius haunting the hallways?

Tongues figure prominently in my nightmares. First I watch frozen and helpless while gloved hands carry out the bloody dissection in Darius's mouth. Then I'm at a party where everyone wears masks and someone with a flicking, wet tongue, who I suppose is Finnick, stalks me, but when he catches me and pulls off his mask, it's President Snow, and his puffy lips are dripping in bloody saliva. Finally I'm back in the arena, my own tongue as dry as sandpaper, while I try to reach a pool of water that recedes every time I'm about to touch it.

When I wake, I stumble to the bathroom and gulp water from the faucet until I can hold no more. I strip off my sweaty clothes and fall back into bed, naked, and somehow find sleep again.

I delay going down to breakfast as long as possible the next morning because I really don't want to discuss our training strategy. What's to discuss? Every victor already knows what everybody else can do. Or used to be able to do, anyway. So Peeta and I will continue to act in love and that's that. Somehow I'm just not up to talking about it, especially with Darius standing mutely by. I take a long shower, dress slowly in the outfit Cinna has left for training, and order food from the menu in my room by speaking into a mouthpiece. In a minute, sausage, eggs, potatoes, bread, juice, and hot chocolate appear. I eat my fill, trying to drag out the minutes until ten o'clock, when we have to go down to the Training Center. By nine-thirty, Haymitch is pounding on my door, obviously fed up with me, ordering me to the dining room NOW! Still, I brush my teeth before meandering down the hall, effectively killing another five minutes.

The dining room's empty except for Peeta and Haymitch, whose face is flushed with drink and anger. On his wrist he wears a solid-gold bangle with a pattern of flames - this must be his concession to Effie's matching-token plan - that he twists unhappily. It's a very handsome bangle, really, but the movement makes it seem like something confining, a shackle, rather than a piece of jewelry. "You're late," he snarls at me.

"Sorry. I slept in after the mutilated-tongue nightmares kept me up half the night." I mean to sound hostile, but my voice catches at the end of the sentence.

Haymitch gives me a scowl, then relents. "All right, never mind. Today, in training, you've got two jobs. One, stay in love."

"Obviously," I say.

"And two, make some friends," says Haymitch. "No," I say. "I don't trust any of them, I can't stand most of them, and I'd rather operate with just the two of us." "That's what I said at first, but - " Peeta begins.

"But it won't be enough," Haymitch insists. "You're going to need more allies this time around."

"Why?" I ask.

"Because you're at a distinct disadvantage. Your competitors have known each other for years. So who do you think they're going to target first?" he says.

"Us. And nothing we're going to do is going to override any old friendship," I say. "So why bother?"

"Because you can fight. You're popular with the crowd. That could still make you desirable allies. But only if you let the others know you're willing to team up with them," says Haymitch.

"You mean you want us in the Career pack this year?" I ask, unable to hide my distaste. Traditionally the tributes from Districts 1, 2, and 4 join forces, possibly taking in a few other exceptional fighters, and hunt down the weaker competitors.

"That's been our strategy, hasn't it? To train like Careers?" counters Haymitch. "And who makes up the Career pack is generally agreed upon before the Games begin. Peeta barely got in with them last year."

I think of the loathing I felt when I discovered Peeta was with the Careers during the last Games. "So we're to try to get in with Finnick and Brutus - is that what you're saying?"

"Not necessarily. Everyone's a victor. Make your own pack if you'd rather. Choose who you like. I'd suggest Chaff and Seeder. Although Finnick's not to be ignored," says Haymitch. "Find someone to team up with who might be of some use to you. Remember, you're not in a ring full of trembling children anymore. These people are all experienced killers, no matter what shape they appear to be in."

Maybe he's right. Only who could I trust? Seeder maybe. But do I really want to make a pact with her, only to possibly have to kill her later? No. Still, I made a pact with Rue under the same circumstances. I tell Haymitch I'll try, even though I think I'll be pretty bad at the whole thing.

