This 3-part story was originally written as a birthday present for BaronessKika, who gleefully asked for an Everlark version of the film The Cutting Edge. In honor of the beginning of Olympic hockey (am I un-American if I say go Team Sweden? Thought so. Go USA!) it seemed fitting to post Part I now. Part II should be up sometime next month. It's mostly done, and it will not interrupt my other WIPs.
Thanks to iLoVeRynMar, streetlightlove and Pookieh for prereading and advising, though any remaining errors are my own and shall be polished by the time it's complete, and to sohypothetically for holding my hand. And thank you to Ro for the gorgeous banner.
This is in-Panem, but an AU, and yes, it will eventually be rated M.
Part I: The Pairing
Take a deep breath, Everdeen. It's only the rest of your life if you screw this up tonight.
I inhale, feeling the rush of oxygen flood my lungs, and a steady stream of air slowly escapes through my parted lips, which I immediately press together tightly as my legs bounce nervously, my foot tapping an anxious staccato on the polished wood of the changing room.
"Katniss!" a sharp voice calls. "What is taking you so long?" The door opens fully, and Effie's impatient visage scowls at me. "The others are already on the ice. You haven't won this thing yet, young lady. Need I remind you what a big, big, big competition this is?"
"You reminded me ten minutes ago," I grumble, jamming my foot into my left skate, deftly winding the laces around the metal notches and securing them in a tight double knot. I tug it, and satisfied when the cord doesn't budge.
Effie purses her spun-sugar lips at me, her mile-high stiletto tapping the reprimand that I can tell she's yearning to spit at me. "Thirty seconds. You'd better be on that ice." The intense violet eyes (does she think she's fooling anyone with those contact lenses?) narrow at me, and she flounces away in a cloud of blonde curls and sandalwood and orchid (which would be a lovelier scent if she didn't bathe in it). I stick my tongue out at my coach's retreating figure as the door closes with a click. Like I need another damn reminder of just how much is riding on this.
Taking another breath, I slide on my blade protectors and carefully walk to the mirror. The girl staring back at me is a familiar one, though one that I have never completely gotten accustomed to seeing. The dramatic makeup, the glossy lips, the severe bun…the look is much like that of a very pretty, very cold porcelain doll that sits on a shelf in some Capitol child's bedroom and is not to be touched. But of course, that is the very look my stylists have been ordered to replicate on me time and time again.
My eyes rake up and down my reflection, and I can't suppress the smile of delight that tugs at the corners of my shiny lips. I shimmy my hips slightly to allow the jeweled sequins to catch the harsh fluorescent lighting of the dressing room. The ruby red ones gleam first, glowing like embers slowly catching fire, and then the light migrates to the orange and gold ones, creating the stunning effect of the leotard and its accompanying gauzy skirt bursting into flames. It's fitting attire for a routine choreographed to Stravinsky's Firebird, which Effie swears is some very old, incredibly beautiful ballet from before the Dark Days, but trivial details like that don't impress me.
I've only worn this costume twice so far, but I have yet to tire of watching myself burn. Cinna really outdid himself this time.
After one last revolution in front of the mirror, I slip from the dressing space and stride down the corridor, through the press rooms and emerge into the brightly lit arena, shielding my eyes as I do so.
"That was 93 seconds and counting," Effie snaps at me as I bend to remove the protective sheaths from my blades. As I pull the second one off and toss it to the bench, I discreetly extend my middle finger at her, but she's already turned away.
The ice is a kaleidoscope of swirling colors and a dizzying blur of body parts as my competition all go through their warm-ups. I let my vision first land on Annie Cresta of District 4, mid-execution in an upright spin. Her long dark hair flies out like ribbons fluttering in the wind as her revolutions get tighter and faster. I purse my lips and search the sea of skaters until my eyes locate Glimmer LeClair from District 2. A snort escapes me. Her platinum blonde hair has been pinned and coiffed to mimic an old bombshell's signature style, and the plunging neckline of her white leotard practically reaches her navel. How contrived.
