Please note that this fic contains potentially triggering content, including suicide and mentions of violence, sexual abuse, and murder.
Thirty seconds before her train pulls into the platform at District Five, Cassie is already sprouting feathers.
She knows her parents will be waiting at the platform. They're always there when she comes home. She also knows that when they see her fly out of the train into the vastness of the sky, they will understand why she didn't step out to greet them.
The train car becomes huge around her. The osprey mind balks at the enclosing walls. Cassie is used to working with the osprey now, guiding its instincts where she wants to go. The doors slide open and Cassie launches into the air with powerful downstrokes. Below her, she sees her parents smiling and waving, a little wistfully. «I'll be home for dinner,» she tells them, and flies.
Cassie told Jake about this, once, about how she usually morphed as soon as she came home. "I do the same thing," he said. "I morph tiger at night and jump from rooftop to rooftop." Then he asked, "Why do you do it? You have to morph so much in the Capitol. Don't you just want to be you for a while?"
"I do. Most of the time," she said. "But in the Capitol, I have to morph like they say. I'm hemmed in with walls. The animals I become all hate it. It isn't mine. When I run across a field as a horse, or fly as an osprey – that's mine. It feels almost as if I'm free."
There aren't many wild places in District Five. It's mostly buildings and pavement, the few green places reserved as dwelling places for the muttations bred in the labs. If Cassie went into one of those areas, she'd risk disrupting someone's experiment or breeding program. But it's all right. The fences around the District are nothing to her.
The people of District Five are not superstitious by nature or by training, but they tell all kinds of stories about the woods beyond the fence. They say they're full of escaped muttations that made it past the fence. There are rumors of Avox slave camps out there in the wilderness. They say Tobias, the Lost Victor of District Eight, is out there, hunting like the animal he's become and muttering in thought-speech to no one.
Cassie knows better. There are mutts out in the forest, sure, but the same ones you find all over Panem: shrewmoles, mockingjays, and the odd tracker jacker nest. She supposes that any of the red-tailed hawks she's seen out there could be Tobias, but if he is one of them, she doesn't hear any thought-speech out of him. She thinks the forest is beautiful. It's nature the way she learned about it in school, when she was being trained up as a vet like her parents. All the variety of life, all struggling to survive, all different and strange and awe-inspiring.
As much as she tries to just absorb the sights and sounds of the forest, her mind wanders back to her last day in the Capitol. It was a job for President Snow himself. Those are always the worst. Most citizens who hire her for morph-dancing want her to take shapes that are bizarre, but eerily beautiful in the Capitol way. No matter how strange the request, Cassie can come up with a routine that satisfies her clients' wishes. When Snow takes her on for a job, she's not Cassie anymore. She's Snow's beast, every moment a new and frightening chimera.
Snow walked into the tea parlor with a predator's easy lope. The beast was at his heels, a step behind, deferential. Her cloven hooves clicked on pink-veined marble. Just before she emerged into the peach-warm candlelight of the parlor, she let her eyes melt into a tiger's eyes, set in her boar's head. It took all of her concentration to maintain the complex morph, so she didn't see the expression of the man waiting in the parlor. She didn't need to. It would be a grimace of horror.
She wasn't allowed to morph ears when she was Snow's beast, but she knew what Snow was saying to the man with gleaming ringlets. Won't you give my pet a scratch behind the ears? She's such a lovely animal. She trotted up to the man's chair, tangling her hooves in the hem of his sequined skirt. When he reached out with a trembling hand to pet her, she bared a mouthful of tiger's teeth. He made a show of fussing over her anyway, and when he was finished, she demorphed her front hooves and clapped at the performance. That seemed to scare him worse than the teeth.
The beast returned to Snow's side and demorphed in patches so that the visitor would never get a whole view of her face. She became a hyena, but kept her own eyes. Snow would want her to stare at his guest. She did. At his hand signal, she morphed back her arms and brought them tea, taking care to drip drool from her fangs into the visitor's cup.
Another signal from Snow: his left ring finger curled against his opposite sleeve. The beast let loose the hyena's shrieking laughter. The stench of fear-sweat filled the parlor. But the visitor stayed stock-still. He didn't leave until Snow murmured goodbye, bending to kiss his fingers.
But she's not the beast now. The moment she gets off the train at District Five, she's Cassie, completely and truly. But when she goes back to the Capitol, as she must, there is always something of the beast in her.
