Title: Awake and Sing
Author: A Crazy Elephant
Summary: Or "Let the 10th Annual Hunger Games Begin!"
Chapter Word Count: 2,829
Disclaimer: The Hunger Games universe and related characters do not belong to me.
Author's Notes: As always, thanks again for reading and your reviews. I'm so grateful you all stuck around this long, even though I disappeared for a while. Thanks again!
Chapter Fun Facts: Keepsie's playing with a Rubik's cube.
16 – Presentation
My final obligation in the Capitol is the Presidential Presentation.
It's a new addition to the regularly scheduled Games viewing, two days after the recap interview. Something they've only added in the last few years, since the Games have become quite the holiday for Capitol. Capitolites like having the extra excuse for a party, Cobb explains.
Like everything else associated with the Games, it is a terrifying prospect.
I won't have to speak. At least, not on camera. I won't have to act out the Tribute-Mentor love story. I won't have to openly lie. I will only need to smile and look happy and well adjusted.
But I will have to meet the President himself.
I will have to stand there and smile. I will have to shake his hand and be pleasant. I will have to pretend that he isn't responsible for my friends' deaths or that a week ago, he wasn't fully prepared to have me killed myself.
I'm not sure I can do it.
The worry torments me. It probably doesn't help that the two days before the presentation are filled with people telling me how wonderful I am. How I will dazzle the President and the nation as I am stuffed into various outfits and forced into photo shoots. To make matters worse, I'm hardly eating and I scarcely sleep. The usual Capitol fare is still too much for my stomach after two weeks of starvation and blood loss, but even the small, bland portions I receive do not sit well. Sleep has boiled down to few hours here and there, if I'm lucky, and those are ravaged by nightmares.
The one thing that makes it all easier to manage is that Thom has been returned to us. I'm still not sure if we're properly friends, but having him around is like a promise of home. It's like hope.
Thom isn't his usual self, not like he was at the recap interview. He isn't talking much either, not to anyone. He is, however, back in our District suite again and unlike before the Games, he actually stays there. He doesn't go out at night and he doesn't wake up in the morning looking like something the cat dragged in. In fact, despite being unusually quiet, he looks better than I've seen him in a long time. He's almost pleasant at meals, even to Minerva. Otherwise, he just sits in on whatever dress fitting or photo shoot I'm being subjected to and looks honestly, well, happy. He lets Cobb or Keepsie or Shep or one of the others play mentor with me, with an occasional comment that's not even laced with too much snark.
Thom's almost, almost like his old self. His before-his-Games self.
No one else seems to notice and there are plenty of people to talk in Thom's place.
Tonight, it's Keepsie. She's supervising a dress fitting with Saoirse. I imagine, she's also supposed to be giving me some sort of pep talk for the presentation tomorrow, but she's not exactly the most inspirational speaker.
"It's another parade." Keepsie informs me. Her voice is bored, unamused, like she's got a thousand other things she'd rather being doing. "It's a sponsor thing or some such rubbish."
Keepsie isn't paying much attention to what Saoirse's up to, or me for that matter. She's sprawled herself in the corner of the couch of the District suite, feet propped up on the coffee table. I'm standing on a squat little stool in the center of the room while Saoirse pins and tucks the dress for tomorrow. Keepsie glances up occasionally from the colorful little puzzle cube she's been fiddling with to pay us about at much attention as she would a propaganda reel.
"Point is, you won't be in it." She continues. "All you'll have to do is walk onstage after the President makes a speech at the end. He'll shake your hand and put a laurel wreath on your head and tell everyone how lucky we all are to have such a fine young person serving Panem – now, when you're up there, smile." Keepsie instructs. "You got to look thrilled you've joined our exclusive club of cripples, manic depressives, and substance abusers. Don't look at the cameras or the crowds, just the President and no waving – he doesn't want the attention drawn away from him." She says, giving the sides of her cube a few more good spins.
"And don't say anything either, unless you are directly spoken too by the President or one of his cabinet lackeys – don't answer reporters questions. Seen, not heard." She's not paying attention anymore and just holds up her cube for inspection. Each nine-tiled side is one solid color now and she takes a moment to enjoy her work, before tossing it to Thom. He's settled on the other end of the couch, watching Saoirse work and generally keeping to himself.
"Have you ever consider motivational speaking as your talent, 'Kip?" He catches the cube and gives the sides a twirl, mixing the colored tiles back up. It isn't a nasty question. It's teasing, like something Danny would say to me. Saoirse stifles a chuckle and winks at me. She thoroughly enjoys the other Victors. "You're wasting your time building microchips out there in 3."
