A/N: This took a little longer than expected to come together. Updates will still be regular. Thanks so much to my regular reviewers!
The tributes sit patiently on the sofa, their backs hunched and their eyes heavy with the remnants of sleep. They are already dressed in red and black training outfits that almost blend in with the dark furniture beneath them. Raini stands in front and barks instructions to them.
"You're not there to make friends. You want them to trust you, but getting attached in any way is a fatal mistake. Eventually every alliance falls apart, and if you want to win, you have to be the one who makes the first move. Keep them close for a while but take them out before the tension builds. Before it is expected," she says.
Finnick and Kelsie finally look awake for the first time since they woke up. Raini's words are blunt enough to command attention.
"What's the point of being in an alliance if you kill them off when they could still be helpful?" Finnick questions.
"Being in an alliance means taking a risk that can either pay off in the end or put you in more danger," I answer. "I'll tell you what I've told my tributes every year since I first started mentoring: make yourself useful. Once you stop being an asset, you're a liability."
"It's really not complicated," Raini interjects before the tributes can say anything. "Everything you do inside the arena and out is for survival. The only purpose of living is to fight for survival, and if someone tries to harm you, don't think for a second that you won't kill to defend yourself. Everything else is just an illusion made by humans who can't accept that their precious lives aren't truly important in the grand scheme of things."
"Well, thanks. That view of the world really brightened up my morning," Finnick says without enthusiasm. Kelsie frowns and her eyebrows furrow as if she is in deep thought.
"That doesn't mean nothing else is important," I say defensively. I'm barely able to restrain myself from throwing a glare at Raini. I know she is entitled to her own beliefs and it isn't worth trying to argue with the woman, but how exactly does she think this will help the tributes? Telling them their lives are virtually meaningless is hardly inspirational material.
Raini never saw the point in letting prep teams soften out her austere features. She stands as cold as a commander. To her, the world is not much of a puzzle at all. Decisions and choices are black and white shades, sharp as her personality and always discernable. It's this view that let her sacrifice her ally with no regret when she was in the first Quarter Quell. It is what kept her strong even when she was left without any family to turn to.
We all have our ways of coping that help us carry on. It's just that I could never see the world as a meaningless place or myself as an empty entity. I know what it takes to survive, and I know that it is different from actually living.
My comment gets no reply from the other victor. She decides to move away from the topic. Probably a wise decision. "Kelsie, what do you predict your chances of winning are?" she asks.
"One in twenty-four," the girl answers without hesitation. All of us sit in silence. That isn't the answer Raini was looking for.
Kelsie sits up straighter and bravely defends her response before the chastising comes. "I'm just saying, that's the mathematical answer. It would be less surprising if I won than someone from Ten or something, but that doesn't change the odds." Her grayish brown eyes show no insolence.
"And you're okay with that?" Raini asks in irritated disbelief. "You don't stand a chance out there with that attitude."
Kelsie scowls and Finnick offers her an arm around her shoulder in support.
"Kelsie, why did you volunteer, knowing your odds are only as good as anyone else's?" I ask.
"What other option is there?" she asks. "Work every day of your life until you're dead? I'll take the one in twenty-four chance if it's the only shot I have at doing something with my life. Anything is better than zero."
I nod, not sure what else to say. The child is a realist, refusing to overestimate her chances and making no effort to sugarcoat a lifetime of labor. We don't have much time to mull over her words before Sabina comes to take the tributes to their first day of training.
"What did you think about that?" I ask Raini when they have left.
"They don't stand a chance," she says negatively, and I am once again annoyed by her attitude. With that said, she disappears down the hallway, where she will undoubtedly stay for most of the day.
There are people everywhere: down the hall, on this floor and every other floor of the building. Cameras listen in, ensuring that we never get total privacy. With all of this going on, how is it possible to feel so alone?