It could always be worse, Cassie reminds herself. She doesn't have to do what Marco and Finnick do in the Capitol, or whatever it is Jake and Rachel do. She's not sure what it is, but they do it together, and she knows how utterly destroyed they sound whenever they refer to it in passing.
The plan to distract herself clearly isn't working.
Cassie flies home, tucking herself through her always-open bedroom window and demorphing inside. She makes a point never to morph or demorph outside where any children might see. She doesn't want any of them to see her graceful transformations and think it might be glamorous to have the morphing power too. There's only one way for a child of the districts to get the power to morph, and Cassie doesn't want any volunteers for it.
As soon as her nose is fully human, Cassie smells dinner cooking downstairs. It smells like turkey, tomato soup, and fresh bread. She shucks her morphing outfit and puts on a simple shift. It feels good to wear plain clothes, not the crazy outfits she has to wear in the Capitol. She goes downstairs. Her mother is finishing up the turkey while her father ladles the tomato soup into bowls.
"Can I help?" says Cassie, sidling up to her father.
"Sit yourself down," Walter says. "This is our treat. To welcome you back home."
"Dad, I go to the Capitol twice a year at the very least. It's no big occasion. Besides, I never get to do this when I'm in the Capitol. An Avox cooks for me, or I eat at the events where I perform. I like being a part of it."
"You can cook for yourself tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after," says Mom. "Tonight, you relax. Sit down."
Cassie sits. The table is too big for the three of them, but it's the standard table issued to District Five victors. Lasso's table in the mansion next door, and Winston's in the mansion across from them, are the same. They used to invite Helix and Winston over for dinner, if only to fill the space at the big table, before Helix became a drunk and Winston lost his twelve-year-old son to the Games and stopped talking to anyone but his tributes anymore.
Walter serves dinner. Michelle gets out candles from a cabinet and lights them. Cassie's house gets electricity, of course, as do most of the houses in District Five. Five gets priority for electricity from Three, since the labs need it to run their equipment. But Cassie likes fire, the smell and the warmth of it, and her parents know that.
Over dinner, Cassie asks about work. Her parents are muttation vets. They could have quit their jobs when Cassie won the Games, of course, but they like what they do. Cassie's friends from other districts don't understand that. They wonder how they could help treat mutts that the Capitol uses for the Games and who knows what else. Cassie points out that most of the mutts are made to be pets and entertainments for Capitol citizens, and given the Capitol's taste in entertainment, it can be hard to tell apart monsters intended for the Games from monsters intended to be gawped at in a menagerie. Besides, even when a mutt is obviously designed to attack people, it isn't the mutt's fault. It thirsts for human blood, but it doesn't know that its instincts are unnatural or wrong. An animal in pain is still an animal in pain.
Their stories from work today aren't about bloodthirsty or dangerous mutts, though. Walter examined a canarykeet that was going to be used as stud to create a new Capitol pet. He gave it a clean bill of health, but not before it bit him on the nose. "And the whole time, he never stopped singing!" Walter says. "Not even when his beak was buried in mine!"
Michelle had to perform an autopsy on a chameleon mutt. She found the remains of a giant flutterby in its gut. It had escaped from its habitat and wandered afoul of the lizard mutt. "I'm pretty sure there's some kind of poisonous compound in the flutterby," she says. "They'll have to identify the gene and remove it from the breeding strain, for safety's sake."
"So," says Walter. "Have any plans? You have a couple of months to yourself here. Were you thinking of having anyone over for dinner, maybe?"
Cassie knows what her dad's asking. After all, she's twenty-one years old and she's never had a boyfriend. It's more than that, of course. Cassie had friends in Five before she was reaped, but she doesn't see them much anymore. It's the paradox of her life. Five is the place where Cassie can be herself, but the Capitol is the place where she can spend time with the only people who really understand her. Cassie's parents don't understand this, and she doesn't expect they ever will, but they can see the shape of it. They don't want her to be lonely. Cassie doesn't like being lonely, but she doesn't know if she'd rather be lonely and at peace with herself or surrounded by friends with a beast crawling under her skin. Either way, she doesn't have a choice.
"I thought I might cook Winston dinner sometime soon," she says. Winston doesn't make a good dinner guest, but he was her mentor. She owes him her life, and probably her parents' lives too. "And I'll help out at work, of course. I miss the animals."
"Miss them? You become them," her mother teases.
