A/N: I am very sympathetic to District One for multiple reasons. They're given the shortest shrift out of any of the districts in the books, save for possibly D2, which makes me rage a little. So yeah. That's what's going on here.
"You look like hell."
Cashmere wipes her mouth roughly. "Does it look like I just puked between two trash cans in an alley?" she asks her brother, scrubbing her hands off on her dress.
"Why not just aim for one of the two?" Gloss says, bemused. He plucks at the ends of her glossy curls and brushes off her shoulders. "Doesn't seem very productive."
"Had to keep my face hidden," Cashmere says darkly. "Cameras everywhere. You know." She gestures to the streetlights above them. It's early evening, but the Capitol streets are light up as brightly as midday. "Don't want to show up on Velda Vittlesworth's bullshit show as the latest District One female to OD in an alley."
"You'd never hear the end of it," Gloss agrees. "Ever since Amberlynn died, they've been on all of us."
Cashmere rolls her eyes as they turn and head the opposite direction down the street, her ankles weak in her strappy heels. "And you know Johanna would never shut up about it. She thinks she's got it so much worse than we do. 'Oh, boo hoo, everyone I love is dead!' Yeah, try getting banged by fifteen politicians in twelve hours and then cry about it."
"God, you are a mean drunk," Gloss observes. "Are you sure you don't want a coffee or something before you go in there? Some toast? I'm sure we can find a place that makes toast."
She shakes her head. "I'm fine," she lies, although she's definitely still very drunk and the idea of coffee and toast sounds amazing at that moment.
"Well, your breath smells like shit," her brother says, "and you're swaying all over the place, so yes, you're getting coffee. If the Gamemakers see you like this, that hurts both of us. Public image and whatever. We're supposed to be setting a good example for the youths."
Cashmere lets out a loud guffaw at that, and Gloss glances around the street protectively before putting an arm around her shoulder and leading her into a nearby coffee bar. It's dim inside, thankfully, and Gloss leaves her at a table before joining the line to order. Left alone with only her thoughts, she twists her hair around two fingers in a sort of figure-eight motion and wills herself to sober up in time for her mandatory bargaining meeting with the Gamemakers. She could swear she's halfway there when Gloss returns, holding two cappuccinos and a plateful of strange, neon-colored cookies.
"Eat these," he says shortly, putting the plate in front of her.
She rolls her eyes. "I'm okay now. I'm feeling better."
"Just eat them."
"I can't. Sugar, remember?" She gives him a pointed look. "I can't just go to the gym and turn all my sugar and carbs into muscle."
"Well, I don't remember the last time I saw you eat solid food, so I don't really think that matters right now. Come on, Merie." He passes her a napkin. "Just eat two of them, and drink your coffee, and we'll go and you'll be on time."
Cashmere rolls her eyes again, this time at his invoking her childhood nickname – he's always treating her like a child when she's drunk and he's not – but she takes a small bite of one of the cookies and it isn't terrible. She takes a sip of cappuccino, without bothering to wait for it to cool, and follows it up with another nibble on the cookie. It's some sort of cherry-vanilla-almond confection, and if she were the type of person who liked dessert she'd probably want to eat these all the time, but in the Academy there was aversion training for girls who took to sweets, and she still can't eat chocolate or marshmallows without retching. But these aren't bad, so she finishes the one and takes another.
Across the table, Gloss looks preoccupied. "I still can't believe they conned you into mentoring," he says. "They haven't even made me do it yet."
"That's because you're still so popular," Cashmere says acidly from behind her tiny cup of espresso. "Besides, we all know I'm the brains of this operation. ."
Gloss ignores the dig and continues. "How is Dexter, as a mentor? I've never heard anything bad about him…"
"But you've never heard anything good about him either. I know." She shrugs. "I mean, he's fine. I think they just stuck him with this kid because they're so much alike. First alternate made tribute, not too good-looking, kind of a smart-ass. Probably not going to win, honestly, but who knows. It's a weird fucking year."
