Author: BlackShield PM
When Effie reads Cassidy's name, it takes four Peacekeepers to drag Brittany back to her seat, and a fifth to press a cloth to the nail marks down Effie's cheek. All Brittany sees is Cassidy crying. Brittana & Sugar / Hunger Games crossover.Rated: Fiction T - English - Family/Angst - Brittany P. & Sugar M. - Words: 29,871 - Reviews: 24 - Favs: 60 - Follows: 63 - Published: 04-14-12 - id: 8024376
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
BtVS isn't on hiatus, it's just really behind. 23 will come eventually. This is what I've done in the meantime. Disclaimers to Glee and Hunger Games. Draws some names from Tomotta (Cassidy is Sugar, Lilly is Britt's sister).
Brittany's said it a thousand times, the way her mom did for her, tucking in diaper edges and shirt tags and flyaway hairs, but this time feels different. She spent her youth whispering it to Lilly, buttoning her shirts and helping her into her shoes, and she's spent her adult life repeating it to Cassidy.
Today, it's choked with tears, crouched in front of the mirror while she smooths the back of Cassidy's shirt into her waistband. "Tuck in your tail, little duck," she whispers, afraid a louder voice will waver. Cassidy giggles, somehow; maybe she doesn't understand the danger, but maybe she does.
Her name appears twice in the drawing this year. Cassidy turns around, still smiling a little with her eyes glittering, and Brittany touches her careful braids with reverent fingers. "You look beautiful," she whispers.
"You too," Cassidy says back.
Brittany stands and guides Cassidy through the little house by the shoulder. For the first time in Brittany's life, Santana won't be there to hold her hand during the Reaping.
She tries not to think about it.
Brittany's had a terrible feeling all day, and it only worsens when she spots Cassidy, herded into the thirteen-year-olds' pen like an animal. She's gotten thinner over the past few months, with less game filling the fire pit and their sullen stomachs. There are shadows on Cassidy's young face, hollowing her cheeks too sharply. It traps Brittany's breath in her throat.
From her seat on the stage, she can see Artie, fidgeting in the mayor's seat he's not quite big enough for. Finally, he's stopped wearing the wedding ring, but she catches his eye by accident right when he squeezes his fourth finger, as if he feels the metal ghost.
His lip curls in a sneer and the moment breaks; Brittany looks back at Cassidy while Effie Trinket totters onto the stage. Like every year, she chirps a greeting, but like every year, Brittany says nothing back. Without Santana, she finds herself holding her own hand, gripping so tightly her knuckles go pale.
Effie's yammering on, and Brittany keeps looking at Cassidy. Cassidy meets her eyes and Brittany forces her mouth into a smile, even as she bites her lip and tears leak out the corner of her eyes. She tries to mouth I love you, but Effie's already called the first name. Brittany doesn't recognize it, but Cassidy seems to; her face falls into a pained cry, her lips the same little o of shock that Santana's used to make, and she reaches out toward the boy being taken out of the fourteen-year-old pen.
As usual, Effie likes to chatter a little in between, congratulating the cannon fodder when he reaches the stage and commenting on his lanky build as if it will save him in the arena. It sends a pang through Brittany's stomach, but then she sees Artie staring hard at the reaping ball, his gaze flint behind the glasses.
Something is wrong.
Her hands fly to the armrests and she half-lunges in her seat. Leaning forward, poised to stand, Brittany freezes the instant Effie's hand dips back into the ball.
In slow motion, Brittany watches those horribly painted lips peel back over sandpapered teeth into Effie's sadistic caricature of a smile.
The pulse in Brittany's ears knows what's written on the page.
When Effie reads Cassidy's name, it takes four Peacekeepers to drag Brittany back to her seat, and a fifth to press a cloth to the nail marks down Effie's cheek.
All Brittany sees is Cassidy crying.
With all the practice she's had, it takes Brittany minutes to seal her fury inside herself, crisp as the seal of the canned peaches she used to get on her birthday as a girl. The Peacekeepers don't know what to make of her; they freeze where they handle her, still poised for the cameras on the stage, while Cassidy and the other boy are led into the Justice Building.
Effie sends her a worried look. Cassidy's still got Artie's last name, and Effie must be a complete idiot not to realize that the mayor's daughter getting reaped means the whole thing was rigged.
Then again, Effie is a complete idiot. Brittany swallows the scowl she'd rather be wearing and sends Effie her practiced blank mask: the one she showed the cameras, in her youth, when she was chosen. Like usual, Effie sees her own stupidity, reflected off Brittany's face like a fogged mirror, and turns away from her with a sniff of disgust.
It's been too long since 12's two glory years. Effie is antsy again.
The Peacekeepers keep holding her, two by the bicep and one hanging round her waist, and she wills her body to stay still. They buy it, mostly—enough to let her shrug them off. One of them—a leader, she thinks—she's stopped looking them full in the face—flicks his head toward the building, and they let her trail Effie and the boy and her daughter into the Justice Building.
Over her shoulder, she glimpses Artie, fiddling proudly with his ring finger again. The crowd, cowed by the Peacekeepers, hover behind her in the square, buzzing like bees too afraid to leave their hive.
Her hollow stomach feels full with how much she hates them in this moment.
The room looks the same as it did so long ago: plush furniture and soft red velvet, worn an ugly white where the threads have rubbed bare. Cassidy completes the picture, crumpled on the chair with her face cradled in her hands, sobbing so hard the chair creaks.
Brittany flies to her side like a bird falling from a tree, touching her still-perfect braids and wet fingers and turning Cassidy's head into her shoulder. As Brittany soaks up her daughter's choked tears, she litters Cassidy's forehead with butterfly kisses and whispers, "Sweetie, sugar, I know, I know it's scary."
No other words come, and Cassidy can't reply, so Brittany keeps petting her dark hair and soothing her, though she knows it's no use. "Come on, little duck," she whispers when she notices a Peacekeeper, come to shadow the doorway and let them know time is nearly up. She gently pulls away from Cassidy's face and looks hard into her glittering eyes. "I'll be with you, okay? I'll help you as best I can"—her voice breaks, the way she knew it would—"my baby, my dearest, sweetest thing."
Cassidy nods as Brittany presses two more hard kisses against her forehead, where her bangs pull back into the braids. Brittany smooths her palms one more time over Cassidy's hair, cheeks, neck, shoulders, and catches her hands—so small, too small for a weapon, surely, surely—to pry them away from her dress.
"I'll be with you on the train," she manages with a dampened smile. Cassidy's eyes squeeze shut as she nods again; Brittany hugs her too tight, then lets the Peacekeeper drag her out.
She passes Stacy and Steven Evans in the hallway, holding each other's hands tightly, and they can't seem to meet her eyes.
It's on the way to the train, when she reaches up to retrieve a loose eyelash tickling her cheek, that she realizes she's crying so steadily her skin feels clammy to the touch.
It's not clear whether Effie's forgotten she's Cassidy's mother or if she never knew, but either way, her redrawn eyebrows jolt upward when Brittany offers to collect Cassidy for dinner.
"If you insist," Effie huffs, and Brittany's too exhausted and upset to bother pointing out how obvious it should be that she'd want to be the first one Cassidy sees.
When she knocks on the door of the suite, there's silence, stretched long and thin enough that she holds her ear against the door. The sound of the shower draws her inside. She sees the dresser with its drawers all open, the bed mussed where Cassidy knelt by the window, and Cassidy's skirt and shirt draped carefully over a stool by the bathroom. "Cassidy," she calls, rapping her knuckles against the door and forcing her voice to stay even, "it's time for dinner."
The water turns off in answer. Brittany waits, worrying a stone with her fingertips, and just when she's slipped into the echo of Santana's dark hand hovering over hers, dropping the stone into her palm to the tune of her roughened voice against Brittany's ear, the door opens and Cassidy's standing before her in loose clothes the color of the shy blossoms that used to grow in the Victor's Village.
This time, it's Cassidy who speaks while Brittany stands, robbed of her voice by the sight of Santana's eyes set in Cassidy's young face. "What's for dinner?"
It's obvious that's not what Cassidy really wants to ask, but Brittany remembers what it's like: any other question will make it too real too quickly. All the tributes behave this way, at first—and it stings to think of her daughter as a tribute, so much that Brittany grimaces.
"Mom, what is it?" asks Cassidy, shaking as she steps out of the doorway and touches Brittany's hands. Brittany's left uncoils obediently—as if it's been waiting for this all day—and Cassidy looks curiously at the little stone. "What is this?"
Brittany swallows, clears her throat, and crackles, "It's a token. It was—my token." It was Santana's first, but Brittany hasn't been able to say her name since it happened, so she skips forward as she tucks it into Cassidy's palm: "I want you to have it. Take it with you to—the arena."
Mentioning the arena brings a bad taste to Brittany's mouth, but Cassidy keeps looking at the stone, turning it over in her hand as if it holds answers. It's rubbed white and smooth from so many years of anxious touches, but still holds its strangely perfect heart shape. "It was your token?" Cassidy confirms.
Brittany just nods. They've never spoken about her time in the Games; in their house, they don't discuss the Games at all, an unspoken rule Cassidy learned young. Again, a little voice inside her—the one that teased "Tuck in your tail, little duck" with Lilly in her childhood—corrects her, whispering, "Santana's token," but again, she ignores it. She beats it down inside her until all that's left is the clinging taste of bile.
Reverently, silently, Cassidy tucks the stone into the pocket of her pretty pink pants, and she pauses before hugging Brittany tightly, her head pillowed on Brittany's breastbone. "I'm glad you're here with me," Cassidy murmurs, and it feels like Brittany's going to cry, but no tears come.
She rubs Cassidy's back and shushes, "I know, sweetheart. Now"—she draws away reluctantly—"let's go stuff ourselves silly, okay?"
Cassidy's smile comes out braver than hers does.
Brittany turns away and leads Cassidy by the hand down to the dining car.
"Nice of you to join us," snarks Effie, seated primly and bolt upright beside the second tribute. It's clear from the awkward bend of his wrist that she's trying to teach him to use the fork dangling uselessly from his fingers. Brittany sits patiently on the boy's other side and adjusts his grip silently.
Cassidy sits beside Effie and gives her a disparaging glance. Before Cassidy can annoy Effie, the first course arrives in the hands of two uniformed train attendants. Cassidy's eyes light up; she hasn't seen food of this caliber in over a year, and she falls upon it like a ravenous animal.
It seems morbid foreshadowing for the sort of ravenous animal she will become in the arena. It turns Brittany's stomach, and she barely forces down four spoonfuls of soup before it's taken away and replaced with roast duck.
At the sight of it, Brittany's nostrils flare and her eyes snap to Effie, innocently sawing off a morsel and sending disapproving glances at the kids making messes of their dinners. "Duck?" asks Brittany icily—her first word to Effie since last year.
"I thought you liked it," Effie replies, playing dumb and doing it badly.
Brittany's spent most of her time as a mentor studiously avoiding conversation with Effie, so this recollection must come from her year as a tribute. It rouses Brittany's temper to think of Effie taking the care to remember her fearful former self mumbling about her favorite animal—and to use it against her now, here, sitting across the table at what may well be one of her daughter's last meals.
"What the fuck?" blurts Cassidy, and it surprises Effie even more than Brittany; Effie's dyed cheeks darken from her insulted sensibilities.
Predictably, she scolds Cassidy: "Watch your language, young lady. You represent your district."
Cassidy glances flatly at Brittany, who bites her lips to keep from smiling. "She likes ducks"—Cassidy slurps the s like a snake for emphasis—"not duck. God, that's so bitchy." She mutters the last part to the meat on her plate, even as she cuts off a wedge.
The boy on Brittany's right smothers a grin, but Brittany notices his shoulders shaking with quiet laughter.
Effie's insulted, again. She huffs at her food—as if it will offer her sympathy—and sulks her way through dessert, not even bothering to criticize the children's table manners when they frost their mouths with the little raspberry cakes.
"Come now," Effie instructs finally, nose high in the air as the attendants clear the dishes. "Time to watch the recaps!" She claps her hands like the excitable Capitol dolt she'll always be, and she's scurried off into the other car before Cassidy and the boy have even managed to lock confused eyes across the table.
Brittany stands with a heavy sigh and offers a hand to each of them. She spares Cassidy a long glance as she admits, "We'd better follow her, or she'll get even more pissed."
Still, her stomach lurches automatically in anticipation of seeing those young faces, half of them mournful and the other half bloodthirsty.
Cassidy and the boy follow her without question.
The television seems smaller every time Brittany sees it, but it still looks enormous next to Cassidy and the boy, flaring out to the edges of the wall and ceiling and leaving no space for windows. Effie is demurely excited, as always, clapping for the opening anthem and bouncing against the sofa cushion. The boy hovers an inch from the seat's back, too tired to stay alert and too nervous to get comfortable. Brittany sinks down as if into a lover's arms; the thought clogs her throat again and she notes with bittersweet sadness how Cassidy stays attentive on the edge of the seat, taking in every inch of the screen and of the careers who volunteer in the clips of District 1.
After all these years, the boy's broad shoulders and the girl's sharp eyes no longer faze Brittany; careers have looked the same, ghosts and copies of each other, since Brittany's earliest memory, watching the recaps in her parents' little house after the reaping and squeezing Lilly's hand to her chest. District 2 produces more clones, but both tributes have very light, pretty hair, an eerie mirror of Brittany's sister and father and her own reflection.
The camera pans to a man and woman, hugging each other through tears and smiles. The combination makes Brittany feel sick, and it only gets worse when the commentators explain that the tributes are siblings, and lucky Mr. and Mrs. Whatever will likely end up with a victor, one way or another.
Brittany touches Cassidy at the small of her back on instinct, without knowing why. The muscles soften a little, though Cassidy keeps her eyes on the screen.
It's almost frightening, how carefully Cassidy watches, tracing the curves of the tributes' faces, obviously filing their names and districts away in her mind. Again, the colors flickering against her eyes make them look strikingly like Santana's; Brittany wants to look away, but she doesn't.
The careers are, as always, most intimidating, hulking with full bellies and oiled muscles. There's a blind girl from 8, a little older than Cassidy, a beast of a boy from 7 with six fingers on one hand, and a tall, thin girl from 11 with a fierce face that makes Brittany nervous. Still, it's pretty standard fare: Most of the tributes look weary, underfed, and already defeated. Calculating in the one or two surprises every game brings, Brittany figures that's nine or ten for Cassidy to watch out for.
One glance reminds her she doesn't need to tell Cassidy that.
Just as she's about to stand, the commentators call District 12, which she usually makes an effort to ignore. There's no Santana beside her this year, though, no pliant shoulder to hide her eyes while pretending to whisper, and before she knows it, Effie's called the boy (Rory, apparently) and then Brittany watches herself lose it.
The sound she makes over Cassidy's name barely sounds human. She's only ever heard it on brief replays of herself in the games, the few times she's seen them without leaving the room to throw up. It's only on screen she really realizes that her nails left the track marks down Effie's cheek; she sees how difficult it was for the Peacekeepers to contain her, even with four of them and one of her, even when her body's grown softer over the brief spell of wealth and the years of shared hunting.
Cameras close in on her face, and she sticks her fingers in her ears surreptitiously to blot out the commentators; she's certain they're jeering, mocking her pain, spitting on the multitude of sacrifices she's made for the Capitol.
It's Cassidy's hand on her wrist that calls her back. She opens her eyes—she didn't realize she closed them—and draws her hands from her ears to catch Cassidy's eyes in the dim room. The TV is off, the recap over; Effie watches over Cassidy's shoulder, nervously, and Cassidy stares at her with worry. The grip on Brittany's wrist tightens as Cassidy whispers, "You okay, Mom?"
As if anybody is okay right now.
Besides maybe Effie. Cassidy was right. What a bitch.
"You should get some sleep," Brittany croaks, for Cassidy's ears only. Rory abruptly stands and stalks out of the room with unbent knees. Effie begins to say something as she gets up, but she thinks better of it and toddles away.
Cassidy lets Brittany pull her upright and lead her back to the suite. Brittany tucks her in with a slow thoroughness, the kind she's reserved for especially good or especially bad days, since Cassidy got old enough for school and tired of being treated like a child.
Tonight, she accepts it almost gratefully, smiling faintly when Brittany brushes more kisses against her forehead and edges the blankets under Cassidy's shoulders, sides, and hips.
"I love you," she whispers, voice broken like her heart as she adds, "my darling, my sweetest, sweetest sweetheart."
Even in the dark, Cassidy's big-eyed and vulnerable. It's familiar for a million reasons that rip at Brittany's heart. "I love you too, Mom," Cassidy whispers in her nightmare-scared voice. It's obvious she wants to say more, but fear cuts her voice out.
Gently, Brittany cups Cassidy's cheek and kisses her forehead one more time. "Sleep tight, sugar cookie. I'll come get you in the morning."
She's halfway to the door when Cassidy calls, "I mean it, Mom." Brittany turns and Cassidy's craning her neck off the pillow. "I really, really love you."
Maybe there are tears in her eyes, but maybe it's the moonlight from the window.
"I really, really love you too, Cass."
Brittany swallows hard and shuts the door behind her. She dreams of Santana's dark eyes.
Hard dreams force Brittany's eyes open even before first light. The train is still, reflecting the metallic noises of the fuel station. The room is dark, with flashlights shooting random swipes of dull gold across her ceiling.
It's almost instinct, now, to creep through the cars to the kitchen. The attendants are asleep, as are the Capitol appliances, all sleek, harsh steel, like Artie's eyes at the reaping.
The memory drips a shiver down her spine, slowly: the way Santana used to trail a finger down her skin, caressing each vertebral ridge with rapt adoration. Brittany retrieves a packet of hot chocolate from the cupboards, where she and Santana found them years ago, and slides it into the crevice of an aluminum cylinder.
Just as the machine buzzes, the train lurches sleepily into life. In the deep quiet of the night and the empty car, Brittany can hear the wheels where they clack gently against the rails. It's soothing, like the warm sweetness she pours from the cylinder into a mug.
The mugs are square, this year. Must be a new fashion at the Capitol.
It tastes delicious—as good as she remembered—but then all she sees is Santana, ecstatic in the doorway with the first box of packets, her first spoils of war, and the remembered excitement and love and sweetness sours at the back of her throat, turning the drink's aftertaste sickly and stale.