"It's not the same," Cassie says. That's truer than her parents know. "I love working at the clinic. More than just about anything."
"All that time in the Capitol, and you still fall for the charms of District Five," Walter says.
"That's because you're here and the clinic's here," Cassie says. "If you ran a veterinary clinic on the Moon, then I'd like it there better than anyplace else."
Michelle laughs. "Who would be our patients up there?"
"The Man in the Moon must get sick sometimes," Cassie says.
"And sometimes the cow who jumps over the Moon crashes and breaks her leg," says Walter.
They all laugh. Cassie helps her parents clear the table, though they don't let her wash the dishes. She brought a new recording from a Capitol orchestra her parents like, so she goes upstairs to get it and they sit in the living room and listen to it together. Cassie likes it. The music is slow and stately, not like the music she morph-dances to in the Capitol.
"Well," Cassie says. "I think I'd better unpack." She didn't bring much from the Capitol; her wardrobes there and at home have nothing in common. But she does bring her toothbrush, her token, a few books, and some other things back and forth. "I brought some books for you, too. I'll show you tomorrow." She kisses her parents goodnight.
In her room, Cassie opens her suitcase and unpacks. First she gets out the photography books for her dad and the plays for her mom. Then she gets out her bag of toiletries.
The telephone rings.
Cassie rushes to pick it up. One of her nightmares is that Snow will call and one of her parents will pick up first. She never wants Snow to talk to them. "Faraday residence, Cassie speaking," she says. Formality is her best armor, weak as it is.
"Cassie, it's Rachel." She doesn't sound weary, not quite, but the lack of her usual vitality is an absence that feels open as a wound.
"Rachel! Are you okay? Where have you been?" She had been in the Capitol a month and never seen her. She hadn't picked up her home phone either.
"Oh, you know," she says. "Around. Keeping busy." Cassie instantly knows that she's been on one of her jobs, the secret ones Snow sends her and Jake on. "Nothing to worry about."
"Were you with Jake?"
"Yeah. He's fine too."
Cassie is still worried. With them, "fine" is always a relative term. "Where are you now?"
"Back in One. So's Jake. How long have you been home?"
"Only a few hours."
"Did you see Tom? When you were at the Capitol?"
Cassie bites her lip. "I saw him at a party. But it was from across the room. I couldn't go see him. I had to make nice with some people, and by the time I was free, I lost track of him. I'm sorry."
"Ah. Damn," Rachel says. "Well, thanks for trying. Jake will appreciate it."
They go quiet, and Cassie just listens to the sound of Rachel's breath over the line. "I wish I could be with you," she whispers. "Hold you for a while. Then I'd at least feel like I was looking after you."
"You do look after me. I'd be a wreck without you."
"You're usually without me," Cassie says, giving a watery laugh.
"No, I'm not. I've got a Cassie on my shoulder, you know, like the angel on the shoulder you see in Capitol cartoons. Whenever I'm about to do something reckless or awful or bad for my health, there you are, telling me to slow down and think. I can't get away from you."
"Good. I don't want you to get away from me." Cassie is greedy, wants to hold onto Rachel for as long as Snow and fate allow. She doesn't want to share Rachel with the horrors that leach her spirit. She wants everything that Rachel has to give. She shouldn't want as much she does, she knows. Even Rachel, boundless Rachel, only has so much to give.
"Don't worry," says Rachel, and Cassie can hear the smile warming her words. "I've stopped trying."
"Rachel," Cassie finds herself saying, "if we could be together, all the time, I would – "
"But I – "
"Just enjoy what we have, OK?" says Rachel. "This is what we get. You know I'd tear apart Snow and everyone in his cabinet if I thought it'd change anything. But there'll always be someone else to take their places."
"I know. I just – I can't help but think about it."
"Yeah. I think about it too."
"You should get some sleep," Cassie says. "You sound tired."
"I guess," says Rachel.
Cassie can tell she isn't even going to try. "Or go flying instead. I just did that. You have an owl morph, right? Just fly out, past the buildings and the fences. Makes you feel free, at least."
"It isn't dark yet in One. Time difference. I could go out in bald eagle morph. Yeah. I think I'll go for it."
"Goodnight, Rachel. Love you."
"Love you too, Cassie."
