A/N: If you truly care about me at all, you'll give this story a chance. -Taryn(:
When I wake up, my eyes immediately focus onto the shadows dancing across the ceiling. I hear footsteps. My body livens, pulling itself from the bleariness of sleep in an instant, back muscles screeching against my sudden movement to sit up. And for a moment my eyes are blinded by the scarce pale light of dawn spilling into the house. I throw a hand up to shade my face, as I spot the two figures lurking at the front door, responsible for the apparitions.
At my side I feel Jak stirring. I reach out an absent hand and pet his hair off of his sweaty forehead. He should sleep longer. They all should sleep longer. They all should be in bed.
Of course, she isn't though. I watch with dull eyes as she leans over and kisses the boy. I wait patiently as they mutter sweet nothings to each other, until her fingers untwist themselves from his shirt and he's free to go. I sigh when she stands there for at least five minutes to watch him until he's completely off the street.
She slinks back in, but stops dead in her tracks when she sees me. "Your up early," she whispers.
"Not early enough it seems," I say.
Aven has always been an early riser. I know it's futile to keep her locked up with the rest of the children, within the relative safety of the community home. I've learned the best way to control Aven isn't brute scoldings or to bark orders, but it is to give her a cold shoulder, to turn away from her. That's what I do now. Wounded and sad, she will come to me later today, apologizing and begging for another chance. A opportunity that will in the end not be worth anything.
I tuck myself back into the threadbare blankets, pulling Jak into my chest. At my back, another kid stirs, murmuring in their sleep. My free hand flings out on instinct to pet someone's head or cheek or shoulder. They go calm underneath my fingers.
Aven slips into place next to her twin, and I feel instantly better, the anger toward her not so sharp as it was before she fell into place. It's my worry for her that makes me so harsh. I have a hard enough time keeping track of her twin brother at school, where he gets into fights, and Felecia, a five year old vulnerable to predators, than keeping track of her at all hours of the night.
Though I refrain from getting up until the sun is completely dawned, I don't sleep in that time. I find I can't. Now that my mind is awake all my thoughts are running, catching up for the day, worrying. Today is reaping day. A day where I must add losing a kid onto my list of bad things that could happen.
In my head I count all of the ones that are eligible, fear for them, and pray for the odds to be in their favors.
Sunlight illuminates our front door, a crude cut rectangle with a ragged curtain hanging over it. I pull myself from my makeshift bed of warm bodies and straw and blankets, easily moving from our sleeping corner of the room to the kitchen corner. I make breakfast with what little we have, careful to tip-toe and not fumble. If I'm not careful I might drop something and pay dearly for it.
I have an anxious eye always glued on the third corner of the house where a dirty mattress sits, a snoring, shuddering shape laying hidden beneath blankets there. And good thing I do, because for such an aged woman she moves pretty quick when she's worked up. Anger is the only thing that draws her from her liquor reeking recluse. And anger is easily summoned.
Aven is the first up, eating her breakfast, and she drags along her twin brother, who is still half asleep by the time he sits heavily at the table. Bud spares me a half smile when I push a glass of water toward him. It always amazes me how much alike the two look. Dark hair, copper skin, long-limbed and skinny. They even have the same honey-brown eyes.
I leave them at the table to wake the others; a seven year old named Arthur, my five year old Felecia, toddler Jak, and a twelve year old Mel. They wake slower than the thirteen year old twins, with my hands caressing their cheeks or an arm aiding them to sit up. I pick Jak up last, preferring to keep him as close to me as I can. Marcus, my older brother, once told me babies need lots of love and warmth and nurturing. He said that's how he saved me when our parents died. And Jak isn't the first baby I've used this technique on; Felecia has turned out impossibly sweet with a similar method.
Breakfast is a silent and quick ordeal. The loud snores keep the children careful in every breath they take. No one speaks out, no one dares to chew too loudly and Mel, our little klutz, fights hard not to spill her water. I can still see the welts that cover her collarbones from that time she had just last week. I had a few of my own red marks on my forearms from when I had swooped forward–minutes too late–and took the blame.