Still, the taste of each new sip warms her momentarily, and she nurses the cup at the dining table until first light peeks through the window.
As expected, Effie Trinket arrives with the dawn. Her careful makeup and eccentric hairstyling do little to disguise her foul mood.
They don't greet each other. Effie hovers in the kitchen until her impatience peaks and she snaps her fingers for a servant. A minute later, she sweeps into the dining area with freshly brewed coffee. The smell, which Brittany associates only with Effie, makes her stomach turn all over again. She's beginning to wonder if everything that happened has given her some kind of chronic sickness, the kind only cured by Santana's gentle eyes and hands.
After a few sips of coffee, Effie's soon bored enough to speak. "How'd you sleep?" she asks, barely deigning to meet Brittany's eyes. Instead, hers drift with judgmental disinterest to Brittany's sleep-mussed hair.
"Awesome," says Brittany. She chokes back the last gulp of hot chocolate—more powder than milk, and twice as bitter as the rest—and before Effie corners her into more polite conversation, Rory stumbles in, shirtless and rubbing his eyes.
Effie's on it instantly. "Go put some clothes on," she scolds, standing up to physically shoo him out of the dining car. He obeys, clearly befuddled, and Effie settles into her seat with a self-satisfied nod. "Honestly, they get worse every year."
"You get worse every year," Brittany corrects her. Effie huffs, but she knows better than to deny it.
Instead, she aims lower. "At least she's not here this year." Effie's too busy sniffing haughtily to notice how Brittany grips the mug like it's Effie's neck: the way her muscles coil into tight springs, waiting for Effie to flick off the safety latch.
And she does: "The way you two are always all over each other," Effie tuts, shaking her head.
Brittany lunges. Her mug shatters on the floor—hit by her elbow, or foot, or who cares—and Effie's shrieking like the unnatural animal she is, and it's only Rory walking in at precisely that moment that saves Effie from Brittany's leashed rage.
Almost in a blink, she's letting him pull her away, though her body longs to fling him off and finish the job. She pants under Effie's terrified eyes and tries to remind herself why she's not allowed to kill Effie: She has to stay here for Cassidy.
And, to complete the tableau, Cassidy pads into the room. Her eyes go wide at Effie, hair and makeup upset and body sprawled awkwardly across two chairs, and Brittany, letting Rory hold her arms back like the Peacekeepers at the reaping.
Brittany gulps against her throat, dry with that sour chocolate aftertaste, and drops her arms slowly to her sides. She wants to say good morning, or anything at all, but Rory mumbles "Hi" before she manages to find her voice.
Cassidy's quiet for a second before she blurts, "What the hell happened?"
A sharp glare is enough to kill Rory's voice in his throat; he hesitates and locks worried eyes with Effie, and it's strangely satisfying to find they're so easy to frighten. Brittany turns to Cassidy with traces of guilt on her face. "Nothing, Effie just forgot her manners," she drawls, glancing at Effie, who's straightening her ruffed shirt and blindly adjusting her hair.
It's like Cassidy's psychic; she steps to Brittany's side and squeezes her hand, almost just the way Santana would. Brittany fights down the lump in her throat and grips Cassidy's hand, firmly, in return.
They stay frozen like that for a moment—Cassidy watching Brittany with Santana's worried dark eyes—before Rory cuts in, tentatively. "So, are you—going to train us?"
The tremor in his voice is enough to tell Brittany how long he'll last. She turns to him, trying to wipe his death sentence from her expression, and offers him a dull shrug: the liveliest she can manage. "What do you want to know?" she asks, since Cassidy already knows quite a few tricks.
Her even gaze seems to unnerve him; she sees him swallow anxiously, but doesn't muster the mercy to look away. He needs to toughen up, or the arena will do it for him. She doesn't feel guilty for giving him a head start.
"W-w-well," he begins, glancing down between Brittany's hand and the concealed scabs on Effie's cheek, "do you have any tips? For when we get to the arena?"
His voice cracks at the end of each question, like a bird's skull beneath a rock. Brittany drops Cassidy's hand. "Don't die," she repeats mirthlessly, the way she does every year.
Cassidy takes her hand again to draw her attention. "Come on, Mom," she entreats. The way her eyes flick to Rory explains why. "Give us something to go on."
At that moment, two servants enter hesitantly from the kitchen, likely encouraged by the quieter voices. They hold food on large platters, and Brittany says "After breakfast" in a way that makes it final.
Rory and Cassidy immediately sink into the chairs they used at dinner; they fall upon the food like animals, despite their sizeable dinners last night. It makes Brittany ache to see Cassidy's desperation, tamped down and artfully hidden in her precise motions and the way she uses the silverware, but obvious to Brittany's trained eye.
Rory is neither subtle nor graceful. He shoves rolls and fruit and eggs between his cheeks as if it's about to be taken away. Brittany can't help but imagine how quickly and easily the careers will find the seam that will tear him apart.
"What do we do first?" asks Cassidy, once they've both lost some steam and Effie's lingering terror has eased out of her expression.
Brittany picks absently at her croissant and raises an eyebrow. Before she sasses back, Rory pokes his half-chewed food into his right cheek with his thumb and clarifies, muffled, "At the Cornucopia."
Carefully, glancing for an instant at Cassidy with a stern look, Brittany tears her roll into pieces and eats one part slowly. Cassidy waits somberly; she doesn't need guidance on this. Much of this, she knows already, having soaked it up from years of watching Brittany and Santana sigh knowingly at the mistakes of the tributes on the screen.
So, she crafts her answer just for Rory, sealing it with firm eye contact that makes him squirm anxiously: "Don't go for it. Just run."
After a long moment, while Brittany returns to the next bite of bread, Rory weakly repeats, "Just run? But what about—"
"Find water," Brittany says shortly, the advice her mentor gave her, years ago, when he was still alive and Santana sat silently beside her.
Cassidy clears her throat. "Do you have any skills, Rory?" she asks, not unkindly.
Although it's against the rules to train—except for careers, it seems—Rory doesn't look surprised at the implication that she's already well-versed in her own skills. Instead, he sinks into his own misery and shrugs. "Not really. Just chasing goats," he adds with a sad, humorless chuckle.
Brittany's seen him lunging after his father's escaped livestock, as far from the pens as the square outside the Justice Building. If that's his best skill, she's overestimated his life expectancy.
"We'll go over this later, once you start training," Brittany says shortly. Her tone catches the children by surprise. "We're almost to the station, which means you're about to turn into one of those." She gestures derisively at Effie, who huffs at the insult. Before anyone interrupts, she finishes, "Just let the stylists do what they want. Save your energy, because no matter how much you fight, they're gonna do what they're gonna do."
Both Cassidy and Rory look uncomfortable at the prospect, but Rory's face shows the despair curdling in his stomach, where Cassidy's has settled into the weary determination Brittany recognizes from the last time she spent the Games without Santana: It's the expression Santana wore on the television screen in Brittany's home, when Brittany watched the recaps with wide, horrified eyes and her arms wrapped tight around her knees.
It's a relief when the car shifts into the darkness of the mountain, and the kids get up to stare out the window in amazement.
Brittany forces down the rest of her roll and two pieces of fruit, avoiding Effie's poisonous stare with sullen, slumped shoulders.
It's not like she's asked before, but Effie says she can't go into the Remake Center with Cassidy.
"It's not appropriate," Effie huffs, "and you know we have work to do today." She's aligning each strand of her hair at her suite's bathroom mirror; she complained about it, glaring pointedly at Brittany and her hands in particular, and more Capitol attendants had obediently taken the kids away at Effie's instruction.
"I don't want to schmooze today," Brittany admits, both firmer and weaker than she wants.
As if personally insulted, Effie stops primping and turns to stare at her in amazed annoyance. "Well, Brittany, you know very well it's your job as their mentor and my job as their escort. Don't you want them to get sponsors?" She raises her eyebrows, painted in circles today, as if to point out that Brittany surely must want her daughter to have a fighting chance.
Brittany's not about to confess what really worries her: the pity she's sure to see on everyone's faces. The commentators doubtless explained her violence at the reaping, and anyway the sponsors, the who's who of the Games, will remember Cassidy's name from small talk with Brittany and Santana over the years.
"I don't feel well," she tries instead.
For once, Effie's scoff sounds genuine instead of overtly condescending: "You made it through the games," she acknowledges for the first time in their history, "so you should be good at sucking it up, right?"
Brittany stalks off the train.
She waits just outside; she's not about to wander the Capitol's garish streets without a native chaperone, and she's certainly not going to risk getting recognized without a buffer to dive behind. Just as she's wishing she'd had the presence of mind to swipe a beer from the train, and wondering if she should go back and grab one, Effie totters out onto the track with one hand gingerly bracing her miniature hat.
"Finally," grates Brittany.
Effie makes another disapproving noise and leads her to a sleek black car. They ride in silence until almost the last turn, when Effie sighs and says, "Remember to play nice, Brittany. I know you're in a mood, but these are important people we're seeing."
"Don't talk to me," Brittany snaps, though Effie's not wrong. Despite her reservations, she needs these people if she's going to get Cassidy through this.
"Besides," Effie continues, perking up at Brittany as if it's just occurred to her, "you can guilt trip them, because Cassidy's your daughter!"
It takes a monumental effort to keep from slapping her right across her powdered face. Brittany sits on her hands and sulks until Effie drags her by the hand into a swanky reception hall.
As usual, the sponsors are even worse than the aliens crawling the Capitol's gilded streets: They lurch at her with bleached teeth and turned-out eyes, and nearly all of them have reshaped their eyebrows into conic figures like Effie has. Each year's new trend is Brittany's new least favorite, and this is no exception.
Brittany lets Effie steer her subtly through the sea of sponsors. Between handshakes and grimaced smiles, Effie points out the other Victors and escorts among the crowd, in a motion bordering on helpful; though this isn't the time to speak with them, Brittany's a little reassured to recognize some of her almost-friends, if only because they lack the Capitol's disturbing fashions.
She's lifting a hand to wave to Henri, an older Victor from District 6, when she spots an unfamiliar face, distinct from the crowd in its largely natural features.
Before she knows it, she's in front of him, Effie's fingers trembling eagerly against Brittany's shoulder blade. "Mr. Anderson," Effie greets, reaching out to shake his hand. "I just adore your outfit. It's so… unique!"
It isn't. The collared shirt and bow-tie, though vibrantly colored, closely resemble the aged suit Brittany's father wore to her wedding.
"This is Brittany Pierce," Effie's saying, "though I'm sure you recognize her."
His hand is baby-soft against her callouses, and his eyes beat too steadily into hers. It unsettles her, especially when he says, "I do. Terrible luck at your reaping, sweetie."
Sweetie. The anger inside her from Effie's foolishness on the train bubbles up suddenly. Her fingers itch to tear his throat out.
"Call me Blaine," he finishes, his touch lingering against her palm. She fishes her fingers out.
"Delighted, I'm sure," Effie cuts in for her, clearly nervous.
Then his expression changes. He reaches into the inside pocket of his blazer and produces a pastel sponsor chip. When he offers it to her, she's frozen for a moment, staring at it in disbelief.
Effie hesitantly moves to take it on her behalf, but Brittany snatches it from him quickly. "Thank you," she says uncertainly. She's never seen any donor relationship begin this early, even with career districts. The opening ceremony won't even begin for several hours yet.
"Who knows," Blaine says easily, "maybe she got some of your fire." He winks cheekily and melts into the crowd.
For once, Effie's aghast, speechless, but Brittany's almost too shocked to enjoy it. "I've never seen that before," breathes Effie.
"Don't get your panties in a knot," Brittany jibes, because she knows how much Effie hates that saying.
The rest of the socializing doesn't seem as unbearable as usual, with the sponsor chip burning a hole in the pocket of the ridiculous outfit Effie strapped her into. Still, it's eerie: Though she and Effie stick around for hours, Blaine doesn't show his face again.
Soon, but not soon enough, Effie rescues her from small talk with an unbelievably short sponsor with more interest in himself than Cassidy. Brittany's so relieved to get away from him that it's not until they're back on the street that she thinks to ask: "We're done already?"
"Yes," Effie snaps, pushing Brittany into the car and climbing in behind her. "I thought you'd be pleased."
Brittany snorts, amused at whatever ruffled Effie's feathers. "What's the matter?"
It doesn't work; Effie ignores the bait. She shakes off the bad mood like an outsize overcoat and turns to Brittany with her best shallow smile. "Are you excited for the ceremony?"
"I could just die," Brittany deadpans, and it's enough to make Effie uncomfortable after their run-ins since the reaping. They've never gotten along, but they've never clashed so horribly, either. Brittany almost feels bad as Effie turns toward the window.
The car takes them directly to the Training Center, where they're led into the basement theater to watch the ceremony. Effie reclines primly on the plush chairs while Brittany hovers beside her, too full of nerves to sit anywhere. She worries the sponsor chip in her pocket like the stone she's given away.
Cassidy's stylist slips in through the side door, quiet as a cat. Brittany's still getting used to her; she's unpredictable, erratic in an interesting way, but Brittany's never quick to trust Capitol folk.
"Hey there," croons Holly, choosing to stand with her rather than sit with Effie. Her hair's long and loose this year, accented by turquoise makeup at the edges of her eyes and cheekbones. It's not that bad.
Brittany just shrugs, but Holly's either already used to her or just that easygoing. "Sorry to hear about Santana," Holly says, as if Brittany replied. Holly's eyes flash across Brittany's face as she adds, "A lot of us will miss her this year."
"I bet," says Brittany bitterly, crossing her arms over her chest and turning pointedly toward the screen. The cameras are pacing the City Circle, showing off the lights and spectators lined up for the event while the commentators make vague predictions about the tributes and their relative advantages.
Holly touches their elbows together, so subtly Brittany's barely sure she felt it. She glances at Holly suspiciously and Holly says, very quietly, "Not as much as you, though, I bet."
There's no way Holly, in the Capitol, got wind of Brittany's divorce or its reasons, so Brittany convinces herself that Holly pieced it together from her behavior with Santana at the last Games. She pulls her elbow further into herself and frowns hard at the screen. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Even then, Holly just shrugs. "I just mean, you knew her pretty well, being Victors and all," Holly backpedals mildly.
"Yeah, well—" Brittany starts to snap, but the careers from District 1 are on screen now, glittering prettily under the lights in their jeweled costumes.
They're the same every year; the other tributes, pulled in a clean line in their chariots, also look much the same as past years. Holly is still the newest stylist, even after a few years on the job.
"What did you—" Brittany begins to ask, conversationally, because Holly's usually interesting but tasteful, but then she catches sight of her daughter in black undergarments and otherwise covered only in body paint. The breath knocks out of her lungs.
Cassidy looks beautiful, strange and striking in a powerful way the Capitol fashion lacks, with black slicked down her body and thin fingers of flame streaked across her ribs and the sides of her breasts. Still, that's Brittany's fucking child, basically naked, and she's going to kill Holly.
"Girl, what is up with that?" Holly twangs, pointing at Rory where his stylist has him trussed up in a yellow canary costume.
Brittany roars, "What is up with that?" and jabs a finger at her daughter, waving to an adoring crowd.
Holly takes a wise step away from her and holds her hands up. "They love it!" she points out, gesturing to the way the crowd catches Cassidy's happy air-kisses.
"You couldn't give her clothes?" Brittany demands, ignoring the attention from the other Victors, escorts, and stylists in the room.
The warning in Holly's eyes belies the teasing swat she gives Brittany's shoulder. "Relax," she mutters darkly, leaning closer. "It's all part of the plan, sweet cheeks."
Brittany sulks while the chariots loop around the City Circle; Holly remains quiet, presumably to avoid tempting Brittany into throttling her. At least everyone knows what Victors are capable of.
Finally, as the chariots turn back toward the Training Center, Brittany releases a deep, angry breath and mutters, "Really, though, his costume is fucking stupid. Who's his stylist, again?"
"Emma Pillsbury," chuckles Holly, shaking her head. "What a joke, right?"
Brittany adjusts her arms, tugging absently at the ties of her strange Capitol clothes on loan from Effie, and feels a worrisome drop of hope spreading in her chest when the cameras can't help but find Cassidy's smiling face.
There's barely time for Cassidy to hug Brittany fiercely—smearing black makeup all over Effie's outfit, which makes Brittany grin and Effie flinch—before Cassidy and Rory are led back into the Remake Center to be taken out of costume and, in Cassidy's case, scrubbed down. Brittany sends another glare at Holly, just to remind her that their business remains unfinished, while Effie fusses neurotically around the lime-green tresses of Brittany's garment.
Effie makes a point to say farewells to the others left in the theater while Holly corners Brittany one more time. "Sorry I upset you, girlie," says Holly in her honey-sad voice, more pouty than apologetic. She touches Brittany's jaw with almost maternal care, although they're around the same age.
"Watch yourself next time you're in charge of her wardrobe," Brittany warns, moving just enough to make Holly's hand fall away.
Despite the fervor behind the words, Holly looks more chagrined than chastised as she sweeps gracefully toward the outside doors. "Duly noted, B," she hums, strangely casual against the way she melts into the night air: ethereal, otherworldly.
It's then that Effie reappears, grabbing Brittany's elbow and leading her to the elevators with surprising forcefulness. Inside the crystal box, she lets her giddiness leak out, and she claps as she whisper-shrieks, "She made such a splash!"
Brittany feels too heavy and tired to protest, despite the lingering irritation at Holly's costume design. Admittedly, the attention may bode well for Cassidy in the long run, but something deeper and darker in Brittany can't help but bare its teeth and claws.
They've barely stood in the District 12 quarters long enough to wonder what to do with themselves when Rory and Cassidy trip out of the elevators, breathless and ecstatic.
"Did you see us?" asks Cassidy.
"That was amazing!" Rory announces.
They're hanging on each other, but it looks mostly like they both need props to keep from falling over. Brittany touches the backs of their necks with her mother's firm grip and leads them toward the dining room. "That's enough, you too."
"It was so exciting!" says Rory dreamily while Brittany presses the button that summons food. An Avox with dark hair brings a basket of Brittany's favorite soft rolls and slips back out of the room; Rory gushes, "Gosh, have you ever seen so much food so fast?"
Cassidy doesn't say anything—she has, back in the Victor's Village, when she was younger—and Brittany ignores him willfully, but Effie engages him happily.