Cassie puts down the phone and stares at her half-unpacked suitcase. She puts her things away, lingering for a moment on her token, a bundle of feathers from a groosduck she helped her parents nurse to health from a broken wing. It was the only reminder of home in those terrible days before the arena, and even now when she can bring anything she wants from Five to the Capitol with her, she always brings this. The edges of the feathers are worn ragged, despite the silk satchel she keeps it in. She clutches it to her heart, thinking of how the groosduck had spread its wings and beat them for the sheer joy of it, scattering the papers in the clinic in all directions.
She puts the feathers in their satchel on her night table and wonders what her dreams will be.
Cassie eats lunch with her parents. It's their last meal together before she has to go to the Capitol. Her small suitcase is already packed. She goes back up to her room to change into plain but presentable clothes. Cassie is no rebel, but the Reaping Ceremony is the only time when she gets to decide what she'll look like on TV, not a Capitol stylist. Since it's up to her to decide what to wear, she always goes in a plain T-shirt and denim instead of a sleek gown.
They go down to the town square. Beside the stage, she kisses her parents on the cheek. "I'll see you again before I go." The time the tributes get to say goodbye to their families is also time Cassie has to say goodbye to hers. Unlike the tributes, though, she knows she's going to see them again.
Tarquinius Merrythought, District Five's escort, is waiting behind the stage, bouncing a little on his heels. His cheekbones are sharper than they were last year, chiseled like diamonds beneath his orange eyes, which flare out from his dried-lava skin, all reddish-black. His hair is done up in yellow-orange spikes, and he towers over her in platform shoes so high it's a wonder he can walk. "Cassie! Why, you disappoint me all over again, looking so plain! Doesn't Capitol fashion leave even the smallest impression on you?"
Capitol fashion has certainly left an impression on Cassie, but not the one he expects. "You know me," she says. "When I'm in Five, I dress like Five."
Helix shows up, and he's wearing a dashing blue Capitol-style suit, but he looks terrible in it. He sways on his trendy platform shoes, and when he croaks out a "G'afternoon" his breath reeks of wine. Cassie is glad she doesn't have to mentor with him this year. Last year, she and Tarquinius had to drag him out of bed every morning, and he horrified the poor tributes.
Tarquinius purses his lips. "Good afternoon," he says, and unlike his good-natured teasing of Cassie's fashion sense, this time it's genuinely peevish.
A hiccup is Helix's only reply.
"Where's Winston?" Tarquinius asks Cassie.
She checks her watch. "It's still five minutes before we have to be on stage. He'll be here."
"Woke up on the wrong side of the bed, did he?" says Tarquinius.
"Put a cork in it, Tark," barks Helix.
The escort bristles. Cassie is about to step in to keep the peace when Winston appears. Dressed neatly and conservatively, his long black hair threaded with silver, he looks the most dignified of all of us. As usual, he doesn't say a word, but the tension immediately diffuses.
"Heya, Winston," says Helix, waving at him sloppily. "What? Not gonna say hi to your old buddy Helix?"
Winston only gives him an acknowledging nod.
"Hi, Winston," she says, not expecting a reply.
He nods to her, this time with a tense little smile. Tarquinius looks like he might be about to say something, but he falls silent. Cassie guesses he doesn't see a point in talking to Winston if he's not going to talk back.
Mayor Farthing joins them. He has a sheaf of papers with his speech. He looks good but not gaudy in his suit, except for the long golden feather tucked behind his ear. It must have come from one of the fancy mutts bred for their decorative plumage. It looks too glittery and jaunty on him, like he's trying to look like a Capitol citizen. It always makes Cassie uncomfortable to see people from the districts envy the Capitol. They only envy Capitol citizens because they don't know what they are.
"Mayor Farthing, it's been too long! A pleasure, a pleasure," says Tarquinius, holding out a white-gloved hand.
Farthing shakes it. "Good to have you, Merrythought. Give us a good show today, won't you?"
"Don't I always?" Tarquinius titters. "Oh, dear, I think it's time now! Come along, everyone!"
They all follow the escort on stage. Cassie sits and lets her mind drift as the propo of the history of Panem plays on the giant screens in the town square. The more time passes, the more she discovers how much of a lie that propo is. The mayor reads the Treaty of Treason, then introduces the victors.
The people in the square applaud Winston when the mayor announces him. He always gives a glass of milk or an apple to any child who comes by his house in the Victor's Village, and his elder children are respected members of the community. Perhaps most of all, everyone remembers what he went through two years ago when he had to mentor his son and watch him die at the Cornucopia before he could even try to win him any sponsorships. Even if he's only brought two victors home in the 34 years he's been a mentor, they can't feel anything but sympathy for him.
