A/N: Fear not, Charlie – this story is episode 1 in what will encompass a series of several episodes. Now, whether or not Skye's involved in whatever happens after the 98th Games…is up to whether or not she dies in them.
"Skye, you need to settle down and think. Think – it's the last chance anyone gets to see you before you enter the arena. What do you want them to know? What kind of impression do you want to leave?"
I pace around one of the two living rooms on the ninth floor of the Training Center, tugging at my ponytail in frustration. Omaha and I have debated, argued, and pulled at each other for an hour trying to decide how I'm supposed to act during tomorrow's tribute interviews with Corinth Terence, and still we've yet to even reach a starting point. He's suggested innocent and flirtatious to lure in sponsorship money, but acting like District 1 is anything but me. I offered up humble and grounded, but according to him, that won't fly.
It's tough to admit, but I almost yearn for Selene's advice to "forget about sponsors" again, despite last night's messy affair. It's better than trying to map out this perverse sales pitch.
"Why can't I just be honest?" I huff, taking a seat on an obscenely bright yellow chair and staring out the living room's window. The Capitol's bustling with activity today, like some sort of urban anti hive full of thousands of people clogging the streets – would they even like honesty from me? "Why do I need to leave something fake?"
"Alright, fine," Omaha sits back on a couch, folding his arms. "Tell me. What will you say – honestly – that's going to convince me to part with my money? To convince me, as some sort of Capitol citizen concerned with what's only skin-deep, that I will gain…social standing, let's say, by sponsoring you?"
"Well, I –" I pause. I haven't really thought about the why yet, really – after all, I share nothing with the majority of Capitol folk, it seems. "I'd just say…I want to go home, and…and I want to win so I can return to friends and family. That kind of thing."
"And the other tributes don't? Ames doesn't?"
"But that's what I want! They can't understand I want to go home?!"
"This isn't about people, Skye," Omaha leans forward, planting his elbows on his knees and looking me square in the eye. "The audience has seen tribute after tribute after tribute. They want a good story – the Gamesmakers want a good story to sell to their viewers. If you can't hook their attention, they'll forget about you and do everything in their power to make sure you won't win. There's always something about the victors each year – they're unique in some way, whether it's their aggression, their fear, their sadism or purity, each has a label."
"What was yours, then?"
I've hit a nerve. Omaha purses his lips, leans back on the couch and stares off into space. For a moment I can't see the usual thoughtfulness in his eyes; something dark, something forlorn crosses his face, like I've unearthed a chest full of demons long since buried and brushed aside.
"Mine was love," he says simply after a minute or so. "So yes, I had a label."
I stare past Omaha for a moment, biting my upper lip in confusion. Love? But…he said that in his Games, he'd killed his district partner – his ally, the smart girl from his story on the train – to win. Love…did he…
"Did you…" I start.
"We're not having this conversation right now, Skye," he stands up, turning his back and walking towards the dining room. "Not now."
"But I just – "
It's not an angry command, but it's firm enough that I know better than to push the issue. If I want to know more about Omaha – who I suspect is still keeping much more about his Games from me than he's let on – I'll have to wait.
There's a reason to tell the Capitol why you want to win, Skye, a cynical, snide voice says in my head. 'I want to win so I can dig into all the dirty little secrets in my mentor's past.'
Omaha digs a full carton of milk out of the dining room's food dispenser, taking a long swig before speaking up again: "Have anyone special back in the District?"
"I suppose that's been overplayed already," he sighs, setting down the carton and looking aimlessly about our luxurious surroundings. I haven't seen Omaha look this tired since that first night on the train; whatever's swimming through his head, it isn't good. "We've gone through everything, Skye. Can you at least do excited, maybe? Something that won't insult the Capitol?"
I move to object – I'm certainly not excited about going into the arena – but something on Omaha's face stops me. He still has to deal with Ames in the afternoon, and I don't want to be any more of a burden than I have to be. If needed, I'll get more advice from Selene for tomorrow's interviews.
"That's fine," I say quietly. "I'll do that."
"Alright," he returns to the couch, looking down into the milk carton again. "What are you going to do in the arena?"
"Have you thought that out?"
In truth, I haven't. My entire thesis on surviving the arena is hoping I don't run into the volunteer tributes – and that they'll kill each other off at some point in time and I can hide out until…well, until everyone else somehow dies. Of course, that still leaves Autumn: What do I do about my one ally I've made during training? She's not much good as an ally and friend if I just dump her in the arena, but otherwise I'll have a horrible dilemma on my hand if we're the last two standing.
Just like your mentor.