There are others I could scrutinize as well, but I know these two are my biggest rivals and thus, I don't bother with the rest.
My eyes follow Annie as she skates over to the far side of the rink and leans on the boards to speak with her coach, a woman named Mags Cohen. Her reputation as a no-nonsense drill sergeant is unrivaled; she makes Effie look like a newborn kitten. But put her in front of a television camera or a panel of sportswriters and the ferocious lioness melts into a charismatic, jovial grandma. Panem loves Mags, and therefore, Panem loves Annie Cresta.
Mags' exaggerated hand gestures indicate that she's not pleased with what she saw from Annie's preliminary skate, and the pretty brunette's slender shoulders slump. Mags gesticulates wildly with her hands for a few more seconds before she flounces off. I see Effie's eyes follow the bristly coach as well. But I continue to watch Annie, and her attention seems to be about halfway up the lower mezzanine. It's there I see them.
About ten or twelve incredibly attractive, well-built guys fill two rows, and one of them rises, calling down to Annie. His coppery hair is only slightly less shiny than his pearly white teeth, which gleam even at the distance I stand from him. He beams at her and blows her a kiss—really?!—and her own smile is dazzling as she skates confidently back to center ice and resumes her salchows.
So the rumors are true. Annie Cresta and Finnick Odair are indeed a couple.
I roll my eyes, and just as I'm about to step onto the ice, my gaze lands on Peeta Mellark. His piercing blue eyes bore into me, and his stare is so unnerving that I scowl at him and push off the side, gliding across the glassy surface. Of course the Panem National Ice Hockey team would have to be here tonight. Well, the potential national ice hockey team—they're still competing for their spots too.
After a few laps around the circumference of the rink, I claim a small space of ice on the opposite side of the rink from where the hockey players are seated and begin to work on my camel spins. My limbs start to loosen up, and my adrenaline spikes as the smooth baritone of the public address announcer welcomes the assembled crowd to Panem's Figure Skating Championships. He then informs them that tonight's competition will effectively determine the qualifiers for next year's World Games.
I tune him out because it's nothing I haven't been hyperaware of since I was three-years-old and laced on my first pair of skates. I have been preparing almost my entire life for this moment.
Every four years, the world holds a massive international competition for a myriad of sporting events and disciplines. Nearly every nation participates, but Panem, where I live, has long dominated the Games. Given that Panem's World Games' athletes are culled from twelve districts, the team that is assembled is always the crème de la crème of talent. Most events are swept by our athletes. Our president would have it no other way.
But there can only be three in individual events like figure skating. Only three. There are 36 skaters here tonight, three from each district. Thirty-three will go home disappointed and know that next year when Panem has the honor of hosting the World Games for the first time in twenty-four years, they'll be watching from their couches instead of standing on a podium.
I nailed all my required elements in yesterday's compulsory routines, but the free-style routines tonight will account for two-thirds of our final scores. My hold on first place is a tenuous one. Annie Cresta is eight-tenths of a point behind me, and that skank Glimmer is one point behind her.
I spin out of my Bielmann and push off to do a few more laps and ensure my legs stay fresh. As I approach the side of the rink near the benches, I hear a sharp, shrill whistle and glance up in the direction of the offending noise. One of the hockey players, a stocky, dark-haired guy from 1 named Marvel Ashton leers down at me. "Hey, Girl on Fire, don't melt the fucking ice!" His cackle echoes through the rafters above him, and though my eyes reflexively narrow to slashes, I don't give him the satisfaction and look away immediately.
But not quickly enough to avoid Peeta Mellark's hypnotic marine eyes, still tracking my every move.
Why is he watching me? I don't need this kind of distraction before the most important routine of my life. I skate towards the bench, bracing myself for Effie's indignant cries. She does not disappoint.
"That is not a warm up! You weren't even out there for five minutes."
"I feel loose. I'm ready," I snap, rolling my shoulders back.
I stalk off to the waiting room and do just that. Wait. I'd rather be holed up in the locker room in complete solitude, but this is where I'm required to be until it's my turn to skate. I pace. I nibble on my nails, which are painted to complement my costume, but that doesn't stop me from gnawing at them. I pace some more.