Helix earns a mix of lukewarm applause and silent contempt. Everyone knows Helix has given up on his job as mentor. Last year, one of the tributes was the cleverest boy in his year, a shining star who should have been able to outwit his way to the top. He even earned a training score of seven, the highest any District Five tribute had gotten since Cassie herself. But when Helix was interviewed on camera about his star tribute, he drunkenly proclaimed that the boy was probably going to die in a bloody mess just like all the rest. The boy survived for three days before dying of an illness that could have been cured by a sponsorship gift of medicine.
Cassie understands her district's anger. She also understands Helix. Tall, lean, and effeminately beautiful, his body had been bought by Capitol citizens for years. Last year was the first year no one bought him. Cassie can imagine why he would take the opportunity to say and do anything he wanted on camera, finally free to offend his Capitol audience, even if it harmed his tribute's chances. It probably seemed hopeless to him, anyway. He'd never brought a victor home; Cassie was mentored by Winston.
Finally, Mayor Farthing introduces Cassie. She stands up, her face heating as she realizes she's getting nearly as much applause as Winston. Cassie does what she can to help out around Five, volunteering her morphing power as an eye in the sky and a nose on the ground when a mutt runs free or a child goes missing. But she doesn't deserve their respect, not the way Winston does.
Then it's Tarquinius' turn. "Good afternoon, District Five!" he trills. "Look at all you beautiful people! I think the odds might be in your favor this year, don't you?"
Scattered applause. It's a better reaction than he got last year when he asked the crowd if they were excited for the Games.
"And a Happy Hunger Games to you, too!" says Tarquinius, as if the crowd had gone wild. "Now, let's find out who'll be our lovely lady!"
The tributes drawn are Deena Edwin-Smythe and Gene Foster. Cassie doesn't recognize Deena, but she has heard of her parents, a pair of brilliant genetic engineers who produce some of Five's most complex creations. She ascends to the stage trembling, pale as a wisp of cloud. Gene, an underfed boy who looks fourteen but is probably older, glares at everyone, as if daring them to pity him and promising dire consequences if they do.
"Deena Edwin-Smythe and Gene Foster, everyone!" Tarquinius proclaims, taking the tributes' hands and hoisting them high. Some of the crowd applauds. Some stare hollowly. Deena's parents and friends sob and scream her name. No one screams Gene's name.
The newest lambs for the slaughter, some cynical corner of Cassie's mind comments.
Peacekeepers escort them into the mayor's mansion. Cassie doesn't need to be corralled. She sits in the most modest chair she can find in the foyer and waits for her parents to arrive. In the meantime, she watches more Peacekeepers bring the Edwin-Smythes to the room where their daughter is kept under guard.
Tarquinius opens the front door and leans in. "The press wants a statement from you, Cassie."
"I haven't even met the tributes yet, Tark," Cassie says, forcing patience into her voice she doesn't feel. "My parents will be here any minute. I'd like to say goodbye before we head to the Capitol."
The escort pouts. "Fine, fine, if you insist. But you had better have something for them by the time we get off the train. I hate to let them languish."
"Yeah, poor them," she mutters. Tarquinius shuts the door, and a few minutes later, her parents arrive. A wail of grief, faint but audible, drifts from the room with the Edwin-Smythes, and Cassie and her parents all flinch at the sound.
They find seats near Cassie and lean toward her. This is her third year mentoring. They're still not used to letting go of her. Cassie didn't have many friends her age before she was reaped, spending most of her time with her parents. She sees them so much less than she was used to. Not only do they have to relinquish her to the Capitol several times a year, but they also have to say goodbye before she sends her tributes off to their almost certain deaths. They never know what to say. Cassie doesn't know how to tell them that they're better off not saying anything. They'll never understand what it's like, and anyway, just knowing they're there for her is enough.
Perhaps she ought to tell them that she's in as much danger when she goes to the Capitol as she was the first time, if not more. But there's nothing they can do about that, and they would just worry.
"Do they – " her mother begins, then falls silent. She was about to ask if the tributes have a chance, Cassie knows. But she realizes that the question is cruel. Finally, she says, "Is there anything good for you, when you go to the Capitol? Anything that makes you happy? It's supposed to be the most beautiful place in the world, but you never make it sound that way when you talk about it."
