Happy Easter! And thanks for the reviews.
Year 65, August. The day after Finnick's victory.
The cold air-conditioned draft brought goose bumps to Mags' exposed arms.
"These Hunger Games, Ladies and Gentlemen, these Games…" Caesar Flickerman exclaimed, his arms embracing the crowd before him, "were much too short."
His theatrical outrage was echoed with thunderous conviction by every man woman and child in the theater.
"Your enthusiasm, no your passion, rocked the very buildings of our beloved city," Caesar exclaimed. "And what have we given you to reward you for your faith? Three miserable days?"
Backstage, Mags' face was a mask of stone.
"Don't take it personally, Mags." Even scared, Donna's voice was too loud, and full of that bossy concern which made Mags want to pinch the woman's rosy cheeks.
"Which is why," Caesar announced, "our President decided to exceptionally extend the Games season for another fifteen whole days! You shall see the mentors, the escorts shall answer your every question, and most of all, Finnick Odair will not be abandoning us until the twenty-fifth."
Mags blanched. Her train to Four had been scheduled on the sixteenth, in four days. They couldn't keep Finnick, alone, for ten days!
"And tomorrow night, for the first time, the whole Gamemaking team will be present at the Palace, so buy your tickets, turn on your televisions, and don't miss a single morsel of this extraordinary week!"
"We'll be here," Donna promised. And luckily there were no cameras here to capture her outrage. "We'll keep him in sight at all times."
You'd better. Mags swallowed back bile. Snow would want Finnick as his ally and tool, as his poster-boy. Ten days wouldn't turn Finnick against her, but it was ample time to unmask him.
It would be Glynn's and Plutarch's turn to play. Mags prayed Donna would be up to the task.
"And now," Caesar grinned, "Four's very finest, everyone's favorite great-aunt, Mags Abalone!"
Mags switched her microphone on. When she walked on stage, the Capitol saw only confidence, and the experience of a lifetime of cameras. She didn't hurry towards Caesar. Her step was slow and comfortable. She did not seek to project a youth that had long left her. They would wait for her.
"I think I'm going deaf with age. I cannot hear you," Mags said with a challenging smile.
The crowd screamed and roared, so eager to please as long as the prize was entertainment. Mags could taste the adrenaline in the air.
"Finnick? Finnick!" Caesar said, his arms waving around impatiently. "How is he, where is he?"
"He's still monitored and sedated at Lazarus Hospital, but it is merely cosmetic," Mags said. "He wasn't wounded."
"How is that even possible, Mags? How could our youngest victor ever come out without a scar?"
Mags smiled. Theatric and genial as ever, Caesar would steer this interview towards Finnick's home life, his successes and failures, his loves and fears, but Mags had different plans.
"Because he had two heads and four arms and two hearts, Caesar."
Caesar arched his glittering eyebrows. "You'll have to clarify that," he said, slowly enough that Mags suspected genuine confusion.
"Delfina and Finnick worked as one," she explained. "The Capitol deserves the very best, and I mentor them in consequence. There is only one victor and I won't have the children I send in the arena believing otherwise. This victory is Finnick's but it is also Delfina's, because what is a victor if not a person who obtained what they fought for?" She said, her voice rising as she turned to the crowd. "When one grew weak or indecisive, the other was there to remind them why they had volunteered."
Mutters, agreement... Mags counted on the minority who wouldn't forget. Finnick had asked for two victors, and Mags wanted that idea to worm their ways into their minds, because once it was there, the Hunger Games would start to fall apart.
"Your tributes are tight knit pairs, -" Caesar began.
Mags interrupted him, pretending she'd heard a question. "A boy and a girl, loyal and fierce, back to back, go farther than a strong, ruthless man who is alone. I haven't lost both tributes before the final six in forty-two years, Caesar." But she wasn't talking to Flickerman, she talked to the crowd. "I know you want heroes. They are hard to find," Mags admitted, her eyes tight. "But I try to give them to you. Boys and girls who'll make you laugh and cheer. I'm thrilled and honored that Finnick could meet your expectations."
"He wouldn't save Delfina though," Caesar pointed out. "He didn't think she should survive."