Some avoxes work across the room, carefully stacking plates to be washed and arranging the kitchen until everything is perfect. These aren't the same servants that worked here when I was younger. That much is obvious, but age is not my point. For decades, the avoxes were members of the failed rebellion. That generation has almost completely come to pass, so why are these people here? What petty crimes did they commit to be sentenced to this life?
Everything has changed in terms of people, but nothing is really different. I wonder if Finnick shares any of the emotions I had as I went through the pre-Games events. If he does, he doesn't show it. His personality is completely different from mine, even back then. I still think it is more a matter of him not completely grasping what he will be dealing with in a few days.
There's one thing I saw that I could connect with. This morning, Finnick's hands were red and raw from hours of tying knots. I taught him to use it as an outlet for stress years ago, when the sound of the ocean was in the background and the Hunger Games were far away. I remember doing the same when I was a tribute. Just the image of those red hands brings me back to a time when I was not much older than him.
It only took seconds for my hands to scream in complaint as I dangled from the metal bars of the obstacle course. I let go in resignation and landed hard on my feet. My hands were bright red and pulsing. I had not thought of the consequences when I had spent the better part of the night twisting and tying knots in the wispy rope. It had calmed my panic but left aching hands that hindered me in training.
Kai was across the room throwing weights with the boys from One and Two. I watched them until a hand gripped my wrist from behind. I drew back instinctively and was about to throw out my other arm in defense when a voice stopped me.
"What happened to your hands?" Kim asked, inspecting them without loosening her grip.
"Knot tying," I answered honestly. I knew she would assume I meant the knot station.
She looked at me through narrowed eyes as if to evaluate me. "Just how good are your nets, Four?" the taller girl asked.
I let myself stand a little straighter and relaxed my tense wrist. She would get the answer she wanted. It didn't matter that I didn't trust her. "They're excellent," I said confidently.
She released her grip and nodded in approval. "Good. Let's hope that's true."
That alliance did not work out so well in the end. Our allegiance to each other was unsteady at best and I either watched or was involved in each of their deaths. I never feel comfortable about my tributes going head-first into an alliance unless it is with their district partner. By now, though, I've come to accept that most of them will ally with the other careers.
A glance at the clock informs me that the Sponsorship Hall should be opening any minute now. I drag myself to my room and dress myself in an outfit just nice enough to pass as presentable. I put minimal effort in pinning up my hair and touching up my face because, honestly, it isn't my appearance the people down there are worried about.
I take the elevator all the way down to the bottom floor. It opens to the familiar wide, dim-lit room. The richest of the rich are swarming around already, their bodies half in shadow. The other half reflects in a light orange hue.
The first time I came down here alone, it didn't go well. A lot of time has passed since I was that shaken, teary eyed young girl who vowed never to go seek out sponsors on her own ever again. I move to the center of the room and glance around, searching for the regulars who come every year.
A scrawny middle-aged man soon approaches me. His blue facial hair takes up a majority of his face and gives him a look that is almost comical. Every year, he comes here in a different colored jacket that is far too big for him. I like dealing with him because he is genuinely interested in sponsoring the tributes. Many of the men with dark smiles and women in busty clothes come here for a different kind of business.
It's only gotten worse with Snow's little plan for the victors. A lot of people come here to be put on waiting lists for the tributes they would like to spend a night with.
I turn my attention away from them and find a table for the man and me to sit. When he speaks, his moustache moves up and down, completely blocking any view of his mouth. His appearance may be amusing, but his tone is more composed and serious than the average Capitolite.
"You have the attractive young man everyone has been going on about," he says. "I suspect he will have many sponsors. I only want to know one thing. How extensive was his training?" His blue hair comes to a rest and he looks at me in curiosity.
"He's trained for several years, both in and out of the Career school. Life in Four lends itself to mastering weapons. Trust me when I say I can vouch for Finnick Odair's experience. I've seen him practice and he's very skilled," I say with an edge of pride in my voice.
The man nods and pulls out his checkbook. "That's all I needed to hear," he says as he scribbles down something. He hands the check over to me. I stare in awe at the large sum.
"This is very generous," I tell him.
