Cato Hadley was the most beloved victor in District 2. At the age of 18, he'd volunteered for the 70th Hunger Games, and had won in what his district considered the most honorable way; it had come down to him and the male tribute from 1, and they'd thrown their weapons to the side and battled it out with their bare hands for a solid thirteen minutes before Cato knocked the other boy out and broke his neck.
The games, which had taken place that year in marshy swamplands, had been the second shortest in Panem history, and Cato took down eight of his fellow tributes in four days, setting the record for most kills. Apart from the broken hand and internal bruising he'd sustained in the final showdown, he suffered only one other injury: a deep cut across his forehead when a gator mutt swiped him with one of its massive claws just before he shoved a spear through its skull after it killed Dani, his district partner.
He had been amped up beyond belief to enter his games, although he maintained a facade of reserved disdain, as though he were above this whole thing. He knew he'd win, the way he knew that the sun rose in the east and set in the west, and so did his mentors and his classmates at the Academy. At his pre-games interview with Caesar, he won over the Capitol audience with his cold, self-assured demeanor. "I'm prepared. I'm vicious. I'm ready to go," he said with absolute certainty, and the crowd roared.
Cato had one vivid memory from his games. As he stood on his plate, assessing the cornucopia and the positions of his Career allies, he reminded himself why he was here. This was his destiny, it was what he had been born to do. He had trained for this since he was six years old. Once he was crowned Victor, all of his hard work, his blood and his sweat, would pay off and he'd be able to start living like a king. He'd have a mansion in Victors' Village, complete with Avoxes to serve him. He'd eat only the best food, drink only the finest liquor, and every night he'd sink himself balls deep into only the hottest pussy.
He calmed his breath and steadied his heartbeat to return his focus to the task at was a sword on the ground about 10 yards from him. This, he decided, would be the instrument with which he would achieve his goal.
Twenty-three other children were all that stood between Cato and what was to be the greatest moment of his entire life.
When it was time, he launched himself off of the plate and sprinted to the sword, shoving some girl about his age out of the way. He snatched it up and turned to the nearest tribute, a 12-year-old boy from District 3, who was crouched on the ground to retrieve a backpack of supplies. The little boy leapt up when Cato's shadow fell over him, and Cato sliced off his head as he had done to countless holographs during his years of training. But the holographs from the Academy didn't have big green eyes that bored into his with terror just before the blade struck home like this boy did. Blood didn't pour forth from their throats, coating his hands with warmth.
Cato had no memory of what happened during his games after that, although he watched himself kill four more tributes during the bloodbath at his post-games interview with Caesar six days later.
He watched himself bark orders to the other Careers, watched himself smile contemptuously as his allies mocked the pleas for mercy their victims had sobbed out before they were slaughtered.
He watched himself fuck Luxe, the female tribute from 1, against a willow tree during his second night in the arena while the other Careers slept, and then he watched himself hunt down and dispatch two other tributes with all the compunction of a horse swatting at a fly with its tail.
He watched himself walk away from Luxe's body without so much as a backward glance after Dani put an arrow through her heart when it was time for the Career alliance to break apart.
He watched as he and his final opponent pummeled each other with blows to the stomach and kidneys before he got the upperhand and snapped the other boy's neck.
He didn't remember doing any of it.
He did remember his post-games interview, but it was as if he stood behind his actual body for the duration of it, watching himself watch himself while he lounged in a tailored dark grey suit on the loveseat across from Caesar, one arm slung casually across the back of it, his ankle resting on his knee. The crowd adored him.
He got his mansion in Victors' Village, but he walked through the rooms blindly. He got his fine food and his top-shelf liquor, but he couldn't taste any of it. And as for the pussy…
Most nights he went out drinking with his buddies from his own training days. He usually didn't get wasted, just pleasantly buzzed. When he'd had enough, he'd look around whatever establishment they were patronizing to find all of the women staring at him with blatant lust. He'd survey them all briefly before choosing the hottest one, and he'd wink once and smirk at her before sauntering over to introduce himself. Some of them tried to be witty and clever as they flirted with him, and if he was in the mood Cato indulged them and bantered back, but he really wasn't into the bullshit of playing cat and mouse games; they'd had him at first eye-fuck.
He was rough and detached in bed (and against the wall, and on the floor), dispensing with kissing after about 30 seconds, but he wasn't entirely selfish. He knew how to get a girl off, and he made sure he did it before blowing his own load, because after all it was only fair.
He never brought them to his place, and he never stayed at theirs, leaving immediately after he had finished. Most of the time, he didn't even bother to learn their names.