"I missed the boat on that one, Argon. You're so much better at it than me." Keepsie answers dully. She doesn't take his bait. "But you've asked for my help, so you're getting it. Shut your trap. Now – Benoit. Tomorrow." She instructs. "Repeat back to me what you will do tomorrow evening when you get out of that taxi."
"S-Smile. N-No waving. No talking unless the President or a cabinet member ask me a question." I recite, tugging at the neckline of the too-big dress. It's been made to my pre-Games measurements and I've still not put the weight back on. I feel silly in it, not pretty like most of Saoirse's creations. Like a child playing dress-up in her mother's clothing. It doesn't help that both Keepsie and Thom are dressed almost normally while I stand in an evening gown. Thom's sporting his usual collar shirt look, even if the fabrics are Capitol quality instead of District dull. Keepsie's in khaki trousers and a fussy purple cardigan. While they're both light years away from the Districts, they're not even on the same planet as my evening gown or Saoirse, in her puffy green dress and outrageous shoes.
"Top of the class." Keepsie nods. Thom tosses her back the thoroughly mixed cube and she sets back to solving it. "At least someone around here listens to me."
"Only because you never stop talking." Thom teases. Keepsie is not amused.
"Asshole." She shoots Thom a withering look. "Hey – Stylist Who's Name I Can't Pronounce – how's to coming?" Saoirse laughs.
"Seer–sha." Saoirse supplies, carefully sounding out the syllables for Keepsie's benefit. Keepsie doesn't look thrilled. "It's pronounced Seer-sha." Saoirse smiles. She gathers the bodice of the dress so that I don't have to hold it up. "And we're nearly finished." She announces.
"Good." Keepsie snorts. "You need to sleep or that horrible prep squad will work you over and cake you in make-up to get those dark circles out from under your eyes." She tells me.
"One last bit here." Saoirse tugs at the bodice again, deftly pinning the seams. "There we are – we'll have you all ready to go for tomorrow."
"Thank you, Saoirse." I say, stepping down off the stool.
"Of course, my cailín!" Saoirse smiles at me. "Just hang the dress on your door and I'll pick it up for alterations." She explains, patting my shoulder. Keepsie doesn't notice or care what Saoirse's up to. She's finished her puzzle cube again and has tossed it back to Thom.
"Sleep." Keepsie orders. "Seriously. That much make-up plays havoc with your skin. I had hives for two weeks afterwards!" She waves me off as Thom returns her puzzle sufficiently mixed up. She's treating me like a child, dismissed to bed so the adults can talk.
I don't even mind.
"T-Thank you, Keepsie." I say. "Goodnight." I wave at Thom and Saoirse. They smile at me and wave back as I head off to my room.
I try to follow Keepsie's instructions. I change out of the presentation dress and into the silky soft nightgown left for me. I hang the presentation dress and all its pins on the door. I brush my teeth and head for bed.
I try to sleep. I really do. I make a solid effort to fall asleep, but just end up watching the hours tick by on the little clock beside the bed. Like all the other nights before something big, it's useless. My bedroom feels too small, like a cage. My bedding is suffocating.
I don't bother heading to the roof, like I did before the Games. It's too far and I'm too tired. Instead, I settle for the living area. Keepsie and Saoirse have long gone and the room is empty. No Thom, no Minerva, and no attendants.
I'm all right with that.
I climb into the window seat, pulling my knees up to my chest and leaning against the glass. Our suite isn't as high as the rooftop so all the sparkling lights of the Capitol are much closer. So close, I can see some of the detail in the streets far below. The passing trams and cars. The bright advertising screens on the buildings. The laughing people as they walk between shops and restaurants. It all feels far away. A million miles from where I sit, lonely and broken above them.
"Not sleeping?" Thom asks suddenly. I jump at the sound. I hadn't even heard him come in, but there he is, standing beside the couch like he's been waiting for me to look back. He's dressed for bed in soft pants and a thin shirt and looking a bit like I feel. That is, completely wrecked and unable to do anything about it. He comes to sit beside me in the window seat as I shake my head. "Keepsie did warn you."
"I'm afraid, Thom." I admit.
"You should be." He tells me. He sits close, like during the recap, but he doesn't touch me. "It never ends, you know." He says after a pause. "It's not just the Games and the Tour. You'll start mentoring with me – every year, they'll haul us in and expect to hear all about how happy and wonderful everything is." He sounds tired. Beaten. It's the most he's spoken directly to me off-camera since I came out of the Arena. "They let you live out of the twenty-four they sent in to die – they want something back. They always want something back."