Once breakfast is done, Bud helps me clear the table. "No work," he intones when he passes me the glasses. His voice is carefully level, nonchalant. But his eyes are asking me for freedom.
"It's a holiday," I say, "Go find something to celebrate." Everyone knows the reapings aren't worth such a thing. And he needs no more encouraging. Bud pulls on a worn jacket that he's had since he was eleven, kisses my cheek, hugs Aven, and is gone.
Together Aven and I wash the kids, and dress them in the finest clothes we have for events such as reaping day. Aven, Mel and I get skirts, with wrinkled, slightly torn blouses. Felecia gets a dress, somewhat too small for her, with tenured mud stains along the hem. Arthur and Jak aren't changed from their normal attire.
All in all by the time nine o'clock comes around, we're once more piled together across the piece of floor that serves as our bed. Jak pulls at the end of my ponytail, twisting the ashy locks around his tiny fingers. Aven is whispering with Felicia, and Mel is hiding a smile behind her hand. Shy, cooty-prone Arthur sits in his own hunch, playing some imaginary game with two pieces of straw. I stall for a few minutes, enjoying their company.
When I finally rise to my feet, Aven lifts her head to meet my gaze, knowingly.
"I'll be back," I tell her.
"You always are," says Aven.
Silently, the deal is transacted. I can no longer be upset with her for being out all night, because I'm leaving now, while she remains behind to take her shift. The little sketches of orange, that serve as Jak's eyebrows, furrow together, upset roiling inside of his wide blue eyes as I move toward the door. Thankfully, Mel distracts him with a quiet word before he can wake our monster of a caretaker.
Outside a fine mist falls. I wrap my arms around myself as I hurry down the street, hugging close to the one roomed houses the linger so far on the outer edge of District 8. Within the heart of the district are tenant buildings, staked on top of each other, but those are for the people who can afford them. People like me, even within a community home, do not get such a luxury.
Usually this place would be crawling with people coming and going to the factories to clock in a few hours or to school. Today the place is silent, and empty except for a far off group of Peacekeepers who sit at the corner of this street where it diverges into the next one. They watch me with eyes burning holes into my back as I slip along bland sidewalks, toward an alley between a house and another.
The day is gloomy. Clouds intermix overhead with the constant underlying smog, blanketing the sun in silver. The world is gloomy. The District is an ugly, sickly place, reeking of fumes, lacking in color and greenery. District 8 is just concrete buildings, paved travel ways and dark alleys between the factories and houses.
I slow my pace when I come across a house that seems promising. I wait outside the door, listening, hear nothing and slip inside. A woman sleeps on a dirty mattress, copper skinned and tangled black curls pillowing her head. I pull a jacket from the back of a chair. It's soft and brown and only slightly worn. I put it around my shoulders.
From the cupboard I take two matches, a pack of preserved and dried beef sticks, and two mint leaves to pop into my mouth. On the floor lies a messy array of stuff. There's a backpack. I stoop to shift through it and find nothing of worth.. only the bag. I dump out her things carefully, put all the things I took into the empty sack and get out of there.
I'm three streets away before I find another house that is still slumbering. Reaping day is the best day for this because everyone usually tries to sleep in, since the reaping isn't until two. Part of me knows it's wrong. To steal from people who are just as in wanting as myself. To potentially harm another person by taking away their goods or food or clothing. But I remember what my brother taught me.
Every time I think of Marcus all I can see is his corpse in town square, laying in a pool of scarlet. A bullet in his forehead, as his punishment for stealing. Panem does not joke around when it comes to the laws. Stealing is punishable by death. I had been on a few jobs with my brother before. He taught me the basics. Only take what you need. If there is a lot of something, leave some. Never, ever take from a family with children. After the day he was killed for it the very thought of stealing terrified me. He was gone and I didn't have the courage to steal, and I watched slowly as the other orphans around me starved from neglect, ignored by the Justice Building and our community home caretaker.