Effie shows up a bit early to take us down because last year, even though we were on time, we were the last two tributes to show up. But Haymitch tells her he doesn't want her taking us down to the gym. None of the other victors will be showing up with a babysitter, and being the youngest, it's even more important we look self-reliant. So she has to satisfy herself with taking us to the elevator, fussing over our hair, and pushing the button for us.

It's such a short ride that there's no real time for conversation, but when Peeta takes my hand, I don't pull it away. I may have ignored him last night in private, but in training we must appear as an inseparable team.

Effie needn't have worried about us being the last to arrive. Only Brutus and the woman from District 2, Enobaria, are present. Enobaria looks to be about thirty and all I can remember about her is that, in hand-to-hand combat, she killed one tribute by ripping open his throat with her teeth. She became so famous for this act that, after she was a victor, she had her teeth cosmetically altered so each one ends in a sharp point like a fang and is inlaid with gold. She has no shortage of admirers in the Capitol.

By ten o'clock, only about half of the tributes have shown up. Atala, the woman who runs training, begins her spiel right on time, unfazed by the poor attendance. Maybe she expected it. I'm sort of relieved, because that means there are a dozen people I don't have to pretend to make friends with. Atala runs through the list of stations, which include both combat and survival skills, and releases us to train.

I tell Peeta I think we'd do best to split up, thus covering more territory. When he goes off to chuck spears with Brutus and Chaff, I head over to the knot-tying station, hardly anyone ever bothers to visit it. I like the trainer and he remembers me fondly, maybe because I spent time with him last year. He's pleased when I show him I can still set the trap that leaves an enemy dangling by a leg from a tree. Clearly he took note of my snares in the arena last year and now sees me as an advanced pupil, so I ask him to review every kind of knot that might come in handy and a few that I'll probably never use. I'd be content to spend the morning alone with him, but after about an hour and a half, someone puts his arms around me from behind, his fingers easily finishing the complicated knot I've been sweating over. Of course it's Finnick, who seems to have spent his childhood doing nothing but wielding tridents and manipulating ropes into fancy knots for nets, I guess. I watch for a minute while he picks up a length of rope, makes a noose, and then pretends to hang himself for my amusement.

Rolling my eyes, I head over to another vacant station where tributes can learn to build fires. I already make excellent fires, but I'm still pretty dependent on matches for starting them. So the trainer has me work with flint, steel, and some charred cloth. This is much harder than it looks, and even working as intently as I can, it takes me about an hour to get a fire going. I look up with a triumphant smile only to find I have company.

The two tributes from District 3 are beside me, struggling to start a decent fire with matches. I think about leaving, but I really want to try using the flint again, and if I have to report back to Haymitch that I tried to make friends, these two might be a bearable choice. Both are small in stature with ashen skin and black hair. The woman, Wiress, is probably around my mother's age and speaks in a quiet, intelligent voice. But right away I notice she has a habit of dropping off her words in mid-sentence, as if she's forgotten you're there. Beetee, the man, is older and somewhat fidgety. He wears glasses but spends a lot of time looking under them. They're a little strange, but I'm pretty sure neither of them is going to try to make me uncomfortable by stripping naked. And they're from District 3. Maybe they can even confirm my suspicions of an uprising there.

I glance around the Training Center. Peeta is at the center of a ribald circle of knife throwers. The morphlings from District 6 are in the camouflage station, painting each other's faces with bright pink swirls. The male tribute from District 5 is vomiting wine on the sword-fighting floor. Finnick and the old woman from his district are using the archery station. Johanna Mason is naked again and oiling her skin down for a wrestling lesson. I decide to stay put.

Wiress and Beetee make decent company. They seem friendly enough but don't pry. We talk about our talents; they tell me they both invent things, which makes my supposed interest in fashion seem pretty weak. Wiress brings up some sort of stitching device she's working on.

"It senses the density of the fabric and selects the strength," she says, and then becomes absorbed in a bit of dry straw before she can go on.

"The strength of the thread," Beetee finishes explaining. "Automatically. It rules out human error." Then he talks about his recent success creating a musical chip that's tiny enough to be concealed in a flake of glitter but can hold hours of songs. I remember Octavia talking about this during the wedding shoot, and I see a possible chance to allude to the uprising.