"I thought…I'd just try to stay away from others," I stutter. "I have an ally. The girl from 7."
"Johanna's quiet girl?" Omaha grunts. "Better than nothing, I guess. If you're going to win…look, you'll probably be faced with a situation in which you'll need to kill. I hate to say it, Skye, but that's the Games. They're not pretty, and they make you do things you wish you never had to. Sounds like you figured out how to find food, water, that kind of thing in training…and you got swords down…but are you all okay up here?"
He points to his head, giving me a solemn look: "Feelings, Skye. Thoughts. Like I said the first time we spoke, this is as much, if not more, a mental game than a physical one. Is your head in it?"
"I don't know, I'm not in the arena yet," I shrug. "I just…it's a lot of stress."
He chuckles: "You certainly are honest…alright. When you're in the arena, it's a lot of constant worrying about whether or not you'll make it to the next day. I know this will sound outrageous, but make sure you take a little time each day in the Games to just unwind and let your mind out. Take fifteen, ten minutes – unobtrusively, of course, so every tribute in the arena doesn't find you – and do something that'll keep your morale up. Whether it's throwing snowballs at a tree in a winter environment, climbing a tree and simply sitting at the top for a few minutes in a forest…anything that gives you a chance to slow down. Go too fast for too long and you'll burn yourself out. That's dangerous."
"You mean, like…" I pause. What's he advising? "Try to have fun?"
"Not fun," he waves his hands as if erasing the thought. "Nothing about this is fun. But you're still a teenager. Everyone here is. Do something each day that'll clear all the bad thoughts from your head, that'll clean your mind from fearing death and pain. Thinking about that too much is a self-fulfilling prophecy."
I think on that for a minute. I don't know whether or not that's good advice – frankly, it sounds absurd in an event where 23 out of 24 contestants die – but it does make an interesting angle that I can use tomorrow in the interview. It's a lie – it's a mask – but I can go tell Corinth that I want to have fun in the Games. They are games after all, right?
If the Capitol audience will buy it, that's enough for me.
It's always easier to be confident before the spotlights hit.
It's particularly easier when you're not under the stage at the Capitol Metropolitan Music Hall, waiting to head up for Corinth's interview session with a flighty stylist complaining about your outfit – particularly one like Magritte.
"It's so plebian," Magritte snarls, waving his hand at me as I check myself out in the mirror. "How mundane!"
I don't think I look half-bad, to be honest – better than his chariot parade outfit, at least. He's covered me in a shoulder-to-calf evening dress made out of shiny gold material. Diagonal slants run down the dress, just apparent enough so audience members out in the Hall will be able to take note. The gold doesn't go well with the light hue Magritte's applied around my eyes – nor with the way he's curled my typically straight and bland hair – but it's a subtle reminder of District 9 that won't take anything away from me, at least.
It's better than Magritte's…outfit…at least. My stylist is clothed in an ungodly clash of orange and violet, a tunic-and-toga combo bred from some blind monster of the deep. Hideous.
"I think I look fine," I protest. "It's good."
"Good!?" Magritte nearly shrieks at me. "The artistic parasites who run this cataclysm wouldn't be able to spot good unless it sprouted wings and emerged from their skulls! The only good that will come will be when the audience – the true audience who appreciates fine art – realizes the deception played by these 'high fashion' fantasy-lovers. Good."
I make a mental note to suggest that the Capitol not use full-blown artists as stylists next year should I win the Games. Subjecting another tribute to Magritte's narcissistic ranting is a crueler fate than being Reaped.
"Oh! But the best part is here, yes…" Magritte does a 180, immediately switching from a sullen complainer into an excited child. "Mmm, interviews…so exciting to learn what's underneath the canvas of skin…I'm feeling ready, like a restless fetus!"
I wince at the horrible comparison – not an appropriate metaphor at ALL, Magritte! Every moment I spend with this man is a moment wasted.
Fortunately, Cornith doesn't keep me waiting long. Before I know it, Magritte moves me to a platform in the back of the small dressing room we're in and I begin to rise up to the stage. Harsh white light shines in, and as my eyes cross the threshold between dressing room and curtain call, I'm nearly blinded by the glare of the spotlights. I blink several times to orient myself, careful not to mess up my makeup as my vision clears.
Hundreds – maybe a thousand – of Capitol citizens in brightly-colored attire sit before me, each clapping, hollering, or shouting as the show begins. Corinth, decked out in a pale orange suit and oily blue hair, raises his hands as if he's won some great triumph, shouting to the crowd words I can't make out. I'm stunned by the energy of it all, the pounding beat of a soundtrack rushing through my ears. A look to my left and right show me that my fellow tributes rising up through the floor look equally shocked, ill-prepared for the noisy, startling pageantry of Corinth's finest hour.