Can't have too moral a victor, can you, Caesar? Or the crowd won't feel superior enough.
"Delfina is a legal adult, and she had made her decision," Mags replied. "She was never in denial, and she believed Finnick deserved this victory with all her heart and mind. Are you suggesting that because she is female, she should be considered unfit, her desires dismissed? That she should be treated as a child by the males around her?"
The women in the crowd were not impressed.
Caesar paled slightly. "No, of course –"
"Of course, the Gamemakers and the President could have accepted two victors if Finnick's happiness and Delfina's loyalty and morals had mattered that much." A chill descended over the assembly. "But that would be giving the wrong message to the Districts, would it not?" Mags said in soft tones. "We must never forget what the Hunger Games stand for. In penance." She let it sink in for a few seconds. The illusion that this was just good fun could not go on. "President Snow is merciful to allow Finnick to live on to entertain you."
"But Finnick Odair isn't just anybody," Caesar said with a knowing smile. A tense smile, the interview had slipped outside his control. "He was relentless, never slowing, with five kills, but so kind, and the trident, we had never seen a sponsor gift like it!"
Caesar, you won't beat me at this game. You are the better speaker, but I have the truth on my side.
Mags' confident smile was back. "Victory's Herald, Finnick promised to become good enough for it, and little Shani only deserved kindness. He is quite a special boy, Caesar. A boy who'll want his aunt when he wakes up which should be soon. Excuse me." She curtsied to the crowd. "Don't forget to have fun," she told them. "At least as much fun as Finnick and Delfina had in the arena, before they remembered their place," she added, enjoying the discomfort that rippled in the crowd. "The weather is almost as beautiful today."
The clapping was scattered, then loud but somewhat perfunctory. There was some cheering of course, but the whole sounded bittersweet.
A tight, knowing smile graced Donna's lips as Mags reappeared back stage.
"The Hunger Games are penance," Mags pointed out.
"Mags, don't be cute with me," Donna whispered, fear lacing her voice.
Mags met her eyes. "To the hospital," she simply said. Risks were part of her life.
A sudden spike of adrenaline seared through Mags' veins.
Coriolanus Snow was standing alone in the waiting room neighboring Finnick's. His cold black eyes latched onto hers.
"Finnick Odair is ours," he said. He didn't have to raise his voice.
"So am I, Mr. President," Mags replied. "So have I been, since my seventeenth birthday, and he is my nephew."
Snow's smile didn't reach his eyes. "Then he must understand better than most what role he must fill. Mentors will not be allowed to transfer money to another tribute anymore. The Capitol decides who wins, not you. Finnick is not yours to sell. He is mine and you will break the contracts you signed."
Mags stiffened. Unfortunately, she couldn't accept those terms.
"Mr. President, how useful is Daphne? Scythia, Blight, Haymitch?" Those you broke after their Games. "How useful is Fustel or even Cashmere? I'm sure it is delightful to see them advertise the Capitol's superiority on television, to hear the murmurs of hate directed at them in their Districts, but they are just smokescreens to keep the Capitol entertained. What use are they in the Districts?" Mags straightened. "I have been keeping the peace."
Anger flashed in Snow's eyes. "You have a too high opinion of yourself, old woman."
"Would you rather I have been inefficient all these years, Mr. President? That I would have failed Evadne Achlys and that Four be a district as unmanageable as District Eight?" The man was a politician, he couldn't be so blind.
"District Eight is fully under my control, as are the eleven other districts," Snow frostily said.
His control. What a fool. Achlys had left him a miserable but highly functioning Panem, and Snow, pathologically unable to surrender some power, was destroying it all. Poor resource management had increased poverty, the resulting anger had been met by harsh repression, but repression had its limits. Stripping away the hope of a better future had been Snow's biggest mistake. The circle of violence had begun, spreading slowly to every district. District Eight already needed twice as many peacekeepers as Four to keep an illusion of order. A rebellion was certain now, if not in ten then in twenty years, and either the Districts would win, or Panem would destroy itself in a storm of blood and fire.
Mags bowed her neck, her insides turning to ice. She would pay for this, but there had been no other alternative. "I have done my best, Mr. President. I apologize if this was construed as arrogant."