"You don't say," Gloss says. They fall silent, and Cashmere grinds her teeth a little as she thinks about the whole thing. She's not naïve, she knows that the girl she's got as tribute is better off dying in the arena, preferably in as gory a way as possible – but the whole process just feels strange. She still feels too young to be mentoring. The mentors, when she was training, were all ageless but definitely much older than she was (or at least they felt that way as a teenager). She stuffs another cookie into her mouth as she contemplates the idea of being that Victor of Indeterminate Age (not so indeterminate, only 24) that holds the key to another teenager's life or death.
"Yeah," she mutters at last. "By the way, did Twelve get a new stylist or something? The fuck's up with that? They couldn't have given them to us?"
"And get rid of Maedwe? Never." Gloss clicks his tongue disapprovingly. "She's a legend."
"Well, she's senile, and also tacky," Cashmere says as she drains her coffee cup. "You try standing up there wearing strategically placed sequins – don't give me that look, it's different for the girls – and see what I mean."
"Don't stress out over it," Gloss says knowingly as they rise and head for the door. "Whoever Twelve has dressing them just put a big target on their backs. They're the center of attention now, which means that everyone's waiting for them to fuck up and show their weaknesses. At which point –"
"Two's kids can come in and win the whole thing," she says. "Come on. It's not our year." It's fair enough, as One's been on an intermittent winning streak for the past few years (save for the last, which went to some surprise kid from Seven), but that Academy-bred inferiority complex still runs hot in her veins.
"Never say never." Gloss looks up, rubbing the back of his neck, as if he's searching the invisible constellations for some sort of sign. "Can you take it from here? I have an appointment that I really can't be late for– "
Cashmere waves him off. "Go," she says, her fingers fluttering. "It's like three blocks. I'll be fine." He wraps her in a brief hug and kisses her temple, and then turns, bobbing and weaving down the crowded street. The pre-Games furor and late summer heat has filled the streets with revelers, and for a moment, she's nearly anonymous.
The shiny chrome elevator doors open on a ding, and in front of them is Dexter, his arms folded and dark brows furrowed in an irritated expression. "Nice of you to show up," he hisses at Cashmere, who rolls her eyes and stalks out of the elevator car. He trails behind her, keeping up a running patter: "Seriously, you're basically late, which means everyone else is going to be running late, which means they're all going to hate us even more. And by the way, you smell like a distillery. It's coming out of your pores. Would it literally kill you to spend one week sober here? And by the way– "
"Ugh, give it a rest," she snaps. "I just came from a sponsor party. They like your kid, Wonder, Sparkle, whatever the fuck his name is."
"Marvel. It's Marvel," Dexter moans. "Please tell me you weren't drunk the entire time. We don't need that on us, especially going into a Quell prelim year, you know that's just going to stack up against us. We need an Arena that's going to favor us next year, especially since we've never won a Quell before, and literally everything we do this year is going to reflect back on the entire district, so please, Cash, don't fuck up in there."
She whirls around at this, eyes flashing and face contorted into her least-flattering warrior expression, and for a moment it's like they're back at the Academy, two years apart but paired together in sparring practice for reasons neither of them ever understood. "You know, if you don't like my mentoring, maybe you and I should trade places so I can get a little extra practice," she growls, leaning on the last two words meaningfully. Dexter's jaw tightens and his shoulders twitch, and for a split second she thinks he's about to try to hit her, but the moment passes and he relaxes, shaking his head tightly.
"Just don't fuck up," he says again in a pleading tone. "Do you have your kid's file?"
"Fuck," she mumbles. She does not.
Dexter rolls his eyes at this, but hands her a folder from the two he has clenched under one arm. "At least I brought a duplicate."
"Thank Snow for your management skills," she says dryly, but accepts it all the same. The sliding doors open and her name is called, and she squares her jaw as she walks into the Gamemakers' chamber.