At the first sounds of commotion in the hallway, I rummage through my satchel, the only thing allowed in the waiting room other than the warm-up jackets we are permitted to wear over our costumes, and produce my music player. My family could have never afforded such a frivolous little luxury, but Effie had presented me with one to listen to the songs for my routines. (Truly, she had more effectively ordered me to listen to them—'eat, live, breathe, sleep the song, dear.' I think she really thought I'd go to bed with it playing in my ears.) But it serves more of its purpose at times like this, when I am trying to tune out the rest of the world.
Sure enough, just as I inch up the volume, the door flies open and a flurry of skaters and coaches and arena officials burst in, chaos filling the space like a whirling Dervish.
I don't hear the giggles and the whispers, the nervous energy zinging around the room like buckshot. Closing my eyes, I rock faintly on the edge of a plush velvet chair and continue to wait. Effie breezes past, and I pop out one ear bud to catch her effusive pronouncement that I am to skate second to last. She bounces off, squealing something about how the judges save their best scores for last and the girl who drew the final slot was not even supposed to make it this far. She's elated. I don't care where I skate.
Someone turns on the massive flat screen that dominates the entire width of the room, and four Capitol officials flank the screen, two on a side, insuring that we will all rise and listen to the playing of the Anthem and listen to President Snow's opening remarks. Hearing that dangerously calm, subversively sinister voice here shoots a current down my spine, one that is equal parts disgust and relief—relief that my talent has led me here rather than the other place Snow makes his presence known: the Hunger Games that befall our nation annually. If you're fortunate enough to be athletically gifted, it's a poorly kept secret that the odds will be in your favor when the Reapings are held each spring. They claim our slips are all in there once, fair and square, but no athlete's name has ever been drawn.
I bide the time watching the screen intently, my eyes transfixed on my competition as each subsequent girl takes the ice and executes her routine. I see every wobble, every missed jump, every slip, every fall—every mistake that can pile up the deductions and send a score plummeting faster than a felled skater.
When Annie Cresta glides out onto the ice, my eyes narrow, and I wipe my palms nervously against my silky tights. She poses elegantly, anticipating the opening strains of her music perfectly, and it's flawlessly beautiful when she begins to move. Her costume is designed to create a similar effect to mine, but hers appears like rippling water as she spins and leaps, the aqua sequins catching the light and reflecting off the gleaming glassy surface beneath her.
Annie's strength is definitely her artistry. Watching her is like watching poetry in motion, as clichéd as that sounds. It's all very fluid and flowy, and you'd expect to hear a babbling brook and the rustling of leaves and see woodland creatures scurrying about with the picture her movements evoke.
But her weakness is jumps. And so far, she has executed her triple-Lutz and her double-loop adequately. But even if she doesn't make a single error, she can't achieve a perfect score. Her base score is not a 6.0, since her routine is not difficult enough. Her choreographer counts on style points and prays she lands every moderate jump and combination he throws at her.
Regardless, she's not getting a high score. Because as Annie hesitates and vaults into her double-Axel, she doesn't get enough height and misses an entire revolution. It's a full point deduction. Most of the crowd applauds as she skates into her next sequence, but anyone with a trained eye knows she's just made a crucial error.
Annie knows it too when she finishes at center ice a few moments later. She smiles brightly for the crowd and waves politely. A sharp, shrill whistle precedes hooting—which can only be Finnick Odair. But the second she turns to skate off the ice and assumes the cameras are no longer trained on her, her green eyes fill with uncertainty, and her posture changes. Her shoulders slump slightly, and when she takes her seat next to Mags to await her scores, her worries her lip between her teeth as Mags speaks to her in a hushed, intense manner.
The camera hones in on the judges' table as the public address announcer booms out Annie's name. Each district is represented by one judge, and all judges except for the one from which the skater hails lock in a score, and it's randomly determined which seven of the twelve marks apply. Of those seven, the highest and lowest are thrown out, which is supposed to discourage alliances between judges, but given that One, Two and Four have been supporting each other's athletes for years, it's not entirely without flaws.
