Disclaimer: The Hunger Games belongs to Suzanne Collins.
Thanks to populardarling for being an awesome beta-reader!
I glance around at the puzzled faces which stand before me, all in bewilderment of what I've relayed to them.
"Five or six days?" Rue exclaims in shock, "He didn't let me onto the floor for five or six weeks."
"It feels like I've been locked up here five or six weeks, you sure your mind wasn't playing tricks on you?" I tease, crossing my eyes and circling a finger around my head. It gets a giggle out of Rue.
"I stopped tallying days when he let me out of here," she says, shrugging toward the wall by the top bunk of her bed, where-with a sharp edge of a stone or a nail-she's placed marks into the hard dirt.
"Forty Two days. Six weeks."
My eyes widen at the thought of being trapped in here for nearly fifty days. The smell of dirt and feces lingering in the muggy air, the same four walls always surrounding you...
This place really is hell-and this is only my twelfth night. I look at Rue and wonder how long she's been here, and how much its changed her. How much it's likely to change me. I can't help but wonder what kind of lives my inmates led in their past lives, but I don't dare ask-not even Rue. Some things are too personal, even if you are in the same circumstances.
"What'd you do, blow him?" Johanna spits out, arms folded and head cocked to the side-completely disgusted.
"Wha-?" My eyes widen as realization crosses my mind and I feel my cheeks radiating heat as I feel the need to immediately begin defending myself. "No! O-of course not."
Johanna rolls her eyes and Finnick snickers at what I only assume has to be the most ridiculous expression planted on my face.
Peeta studies me for a moment longer than the others before moving in the direction of his bunk with a fake sounding yawn.
"Who gives a fuck what she had to do to get put on the floor?" he asks, everyone seeming shocked by the sound of his voice.
In the silence, he turns in our direction like we're a bunch of baboons.
"What? You all should be happy. The more people working up there the less work that has to be done."
Johanna shrugs in casual agreement before stripping down to an old cotton bra and underwear. The others don't hesitate to follow her example and sluggishly strip away unnecessary clothing from their sweaty and red bodies.
"I can't wait for winter," Rue groans in frustration, pulling her hair up with an old rubber band.
"I'll remind you of that when you're freezing your ass off, trying to climb into my bed," Thresh mumbles, patting her jokingly on the back.
She chuckles, a short and hardly audible sound before scurrying up the top bunk like a small squirrel.
"You like winter, Katniss?" Finnick asks me a moment later.
I could do without it. There were several times back in Virginia I wished we lived just a little further south during the five and a half months of winter. It made game hard to come by and plants wither to nothing.
Prim and I nearly starved to death the first winter after Dad's death.
Images of Prim's frail form curled up on her bed under piles of blankets flashes to the front of my mind-her skin thin and translucent, lips blue and cracked. Primrose, dying.
Goosebumps break out along my arms and Finnick raises an eyebrow as he spots them. I run a hand over the skin to soothe it before turning in the opposite direction of him, up toward the bed.
"No. Not really."
"Shame," he sighs, "You're in for a long one ahead."
"Can't see much snow trapped down here," I yawn, piling into the bed beside Pr-I mean, Rue. Rue.
Finnick snickers, standing on top of the bed below our bunk to peer over the top at me.
"Yeah, but you'll feel it. There's no happy medium here in paradise, and if you think this is bad..."
"Don't freak her out, Finn," Thresh grumbles. "Let her figure it out for herself."
The remaining candles are blown out and silence overtakes the room. Rue snuggles close to my form, like she has in nights past and I listen as her breathing grows shallower. Idly, I begin running my fingers through her hair, like I used to Prim's.
Rue's hair is shorter and thicker than Prim's, and her tight curls makes it hard to weave my fingers through, so instead, I simply run a flat palm over the top of her head and down to her neck.
I let my mind wander back to Virginia and the people I've left behind there. I have no clue where we are exactly, so there's no telling what time of day it is there. Still, it's hard not to imagine her curled up in bed at this hour, hopefully dreaming peaceful thoughts.
Hopefully not alone.
Even with mother there, she'd be alone. What will that woman do for her? It actually feels like my breathing has ceased at the possible thought of Mother getting worse after my disappearance.
When Father died, sure Mother was around, but she hasn't been with us since. The idea of Prim having no one there for her, having to step up and care for herself at such a tender age has range and fright and possibly a hundred other emotions bubbling under my skin.
I jump at the sound of my voice.
It's Rue, who lays entwined with me, studying my face in concentration.
"Yes?" I hardly recognize my own voice as I respond.
"You were squeezing me. Are you alright?"
I run a soothing hand over her head once more and will her to sleep. It takes only moments to hear the steady breathing passing through her lips.
Gale is caring for Prim. You know he is. He won't let her starve, or freeze or anything. He's caring for her. I know these words I chant to myself are true, but feelings of helplessness and hopelessness creep in, turning and twisting my stomach nauseatingly.
This is all I can do.
All I can do for Prim is hope.
It feels like my eyes have barely shut when I'm startled awake to the sound of the door crashing open, revealing Cray and three of his men.