"The past few years, I've spread out my money between several tributes and the pay-off hasn't been what I was expecting," he says matter-of-factly. "I'm taking a risk on this kid, but research and a bit of psychic advising has made me confident in my decision."
Psychic advising? Well, whatever works for him. "Thank you, sir. Would you mind telling those ladies over there that I sponsor Finnick Odair?" I ask, pointing to a group of ten or eleven women to the far right of the room.
"I suppose I can," he says, getting up brusquely and readjusting the massive jacket. I watch him walk across the room and tap one of the women on the shoulder. It isn't long before the entire group turns to face my direction.
Some of them walk toward me in a slow stride that matches the formality of the surroundings, but others are unabashed in the way they hurry across the room, bumping into cloth-covered tables on the way. The pull up chairs around my table until it becomes a crowded heap of people. It draws attention, and a few others approach the edge of the group to see what the commotion is.
The ladies range from very young to bordering on old. They badger me with questions that merge together to form a high-pitched, incomprehensible noise. I don't even try to answer the individual queries.
"I mentor Finnick Odair. I know he has attracted a lot of attention, and each and every donation will increase his chances of survival. I speak for Finnick when I say we greatly appreciate any help we can get."
I'm sure my voice will be drowned out, but somehow I am heard. Piles of checks and cash are practically thrown into my face. I've mentored many years and I've seen a lot. I expected Finnick to get a good deal of money, but this exceeds anything I expected.
Some of the women continue asking questions, and I decide to do my best to be personable. If I answer the questions right, they may choose to donate even more.
A few hours and several groups later, I leave the Hall more successful than I have ever been. I waste no time depositing the money to the District Four account. The number of credits on the banking screen skyrockets, and I can't help but think again that Finnick has a chance. Money can't secure a win, but it can make surviving the arena a whole lot easier. A few more days like this and we'll be set.
I'm still worried, of course, but the day's events have me in a good mood. I listen attentively as the tributes tell me stories about the day's happenings in training.
"The Careers are a tiny bit annoying, but they're cool. At least they are fun to be around. Most of the others looked too scared to have a simple conversation," Finnick says.
"Except Wally from Two," Kelsie says. She's huddled against Finnick's side as usual, and the latter doesn't seem to mind. "He's ridiculous," she almost spits.
"Aw, come on," Finn says, turning to face her. "He's hilarious! Besides, it's not like him playing pranks on the gamemakers affects us in any way."
"I'm sure it won't be hilarious when he plays pranks on us in the arena," Kelsie huffs. "And I don't like the way he talks to you. He doesn't have the right to call you 'Pretty Boy'. I don't care if he's joking or not; it sounded condescending to me."
"Lighten up, Kels. It's nice you are trying to look out for me, but I couldn't care less what he calls me."
"Tensions will only get worse once the Games start," I remind both of them. "How many people are you planning to ally with?"
Finnick answers first. "Probably One and Two. Maybe the boy from Three and one from Seven. I'm not sure. Kelsie and I decided we're staying together, so that's the only definite."
"Keep in mind that the more allies you have, the more resources you have to share. We're doing really well on sponsor money already, and it's less of an advantage if you are sharing with several other districts," I say. I would rather pump money into helping Four's tributes than buying items for other districts to benefit from as well.
"That's true," Kelsie says pensively. She pushes her black hair back, as she usually does when she is considering something "Training scores should help, too. Those numbers mean a lot to sponsors."
Finnick nods. "What score did you get when you were a tribute, Mags?" he asks.
"An eight," I answer without difficulty. Then I another thought. "I doubt what I did then would be worth an eight today. Kids are better trained, and they judge it a lot harder. An eight back then might only be a five or six today."
I look at the two teenagers. Both are trained, and though their training did not follow the same curriculum, I'm sure they will score in the eight-to-ten range. They are experiencing the same things I went through but on a heightened scale.
Hopefully the heightened amount of sponsorship will make a difference as well.