"Oh, yeah. My prep team was all upset a few months ago, I think, because they couldn't get hold of that," I say casually. "I guess a lot of orders from District Three were getting backed up."

Beetee examines me under his glasses. "Yes. Did you have any similar backups in coal production, this year?" he asks.

"No. Well, we lost a couple of weeks when they brought in a new Head Peacekeeper and his crew, but nothing major," I say. "To production, I mean. Two weeks sitting around your house doing nothing just means two weeks of being hungry for most people."

I think they understand what I'm trying to say. That we've had no uprising. "Oh. That's a shame," says Wiress in a slightly disappointed voice. "I found your district very ..." She trails off, distracted by something in her head.

"Interesting," fills in Beetee. "We both did."

I feel bad, knowing that their district must have suffered much worse than ours. I feel I have to defend my people. "Well, there aren't very many of us in Twelve," I say. "Not that you'd know it nowadays by the size of the Peacekeeping force. But I guess we're interesting enough."

As we move over to the shelter station, Wiress stops and gazes up at the stands where the Gamemakers are roaming around, eating and drinking, sometimes taking notice of us. "Look," she says, giving her head a slight nod in their direction. I look up and see Plutarch Heavensbee in the magnificent purple robe with the fur-trimmed collar that designates him as Head Gamemaker. He's eating a turkey leg.

I don't see why this merits comment, but I say, "Yes, he's been promoted to Head Gamemaker this year."

"No, no. There by the corner of the table. You can just ..." says Wiress.

Beetee squints under his glasses. "Just make it out."

I stare in that direction, perplexed. But then I see it. A patch of space about six inches square at the corner of the table seems almost to be vibrating. It's as if the air is rippling in tiny visible waves, distorting the sharp edges of the wood and a goblet of wine someone has set there.

"A force field. They've set one up between the Game-makers and us. I wonder what brought that on," Beetee says.

"Me, probably," I confess. "Last year I shot an arrow at them during my private training session." Beetee and Wiress look at me curiously. "I was provoked. So, do all force fields have a spot like that?"

"Chink," says Wiress vaguely.

"In the armor, as it were," finishes Beetee. "Ideally it'd be invisible, wouldn't it?"

I want to ask them more, but lunch is announced. I look for Peeta, but he's hanging with a group of about ten other victors, so I decide just to eat with District 3. Maybe I can get Seeder to join us.

When we make our way into the dining area, I see some of Peeta's gang have other ideas. They're dragging all the smaller tables to form one large table so that we all have to eat together. Now I don't know what to do. Even at school I used to avoid eating at a crowded table. Frankly, I'd probably have sat alone if Madge hadn't made a habit of joining me. I guess I'd have eaten with Gale except, being two grades apart, our lunch never fell at the same time.

I take a tray and start making my way around the food-laden carts that ring the room. Peeta catches up with me at the stew. "How's it going?"

"Good. Fine. I like the District Three victors," I say. "Wiress and Beetee."

"Really?" he asks. "They're something of a joke to the others."

"Why does that not surprise me?" I say. I think of how Peeta was always surrounded at school by a crowd of friends. It's amazing, really, that he ever took any notice of me except to think I was odd.

"Johanna's nicknamed them Nuts and Volts," he says. "I think she's Nuts and he's Volts."

"And so I'm stupid for thinking they might be useful. Because of something Johanna Mason said while she was oiling up her breasts for wrestling," I retort.

"Actually I think the nickname's been around for years. And I didn't mean that as an insult. I'm just sharing information," he says.

"Well, Wiress and Beetee are smart. They invent things. They could tell by sight that a force field had been put up between us and the Gamemakers. And if we have to have allies, I want them." I toss the ladle back in a pot of stew, splattering us both with the gravy.

"What are you so angry about?" Peeta asks, wiping the gravy from his shirtfront. "Because I teased you on the elevator? I'm sorry. I thought you would just laugh about it."

"Forget it," I say with a shake of my head. "It's a lot of things."