I shudder at the memory of those awful days after his execution. And I harden myself to my fear.
The third house I hit is a family. I stall at the sight of a little boy sandwiched between his parents on their bed. With nimble feet I retreat to the outside and find another house. An old man slumbers in this one. From him I get a fist sized sack of dried and preserved plums.
By the time I reach the fifteenth house I decide I have enough to keep my family alive another week, if we eat sparingly. I'm packing everything into the sack as I walk away from my most recent victim, when I hear a distant, "Hey, you!"
I break into a run at the sound of the voice. I don't turn to see who. They may not even have meant me. All I know is that getting caught isn't an option. Without me the community home would never survive. Our caretaker would let all my children die. Aven and Bud wouldn't be able to handle it.
I lose whoever it was easily by diving from alley to alley, making a split decision to take the long way around to the community home. Whenever I come across a corner crowded with three or four Peacekeepers I force myself into a walk, hissing air through my teeth to keep my chest from rising and falling rapidly and betraying to them my urgency.
I'm home free when I spot the house. I've been gone maybe two hours. The mist that had been falling has lightened some by now. Essentially I had taken the jacket from that woman for fear of rain, but now it seems heavy on my back. She was a skinny young woman with thin skin. She would freeze in this weather.. but Felecia would freeze more, I tell myself severely.
As soon as I enter the concrete hut called home, I pull the jacket from my shoulders and summon Felecia and Arthur to me with the flick of my hand. I lower myself to their heights, meeting both their brown eyes and tell them in a low voice to share it and keep it safe, as I wrap the jacket around both of them. They nod and stumble away, staggering against each others gaits.
Aven smiles at me, at the sight of the two. I take Jak from her. "Anything good?" she whispers.
I toss the purloined backpack of stolen goods on the kitchen table. "Only the things we need."
There's nothing for us to do now except wait until two. After awhile I allow Aven to leave like Bud had and she offers to take Mel with her. I hesitate. "I'll watch her, I promise," says Aven.
"Please, please, please," begs Mel. Her sweet green eyes yearning to be away.
I end up letting them go. Marcus gave me freedom when I was young and I bettered from it. I learned the streets and which Peacekeepers were more likely to hit you for no reason at all. It taught me to be careful with my words, because you never know who's listening. In school and in the weaving factory where I work I make a point of keeping my face void of emotion. I trust my work partner, to an extent, though he's two years my senior and much out of both my social and economical reach. At one point in my life, I might have been baited into marrying him, for it is not uncommon for work partners to marry, but that was only if my parents were still alive. Now, even though I have the golden skin and blonde hair of a merchant class daughter, I'm no better than the lowly considered copper skinned and dark haired class.
At one o'clock I decide it's time to make our way to town square. It's a considerably long walk, so I straddle Jak onto a hip and clutch one of Felecia's hand. Arthur stumbles along on her other side. Out of all my children, only Jak and I have light quality looks. I don't know where he came from, other than one day our caretaker brought how a scrawling infant and I somehow ended up holding him.. watching over him.. adoring him. Marcus had strawberry blonde hair and Jak has ginger hair, so when I was younger I would call him my brother, but I know Jak isn't my relative in any way. No more than straight black haired, freckled Felecia is, or curly headed dark-featured Arthur.
As we walk the mist accumulates again, despite by now the heat of the day should be at its peak. I coddle Jack closer to my chest, pressing his face into my dirty shirt with the slight hope that it would filter the polluted oxygen that entered his tiny lungs and it might mange to warm up his pink nose. The jacket will have to keep the two others.
Once we reach the square I find a place where I can sign in. I'm directed toward the roped off area for fifteen year olds, but I wait a few minutes before taking my place. I slink off to the perimeter of the large square, where the families stand and twist around in search of someone.
