As I close the glass doors to the control room quietly behind her, Sow Grafsman extends her arms wide and enfolds Mr. Abernathy into her tall frame. They stand together for a few moments, Mr. Abernathy looking a tad uncomfortable, before he pulls away, giving her a deep look and then directing her in my direction.
"Sow, this is my sponsorship assistant. Maren. He's going to be very useful if our alliance goes well."
Sow looks me up and down, eyeing the last of the green dye still clinging to the ends of my hair before turning back to Mr. Abernathy.
"So this is him?" she says, not unkindly. Mr. Abernathy nods and she strides forward with a pleasant smile on her face, pumping my hand in hers. She grins wider as I curl my fingers around the rough paper of her note, tucking it into my tunic. "It's great to have you on the alliance."
I just nod and duck my head. "Thank you," she says, touching my wrist lightly before turning back towards Mr. Abernathy, towards a wallscreen devoted to Katniss and her tiny new ally, the young, dying boy forgotten and pushed aside altogether. The nights have been freezing, Katniss says softly in the background
"Okay. Donations. Do you have anything helpful for us?" Sow says, glancing towards our sponsor donation slips in the corner.
"Katniss has a tube of burn lotion, that should hold them over for now. They're well-off enough."
On screen, Rue holds up a small pair of paper-thin socks, her large eyes hurt and innocent as she says, "I use these for my hands." I imagine Peeta, alone and buried in fear on the banks of neglected winter. I'm seized with the sudden urge to grab our donation slips by the handful, cashing in a warm blanket or a hot meal for the boy forgotten in the arena.
Mr. Abernathy leans back in his chair, the tips of his glasses tapping against his lips. "Maren," he finally says. "Go down to the City Circle and find Effie for us. She has news about donations." He turns away, back towards the wallscreen.
I nod, even as my mind floods with the picture of all those people crushed into the City Circle. I open my mouth to protest this, but there is Sow, watching me. The victor unnerves me, and quickly I turn away, back out into the lobby and towards the crystal elevator.
I punch in the button for ground floor, heart rate rising as I mentally sift through the City Circle and surrounding areas, trying to remember where sponsors and dealers such as Effie carry on. And what if she isn't even in the City Circle this time of day? I'm deep in thought, tracking through side alleys, and I don't notice the elevator doors sliding open smoothly in front of me.
"Are you just going to stand there?" a familiar voice lilts, and I jump about a foot in the air. There, leaning casually against the elevator's far wall, is Finnick Odair, hands in his pockets and grinning mockingly. Cheeks burning, I slip into the glass box, keeping my eyes on the floor.
"Haymitch said you were going to come help with the donations, but I didn't think you'd take this long."
I stare fixedly at the glass in front of me, District floors shooting past in a blur. As we pass Level 4, the lobby looks darkened and vacant.
"We've had some amount of good luck, though."
I turn to look at Finnick for the first time. "Effie says she's not going to be in the City Circle today."
It grows quiet for a moment and I open my mouth to say something, anything, but all that comes out is a squeak in the back of my throat.
"Yeah, it's too crowded for my taste, too," Finnick says with a dark look on his face.
Again, another quiet moment falls flat between us. As I watch Finnick pull down his eyebrows in thought, I see the darkened Level 4 behind my eyes again.
"Fi—" I stop to clear my throat and he looks up. "Finnick. Why do you still work at Headquarters if you don't have to anymore this year?"
His eyes grow dark and muscle ripples under his skin and I'm afraid I've said the wrong thing, I'm shrinking in on myself as he reaches his arm forward—
"It's better than being out there," he says, running his hand down his cheek as the elevator doors slide open and we're dumped out into the churning mass of the City Circle.
After a half-hour and countless women piling themselves around Finnick, we've finally made it out of the worst of the Circle and into one of the twelve District Alleys. Alley 11, to be exact. Vendors up and down the street holler out their offers, long lists of sweet-smelling fruits and delicious warm grains filling the alley. Next to me, Finnick points and calls out into the crowd.
She spots me and walks at a fast clip, still beaming at everyone she passes by. Her cheeks look pulled so tight I feel the ache reflected back in my own face. Just another price to pay, jumping hoops for every Capitol resident under the sun.
"Oh, hello dear. I've been meaning to make it back up to Level 12. How is Haymitch holding up? I've got oodles more sponsors lined up, I hope they contribute. I saw we were in a new alliance! Let me just get some offers for Katniss and Rue I have here..."
She finally breaks for air as she rummages around in the sling-like pockets of fabric woven into her dress. More people call out to her as we stand in the Alley, and every time, she pauses to smile and greet them, ask about any sponsors they'd like to undergo. Finnick begins to fidget, but I remain still, amazed by the amount of effort being put into the sponsorships this year.
"I'm sorry, here you are, waiting, and I'm holding you up. I've talked to one of the victors from 11, oh, what was her name? Long dark hair, brown eyes, pretty short. Anyway, she was able to gather a nice donation from Rue's District, how lovely, no? I guess she got permits for Districts to mail in, but here's some of it. She said not to spend it yet, she knows exactly what she wants to get Rue."
