And so begins book 2. Thank you to all those who read and reviewed.
Someone asked me a fair while ago if Checkmate and Showdown follow the same 'pre-canon'. The answer is no. Here Snow will take power sometime before Haymich's Games (the 50th) just like he does in canon. I don't know yet how big of a deal I'll make of that yet.
Date: Year 9, August. Two days after Mags' victory.
The President's office was bigger than Mags' entire house and yet was almost empty save for a simple cherry-oak working desk and seven leather chairs set around a conference table. A large bay window offered a breathtaking sight on the fortress city. Mags eyes lingered on the large gaping tear dug by the explosion. Aircrafts dropped water on the still flaming rubble. One thousand Avoxes... and now the Capitol would rest on their bones until it too was turned to ashes. The aircraft were like iron bees in the distance, and in each of them Mags saw a desperate Fife and a fiercely determined Constantine flying to their deaths. Had she been worth the sacrifice? The recaps had failed to mask the hate in Fife's eyes, the searing hate that reminded Mags that one of the two would have won, would be alive to hug their loved ones, had it not been for her.
Mags pushed such thoughts aside before the President could see her tears. Remember the dead, fight on for the living. Every rebel knew that loss was a dark pool full of lurking monsters. She owed more to her mother and Esperanza than she did to her two allies. She had to be strong, losing herself in mourning would not bring them back and betray the faith Constantine had had in her.
Mags had been assigned three Avoxes in the last two days but had seen no one else. She had wept in the bathtub for hours, releasing all the emotions she had forced down in the last weeks, until her grief crystallized into the will to do something, to make everything worth it. She watched the official recaps and saw nothing that she hadn't expected. Constantine's and Fife's deaths were still too raw for the pile of lies to affect her as much as it should have. She had no space left for more anger and pain. Her victory had not been her doing, it had been Constantine's and Fife's gift to her. Mags had no words to express how much that meant to her. Every one of her breaths, every small movement reminded her of what she owed them, what she owed Panem. She hoped that she would one day find herself deserving of that sacrifice.
After a fitful night of drug-induced sleep, Mags spent the second day alone in her room, basking in the privacy she was offered to collect herself and decide what her new angle would be.
Her stylist, August, a cheerful man with spinning multicolored geometrical designs tattooed on every inch of his skin, burst in her room in the morning. He had warmly expressed his pride in her success and then endeavored to make her presentable for her mid-morning chat with the President. He talked only of clothes, etiquette and fashion, which suited Mags quite well.
Mags now waited for the President to speak first.
Evadne Achlys sat down in the tallest leather chair, her back ramrod-straight but her expression amiable. "Tea? Coffee? Whiskey?" She offered, gesturing at the tray her assistant, a lithe man in an elegant brown suit, was carrying. Despite the weight of the tray, the Capitolite held it in one hand. A gun was visible on his belt.
"Tea, please," Mags replied as she took the seat next to the President, at the edge of the table. Anything to occupy her hands, but alcohol would be a very bad idea.
Absently fingering her emerald chandelier earrings, Achlys waited for the employee to back away to the door before turning her piecing golden gaze on Mags.
"Why did you volunteer, Mags?"
Mags inhaled slowly, willing her heartbeat to slow. If this conversation went badly, her freedom and the lives of her family would be forfeit.
"Sixteen, now seventeen, kids from District Four have died in the Hunger Games," she began, her voice already tense, "I won't bore you with their names, Madam President, but I know them all. Every year I have seen people walk, heads bowed, towards the reaping square. I thought it was the most degrading thing ever; being forced to watch your innocent children die. I... I wanted to stop it. I wanted to show that we're not beaten or weak by becoming a victor."
Mags knew she had to be as truthful as possible, or her 'awakening' would seem fake. Achlys knew she had entered the Games believing in rebel ideals. Mags would not attempt to hide how difficult this was for her or how reluctant she was to admit that the President had been right all along. Accepting Capitol propaganda as the truth would mean acknowledging that she had lived seventeen years believing lies, so, even were she sincere about her 'new loyalties', the words exiting her mouth would have been painful to utter.
"I was wrong about who was the real enemy. I dreamed of a world full of strong rebels who'd make everything right and fair and easy," Mags continued with a bitter smile, "and then I met them." She took a trembling breath. "I had thought that with rebels in charge everything would be great, but they made us kill the peacekeeper and… and they let his body be eaten by those Scavengers, who they left alive so long…." Her lips turned into a snarl. "There were just so many double standards!" She said heatedly. "They shot Keane without ever giving him a chance. They have been less forgiving than the Capitol."
But the Capitol could afford to compromise, if one of the people they gave citizenship to turned against them, they would find out and execute them. The rebels had much lesser means of surveillance and even one traitor could get them all killed. One almost had… Mags expression grew dark as she thought of Cresyl. There had been no trace of him in the recaps. Erased. No one would ever know the Capitol had had a spy among the rebels.