The fury darkening Snow's expression slowly dissipated. "Your best won't be needed anymore," he stated before leaving.
Mags' knees felt weak. She had underestimated Snow's pride. He did not care that granting independence to some subordinates was a condition of true power. He did not care about ruling efficiently. Worse, he did not see it. And now that he believed his hold on Panem secure, he would not compromise by letting her be.
Mags grit her teeth. Idiot! As soon as she was in Four… It had better not be too late.
"Does that mean you won't be mentoring next year?" Donna said once Snow had left, her outrage barely hidden behind her nervousness.
A shiver ran up Mags' spine. "Finnick is awake." Finnick. The rest would wait.
He was sitting hunched on his bed, knees against his bare chest, staring at the wall. There wasn't a mark or blemish on his tanned muscles, but his mind was still trapped in the arena.
"I really thought it'd be worse," Mags said, an affectionate, and genuine, smile cracking her lips.
Finnick just stared, anguish clear in his wide green eyes. She could see her words made no sense to his guilt-ridden mind.
"Worse? As in killing nine people rather than seven?" Donna said, arms crossed. Standing tall in her red-leather dress, there was no better Devil's advocate.
Finnick flinched, but his whole face shouted his agreement with Donna's words.
"No, as in losing his respect, for Delfina, for himself," Mags stopped a foot away from Finnick, "losing your beliefs, letting your instincts take control, choosing the coward's path and hoping indecision and time would solve your problems. Not giving in to anger. Not making excuses." Finnick didn't move, he bowed his shoulders, his eyes brighter with every word. "Finn, I'm so proud of you," Mags whispered thickly.
Finnick pushed himself off the bed. He swallowed back tears, his handsome face a mask of stone. "What do I do now?"
Fierce compassion blocked Mags' breath in her throat. It was painful, how similar they were. He'd won to act. He had to act now. Of course he did. "You give me a hug, Finnick."
Inwardly, she prayed he didn't hate her.
Finnick stiffened. He stood frozen, unable to come closer. He couldn't.
"And later," Mags said, opening her arms. "I'll tell you a story about how Esperanza stole my crutches when, crippled from a fall, I tried to go to FLASH, because I had to do something, believing that otherwise, I didn't deserve to live."
Acute pain filled those too serious green eyes, and Finnick seemed to snap. Mags found herself engulfed into a hug so fierce she couldn't breathe. Relief washed over her. He didn't hate her, for the price she'd set on becoming a rebel. Her baby nephew was alive, and he didn't hate her.
"Come on, Fish-boy," Donna said, pulling Finnick away before he could choke Mags. "You're definitely going to be busy in the following days."
"The Capitol is a safe place for those who are loyal," Mags said, clutching Finnick's wrist. "They'll flatter you and try to curry your favor, but don't worry too much. You do owe them to be on their best behavior though." She cleared her throat. "How much do you hate me right now?" she asked.
To her amazement, Finnick laughed. Mags bit back a shriek when he picked her up and spun her around as if she weighted nothing.
"Fun, District Four has fun." There was something mad in Finnick's eyes. "I promised Delfina, I promised you, and now I'm a victor." He gasped for breath, his voice hitching. "An honest, real live, hotshot victor, the youngest victor -"
"Death by adrenaline isn't what it's made out to be, Fish-boy," Donna intervened sternly.
Breathless, her head spinning, Mags was lowered to the floor. She clutched Finnick for balance.
"Could 'fish-boy' not become a thing, Donna?" Finnick asked.
"I'm a Capitolite, Fish-boy, I order, you obey," Donna said sternly. "Keep the teenager attitude for District Four."
Finnick straightened. For a moment, he just eyed Donna warily. Donna's lips quirked and she flipped her long red hair back.
"Yes, Ma'am," Finnick finally said. "Where's Nori?"
"Busy. You'd be surprised at how much there is to do," Mags said. "There will be a recap. Don't expect to re-experience the arena."
Horror flashed on Finnick's features and Mags squeezed his hand.