The podium '4' goes dark first, which is expected, but then '1,' '2,' '7,' and '12' all dim as well. Systematically, the other lit podiums fade and then glow green, revealing their scores for Annie on the screens. I attempt to add the numbers in my head, but math has never been my strong suit, and the televised commentary gleefully declares Annie's cumulative score to be 24.6. My jaw gapes a little. Annie's in third place right now, and neither Glimmer nor I have yet to skate.
But my confidence swells infinitely. Glimmer skates before me. When I take the ice, I will know exactly what I need to score to win.
Murmurs ripple through the room, along with some excited squeals, and I glance up in the direction of the huge television monitor where all eyes seem to be focused.
Some bubbly Capitol reporter stands nestled among the hockey players in attendance, grinning and gushing about how thrilled she is to be speaking with such talented athletes. Finnick, who is the odds-on favor to be named team captain, replies with his patented toothy grin and amiable charm, and they exchange some banter about nerves and the rosters being announced within the next few days. Then she baits him into talking about Annie, and Finnick doesn't flinch or blush and democratically answers that they are there to support all their fellow athletes.
I find my gaze drifting to Peeta, who stands off to Finnick's left, and for a second, I marvel at how perfect his features are. He's like some kind of statue come to life, chiseled out of marble or something. His skin is flawless, like it's been polished and buffed, and for all I know, it has. Like the other guys, he's smiling, and I can't fathom how his cheeks don't hurt or his jaw doesn't tremble from the effort of maintaining such an expression for the length of this inane interview. I can barely manage to hold my lips up in a polite smile for the judges at the end of each routine.
Peeta Mellark is impossibly handsome.
It makes me dislike him that much more.
At that moment, the reporter begins talking to Peeta, and when those blue eyes start to twinkle and the white teeth flash, I tear my eyes away and resume my pacing, tuning out the rest of the room.
When Glimmer exits the room in a cloud of overly sweet perfume (she knows the judges can't smell her, right?) I break my self-imposed trance and hone in on the screen. No one has really dazzled the judges—or that crowd, for that matter—and her skate will likely vault her into first place.
From the first seductive notes of her chosen music, she has the crowd's undivided attention. Glimmer is the living embodiment of her stupid name when she takes the ice, all shimmers and sparkles and dazzling smiles. Her lines are clean, her jumps are high and her landings are solid. I don't catch a single glaring error; if anything, she'll have a minor deduction here or there.
Her beautiful face breaks into a beam when her scores are posted (of course, the podiums from '2' and '4' stay lit when her home district goes dark) and with her nearly faultless routine, she is now a full two points ahead of the second place skater.
Effie claps her hands and tells me that it's time to go. There are just two more skaters before I take the ice.
As we exit the waiting room, we pass Glimmer on her way back in. She gives me a nasty smirk and pushes past me, shrugging on her rhinestone-encrusted warm-up jacket.
I don't return the sneer—I can't be bothered with girls like Glimmer. I'll just kick her ass on the scoreboard.
The next ten minutes tick by slowly, and when it is finally my turn, I shake my arms and legs nervously, cock my neck from side to side, and roll my shoulder blades one last time.
Effie barks a litany of reminders in my ear as I approach the rink. Two Peacekeepers stop her, gesturing towards the little alcove from which she will have to watch.
"And smile! Always smile!" she calls, her teeth flashing as she beams at me.
I take a deep breath, round my lips into an 'o,' and breathe out slowly, closing my eyes to gather my bearings. The erratic pounding of my heart and the hum of the blood rushing to my ear nearly obscure the booming sound of my name over the P.A. system. One Peacekeeper opens the niched gate in the boards, and I glide out onto the ice to pulsing lights and steady applause.
Then the lighting dims, and the crowd gets quiet, and I take my position at center ice, curving my torso to the right and raising both my hands above my head, as is my requisite pose for the beginning of my routine.
The first notes of my music lift, and when they do, I feel my body relax, and I am able to tune out everything but my skates sliding over the ice and the movement of my arms as I lose myself in the task at hand.