I glance around at the bewildered expressions of the other inmates, and watch as their faces turn from fatigued to frightened.
"Did we oversleep?" Rue whispers, her eyes wide and small hands gripping the sheet on top of us. I take her hand in my own, squeezing it reassuringly.
"Yes?" I respond.
Cray motions with his hand for me to come forward, "Come with me."
I hop down from the bed and walk forward until I'm standing beside him. He snaps his finger quickly and two of his three helpers grip their hands tight around my arms-as if I would even know how to escape.
He shuts the door tight behind him and locks it before we start down the same dirt paths we took to get here what feels like so long ago.
Although I don't dare show it, I can't help but be a little excited about finally being freed from the dungeon. Of course excitement is the stupidest thing to feel, seeing as I have no idea where I'm being lead to.
Even though every twist and turn we make look the same, it's refreshing to feel as though I'm somewhere new. After staring at those four cell walls for what seems like centuries, any new scenery is welcomed.
Cray ties a blindfold over my eyes and then I hear a door being kicked open.
I can't see a thing, but the darkness behind the blindfold grows a little lighter and the scent and pressure of the air changes. We're outside. Most likely they've blindfolded me because after days in the darkness, the suns rays would be unbearable.
I wonder how long its been since the others have seen the light of day.
We trudge along for several more minutes in silence before I hear the jingling of Cray's keys and am launched to the ground. The blindfold is ripped from my head and I have to squint to look around the room properly.
It's completely white. Low lighting, but brighter than the kind we have in our small cave. There's four cot-type beds that look a lot like the kind the school used to have in the nurses office and curtains around each one.
It's the cleanest room I've seen since my arrival.
"She smells like a pig pen," I hear one of the men say, the other snickering along.
"Venia! Flavius! Octavia!"
Whatever Cray has just yelled bounces off the walls and echoes. I chance glancing up, not sure whats going to happen or from what angle. My body is tense and guarded.
A soft clicking sound heard in the distance grows louder and closer before three clown-like people emerge from the thin doorway off to the side.
Their hardly human appearance is frightening. The way their skin has been stretched and molded to give the allusion of youth, the thick and long eyelashes-like a horse, glittering skin and flamboyant hair and clothing.
It's like nothing I've ever seen before, not even on the television. Up close, it's apparent they're much older than they'd like to let on.
"Oh! What have we got here?" The plumpest of the three asks with a high pitched voice. She waves a chubby hand at me like I'm an infant...or a dog...
"Fix her up," Cray growls, giving my back one final kick. I stay facing the ground until I hear the doors behind me slam and click.
The three pairs of feet in front of me are encased in large, uncomfortable looking shoes.
"Well," the only man of the three scoffs, "isn't she going to be a handful."
"What's your name, dear?"
The word "dear" on her lips sounds too sweet, like cotton candy, and makes me sick. I don't respond and one of them snorts.
I do as I'm told and the three clowns look me over with curious and calculating eyes.
"I'm Venia. This is Octavia and Flavius," The thin tall woman, Venia, introduces."We're not here to hurt you, just to make you look beautiful," she beams.
"Like you?" the comment is meant to be sarcastic, but it flies over their heads as they grin excitedly.
The one introduced as Octavia places her hands on my back and guides me through the narrow opening they emerged from moments earlier. She instructs me to lie down on top of one of the cots and then the frightening trio split in separate directions and disappear completely.
I lie completely still until the clicking of their heals cease and all thats left is the irregular patter of water coming from the sink to my right.
"Don't go crazy Flavius! We were only instructed to clean her up before Cinna has to handle her," Venia hisses before appearing above me and smiling down much like a snake.
The three prattle on as if I'm not in the room, poking and prodding at me, lifting limbs here and there, judging me and preparing me for the slaughter.
She needs a scrub down.
Look at all this hair! Yuck!
It's a rats nest on top of her head.
I close my eyes at the first yank on my scalp and tighten my grip on the cot below me.
While Flavius detangles my hair, the two women begin their "head-to-toe wax job." They start at my ankles and work their way up, giggling and apologizing as I wince at every pull.
"If you weren't so hairy, child!"
"It's alright, it'll hurt a hell of a lot less in the future. You just sort of get used to it."
Why do I get the feeling we're no longer talking about the waxing?
Flavius finishes combing through my hair and moves on to lather it with shampoos and conditioners and shiners while Octavia shapes and polishes my nails, and Venia rubs some sort of tingling cream on every inch of my skin.
My butt has gone numb and it feels as if it's been days when they finally sit me up and admire their work, throwing a robe over my bare body.
"You're actually not half bad once you're all cleaned up!" Octavia praises, twisting a chunk of my hair in her finger.
"Cinna will be pleased. Shall we get him?"
"Stay here," Flavius instructs before the giddy trio dash out of the room and leave me to silence once more.
I look at myself in the mirror and am hardly recognizable. My long hair-which is hardly ever down-curls unnaturally down my neck and back and smells of perfumes. My nails, usually caked with dirt and jagged edges, seem foreign as I inspect them.
I feel like a plucked chicken and can't help but think of what Gale might think if he could see me now.