"What I mean is that there are two arenas," Mags said, "the arena you see and the one the Capitol sees. The transmissions have an added on soundtrack and commentaries, and even archive videos showing us how luxurious the estate and its grounds were in those days. The estate was a symbol of the wealth of the ancient times, it was meant to be peaceful, with singing birds and those beautiful gardens. The locusts and fire recreated the Cataclysm."
"All in music?" Finnick said, his voice taking a dangerous edge. "With comments like a... a documentary?"
"Why waste such a perfect opportunity? An actual historically accurate documentary on the subject would have been watched by a fraction of the Game's audience," Mags said. "Besides, there aren't two hours a day of entertaining footage if you don't give the tribute action some greater context."
Mags watched Finnick carefully, her hold tight on his arm. His anger could overwhelm his sense at any moment, and the urge to cocoon him was growing more unbearable by the minute, but the more he understood about where he was now, the easier he would get through the next few weeks. This suffering won't kill him. It may save his life, Mags told the part of her that accused her of being heartless and cruel. Confusion broke them as surely as trauma when they were thrust among Capitol socialites after the inhumane reality of the arena.
Finnick's breathing was ragged. A vein pulsed hard in his neck but his answer was level. "I'll be eager to see how the Capitol saw it. Is it the same as what they broadcast in the Districts, Auntie?"
Mags heard the plea there. "Finnick, you have no idea how they hated me back home during my early days as victor. It's almost the same footage, yes." A brittle smile broke her lips as she thought of her previous conversation with Snow. "Of course, it was a very different District Four back then."
Donna turned to Finnick once they were outside. A taxi was waiting for them. "I'm on your side, Fish-boy, but the cameras are not. Make sure you keep that at the forefront of your mind. You'll be home soon enough. Now that you won –"
Finnick's whole body began to shake. "I didn't win! I did… Delfina -" His breath hitched, he shook his head, lost in memories.
Mags grabbed his arms, her eyes burning into his. "Finnick, I didn't win either. Constantine Aquila decided I was worth it."
It had been such a long time ago, and yet she remembered those days so vividly. Valerian's icy gaze as Constantine and Fife ran for the Hovercraft.
"I would not be here otherwise," she whispered hoarsely. "Few of our successes are ours alone, and it is as it should be. Nothing worthwhile can be accomplished by a man alone."
Finnick seemed calm once more when they stepped into the taxi.
Year 65, August. Five days after Finnick's victory. Creneis Town.
Mags stepped off the train and grinned when she saw Cereus. His hunched bearing and slow step had erased none of the beauty of that incredible man. Each wrinkle was the reminder of time spent together, of shared projects and dreams.
Cereus' smile was strained. Mags' heart clenched.
"Who did he kill?" She knew. Icy helplessness crushed her chest. She just knew.
Cereus reached her side, his shaky grip as tight as he could make it on his wife's shoulders. "He was amazing, you were amazing." His kiss on her lips was a little too possessive, a little too brutal, but Mags wished he wouldn't pull away. "There's a massive 'Capitol-property' stamp on Finn, but they've been celebrating non-stop at FLASH. We've taught them to open their eyes."
"Love, I'm worried," Mags said weakly, his words birthed a budding warmth in her chest but her husband's smile wasn't true and in his eyes... "I had to protect Finnick, but I'm afraid Snow won't let it come cheap."
"Our children are waiting at home and so is Ceferino. He's eighteen, he wouldn't let Sol stop him."
Mags blinked while unfathomable relief surged through her. The little ones were safe. She could breathe again. "Esperanza and Adrian?" She asked warily.
"I have a message from Esperanza on tape for you."
"Cereus," Mags said, her voice trembling. Esperanza? Her little sister, where was she?
Cereus stopped, his face red with rage. "Adrian is home too. In a moment of clarity, he said he would wait for Finnick, and he asks for you often."
Mags couldn't bear it anymore. "Cereus!"
"We all built up resistance to different poisons. It was a peacekeeper, he even told her. He was ordered by Snow under his family's penalty of death. He left the room believing she had minutes, she lived another day. The funeral will be tomorrow."
Esperanza. Mags realized she couldn't walk. There was their motorbike, so she sat. Her muscles were frozen lead, she could barely feel her husband's hand.