They bring out the Zambonis every five skaters, reasoning that any more frequently is disruptive, and any less is an unfair advantage to the earlier skaters. Still, there can be a marked difference being the first skater in a five-set rotation and the last. I'm relieved to discover that this ice feels good under my blades as I prepare to launch into my first jump.
No matter how many times I skate, the little surge of adrenaline that spikes through my veins after landing my first jump always thrills me. Tonight is no exception. I hesitate, throw myself into the air, twisting my body the required two-and-a-half turns to complete the element, and that familiar rush fills me when my blades find purchase with the ice. I know I nailed it. One down, four to go.
I progress through my routine, and each successful element fuels my confidence ten-fold. I know my lines are clean, and my spins are crisp and tight, and I've stuck all of my landings.
As I near the end, I have one remaining element, a double Axel. Impulsively, I make the rash decision to increase it to a triple. Points are deducted for changing a required element, but only if the change results in a lower degree of difficulty. It's a calculated risk to attempt the triple—a rare feat for a female in competition, but I feel so good as I reach my stride that I know I can get the height needed for the extra rotation.
Effie will likely murder me either way.
Too late. I muster all the strength in my legs and vault myself into the air, twisting and spinning and counting. One. Two. Three…and a half.
The triumphant sound of my skate slicing the ice precedes my arms flailing out to the side, and I smile broadly as the crowd roars their approval. I imagine the broadcasters are going berserk with my gutsy move, especially since I nailed it—nailed it.
The music crescendos and fades, and I draw the routine to its conclusion, curling my body into itself, arching my back and intertwining my arms to best mimic an extinguished flame as I can.
When the last notes of the song dissipate, I unfurl myself and raise my arms, waving, grinning, pure euphoria pulsing along every nerve.
I curtsy gracefully—something Effie had insisted I perfect the very first day I met her, before she'd even let me lace on my skates—and skate towards the edge of the rink, where the Peacekeepers usher me off to an arena official, who in turn leads me to a manic Effie.
She knows the cameras are on, however, so she has no choice but to praise me instead of berate me for the insane risk I just took.
"Katniss, simply outstanding!" she manages to sputter, clapping her hands.
I smile sweetly in response.
We both sink to the couch to await my scores. My knee bounces on its own accord, and when I extend my palm in front of me slightly, I can see my hand wobbling and trembling no matter how I try to still it.
"And now the scores for Miss Katniss Everdeen, District Twelve…"
Effie grabs my hand, which finally stills it, but her grip is so tight that I fear I'll lose circulation in it.
I see the '12' dim, followed by the '1,' '3,' '4,' '8' and '11.' Then the lit podiums begin to glow.
My jaw drops, I vaguely hear shrill shrieking in my ear, and Effie bounds to her feet, hauling me up and crushing me to her.
"A near-perfect score! One-tenth of a point! Who was it that did that? Katniss, dear, you blew them away!"
I nod, my vision blurring, and a dull buzz hums in my ears. I am too stunned to move.
No one has even come close to such a total in the years I have been watching these competitions.
There is no possible way for the girl who skates last—a tiny thing named Rue something-or-other from District Eleven—can surpass my score. I know it. Effie knows it. The other skaters know it.
It takes seven minutes and twenty-eight seconds more to confirm it, but when Rue's finished skating—she gives a solid, respectable routine and actually winds up finishing in third place—I have indeed taken first place.
It's such a surreal moment that I am mostly unprepared for the chaos that descends on me in a matter of moments. Cameras click and bulbs flash, and microphones are thrust into my face, in spite of an official yelling, "There will be time for media after the medal ceremony!" I'm told to take off my warm-up jacket, but not to cover my skate blades, as the blocks are being pushed into position at center ice for the podiums. Effie continues to squeeze me and gush effusive praise, so apparently for the moment, she's too thrilled with my performance to even think about reprimanding me.