"It is beautiful," says Cassie. And poisonous, like a daggerfly, she thinks. "And there are good things there. All of my worst times have been there, but also some of my happiest times."
"Couldn't you tell us about some of the happy times?" says Michelle.
Cassie hesitates. She's better off keeping quiet about her friends – and her lover – among her fellow Victors. Cross-District relationships aren't supposed to exist, and the Capitol only ignores them so long as the Victors are discreet about them. Most of her happy times in the Capitol are spent in their company. But there are a few that aren't. She can pick one that's safe, with some editing.
"My stylist, Aftran," she says. "You've seen her in the broadcasts, and I think I've talked about her before. She's my friend, but I didn't like her at first, and she didn't like me. Or I guess, it wasn't so much that she didn't like me, but that she didn't see me as a real person. Long story short, we changed our minds about each other. Now we have a tradition. Every time I go to the Capitol, we go to this place in the mountains. A valley, almost unchanged since before the Dark Days. It's full of tiny delicate flowers. It smells like perfume and mountain air. And it's always full of butterflies. Some are fancy types from Five escaped from Capitol gardens and hybridized with the locals, but most are wild types. We sit and watch the butterflies. Sometimes I morph one. For old times' sake."
"That sounds lovely, Cassie," says Walter. "I wish we could go there with you. I wonder why they never show places like that in the Capitol broadcasts."
Because if they show us natural beauty, we'll know what they've taken from us, Cassie thinks. Better to show us the beauty the Capitol creates, so we think they made everything lovely in the world.
"I'll ask Aftran to sketch it for you. She's good at that. And I can show you one of the butterflies right now." Cassie gets to her feet, half-closes her eyes, and pictures the butterfly just as it was when she acquired it, perched on a columbine bloom. Silver-blue wings burst from her shoulder blades, reflecting back the foyer's lights in subtle iridescence. Seeing the awe on her parents' faces makes her smile back. "They look even better in sunlight."
Walter reaches out and touches a wing. A few scales rub off onto his fingers and shine there like sequins. Not that Walter's ever seen a sequin in person before. Even when she's home with her parents, she doesn't think like they do. The scope of her world is broader. Sometimes, she wishes it were as small as theirs. But then Rachel would only be another face in a parade of Victors.
"This is a wild type?" says Michelle, still gazing rapturously at the wings.
"I'm pretty sure, yes," Cassie says. "I found it in the species database. Boisduval's Blue Butterfly. Aricia icarioides. Aftran says the scientific name comes from Icarus, a boy from an old story who flew with wings made of wax." She doesn't tell them what happened to the boy after that.
"They say there used to be hundreds of thousands of species of butterflies," Walter says.
"I'm glad this one made it," Cassie says. She lets her gaze go soft and focuses inward. The butterfly wings shrivel into nothingness. Her parents sigh a little, sorry to see them go. She sits down. "So what are your plans while I'm in the Capitol?"
They tell her. Their clinic's getting remodeled, so they'll have to relocate for a little while. There's a lot of work to do, moving cages and supplies. The talk is soothing. The next time Cassie glances up at the clock, her time with them is almost gone. She stands up. "I need to go to the train now."
"We brought your suitcase to the platform," says Walter. "One of those Avoxes took it. It should be waiting for you on the train."
"Thanks." Cassie pulls her parents into a big group hug. "I'll miss you."
"We'll miss you too," says Michelle. "Try to have some good times for us, you hear?"
"I will. And I'll think of you."
"We love you, Cassie," says her father. He drops a kiss on her hair.
She blinks away tears. It's always so hard, every time. But leaving the Capitol is hard too. "I love you too." Reluctantly, she pulls away from them, and prepares herself, inside and out, for the journey.
Everyone mentors differently, but Winston and Cassie like to escort their tributes onto the train, so they don't have to be so overwhelmed and alone. Tarquinius, Winston, and Cassie are waiting on the platform when the Peacekeepers and the camera crews arrive with Deena and Gene in tow. As they approach, she takes the opportunity to examine them. Deena is pale, tall, and slim, but her long dark braid has the gloss of good nutrition. Her green dress is very modest, the hem coming down to her ankles and the sleeves covering her wrists. Cassie gets the feeling that she won't like being exposed in front of all of Panem, whatever form that exposure takes. Her entire face is puffy from crying, her brown eyes rimmed all around with red.