A headache grows before long, and Brittany can almost taste the hard dreams creeping up on her. "Alright, it's getting late," she declares over Effie and Rory's chatter, pinching the bridge of her nose and trusting the authority of her voice to overpower them.
It does. Cassidy agrees with her immediately amidst a well-timed yawn, and her movement prompts Rory to jump up quickly enough to bump the table with his knee. He yelps in pain and Brittany rolls her eyes.
"I'll show you to your rooms," Effie offers cheerfully, and Brittany leans over to kiss Cassidy on the forehead.
"I'll see you in the morning, sugar cookie," Brittany whispers while Effie leads Rory to his quarters.
Cassidy grasps Brittany's hand, almost desperately, once the others are gone. "I don't wanna train with him, Mom," she confides. "Not when I'm gonna have to—"
She breaks off and Brittany hugs Cassidy's face into her chest. "I know, sweetie," she soothes, petting Cassidy's hair and hearing Effie's footsteps coming back down the hall. She shifts gently away from Cassidy and looks into her eyes. "I promise, I'll be here to help you, okay?"
Cassidy nods, tears beading in her shadowed eyes, and Brittany kisses her once more on her temple to the sound of Effie's heels clicking to a halt in the doorway. "I love you," she whispers, "my little duck, my sweetest thing."
"I love you too, Mom," Cassidy hushes, squeezing Brittany's hands once more before she leaves with Effie.
Brittany retires to her quarters before Effie comes back.
As expected, Brittany wakes in the depths of the night to hard dreams battering her temples. It's that dark hour between late night and earliest morning, and she sneaks out of her room in stocking feet to scour the kitchen cupboards for more hot chocolate.
The hollow sound of the cupboard clicking shut echoes against the metal of the kitchen, and as Brittany slips the packet into the drinkmaker, she senses someone behind her.
"Honestly, Effie," she begins with a tired laugh, "you need way more beauty sleep than that." She spins on her heel, reaches her right hand toward the cupboard with the mugs, and almost falls over when she realizes it's the dark-haired Avox in front of her.
The kitchen's so dark, it's more habit and instinct than eyesight that identify her as such.
"What are you doing here?" Brittany asks, a little harshly. A hovercraft light passes through the kitchen window, throwing a dull sheen on the Avox's hair and a sliver of silver across every cupboard door handle.
Of course, the Avox says nothing, but she steps hesitantly forward, favoring her left leg, toward the cupboard with mugs under Brittany's hand.
Brittany grabs the handle protectively and snaps, "I've got it." She holds fast as the Avox freezes in thought and then, slowly, retreats with bowed head. The girl seeps out of the room right as the hovercraft light turns away.
The beep of the machine reignites Brittany's headache. She presses her warm palm against her forehead and grits her teeth against the pain.
She decides she needs sleep more than the hot chocolate's sour sweetness. She abandons the brewed serving and retreats to her room.
The hard dreams don't come, but Brittany lies under the pulse at her temple and wonders what the Avox was doing in the kitchen in the middle of the night. She felt familiar in that sad way Brittany's begun to find everywhere.
Her hair looked just like Santana's.
Worse, in place of the hard dreams Brittany's learned to abide, she dreams too soft: hazy memories of Santana, loving and heartbroken, stitched onto the limp of the Avox.
She wakes to the dawn in a cold sweat.
The dining area is already occupied, despite the early hour, with hushed, excited chatter that sets Brittany immediately on edge. She's clean from the shower, but she still feels terrible, like the bags under her eyes are a physical weight on her.
Holly and Emma are here to talk strategy, and Effie's making Capitol small talk with them like she was born to do it—which, hey, she probably was. Brittany sits next to Holly without bothering to hide her disgust, and Holly touches her elbow, reassuring even as she chatters naturally with Effie about the District 3 stylist Emma was swapped with after last year.
What does Holly expect? Knowing Santana is hardly enough to cultivate genuine camaraderie, and anyway, everybody here knew Santana. Holly's apparent belief that they have a connection makes Brittany more annoyed than comforted.
Just as Holly draws her hand away—she has to lean forward, evidently, to emphasize her enthusiasm for 3's costumes this year, prompting an obviously insulted pout from Emma—a cup of hot chocolate appears at Brittany's elbow, set almost tenderly upon the table by soft hands.
Brittany looks up and sees the Avox from last night, but—
It can't be, but it is: under the veil of dark hair, a new scar slashed from lip to chin, and the gaunt face of the Capitol's underfed service, Brittany recognizes Santana's still-beautiful face and the way those eyes seem to pour straight into hers.
The wind chokes out of her in a gasp, loud enough to draw the attention of the others. The thick, gorgeous moment of eye contact breaks when Santana ducks her head, using her hair and docile motions to mask herself from the others at the table.
"What is it?" Effie snaps; Brittany cut off their discussion of headpieces.
The Avox—Santana—backs away from the table quickly, retreating to wherever the Avoxes gather to stay out of their patrons' way, and Brittany turns back to the table with effort. "Nothing, I just thought—" Her eyes flick from Effie to Emma and light on Holly as she finishes, "She looked like someone I used to know."
Holly stares too hard and too steadily. It sends that shiver back down Brittany's spine, that cruel ghost of Santana's electric fingertips, and Brittany pieces it together with narrowed eyes just as Rory announces his arrival with a vocalized yawn.
"What's for breakfast?" he asks, breaking the spell over Effie and Emma. Holly holds Brittany's gaze for another long moment, but she switches easily to face Rory when he takes a seat at the table.
"Good mornin', hot stuff," says Holly, giving him a cheesy wave that makes him blush.
One more mark under the Idiot column, if he thinks Holly's serious.
Rory begins to say something else while he looks around the room, but then he spots the food spread out to the side and hops up to make himself a plate. Brittany stirs the hot chocolate with her spoon and tastes it; she recognizes, with surprise, the sweet kick of cinnamon added in, a trick she'd all but forgotten.
A quick glance toward the kitchen tells her nothing. No swish of dark hair, no white Avox uniform.
"So, are you gonna, like, train us today?" asks Rory with his mouth full and food in both hands.
Brittany shrugs, taking another sip from her mug, and says, "That's the idea," right as Cassidy pads into the room. Brittany almost feels the way Cassidy hesitates—for an instant—behind her, as if deciding if she should greet Brittany as her mother or her mentor, and Brittany feels a surge of depressed pride when Cassidy ignores her and puts together a modest breakfast.
Those instincts will serve her well in the arena. It turns Brittany's stomach.
"What's the idea?" Cassidy asks when she settles at the last space, starting her more modest breakfast with careful reserve.
"Training," Brittany says, catching Cassidy's eye. Brittany wonders in a moment of panic whether Santana will come back to clear their plates, and whether Cassidy will know not to say anything.
Nobody speaks for a moment while the children work through the better part of their breakfasts. Holly and Emma pick up the thread of their earlier conversation, just as their time begins to dwindle, and Brittany cuts them off sharply: "You're off to the Training Center at ten, so we don't have a ton of time for me to coach you." Cassidy's almost done eating already, so Brittany gestures to her and says, just a little more gently, "Cassidy, you're first. Finish eating and we'll talk."
"What about me?" asks Rory, again muffled by the food in his cheeks.
"Once you've finished eating, we'll talk," she says, warily eyeing the crumbs spilling over his lips. "Take your time," she adds as she stands up. "It's no good if you choke to death before this whole thing even starts. Cassidy, meet me in your quarters in ten minutes."
With that, Brittany stalks into the kitchen with her mug, looking for her ghost. The room is empty, but she still eyes its corners as she sets the mug by the dishwasher; she wonders if it holds secrets for her.
Then, another Avox, a boy, taps her shoulder urgently. She turns with wild eyes and waits; he points at the ceiling and nods at her.
The roof. Brittany takes off.
It's on the last flight of stairs that Brittany's Victor persona breaks. The last few steps come more from her hands pulling the railing than her feet holding her upright, and she's weeping openly by the time she stumbles out onto the top.
Her ghost is waiting for her, hair pulled back in a messy bun and uniform unbuttoned at the collar. Both shift a little in the breeze, just enough to prove she's not another hallucination or another hard dream.
Santana turns, as if in slow motion, and smiles the helpless smile she's always made when Brittany comes into sight. It works like a fishing line and Brittany flies to her; she grasps Santana's face between her hands, checks Santana's eyes just to be sure, and kisses her soundly.
The touch at her waist makes her feel shivery, and she squirms closer to Santana as arms squeeze tight around her. She stays frozen for a moment, still afraid this will shatter into another empty dream, but when it doesn't slip away from her, she loops her arms around Santana's neck and tilts her head.
Gently, reverently, Santana kisses back, full of sweetness and longing, greater and deeper even than the night Santana came back from the arena alive—deeper, even, than the night Brittany came back alive, when Santana spent hours tracing Brittany's face like it would break beneath her fingertips.
When Brittany finally pulls away, she blinks rapidly to clear her tears. "How are you here?" she whispers, touching Santana's loosened bangs, unable to believe it. "What happened to you? I thought they—"
The word—killed—cracks between Brittany's teeth and she shakes her head as her cheeks grow wet. She stutters on—"How did you find me? How are you here?"—and it's then that she notices how sad Santana's smile has grown, watery like Santana's glossy eyes.
Suddenly, like the world sinking back into her after getting knocked on the head, Brittany remembers Santana's white uniform.
Santana's pulling a handkerchief from somewhere and dabbing tenderly at Brittany's cheeks. Brittany swallows and catches Santana's wrist, staring at her dazzling eyes and trying desperately to read them. "Santana," she breathes, "who did this to you?"
The handkerchief stills, Santana's limb light in Brittany's hand, and Santana stays poised for a long moment before she shakes her head. Again, they pause, postures and eyes and even breaths held; then Santana cranes her neck with adoring precision and presses their mouths together.
It's Santana's kiss, this time, and Brittany lets it stay still and almost chaste until Santana separates them with fluttering eyes. It feels like she's trying to say something—and she does: she raises her free hand and presses it firmly first to her heart and then to Brittany's.
Brittany's eyes squeeze shut as she realizes, with slow surety that spreads from her belly like hunger, that Santana will never say those words to her again.
"I love you too," Brittany whispers back, eyes opening to meet Santana's.
As if relieved Brittany understood, Santana eases her arms back around Brittany's waist and leans her ear against Brittany's sternum, her head nestled perfectly under Brittany's chin.
They stay like that, motionless, for a long minute. Brittany wonders what her heartbeat sounds like to Santana, who used to spend every night curled around it like this. To Brittany, it feels like coming home.
A tickle against her breastbone turns into a soft vibration. Brittany listens closer and hears Santana humming into her shirt: a traditional song, sung by families at weddings for the newlyweds' last dance.
"Like they know the score," she picks up quietly, petting Santana's hair.
Santana's shoulders shake; she keeps humming along until they've finished the melody.
A glance at the sky shows the sun still rising. Brittany touches Santana's back, regretting their time and place and so many other things. Santana stands away from her, reluctantly, and links their hands.
"Does Holly know?" asks Brittany when Santana won't look up at her.
It doesn't work—Santana keeps staring at their fingers twined together—but Santana nods.
Brittany takes a deep breath and tries to think. "Okay," she sighs softly. She touches Santana's chin and finally, finally, those dark eyes meet hers. "I have to go downstairs," Brittany whispers.
Santana nods. She still looks so happy it almost breaks Brittany's heart.
One more parting kiss—quick and sweet—and Brittany pulls her hands away. "I'll see you as soon as I can, my love," she promises quietly.
It takes all her strength to get back down the stairs without crying.
"You know, punctuality is important for Victors," Cassidy snarks, imitating Effie Trinket's nasal accent, but her grin drops like a stone when she looks up at Brittany's face. "Mom, what's wrong?"
Brittany breathes deep where she stands in the doorway and runs a hand through her hair. "Just… bad memories," she says softly, shrugging, looking aside.
"Oh," Cassidy says. She bites her lip while the moment drags; finally, she touches the crisp bedspread—pulled taught and carefully made by unseen hands during breakfast—and says, "Come sit with me?"
It brings Brittany back, so she works her lips into a smile, sinks onto the bed, and wraps an arm over Cassidy's shoulders. She takes a deep, ragged breath, makes her smile bigger and braver, and looks Cassidy in the eye.
Cassidy looks at her carefully—it reminds her so much of Santana, still up on the roof, or maybe in Brittany's room, gathering discarded clothes and breathing in their scent—and Brittany almost doesn't hear her ask, "So… what do I do at the Cornucopia?"
Brittany shakes her head and Cassidy smiles, like she was hoping she'd be missing something. Brittany rubs her thumb on Cassidy's shoulder and says, "First, you'll have training with the others. Don't show them your stuff."
That makes Cassidy frown, pouty and disappointed. "But—"
"No." Brittany shakes her head. "Even in your private session, aim for a moderate score. You don't need to impress them," she insists, right as Cassidy's mouth drops open to protest. Brittany reaches out to caress Cassidy's cheek, smile swallowed by strange urgency. "You're my daughter," she explains needlessly, kissing Cassidy's forehead and pausing to drink in the moment. "I'll get you sponsors," she finally whispers, the words all but lost in Cassidy's hair.
She feels more than hears Cassidy gulp, shivering a bit against her, and then Cassidy sighs, "I really can't strut my stuff?"
Brittany laughs softly, presses one more kiss to Cassidy's temple, and shifts back beside her. "Don't worry, you'll have plenty of time for that in the arena," she says, the joked words washing pale and frightening in the space between them.
Cassidy shudders again and Brittany kisses her temple again, for luck. "Save your game face," she says gently. "You're better than half of them, and at least an even match with most of the careers."
It's not met with Cassidy's usual bluster. Instead, Cassidy stares hard at the floor and asks, like a confession, "Mom… what if I'm not good enough?"
"You are," Brittany swears, chewing the inside of her cheek and willing it to be true. "You are."
Cassidy takes another shaking breath. "I'm not sure I can kill someone," she admits tentatively.
Brittany's throat feels dry; it roughs up her voice as she says, darkly, "You can." Her eyes drift shut. "When you really have to… anyone can."
When Cassidy doesn't say anything—Brittany wonders if she's thinking of Rory, so dopey and hopeless, and wondering if he'd summon the will to do it—Brittany snakes her arm back from Cassidy's shoulders and touches her knee, firm. "You're a thinker, Cassidy," she reminds her. "Don't let them drag you onto their turf. Your wits will be your real weapon in the arena."
"Wits alone won't kill them," Cassidy mutters, clearly still doubting her chances.
"Yes they will," Brittany contradicts. Her mind slides back to her last days in the arena: the smell of blood and the heat of her sun-baked skin; the hours of silent waiting punctuated by one short scream.
She leaves the arena behind when Cassidy nudges her arm. When Brittany looks up, but says nothing, Cassidy wets her lips and repeats, almost afraid, "How do you know?"
Brittany stares at her, hard, and tries to decide if she wants to tell Cassidy the truth—or hide it from her forever.
In the end, she can't do either. She gets to her feet and looks away. "I need to go talk Rory through this," she mutters, already dreading the script she recites to tributes with little chance of survival.
Cassidy says nothing. It makes Brittany nervous, but nerves don't own her, anymore.
"Keep away from the knives and ropes in training," she summarizes, pulling her hair over one shoulder and glancing a little in Cassidy's direction. "Try to learn something new. Remember, the arena might not have the plants and animals you're used to."
Her voice cracks a little, near the end, when she cuts Santana out of the sentence at the last second.
If Cassidy notices, she doesn't say anything.
Brittany finally turns back to her and sighs; bends to kiss the crown of her head. "I love you, my little duckling," she whispers before she straightens up.
Cassidy's eyes search hers sadly. "I love you too, Mom."
"I'll see you for dinner."
Brittany walks straight through the dining room, barely sparing the energy to wave Rory after her as she passes. "C'mon, short stuff," she says tiredly, breezing past Holly and Emma and Effie and heading to Rory's quarters. "We have some stuff to talk about."
"Don't forget, meet by the elevators at 10," reminds Effie brightly. Brittany tries not to feel sick at Effie's eagerness and instead slips inside Rory's room.
It's a duplicate of Cassidy's, except a ghost in a white uniform is there, bent at the waist to retrieve Rory's discarded clothes.
Brittany's breath catches, but when the Avox stands and turns, it's not Santana.
So she nods, awkwardly, and the Avox bows her head and weaves around Brittany and Rory—finally caught up, a cinnamon bun half-chewed in his cheek—to escape through the door.
"So," Rory prods as he gulps down his food, "you got any helpful tips?"
Like Effie, he sounds too cheerful. It's Brittany's least favorite type: He probably knows he's going to die, but he hopes his joviality will prolong the inevitable.
She finds herself standing where the Avox was, facing away from Rory and hugging herself against a sudden chill. Belatedly, she realizes Rory's feet on the mat beside the bed have turned on the ceiling fan; its soft swishes disguise the sound of Rory settling on the side of the bed.
"What about the Cornucopia?" he's asking. "Should I go for a mace, or like an awl, maybe?"
He only knows these weapons from watching the Games himself. It makes her stomach turn over again, like an emptied wine pouch.
"No," she snaps, harsher than she intended. She rubs her sides, wishing her fingers felt the way Santana's did, electric and hot. "Run away, as fast and far as you can."
In her mind, she sees his frown of confusion. She's seen it on enough young faces to be able to paint it on his features.
He stutters. "What, I can't even—"
"No," she repeats, whirling around and holding up a hand to silence him. "Listen to me very carefully. You don't have any experience with weapons"—she glares to prevent his protests—"and three days playing with swords and targets won't make you into the god you think it will." Brittany bites her lips at the way his face grows solemn; he looks away from her, glazed and unhappy.
"Take one look at the careers when you go today." She refolds her arms, the other way across her belly, and absently touches her left ring finger. "Then think about whether you wanna be between them and the Cornucopia after the countdown."
It doesn't change him; he stares at the wall, as if it holds answers for him, or visions of a different future. Brittany sighs and drops her arms. "If you don't run," she says more softly, "if you don't get the hell away from the careers and find water, you can kiss your chances goodbye."
They stay that way for a moment; Brittany's said her piece. She's about to leave him to his thoughts—Effie will be by soon to collect him, anyway—when he stops her: "You said something else to Cassidy, didn't you?"