He'd probably laugh, actually. Fall over on his ass and laugh until his stomach hurt. The image in my mind has the edges of my mouth pull up into a slight smirk. I immediately erase it once I catch a glance of it in the mirror.
Stop it. You have no right thinking that way, I inwardly chastise myself. The thought of Gale has me thinking of home which makes my stomach twist almost blindingly so. I swallow heavily to keep from vomiting.
You have to be more careful.
"So, you can smile?"
My head whips around at the sound of another's voice, a man who stands quietly in the corner with his arms crossed and face unreadable. There's no telling how long he's been standing there, observing me, but obviously long enough to have caught me reminiscing.
Did he think I was smiling at my appearance, or something silly like that?
He steps forward. He's a tall man-clean cut-wearing all black with just a dash of gold above his eyelids. Completely understated compared to the three fools who were in here earlier.
He folds his arms across his chest and makes one full circle around me.
"Katniss, was it?"
"I'm Cinna. I'll be your stylist, for all intents and purposes."
I can only imagine what I'd need to be "styled" for.
"My job is to make sure you're remembered in a positive light. Make people like you."
So the very last shred of my dignity can be sold away?
My look must be lethal because he takes half a step in the other direction, casting an awkward glance off to the side.
"So, how many others have you put in "positive light?'" I ask, my tone sharper than I intend. Instinctively I curl into myself, fully expecting a blow for having such a quick tongue.
To my surprise, this man laughs-genuinely laughs, and not full of malicious intent or sarcastically either. He lets out a short chuckle and shrugs his shoulders.
"You'd be the first my dear."
I raise an eyebrow in suspicion and he raises one right back.
I wonder how he ever got into this line of business. Is he in cahoots with Snow? Is he forced here against his will like the rest of us? There's so many questions I wish I could ask the presumably kind man, but there's just too much at risk.
He places a hand on my kneecap and I fight the urge to jerk it away, because the action seems genuine.
"I'm here to help you make an impression."
"How do you plan on doing that?"
"You'd be surprised at the plans I have for you, my dear."
The sun has long set when I'm taken back to the catacomb prison. This time, Cray doesn't make me wear the blindfold, but he does force a tight hood over my head like he had my first trip down the dungeons.
I notice things I hadn't my first couple of trips this time. Like the other doors that surely lead to other holding chambers. Cray knocks on a couple of them, yelling out random times and waiting for a response.
It's hard to remember anyone else exists down here besides my inmates and myself, but this is a chain and I am nothing but the newest link.
I'm thrown back into the pit, and Cray calls out a half an hour to the others before slamming it shut.
Rue appears at my side in an instant and her eyes widen as she takes in my new alterations.
"Wow," she says for the second time in twenty-four hours.
"Damn, you actually don't resemble a caveman anymore."
"Need I remind you how you looked before they prettied you up, Jo?" Finnick smirks, crossing his arms over his bare chest.
Johanna's smile falls and turns into a deadly glower.
"She had horrible hair," he continues on. "Thick and long and just awful! They had to shave it all off, nothing else they could do."
"Shut up, Finnick."
"Oh, and you should have seen her skin..."
Rue lets out a chuckle right before Johanna kicks the plastic chair over with a thud.
"Damnit Finnick, I said shut the fuck up!"
"What? You can dish it, but you can't take it?"
"You didn't look so good yourself Finnick," Rue snickers. "Big crooked buck teeth, zit face-"
"Now Rue, you promised that was our secret. I'm gonna have to kill you now!"
He picks her up into his arms and begins tickling her mercilessly. It's the first time this place truly feels like a home, and even I can't help but release a small, relieved smile before mentioning something about freshening up quickly.
"Peeta's in there, just a heads up."
I crawl through the small hole and am surprised at the brightness of the candles that shine in the space. Off to the side, Peeta sits in one of the tubs, his head lulled back and eyes shut.
I blush, turning away from him in embarrassment. Although I'm sure the others would tease me if they knew my cheeks tingled at the thought of seeing another man in a tub. After all they've seen. Nudity has always made me partially uncomfortable.
I turn toward his voice and then clamp a hand over my eyes.
"What did they do to you?"
I peek through my fingers at his calculated expression, studying me with a look I can't quite decipher. Like he wants to hug and possibly punch me simultaneously.
"What? You don't like it?" I say, attempting humor, but it falls flat immediately.
"I'm sorry," he whispers quietly after several moments of silence.
He motions for me to hand him the towel thats balled in the corner of the room. I extend my arm to pass it to him without catching sight of anything I might not want to see, then turn my back to him.
"You get what this means, right?" he asks, his voice low with an edge of viciousness to it.
"That my days are numbered?"
"You're almost out of time," he mumbles. "Did you need to use this or something?"
I turn back in his direction and am glad the lighting is low enough to not pick up on my ever reddening cheeks, as he's clad only in a towel.
He's pointing to the tub and I nod timidly.
"But uh...I'll wait, until...you know, you...leave." I stutter out.
He nods, running a hand through his dripping hair and crawling out of the small hole. He turns right before fully emerging to the main room and casts me a sad grimace.
"Better get over that fear fast."
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