"Darius," he says.

"Darius. The Games. Haymitch making us team up with the others," I say.

"It can just be you and me, you know," he says.

"I know. But maybe Haymitch is right," I say. "Don't tell him I said so, but he usually is, where the Games are concerned."

"Well, you can have final say about our allies. But right now, I'm leaning toward Chaff and Seeder," says Peeta.

"I'm okay with Seeder, not Chaff," I say. "Not yet, anyway."

"Come on and eat with him. I promise, I won't let him kiss you again," says Peeta.

Chaff doesn't seem as bad at lunch. He's sober, and while he talks too loud and makes bad jokes a lot, most of them are at his own expense. I can see why he would be good for Haymitch, whose thoughts run so darkly. But I'm still not sure I'm ready to team up with him.

I try hard to be more sociable, not just with Chaff but with the group at large. After lunch I do the edible-insect station with the District 8 tributes - Cecelia, who's got three kids at home, and Woof, a really old guy who's hard of hearing and doesn't seem to know what's going on since he keeps trying to stuff poisonous bugs in his mouth. I wish I could mention meeting Twill and Bonnie in the woods, but I can't figure out how. Cashmere and Gloss, the sister and brother from District 1, invite me over and we make hammocks for a while. They're polite but cool, and I spend the whole time thinking about how I killed both the tributes from their district, Glimmer and Marvel, last year, and that they probably knew them and might even have been their mentors. Both my hammock and my attempt to connect with them are mediocre at best. I join Enobaria at sword training and exchange a few comments, but it's clear neither of us wants to team up. Finnick appears again when I'm picking up fishing tips, but mostly just to introduce me to Mags, the elderly woman who's also from District 4. Between her district accent and her garbled speech - possibly she's had a stroke - I can't make out more than one in four words. But I swear she can make a decent fishhook out of anything - a thorn, a wishbone, an earring. After a while I tune out the trainer and simply try to copy whatever Mags does. When I make a pretty good hook out of a bent nail and fasten it to some strands of my hair, she gives me a toothless smile and an unintelligible comment I think might be praise. Suddenly I remember how she volunteered to replace the young, hysterical woman in her district. It couldn't be because she thought she had any chance of winning. She did it to save the girl, just like I volunteered last year to save Prim. And I decide I want her on my team.

Great. Now I have to go back and tell Haymitch I want an eighty-year-old and Nuts and Volts for my allies. He'll love that.

So I give up trying to make friends and go over to the archery range for some sanity. It's wonderful there, getting to try out all the different bows and arrows. The trainer, Tax, seeing that the standing targets offer no challenge for me, begins to launch these silly fake birds high into the air for me to hit. At first it seems stupid, but it turns out to be kind of fun. Much more like hunting a moving creature. Since I'm hitting everything he throws up, he starts increasing the number of birds he sends airborne. I forget the rest of the gym and the victors and how miserable I am and lose myself in the shooting. When I manage to take down five birds in one round, I realize it's so quiet I can hear each one hit the floor. I turn and see the majority of the victors have stopped to watch me. Their faces show everything from envy to hatred to admiration.

After training, Peeta and I hang out, waiting for Haymitch and Effie to show up for dinner. When we're called to eat, Haymitch pounces on me immediately. "So at least half the victors have instructed their mentors to request you as an ally. I know it can't be your sunny personality."

"They saw her shoot," says Peeta with a smile. "Actually, I saw her shoot, for real, for the first time. I'm about to put in a formal request myself."

"You're that good?" Haymitch asks me. "So good that Brutus wants you?"

I shrug. "But I don't want Brutus. I want Mags and District Three."

"Of course you do." Haymitch sighs and orders a bottle of wine. "I'll tell everybody you're still making up your mind."

After my shooting exhibition, I still get teased some, but I no longer feel like I'm being mocked. In fact, I feel as if I've somehow been initiated into the victors' circle. During the next two days, I spend time with almost everybody headed for the arena. Even the morphlings, who, with Peeta's help, paint me into a field of yellow flowers. Even Finnick, who gives me an hour of trident lessons in exchange for an hour of archery instruction. And the more I come to know these people, the worse it is. Because, on the whole, I don't hate them. And some I like. And a lot of them are so damaged that my natural instinct would be to protect them. But all of them must die if I'm to save Peeta.