God. She remembers Seneca Crane from her first year on the circuit – all slicked-back black hair and piercing eyes and very particular tastes in men and women. He was a young up-and-comer then, just garnering attention for his flair for mutts and natural disasters in the arena. She remembers him very well, in fact, because he was the one who caused the avalanche that took out two remaining members of the Career pack but managed to spare Gloss.
He licks his lips as she sits down across the table and opens her file. "Cashmere," he says in a low, slimy tone. "What a pleasant surprise."
She takes a breath before answering. "The pleasure's all mine, believe me," she smiles, tearing into the consonants and knowing that it doesn't come out like her usual public-facing simper. If there's ever a time to drop the façade and play for real, it's now, so whatever. "What do you have for me?"
Seneca shrugs. "Dexter gave us a convincing show," he says. "But I managed to take a peek at his kid's file from your Academy – Marvel, is it? He was a second choice. We know having a runner-up in the Career pack can make the Games rather interesting, but…"
"But you want to know what Glimmer can do for you." Cashmere finishes.
"Not for me specifically, but for the audience." Seneca licks his lips again. "And perhaps for me."
Cashmere wants to rip his eyeballs out with her pointy, filed fingernails, but she holds it back. "Well, she's less of a wild card, but what she lacks in unreliability she makes up for in training." She opens the folder and fans out a few photos. "Top marks in image training and hand-to-hand combat, good with swords and spears, a little more shaky with ranged weapons but when her head's in the game, she's as solid as anyone else in there."
"Interesting." Seneca nods thoughtfully. "She's a pretty girl."
She grinds her teeth again and envisions his guts sprayed across the wall behind them. "Very."
This is where Cashmere's brain catches up with herself. Because she has two choices now.
She's read Glimmer's file. The girl is terrifying with a mace. It was her specialty at the Academy, apparently – nothing like a pretty girl with a bloody weapon, or so the trainers always say. If she can get the kid a decent one, she'll have a fighting chance in there.
But then she remembers the promise she made herself. The promise Jade made her make after the first time she tried to kill herself in the Village. Remembers the older woman covered in scar tissue and speaking out of one corner of her mouth, leaning over her bed and changing the bandages on the cuts down Cashmere's forearms.
"You can't let this happen to the others," Jade had told her. "They're going to make you mentor like me. If they give you the girls, you can't let them go through this too."
Cashmere chews the inside of her cheek as she contemplates signing the death certificate of a sixteen-year-old girl who, in the right light, could be her own doppelganger only eight years prior.
"Give her a mace or a sword," she finally says. "Give her something bloody, one of the really nasty boys' weapons, and she'll be fine. I guarantee it."
Her eyes are glassy when she smiles and shakes Seneca's cold hand.
Dexter's still on edge when she returns to the apartment that night, pacing across the living room floor in silence.
"Hey," she says as she leans against the doorjam. "Is now a bad time?"
Dexter shrugs. "Is it ever?" But he doesn't flip her off or turn away, so she crosses the room and throws herself down on the plush couch. Her head's starting to throb and the effects of the drinks she threw back earlier have long worn off, but she's too troubled to just take a painkiller and go to bed early. Instead, she lies long-ways across the couch on her front and observes Dexter from across the sunken living room area. He's never looked like a typical One victor, all androgynous features and chiseled cheekbones, but that's because he was never meant to be one; he was only allowed to volunteer after Spyre took a hard blow to the head that put him in a coma. His year was a hard one. Half the tributes starved to death and the other half were idiots, just a total shit sack of dumb kids with almost no skills at all. But he made it out alive and with minimal damage, and got himself all into mentoring for no apparent reason at all, so she figured it all worked out in the end.
"Kids okay?" She asks the question just to break the silence.
He rolls his eyes. "They were at each other's throats over dinner. I liked them better when they were just pretending the other didn't exist."