My legs stop shaking when I take the ice again, followed by Glimmer and Rue, and a garish looking Games official points us to our respective podiums. Rue mounts the one on the far left first, and Glimmer hesitates, her lips set in a taut line as she slowly ascends the one on the far right. When I step onto the center block and gaze up into the stands, I can't even focus on anything, so bright are the lights and so loud is the beating of my heart.
The Panem National Anthem plays, and then a second, even more odd looking official approaches, three medals laid out on a bed of deep purple velvet. I fidget anxiously while Rue and Glimmer are presented with their medals and large, ostentatious bouquets of roses.
Then it's my turn. I dip my neck forward so that the man can drape the heavy ribbon around my head, and the gold medal thumps softly against my chest as I straighten back up and wave to the crowd. I hear my name announced one last time before it's over all too soon, and we are shown off the ice.
"You need to come with us," a burly Peacekeeper says, his voice gruff and authoritative.
When a Peacekeeper gives you an order, you obey it. So though Effie and I exchange a curious glance, neither of us protests.
As the two Peacekeepers leads us towards the pressroom, the frenetic beating of my heart and the adrenaline pumping through my veins combine to leave me in an exhilarated haze. I hear vague snatches of conversation and the rapid click of more cameras, but I am too caught up in myself to really notice anyone in the corridor. My fingers wander to the cool, smooth medal hanging around my neck. It's real. I really did it.
But when Effie struts in through the double doors to the small room used for the press conferences, an overpowering, floral aroma permeates the space, and I cough instinctively. Roses. A second, less pronounced odor, a metallic, warm scent, hits my nose moments later. Then Effie gasps audibly, causing me to barrel into her back where she has halted.
Though the room is arranged for interviews, with neat rows of chairs lined up facing a single podium with a microphone, there is but one person in the room.
I release the medal from my grasp, and I swallow nervously as his puffy lips curl into a smile that doesn't reach his cold eyes.
"Miss Everdeen. Congratulations."
President Snow appraises me coolly, as Effie hisses, "Say hello and thank you, you foolish girl. Where are your manners?"
"Thank you, uh, sir," I reply uncertainly. I am instantly unnerved by his presence, alone, in this room. The Peacekeepers remain outside the room. This cannot be good.
"You were simply magnificent out there."
"Thank you." I can't place his tone. There's an edge to it that is somewhat foreboding, sinister, as if he's a bird of prey sizing me up before he swoops down for the kill.
"Panem is quite fortunate to have such talent on display. It shows the rest of the world that we are a formidable force to be reckoned with. This year looks to be no different, thanks to performances like yours."
"I have trained hard for this moment," I say simply.
"I can tell. In fact, it's why I am here at this moment, Miss Everdeen." He turns, finally, to Effie, heretofore not acknowledging her presence at my side. "Ms. Trinket, leave us."
Effie's curls bob, and her lips twitch, but she says nothing and wordlessly backs out of the room. Two different Peacekeepers than the ones that had escorted us here slink inside, flanking the doors as they slam shut.
"You are clearly a hard worker, Miss Everdeen. You train hard, you push yourself, and you persevere. You have the mark of a champion." He tents his fingers, and his eyes harden imperceptibly. "But Panem has ample talent in the women's solo ranks. I am completely confident that any one of the girls who placed in the top five will easily outskate the top skater from any other nation."
My stomach dips, and my heart begins knocking against my rib cage anew. "Sir, I am not—"
He holds up a hand. "Let me finish, Miss Everdeen," he orders; the patronizing lilt to his voice causes me to ball my fist in agitation. "Your performance was stunning. That jump you executed at the end…I was told that you are the first female to successfully land one of those in sanctioned competition. Yes?"
"I was not aware of that, sir," I stammer.
"And while your performance was flawless, you will be of far greater use to your nation in a different capacity."
"What are you saying?"
"I am saying that you will respectively decline your title."
"No!" I cry immediately, anger bubbling up in me like magma. "I will do nothing of the sort! I earned this! I've been working for this my entire life!" I swing the medal wildly on its ribbon, my hand trembling badly as I do so.
Snow clucks his tongue and shakes his head. "I was hoping that you would be far more reasonable, young lady, and do what's best for your country."