Their Esperanza, born during the rebellion, the hope of a better world. Would Mags have volunteered had she not gazed into Esperanza's beautiful innocent, and so trusting eyes day after day? Esperanza, already staunchly by Mags' side when she had been even younger than Finnick was now.
For the first time, Mags was glad her mother was dead.
Esperanza. The new world had been supposed to be for her.
"She'd have traded her life for Finnick's without a second thought," Cereus said, grief etched in his lined face. "She said so too." His eyes burned with anger.
"I know that. But Snow didn't have to kill her," she said, her voice barely a whisper. There was no grief yet, just shock, and rising fury. "I want every peacekeeper trained in Four, every citizen of the District, to know she was killed by Snow, to punish me for protecting Finnick."
Her chest had torn open, a void sucking in her every emotion. Coriolanus Snow had delivered the first blow. August 65, so this was the day the war begun in District Four. So be it.
Cereus chuckled, it was raspy and hard. "We haven't done anything but mourn yet. I don't dare to convene a full council before we are sure we are thinking with our heads."
Lorelei, Larimar, Gilly, Alyx Rivers, Lamprey, Peacekeeper Lyall, Sergeant Aleyn, Viviana Harbor, Jorah Goby… Their legacy and heirs in Creneis Town.
Mags took a deep breath. She would grieve, but not today. It had started and it would escalate. The time to take the blows without responding was long past.
"Let's go home, love," she said. "I will see them all."
Finnick would be back before Snow began to understand his mistake.
"It makes no difference to our plans, even if the price in blood is paid by family," Cereus said, his pain not made lesser by the truth of his words.
Mags kissed his cheek tenderly, a flame long kept dim now burning in her eyes. "Before us is a wall of blood. We cannot prepare endlessly. The rebellion cannot come from Eleven or Eight, it will not come from Three and even in Six we remain too weak. Four has been peaceful so long, any observer would think the spirit of rebellion has died."
Four was a big, fragmented district that the Capitol could not easily contain or starve. They had been storing fuel and supplies for decades, and enough of the victors' money had been smuggled out of Creneis to aliment a dozen black-markets. Hovercrafts could not bomb a ship they could not locate and FLASH's students did not need electronics to guide their ships. The hovercrafts wouldn't even be able to go out into the sea if the refueling bases were destroyed.
Mags knew it would not come to that. It was too soon for outright war. First District Four would wake up.
A smile broke Mags lips. Sadness mixed with love as she gazed upon her children. How quickly had they grown.
But she wasn't there. She would never be here again. Mags bit back a scream, focusing on those she could still touch.
Larimar and Pearl, the couple Mags had never thought would last so long. Pearl had been a child of sixteen with a rough past, passionate, outspoken and pregnant when they had hurried into an unplanned marriage. Larimar, quiet, careful and reflective… he'd been twenty at the time. The baby didn't survive, and what a terrible time it had been for the family. But Pearl and Larimar didn't break. For years, they lived for each other, taking the time to grow adult and help Creneis and FLASH prosper. They now had a girl and a boy, delightful children of twelve and ten, and happy together they remained.
Sol had come alone, with Ceferino, Mags' eldest grandchild. Cefe was so serious and quiet in a family where carefree laughter and boisterous humor was the rule. Sol had never changed, impulsive, positive, and quite a simple man. He'd found a hardworking girl from a solid loving family who had simple ambitions and laughed hardship away. Whenever Mags felt too old and wary, she went to their house, sat in a chair, and just watched the six of them live, soaking up the positive, uncomplicated atmosphere.
Lorelei, her white trousers and shirt as close to a peacekeeper uniform as she could get away with, sat between Sol and Ceferino. She was a woman for causes, not for settling down.
They all mustered smiles, strained and sad, but true. "Welcome back, Ma," Sol said.
Mags' smile died when she saw Adrian Odair. She understood now, what Cereus meant when he said Adrian was waiting for Finnick. Without Esperanza, the days meant very little to a man whose memory slowly frayed away. Before, clarity reminded him of joy, now it would just bring back the pain.
"We'll do what is right, Adrian," Mags vowed. Tears stinging her eyes as she realized it was Esperanza's wedding photo in his hands. Circe, they had been beautiful.