He spent his time helping train the candidates at the Academy, and then he acted as a sort of apprentice and backup to Enobaria as she mentored the male tribute for the 71st games. District 2 lost that year, and the Victor was a tall, beautiful dark-skinned girl named Laila from 1. Cato, however, had done such a good job acquiring sponsors for his charge that they decided he was ready to take on full mentorship responsibility for Alec, the male volunteer for the 72nd Games. Alec was tall and blond like his young mentor, but while Cato gave off an aura of quiet, jaded contempt for everything and everyone, Alec was lewd and gregarious, with a maniacal gleam in his eyes. He won his games almost as easily as Cato had won his, and he laughed like a madman as he carried out his kills. Brutus and Lyme and the others clapped Cato on the back and called him a prodigy-he was the only mentor to ever produce a Victor on his first try. For the 73rd games, he mentored Thea, the female volunteer. She made it to the final six before she was killed. Lyme told him he'd done a great job anyway, reassured him that you won some and you lost some, and encouraged him to take it all in stride.
She didn't realize that he didn't care. He had acted smug when Alec won, and slightly disappointed when Thea lost, because that was how everyone had expected him to behave, but he didn't give two shits. Mentoring and teaching at the Academy was nothing more than his duty as a Victor, nothing more than something to fill his time.
He looked to all of Panem like a young man utterly satisfied with himself and his place in the world, but inside, he'd felt nothing for four years.
Well, almost nothing. Sometimes he relived his only memory from his bloodbath in his nightmares, and he awoke sick to his stomach with a feeling he couldn't name. On those nights, he couldn't fall back asleep, and so he would sit on the edge of his bed, a rope in his hand, tying a noose and then untying it, and then tying and untying it again, over and over in the dark.
He didn't understand what it was that kept him from hanging himself, didn't realize that beneath the surface of his conscious thought was the latent knowledge that twenty-three dead children would never forgive him for wasting what had been taken from them four years ago.
Plutarch Heavensbee had perfected the art of schooling his features into amusement to hide the disgust he felt as Seneca Crane showed him a replay of the 73rd Hunger Games Victory Tour. For the most part there was nothing remarkable about it. The crowds that gathered at each of the stops acted much the same as they had in previous years. The citizens of District 1 cheered jubilantly because the victor-a hulking red-headed boy named Lars-was one of their own, while the people of District 2 regarded him with envious respect. The other districts exhibited varying degrees of forcibly feigned enthusiasm. Only the Capitol citizens seemed different this year, their applause for Lars just a bit more subdued than usual, their eyes dull with a hint of indifference.
Seneca paused the footage and turned to Heavensbee. "Do you see? The people of the Capitol are getting tired of watching tributes from 1 and 2 win year after year. It's been the same story for the last eight years, apart from Johanna Mason during the 69th. They want to see an underdog win."
"Are you suggesting we rig the games so someone from another district wins? I don't know that we can accomplish that with subtlety," Heavensbee said skeptically.
"Oh no, I'm not suggesting that we rig anything. I agree-it would be too obvious if we did, and we don't want to alienate our two most loyal districts by purposely killing off their tributes. But maybe we can do something to pique the Capitol citizens' interest and keep them satisfied until the excitement of the Quarter Quell."
"What did you have in mind?"
Seneca leaned forward eagerly. "Well tell me what you think of this." He spread his hands and paused for dramatic effect "Each tribute is mentored by a victor from another district." He sat back against his chair, looking pleased with himself, and evidently expecting Heavensbee to be impressed as well.
Heavensbee, who thought the idea rather underwhelming, nevertheless considered it for a minute. "In theory it's interesting," he said tactfully, "but in reality I think the mentors-at least the ones from 1 and 2-will just consider it a waste of time and continue working with the tributes from their own district secretly. They probably won't pay much attention to the tributes assigned to them...so the games won't really play out any differently in the end."
"Oh, I know that and you know that. But most of the Capitol citizens won't."
Heavensbee couldn't argue. But he wasn't so sure that President Snow would approve a change in rules during a non-Quell year. It was his private opinion that over the last few years the old man had lost touch even with the people of the Capitol, and Heavensbee had said as much to Alma Coin the last time he snuck off to District 13. "You may have a difficult time getting buy-in from the president," he said to Seneca.
"Yes, I've already thought about that. But I have an argument prepared. There aren't many mentors left from the outlying districts, and the ones still living are getting up there in age, with no one to replace them. Unless we can start rigging the games without people catching on, it may be only a few years until we have to resort to using mentors from 1 and 2 to work with tributes from other districts. This year, we may be able to ease the people of Panem into the idea. And the president has always respected your opinion, so if you'd lend me your support…"
Heavensbee had to admit it was a solid argument. He closed his eyes and thought for a minute. The slight rule change wouldn't hinder his and Coin's plans for revolution, and it may even help them, although Heavensbee wasn't sure how at this point. In any case, it couldn't hurt. He opened his eyes and smiled at Seneca. "Let's pitch it to him."
"Hera! Where are you, you little bitch!"