"Me competing for the title is what's best for Panem! You know I'll win!"
"Precisely." His too-tight, shiny face twists into a cruel smile. "But I have little doubt that the girl from 1 or the little sprite from 11 can also win. Your grit and determination and your guts, Miss Everdeen, are what set you apart from them, and that is why I need you to decline your solo title."
I close my eyes briefly. This cannot be happening. How can this be happening? The elation I was reveling in just ten minutes ago seems a distant memory; now, I feel sick to my stomach, ready to vomit all over the president's glossy black wing tips.
"You have a sister, Miss Everdeen?"
I am growing increasingly irate at the condescending manner in which he continues to address me, but I clench my jaw and mutter, "Yes."
"And this sister, she would be how old?"
My blood runs cold. "She's twelve. She'll be thirteen in November."
"Ah, that's what I thought." His gnarled fingers smooth the right lapel of his jacket and then wander to the pristine white rose in his breast pocket. "So she's been through her first Reaping then."
"What are you implying, Mr. President?" I ask flatly, even though I know precisely what the tyrant is suggesting: I give up my title, and do as he wishes, or Prim will be in grave danger come the next Hunger Games.
"You're a smart girl, Miss Everdeen. I trust that you'll do the right thing."
I swallow past the lump that has firmly lodged itself in my throat. "Which is?"
His fingertips drum together, and there is something so subversively sinister about the innocent action that it takes most of my willpower not to lunge at the old man and use my talon-like nails to rip his intestines out.
"Come with me."
I close my eyes. Do I really have a choice?
Things happen very quickly.
I am escorted from the room, following President Snow down the corridor; the two guards that had been in the room with us are on either side of me, and two more lead the way, ahead of Snow. My stomach pitches and roils uneasily, and at the same time, I am disgusted with myself for what I am about to do.
Fourteen years of blood, sweat, and tears (well, not really tears—I don't do tears) are all about to be tossed aside in mere minutes. I may not cry, but I definitely feel like throwing up. It's inevitable.
We reach a large set of double doors, and the leading guards throw them open. Snow strides in, his white head held high, and my knees buckle, causing me to freeze in place. The guard to my left places a hand on my elbow, squeezing harshly, urging me to move forward.
The lump that crowds my throat and hinders my breathing swells when I trudge across the threshold, my eyes sweep the room, and they land on Peeta Mellark.
Immediately, my back straightens, and my pulse quickens. What the hell is he doing here?
He gazes back, that stupid, perfect smile aimed directly at me, but there is something about his eyes that gives me pause. The brilliant hue of them is no less pronounced, but something else lingers in them as we stare each other down. Shyness? Hesitancy? I can't put my finger on it, and my face morphs into a scowl.
"Miss Everdeen? Are you going to stand there, or will you join us?"
The guard nudges my elbow again, and though my feet are leaden, I shuffle towards where President Snow now stands, beside Peeta and a man who appears to be in his late forties, with a ruddy complexion and dark hair flecked with gray. His mouth is slack and his murky eyes rake over me, a smirk tugging at his thin lips.
I expected to see Effie here, waiting for me, and her absence sends a tremor of uneasiness through me. I thought I'd at least have her support as I cast aside all that we've worked for.
Snow gestures to the man next to Peeta. "Miss Everdeen, allow me to introduce you to Haymitch Abernathy, your new coach."
"Pleased to meet you, sweetheart," he says gruffly, extending a hand. I hesitate, studying the surly man before me.
"Effie Trinket is my coach."
"Effie Trinket was your coach. And while I commend her for her outstanding work with you, she doesn't know the first thing about coaching pairs," Snow replies.
"And he does?" I thumb at Haymitch.
"For such an accomplished skater, Miss Everdeen, you don't know your World Games history very well. Mr. Abernathy is a three-time pairs champion."
I wrinkle my nose and stare at him dubiously. This man was a once graceful skater? It seems as likely as Effie eating with her fingers.
He smirks at me, as if affirming my unspoken doubts about him. "Don't look so surprised, sweetheart."