As she turns, slowly, Rory wets his lips and pushes, "Something different."
Brittany fixes him with a steady stare. "Yes."
He stares back; he waits.
"Learn as much as you can at training," Brittany says, backing into the doorway. "Survival skills first. They're called the Hunger Games for a reason."
She leaves him with his thoughts and walks back toward the dining area. Cassidy is standing, fidgeting, in front of the elevator in her training uniform, while Effie and the stylists chatter over their last crusts of bread and sips of coffee.
Cassidy doesn't see her; Brittany ducks down the other way and silently wishes her luck.
When Brittany walks into her room and sees, she almost falls over, even though part of her was expecting this.
Still, Santana standing inside, her hip leaned against the dresser, Brittany's discarded shirt pressed to her face with grateful tears in her eyes—it seems surreal, like the past twenty minutes were enough to steal her away again, easy as you please.
"Santana," she chokes as she shuts the door, staggering forward to catch Santana when she turns around.
There's no answer, but Santana relaxes into Brittany's arms; she hugs back and nuzzles against Brittany's chest, ear against her heart, like she did on the roof. She still feels fluttery, light like a bird, where she shakes under Brittany's touch.
The shirt falls to the floor against Brittany's heel and Santana rubs her cheek against Brittany's chest, as if she could bury herself in Brittany's smell and heartbeat. Brittany runs her hand soothingly down Santana's spine. She counts the vertebrae into Santana's hair in a whisper: "One, two, three…"
On four, Santana draws away and pulls Brittany down into a kiss. When her grip loosens on Brittany's neck and they break apart, Santana searches Brittany's eyes earnestly. It's clear she's trying to say something—or maybe everything—but when Brittany just looks back, loving but not comprehending, Santana bites her lips into her mouth and signs I love you again, touching their hearts in turn.
The instant her palm presses Brittany's chest, spreading warmth through her thin shirt, Effie Trinket snaps her fingers in the other room. Santana's eyes close slowly, as if it pains her, and her head tips forward in reluctant acceptance.
Her fingers curl slightly, as if clutching for Brittany's heart through the flesh and bone, and then she's gone as quickly as she appeared. The door closes with a woosh behind her.
Brittany takes a few minutes to dry her eyes and kick the dirty shirt across the room. The soft sound it makes against the wall doesn't give her the satisfaction she was looking for.
When Brittany steps slowly around the corner to the dining room, it's not Effie's sculptural blue corset, discolored lips, and ridiculous corkscrew eyebrows that make her so angry; it's Santana, face veiled by her hair, bent at the waist to refill Effie's glass.
Effie's laughing her horrible laugh, and her glass shakes with her so Santana fights to keep from spilling. "Brittany," Effie greets suddenly, noticing her presence but not the way her hands have coiled into fists.
Santana doesn't look over at her. Brittany glares harder at Effie as Effie gestures to a chair and says, "Come sit with us. You've barely eaten, and you're still thin as a rail. Got to shape you up before your interview next week."
That knocks Brittany's fury right in the gut; it folds over, defeated, and Brittany drifts over to the chair.
She'd forgotten about the interviews.
Glass clinks and Brittany looks over to see Santana refilling Emma's cup, too. Brittany watches Santana offer courteously to Holly; Holly shakes her head, and Brittany feels Holly looking at her, but she keeps her eyes trained on Santana returning to the kitchen.
Until now, she'd forgotten about the limp, too.
"I said, eat something," Effie repeats, clearly annoyed. She shoos Brittany toward the spread, kept warm by the reheating table it lays on. When Brittany obeys, Effie adds, "Remember, we're meeting with sponsors again later!"
She sings sponsors in a trilling soprano. Brittany shudders in disgust.
"We can't make deals until the training scores," Brittany mutters. She picks items at random from the buffet and drops them all together on her plate. A glance at the kitchen door reveals nothing, again: no flash of black hair, no clip of white cloth.
"Still," Effie pushes as Brittany retakes her seat, "it's vital to build relationships with sponsors early."
Brittany dabs butter into the cleft of a soft roll and says, "We do this every year, Effie." She doesn't bother masking how tired she feels.
"Yes, but it's not every year we've got a chance of actually getting sponsorships," Effie tuts. Brittany takes a deep breath and accidentally catches Holly staring at her.
Holly's lips quirk upward for an instant. It's gone so fast Brittany's sure she imagined it.
The voice drones on: "And remember, don't just bother the same old saps," Effie chastises. "I know you love to bother Ken Tanaka to make him uncomfortable, but he hasn't got enough money for proper sponsoring."
Emma chimes in, odd and breathy as always: "I don't like him. He's very sweaty."
That makes Holly grin. Brittany chews her roll slowly: In the Capitol, around the Games, she's suspicious of anybody grinning.
"Dudes get sweaty, sweet cheeks," drawls Holly, licking jam off her finger and biting into a biscuit. "Better accept it, 'cause it's a fact of life."
Either her words or her crass tone make Effie bristle. "Hardly so," she says. "There's a new surgery being unveiled to remove sweat glands entirely."
"You don't say?" Holly bugs her eyes, just wide enough for Brittany to catch it as a joke.
"Mhm," Effie hums, nodding her head earnestly. "It's very exciting, especially because you can pair it with the skin dye procedure."
Brittany's starting to feel ill. She finishes her roll in hopes that the bread will soak up whatever's churning her stomach.
"Does it cure whatever makes his face so… blotchy?" asks Emma curiously.
Effie pauses to think. "It may, actually." She bobs her head.
"I need more water," Brittany blurts, standing and staggering to the kitchen.
When she enters, it's empty, again.
She goes to the sink and splashes water over her face. She lingers there, leaning on the edge, and imagines Santana's arms around her; Santana's sweet breath at her neck; Santana's strength behind her.
The cold from the metal sink seeps into her hands.
It's been over an hour, and Brittany still can't decide if it's better or worse with the stylists flanking her.
The scales tip when Effie suggests a ladies' room excursion and Holly declines. "I'll keep Brittany company," she says, leading Brittany away by the arm and leaving Effie and Emma to themselves.
At least Holly's less vile than Effie—though that means little—but all Brittany wants to do is ask about Santana, and she can't do that here, surrounded by fools in face paint and decorative ram horns, all with curious ears perked up for gossip.
They're cornered quickly by a man with a waxed beard and a small cap. "Ladies," he greets smoothly.
Brittany's still sulking for thousands of reasons, but Holly answers him immediately, with eerie ease and grace. "And how are you today, my good sir?"
It makes him smile, showing off an emerald tooth insert. "I'm very well, thank you. Now, I know you're Miss Brittany Pierce," he says, pointing happily at her, "but who are you?"
"Cassidy's stylist," Holly answers.
Even from Holly, Brittany hates the way the Capitol accent curves Cassidy's name.
"Oh, splendid," the man warbles. "Quite a striking costume at the opening ceremony." His chuckle is dark and suggests something else. Brittany's lip curls.
"Oh, yes, did you like it?" asks Holly, grinning slyly.
The man nods and wipes his sweaty palm on his lapel. "Marvelous, just marvelous," he says, reaching out to seize one of the tall, thin drink glasses from a passing server. It's amazing it doesn't pulverize under the force of his pudgy fingers. "I hope we'll see something like it for the interview?"
Brittany rankles and shoots a threatening glare at Holly. "Yes, it has gone over quite well," Holly hums thoughtfully. She ignores Brittany's eyes. "However, I'm hardly about to tip my hand on the first day of training," Holly teases, fluttering her eyes at him.
Brittany gags like she's drunk one of the purging potions they hide in the restrooms—a mistake she made in her youth at her first Capitol celebration, when she could scarcely believe she was alive.
"Well," the man says, turning his beady eyes to Brittany, "I suppose you must be quite proud, having your daughter chosen. A might early," he concedes when her mouth drops open, "but certainly any child of yours will be a treat in the arena, eh?" His eyes twinkle, as if they're sharing a joke.
Now Brittany really gags. "As I said, you'll have to wait and see," Holly cuts in. She loops her arm through Brittany's and guides her away with a polite nod at the man.
Brittany forces her tears and revulsion down. Holly murmurs, "You've got to watch yourself, Brittany."
"Shut up," she hisses, brokenly.
"I'm trying to look out for you," Holly whispers back. "You need these people."
"Don't put Cass in underwear again," Brittany mutters, while she's at it.
Holly grins. Apparently, Brittany's more amusing than threatening. "Brittany, if you're trying to say I shouldn't let her wear underwear, I think you're pushing her a bit beyond her age."
The joke's ill-timed, and Brittany's actually cocking a fist to punch Holly right in the turquoise face paint when someone comes up in front of them.
"Hello again," says Blaine Anderson, wearing a bow-tie of a different color and long false eyelashes.
"Hello there," says Holly in her smoothest voice, shaking the hand he offers. "Holly Holliday, Cassidy Pierce's stylist."
Blaine looks at Brittany. "Not Cassidy Abrams?" he confirms, tilting his head innocently, as if the commentators haven't been calling her Cassidy Pierce since the reaping.
"Not anymore," Brittany says. It feels like she's swallowed a rock.
He shrugs, immediately uninterested, and says to Holly, "Nice job on the opening ceremony getup." He smiles, his cheeks as round as his voice as he speaks. His eyes flash to Brittany. "I bet you're getting some sponsor attention already."
"Your costume doesn't determine your performance in the Games," Brittany says hollowly. That should be clear—after all, she and Santana were both dressed by an unimaginative stylist with a fixation on miners in booty shorts—but Blaine doesn't even rise to the bait.
"Still, it helps your star value," he says and winks.
It makes Brittany's stomach turn over again. Maybe she should've eaten some of the fruit she'd left untouched on her plate.
She zones back in on Blaine as his face collapses into sympathy, too smooth and practiced to be genuine. "You look a little green, Brittany." He smiles again, slowly. "Don't worry so much. There are more people on your side than you think."
Brittany narrows her eyes, but Blaine just pats her on the shoulder, nods once more at Holly, and disappears into the crowd.
"That's an odd guy," Holly says, "but he's kinda cute."
Brittany sets her jaw. "Whatever you say."
Holly adds, quietly and close to Brittany's ear, "But then, he's not your type, is he?"
Brittany whips her head around, jerking away from Holly, and studies Holly's knowing expression.
"Come on," Holly finally says, gently taking Brittany's arm again. "Let's go get your girl some money."
Brittany wonders which girl Holly's talking about. She wonders how much Holly knows.
It takes almost all day to find a friendly face. Henri, the Victor from 6, finds her at the buffet and rescues her from the overweight lavender woman trying to keep Brittany's attention.
"Come now, Brittany, it's been forever," he says, smiling apologetically at the woman and whisking her off to a corner canopied by exotic, oversize potted ferns.
"Hi," she whispers, relieved at his familiar face and the way words sound without the Capitol accent. They've been here from morning all through lunch, and she was beginning to believe she was the strange one: a mortal among strange fairies.
"How're you holding up?" he asks kindly. He wears his puppy eyes—the ones that fooled the other tributes in his Games—and touches her shoulder.
Brittany shrugs, but Henri doesn't buy it. "Come on, it's me," he soothes; he's been a Victor nearly as long as she's been alive, and it's not the first time he's saved her from the Capitol's revolting deep pocket brigade. "How's Cassidy?" he asks—the first one, she realizes, to do so.
"I think she's okay," Brittany admits. Her hands twist together, an anxious habit she realizes she's picked up from Santana in her absence, like a torch left behind on the path.
"Are you okay?" Henri pushes.
Brittany shrugs again and chews her cheek to keep the tears down. In this room, she's a Victor and a mentor, not a mother or a wife or a person. "I'm okay," she lies to him.
As he searches her eyes, she unlinks her fingers and says, almost firm enough to convince herself, "She's as ready as she can be."
She can't risk mentioning Cassidy's training here, but he's understood. "If she's got any of your fire, she's got a fighting chance," he tells her seriously.
"Thank you," she says softly; honestly.
It seems as though he's about to let her go, but then he squeezes her shoulder and swallows. "I was sorry to hear about Santana," he whispers, barely above a breath.
"Thank you," she repeats with her lips. Her stomach flops over again and constricts.
He struggles for a moment, and just as he's about to say more, Holly shows up to drag her away. "Hello," she says as she jerks Brittany backward, "you're a Victor, right?"
"Henri," he says uneasily, glancing at Brittany as he offers his hand. "From 6."
"Aha!" Holly grins and cocks a thumbs-up. "With the thumbs," she recalls.
Henri bristles and pulls his hand away. "Right," he says.
"Well, we'd better be going," Holly continues, "but it was lovely meeting you."
Henri's barely opened his mouth and they're back in Effie's grasp, ducking into the dark car and speeding back to the Training Center in the late afternoon light.
Brittany sits in the dining room, tearing a sweet roll into small pieces with feathered edges, while Effie and Emma watch the televised commentators in the adjoining room. Brittany can see the show over the low wall; she keeps her eyes trained to the roll, rent formless under her fingers.
"—done something," Cassidy's shouting, loud enough to clamor through the crystal elevator doors. She and Rory barge into the room in their training uniforms, Rory clearly uncomfortable and Cassidy gesturing wildly. "They were looking at you like a meal!"
"What should I have done?" asks Rory helplessly. "I'm just there to learn!"
He looks right at Brittany, imploring her to corroborate her instructions to him, and she startles to realize they even know she's there.
"Tell him," Cassidy demands. It's obvious she feels the discussion is ridiculous. When Brittany just blinks, uncertain of the context, Cassidy explains: "The careers, Mom. He was trying swords and they started picking on him."
Brittany glances at Rory, who looks a bit green. He knows it's only a matter of time; for the careers, he may as well be a meal.
"Nothing matters until the arena," Brittany mutters. "It's a better use of your time to learn what the instructors can teach you."
She looks back at her plate, barely recognizing the tufts of bread scattered across it like miniature clouds.
Cassidy bounds into the chair beside her. "They had new plants," she says, eager to share, even as Rory climbs uneasily into the seat across from them.
"Did they?" Brittany asks, trying to smile while her eyes shift between them.
"A lot of them were poisonous," Cassidy confides, already less exuberant and more thoughtful. It gives Brittany strange relief; this is the cunning, the cleverness, that may leave Cassidy standing.
"Good. Did you try anything else?" Brittany asks, absently tucking one bit of bread into her mouth.
Cassidy nods and says, "I did some of the climbing, because they had nets instead of trees. But I mostly stayed out of sight."
Brittany nods. Climbing isn't the sort of talent that will draw attention from the bloodthirsty careers.
On instinct, her eyes dart to Rory again as she asks, "What about the other kids?"
Rory's no threat to Cassidy, she reminds herself sadly. His face will likely be the last shown on the first night's sky.
"The careers, obviously," Cassidy enumerates on her fingers, "and that big guy from 7, Buck."
That draws Brittany's attention again. "Six fingers? Was he getting cozy with anyone?"
Cassidy thinks a moment. "No…" she frowns. "He actually tried to mix it up with the guy with the hair." She glances at Rory. "Rick, I think."
Rory nods, encouraging. "He was using the staffs, like, all day."
"Rick the Stick," snarks Cassidy, rolling her eyes. Rory chuckles.
"Anyone else?" presses Brittany. Cassidy needs to focus.
Again, Cassidy pauses to think. Rory pipes up first: "That girl from 11." When they look over, he shifts, uneasily sitting on his hands. "She spent a good hour with us at the plants station," he says, almost defensively.
Cassidy nods, still thoughtful. "And… that blind girl," she concludes, voice hushed almost in deference.
"Vena," Rory clarifies, echoing her mournful tone.
Brittany teases a small piece of the bread into soft white wisps. "What did she do?"
"She… mostly stayed by herself," Cassidy says slowly, looking at Rory again for reassurance. "It looked like she was listening to us, though."
Slowly, as if waking from a dream, Rory nods. "Yeah… she was paying attention, I think."
Brittany sighs. "That won't help her in the arena," she reminds them gently, already tired of repeating herself.
Both of them fidget, as if she's given voice to thoughts they'd hoped to keep hidden.
"I'm going to take a nap," Brittany declares quietly. "We can talk strategy again after dinner, if you like." She stands before they can answer, tousling Cassidy's hair lovingly as she turns toward the hall.
At the end, in front of her room, she pauses and breathes in the space of the penthouse. She can hear Effie's high-pitched titter, echoing something Caesar Flickerman's said on the commentary. She hears the low, stilted murmurs of the kids, still seated at the table.
Once she's soaked it in, her feet swivel and take her further down the corridor, to the stairs.
To the roof.
Santana's there, as if she's been waiting all day. The sun sinks behind the Capitol's tallest buildings, painting Santana's edges in palest darkness the way Santana used to with watercolors for her Victory Talent.
It's beautiful, the way she looks, and it's beautiful the way she doesn't startle when Brittany comes quietly and cradles her from behind. It feels like before, when each sensed the steps of the other, as if singing a song in unison.
They used to sing sometimes, when they'd watch Lilly or help Brittany's parents stoke the ovens with castoff coal. The thought crawls up Brittany's throat—that sour aftertaste—and she gulps against it, hooking her chin over Santana's shoulder, gazing out over the city.
"I love you," she whispers, because she didn't say it earlier, because the dark hair against her face smells perfect, because they will never sing together again, because something has finally been given back to her.
Santana tucks her head to the side, warming her cheek and temple with Brittany's skin, and her breath lights on Brittany's face like the answer of an angel, too delicate for voice.
Santana cups Brittany's hands with her own where they lock over her belly, and Brittany noses closer to press their lips together again. "I thought I lost you," she confesses, because all day she's been wondering how she ever thought Santana could leave her and the promises they'd made after their Games.
Again, Santana's shallow breath leaves dew across her lip and chin. Brittany's heart speeds up—she's not sure why; it doesn't matter—and she whispers, because fears gain power the louder you speak them, "I thought I lost you, and I was going to lose her."
With their bodies lined up like this, Brittany feels Santana's breath catch, although she doesn't hear it. Santana turns in her arms, eyes wet and shut, and loops her arms tight around Brittany's neck. Brittany recircles Santana's waist and they stay that way, poised, until Santana starts to press careful, deliberate kisses at the corner of Brittany's neck.