Others filter in from all around. Town square isn't big enough to hold all the population so most stick to the streets to watch the reaping on television screens. Children however must come to the heart of it all, where you stand and look up at the Justice Building, folding out of the front doors a stage with two glass reaping balls. Some of the people milling about I recognize from school and work. On the rooftops I see cameras, and even more on the ground.
"Keera!" I turn at the sound of my name. I had been expecting someone else, but when I see Bracken Weeber running toward me I force myself to smile.
"Bracken," I say as he stands before me, broad chest puffing to catch his breath. He is grinning. He's always grinning. Bracken always seems happy, ever since the moment we became work partners four years ago. Today is no different, despite the gloominess I feel clinging to the air and the faces of the children that ghost passed us.
"I wanted to wish you luck," he says.
Jak lifts his head from my neck to examine this new person. Truthfully, I don't let work and home intermix. Bracken has never officially met any of my orphans. He may have caught glimpses of me with them here and there, but he wouldn't know their names. I don't know much about him either. I know he has a little brother. I know he has blue eyes and reddish-bronze hair. He's seventeen, but is so well-fed and groomed he could be older. I also know that girls from school like him for his loud, laid back personality. Most of them would kill for my spot as his work partner, to have the chance to be with him for hours a day, weaving. Those hours are usually spent in silence, though. It's sad, because the facts I do know about him most people could have gathered by just one look.
Friends, isn't really what I'd call us. More of acquaintances on official and professional terms. I'm confused as to why he would seek me out. Let alone wish me luck. He's never wished me luck before. Maybe he just spotted me and is trying to be kind. "You, too," I say, awkwardly.
"Thanks." His eyes are on the two little ones who huddle under the same coat. Arthur stares at his toes determinedly, cheeks red. Felecia grins at him with missing front teeth. Bracken seems to think about something, pressing his perfectly bowed lips together momentarily, then swings his face up to mine. "Wanna introduce me to your little friend?" He nods to Jak.
Instantly a possessiveness grips me. My arm around Jak tightens its grip. I don't like it when people think about my orphans, but then I realize how childish that thought is. I nod stiffly to Bracken. "This is.. Jak." I motion to the other two. "Felecia and Arthur."
"There are more, aren't there?" asks Bracken, tilting his head slightly.
"A few." I turn to the other kids and motion toward my work partner. "This is... Bracken," I tell them.
He is already grinning at Jak. "Hey, little buddy." Jak's face instantly brightens. He loves being talked to. It doesn't happen often. "Hmm..." Bracken looks at my face a moment, amusement in his eyes, and then he addresses the toddler, "What's your favorite color?"
I raise an eyebrow. I could not decide what Bracken was getting at. Jak was too young to talk. He wouldn't answer. Why carry on a conversation with a toddler? More importantly, why was he even here? Jak seems similarly confused, but interested, cocking his head a little, no doubt copying Bracken in the first place. Bracken withdraws something from his coat pocket and displays the objects out on his palm. "Can you choose one? Your favorite one, okay?"
Jak gives a quiet squeal of delight. I don't say anything. I just watch the exchange with void.
"We have purple, green.. and orange," says Bracken. Opening his fist, he picks up one of three little, threaded hand-made bracelets. They're similar to the weaves we make at work together. Hours of our hands brushing together or sides as we worked around looms. Except theses ones are dyed in precious colors that I could never dream of affording.
Jak reaches for one. The orange one. Bracken laughs at his eagerness. Felecia is stirred to jealousy. "Can I have one?" she whispers.
I start to shake my head. I don't need to deprive Bracken of all his things. Already allowing Jak to take one seems like a mistake. But before I can speak aloud against her Bracken finishes tying the orange bracelet around Jak's wrist and crouches down to Felecia's height. "Sure you can," Bracken tells her, tugging on the end of her nose.
She grins toothlessly up at him and she chooses the purple one. I make a real effort to smile at Bracken when he is standing again. "You didn't have to do that," I say.
He shrugs. "I wanted to."