"Will you need me?" Adrian said, heavy bags under his eyes. "After I'll have talked to the lad?"
She was painfully glad this was one of the good days. "Panem doesn't, but the family-"
"They don't need me," Adrian interrupted, his eyes downcast. His shoulders were slumped, and Mags saw a man beaten. "I'll be going to bed."
Sol hurried to help him. "Cefe," he told his son sternly. Ceferino grudgingly complied and helped Adrian to the guest room.
A cloud of misery hung over the room, sparing no one. Mags sat down, wishing she could turn back time, or skip ahead, to make sure they weren't just fighting for a mere dream.
"We don't blame you, Mama," Larimar said. "Can we know what to expect? When Snow came in power, you told us to be more discreet, not to make our affiliation with you political, that's what we did. Does he expect us to cut all ties or does our behavior matter little and he'll just do as he pleases?"
"Snow won't waltz in with a gun. He needs to act through peacekeepers," Cereus said. "If peacekeepers rebel, he'll call in the Homeguard or simply rotate them all out, but there are more discreet ways of not cooperating. By giving warnings..."
"Rotating peacekeepers out isn't that straightforward. There isn't a big reserve," Lorelei pointed out. "Snow can execute a hundred peacekeepers, he can execute five hundred, but more than that and he'll need conscripts from the Capitol or the outer Districts."
"Remind me how many peacekeepers there are in total?" Larimar asked with a frown.
"Thirty-five thousand," Cereus answered. "With two from Four, six from One and a twenty-five from District Two. Snow wants to raise those numbers to forty-thousand. The Homeguard is ten-thousand people strong."
Achlys' Panem had needed thirty-thousand peacekeepers to function, 3% of the total district population. In the later years, six-thousand wore the Homeguard's red and black, more than enough to police the Capitol's quarter-million inhabitants and give reinforcements where they were needed.
"Where would he get them from?" Larimar said. "Even if half the kids in Two enrolled, that'd be less than three-thousand a year. District One has less than half of Two's population, and you told me unemployment was already almost nil."
"Already now, almost a teenager in three joins," Mags said darkly. "Women enrollment has reached over thirty percent. Parents which don't provide at least one peacekeeper child aren't granted pensions unless they're both former peacekeepers."
"Wait, women of forty have to -?" Pearl exclaimed. Her and Lamprey Bones, Gloria's second –and current- husband, were Mags' only in-laws in their inner circle. Ironically, Gloria had always treasured ignorance.
"Exactly," Mags said tightly. Such talks already made her angry on good days. "Which is why the women who do not become peacekeepers have the obligation to have at least four children. Fertility treatments for veterans are free and the upside is that Two has access to decent healthcare to make sure people survive long enough to have enough children and raise them."
"Why doesn't he make Eleven a source of peacekeepers?" Larimar said. "They have what, four-hundred thousand people? That's twice as much as Two and close to half of the whole District population combined."
Mags chuckled mirthlessly. "Two-thirds of Eleven's police is already local. It used to be less than half under Achlys. They wear black and have a lower status than peacekeepers and no firearms. They're basically sanctioned thugs with some training. They grab the boys with no jobs, the violent or desperate ones and enroll them."
"Peacekeepers? You're talking of peacekeepers?" Sol exclaimed as he returned. "Ceferino's helping him to bed," he added, closing the door. "Aunt Esperanza isn't even buried yet," he heatedly ground out.
"Life doesn't wait," Mags said, her hands trembling with helpless fury. "Sol, she's my little sister, don't think –" Her voice broke and she swallowed. "We'll not have the luxury of error."
Sol took a shaky breath. "What would have happened, Ma, had you kept quiet instead?"
A hiss escaped Mags' lips. Burning doubt clawed at her heart. Tangible and raw, Esperanza's absence was only exacerbated by the leaden silence.
"Finnick would now be a whore in the Capitol," Mags spat. "This way, we get two years before he's exposed to that."
Sol wasn't the only one to pale in horror. They were children of a victor but not victors. The games of the Capitol were not something Mags had ever felt the need to share before.
"That's a victory?" Sol said, aghast.