"How bad is it?" I ask.
"I can't even begin to explain." He sighs. "I'm sorry, you know."
"Saving you." He sounds sad and far away. "It was selfish."
"It was selfish to help me survive?" I ask.
"It was selfish of to condemn you to this." He waves out at the twinkling lights of the Capitol below us. "Just because I didn't want you to die. You'll never be your own self again. You'll be exactly what they want you to be. Your life is not your own."
"Was it ever?" I ask. "We've lived and died by the Capitol for years – now, we just have to come play pretend for them twice a year too."
"It's not so simple – when I told the whole world I was in love with you, it singled you out." Thom observes. "It put you on his list and made us vulnerable."
"What do you mean?" I ask.
"He knows you're important to me – that strategy was a one time play and I used it to save you." He says and he sounds rather bitter. I don't have to ask who 'he' is. "It singled you out as special and it puts everyone at risk. You and Danny – the twins, your grandparents, even Fillipa." Thom hangs his head. "He has buttons to push."
"I don't understand." I say and Thom snorts something that might be a wry chuckle.
"Oh, Mags." He shakes his head. "Sometimes you're just too damn innocent for your own good, you know that?" He sighs. "Sweetheart – having people you love gives him something to hold against you. Call it an incentive. We do as we're told – walk the walk and talk the talk or bad things begin to happen to people and things you love. It's not just you in the Arena anymore – this is the real game and it never ends."
And then I understand.
I understand why Thom doesn't talk to anyone in town if he can avoid it. Why he stopped speaking to his friends and why he's nasty to pretty much everyone if there aren't cameras about.
They're all a liability.
Someone the Capitol, the President can hurt in order to hurt Thom.
To hurt me.
"What do they want from us?" I ask. I'm a little surprised at how far away my voice sounds.
"I don't know." Thom admits, running a hand through his hair. "I know what he usually wants, but I changed the rules when I told them all you were my girl."
"What do you mean?"
"It'll be different." He sounds far away and he doesn't answer the question. I don't understand. "The public won't want to see us split up now."
"What do you mean, Thom?" I ask again.
"You'll know when I know, Mags." He says and that's still not an answer. He sighs again and shakes his head. "You should sleep." He tells me.
"I can't." I say.
"Me neither, sweetheart." He admits. "But you should. You have to be ready for tomorrow. For all our sakes." Thom says, looking up at me seriously. I'm not entirely sure what my own face is doing. I must look stricken because Thom's expression softens. He smiles sadly and brushes a stray curl out of my face. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right." I say, though I'm not sure exactly what he's apologizing for now.
"You'll be fine tomorrow." He says. I can tell he's trying to make up for frightening me. He's trying awfully hard to be kind. Not serious or snarky or teasing. Kind. It's strange. Not at all like he was before my Games. Not even like he was before his Games. It occurs to me that I could get used to it.
"Good night, Thom" I say.
"Good night, Mags." He says, standing up to return to his room. I nod dutifully and slide off the window seat too. Thom leans down and kisses my cheek, like he did the night of the recap. There aren't even cameras. "Sleep well."
"You too." I watch him go before I turn back to the window. The lights still feel far away. I'm still sad and broken and even more afraid that I was before. But perhaps, just a little less lonely.
It's enough to get me to sleep. Even if dawn comes quickly and I'm rushed back for prep before the evening's events.
The presentation is exactly as Keepsie predicted. There is a parade. There are sponsors and speeches and confetti and fireworks. I don't have to do anything, but wear Saoirse's lovely dress, which now fits beautifully and smile. I walk up the stairs of the President's platform at the end of the parade route, just as I am told.
I want to be ill.
But Thom's warnings from last night are still fresh and this isn't about me.
It's about everyone else.
I'm glad I don't have to speak. It makes it a little easier to concentrate on holding a pleasant smile when the President takes my hand to help me up the stairs. I don't even have to wave or anything. I have one task only today and I'm going to get through it. I'm quite certain the only thing keeps the pleasant expression fixed on my face and my supper down when I look him in the eyes is that I have only this one thing to worry about.
I keep smiling softly while the President places the laurel wreath on my head and the crowds go wild. I try to look appropriately modest and appreciative while he gives a speech about how lucky we all are that brave young people like me serve our great nation. I try to keep on a grateful face when he shakes my hand.
"You are a very lucky girl, Miss Benoit." He tells me, smiling out at the crowd as we shake hand. "The luckiest girl in all of Panem." I can't quite place the tone of his voice but something about it makes my skin crawl and my stomach drop.
Something that says I am possibly the unluckiest.