The final day of training ends with our private sessions. We each get fifteen minutes before the Gamemakers to amaze them with our skills, but I don't know what any of us might have to show them. There's a lot of kidding about it at lunch. What we might do. Sing, dance, strip, tell jokes. Mags, who I can understand a little better now, decides she's just going to take a nap. I don't know what I'm going to do. Shoot some arrows, I guess. Haymitch said to surprise them if we could, but I'm fresh out of ideas.

As the girl from 12, I'm scheduled to go last. The dining room gets quieter and quieter as the tributes file out to go perform. It's easier to keep up the irreverent, invincible manner we've all adopted when there are more of us. As people disappear through the door, all I can think is that they have a matter of days to live.

Peeta and I are finally left alone. He reaches across the table to take my hands. "Decided what to do for the Gamemakers yet?"

I shake my head. "I can't really use them for target practice this year, with the force field up and all. Maybe make some fishhooks. What about you?"

"Not a clue. I keep wishing I could bake a cake or something," he says.

"Do some more camouflage," I suggest.

"If the morphlings have left me anything to work with," he says wryly. "They've been glued to that station since training started."

We sit in silence awhile and then I blurt out the thing that's on both our minds. "How are we going to kill these people, Peeta?"

"I don't know." He leans his forehead down on our entwined hands.

"I don't want them as allies. Why did Haymitch want us to get to know them?" I say. "It'll make it so much harder than last time. Except for Rue maybe. But I guess I never really could've killed her, anyway. She was just too much like Prim."

Peeta looks up at me, his brow creased in thought. "Her death was the most despicable, wasn't it?"

"None of them were very pretty," I say, thinking of Glimmer's and Cato's ends.

They call Peeta, so I wait by myself. Fifteen minutes pass. Then half an hour. It's close to forty minutes before I'm called.

When I go in, I smell the sharp odor of cleaner and notice that one of the mats has been dragged to the center of the room. The mood is very different from last year's, when the Gamemakers were half drunk and distractedly picking at tidbits from the banquet table. They whisper among themselves, looking somewhat annoyed. What did Peeta do? Something to upset them?

I feel a pang of worry. That isn't good. I don't want Peeta singling himself out as a target for the Gamemakers' anger. That's part of my job. To draw fire away from Peeta. But how did he upset them? Because I'd love to do just that and more. To break through the smug veneer of those who use their brains to find amusing ways to kill us. To make them realize that while we're vulnerable to the Capitol's cruelties, they are as well.

Do you have any idea how much I hate you? I think. You, who have given your talents to the Games?

I try to catch Plutarch Heavensbee's eye, but he seems to be intentionally ignoring me, as he has the entire training period. I remember how he sought me out for a dance, how pleased he was to show me the mockingjay on his watch. His friendly manner has no place here. How could it, when I'm a mere tribute and he's the Head Gamemaker? So powerful, so removed, so safe ...

Suddenly I know just what I'm going to do. Something that will blow anything Peeta did right out of the water. I go over to the knot-tying station and get a length of rope. I start to manipulate it, but it's hard because I've never made this actual knot myself. I've only watched Finnick's clever fingers, and they moved so fast. After about ten minutes, I've come up with a respectable noose. I drag one of the target dummies out into the middle of the room and, using some chinning bars, hang it so it dangles by the neck. Tying its hands behind its back would be a nice touch, but I think I might be running out of time. I hurry over to the camouflage station, where some of the other tributes, undoubtedly the morphlings, have made a colossal mess. But I find a partial container of bloodred berry juice that will serve my needs. The flesh-colored fabric of the dummy's skin makes a good, absorbent canvas. I carefully finger paint the words on its body, concealing them from view. Then I step away quickly to watch the reaction on the Gamemakers' faces as they read the name on the dummy.

SENECA CRANE.

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