"Yes," Mags replied. "Sol, there's a reason why so few victors marry or have children. Fustel's daughter wasn't reaped by chance. Very few victors go with Capitolites willingly, but when a family members dies when you refuse... When your whole district hates you because they believe what the TV tells them... You have no idea how privileged we are here in Four, and trust me," she said, her voice trembling with anger, "none of it is chance."
Sol groaned. "Ma, don't take it like that. I don't know half of what you're up to, but I never meant to accuse. I'm not blind. But there was no warning, no chance, and what Esperanza said…" Anguish twisted his features. "It's just, I see you discussing peacekeepers, and I'm sure it's important, but what do I do with my kids? Will Snow come after us?"
Mags couldn't meet his eyes. "He may," she whispered. "I don't know."
She couldn't both protect her family and do what was right for Panem. She wasn't even sure she could protect her family if she forgot all about the rebellion.
The silence was like a blade to their throats. Sol's face fell, and he sighed. "No man knows his death. We just can make the best of every day." He gave Mags a hug. "Te quiero, Mama, and I can't wait to see Finn."
"Cefe, we're leaving," he called.
His son stopped next to Cereus and Mags, a set expression on his face.
"I want in," he said.
Weary silence met his demand.
"I don't want in on everything. But I want in. I'm not like Pa, I can't let you make the decisions behind the scenes, live my ordinary little life and hope it all turns out well."
"You'll have this conversation later," Sol said, a firm hand on the young man's shoulder.
"Esperanza is dead! The moment I was born in this family, I was in danger. I deserve -"
"No," Cereus cut in. "This kind of knowledge is never deserved. Why would your life be worth more than that of people you'll get killed if you are careless?" He didn't need to raise his voice, Cefe looked humbled enough by the words. He was a good lad. "Your genes don't make you superior."
Mags put her hand on her grandson's shoulder. "Don't take that to mean your safety doesn't matter to us. We love you, Cefe. You want in, we'll let you in, but slowly."
"But what are you doing?" Cefe exclaimed. "What are you keeping from Snow? Are more people going to die?"
Sol's smile was grim. "People die all the time, we were just lucky to be spared so long. Later, Niño, and don't fill your sisters' and brother's minds with those questions. At their age, they'll just make mischief and cry in their sleep. What your head is too thick to understand is that Mags doesn't rule, she serves, and it's a bloody nerve-wracking job because up there, there's the Capitol who can destroy us all just because they feel like it."
"Can they really?" Cefe swallowed. "I mean, sure they can, but they'd be consequences, right? There's reasons why they don't just kill us all."
"That's what we were talking about before," Lorelei said, something dangerous and aggressive in her eyes. "Go to bed, Cefe. You'll be part of this, and you'll come to understand. Don't think more than ten people in Creneis understand."
Cefe nodded, looking satisfied.
"Does Lunita approve?" Mags said softly. She thought of Tyna, and how, even with Finnick blessedly alive, their relationship could only become more strained.
Sol sighed. "Yes, as long as you're responsible about it, Ma. Cefe's a man now, he's got a right to make his choices."
Mags gave him a small smile. Lunita was such a dear. And strong and adult, which was what this family desperately needed.
"I'm glad my children are still young," Larimar said warily. He straightened, his pale green eyes tight. "Ma, do you want to hear what we've prepared for the funeral?"
Mags gripped Cereus' hand, the tears she'd been keeping in falling down her cheeks. There was no relief, just poisonous choking pain. "Yes… Angelo and Tyna? Jasper, Gloria?"
"Tomorrow," Cereus whispered, his arm around her waist.
Mags could barely speak. She leaned into him. "You said… a video?"
Esperanza. They had killed her. He had killed her. It was just beginning.
"Hola, Big Sis," Esperanza's smile was wide on the screen and Mags couldn't believe this was the last she would see of her little sister.
They couldn't afford to keep the video. It would be destroyed.
'Mags, if you truly want to, you will bring him home.'
And Mags had brought Finnick home. A home without Esperanza.
Esperanza was in her bed, on the side, her makeup done and her hair brushed. Had it not been for the weakness of her gestures, she could have been posing for a picture.
