Authors Note: Sorry about the delay, I'm just not in the mood to do much even write. Mary has no internet at the moment, so it's unbeta'd.
There is something about Kingsley that instantly reassures me. It could be his soft spoken voice or the aura of calmness that he exudes. Or perhaps it was the way that he rushed in to shake my hand. "Your actions at The Reaping were incredibly brave, what you did for your sister was... amazing."
"I did the right thing." In my mind it is as simple as that, "I have protected her all of my life, that was no different."
"No one else would have done it."
What he said was true, my actions were unprecedented and I know that they will have caused a stir. The replays of The Reapings that I watched last night have shown me that. At least people have already noticed me – if Minerva is right that simple fact may be enough to provide me with a chance of survival.
"So what are you going to dress me in?" Every year the Tributes are dressed in costumes that represent their districts. Some of the outfits managed to look sexy or dangerous but ours just tend to look sad, there is only so much that even the most talented designer can do with a coal mining theme. Kingsley's predecessor had a fondness for naked young men and women covered with coal dust. I can feel myself shudder at the thought.
"I have something quite special in mind for you both this year. Ron's designer and I have both been working very hard on these. We want you to make another big impression during the chariot ride."
When he reveals his plan I am awestruck not only by his talent but also by his bravery and daring. Kingsley's design is a leather suit with artificial flames erupting from the very fabric. It's closer to magic than anyone in The Capitol normally cares to get. It looks almost real and so much better than anything that I have ever seen at a Tribute Parade. Providing that Ron and I do not burn to death, we will certainly make an impact.
Once I am dressed he leads me down through the building towards the stables, all the while Minerva's words from earlier are ringing through my head. She obviously knew what Kingsley had in mind for our outfits but while would she tell me to be visibly friendly with the Weasley boy? It's a complete mystery to me.
After several minutes we reach a large circular room. Within it are twenty four Tributes, their mentors and stylists. Two horses are harnessed to each of twelve chariots, ours are large and black – all the better to complement our outfits. Minerva is leaning next to a red '12' and I know that she has something more to say. As subtly as possible I make my way across the room to her side.
"Remember what I said?"
"About him?" I nod in the direction of my fellow tribute, "Yes but I don't fully understand."
"Look around you."
My eyes flash around the room and I notice something strange. Not one tribute is talking to another, even those from District One and Two who are already in their chariots together. All of them ignore each other almost as though the Games have already started and they are at war. The slightest show of friendship between Ron and I would be a vast contrast. I find myself nodding, "I understand."
"Good. Now remember to be nice, enthusiastic and wave at everyone." I nod again and her hands wrap around my waist, lifting me up and into the vehicle. "Good luck."
A lot of time must have passed while I was looking into her emerald green eyes because five chariots have already left through the gate. She gives me another shove towards Ron and then we are moving. The last thing that I want to do at this stage is leave her side, Minerva seems to be the only constant in my life at the moment – even Dawn and Harry seem far away, like a distant memory.
The horses step quickly through the doorway and towards the parade route. They have been well trained and drilled – the animals will not deviate in either path or speed. We are in a narrow concrete culvert, surrounded by high walls on both sides but I can already hear the crowd even at that distance. It sounds almost like they are baying for our blood.
I glance into Ron's eyes and move slightly closer to him. As the chariot moves out into the light our hands move as one to the buttons that will ignite our outfits. The gasp that rises from the crowd is immense and they begin to yell louder. It's beyond deafening; louder than a winter avalanche, more intense than summer thunderstorms.
The fake smile is plastered firmly on my face as my eyes dart around. The crowd is full of people, just as freakish as those I saw earlier on the day, they are clapping and cheering at me... or rather at what Kingsley has made of me. The cenotaph in front of the parade ground is visible in the distance and it catches my eye before I see something else familiar in my peripheral vision – my face. Ron and I are on the large screens that line the route, something that normally only briefly focuses on tributes from outlying districts before returning to the favourites.
True to Minerva's prediction, at this moment the entire world is focussed on us. The underdogs from District Twelve and we need to keep their attention. I reach down and grab Ron's sweaty palm, raising our joined hands to the sky. Neither of us is likely to survive the week but I want them to remember this moment – the time when we declared that we will not bow to fear.
All of the tributes assemble in an atrium at the base of a tower. True to form most of the other districts are openly hostile, tonight District Twelve just outshone them and it was the last thing that they ever expected. Conversation ceased and we were met with glares, firstly from a blonde boy standing beside an older blonde man and the other career tributes followed suit.
"Very nice." A familiar drawl comes from beside me. "Nice... touch sweetheart." It's sarcasm at its best.
A glance shows me that Minerva is standing right next to me. "Are you sure that you should be standing this close to an open flame?"
Our eyes meet in an intense fiery contact, something sparking between us.
"Fake flame." Her words are cutting but without malice, it's an automatic response to any questions about her drinking. "Are you sure that you should..?" Aware of our audience she pauses, "Let's go upstairs."