The stubborn prep team pushes tons of before and after pictures to my face in an attempt at persuasion.
"See, just a few hours and you'll look thirty years younger! No more nasty wrinkles, and it's all free of cost! You're going to look amazing once we can actually see your face again," the first one babbles.
The second keeps a hand on my hair and pushes a bottle so close to my eyes that it is impossible to focus on it. "I saw a picture of you from your Hunger Games," he says. "Your natural hair color was to die for! We can make it gorgeous again if you let us recolor this dull gray."
I can feel my patience slipping away by the second. Mentors are always given a prep team to prepare them for the interviews, but I never used to be pressured like this. Why should I be ashamed of growing older? Why would I want to hide it? In Four, wrinkles are respected, not frowned upon. It's said that each fold of the skin holds a layer of wisdom.
"I'm fine with how I look, thank you," I say curtly.
"But you can look so much better!" they squeal in near unison. I refuse to submit to their pleas. They leave and I think I'm in the clear until they bring in a stylist.
"I was told you were being noncompliant. We have a job to do, and it's important that each tribute and mentor represents our work in a positive light. It will be best for everyone if you let them fix you up," he says, not harshly, but in a way that sounds like he is completely uninterested.
If he had attempted to say it kindly, I might have an ounce of sympathy. It wouldn't change my decision, but I wouldn't be more irked now. The stylist wears designer shades despite the fact that we are indoors and gives off an attitude that says I'm more important than you, so I can't be bothered to care about your problems.
"I'm not a tribute. The decision is mine, and I'm not interested in changing my appearance. Sorry," I say, even though I'm not really sorry at all.
"We could lose our jobs if others don't think we are doing a good job," one of the prep members whimpers.
I sigh tiredly. "Cover me with makeup then. I don't care, as long as it can be washed off later tonight."
They seems complacent enough with that. They smear colorful creams and powders over my skin. They don't completely make the signs of aging disappear, but they do smooth out my face and make me look more different than I would like. My hair is curled and molded into a standard up-do.
One thing I am grateful for is that the prep team isn't inclined to dress me in anything revealing anymore. I'm put into a white blouse and silky sea-foam green skirt. A jacket of the same color covers my arms.
When I'm released from the room, I see Raini has been put in a similar outfit, except hers is a dress. Neither of us say a word the entire trip there, and Sabina is left scrambling to fill in the silence. My thoughts are elsewhere.
I'm sure Finnick will do fine tonight. I just can't stop wondering how the week went by so fast. This is it. The Hunger Games begin tomorrow and everything is becoming terrifyingly real.
Mentors, stylists, and escorts get priority seating. The other victors file in behind. Everyone swishes by in a flurry of movement. Cameras are being put in place and citizens shuffle around, looking for an open seat. It always baffled me how it can all go from complete chaos to perfect and orderly the second the show starts.
Sure enough, the instant smoke begins to fill the stage, everyone miraculously finds their seats. Cheers fill the entire area when Caesar Flickerman materializes from the haze. This job is Caesar's life. He's been in the spotlight since before he could talk and his childhood was spent co-hosting the show alongside his father. He's been around for decades, but his appearance never changes, aside from the color of his hair.
This year, his hair, lips, and eyelids are colored a lustrous gold. As always, he wears a midnight blue suit with small light bulbs adorning the sides. He is the living incarnation of his father, and he embodies the same spirit and enthusiasm.
Another cloud of smoke appears, and it soon dissipates to reveal a long sofa that seats all twenty-four tributes. After a few minutes of warming up the crowd, Caesar gets the ball rolling. The interviews are generally the same each year, with broad questions and even more generic answers.
The careers each have their own angle. Soldierly Armano from One is completely serious and composed. His district partner, Idalia, presents herself as loyal. Two's group is slightly more entertaining because Wally is the polar opposite of the boy from One. Maybe they could balance each other out in a friendship, but alliances are not really the place for such differing personalities. I can already see trouble forming there.