"It's the lesser evil," she was saying. "Finn is fourteen, he has his whole life before him. I'm not angry, I lived so long already. When I was a little girl, there were so many beggars, so much anger." Esperanza's lips thinned. "They kidnapped me, those bastards. Put fire to FLASH!" She grinned. "And then my big sister gave them jobs, she built houses and a school, and you've built things, so many permanent things, Mags. I was part of that, and I remember it so well, Deirdre's stories, Glynn's visits and how Marquise always hovered around to give you a piece of her mind if you started doubting. How you tried to fix up Marquise with Cereus…" Esperanza laughed. "Remember when you went with Caspian and Marlin to the shipwrights, and I had to fetch you at midnight, because you weren't leaving before you'd built your own damn boat? And FLASH, what a glorious mess it was at first and what a beauty it is now."
Mags listened to her speak, drinking it all, cherishing the memories it awakened. There was nothing new, no last-minute confessions or secrets to be shared, just one last conversation, Esperanza's final message. I lived well, even if this is the end, it was worth it.
Tears ran down Mags' cheeks. It wasn't the end. Not nearly.
The funeral wasn't small or intimate. It was not the way of Creneis Town.
Channary Crow lead the chants in her Navigator's blue but when it was time to cut the ropes holding the funeral boat, she waved Mags forward.
Mags blinked. She hadn't been warned. She stepped on the Pier of Spirits, her eyes on the sister's peaceful face and the silver weights around her neck. Beyond the horizon the boat would sink and Esperanza's body would be one with the sea once more.
But the hope lived on.
Mags went to her knees and kissed her sister's cold forehead. Like mothers would kiss their children taken away too soon.
There wasn't a single adult in the crowd who didn't understand the accusation in that simple gesture. Esperanza Abalone-Odair hadn't died of natural causes.
Safe journey, Querida.
Mags' fingers were white around the ritual hatchet. She cut the rope and watched Esperanza sail away.
Peacekeeper Flint's grip was tight on the camera. He stood alone and hidden, against all regulations and good practice.
He didn't know where the videos would go. He just followed Sergeant Aleyn's orders and this time, he could feel in his heart that the orders were good. Creneis wasn't like other places. He couldn't name it, but there was something solid, something healthy. Something he'd kept looking for and had never found before.
He'd joined to protect and he'd thought he did, but there was always that little nagging voice, the one that doubted and wondered and held him back when he glimpsed a starving kid shove an apple in his trousers. The voice that told him to punch Anselm right in the teeth when he'd given money to that girl. She'd been twelve for god's sake.
Flint zoomed on the boat when Victor Mags cut the rope. The nagging voice remained silent.
The seas were calm and safe, and he trusted his crew with his life, yet adrenaline coursed in Captain Morgan Stormborn's veins. His grandpa Angelo's words echoed in his mind, louder than ever before.
"I was a criminal, I trained at FLASH for the 13th Games, under a fake name –Morgan Vega, the boy I killed, the boy whose name you carry now –"
Morgan remembered shivering, until he understood that there was strength and hope in that name.
His mother had died so soon after his birth, and Morgan had never known his father. He'd never want to know which coward had left a girl pregnant without so much as a letter.
Angelo could have taken his wife's name, but he'd been a Stormborn until the day he died. He died at sea, after the whales he'd hunted all his life. He'd been an old man. Morgan couldn't imagine a better death.
"If Mags ever asks, you don't question. You leave everything, and you go. I gave my parents to the Capitol, believing they'd save me from the drugs, that they'd give me a better life. Instead I condemned myself. Mags went out of her way to save me, and I was just one of the first. We owe her, you owe her, your kids will owe her family."
Morgan had sailed, quite legally, to Eleven and Twelve before, hauling cargo through the deep seas. He would stop in Twelve like he was supposed to, a miserable dock manned by peacekeepers and a handful of locals, but his journey wasn't to stop there.
She hadn't had to say it. Morgan wondered what Mags possibly could want with District Thirteen. It was ashes and radioactive dust, wasn't it?
So… Snow has decided Mags has too much power. It's too early for war, but now Mags will fight back.
Next chapter starts with Finnick alone in the Capitol and will clear up what happened in the days he and Mags were there together. Also we'll see what Glynn and Plutarch have to say on events.^^