It's an awkward moment then. I feel like I should turn my eyes away, but every time I do I feel I should look back at him. I want to give him something back, but I can't. Not without stealing something worth giving. Maybe he would know. He could turn me in. Ruin everything. I tighten my facial muscles and make sure I'm unreadable. The little girl at my side is glowing. Jak is content. Arthur fawns over the purple bracelet his community home sister just got.
All is quiet for one moment too long, until Arthur murmurs, scarcely audible, "Is this Cayleb?"
The little boy pinkens in the face when I swing my head around to stare at him. "This is Bracken," I say, "I already said that. Cayleb isn't–"
"Who's Cayleb?" Bracken cuts in.
I can't help reddening in the face. Unlike Arthur it is more from anger than embarrassment. "No one."
Surprise colors Bracken's face. I've never snapped at him. He quickly buries this however and shrugs, nonchalant. "Okay. Look, I think I should go look for my brother, he's probably terrified. Today's his first reaping." He's gone before I can say a goodbye.
I turn on the kids once I'm sure he's out of earshot. "What did I tell you about Cayleb?" I ask them. My voice is tight, but soft and anguished with upset. They could have gotten me in trouble. They could have gotten Cayleb in trouble, and somehow that seems worse.
Arthur scuttles his feet against the paving stones in embarrassment. Felecia on the other hand lifts her head to me and meets my gaze with proud and obedient eyes. "I remembered!" she exclaims. "I remember you said never to talk about him. I didn't."
"Yes," I reply, sighing. "Never. Even if you think someone is him. Okay?" Felecia nods. "Arthur?" He bobs his head glumly. He's crying. I move to him, lowering myself onto my knees and I hug him. "I'm not mad," I tell him. "I'm just worried. You scared me. Bracken is from a richer family than ours. He has things he can lose if he does something wrong. He might turn me into the Peacekeepers if he knows too much. You understand?"
"He's.." Arthur struggles with his words. "He's a bad guy?"
"No, no." I swipe the tears from his cheeks. "He's good. It's just sometimes people get scared and when people are scared they do things that they might not usually do to others. Like turn me in."
Arthur burst into new tears. "He's going to turn you in?" he asks in distress. "I-I didn't know. I didn't mean to.."
"No." I clutch him closer to my chest, that aches at his words. His guilt at the thought he got me in trouble. "It's okay. It was a mistake. I'm not going anywhere. No one is turning me in." Not today.
Once he's settled, I pull the jacket more firmly around him and Felecia. I take their hands again and by now the person I had been looking for emerges from an alley nearby. Caretaker Ethel stumbles over to me, limping and leaning against her cane. I quickly set Jak onto my other hip, pushing the two others behind my back.
Ethel is bristling with annoyance as she approaches and her short, graying hair is splattered against her forehead from the rain. She is wet, upset and I instantly tense when she grabs me roughly by the upper arm, for both support and showing her disquiet. "What are you kids doing out all alone? You disgusting little mongrels, I did not give you permission to do that. If you are going to look like a couple of riff-rafts then you will–"
"Of course, Ethel. We didn't mean harm," I tell her. She's two inches taller than me. Though I remember she used to fear my older brother when he lived with us, now that he is gone there's no one to stop her. At these moments, no matter how old I like to think myself, I want to cry for him.
With a hand she roughly grabs me under the chin. She turns my face this way and then the other. She scrutinizes me. "You're filthy. Don't you ever wash?" Ethel drops my face and slaps her cane against one of my shins. "Straighten up."
Ethel insults and criticizes me like always. She does this to everyone she could get her hands on and I've grown used to it. I know I should stay silent, as the children behind me and straddled on my side, make to being meek, their eyes downcast. But a spark of indignation inside my chest spurs my mouth to open. "Of course, Ethel." I am agreeing with her, but she hears the taunting tone of voice underneath.
She sneers her wrinkled lips, and reveals brown teeth underneath. With a sharp slap across my face, she degrades me further, shutting me up completely. "Don't use that tone with me," the woman barks.