Effie holds out her hand, offering a slim envelope, and I move to trade the note Mr. Abernathy gave me for the envelope in one smooth motion. But Finnick suddenly springs forward, knocking my arm back in an attempt to reach the envelope first.
"I've got it, Effie. It's no problem," he says smoothly.
"Oh." Effie's eyes narrow considerably. "Hello, Finnick. I haven't seen you out and about in a while." Finnick just shrugs, an amiable smile painted across his face.
"But do take care of this," she says to me with a bit more warmth. "I've worked so hard these past years and it's so nice finally seeing some improvement in my job. Goodness knows Haymitch never tried to help out here."
"Really," Finnick says, his tone flat.
"He's been helpful enough with Katniss this year. But I've seen him holed up in that dingy top level, drinking whenever he can. Unprofessional, if you ask me." She stops a moment to wipe her suddenly wet eyes with bright pink fingernails. "The kids this year are just so polite. So nice. And I want to give Peeta help too. He's charming, really." Another Capitol citizen waves at Effie across the street and she visibly straightens, her eyes instantly clear.
"Well, donations won't make themselves," she says, and with that, Effie makes a hasty goodbye and clacks away, greeting every person she sees along the way.
"Come on," Finnick says as he watches her go, and he takes off. We walk down the Alley 11 for a bit before a sudden detour, and I almost step on Finnick's heels, he stops so abruptly.
"What are you..." I murmur, even as Finnick grabs for a run-down looking pair of pants and shirt. The kind the vendors on District's Alleys sell so we can pretend to be potential tributes on Reaping Day.
"Blending in with the natives." He pulls a hat covered in vines with tiny fruits on them over his head, a knockoff of the original Rue and Thresh wore at the Opening Ceremonies. On his face, he sticks on the adhesive stubble made to imitate Thresh's facial hair. In the blink of an eye, he's out of his shiny victor wear and into the play clothes, all the District 11 wear transforming him into the old, worn-down slaves I see on television.
"Aren't you going to pay for that?" I ask bewilderingly.
He shrugs and tosses a few coins to the astonished vendor, giving him a coy wink. Then he's dragging me across the Alley and out into the rest of the Capitol, the both of us suddenly invisible in the crowd of animated and celebrating city.
Twenty minutes later I'm standing in front of the entrance to the elite Cloud Hotel, a lounge and room service so decadent and expensive I've never known anyone who can afford to reside in its lair. I've seen the commercials for it everywhere; I've spent years dreaming of stepping inside the mysterious, plush land of the rich. I'm reminded of who I am really in the company of as Finnick strolls nonchalantly through the double doors and up to reception. Halfway there, he gestures for me to follow, but still I only stand in the very doorway, gazing up, mouth agape, at the crafted white clouds bobbing in the breeze above me.
The receptionist murmurs a demure welcome and Finnick plunks a handful of coins onto the desk. "I'm to meet the victor Johanna here." He leans in towards the receptionist, his lips curled in a leer. "We're going to have a very special meeting."
The young girl just quietly hands him a room card and points to the elevators. Finnick strides quickly towards them and I trail behind helplessly, glancing back nervously to find the receptionist's eyebrows slightly raised.
As we shoot up higher, higher, higher, Finnick strips off his disguise, shedding a life with each story we climb. Almost too quickly we come to a smooth stop, sleek silver doors gliding open to show that gentle, foamy white floor. "Cloud 7," Finnick sighs indifferently, if not a tad bit disgustedly. I can't understand his disdain—I want to jump into the mass of calming fluff, run my hands over the soft, inviting furniture. Even the couches, the chairs, the tables are crafted of the artificial cloud, sculpted into a magnificent display of floating royal repose.
Finnick takes off for the door, gliding across the lobby, flying through the bobbing opulence. He's knocking on the door, a funny little beat that sounds entirely too intricate for a hotel door. Nobody answers. As he waits there, impatiently tapping his thighs, I venture my first step into this lovely new world. At first my foot sinks into the silken fluff, my stomach dropping a bit as the walls and sky dip lower. But then it floats back up, the floor supportive yet airy under my soles. Another step and I'm peculiarly sinking again, only this time I smile. It feels like I'm floating as one with the open sky around me, in and out, in and out, as the crafted clouds above and below dance with me. I want to jump from each puff to the next, but the exacerbated look on Finnick's face restrains me. Carefully, I float my way shakily behind him, peering up at the ornate door, the opaque white walls.
Finnick is raising his fist to knock again when suddenly a voice calls from inside the room and the walls turn almost translucent, little wisps floating here and there in the structure. Inside, one large bed dominates the room across from the darkened screen of an impressively-sized television. The furniture here too is crafted of the same soft material, but it's the lone figure sprawled out in the middle of the room that calls my attention.