Ron and Evvie move in the direction of the lifts, we follow but I take a moment to lean closer to my mentor, "I thought you'd never ask."
Unbelievably she actually growls, low and soft. "Careful or I might take you up on that offer." I just smile, more relaxed now that we are moving away from the other tributes. Inwardly however my mind is racing with possibilities. It's still a mystery why this woman enthrals me one moment and can make me want to hit her the next. She's snarky and infuriating but it's a facade, one I am only now starting to recognise.
We step into the lift and take up position behind the others. Minerva leans against a wall and crosses her arms. Evvie is babbling about us having the penthouse to stay in and Ron is hanging on her every word. Like my mentor I am ignoring her. The small car rockets upwards and feels like no sensation that I have ever experienced. The excitement must be written all over my face because a smirk crosses the thin lips of the woman observing me.
Minerva's body is so close that I can feel the heat from her skin. It's uncharacteristic but I cannot resist the urge to touch her. The backs of my fingers graze the soft fabric covering her hip and I see something indefinable flash through emerald eyes. She smiles and for once it is not a smirk or a grin but a genuine smile – albeit it small and fleeting. In that moment she looks less careworn and tired.
The lift stops and I pull my hand back before Evvie can catch us. The doors open onto a an opulent room that is incredibly large, several seating areas and a dining table still leave it mostly empty. I could run laps around the ornate marble floor. That annoying voice rings out again, "Your rooms are through there, why don't you both go and freshen up before dinner."
I leave the dinner table early and go to my room. Minerva had just spoken about hiding whatever our main skills might be – until the individual assessments. It goes against every instinct and everything I have ever learnt, without my bow I always feel naked. And I do not like feeling vulnerable. Unfortunately I have promised to listen to whatever my mentor says.
For perhaps an hour I stand at the window, watching the lights of the huge city. From this height they look like ants, scurrying around on incomprehensible errands. My room is in darkness, allowing me to see through the glass – which is why I notice the door open and close immediately afterwards, despite the stealth of the intruder.
Minerva's reflection draws closer to me and she stands behind my shoulder meeting my gaze in the glass - for the longest time she says nothing. For the second time today her hand finds the small of my back. "You need to get some sleep."
"So do you." I lean against the window and press my forehead to the cool glass. My inner temperature has sharply risen again in response to the touch. "What did I miss?"
"Not a lot, Mr Weasley wanted to know why the tributes from One and Two were glaring at you both."
"Careers, right?" My voice is bitter and I know it.
"Tell me about them."
"Volunteered by their parents and trained in special academies. The best two in their seventh year step forward in place of untrained tributes. It would be altruistic, if they were not after winning."
"And win they do... almost every single year. By the time that they get here they are pretty much lethal." Another step closer, I cannot feel the warmth of her body yet but the electricity arcing between us is making me feel lightheaded. "But they are arrogant and arrogance can be a weakness."
It's a warning. "I'm not arrogant, I'm self-assured."
Minerva chuckles, "Keep telling yourself that sweetheart." The heat from her breath stirs the hair at the base of my neck and ignites a fire deep inside of me. My temperature skyrockets and I lean against the cooling glass, trying to quench the feelings that the older woman has stirred up.
"Why do they lose?" I've completely lost interest in the conversation that we are having but I am not ready to address the deeper issue of what is happening between us.
"Traditionally when careers loose it is because they lack survival skills, something that you have in spades." Her hand comes to rest on the small of my back for the second time today. "They tend to pack up and take out weaker tributes, while leaving their supplies unguarded."
"And that's the key?"
"Uh huh. Are you alright, you are practically hyperventilating?" Minerva takes a final step closer, bringing our bodies a fraction of an inch away from touching.
"Yeah." The single word is choked out, I am pretty sure that I would not be able to piece together a sentence if I tried.
My mentor chuckles and places a hand either side of my head, supporting her weight as she brings her lips to my ear. "Are you sure? I can feel you trembling."
Something deep within me prompts me to turn around and slowly I comply. Minerva gives me room to move but does not step back or lower her hands. Ultimately I end up within the circle of her arms pressed against the window. A moment passes before I dare to raise my head and meet her gaze. Her emerald eyes are darker than I can ever remember seeing them and there is something in them that makes my head spin.
I hear my name whispered and it makes me smile. She rarely uses it and it sounds good coming from her lips. Minerva returns the gesture warmly without her normal sardonic edge. Her next words cut to the core of my confusion. "May I kiss you?"
Before I can even think of a response my head is nodding. Heartbreakingly slow my mentor lowers her face to mine. Anticipation rushes through my veins and I feel as though I am about to faint. When her lips finally touch mine I gasp. She is surprisingly gentle, coaxing me into responding. My hands grasp her hips and pull her even closer. Minerva chuckles into the kiss and begs entry to my mouth with a delicate motion of her tongue.
It's the most incredible thing I have ever experienced. And at the same time it makes me more than sad because in just a few days this interlude will be over. I will be fighting for my life and chances are I'm going to die. Right then I shock the hell out of Minerva by bursting into floods of hysterical tears.