We move towards a row of chairs in the back, taking our seats by district. Ames looks good, I'll give him that: His stylist's choice of a tan suit and pants do a good job of bringing out his features. If this wasn't the Hunger Games, I might find him a decent-looking guy…but as it is, we've hardly spoken despite being district partners. There's no future between us, and I secretly hope he doesn't last past the Cornucopia bloodbath in the arena. Running into Ames face-to-face during the Games would be horrifying.
I've forgotten all about the tiny girl seated to Ames's left, the twelve year-old from District 10. Her stylist has put her in a fluffy white dress that looks far too big on her slender body, and her nervous foot-tapping and clenched jaw don't do her any favors. She looks too innocent, too vulnerable – like one of the volunteers will come over right now and murder her.
I hate this part of the Games. It makes me feel bad for kids I should be rooting against – kids who'll have to die if I want to survive.
"Your dress is pretty," I smile at her as Corinth's opening act goes on, assuaging my own guilt as I try to make her feel better. "Your stylist did a great job."
She gives me a hint of a smile, just confident enough to send a split-second glance my way. Poor girl; twelve's far too young to go through this kind of thing. It's bad enough at fifteen.
"And I know you've all been waiting," Corinth interrupts my attempts at friendliness as he sweeps his hand towards all of us. "Me, keeping you waiting – they must keep me on for my looks."
The Capitol audience gives a token laugh as he points energetically towards Crystal: "But I won't keep you any longer: Let's have our first tribute of the night – Crystal, from District 1!"
Crystal gives us an annoyingly smarmy smile as she prances towards Corinth in a suggestive sequined dress. It's almost enough to make me gore her right now – urgh. While I wouldn't want to face off with her in battle during the Games, I won't mind at all seeing her dead – particularly after her laugh at Autumn's fall off the Gauntlet during training.
Freakin' bully. Is all of District 1 like that?
Crystal's interview runs about as I expect. Corinth's all too eager to play up her looks, oohing and aahing at her ten in training and more than happy to play along with her "I love the Capitol" angle. Considering Cobalt acts nearly the same way during his interview, I've already marked off the entirety of District 1 as a massive Capitol suck-up.
Once again, however, the tribute who interests me most isn't from District 1. It's Tethys.
I fully expected her to come out swinging, but as soon as Corinth asks her about how she'll win, she immediately shocks me: "I'm nervous, Corinth. I hope I learned something in training…I did volunteer to be here, but I'd be lying to tell you I'm not jumpy about entering the arena tomorrow."
Does she even want sponsors? Between her abysmally low training score – a three – and now her tepid, anxious replies to Corinth's inquiries, I'm convinced she wants to win without any help at all – like some sort of lone-wolf victor prepared to set Hunger Games records. There's something more beneath her veil, beneath the mask she's showing us.
Yet the way Tethys so easily engages Corinth, only the Capitol audience could be blind enough to see she's holding back. They might not sponsor her, but I can see Crystal moving around uncomfortably in her seat from here. Nobody's sure what the girl from District 2 will do next.
It's a frightening thought.
Sulla, Coral, and Mako all ace their interviews in top form, rounding out the volunteer tributes. They're the typical things – the two boys playing to strength and power, Coral hyping up her good looks and gracious moves for the Capitol's lecherous older men looking to sponsor some pretty young thing. It's a gross display of selling her own body, but I can't blame Coral. Sponsors can mean the difference between life and death; it's a small price to pay.
Outside of Tethys, Lattice from District 3 strikes up the most interesting interview. His outfit is interesting enough – a black tunic covered in small lights from shoulder to waist – but he manages to hold his own quite well with Corinth. He's thoughtful, considerate, and most of all, strategic. Lattice sounds like a kid who knows what he's doing; a smart guy – the kind I wish I'd managed to talk to during training. I wager he'd have been a tough ally, and I doubt he'll be a victim during the bloodbath.
Autumn's her usual stoic self during interviews, although I get the feeling there are one or two moments where she almost breaks out in tears – particularly when she opens up to Corinth about her little sister, Summer, waiting for her back home. I don't get much time to dwell on my ally's performance, however: All too soon, it's my turn.
"Two-thirds of our tributes down? Already?" Corinth looks as if he's struggling after two lackluster interviews from District 8. "Time is flying right by folks…but no time to pause! Let's have a big hand for our next guest, all the way from District 9…Skye Holdrege!"