She's laying flat on her back, sunken into the white cushion, hands knotted into her short, disheveled hair. An empty bottle lies just out of reach of her fingertips.
"Johanna!" Finnick says, already jogging towards the victor splayed out on the ground.
"Oh, calm down Finnick," she drawls, slowly dragging her arms out horizontally. The movement reminds me vaguely of making bird wings in the snow.
Finnick slows to a stop right next to the girl, the tips of his feet almost touching her skin. "Is anyone here to listen to you talk to yourself?"
Johanna snaps her arms to her sides. "Nope. Nobody can hear us. Who would think of something terrible happening in such a high-class place? Darken." This last part is directed to the room; the walls transform from translucent back to opaque. "Close."
There's a loud beeping from above my head, the tinted door trying to jam closed while I still stand in the doorway. "Close!"she says with a hint of irritation now. I manage to make it in before the door slams into me again.
"Finnick, it looks like you've brought someone who works for the Capitol into my room." Her voice is frighteningly calm.
"He works under Haymitch. Seeing as there's so much rebel information flowing in and out of Haymitch's sight, he thought an undercover would help pass things along."
"Mmmm," Johanna just mumbles. Finnick reaches out a hand to help her to her feet, but she ignores it.
"He's got a note for you."
"Really." She springs up now, striding forward until she's right in my face. "Let's have it then!"
I fumble in my pocket, trying to produce it from inside the many folds in my tunic. Before I can pull it out, though, she moves in closer, almost nose to nose.
"Are you just going to do anything I say then? Are you?" she demands, and I'm taken aback.
"Just doing anything the person with the most power tells you, huh?"
I take a step back, fear dropping in my stomach.
"Are you even going to talk? Stand up for yourself?" I take another worried step back but she shoves me in the chest, not very hard, but enough to catch me off guard and send me sprawling to the soft floor.
"Johanna!" Finnick snatches her before she takes another step closer, pulling her towards the bed, moving to sit her down on the silky sheets. She just fights her way out of his grip, pushing Finnick down onto the spread.
"Do you trust one of them now, Finnick?"
He takes a deep breath. "Haymitch trusts him."
"Now we're trusting Haymitch, then?" She paces the floor in front of Finnick, fists clenched, shoulders back.
"What else can we do, Johanna?" He looks so beaten down, face drawn, far from the philander gallivanting across my television screens for years.
"Something different! We've tried this before. We tried staging dissent in the Districts. Do you know what that got me?" Finnick remains silent. "It got all the people I cared about killed. Just for trying to tell my home what it's really like at the Capitol every year. Everyday."
"When is sorry ever enough? Why should I have put the people I love at risk for sheep that can't even take an opportunity to rise against all of this!" She spreads her arms across the room, gesturing to it all: the expense of opulence.
"We shouldn't have to do that."
"We did have to. What are you going to do, Finnick? What are you going to do when push comes to shove and you're going to have to sacrifice your parents for a 'greater good.' Or Annie?"
The corners of Finnick's mouth pull down and he rests his elbows on his knees, cradles his head in his hands. "She's safe. I come back every year—I get sold—because I hope they're all safe for another summer."
"We're never safe."
"But Johanna, don't you see? If we do this now, nobody else has to decide like this—like us—ever again. We can change it."
"Change only works if we're all willing to accept the consequences. Nobody is willing back in 7. Who would be willing here? Here, where they all stuff themselves full with murder and misery."
"It's not all like that here." I find myself talking before I can stop to think about. Both Johanna and Finnick turn to stare at me, and I'm already shrinking back into the shadows, the corner where nobody will have to see me.
"It's not all like what here?" Johanna says deliberately.
I take a deep breath, forcing myself to ease out of the darkness. To finally make the decision of who I want to hurt more in this world. "Not everyone is so rich and so accepting in the Capitol. There are so many of us. And so many that are backed up in debt, clawing for a way out. They make most of us work as near-slaves for them, but—"
"Wait a second." Johanna holds up a hand, collapsing onto the bed beside Finnick. She turns to him, voice set. "They stock all of the people like him, this assistant slave, in a place so close to their enemies. All packed together, looking for some form of vengeance." She enunciates each word clearly, pausing to look over at me for confirmation. I hesitantly nod yes.
"Can we use them, then? Just build an army out of the monsters we're all made into. Do you have one of these assistant things on your Level?"
Finnick shakes his head slowly. "No... but I know Level 7 does."
Johanna just shrugs. "I can't help you, Finnick. I don't know the kid. I never bothered to sit through another Games like that. They can't make me anymore."
"It doesn't have to be about them forcing us anymore."
Johanna lets out a long sigh. "I don't have anything left, Finnick." She looks down at her fingers knotted together. "Do you know what that's like?"
We sit in silence for long minutes, not even the wind whistling through the arena mics to break the heavy air.
"I'll do it for the damned Quell," Johanna finally spits out. "Just to see the looks on the Capitol's faces."
"Now get out."