"I know," Brittany says, impulsively, as if her body knows what Santana's saying before her mind does. "I know you trained her, and I—she might be fine, but I—"
Santana's mouth silences her, all hot breath and chapped lips, but Brittany notices now how much more passive it feels like this. Before, Santana always fed the flames right off, teasing Brittany's lip with her tongue only to pull away with her secret smile.
Now, Santana just presses harder, like she used to when she was upset. Maybe she's just upset every time, now. But it doesn't feel like that.
When they break apart again, the twilight's fading behind the Capitol's flickering fluorescence. Santana's eyes are cloaked in shadow now, as deep and dark as ever, and Brittany touches Santana's face right when Santana's fingers curl in Brittany's shirt.
Now, Brittany feels it coming, deep in her bones, like Santana's footsteps: Santana reaches to touch her heart, and Brittany speeds to smooth her hand over the back of Santana's. Together, almost smiling, they move their hands to Brittany's chest; they freeze there, sharing a secret, until they both relax and laugh softly.
Their eyes meet again, drawn to each other by a power Brittany will never understand, and Brittany sighs. "I'll always love you, you know," she reminds Santana, who's always needed reminding.
Santana ducks her head the way she always has, since Brittany got Santana to believe her.
"I've got to go, though," she laments, squeezing Santana's hands where they hang by her sides.
Santana nods, eyes and face clear and calm, and Brittany nods back. Brittany almost says something—see you soon; goodbye; I love you; never leave me—but in the end, she can't form the words.
The irony makes her feel cold as she walks down the stairs: as if all the warmth stayed cloistered in Santana, alone on the roof.
There's just the hum of the television drifting through the hallway: no voices, now, and the dining room lights dim where they outline the doorway. Brittany walks curiously toward the big table only to find it's been cleared. The spread has been changed from dinner to after-meal treats; feeling hungry for the first time in what must be several days, Brittany takes a plate and piles it with sweet fruits, thick flavored bread, and warm cuts of meat dribbled with thick sauces. She's just picking a filled glass from the water dispenser when her ears catch the words from the television: 58th Hunger Games.
She whips around like a deer sensing danger. Over the low wall, she sees the shadows of Effie on the couch and Cassidy and Rory huddled at its opposite end. The bright television licks their silhouettes the way moonlight turns shivering leaves into panting wolves.
On the screen, Brittany watches in shock as Caesar Flickerman's face fades and the show transitions to a close-up of her seventeen-year-old self, hugging a tree branch with mud war paint slicked across her cheeks and in her pale hair. This version of herself wears an expression of firm determination—resignation to her task—as she peers below her with focus.
The view switches to mimic her sightline and shows the two careers, Saber and Pato, arguing below. Flickerman's saying something about suspicion and distrust—his words tease her ears below the sound of her pounding pulse—and then she watches with ever-new horror as Pato turns with a cool expression and guts his companion with his knife.
Instead of freezing there, watching Pato's grim smile as Saber crumples at his feet with a sickening gurgle and bloodied lips, the camera swaps back to Brittany's young face, still wearing the same calm expression. Unchanged.
"See, this is the part I never forget," Flickerman says, oddly reverent as the screen freezes. The animation sweeps Flickerman back into the frame and he turns to this year's co-host. "Look at the determination, the sheer will, on this young woman's face," he instructs, gesturing to a screen only they can see. "That's what I remember about Brittany Pierce. Now tell me, do you think we'll see this kind of cunning in Cassidy Pierce?"
Brittany's rooted to the spot; nobody on the couch moves, though she thinks she sees Effie shift a little, enthralled by the commentary as always.
Flickerman cuts off his co-host to say: "Now, let's skip to the next day—do you remember how she won?" He's still eel-slick and smooth, leading his largely silent co-host and the audience along his train of thought. "There"—the camera obeys, showing a tall column of smoke—"see, she tricks Pato by giving away another position."
The camera pans down to Brittany, up another tree with the pull-rope snagged in her teeth as she climbs. A clip shows Pato running, teeth bared and weapons at the ready, and it cuts to Brittany with a dramatic retouch of the true timing.
Brittany remembers that day. She spent hours waiting for him to come; hours waiting in the tree, tasting the fibers of the rope and smelling the dirt dried on her skin.
The camera cuts it into three theatrical, slow-motion seconds: Pato sprinting like an armed panther; Brittany taking the rope into her hands as she waits; Pato stumbling, just enough for his face to reveal what he's just realized; the snare coming taut, whipping his feet up and yanking his legs powerfully loose in their sockets; Brittany hanging from the end of the cord, her weight holding him suspended in the air; Pato swiping violently at the weapons he dropped on the grass; Brittany carefully tying off the rope, throwing stones to knock his knives away, and approaching him cautiously.
"Look at her walk," Flickerman hushes. "Here, cut to her face again"—the camera obeys—"and you can see when she realizes—there. When she realizes she's won."
It sickens her, to see the light of understanding fracture in her own young eyes; the desperation sketched on her face.
Before she realizes she's moved, she's turned the television off. The room goes dark and silent.
The silence stretches and Brittany stays still. After an eternity, Cassidy begins, "Mom—"
"I'm going to bed," she bites, tears stinging her eyes. Her voice feels heavy as she adds, "You should, too. You have training in the morning."
She leaves without another word. Pato's screams ring in her ears.
Her sudden appearance must have shocked them; they stay frozen while she stalks away, shaky, listening for movement. There's no rustled clothes or shifting sofa cushions—at least not until she's nearly to her quarters, far enough for her heartbeat to drown out any noises the others make.
A foot away from the door, she runs straight into—Santana. Santana starts, clearly accustomed to walking the halls like a ghost: Avoxes are trained to go unnoticed, or so it seems from years of mentorship in the Capitol. It's as if they use secret passageways, or possess some sort of magic.
Not here, though. Maybe it's the same magnets that pull their eyes to each other's; Brittany can't tell, but she grips Santana's arms loosely as Santana gasps. The door to the stairs has just closed—a draft settles around them—and Brittany wonders what Santana did on the roof, for those extra ten minutes.
"Santana," she whispers, "I—"
Santana shakes her head immediately, eyes big and fearful, and covers Brittany's mouth with her finger. She shushes Brittany, an airy noise through her teeth, and disentangles them; she glances at the hallway's corners, as if they're being watched.
Brittany remembers—right as she's pressing their lips together—that they probably are being watched.
It yanks her away like a hooked puppet, swiftly enough to make her feel guilty. Santana looks more relieved than surprised, though; she reaches past Brittany's hip to trigger the door to her room, her movements graceful and light after Brittany's clumsy retraction.
The door makes that soft woosh as it opens; Santana gestures inside politely, her servant's smile flicking sly and secret at the edges, and Brittany smiles back and ducks obediently inside. Santana gazes at her from the doorway, then mimes taking a bite of bread with a curious expression. As she points to Brittany, Brittany answers, "Oh, I left my plate…"
Before she can say more, Santana leaves. She comes back with Brittany's dinner—the food is still warm, and smells delicious—and offers it to Brittany where she sits on the bed.
Brittany takes the plate and, glancing warily but daringly at the corners of the room, tugs Santana down onto the bedside beside her.
As she's sopping up the meat sauce with the bread, she looks at Santana and wonders aloud, sadly, "How do you—?" as she gestures with the bread.
It doesn't make Santana flinch, like she'd feared; Santana just looks thoughtful, as if deciding how to depict her answer, and brightens when her eyes alight on the water on the nightstand. She points to it and shrugs.
"You don't eat?" Brittany blinks, caught off guard.
Santana shrugs again, more self-conscious, and holds up her hand with her thumb and forefinger a little ways apart. "Just a little?" Brittany narrates. "But…"
Again, Santana shrugs, more forcefully: begging Brittany to leave it be.
Against her instincts—the instincts that push her to protect Santana from the evil she's never deserved, the instincts that removed Pato from his place between her and a train ticket home—Brittany relents, nibbling the bread and almost moaning despite herself at the heavy taste of the sauce.
Santana curls one leg under herself, content and patient even when Brittany sneaks a peek to check on her.
Though Brittany can't share her dinner, she makes sure to punctuate her bites with quick kisses, increasing in frequency and speed until Santana shoos her away, giggling breathlessly.
They forget about the cameras.
Brittany half-wakes, still mired in soft dreams, when Santana claws her way out of the bed. Glimmers of dawn light trace the high edge of the wall, coming through the window at an extreme angle, and Santana looks strangely herself again, fighting her way out of the sheets to stand naked on the carpet, the smoothest, darkest thing in the white room.
"What is it?" Brittany whispers, dazed and dreamy, settling her hand slowly over the cooling space beside her.
Santana whips her uniform on, fixing the creases with crisp tugs, glancing at the room's corners and not looking at Brittany.
It's then, still easing out of the softness of sleep, that Brittany remembers the cameras.
"Shit," she tries to hiss, but it comes out a gaped pocket of sound, barely a whisper.
Without answering, without needing to, Santana closes her top's hidden fasteners, sheathing the beauty of her skin in the Capitol's white camouflage.
"I'll see you later?" Brittany asks over the panic rising belatedly in her throat.
Santana pulls her boots on and nods vigorously. She pauses and glances guiltily at the cameras, but she seems to decide the damage has already been done; she leans far across the bed to press one last hard kiss to Brittany's lips.
Quick this time, two light taps, she signs I love you with her fingers warm on Brittany's bare skin. "I love you back," Brittany whispers, and then Santana's gone.
The room grows cold. Brittany burrows back under the sheet and comforter, but comfort doesn't find her. She lies still, feeling hollow, watching the sunlight gain strength slowly, like a flower shivering into bloom.
It feels like the arena: as if she's not really alone; as if she's waiting for something; as if she'll never make it back.
"Wait, you've never seen it?" asks Rory doubtfully, his round voice bounding down the hall when Brittany opens her door.
"Well, no," says Cassidy, defensive and a little melancholy. "They—" She hesitates. "She always turns it off, at home," she finishes, quieter.
Effie Trinket titters. "You've been missing out, dear. She was quite something, in her day."
"She's still quite something," Rory chirps.
"Yes, but to see her in action," Effie snaps, transitioning abruptly into a girlish sigh. "A bit of a chip on her shoulder, what with getting chosen twice and all, but quite a schemer in the end."
Brittany feels a chill where she stands in the hallway. They're talking about her. Her Games.
Cassidy is talking about her Games.
"What was she like?" Cassidy asks, just when Brittany's about to move. "In the Games. I—That was the most I've ever seen of it."
"Oh, she was very interesting," Effie says. "A passable fighter, one-on-one. She nearly kicked one boy's head clean off at the Cornucopia!" Effie giggles obscenely.
Rory cuts in, "She went for it? At the Cornucopia?" He sounds suspicious, and it makes Brittany's stomach lurch.
"Mhm," Effie hums, "after a bag of supplies. Saved her life, too. But she avoided fighting mostly, after that. Just set traps and things, dropped out of trees, and all that." Effie sounds disappointed. "Though her strategies were fairly complex, she was hardly a showman, like her mentor was."
Brittany's heart plummets and her feet finally move forward.
"Her mentor?" Rory asks, when she's taken two steps.
"Yes, her mentor was—"
"Santana," Cassidy fills in breathlessly, right when Brittany enters the room and accidentally clatters the buffet table with her hip.
They all look straight at her, uncomprehending.
Brittany squares her shoulders and stares them each in the eye. Rory looks timid; Cassidy looks guilty; Effie just looks startled and blank. "What're we talking about?" Brittany challenges, her words careful and even.
No one answers. "Strategy," Rory finally tries. "I was just, um, wondering what I'm supposed to eat, if I don't get supplies from the Cornucopia."
Brittany sets her jaw and starts making herself a plate, hoping food will settle her stomach. "That's why I told you to use the stations at training," Brittany bites. "The arena always has food if you can find it."
"Ever since the 34th," Effie sighs wistfully. "When they all died of exposure."
"It's no fun to watch us starve to death," Brittany mutters darkly as she takes her seat. She ignores the way Effie glares.
Cassidy fidgets and Brittany glances over, dabbing jam onto fresh toast with her finger just to annoy Effie. "Mom—" Cassidy starts. She bites her lip. "How did you win?"
The jam slips off the toast onto the plate. Brittany sucks the excess from her fingertip and fights to keep her words careful and gentle. "I did what I had to do," she says.
"Mom… I'm going to be in the arena," Cassidy reminds her, gently and quiet enough to exclude Rory and Effie. "Please tell me how you did it."
It's the look on Cassidy's face that does it: It's Santana, the open eyes and the twitch of her lip, the hope and doubt mixed together on her forehead.
"I…" Brittany feels her heart flaking, like flint under a knife. She swallows. "I—divided the careers." She's never explained it to anyone; now she regrets not letting Flickerman do the job for her. "They all hated each other, so I… I messed with their heads until they picked each other off."
It's easier to say than she'd like it to be.
"Then, once Pato killed Saber, I just…" She shrugs.
"You laid a trap," says Rory, who's come close enough to hear.
Brittany nods and takes a cleansing breath. "I laid a trap. And he fell for it. And I won." She bites the toast with a loud crunch. "That's how I did it."
She expects a comment, or another question, but Cassidy turns slowly back to her food.
Again, like with Santana, Brittany can feel her thinking.
She's not sure if she's scared or proud.
It's strange, and she almost doesn't believe it herself, but after two hours of milling through condescending almost-sponsors watching Holly steer her away from familiar faces, she's fairly certain that Blaine Anderson isn't even at this event.
"Holly," she whispers when they're finally between whales, "where's Blaine?"
Holly raises her eyebrows and tugs Brittany jovially against her side. "I dunno, sweet cheeks, where'd you leave him?"
Brittany wrinkles her nose in irritation. "I mean he's not here."
It doesn't seem to concern Holly, who just shrugs. "He's probably at the Training Center," she says mildly.
Brittany startles. "With the Gamemakers?" she asks, trying to remember who sat on the stage when she was a tribute dancing to their music.
"Rumor has it he's very connected," Holly confides. She pets Brittany's hand where it hooks her elbow and leans in to Brittany's ear. "Pretty killer sponsor for our girl, if you ask me."
Brittany squirms away from Holly's perfumed breath and sighs. "Ooh, speak of the devil," Holly drawls, and Brittany looks up in surprise to see Blaine headed straight for them.
Instead of his usual reserved amusement, he wears stress and determination on his face. "Holly," he greets when he meets them, nodding politely, "would you mind terribly if I stole Brittany away for a bit?"
The way his eyes flash makes Brittany nervous, but Holly's all too glad to give her up: "Just have her back before Effie ships us off," she jokes, peeling Brittany's fingers from her elbow and redirecting herself to the punch bowl.
"What can I do for you?" Brittany asks uneasily.
Blaine takes her by the arm and leads her through the throng. He works too hard to look casual as he says, "You and I need to have a chat." A tendon threads across his temple; Brittany tenses under his grip.
This ballroom doesn't have any proper corners, so Blaine pulls her into the doorway disguising an emergency exit. "What is it?" Brittany asks as they curl into the shadow and adrenaline begins to overpower her nerves.
"I had the opportunity to watch the training today," he begins. His casual tone makes Brittany scowl—what a waste of time—but then his face hardens, darkens like a storm, and he says with a snake's silver tongue, "Now, Brittany, don't be that way. You should be on your best behavior if you want to protect your daughter."
Blaine's eyes glint like the chipped ice dropped in Capitol water glasses. Brittany shifts her arm as she realizes he hasn't let go. "Are you threatening me?" she asks, slipping automatically back into the arena from so many years ago, swallowed by the sense of danger that looms over this whole city.
It must show on her face, because Blaine grips her arm tighter—hard enough to bruise. "Your daughter's already got the spotlight on her, given her… heritage," he says, still serpent-slick. "And after the way she drew attention to herself in training today, let's just say it's lucky certain video surveillance footage has mysteriously disappeared."
Brittany's jaw drops open and she's about to answer when he squeezes her arm again and warns, "Where do you think it went, though?"
It's a threat—it's blackmail—about her family—and it takes every ounce of Brittany's willpower to keep from tearing his throat out with her teeth. The arena's never left her, but it's never touched him; he continues, not seeing past her blank expression, "I'm on your side in all this. Follow my lead and you might just see the other side again."
"The other side of what?" she asks, trying to estimate how many guards would hear his screams and if any of the guests would try to save him.
Blaine shrugs mildly. "You'll see."
"Fine," Brittany cuts in. The instinct to fight makes her feel impatient. "What's your plan then?"
Blaine adopts a casual pose against the door's frame and inspects his nails. "There's a new Avox on 12 this year, isn't there?"
If he has the video, he already knows; he's toying with her, and it makes her blood boil and her fists clench. "There is," she grates.
"How is she faring?" he asks, tipping his head forward and looking at her from under his thick eyebrows.
"Better than—some," Brittany sneers, changing direction at the last second.
Blaine stands upright and straightens his jacket. "Good," he says, smiling proudly, as if they've just concluded a mutually beneficial business deal.
It's clear he's about to leave, and "What do you know?" leaks from Brittany's lips before she can stop it.
The way he looks at her feels like pity: the way Saber looked at her during her Games training, when her knife missed the standing target. "I know enough," Blaine answers cryptically, adjusting the cuffs of his tailored shirt. "Watch yourself, though." He wags a finger in her face, as if she's a child. Her lip curls as he concludes in a hiss, "No more sleepovers on camera."
Brittany wants to snap at him, to throw it back in his face, to make him remember that she survived a month-long bloodbath with no scars he can see, but she knows he's right: She owes him.
So, as he saunters away, Brittany hangs back in the shadows and says nothing.
Brittany's drinking hot chocolate, forcing herself to enjoy the aftertaste, when Rory and Cassidy come out of the elevator. Brittany stands immediately and the smiles fall from their young faces.
"What happened?" Brittany demands.
They stare at her, too surprised to answer, and Brittany repeats herself: "What happened at training? Hm?"
"The—The careers," Rory stutters.
Cassidy completes, "They were picking on him."
Brittany's icy glare scares Rory back into action. "So Cassidy told me to do something, and I—" He cuts off again and blushes.
"He tried to throw one of the weights, but it nearly took his foot off instead," Cassidy says, rolling her eyes at the memory.
"And?" Brittany pushes, as patiently as she can.
They hesitate, and she pins them each with her eyes. "They started yelling at Cass," Rory breaks first.
Brittany turns to him like a whip cracking. "About what?"