Hera panicked as she heard her father stumble into the house. Why is he home so early? She slipped through the kitchen window, and sprinted into the woods. Years of fleeing from him had made her quick, agile and light-footed, and she scrambled up into a nearby tree with stealthy ease. She heard the crunch of his boots on the ground, and ducked into the cover of the foliage, careful not to make a sound or rustle the branches.
"…ungrateful little whore…" she could hear him muttering. She peered down at him through the leaves to gauge how drunk he was. On a scale of 1 to 10, he appeared to be at about a 7. He staggered around for a few more minutes before giving up and returning to the house. Hera settled into a more comfortable position. Three more drinks or so and he'd pass out for the night.
She couldn't remember a time when her father hadn't been drunk and abusive, but things had gone from bad to worse when Hera's mother died of fever ten years ago, leaving her eight-year-old daughter the sole target of his anger. She had tried hiding in closets and under beds, but he'd inevitably find her, and beat her even more harshly to punish her for the inconvenience of having to hunt for her. Mostly he used his fists and his feet, but sometimes he'd yank his belt off and whip her across the back and shoulder blades as hard as he could until his rage was spent.
Then one day when she was nine, she and her best friend Uma climbed a tree to pick the first ripe pears of the season, and as they sat in the branches enjoying the early fall breeze, it occurred to her what an excellent hiding place this would be.
If her father was only kind of drunk as opposed to completely wasted he was still decently quick, and she'd have to zigzag through the trees for a hundred yards or so to lose him before selecting one to scale, but her stealth combined with his intoxication would force him to give up his chase within a couple of minutes. A few times a month he still managed to catch her before she could get out of the house, and then she'd have bruised ribs and a split lip, but if she made it to the woods she was golden. She'd hide out for a few hours, making a meal out of apples and the earthy groundnuts she foraged for beneath the fallen leaves, and then return to the house to find him passed out on the couch, a bottle of liquor next to him. By the time he woke up the next morning, he either didn't remember the events of the previous evening or was too hungover to acknowledge her presence before he headed off to work at the paper processing plant.
When she was fifteen and puberty hit, the look in her father's eye took on a lecherous cast, inciting a new kind of panic in Hera. He'd press against her and grope around clumsily, but thankfully, his drunkenness meant he could never quite get hard enough to accomplish his goal of deflowering his daughter. Although it would infuriate him and result in especially cruel beatings, Hera preferred the extra blows to the idea of being raped.
No one, not even Uma, knew that she had resorted to hiding from her father in the trees. Telling people would have meant acknowledging the abuse, and Hera was too proud to do that. Oh, everyone knew about her situation, but it was one of those things you didn't talk about, like sex or the cruelties of the Capitol. And Hera held her head high and refused to let on that her body was perpetually sore, so the townspeople pretended they didn't see the bruises on her cheeks.
She didn't mind spending so many hours in the forest. She liked the smell of the damp soil and the sound of cicadas singing in the summer. She liked the way the frost coated the leaves like sugar when the cold started to set in. She liked the inky look of the bare branches against the purple gloom of twilight in the winter. The forest had become her home.
She didn't stay in the trees for long tonight, though. It looked like rain, and Hera wasn't in the mood to get drenched, so she jumped down from her perch and headed over to Uma's house.
"What are you gonna wear tomorrow?" Uma asked, removing the darts from the bullseye and handing them to her.
"Hadn't thought about it." Bullseye. Bullseye. Bullseye. The two girls had found the strange looking circle in Uma's dad's shed when they were little, and asked him what it was. He explained that it was a dartboard, back from before the war, when Panem was known as the United States. And then he fished out a set of three darts and showed them how to use it. Over the years the girls had gotten so good they didn't even compete with one another or keep score anymore. There was no point, since they hit the bullseye nine times out of ten. But they still sat around and tossed the darts for old times' sake, and Hera loved the familiar comfort of the repetitive action.
"Well I think you should wear your purple dress. You look so cute in it."
Hera rolled her eyes. "I don't care about looking cute for reaping day."
"Well not for the actual reaping, but for afterwards!"
Hera just looked at her best friend in confusion.
Uma sighed with exasperation. "You're an idiot. Dean's gonna ask you to marry him tomorrow, once you make it through your last reaping. Lucky girl. He's so hot!"
Hera felt her mouth drop open and her face grow warm. "No, it's not like that!...He doesn't think of me like that. I don't think of him like that….I mean we've never even kissed….he's too old for me."
Uma raised her eyebrows and turned back to the dartboard. "Okay. Whatever you say."
The next morning, Hera was over to Dean Callahan's house at the crack of dawn, heating bathwater for Cole, Dean's 10-year-old son. It was going to be a long morning. She needed to get four children bathed, dressed, and fed, and then she had to get herself ready for the reaping. And she needed to keep poor Tara, who was 12 and eligible for the first time, calm.