"Well, the boy's a little fucker. There's no way you're going to be able to make that one likable enough for TV," Cashmere says.
Dexter sighs. "Probably, yeah. He did tell the girl he couldn't wait to fuck her corpse. I don't have a read on her yet, but I'm ready to call this year a wash."
She stifles a laugh at the sudden thought of the kids nestled behind the door, listening in on the entire conversation. "Well, it's not our fault. We didn't ask for this."
"Speak for yourself," says Dexter. "I wanted this. The whole reason I really wanted to win was to mentor. Plus, you know, the whole district-pride thing, but honestly, I think we're doing okay in that department already – mentoring was really the long-game strategy."
"Why?" Cashmere sits up and pulls the throw from the corner of the couch over her lap, so that she can tug her knees up to her chest and sit with her arms wrapped around them. She rests her chin on her knees as she looks at Dexter searchingly.
He sighs and runs a hand down his face, pinching the bridge of his nose in thought. "Worry, I guess. I mean, most of our mentors fucking suck."
"Pretty much all of them, you mean?"
"I mean, Jade's not too bad, but she's not really all there anymore, and Lustre's smarter than he lets on. But for the most part, yeah." He crosses to the couch and flops down beside her. "It's kind of shitty. We pour all this money into the training and then nothing into helping our own when we come out. We're not raising victors, we're raising sacrifices."
Cashmere raises her eyebrows. "Dex, I hate to break it to you, but that's kind of the point. Not to take away from what you're saying, but that is very much literally the point of the Hunger Games."
"But it doesn't have to be! You see how they live in Two. They have a whole system, and it's great. We're just too fucked-up from being told that we could never be as good as Two that we never even try. And I hate that. We can be better, we just don't make the effort."
He stops talking, and rests his head against the back of the couch. Cashmere smiles a little as she notices the mostly faded scars at the bottom of his neck. She thinks she put them there one day in the gym, but she can never remember anymore.
On the last night before the Games, she's sitting in her bedroom windowsill in the apartment, staring out at the lights of the Capitol and not thinking at all, when there's a knock on the door.
"Um, come in?" She turns toward the door, half expecting to see Dexter or one of the stylists' assistants, but instead it's Glimmer, wearing a strange expression that worries her.
"Are you busy?" Glimmer asks, in a voice much quieter than the one from her interviews. "I just wanted to ask a couple questions."
"I'm fine," says Cashmere, scooting off the windowsill and moving back toward the bed. She pats the mattress beside her in a way that she genuinely hopes does not look like a come-on. "What's up?"
Glimmer takes a seat beside her on the silk duvet, running her hands over it nervously. "I wanted to talk about tomorrow," she says. "The whole thing. I know I'm not supposed to be thinking about it, but I am, and I just wanted to know – what was it like?"
Cashmere bites her lip and thinks it over, turning over the question in her head again and again. "I don't honestly remember," she finally says. "The first hour, you know, it's a lot. You think you're prepared, but if you're lucky, you just black out."
"You get euphoric for the first day or so," Cashmere says. "And then it goes away. But you have this amazing high that carries you through the worst of it. Once you have to start really thinking about strategy, that's when it gets tricky, because you have to be on guard all the time. Hang onto the pack as long as you can. Don't let it split and if they turn on you, run and take them out from a distance."
Glimmer's nodding as she takes it all in. "Anything else?"
"You might have to do – things. You won't enjoy them. It's not you that they're actually seeing in there, though, it's all an illusion. It's fake. You're still who you were on the inside." She frowns, considering her next words. "Try to fuck the blond from Two if you can. He's not going to be into it either, but the sponsors will love it."
It's harsh, but the blow doesn't seem to land. Glimmer nods. "Right. What about Marvel?"
"Don't bother," says Cashmere. "He wants to hurt you. He's gonna be the first to turn if you don't watch your back. You need to keep the alliance strong, so stick with Two and the boy from Twelve and you'll outweigh him."