"I couldn't even really argue with Cresyl and I wanted to hate him so badly. Those people pretended to want what was best for everyone and then just used us. They… I can't even speak of the Scavengers… I understand why you made that video with the crazy abusive people, even if it's a disgusting exaggeration. I wanted to finish my father's job, to make his sacrifice mean something. I was young when he died and couldn't imagine him being wrong about anything. I wanted the world to be black and white and it's not." Mags took a deep breath, blinking tears out of her green eyes. "Mum was right."
Achlys had been listening to her with her hands clasped together, her golden eyes narrowed in intense attention. She didn't look displeased but her face was soft, almost compassionate.
Mags tensed. She would not make the mistake of underestimating the woman.
"Your mother didn't want you to volunteer?" Achlys said softly.
Mags shook her head, desperate to get away with this lie. She had to protect her mother.
"No. She didn't want me to. She often says that ideals are sweet but don't build empires. We had a serious fight. She told me to grow up and accept that reality is based on compromise. She didn't make a scene during the goodbyes because she's a much better person than I am. I… in the end I didn't want them to die, none of them, but it's because of people like Wickers that Dad is dead. And I could see all those peacekeepers, people just doing their jobs, people Constantine knew, who were shot as if they were animals. I just…"
Mags let it spill, every guilty thought, every selfish grudge against the rebels. Many of these things she had made peace with long ago but lingering resentment was easy to summon. She tried to stick as much to the truth as she could, afraid to entrap herself in a web of thick lies. She almost lost track of her thoughts as she thought of Fife and the ease with which the girl had spun stories. Crushing guilt filled Mags as she thought of how easily she'd convinced herself that her life was worth more than her friends'. She forced herself to focus back on Achlys. Everything depended on the President being convinced.
"Will my mother be in trouble?" She finally said, too worried not to ask.
Achlys arched her eyebrows. "Why would she be? You, your little sister, your friends have nothing to fear. You can check your house, it won't be bugged. This isn't the Hunger Games anymore. You are free to live your life as long as you respect the law. You will simply have duties as a mentor and are strongly encouraged to make some aspects of your life public. You will be approached by many journalists, choose one or two to whom you will occasionally grant an interview."
It was too beautiful to be true. Mags failed to keep all suspicion out of her tone. "I don't want to be presumptuous, maybe my vision was tainted by what I was taught but-"
"We want you to see that Panem's prosperity is our main goal," Achlys interrupted. She flashed Mags a wry smile. "How would threatening you or putting you under tight surveillance convince you of anything except that those outlaws were right about us? We want you to be happy. We want your goals to be our goals. There is no miracle solution to eradicate all poverty, but I wish for every lawful citizen to live in dignity and find happiness. There is much to rebuild, and I know how much I am asking of this nation, but what this generation does, the next generation will be grateful for. There won't be the Dark Days to pay for, so already, it will be easier."
Mags almost choked on her tea, hating the hope those words birthed. "No Hunger Games?"
"If the Districts learn their lesson, if there is no major dissent for over a decade, the Games will be abolished." Achlys pressed her lips in a thin line. "But the last years have not been very promising."
Mags felt her insides twist and churn as all her instincts assured her that the woman was being genuine. She would have preferred someone ruthless and cruel to this earnest leader, persuaded that she was acting for the good of the nation. Mags wanted to believe Achlys, and the mere thought terrified her beyond reason.
"Sylvan Grey said that you have been giving District people power," Mags said after a short hesitation. She dearly hoped that the Capitol's lack of filmed evidence meant the man had survived. Chilled with fear, Mags wanted to cover her ears and flee the room before Achlys' words could instill any more criminal doubt in her mind, yet rabid curiosity also seared her veins.
The woman sighed, bringing a hand to her short white hair. Mags noticed she had tiny gemstones outlining griffins in flight embedded in her polished nails. Achlys seemed very natural compared to many other Capitolites. Maybe simply because the President had nothing to prove to anyone.
"It's quite tragic how rebels with the right facts come to the worst of conclusions," Achlys said, shaking her head in aggravation.
Replace 'rebels' by 'Capitol' and Mags would have raised her teacup in agreement.
"A person's birthplace doesn't always determine their worth," Achlys elaborated, "there is a lot to be said about upbringing and education, but some souls are of greater mettle than others. Not all Capitolites are worthy and some District citizens truly distinguish themselves. Those are promoted. I will never dismiss any who wish to serve." A small smile graced Achlys' lips. "The great majority of the rebels we captured three nights ago became quite reasonable after having talked with our officials. They will be put on probation in their home district and I believe they will give us little trouble. Groups with lofty ideals make people unreasonable, but individuals generally can effectively choose what is best for themselves and their families. I hope the other citizen will learn from them and stop clinging to poisonous fairy tales."
Mags had straightened at the mention of the rebels, her whole posture betraying her interest for any scrap of information. She suddenly realized why Evadne Achlys was such a dangerous woman.