He shifts, uncomfortable under her stare. "Training," he says, glancing at Cassidy. "They said she'd been training, 'cause you're her mom."
"Mr. Anderson made them shut up, though," Cassidy says, more serious than excited. "He told them off about their academies and stuff."
Brittany frowns and tries to think. She wishes she had Santana's help. She wishes—
"Be careful with him," she sighs, pinching the bridge of her nose.
"But…" She opens her eyes to find Cassidy looking at her, concerned and uneasy. "Why, Mom? Do you know him?"
Brittany can't explain—can't begin to explain—so she shakes her head. "Just because, little duck," she says, her voice growing smaller. "Trust me, okay?"
Rory looks lost, but Cassidy's confusion dampens under her words. "Okay," she answers, softly. She walks over hesitantly and hugs Brittany tight.
It seeps the vitriol from her like poison from a wound, and as she hugs her daughter back, she finds herself whispering nonsense in her ear: "I love you, Cassidy, more than anything, more than—You're my everything, you're my—I love you, my sweetest daughter, my sweetest thing—"
Right when they sit down to dinner, Rory forgets—again—that they're to be trained separately. "What about after the Cornucopia? We shouldn't make fires, right?" He beams smartly at Cassidy and says, "They give away your position," in exactly the same way Caesar Flickerman always says it.
Brittany's lip curls, though she aims her glare at the steak on her plate, thick and with dark gravy sauce seeping eagerly into her bread. "No fires," she snaps, "which you should know if you've ever seen the Games. There may not even be wood."
The way his face falls makes her feel almost guilty—almost. She saws off a piece of meat, swipes it through the sauce in a broad S, and spears off a wisp of bread on impulse. She's just put it in her mouth when a cup appears beside her, wrapped in smooth, familiar fingers.
"But where's safest to sleep?" Rory's asking, but Cassidy's talking to him, so Brittany just watches Santana meet her eyes bashfully under the cover of her dark hair.
Brittany's skin crawls under the feel of Holly's gaze at the back of her neck, and she turns away at the same time Santana does. Santana loops around the other side of the table, gathering emptied dishes, and Brittany sees as if in slow motion the way Santana looks at Cassidy, eyes and brow soft and sad, lips pursed tight.
She's limping more today.
It freezes Brittany, knuckles white against her fork, and she stares harder at the way Santana drags her left leg, disguised but not hidden.
The cameras. Brittany remembers her panic, and Blaine's threat, and realizes he hasn't explained the limits of his protection: only its conditions.
She thinks of last night: of Santana's body, paler from the long-sleeved uniform and as thin and bony as the day she bathed in the river during the 57th Games; all muscle and shadowed hollows like she had been for long before, in her underfed childhood.
"Brittany," she hears Holly murmur. Her eyes dart back down and she sees she's forced the fork's tips into the soft synthesized material of the plate. It leaves four shallow divots when she lifts it slowly to her mouth with trembling hands.
For what feels like the millionth time today, the billionth time since the first day she awoke without Santana beside her, Brittany almost wishes she were back in the arena, with so many necks to snap and infinite time to do it.
Part of her almost wants to start with her own.
After dinner, while Effie and the stylists chatter and Brittany hovers unhappily away from the table, Cassidy comes over and tugs her sleeve lightly. "Mom?" she begins, hesitant but firm.
"What is it, sugar cookie?" asks Brittany, reaching out to touch Cassidy's cheek, forcing the terrors of this day to the back of her mind.
Cassidy glances aside, but when she looks back, her eyes are clear. "Do you—actually not want me to see your Games? Because…" She bites her lip. "I wonder if they wouldn't maybe help me. And I know that—"
"Oh, Cass," Brittany says through her tight throat, rubbing her thumb over Cassidy's skin, "no, you can—"
Then she chokes, because although she turned the recaps off mostly for herself, part of her still dreads Cassidy seeing that expression on her face; the glint of a weapon in her hand; the smeared blood across her palms.
"If you think it'll help," Brittany concedes, her fingers still and her eyes shut.
"I wouldn't, otherwise," Cassidy answers. She covers Brittany's hand with her own, and Brittany opens her eyes, feeling strangely timid. "I don't want to upset you, Mom," Cassidy reminds her.
Brittany slides her hand to cup Cassidy's skull, a motion still familiar from Cassidy's distant infancy, and pulls Cassidy's head against her shoulder. "I know, little duck," Brittany whispers while Cassidy hugs her tighter.
"Cassidy, don't you want to watch?" Rory asks, too cheerful as always.
Reluctantly, Brittany loosens her hold, and Cassidy draws slowly away from her. "Um," she says.
"Go ahead," Brittany says, urging her weakly toward the television and the others settled on the sofa. "I might just stay out here, or take a shower."
Cassidy looks her over carefully. "Okay," she says finally. "If you're sure."
"I am," Brittany assures her. She pulls Cassidy's head in and pecks her forehead. "If you're going to watch, you've got to learn something though, okay?"
"I will," promises Cassidy as she hops off toward the den.
Brittany stands alone. The motion sensor dims the lights automatically. She wonders what time it is. Gazes at the TV light flickering against the wall. She lets her feet carry her to the roof.
For once—for the first time—it's empty.
It barely computes, and Brittany hovers at the mouth of the stairwell like a statue, waiting for its curse to be lifted.
After several minutes with no Santana, Brittany gulps down her fears and slinks back downstairs.
There's still no sign of her—a ghost again, sunk into the ether—but when Brittany shuffles aimlessly into her bedroom, she spots the warmed mug of hot chocolate on the bedside table.
As if receiving a message, Brittany's hand rises to her heart. It beats quick against her palm.
Tonight, she doesn't dream.
Brittany wakes late, for the first time in months. It's almost foreign, the way the sunlight in her window presses hot red light through her eyelids, and when she sits up, her stomach doesn't ache.
A panic washes over her; she dresses quickly and rushes to the dining room. The kids haven't left yet, but they wear their training uniforms already. Cassidy stares at the table and Rory stares at Cassidy while Effie titters with Emma and Holly, as usual.
Effie notices her first and presses her lips into a line. "Thank goodness, I was beginning to think you'd fallen ill."
"As if," Holly grins, hooking an arm over the back of her chair to nod cheerily at Brittany. "Mornin', hot stuff."
Brittany ignores both of them and gathers fluffy scrambled eggs, hash browns, and curling bacon onto a plate to take advantage of her settled stomach. "Today's the last day of training," she observes when she takes her seat by Rory and Cassidy.
For once, Rory doesn't say anything, and Cassidy just nods. "The first half is for warming up, and then you'll give private presentations to the Gamemakers. Strategy is very important here. What stations haven't you visited yet?"
"Knives," Cassidy replies immediately. "Knives, swords, bow and arrow—most weapons."
With a prim nod, Brittany turns to Rory. He fidgets awkwardly in his seat and mumbles, "I've—I've been to all of them already."
"What were your weakest points?" Brittany pushes, already a quarter of the way through the eggs and searching fruitlessly for salt.
"W-weapons, mostly," Rory stammers. An Avox—the boy, not Santana—brings a salt shaker to the table, but skitters away when Brittany smiles at him. "Well, weapons and weights," Rory amends. "And climbing."
He's listed most of the stations worth his life in a tussle. "Revisit as many of them as you can," she advises, sadly certain nothing will do him any good at this point. "Just try not to piss anybody off."
"What about me?" asks Cassidy, regarding her seriously. "Should I go to the last ones?"
Brittany shakes her head and glances uneasily at Rory. "No, you should save your skills for the Gamemakers. And—actually"—she licks her lips—"I don't think you should strut all your stuff in your private session, either."
That confuses her. "Why?" Cassidy demands, frustration coloring her curiosity. "You said—"
"Your score determines sponsorships," Brittany says patiently. "You don't need any help getting sponsorships."
Cassidy's eyes flash; the chatter lulls. A tense moment hangs until Rory asks, "What about me?"
No one moves.
"What should I do during my session?" he asks, nearly crying.
"Do whatever you can," Brittany answers immediately.
His expression pinches as he wards off tears. Effie clears her throat and stands from the table. "Come along now," she instructs in a fluttery voice, "it's time to get going."
She shoos them from the table and over to the elevator. Cassidy looks back over her shoulder at Brittany, who holds up seven fingers to suggest her target score; Cassidy mouths I love you just as the doors close.
There's silence again, weighty and sour, and Brittany can feel Holly staring into her again.
"Well," Holly says after what must be a full minute, "finish up those eggs, sweet cheeks, and we'll go solicit some sponsorship."
As Brittany takes her next bite, she sees Santana whisk in to set a glass beside her. She's gone before Brittany can react.
It's not hot chocolate. It's sweetened milk: Brittany's father's favorite treat to mix, for her and Lilly on their birthdays, for their mother's fevers, for Santana when she crept in Brittany's window on summer nights.
Brittany takes a sip and the taste brings tears to her eyes.
In the car, Brittany sulks against the window while Holly teases Emma beside her. "Are you gonna say hi to Ken today?" Holly asks, batting her eyes.
"That is wildly inappropriate," Emma huffs. She crosses her arms and tries not to touch Brittany or Holly, despite being squeezed between them.
"He thinks you're gorgeous," Holly drawls. "He totally wants to marry you and have little big-eyed blotchy babies with you."
Emma actually squeals and recoils against Brittany's side. Brittany shrugs her back into the middle and glares harder out the window.
"That is disgusting," Emma sniffs. She sounds panicked.
Holly laughs. "Oh, calm down, honeyface." She runs a hand through her hair and straightens her eyebrow with her thumbnail. "Take it as a compliment."
"So," Effie cuts in, trying to remain included from the front passenger seat, "have you decided what to dress our wonderful representatives in for their interviews?"
That reminds Brittany of the opening ceremony costume, and she pins Holly with a dark, warning look. "I got some ideas," Holly answers with an easy smile. She ignores Brittany and raises an eyebrow at Emma. "Don't you dare dress Ronny like a canary again, though."
It's not the excited fashion gossip Effie had hoped for, so she turns to Brittany like a teacher coaxing a child to practice arithmetic. "Have you gotten any good sponsors lined up? I've talked Cassidy up quite a bit," she goes on without pausing for an answer, "and she's already caused quite a fuss, being your daughter and all, but it'll really pick up once she gets a training score."
Brittany stares at her sullenly; Effie frowns and asks, "She… will get a good score, won't she?"
Brittany bites her lips to calm herself. "Like I said this morning," she grits out, "she should get a decent score."
"What's 'decent,' though?" Effie challenges. Again, she tilts her head as if she's going to have to give Brittany a time-out. "She won't get sponsors on name alone, Brittany."
"I told her to get a seven," Brittany answers icily.
Despite her tone, Effie seems pacified. "Oh," she shrugs, turning back around as the car pulls up to the curb. "That's fine, then."
Brittany almost rips the handle out of the door when she opens it.
Today, Brittany weaves through the crowd with purpose, quickly putting distance between herself and her escorts and methodically searching for Blaine.
She finds him by the punch bowl in a tangerine bow-tie and flared calf-length khakis. "We need to talk," she murmurs in his ear. She pulls him away by the shoulder before he answers.
"What is it?" he asks, clearly annoyed despite the casual way he sips the punch.
"I think it's time you told me what's going on." Brittany turns so their faces are protected from cameras by the room's colorful decorations. "Something happened, and I don't like being kept in the dark."
Blaine considers her carefully. "What do you think happened?" he asks, keeping his voice even.
Brittany takes a deep breath and murmurs, "Santana's limp got worse." When he doesn't say anything, she adds, "Someone else saw the video, didn't they?"
The fear easily overcomes her embarrassment.
Blaine looks aside, so calm it's frustrating. "Look, Brittany," he begins.
"No. I'm not a child. Tell me what's going on."
That draws his eyes back to hers. He relents. "Fine. You really think this whole thing came from your ex-husband's jealousy?"
Brittany waits, trying not to think about the day Santana went to the market and Artie came back instead, with wicked happiness lurking beneath his false bereavement.
"It runs deeper than that," Blaine insists. "Abrams has connections. You must've noticed; you were married to the guy." His tone waxes caustic on the last phrase, but Brittany doesn't flinch.
"I know he has connections," she says icily. "Are we anywhere near your point yet?"
Blaine frowns at her. "He got Hudson's ear," he confides. "Convinced him Santana was trouble. You think a mayor's got the power to make a Victor disappear? You're the Capitol's puppets, and cutting those strings is a good way to get dead."
Brittany's lip curls. She tries to focus on the story instead of Blaine's words. "And how does that get us here?" she asks.
"I have some connections of my own," Blaine says slowly. He takes a pretentiously small sip of his punch. "I convinced certain intermediaries that execution would make Santana a martyr, and that there may be more—symbolic ways to deal with treason."
Symbolic. Brittany's hands shake with the effort of keeping them away from Blaine's neck. "You did this to her?"
Blaine seems to belatedly realize the danger he's fallen into. "No, that's not what I meant," he backpedals. "I saved her."
"Most of her," Brittany hisses. Her voice cracks. She inches closer to him.
"Listen, I know I pissed you off before, but I'm on your side," Blaine presses, holding up his drink and his free hand but not backing away. "I'm trying to help you here."
Brittany grits her teeth and crosses her arms. "Why is that, exactly?" she asks. "You don't give a rat's ass about my family."
"Brittany," Blaine pouts, "I'm hurt."
"Don't pull that shit with me right now." Her expression stays dark.
Blaine wets his lips and purses them. His false pout melts like a candle by a bonfire. "Let's just say I'm tired of being told to take a seat," he says finally.
For all his usual slime, this sounds sincere. Brittany relaxes—manually, muscle by muscle—and steps back into the view of the cameras.
Blaine looks over her face again, almost concerned. "You shouldn't worry too much about that Avox," he offers. "She's not very useful if she's dead or incapacitated." Though the words sting, his tone borders on comforting.
"If you say so," she hedges.
"Brittany," he adds, and she looks back up to him. Blaine thinks for a moment, fiddling with his glass. "Let Cassidy tell Caesar about Santana in the interview. Not her current whereabouts"—he holds up his hand for emphasis—"but about Cassidy's… true origins."
Brittany frowns at him and steps back under the decorations. "You think that's a good idea? You make it sound like we've already pissed off everybody in this fucking city."
"I've been doing this a lot longer than you," Blaine says.
"I highly doubt that," Brittany laughs, certain Blaine's not more than five years older than her, if any.
"Just trust me on this one," he asks. "It'll give her the upper hand."
Brittany raises an eyebrow. "Which hand is that?"
Blaine grins. "Popularity," he says with a shrug. "The Capitol loves violence, but it loves a good love story even more."
The word love on Blaine's lips makes Brittany's stomach twist. "The Capitol wouldn't know love if it spat on its face," she mutters.
"Maybe so," Blaine agrees, "but we don't let that bother us."
Brittany just nods and bleeds back into the crowd.
The kids are quiet when they come back, as if they've finally figured out this isn't a dream. In a few short days, they'll find themselves trapped in a cage with twisted, bloodthirsty reflections of themselves; in a few short days, everything will change forever.
"How did your sessions go?" chirps Effie brightly. After all this time, she still doesn't seem to understand why the last days turn bitter and anguished, even for better-prepared tributes.
"Okay," says Cassidy honestly. She glances at Rory—he's staring at the table with wide deer-eyes—and holds up seven fingers to the edge of the table, for Brittany to see.
Brittany smiles and Cassidy smiles back, bashful the way she gets when she hears a compliment she believes. It's another expression she's gotten from Santana.
"How about you, Rory?" Brittany asks as gently as she can.
He doesn't blink or look up, but he shrugs his shoulders. "They weren't really paying attention," he admits. "And I wasn't sure what to do."
Cassidy reaches out to touch his shoulder. She doesn't say anything.
They eat in near-silence, and Brittany's almost comforted by the hum of Effie chattering quietly, as if any of them is listening.
"It's time," Holly says suddenly, and they look up to watch her jog over to turn on the television. Sure enough, Caesar Flickerman is there, reading notes from a page to the camera with his half-serious, half-sly expression.
Brittany ushers the kids over to the couch and sits beside them, resting her hand on the back of Cassidy's head to calm her. Holly and Emma hover near the wall and Effie sits in an armchair, shaking with excitement.
They watch the careers rack up nines, tens, elevens. The numbers drop afterward until the huge boy from 7 spikes the pattern with a score of eleven. Brittany feels Cassidy's shiver against her arm. The blind girl hits especially low—everyone winces, excluding Effie but including Flickerman—but the boy from 10 and the girl from 11 do fairly well.
Rory manages a four. Considering his skills coming in, it's almost impressive, but he sniffles loudly and grips the chair as if he'd rather go hide in his room than wait to see Cassidy's score.
Cassidy hits seven, right on the nose. Effie and Emma look at her consolingly—"That's not so bad, dear," Effie trills—but Brittany gives her a secret smile, right in time to distract her from Rory fleeing to his quarters.
"Perfect, little duck," Brittany whispers. She kisses Cassidy's temple and hugs her tight. "I've already got you a few sponsors," she says right into Cassidy's ear. "So this'll keep the careers off your back until the weaker kids get eliminated. Don't take on the pack all at once without a strategy, no matter how strong or confident you feel. People are assholes, and they'll probably off each other for you if you give them the chance."
When she pulls away, Cassidy nods solemnly, looking her straight in the eye. Cassidy bites her lips. "I have the interview tomorrow," she says.
Brittany takes a deep breath. "Yes, you do," she says slowly, tucking Cassidy's flyaway hairs back behind her ear. "I want you to be yourself, okay? Answer Flickerman as honestly as you can."
That makes Cassidy frown. "Even if he asks about…?" She trails off, glancing over Brittany's shoulder at the wall where the Capitol troupe still chatters.
Brittany bites her lips. "About Tana?"
Cassidy nods, and Brittany thinks hard about what Blaine said: about the danger they're in; about the conspiracy; about his plan; about a love story. She thinks about Santana's limp and silence; the last six months, alone; the sneer on Artie's face at the Reaping; what she has left to lose. What she has already lost.
So, she sacrifices the last thing she's willing to part with.
"Tell him everything."
Brittany dreams so vividly of Santana singing to her that she awakens half expecting to see her, sitting on the bed and combing her fingers through Brittany's loose hair.