I bristle, and square my shoulders, aiming a glare at him. "I have a name. I'm no one's sweetheart."
"Oh, you picked a real charmer in this one," Haymitch guffaws, his steely eyes locked on mine. "She's as likable as a fucking porcupine."
I glower at him. "You're not very nice."
"I'm not being paid to be nice."
President Snow clears his throat, and we both turn in the direction of the noise. "Now that we've gotten that introduction out of the way, shall we continue?"
Fiddling with the zipper on my warm up jacket, I nod.
"Am I to presume that you know this young man, Miss Everdeen?"
Shit. I had almost forgotten that Peeta Mellark was in the room.
"Oh, um, yeah. I mean I know who he is…"
"We haven't really met formally," Peeta pipes up, extending a hand in my direction.
"That's not true," I retort. "We went to kindergarten together."
"You remember," he says softly, edging his palm closer to mine. I stare at it for a moment, as if it were some kind of a tentacle instead of a hand, and then our eyes meet. He blinks a few times, and I'm drawn to the curl of his golden lashes. How do they not get all tangled up when he closes his eyes? It's patently unfair that they should be so long and so perfect.
Peeta Mellark is infuriating.
"You gonna shake his hand, or you afraid he's got leprosy or something? You'd better get used to his hands. They're gonna be all over your body soon enough."
I recoil, yanking back my hand before Peeta can grasp my fingers. A flush crawls up my neck and floods my cheeks with heat. "What?"
"Say hello to your new partner, sweetheart."
Peeta gives me a sheepish smile, and shrugs, his broad shoulders bowing forward slightly with the movement.
"What?...No!...How?" I'm aware that I must resemble some sort of goldfish who's escaped its bowl and is rasping for air, because I feel my jaw moving on its own accord, and thoughts are whipping about in my head, but other than those three words, nothing more leaves my lips.
Partner…what the hell? He can't really expect…They can't expect…
President Snow smiles. "Mr. Mellark knows the value of being a good citizen. He was gracious enough to volunteer to train with you after he was cut from the national hockey team."
I listen numbly as things are explained to me. Apparently as the president, Snow actually has the final say as to which athletes get to compete in each event when the World Games team is assembled. The trials are, of course, the fairest way to make selections, but their results are not binding, and Snow can intervene and make executive decisions without any cause.
I learn that the ice hockey team was the victim of just such an executive decision an hour ago. Apparently, some of the other competing nations found a loophole in the Games charter that applies to team sports, and it allows them to send their professional athletes instead of the amateurs.
Again, I am flabbergasted. I think of the beaming faces in the crowd just a few hours ago—Finnick Odair and Peeta Mellark and Marvel Ashton, among the others. Did they have any idea that their dreams—like mine—would be crushed like a pesky insect tonight?
"So you see, Miss Everdeen, this is where you and Mr. Mellark come in." Snow continues, "I was not pleased with what I saw in the pairs' trials that were held last week."
My brow furrows and my nose wrinkles. I hadn't thought the competition had been that bad. The pair that claimed gold, seemingly securing their position for the Games, was a brother and sister from District 2, and they had been rather good. A little weak on their lifts in spite of the brother, Gloss's, apparent brute strength, and Cashmere, the sister, had wobbled on two landings, but all their previous skates had been solid.
And suddenly, like the flash of a camera bulb, comprehension blinds me. "I'm not a pairs' skater. I skate alone!" I protest.
"Correction. You will be a pairs' skater. You proved to me that you will train harder, skate better, and push yourself until you are the best, Miss Everdeen. Now you will merely accomplish these goals with someone else at your side." He gestures to Peeta again. "And it will not hurt that you are both so physically attractive. Panem—and the rest of the world—craves good chemistry. It's an angle that Gloss and Cashmere lack, obviously."
"I don't even know him," I sputter, and I sense Peeta straighten beside me.
"Well, you're gonna get to know him very well," Haymitch interrupts, smirking again, and I have to restrain myself from slapping the mocking grin right off his face. "And you'll start tomorrow morning."
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