If the dark-haired Alexandra from Two had an angle, it fell apart before it could be fleshed out. She stumbles across the stage like a newborn calf in massive heels, and when Caesar makes a joke about it, her attitude turns sour. Finnick had said the group of careers was "a bit annoying, but cool." I try to picture the three districts together in an alliance, and I fail to see it. Four and One, maybe, but Two already looks dangerously unstable.
As expected, Finnick is met with cheers and screams when he makes his way to the chair across from Caesar. He looks handsome in his white tux and aqua-green vest. The color makes his green eyes shine even more brilliantly than usual. The stage lighting brings out the golden undertones in his bronze hair and lights up his face. Sitting up there, he doesn't look like the little boy I used to watch run alongside the waves. He looks grown up, and everyone can see it.
"Finnick Odair, I hope you can hear me over the screams of all of your fans," Caesar laughs. He looks out to the audience. "How many of you are fans of this young man?"
Another round of eardrum-bursting screams overtake the room. Finnick smiles and waves to the crowd. His eyes scan around, though I doubt he is looking at anyone in particular.
When the noise tapers off, Caesar extends a hand and rests it on Finnick's chair. "I think what surprised us all the most is the fact that you're one of the youngest in this competition!"
"Caesar, a few years doesn't make much of a difference. Age is just a number. The way I see it, it doesn't change anything about who I am or what I am capable of," Finnick says. The crowds claps in affirmation.
"Of course not! I wouldn't count you out for a second. You have an unmistakable charm and a very respectable training score of 10. We couldn't help but notice, though, that you are not a volunteer. Is there anything you would like to say on that topic?"
"You got me, Caesar. I think that is the one thing we can use my age as an excuse for," Finnick laughs. "Where I'm from, volunteering before eighteen is almost unheard of. I didn't expect to become part of the Hunger Games so early, but that doesn't mean I'm not prepared."
"I'm thrilled to hear that," Caesar smiles widely. "One more thing. We're all itching to know who the most hated girl in Panem is."
"I'm not sure I follow you," Finnick says.
"What I mean is, who is the girl the entire nation can be jealous of? Who is the one who owns Finnick Odair's heart?" he asks eagerly.
"Oh," Finnick says, and then he smiles almost impishly. "No one in particular. How could I tie myself down to someone when there are so many beautiful women out here in the Capitol?"
The screams that come next are loud enough to prevent any further questioning. Finnick did what he was supposed to. In our session, I told him that it was of upmost importance to make the women feel like he cared about them. As twisted as it is, making them think they have a chance with him is what will get the Capitol on his side.
The commotion makes it hard to hear the first half of Kelsie's interview. She looks like she has as much trouble with the heels as the girl from Two, but she isn't embarrassed by it. From what I can hear, she and Caesar go back and forth on a commentary about the newest fashion style being a health hazard.
It isn't long before they switch to the generic go-to questions. He briefly asks her about her 8 in training (which Raini had called substandard, but the crowd praises), before switching to the usual family talk.
"What is your family like? Were they supportive of your decision to volunteer?" Caesar questions.
Kelsie shifts in her chair, uncomfortable for the first time. "I don't think my father was, cause I'm his little girl and he wants me safe and all that. My mom understands, I think. She's like me in how she knows there must be something more out there than what we have. She would probably volunteer too if she could do it over again."
Caesar looks at her with a gleam of intrigue. "What do you mean by something more? Is there something you're looking for that the Hunger Games could give you?"
"I don't know how to explain it." She looks up with stormy eyes. "A lot of people call us lazy, and it's true that I don't like to work. I'll admit that training did let me pin my chores on my little sister. It's just that…spending day after day doing the same thing is a waste of life. There has to be something more out than that."
With that, her buzzer goes off. I'm not sure how she stands compared to the other careers, but I think her interview had substance. As much as I need Finnick to win, I don't want to see her go. I wish she could find that something she is looking for.
All in all, it's been a successful year for District Four in the pre-Games events. I pray it continues in the arena.