The room is empty, dipped in soft dawn light. Though Brittany strains her ears, she hears nothing—not even Santana's soft hum, from days ago on the roof. Suddenly, powerfully, she misses the sound of Santana's neglected voice, even blurred and dampened by closed lips; she touches her heart as if doing so will start a recording of the way Santana used to sing to her in their youngest summer mornings, tugging her gently from her dreams the way she teased leaves from Brittany's hair.
It makes her stomach hurt, again, and Brittany lets herself believe breakfast will cure it. As she scoops fruit into a bowl and settles at the unoccupied table, she tells herself her nerves have nothing to do with the interview, or what will come afterwards.
A little while later, once Brittany's picked through the grapes and pineapple in the bowl, Cassidy comes out stretching casually and wearing her sneaky smile.
"What is it?" Brittany asks, one brow raised.
Cassidy shrugs, but Brittany raised her, and she knows that face as well as anything. "What are you planning?" she tries instead, half-smirking in a mix of pride and nerves.
"You can't exactly plan an interview," Cassidy dodges. She piles ham, bacon, scrambled eggs, hash browns, and a viscous drizzle of maple syrup on her plate and uses the beverage insert to pour a glass of milk.
Cassidy sits right across from her, and Brittany accuses curiously, "You're planning something anyway."
"Maybe I am." Cassidy shrugs. "To not prepare is the greatest of crimes," she quotes, sly smile sneaking back onto her lips.
"Cass," Brittany says, growing serious, "I know we've been through a lot, and there's still more to go, but… you know I love you no matter what, right?"
Cassidy's eyes stay lowered respectfully. "I know, Mom."
Brittany reaches out and takes Cassidy's hand where it lays loosely over her knife. Cassidy looks up. "We'll have tonight, after the interviews, but after that—" Brittany bites her lips and squeezes Cassidy's fingers. "Whatever happens in that chair, with Flickerman, just do what I said, okay?"
"Tell him the truth," Cassidy recites. She still sounds uncertain; doubtful.
"Tell him everything," Brittany corrects.
"But what about you?" blurts Cassidy earnestly. "Mom, look what they did to Tana, I—"
"Don't worry about me." Brittany grips Cassidy's hand forcefully and stares hard into her eyes. "I'll get by; it's safest in the spotlight, anyway. Telling the truth about Tana might be our smartest move here, really."
Cassidy eyes her suspiciously, but she turns her hand over and squeezes back. "If you're sure."
"I'm sure, sugar cookie," Brittany assures her with her bravest smile. "And after everything… I want everyone to know that Tana did some things right, you know?"
It's more of an admission than she meant to make, and she worries instantly she's burdened Cassidy further. Cassidy furrows her brow. "What do you mean? Of course she—"
"After her Games," Brittany interrupts, "and with whatever they might say later about why she… why they—took her, I want everyone to know she's the reason for you."
Cassidy's eyes are wet. Brittany shifts closer in her chair and touches Cassidy's cheek. "We've all made mistakes, but she and I made you, and it'd be nice, I think, if everybody at least knew that."
That finally makes Cassidy smile. She looks down bashfully and the first tears slip down her eyelashes.
"You're my sweetest thing," Brittany reminds her, her light tone belying the meaning beneath. She leans across the table to kiss Cassidy's forehead and then pulls back to pick at the fruit in her bowl.
"I love you, Mom," Cassidy sniffles. Brittany looks up and sees she's crying a bit, though she's smiling.
Then Holly walks in. "Good morning," she greets, and the tender way she says it and the gentle looks she gives them tell Brittany that she's probably been listening.
Holly doesn't say anything. They eat their breakfasts in almost-settled silence.
In the small viewer cubicle, Brittany huddles in the corner of a couch with her face in her hands. She's already warded off Effie at least six times, trying to coax her into watching the first interviews. The sound of the tributes' voices wash over her, none of them her daughter's, none of them so gentle and sweet, so rough and strong at a moment's notice.
"Hello there!" Brittany hears Holly, sweeping in triumphantly once Cassidy's dressed and ready. Her voice drops immediately; she must be addressing Effie when she asks, "What's up with Mama Bear?"
Nothing follows, and Brittany doesn't look up, even when Holly's weight sets beside her and an arm covers her shoulders. "What is it, sweet cheeks?" Holly croons.
Brittany looks up just to glare at her. Holly pouts, wounded. "Aw, don't be like that." Holly's expression softens and her voice grows serious. "I think you'll like the dress I chose."
At least it's a dress, and Brittany scrapes her nose hard against her wrist as the boy from 10 finishes his interview with a whoop to rile the audience. "Is she already on the carpet?" Brittany asks, still miserable, still afraid to see what's to come.
Holly nods. "It's gonna be okay," she promises foolishly, squeezing Brittany's shoulder. "You'll see."
Brittany's sure she's not the one about to have her eyes opened, but she lets Holly goad her into watching the next few interviews. Everyone's in formal dress, but the color scheme chosen for District 11 compliments the girl, Sixta, beautifully. She teases Flickerman with sharp wit and plays the audience with sly sideways smiles, as if promising they're in on the joke.
The colors make the red-haired 11 boy look blotchy and overly young. Flickerman is gentle with him, but he still shakes under the cameras and the lights, and the close-ups show sweat soaking into his starched collar and sleeves. Brittany's stomach sinks; this may foreshadow Rory's interview in the last round.
Then, too fast, Flickerman's standing, the red-haired boy's standing, they're shaking hands and Brittany's world is spinning as the boy walks off the stage. "She's next," someone says—maybe it's Brittany—and she finds herself gripping Holly's hand tightly between their thighs.
Cassidy steps onstage, and it's like Brittany's heart stops.
Cassidy's wearing Santana's dress.
Black with beautiful licks of red, the one thing their idiot stylist did right, with a retooled modest neckline and the same shimmery black strap, splitting into smooth webbed lines down the back and pooling in luxurious dark folds along the floor that shimmer red in the stage lights.
It's beautiful, a masterpiece, a memory, a punch to the gut. Brittany's squeezing Holly's hand nearly tight enough to crack bone; she can feel Holly struggling. She can't decide if Holly deserves it, or if she should be showering Holly with thanks and gifts and happy tears.
It doesn't matter, because she can't loosen her grip: not when Cassidy's finished absorbing the crowd's cheers, not when Flickerman's asking her to take a seat.
"Hello there, Cassidy," Flickerman says with a smile. Brittany wonders if he's going to say anything about the dress; clearly, the more enthusiastic members of the audience have already recognized it. "How are you liking the Capitol so far?"
Cassidy smiles, wide and toothy. "I like it alright," she says and flounces in her chair. The audience laughs a little.
"Did your mother ever bring you here, when she mentored other tributes in the past?" Flickerman leans his chin on his fist, as if he's truly interested. For all Brittany knows, he really is.
Honestly, Cassidy shakes her head. "I think there's some rule against it, but I don't really know," Cassidy admits. She smiles. "She always said I was too sweet to come with. That I'd give you guys a cavity, like a sugar cookie." Cassidy aims her smile up at the audience, bigger and braver. They eat it up. "She's always said I'm her sweetest thing."
Flickerman smiles obediently. "I'm sure she's right."
Cassidy shrugs and clears her smile. "Either way, I've never been here before. But I like it. I mean, without the Capitol, I wouldn't be here talking to you."
Flickerman smiles at the audience, clearly amused. "You don't say," he says, because obviously, without the Capitol there'd be no Games at all. However, as always, he sees she's going somewhere with it. So, he plays along and asks, "How's that?"
Cassidy beams at him, happy he's helped her, and smooths her dress reverently as she answers, "Well, I don't know if you know this, Caesar"—Effie and the audience titters—"but I was conceived using Capitol technology."
That yanks his eyebrows up; it's a bit dangerously close to mentioning sex, but aside from low murmuring in the seats, nothing happens. Flickerman laughs along easily, as if nothing is amiss. "You don't say?" he grins. "Is that what your mother spent her prize money on? Money well spent!" He gestures grandly at Cassidy, a vision in careful makeup and her mother's tailored dress.
"One of them, yeah," Cassidy cuts in, answering his rhetorical question and sparking more murmuring from the crowd.
"One of them?" Flickerman repeats dumbly.
Cassidy nods and Brittany feels her heart pounding in her chest. "Yes," she says, as Effie and Holly and everyone turns a fraction of the way toward Brittany. "I'm the biological daughter of Brittany Pierce and Santana Lopez."
The audience gasps, but Flickerman thinks on his feet, just in time to drag everyone's attention back to the screen and away from Brittany's breathlessness and bright red face. "That explains the dress," he observes appreciatively. "But where's Santana, then? Her absence this year is pretty unusual, especially if you're here."
Cassidy's face begins to change; it wavers at the edges, the way it does when crying crosses her mind for the first time.
"Doesn't she want to watch you?" Flickerman's voice is gentle and comforting, almost paternal, and he touches her hand where it rests on the arm of the chair. "Isn't she proud to see your accomplishments?"
Cassidy swallows—it's clear on the high definition screens, the way her throat shivers—and looks down at her lap and tucks her hair behind her ear. She's mimicking nerves; when she's really nervous, her hands flutter around her the way Santana's do.
"I'm sure she is," Cassidy says earnestly, looking Flickerman in the eyes sadly. "I know she is, but she's not here because the Capitol arrested her, and I don't know what happened to her."
The words get faster at the end as the audience gasps and begins to murmur. "Why?" Flickerman asks. He sits up straighter, frowning, clearly realizing he's out of his depth and likely in dangerous waters.
"I don't know," Cassidy says as the first tears fall, "but she didn't do anything wrong except love my mom and me and try to take care of us." She wipes at her eyes with her free hand.
Effie steps closer to the screen, her fingers touched to her heart.
Flickerman gulps while sound ripples through the audience. He pats Cassidy's hand. "I'm sure she's watching somewhere," he fibs thoughtfully. He squeezes her fingers. "You go out there and win this for her."
It's timed perfectly with the end of their interview; Flickerman stands up, holding their hands in the air, and tells her to curtsy as he reminds the audience one more time of the name they'll never forget.
The room erupts into chaos while Cassidy walks offstage. Brittany just turns right to Holly and croaks, "You found her dress."
Holly bites her lip and nods. Then she smiles a little. "She looked great, Britt."
Brittany turns and nods into Holly's shoulder. Tears smear across her face under the noise of everyone trying to get her attention.
Holly wards them off. Brittany says nothing.
Rory's interview verily flops after Cassidy's string of revelations. No one in the room is watching, anyway; Holly leaves to collect Cassidy and everyone else descends on Brittany, who avoids their questions mostly by glaring at them as if she'll kill them one by one.
When everyone gets back to the Training Center, Cassidy runs right into Brittany's arms and up off the ground, like she did when she was little. Brittany catches her easily—even with the weight she's put on with the Capitol's food, she's light enough to carry—and buries her face in Cassidy's sweet-smelling hair. "You did beautifully, little duck," Brittany hushes.
"Was I good, Mom?" Cassidy asks needlessly. She clutches Brittany tight around the neck.
"You were perfect, sweetheart," Brittany sighs. "They loved you."
"I love you," Cassidy mumbles, digging her nose into the soft divot of Brittany's collarbone. "I could never do this without you."
Brittany shakes her head firmly and sets Cassidy down to look her in the eye. "You can and you will," she pushes, brushing her knuckles over Cassidy's cheek. "You planned that whole thing by yourself, remember? You can do this."
Cassidy nods a little and buries herself back in Brittany's shoulder.
They stay locked that way—Brittany hears footsteps around them, heading further into the dining area, but she ignores them—and finally Brittany whispers, "You looked beautiful today."
Cassidy sniffles. "I… that was Tana's dress, wasn't it?" she asks softly.
Brittany frowns; her hand stutters where it rubs Cassidy's back. She settles on honesty and says, "Yeah, sugar cookie, it was. How'd you know?"
There's another pause, and Cassidy swallows so her head bobs against Brittany's neck. "It was on the recap the other night, super quick, because they said you guys were friends."
Brittany's hand freezes altogether. "I…"
"They didn't know about you guys, did they," Cassidy says quietly.
"You knew that," Brittany sighs.
It's just their breath for a moment. "I knew," Cassidy says, the way she talks when she's trying to figure out how to say something, "but I guess I didn't totally put it together. At home, people didn't really know, but they kind of knew, I think…"
"The Capitol's just different," Brittany says, throat tight. "I wasn't trying to keep you a secret. We weren't trying to keep each other a secret. It just—wasn't something anyone wanted to hear, sweetie."
"I know," Cassidy says, hugging tighter to prove it. "But I think she'd be happy, to know we told. You know?" She pulls away, tears in her eyes. "Like you said. She did something right."
Brittany tries to smile and reaches up to brush Cassidy's tears away. "She did a lot of things right," she says. "She just liked to keep them hidden."
"Like me," Cassidy guesses tentatively.
Brittany leans forward and kisses her forehead. "Like you."
Brittany waits while Cassidy thinks—happy to stand there, to enjoy the moment, enjoy being together—and Cassidy finally asks, "Does Holly know?"
Brittany looks over her shoulder; the others are farther away, talking to Rory with sad faces: not listening. "Everybody knows now," Brittany points out, "but yes. She knew."
"That's why she picked the dress."
"That and it looked perfect on you," Brittany teases.
Cassidy smiles shyly. "Thanks. How does Holly know?"
Brittany shrugs. "I guess she picked up on some vibes over the last few years."
"Some vibes?" Cassidy asks, unable to hide her grin.
"Watch it," Brittany grins back, reaching out to tickle Cassidy's vulnerable belly. Cassidy shrieks and runs away. Brittany chases her.
After a circuit of the penthouse, they stumble into the dining area and shatter the solemn mood. "Sorry," Cassidy blurts, skittering to get a plate together and plop into the seat beside Rory. Brittany takes her time gathering food and doesn't bother to apologize.
"Are you excited for tomorrow?" Effie asks like she does every year.
It kills what little joviality remains. "What?" Effie demands after a full minute.
"Shut up and eat," Holly says, rolling her eyes.
They eat quietly, but not for long. "So I was right," Effie says suddenly. Brittany looks up and finds Effie watching her like a tigress stalking prey.
Brittany drops her fork in surprise. "Um, what?"
"About you and Santana," Effie sniffs primly. Under her derision hangs a self-satisfied little smile. "You've been together for years. Since the first time I guessed it."
Brittany manages not to roll her eyes. "No," she says patiently, "we were together before you guessed it. We were together before we met you."
"Psh," Effie dismisses, busily cutting a dainty bite of duck. "Still, I was right," she says, as if congratulating herself.
Brittany grunts and leaves it at that.
After dinner, Cassidy yawns, even though her leg won't stop bouncing. "Come on, it's late," Brittany says without room for protest; she touches Cassidy's shoulder and leads her to her room.
"I don't think I can sleep tonight," Cassidy admits, twisting her fingers nervously together in the doorway—again a strange mimicry of Santana.
They each take a step closer and Brittany touches Cassidy's bangs. "I know, but I want you to try to rest your body, at least. Even if it means staring at the ceiling."
Cassidy smiles a little, almost like a tic. "You want me to stare at the ceiling all night?"
"Something like that," Brittany teases. "Take a nice hot shower and just lay down. Close your eyes."
Cassidy looks down and then aside, at the bed. "I wish I could see the stars from here," she blurts; she looks surprised herself at what she's said.
"You can still see them in here," Brittany says, tapping Cassidy's temple.
"I could play that game," Cassidy suggests nervously. "The one we played when I was little?"
Brittany smiles. "Yeah, definitely."
Cassidy's eyes dart around again. She's trying to ask something. "What is it?" Brittany coaxes.
"Would you stay and play it with me?" she asks. Her voice almost shakes.
Brittany's eyes drift close at the pang in her gut. "For a little while," she whispers. "Do you want to take a shower first?"
"Okay," Cassidy answers, naturally softer to match Brittany's pitch—like they're sharing a secret, or like Cassidy's a child again, and they're trying not to wake her father.
Brittany kisses Cassidy's forehead. "You do that and I'll go change my clothes."
Obediently, Cassidy drifts into the bathroom on the right. Brittany sighs, glances at the dark window, and heads back to her room. When she returns, Cassidy's still showering, so she walks over to the glass to look out at the city. At home, windows at night show her her own face; in the Capitol, the windows stay windows—some kind of treatment to the glass, far beyond the financial reaches of District 12—and Brittany can see every winking light, familiar and mocking.
The water shuts off, and minutes later, Cassidy comes into the room with wet hair leaving tracks down the back of her green shirt. "Mom," she says tentatively, holding a hairbrush and rubber band, "can you braid my hair?"
Her voice sounds so small, and Brittany can't help but smile and settle against the bed's headboard, patting the mattress in front of her crossed legs. "Of course, sugar cookie. Come sit."
Cassidy does exactly that, and she picks at the comforter while Brittany gathers her thick hair into several pieces, scratching lightly at Cassidy's scalp where she can because it makes Cassidy giggle happily.
"Do you want to start the game now?" Brittany asks softly as she guides the first piece over Cassidy's ear.
"Okay," Cassidy whispers. The room's lights dim after a moment because they sit so still on the bed: Only Brittany's fingers are really moving.
"Go on," Brittany says gently. "You start, sweet pea."
Cassidy wriggles her shoulders. "Okay. There was a… um… frog. And he lived in a swamp, but he wanted to see the stars."
Brittany smiles; this is Cassidy's favorite way to start. "He knew the stars would be beautiful," Brittany continues, "and he just had to see them for himself. Where did he start?"
"The North Star," Cassidy replies automatically. "It's the brightest, and he was totally sure he'd be able to see everything clearly if he could just get up there."
"How did he get there?" Brittany asks softly, already looping the elastic band once, twice, three times around the bottom of Cassidy's braid.
Cassidy tries to hide her yawn. "He used… a rowboat," she says. A new answer.
"Do you want it just down like this?" Brittany asks, petting the neat braid with her fingertips.
With a shrug, Cassidy answers, "I'm not sure if Holly wants you to do it like you did for the Reaping, because she said—"
It's like the word short-circuits Cassidy's thoughts, a beat late, like an afterthought. Brittany squeezes Cassidy's shoulders. "I can redo it in the morning if she wants," she says. She kisses the crown of Cassidy's head and climbs off the bed. Cassidy lays down and Brittany accesses the keypad to program the lights for sleeping.