I step up out of my chair, grasping the back to brace myself. I'm nervous, wiping away a bead of sweat from my neck. The spotlights are hot, but having to wait through eight districts before me did nothing to ease my anxiety. I plaster a fake smile on my face, lift my chin, and chart a course straight towards Corinth.
"Welcome; welcome, Skye," he grabs my hand vigorously, giving it a firm shake. Corinth is a lot younger-looking up close, with full eyebrows and a fresh face. He could use a new stylist himself, though. "Welcome. Please – take a seat."
I put on a happy expression, almost jumping into the interview chair as I try to play the "I want to have a fun" vibe. Will it work? Time to find out.
"You're from District 9," Corinth folds his hands, giving me a serious expression as he opens up questions. "I'm guessing the Capitol's a little different for you."
Make them like you! "There's…uh…less farmers. And straw hats."
My answer was weak, but Corinth is happy to take it and run: "Straw hats – that's one I haven't seen before. Take note, members of the audience – it's a new fashion craze coming to a corner near you!"
Laughter resonates around the Hall, and I know I've got something going. I don't consider myself a funny person, but if the Capitol likes it, who am I to complain?
"Tell me, Skye," Corinth leans over as if he's expecting a secret. "Are you already lining up a promising career as a stylist?"
Even I can't help but to give a nervous laugh. My stupid reply has gone far further than I'd thought: "I…don't think I can decorate clothes with soybeans and wheat."
"Oh, you'd be surprised," Corinth laughs uproariously at something I didn't consider very amusing. "Why – I don't even know what they've put on my head tonight! This could be a cat, for all I know."
I'm not sure where the joke is, but the Capitol audience finds Corinth absolutely hilarious. I give a nervous laugh – better to play along while the goings are good.
"But enough about me; I'm already old, for heaven's sake!" Corinth laughs. "So, Skye – a bit of a disappointment from your training score – do you have some secret you're keeping up your sleeve? Some way you're going to beat everyone to be a victor?"
Time to play the fun card: "Well…it's the Hunger Games, right? I'm…I just want to have fun while I try to win. You know, enjoy it while I'm part of it."
Bam – I was spot-on with my assessment. Several members of the audience whistle, and I get newfound applause as Corinth laughs: "So many nervous tributes, and little Sky Holdrege from District 9 wants to have fun! Let me tell you – there are a lot of people here in the Capitol happy to hear that, Skye. You're right up our alley – and don't we like to have fun, folks?"
Corinth's words spark a new round of applause, and I let myself enjoy a smile – a genuine smile – for what seems like the first time in years. Maybe I'm doing something right, at long last; maybe that five won't come back to hurt me as much as I thought. Corinth's energy is infectious, and I find myself caught up in the moment as I enjoy the raucous cheers and laughs from the crowd.
"So that's what they teach during training?" Corinth moves on. "How to have fun?"
"I did learn how to eat bugs," I remark.
That sends the crowd roaring again, and I'm left wondering what kind of a career I could have made out of comedy. For as bad as the last few days have been, this interview is hitting every good note possible.
"Oh, much braver than me," Corinth slaps my shoulder for effect, laughing uproariously. "I just saw a spider in my house and nearly died of terror. Imagine eating one! Last question, Skye, as our three minutes are almost up…we saw you put on a brave face at your Reaping. Tell me…are you fighting for anybody back home? Hoping to go back to someone special in District 9?"
I pause. What am I supposed to say here? It's not like I'm some star-crossed lover, separated from their loved one by unfortunate circumstances. Sage wants me to come back…Reed and Shrike, too, but I'm not weeping over missing someone. I want to go back because I want to live.
Use them, Skye, a voice tells me. Use your friends. Capture the audience. Win over the sponsors.
"There's, um, one boy," I decide to cast my lot with Reed. "He's my age. We're friends, but…I always thought maybe we could be more. I wish we could."
That's a lie – there's nothing between Reed and I (or so I think), but it's enough to score a heartbreaking expression from Corinth: "Well…you've got something to fight for, then. Imagine his happiness when you come home – when you're re-united. Let's hope so – ladies and gentlemen, from District 9, Skye Holdrege!"
Corinth takes my hand and holds it up, and it's all I can do to stop from shedding a tear. Reed's a great friend, but I've never felt anything for him over all these years…why am I holding back now? Tomorrow I could be dead, and yet I've never really loved anyone.
I could use him by my side now. The applause from the crowd may ease my worries, but it won't take away the truth: Tomorrow, the Hunger Games begin. Tomorrow, my life may end.