Thankfully, she's so tired from her walk and from the rain she doesn't do much else then scoff, snatch the coat from Felecia and Arthur and wrap it around herself, then take Jak from my arms. "Get going, then. If I'm lucky maybe I'll have one less mouth to feed this year."
I'm not hurt by her words, only worried. Mel. Aven. Bud. Where are they? As I make my way to stand in a gaggle of fifteen year olds, I stare at the spot where Ethel places herself and the kids. I wish I could be over there instead of here. I want to be home, laying in the straw, getting out of the rain, coddling Jak or playing games with Mel. Instead, I am forced to be here, shivering when a wind whips across the square.
On the reaping stage I see our mayor approach the podium. He begins the usual speech. Behind him on the stage sits our Capitol escort, Nissa Tiller, with aqua tattoos across her face and pale purple hair. Next to her is old, wheezing Woof. Cecelia sits stiff and tall in her chair. It's strange seeing her there. Last year she was on maternity leave. That had been a bad experience, with only Woof there to coach the hopeless tributes of 8. Now that she's back I feel a little better about the next child that will be sent off to die.
I look back to where Ethel stands. Felecia and Arthur are shaking from the cold. A deep, startling surge of hatred runs through me. I didn't risk my life to steal the jacket for Ethel. I got it for them. And now they're just left there to stand, ignored.
The rain has picked up some, prattling lightly against the paving stones and surrounding buildings. They're all going to get sick in this weather. They'll get those awful coughs. I'll be unable to pay a doctors or healer to take care of them. I fret to myself to the brink of these worries eating at the lining of my stomach. It only worsens when Jack begins to fuss in Ethel's arms. She tries to hold him straight, but his knees collide with her ribs and his hands swat at her face as he squirms. Ethel viciously grabs his ginger curls and twists. He falls still, head coiled to the side.
My heart is pounding furiously. I can't wait for this reaping to be over so I can rush to him and take him from her. Smother his face with kisses. Find another jacket to wrap around the others. I am so consumed with my furiousness and pain, that I don't hear the Capitol accented voice coming out of the speakers. It's distorted. Until I focus and hear the repeat, "Aven Monte."
I whip my head around to stare up at the stage. I can't believe what I just heard. How? She only had three slips of thousands. I'm in there eight times as much as her for the tessera I take out. For one heartbeat I watch Aven walk toward the stage. There is upset in her honey-brown eyes. It reminds me of the way she looks when she comes to me to apologize, to beg for another chance. When she seeks me out for the love her mother failed to give her when her mother, the owner of the floral shop, freely gave up the twins to the community home, only because she did not want to keep the children of a man she had not married.
Bud is pushing through the boys of thirteen year old to get to Aven. He just touches her shoulder when Peacekeepers rush forward to pull him back. I don't move. I just stare. I could volunteer. I could save Aven. But what about the others? If I leave them they are lost without me.
I think of my brother. I think of how I felt when he went with the Peacekeepers and stood strong when they held the gun against his forehead. I remember the betrayal I felt. The way he just accepted defeat and ran into death's arms. Leaving me. Leaving me with all the children.
The same children that he protected by taking a bullet for them. He stole just to keep them alive. His crime was for their behalf more than his own. If he wanted he could have gone to the Justice Building where he would have been assigned a proper job within the factories. He was excellent at engineering the complex machinery. Marcus could have rented a nice tenant room. Could have gotten married to a sweet work partner, with golden skin and sandy hair. But he didn't. He died for his kids. For me.
I push my way to the front before I draw in my next breath. I shove passed a Peacekeeper who tries to get in my way. "Aven!" I cry. She turns, shocked. Relief floods her eyes with tears and she throws herself at me in an embrace. No matter how hard the Peacekeepers try to pry us apart, I don't lose my grip on her, before I shout, "I volunteer! I volunteer for her."