In the past, whenever Achlys had appeared on TV, Mags had not truly listened to her, because the President was the enemy and Mags had been certain that only rebels were lucid about what was moral and just. But now that Mags was willing to listen, if only to play her part, the President threatened to shake the very foundations of her beliefs without ever seeming aggressive. Mags had been too used to brute strength to appreciate the danger of insidious manipulation. - the great majority - talked with our officials - choose what is best -. What threats and methods lay hidden behind those words? What darkness would Mags discover were she to shadow one of those Capitol officials?
The President uncrossed her legs and stood up to open a window, letting the evening breeze cool the office. "What are your plans now, Mags Abalone?"
Mags' breath hitched. She lowered her eyes, persuaded Achlys could smell her fear.
"Apologize to my mother and my sister," she began with a weak smile, "enjoy the money and make District Four into what it should be. Some talents have been neglected because of all the effort put towards rebuilding and removing the pollution from the seas and shores. I think our sailors could have better training, and it should be centralized. I'd like to work with children and teenagers, and now that I have the money and the time, I feel the need to build something which will last. Too much damage has already been done."
She knew any type of training would have to be disguised as something to boost the district industry; besides she had already planned to give good job opportunities to the trained children who would never be reaped. Those were the ones that would make a true difference.
Achlys seemed torn between approval and suspicion. "The Capitol will welcome an increase in productivity and so will District Four. Do you already have an idea of who you will hire?"
"I won't mind if one of your specialists comes to look at the syllabus when I'll have drafted it," Mags hastily said, "I know good intentions don't guarantee I'll be brilliant at managing a whole academy the first time around, but all our good whalers are over thirty-five now and my mother says the reports report more broken ropes and ships sent to the shipyards in the last years…" Mags cleared her throat. "I won't bore you with the details, but there is a lot to do. We just need someone who has the will and puts in the resources, and I want to be that person."
Please don't ask more questions, please believe me, please let me go. Mags' hands were clenched so hard in her lap that she feared they would snap.
Achlys smiled, revealing perfect teeth. "Every victor should aim to serve their district. We must show the people that we can work together for the happiness of all. We will make sure you are not overwhelmed or feel abandoned Mags. I will send a team to help you. You'll have authority over them, even if they will also report to me, of course, and the power to fire anyone who doesn't meet your standards. Do not feel punished, I just wish all of this to be done as efficiently as possible." Her eyes suddenly grew softer. "You would have sacrificed everything for your ideals, Mags. Now your ideals are the right ones. You should have no regrets."
Mags swallowed as she nodded, suddenly feeling faint. Achlys' voice was vibrant and warm and nothing in her attitude belied her apparent goodwill. When had hating individuals become so difficult? Achlys was the top of the chain of command in the Capitol. The Hunger Games were her brain child! Hating her should be as easy as breathing. Instead, Mags was starting to wonder if people were not lying to Achlys about the state of the districts to line their own pockets. The President sounded too concerned to be a heartless despot. A terrible thought entered her mind. What if Achlys truly believed all she said? Was she truly so evil, so monstruous, that she sincerely believed that she acted for the good of Panem?
Mags' mind was reeling. She needed to get out. "Thank you, Madam President, for giving me a chance to be who I should have been since the beginning," she said, her voice slightly trembling.
"Denying you it would have been a terrible waste of potential," Achlys said, gesturing at the man besides the door.
A flash of hate and guilt passed over Mags' face as she turned to leave. Because Fife and Constantine dying was no waste?
"One last thing, Mags Peregrine-Abalone."
Dread filled Mags' stomach as her she braced herself for the worst. This was it, Achlys was about to call her out on her lies and avox her. "Yes, Madam President?"
"Why do you think we allowed you to train illegally, even if all the talents you acquired could in theory be useful in your everyday life?"
They knew? Achlys gave her a small patronizing smile as Mags' surprise showed on her face. Mags dropped her gaze, greatly relieved that her angle still held and now wondering herself. The memory of the Careers' vile actions after the train-wreck made her exhale sharply in dismay. It was so glaringly obvious.
"Because if there are no killers reaped, you get Hunger Games like the second and third ones, where the arena has to do all the work because no-one will play," she said, hoping she didn't sound as appalled as she felt.
Achlys laughed, a brief but genuine laugh. "You hate this, Girl. I'd be worried if you didn't. Realizing your beliefs are wrong can shatter a weaker person, but the truth is worth it. Being humble and honest with yourself is the only way to become a good person, Mags. The world is a harsh place and we must accept to make some sacrifices for the greater good. You are on the right path now, you will not regret your choices."
A nervous grin broke Mags' lips. The most feared woman in Panem saw herself as humble, honest and real? Mags managed a polite nod before the door was shut behind her. Her mind seemed unable to process the conversation she had just had. She was certain of one thing: Evadne Achlys made her skin crawl.