Dean's wife had died eight months ago while giving birth to their last child, a baby girl named Mia. Dean was left with four children to raise on his own, but he didn't know how to cook a decent meal, and even if he'd been able to, he was exhausted by the time he got home each evening from working with his logging crew all day. He'd never really spoken to Hera, but he lived two doors down from her, and about a week after his wife's funeral, he stopped her as she passed his house on the way home from school, and asked her if she'd be willing to drop out and look after the baby and keep house for him.
Hera didn't really see the point in continuing with school. She was in her last year, and she'd always figured she'd just go to work in one of the factories once she was done. She could read and write and do basic math...what else did she need to learn? She'd miss Uma, but they could hang out during the evenings. Dean's three older children-Tara, Cole, and 7-year-old son Reese-seemed well-behaved and Dean himself was reserved and polite. He'd offered her a small wage, but a decent one, and three meals a day. So she said yes.
Every weekday for the last eight months, Hera had shown up first thing in the morning to make breakfast and get the three older children ready for school. She'd spend the day cooking and cleaning while she watched Mia, and then she'd stay for the better part of the evening, serving and eating supper with them, washing up the dishes, and helping the kids with their homework. Some nights she even put them to bed. She didn't spend as much time in the trees now, and sometimes she missed it, but she still retreated to the forest on the weekends.
Her father had no idea that she had dropped out of school. He left before Hera every morning, and after work he went to the bar and drank until at least nine o'clock. Her neighbors, sympathetic and loyal, kept her secret, knowing that her father would only squander her wages on liquor if he knew.
She had a hard time looking Dean in the face this morning after her conversation with Uma the night before. She knew that people had started to talk about the two of them, but she'd always rolled her eyes and dismissed the comments. At 31, Dean was thirteen years older than Hera, and although he'd always treated her with respect, he'd never made a pass at her-he probably wasn't interested in her in that way, and even if he was, he was too polite to risk making her uncomfortable.
But Uma wasn't exaggerating when she said he was hot. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with lean muscles from logging all day. His skin was tan and rough from working outside, and Hera liked the way the corners of his gray eyes crinkled when he smiled. He wore his dark brown hair in a small knot at the back of his head, and his teeth gleamed milky white against the scruff of his beard.
Cole had finished his bath by the time Hera dished up oatmeal with honey and cherries for breakfast. "Alright, little man," she said to Reese, ruffling his hair affectionately. "You're up as soon as you're done eating." Then she turned her attention to spoon-feeding Mia, playing a game of peekaboo in between bites. This made the baby girl squeal with delight, and Hera loved the sound. It was infectious and she found herself unable to stifle a giggle of her own. Mia pressed the fingers of one hand, sticky with honey, to Hera's lips, and she caught them in her mouth briefly, and then released them with a pop of her lips, making Mia squeal again. This is a good day, she thought to herself as she licked the traces of honey left behind by Mia from her lips. Honey, and cherries and the sound of a baby's laughter. She looked up to find Dean gazing at her with warmth in his eyes.
Maybe Uma's right, she thought to herself. No, I'm just imagining it. He's not looking at me any differently than he normally does.
As she put away the breakfast dishes, she stood on tiptoe, straining to replace the honey pot on a high shelf, where little fingers greedy for sugar wouldn't be able to reach it, when she felt Dean come up behind her. "Here," he said quietly, taking it from her. "Let me do that for you." He smelled like cedar and soap and leather.
After she had gotten the three younger ones ready, she helped Tara get dressed. The little girl was shaking with fright, so Hera sat her down on her lap and smoothed her hair. "Don't worry, honey, your name is only in once. They won't pick you."
"But what if they do?" she whispered.
"They won't," Hera told her firmly. "Now, let's get your hair braided." She combed through Tara's hair gently, humming softly to soothe her. She looked up to see Dean's eyes on her again, and this time there was no mistaking the heat that emanated from them. Hera felt herself blush, and she dropped her gaze.
As she finished braiding Tara's hair, she thought about what Uma had said last night. Suppose Dean did ask her to marry him. What would she say? Looking after his children had awakened a fierce maternal instinct that she'd had no idea she possessed. She adored all of them, and they treated her as though she were their mother, proudly displaying their homework to her when they did well at school and seeking her out for comfort when they scraped themselves while playing. She loved the way Mia's face lit up at the sight of her, loved the feel of the baby in her arms. She didn't know Dean well and she certainly didn't love him, but he was handsome and respectful and appreciative of her help. He worked hard and he loved his family. She heard boyish laughter and looked up from Tara's hair to see Dean and Cole play-wrestling. "You'll wrinkle your shirt," she admonished Cole, trying to make her voice sound stern, but she couldn't help but smile.
Yes. I'll say yes if he asks.