They stop pulling at my shoulders and turn to look at the stage. The Capitol escort eyes us with interest. The mayor looks a bit uncertain. Cecelia is the one who shrugs and mutters something I don't catch. All I know is that the Peacekeeper closest to me is pushing me toward the stage.
I take my place, each breath rattling inside my chest. In front of me people spread out across the square. There's so many people. I don't think I've ever stood underneath the gaze of so many eyes. Not to mention the cameras that are recording this to all of Panem.
"What is your name?" Nissa Tiller asks me. She has peculiar orange eyes that penetrate my face. Another pair of eyes. Devouring my appearance, my emotions that I might let slip.
"Keera Indelif." My voice shake, with what I'm feeling, but which? Terror? Anxiety? Sadness?
"Well, then, there you have it." Nissa turns back to the microphone and announces my name officially. I watch as Bud drags Aven away. They join Ethel at the edge of the square. Felecia is sobbing and Arthur is confused. Jak is red in the face, by the cold or by Ethel's hands I don't know and it hurts not to.
"Time for the boys!" Nissa Tiller trills softly. Her voice is strangely demure compared to other district escorts. For instance, the Capitol escort assigned to District Twelve, there's something so impossibly niggling about her voice that she makes me want to rip my own ears off.
Nissa takes her time walking to the glass reaping ball containing thousands of slips of paper. Briefly I let myself wonder who will join me in death. It is so rare for District 8 to have winners, that I do not even linger on the hope of winning. I knew the instant I volunteered for Aven I was making a sacrifice.
Nissa returns to the podiums with a fresh slip in hand. I don't feel any worry as to who it might be at first. It couldn't be Bud. The odds weren't that hateful toward me. Then an unbidden fear grips me like ice. Cayleb? What if..
I just want to cry at the sight of Bracken's little brother being forced to the stage by Peacekeepers. Wide blue eyes tearing up, his twelve year old face reminds me of all my children. A head of reddish-bronze hair wet with rain, shaking with his whole body as Nissa speaks to him. His tiny hand slipping into mine is as fragile as Jak's, and the boy's gaze is petrified as he looks up at me. As if I'm going to kill him, here and now. As if I were capable of killing children. But I know I'm not. I couldn't raise a hand to strike someone without thinking of Ethel and wanting to cry in both disgust and memory. Not even if it's an eighteen year old brute Career out for my blood.
I don't even care when were taken into custody, escorted to fancy and neat rooms within the Justice Building. We have one hour for goodbyes. I try to keep all my pieces together until I'm hidden from the cameras. Once I am I stand in the middle of the room, facing the door. Waiting.
When the door opens, I throw myself at the figure slipping through, arms wrapping about his neck, losing control over the sobs that force themselves out of my chest. He clutches me in return, rocking me, running his hands up and down my back. "I'm so sorry, Keera."
"Can't you do something?" I say, low and desperate in his ear. "You always do something! Cayleb, please. I can't leave them. They need me. Aven.. she needed me..."
Cayleb lets out a distressed sound that rises from the back of his throat. He pulls away just enough so I can see his pale face. His hazel eyes are wild. I already know he's let everything he could possibly do run through his head, and there's nothing. Of all the times I have turned to him for help, of the times he gave me free passes to avoid the whipping post, saved my life from the bullet or the necklace of rope for execution, there is absolutely nothing he can do to outmaneuver the Hunger Games.
There is only so much power a Peacekeeper has.
"I'm so sorry, Keera," he repeats, before pulling away, his white uniform crinkled where my fingernails clawed at him. "So sorry.." he turns to the door and opens it, and almost instantly his distress is gone, hidden beneath a mask. "You have ten minutes," Cayleb says professionally to Aven and Bud who stand outside. They rush passed him, oblivious, throwing their arms around me. I stumble under their weight, my eyes straining to see over the tops of their heads as Cayleb steps beyond the doorway, gaze locked in mine.
The door closes before I have the chance to say anything more to my best friend.