I can't bring myself to say goodbye to Finnick that night. It is too painful. He's in for a rude awakening tomorrow, and I'm scared I am as well. I can't wrap my mind around the fact that he might not make it out. How many times have I had to pick up the shattered remains of a former life and build a new one? I can't start over again, and Finnick does not deserve to have his life cut short.
"Finn, this isn't goodbye. Please, do everything you can to come back. For both me and your parents. Please," I say as I hug him outside of his room.
"It'll work out. This isn't goodbye," he repeats, but he sounds a little less sure of himself than usual.
I'm about to tell him good night when something else hits me. "I'm going to tell you something that was said to me. Don't forget who you are and what you stand for. Do what you must, but don't lose yourself in the process."
"How?" Finnick asks. "I don't understand. I have to kill to survive but that doesn't mean that's who I am?" His intonation transforms it into a question.
"I know it doesn't make sense right now. You'll figure it out," I say. I try to keep my voice light and hopeful. I don't think it works.
"Good night, Mags. Thanks for everything you've done," Finnick says.
"That sounds too much like goodbye, Finn. Let's be thankful after this is all over," I say. I pat his arm and then we reluctantly go our separate ways.
Sleep doesn't come easily, and when it does, it isn't restful. Each snippet of a dream involves the day starting and going through the motions in the mentor room. By the time morning actually comes, I feel exhausted from having lived it so many times in the past few hours.
Finnick and Kelsie are already gone. I sit around for a few hours, my mind racing far too much to focus on doing anything productive. The dreaded time approaches fast. I bang on the locked door of Raini's room and try to yell at her to get up. Déjà vu replays a similar scene from forty years ago. This time, she isn't my problem to deal with, and I decide to leave her to get up on her own terms.
It doesn't take long to get to the mentor room. I check each screen to make sure it is functioning properly. Then it becomes a game of waiting. Ten minutes to go. Finnick is underneath the arena, wherever that may be. His stylist is presenting him with the outfit right now. How is he feeling? Underneath that façade, is he anywhere near as petrified as I was?
I twirled my necklace around anxiously while Lilith pulled the clothes out the bag. "Ugly color," she had said. The pale yellow-green outfit and brown tennis shoes didn't have a wrinkle on them. They weren't yet covered in rips and tears and blood. Lilith and I had speculated about the possibility of water as my heart rate started picking up.
One minute until Finnick will have to get into the glass tube. The robotic voice will be ordering him to step in now. Once he takes that final step, there is no going back.
I had frozen in place when the voice told me I had thirty seconds. Every fiber of my being warned me not to take that last step.
"Get a grip, girl. All of Panem is watching," Lilith told me. Her voice was harsh as always. She gripped my shoulders and walked me to the tube. My heartbeat pattered and stuttered. Fear took over my body and made it nearly impossible to talk or breathe.
Tributes are now in transit. Finnick, Kelsie, and the other twenty-two have begun their ascent to the arena that awaits them. My screen will come to life any second now. I'm vaguely aware that Raini has finally made it here and is in the seat next to me. Any second now…
First there was darkness. Cold, impenetrable darkness that blocked out all the senses. But soon I learned that the darkness was safe. The blinding white light was dangerous, because it meant I had arrived.
The screens come alive in a flash of light. The tributes are up now, and I see Finnick squinting his eyes. He opens them to look at his surroundings. When I was in his place, I saw a vast sea of high grass.
That is not what his eyes are seeing now. His sight now aligns with mine in present time as I look over the arena. Plutarch's words prove true. The cornucopia is on a flat expanse surrounded by barren cliffs. A subtle fog hangs where the tributes are now, but it gets much thicker in the distance.
Tops of cliffs and trees poke their heads out from the white mass that engulfs them. Further out, nothing is visible but a white shroud. My map claims it to be thick forest. A wide river runs from the north to the southernmost area of the arena.
Time is winding down. The last few numbers of the countdown echo in both my memories and in the room.
5, 4, 3, 2, 1
Let the bloodbath begin.