Glimmer rolls her eyes. "I still don't really understand why we're taking Twelve. I mean, we could find the girl on our own, it's not a problem."
"She's not the important one," Cashmere says. "Brutus and Dex and Lyme and I are all in lockstep on this. He's the one with the charisma. She's nothing without him running his mouth next to her – keep them apart long enough and kill him before he breaks away, and you've destroyed her hope at any real sponsorship."
"Okay. That makes sense." Glimmer takes a deep breath in and exhales slowly, in a steadying move Cashmere recognizes. "Oh, by the way, I almost forgot – do you know what my token's supposed to be? Maedwe didn't know. She said to ask you."
"Right!" Cashmere jumps up and rifles through the drawer beside her bed. "Okay, I'm technically not supposed to show you this until tomorrow, but whatever." She withdraws a gorgeous ring with a huge, sparkling synthetic ruby in the center. "The stone's fake, but whatever. Check this out." She gestures for Glimmer to come closer, and adjusts her body so as to conceal the ring completely from the cameras in the corners of the room. Then she twists the bottom of the stone until a spike pops out from the center.
Glimmer's eyes widen, and she grins. "Wicked," she whispers.
Cashmere almost laughs out loud at this, and twists it shut before she can wrap the younger girl in a sisterly hug. "It's poisoned," she mutters in Glimmer's ear. "One use only. Use it on that sonuvabitch in the other room."
As they separate, Glimmer gives her a meaningful nod. "Thanks," she says in that quiet tone again, as Cashmere puts the ring back in her bedside drawer.
When she leaves, Cashmere lets out a breath she didn't know she'd been holding, and she realizes suddenly that there is no question about it. She has to kill this sweet, deadly girl.
As it turns out, the Girl on Fire does it for her, and as the cameras zoom in close on Glimmer's body, swollen and crusted with stings three inches thick, Cashmere grimaces and swallows hard.
Beside her in the Mentors' Lounge, Brutus heaves a sigh of his own. "Welcome to the club, girly," he mutters so that only she can hear. "Only gets easier from here on out."
She raises an eyebrow and glances down at her glass, which is empty. "I think I'd like another drink," she announces to no one, but an avox scurries over to take the heavy crystal tumbler from her anyway.
There's a gym on the top floor of the Games Center apartments, and Gloss finds her in there that night, running herself into exhaustion on the treadmill nearest to the far wall, where no one can sneak up on her. "How did you get in here?" she calls over the whir of the machine, and he yells back, "Occupational hazard of fame, you know," which doesn't really make sense but she doesn't question it.
She hits the treadmill button and it slows to a stop. There's salt and sweat and tears running down her face and she's still angry, angrier than she's been in years. She can feel that familiar ache coming back to her fingertips and she swore she wouldn't kill again after the arena, she knows she'll regret it if she ever goes back to it, and yet she's itching and jumping out of her skin with the urge to draw blood.
Gloss knows. He always knows. He nods and slides his jacket off his shoulders, and they take opposite sides on the mat, squaring off. She hits him first but he aims a solid right hook to her shoulder, and the pain and adrenaline hit her both at the same time.
They fight hard, knuckles bruised and bleeding and bones thudding against muscle until they're both spent. She knows she looks like hell by the end of it, with at least one black eye and bruises up and down her back and legs, but this is what she knows. She's real and she's here and she's not going to kill anyone, and Gloss is the only one who can bring her back from where she was.
"Fuck," he finally says, through a bruised jaw. "You okay now?"
She nods, almost truthfully. If she were to be honest with herself, she hasn't been okay since the day they pulled her out of that godforsaken arena, wearing Four Girl's blood like war paint and giggling unstoppably to no one in particular, but she's found a kind of stasis and she's almost managed to return to it now.
The entire truth is that she will never be okay. But she doesn't have to say it.