"He used a rowboat," she prompts again when she perches on the side of the bed. "What did he build it out of?"
Cassidy yawns. "He built it out of love," she mumbles, growing sleepier in the darkness, made deeper by the now-shuttered windows. "One bead at a time."
Brittany leans closer, ghosting her lips near Cassidy's temple and smelling the Capitol's strange sweetness in her hair. "Count the beads for me, little duck."
"One," Cassidy whispers. "Two. Three…"
"I love you," Brittany whispers while Cassidy grows quieter. "Always and forever, my darling."
"I love you back," Cassidy murmurs. Her wet eyes reflect the scant light.
Brittany kisses her forehead once more. "You're my sweetest thing; my little miracle. Keep counting the beads for me."
"Four," Cassidy mumbles. "Five…"
At twenty-three, Cassidy's head falls naturally to the side, her dwindling words lost in the pillowcase. Brittany eases herself up from the mattress and creeps to the door.
Cassidy's counting has ended; she's sleeping now, coiling the covers in her fists and dragging them around her body like a cocoon.
"Good night, Cassidy," Brittany whispers. She smears the tears from her eyes and silently leaves the room.
"Rory?" asks Effie, hanging back over the couch arm and craning her neck. "Oh, it's you. Come look!" She gestures at the television screen with the glass in her hand.
Brittany steps closer, into the blue glow of the screen, and watches the silent images flickering. "What's going on?"
"First betting rounds," Holly quips from where she's sprawled at the couch's other end, far closer to Emma than Emma seems to like.
"They've already nicknamed Cassidy," Effie giggles, spinning off the cushion and heading back into the dining area with jilted steps. Drops spill from the lip of her glass onto Brittany's leg and the floor.
Holly smacks the space beside her loudly. "Come sit, princess."
"Yes, yes," Effie calls from behind. Brittany turns to see her pouring white liquor into her cup. "By all means, join us!"
Before Brittany decides or moves one way or the other, Effie's put a second glass in her hand and dropped back onto the sofa. "What was that about nicknames?" Brittany asks, carefully climbing over the back of the couch to sit with her knees up under her chin. She sniffs the drink tentatively; she can smell the sharp, sterile alcohol, and what little juice Effie mixed it with. Effie must be tipsy already with such a sparing ratio.
"Sugar," Effie's grinning at her. "They're calling her Sugar, 'cause she's so sweet." She wavers in Brittany's space to cup her cheek, so clumsy and quick it turns into a light slap.
Brittany catches Effie's wrist and Holly knocks Brittany's elbow. "'S true," Holly says sagely, circling her wrist so the ice cubes clink against the rim of her cup. "She's the belle of the ball."
"Whatever that means," Brittany mutters. She scrunches her nose and eyes and takes a swig of whatever Effie's poured her.
It's even stronger than it smelled, like choking down gasoline. Brittany follows it with another generous swallow; it burns less than the sick feeling she's had all week, since before the reaping: since Santana disappeared, months ago.
"Just like her mother," Emma pipes up. Brittany leans forward to see; Emma's staring at her own glass, eyes glazed and frozen, lost in thought.
"Her mothers," Effie corrects, slurping the s to make her point. She jabs a finger at Brittany's face. "I told you so!"
Brittany swats her hand away. "Fuck, you didn't have to tell me anything, Effie," she snaps.
The alcohol soothes her words; Holly sticks out her tongue at Effie. "I knew the second I laid eyes on 'em," Holly drawls.
"But I'm new," Emma protests meekly.
"Can we stop talking about who knew first?" Brittany groans. "I think I win."
Holly nudges her shoulder, and Brittany turns to find Holly leering at her with an eyebrow raised. Brittany gulps more liquor in anticipation, right as Holly says, "So c'mon, give us the deats."
"What's that mean?" Brittany demands.
"Was it really the whole time?" asks Effie. "Because I really think it started after Santana's Games. Like I said."
"How long ago did it start?" Emma adds softly.
Brittany bites her lip, suddenly feeling how they have her surrounded. She puts out the fire of panic with another swallow of her drink. It's more than half empty, already. "We were kids," Brittany says mildly, trying to decide what they mean by start. "Like, I dunno. Kids."
"Fuck that," Holly laughs. "When did it start?"
Brittany frowns at her.
Holly rolls her eyes. "You know. The dirty!"
That makes Emma gasp; Effie creeps closer with glittering eyes. "What?" Brittany asks, incredulous, sure she's heard wrong.
"We're all adults here," Holly teases. "And Santana's smokin' hot. I wanna know!"
Brittany shies back; her cheeks feel warm. "I—I don't remember," she lies on instinct.
"Was she your first?" Effie asks, still overly attentive.
It freezes her: She recalls one summer night, Santana draped over her despite the heat, sweet milk settling in both their bellies; the moonlight caught in Santana's hair when she touched Brittany's face, fiery and tender.
Brittany nods dumbly. "That's sweet," Holly singsongs, pushing Brittany's shoulder kindly. Brittany glances up—Holly has this weird look in her eye, and Brittany feels a clutch of fear about the video Blaine confiscated—but movement on the TV screen catches her eye, and all of a sudden, as if Flickerman could hear them from the studio, there's Santana, big as life on the screen, with a raw welt on one cheek and her clothes bloodied.
It's a shot from week three. Brittany remembers every benchmark bandage.
Brittany's movement must've tipped the others off; they watch with her as Santana gets ambushed by a solo career, and she decimates each kneecap and opens his throat from collarbone to jaw with a smooth upswing of his own knife.
"She was vicious," Emma says. Her voice wavers, as if she'd forgotten—or maybe she's awed.
"Bet she's a fuckin' firecracker in the sheets," Holly says lowly, a grin spread shamelessly across her face.
Holly turns before Brittany can hide her beet-red face. "That's a yes if I ever saw one!" Holly crows, drawing Effie's attention back to Brittany.
"What's she like?" Effie demands eagerly.
"You know what she's like," Brittany snaps. It's like her nightmares in the arena: cornered and defenseless. It's worse, with Santana's face full-screen before her, the boy's blood slaked over her shoulder and neck as if it's her own.
The Capitol laid Santana bare long ago: Santana in the shadows, sweet and worshipful and passionate, is the only one left uncompromised. Brittany's loath to share this one final piece—the only one she has left for herself.
"Sarcastic, caustic, yeah, but that's not what we meant," Holly goads.
"I don't give a fuck what you meant," Brittany croaks. She downs the rest of her drink.
Effie snatches the cup from her hand instantly and shuffles off to refill it. "A little liquor will loosen that tongue," she trills over her shoulder.
Brittany curls miserably into herself. "C'mon," Holly entreats, "we're just a little jealous, that's all. Humor us?"
Effie comes back and holds the glass over Brittany's shoulder. Brittany takes it begrudgingly. "She's the best thing that ever happened to me," Brittany mutters. "For every reason. That's all I'm gonna say."
"How do you even do it?"
It's Emma. She's even redder than Brittany, and staring resolutely at her hands.
They're quiet—awkward—until Holly asks, "Um, come again, red?"
"Two girls," Emma answers quickly, like she already regrets asking.
Holly snorts. "Easy. Fingers… tongues."
Something flashes across her face. Her head snaps around to face Brittany again. Tongues, she mouths, as if she's just putting it together. Brittany scowls at her and stands up.
"Oh," Emma says suddenly as she puts it together. "Um."
"If you assholes want to do girl talk, count me out," Brittany snarls, chugging down the white liquor—no mixer at all, this time—and drops the glass to the ground when she catches sight of the screen again.
It's a picture of them. Her, with Santana, at the train station, the year Brittany came back. She recognizes it from the paleness of her hair and her mother's gaunt face in the background. It's an awkward, candid snapshot—they're blurred, halfway into a hug—but Brittany sees why Flickerman chose it: It shows Santana's face, dropped wide open with wet tears and thick eyes, the way she's always looked when she's given something too good to be believed.
Really, it's only happened a few times, but Brittany's not about to forget: That day, at the train; an afternoon in a discreet Capitol medical center; the night Cassidy was born and Santana snuck inside through the window to sidestep Artie; the morning Brittany finally left Artie; and a few days ago, on the rooftop.
Effie and Holly have lapsed back into their own conversation—Brittany hears Holly slur "Everybody's got a random" as if she's hearing it through soup or deadened ears—but Brittany's abandoned her shattered glass and loped back around the couch.
She sprints for the roof.
"Did you see it?" asks Brittany breathlessly as she sprints across the rooftop. Santana catches her easily, by the arms, and nods with her lips bitten between her teeth. "The interview?"
Santana nods again, and her eyes close slowly—almost relieved. She clutches Brittany's arms tighter and drops her forehead to Brittany's shoulder; her nose touches the soft insert at Brittany's collarbone. "Holly did it," Brittany says. "The dress, and—wasn't she beautiful?"
Santana nods and holds tighter. Brittany feels tears at her shoulder and frowns. "Santana—are you okay? Did they—did you—"
Brittany peels away and turns her head, peering at Santana's wet cheeks. She brushes them off with her thumb, tracing the silvery scar at Santana's chin, and says, "Santana, did they—like they did after the tape—"
With an insistent shake of her head, Santana grips Brittany's shirt and pulls them together again. She inhales deep, pushing Brittany's hair aside with her nose and burrowing against Brittany's skin, as if pushing past the Capitol's scented soaps.
"Santana," Brittany whimpers, "I can't let them keep doing this to you." She wonders if Santana's been limping all evening; if that's why she's been hiding.
Santana shakes her head against Brittany's shoulder and shifts, back and up, to give Brittany a hard, dry kiss. Brittany's fingers curl in Santana's hair at the back, where it's tugged a little loose from the bun; her other hand smooths down the curve of Santana's back and settles in the divot at the bottom to press their bodies tighter together.
Santana breaks off with a gasp; pain cracks fault lines by her eyes and bared teeth. Brittany lets go instantly and cups Santana's face as it smooths clean. "I'm sorry," she whispers, "I'm so sorry," but Santana reaches up curiously. Brittany lets Santana trace the bags under her eyes; her fingers move aside, bracing Brittany's jaw with care, tipping their foreheads together.
"It was Blaine's plan," Brittany blurts, suddenly. Santana's eyes flick open, but she doesn't let go or move.
Brittany wets her lips. "He's sponsoring Cassidy, and he said it might generate more interest if they knew…" Brittany trails off, shaking her head slightly. "I wish I could've warned you—I wanted to, but—"
Santana reaches up and stops Brittany's mouth with two fingers. She nods slowly, purposefully, and Brittany quiets.
They pause to breathe: Santana still holds Brittany's skull gently, still blocks her lips, and Brittany's hands sink gradually onto Santana's strong shoulders. "I think she can win," Brittany says hopefully.
Santana looks at her again and waits.
"She's strong, like you," Brittany confides, smiling a little and tracing the lines of Santana's arm with her fingers and eyes. "Smart. Beautiful. They'll love her."
Santana's tiny smile tips upward: a smirk. She shakes her head a little and points to herself.
"They loved you in the end," Brittany clucks, swatting Santana's hand down. "And they like her already."
Santana points to Brittany, this time.
Brittany bites the inside of her cheek to keep from melting. She shakes her head. "They love us both," she insists instead, taking Santana's hand in her own. "Henri asked after you the other day. Flickerman said people noticed you're not around."
That makes Santana frown: Her expression darkens.
"Better late than never," Brittany entreats, though it's made her just as angry, finding sympathy and pity six months too late.
Santana sighs heavily and closes her eyes. Finally, acquiescing, she sways and leans back into Brittany, tugging her hands free to wrap around Brittany's neck.
"I love you," Brittany whispers into Santana's ear. "And after all your training, Cass can still make it out of this. We can still make it out of this."
A puff of breath shifts Brittany's hair. A scoff. "We can," Brittany insists, hugging Santana tighter. "I'll find a way. I don't care what I have to do. We'll get out of this."
Firm, gentle fingers begin to comb through her hair. Brittany realizes she's crying.
"They'll start asking questions, now," she says softly. "Maybe that's Blaine's plan. Maybe they'll try to find you." She pauses, but Santana's hand doesn't: only slows, careful and precise where it separates silky pieces.
Brittany takes a deep breath.
"Maybe they will find you. Save you. Let you come home with me."
Brittany shuts her eyes and kisses Santana's neck, all the way up from her collar and around her ear. She trails to Santana's mouth, soft and chapped, and kisses her like a promise. "I'll figure it out," she swears softly.
Santana shuts her big, dark eyes and hugs Brittany back against her.
Brittany tries not to think about their daughter, sleeping below them in the building, and what lies in wait once sunlight sneaks back into the sky.
The morning begins with Effie trilling through the door; Brittany groans, heavy under the hangover she refused to alleviate with the Capitol's potions, and crawls out of bed right when Holly rushes in.
"Come on, get some clothes on," Holly huffs, looking Brittany up and down with the sort of critical eye that would get her decked if Santana were here.
Santana's not here. Brittany grabs the clothes on the floor and yanks them on while Holly bustles back out to deal with the kids; Holly will dress her properly later, once she's finished with Cassidy.
Effie's standing like a conductor at the head of the table, scolding Rory as he shoves scrambled eggs and sausage down his gullet and reminding Emma of her supplies case.
"No canaries this time," Holly observes dryly as she herds Cassidy into the room. Holly carries several bags over her shoulders. "Y'all have three minutes to finish eating," she announces.
Brittany grabs four sweet rolls and retreats to her room to shove what little she brought with her into a knapsack. She's got half of one of the rolls puffing out her cheek when she comes back, and Holly and Effie already have everyone organized in a tight clump by the elevator.
"Ready to go?" asks Effie, far too cheerily. When Brittany nods, silently, Effie ushers her first between the doors. Brittany tips onto her toes to peer toward the kitchen corner; she wonders if Santana will still attend them, wherever the Capitol decides to set them up this year. If the arena is close by, they'll return to the Training Center; if not, they could end up anywhere.
The elevator doors pull closed. Brittany feels pressure on her wrist and looks over to find Holly holding it, smiling just enough to notice, gentle and reassuring.
She'll be fine, Holly mouths.
Brittany doubts a heavy limp, white scar, and thin body constitute "fine" in the Capitol. Even in the arena, Santana always walked tall.
Never hunched over. Never cowed.
The elevator releases and Brittany's stomach drops.
Normally, the last minutes are just tribute and stylist, dressing in the year's uniform and submitting to the last touches of makeup they'll get for a month or more. In the hallway, though, Holly slips her fingers between Brittany's and pulls her back into a doorway. "Make sure she looks good, Holly," Holly says, looking at Brittany with a warning in her eyes.
Brittany swallows and takes the briefcase Holly presses into her hands. Holly disappears into the corridor and Brittany fumbles for a second, trying to figure out how the door opens, and then all too suddenly, she's standing in the gaping doorway looking at Cassidy, standing with her forehead against the wall, about to enter the lion's den.
"Cass," Brittany croaks. She steps into the room; Cassidy turns around; the door shuts automatically.
Cassidy runs straight into her, so she knocks her head and shoulders against the metal and drops the briefcase, and Brittany hugs back with all her strength. "Mom," she hears against her ear, "Mom, you came."
"Holly helped me," Brittany stutters happily. Cassidy pulls away and glances uneasily at the big red countdown clock: They have ten minutes and change.
"Do you think Rory will be okay?" Cassidy asks, voice shaking.
Brittany's not sure what to say; Cassidy may even play a part in the real answer. Brittany just shrugs.
"What did you tell him?" Cassidy asks.
"Not to die a coward," Brittany answers honestly. She shrugs again. She notices Cassidy isn't crying; it'll look better this way, for the cameras.
Cassidy chuckles. "What's that mean?"
Brittany smiles crookedly. "I told him he has to figure it out for himself."
Cassidy shakes her head. They stay that way, hanging in the air, while the clock digits flicker soundlessly.
A loud sniffle. Cassidy rubs her wrist against her nose and says, strangely sure and shaken all at once, "At least if I die, I'll see Tana again, right?"
It hits Brittany then, exactly what's happening, exactly what she's kept from Cassidy all week, and she lets loose the tears Cassidy's either kept in or already run out of. She chokes on fifteen different sentences—three of them are just I'm sorry, over and over—and finally clutches Cassidy back to her chest, cradling her head as if she's still a little girl, and whispers, "You can't lose, sweetie, you just can't."
"But what if I do, Mom?" Cassidy asks in her crying voice, even though she's not really crying.
"No, you can do it," Brittany whispers. "We taught you everything we know. You're smarter, you're better."
"I don't know if I can do it." Cassidy's confession leaves damp breath on Brittany's shirt.
It reminds her of the briefcase. She gently peels Cassidy off her and lifts the case onto a table nearby. "I know you can," Brittany says while she unfolds the clothes. Basic: trousers, a shirt, sturdy shoes, and an odd flak jacket.
Obediently, like her first day of school at six years old, Cassidy takes off the clothes she came in and puts on each article Brittany hands her. "How are you so sure?" Cassidy finally asks as she settles the jacket over her shoulders.
"Because," Brittany says, sniffing and trying to smile as she cups Cassidy's cheeks, "I love you, and you have to come back to me. I can't live without you." Brittany licks her lips and looks between Cassidy's brown eyes. "You're my sweetest thing," she whispers, one last time.
The countdown begins to beep. Time is running out. Brittany kisses Cassidy's forehead, temples, and cheeks, carefully and purposefully.
Cassidy takes Brittany's hands; Brittany feels the heart-shaped stone, pressed between her veins and the creases of Cassidy's palm. "You can do it," Brittany confides, entreats, promises. "Do it for both of us. For—all of us."
One last glance at the cameras. Brittany leans closer so Cassidy shields her lips from the lens. "She'll be watching over you. We both will."
Cassidy frowns. That's how Brittany knows she got it.
The frown melts into shock.
The clock beeps louder. Five seconds.
Brittany kisses Cassidy's forehead. Cassidy resists a little, shaking her head in disbelief and confusion, but she lets Brittany push her back toward the glass tube.
Their hands clutch together, catching at curled fingertips, until a glass door slides shut between them and teases them apart.
Cassidy plants her hand against the glass. Brittany matches it with her own and says, "I love you."
Cassidy says it back. Brittany can see her say it.
Cassidy kisses the heart-shaped stone and tucks it into the inside zipper pocket of her jacket.
The platform moves.