Gene is shorter than Deena. His cheekbones stand out diamond-sharp against his blue-black skin, and when he snarls at a camera that comes too close to his face, she can see that his teeth are yellow and crooked. His plain clothes are threadbare, worn at the elbows and knees. He can't seem to keep any part of his body still, nervous energy making his fingers and toes twitch and tap.
This is their moment, when they can start to build trust with the tributes. Even Tarquinius knows not to interfere.
When they're close, she says, "Hi. I'm Cassie," and extends her hand to Gene.
Gene's gaze jerks back and forth between her hand, her face, and the Peacekeepers. "I know who you are."
"I know. But I wanted to introduce myself anyway. It's polite."
Gene reaches out, gives my hand an abrupt squeeze, then pulls away. "I'm Gene."
"Good to meet you." She offers her hand to Deena.
Deena takes it. "Hi. I'm Deena," she says in a tiny voice. Her hand lingers before letting go. She shakes Winston's hand next. When he introduces himself, it's the first time she's heard his voice in a year. She almost forgot how warm and fatherly it was.
"Come along with us," says Winston. "It's near on supper time, and the table's set."
Gene licks his lips at the mention of food and follows Winston onto the train. He glances back at the Peacekeepers and the cameras and looks relieved when they don't follow. Deena curls in on herself like a dead leaf. On impulse, Cassie reaches out and take her hand. Deena follows her lead without resistance.
The elegance of the train inspires awe and fear in Gene. Cassie imagines he's thinking about how much money and work would have had to go into it. He hasn't seen anything yet. Deena's eyes dart around, but she stays passive, adrift in her own little sea of terror. Cassie can hear the clunk of Tarquinius' platform shoes behind her.
Supper is laid out in tureens and ewers, wafting a smell that makes even my mouth water. Unnecessarily, Tarquinius trills, "Supper time, everyone! Isn't it marvelous?"
Gene grabs a pear from a tower of fruit and eats it before sitting down. Deena's eyes have come into focus again, though she doesn't look exactly eager. Cassie sits next to Gene and serves herself a portion of artichoke heart salad.
Once the pace of his eating has slowed enough that he can catch his breath, Gene says, "When do I get the morphing power?"
"Just before you enter the arena," says Winston. "I wish you could have time to practice, but they don't want you acquiring morphs on the sly during training. We'll do what we can to teach you about the power and how to use it."
"No one has it before the arena?" says Gene. "Not even the Careers?"
"Not even the Careers," Winston confirms. "The blue boxes are as tightly controlled as nuclear weaponry."
"So I could just morph an alligodile and kill the Careers."
"It's not that simple," Cassie says. "First you have to acquire an alligodile, if there even is one in the arena, and that's anything but easy. The Careers have an advantage there, because they're trained in weaponry and can wound or stun dangerous animals before acquiring them. If you manage to acquire the alligodile, the Careers could have nasty morphs too. And even when they're not in morph, they could find a way to take you out."
Out of the corner of my eye, she can see that Deena stopped eating. She looks green.
"Hey, Deena," Winston says gently. "I know this isn't fun to talk about, but if you want to survive, you're going to have to talk with us about surviving."
Deena seems to curl in on herself again. "I miss my mom and dad."
"At least you have a mom and dad, girl," says Gene. "If my mom was alive, hell, I'd do anything to come home to her. You're pathetic. You might as well have just killed yourself before you got on the train."
Deena makes a tiny noise of pain and flinched, as if she'd been wounded.
"Hey," Cassie says to Gene. "Easy there. We're all better off if we work together."
"You don't know what it's like either!" Gene says. "You never have. Living like you're North Side, even before you won the Games. All that nice food, all those muscles from helping your parents at the clinic."
It's her turn to flinch. He's right about her family, of course. They're dark-skinned and dark-eyed, like South Siders, and they tell the same stories and sing the same songs as everyone else in the South Side of the district. But they're the only South Side family with a comfortable job like veterinarian. A lot of South Siders with jobs like hazardous waste technician or mutt wrangler or laboratory rat resent them. Like Deena, she had a lot of advantages as a tribute: good health, good education. Something to live for.
Gene continues. "Can we pick which mentor we get? 'Cause I pick Winston. He might be rich now, but he remembers what it's like to be South Side."
"You can pick whoever you like," Winston says placatingly. "Is that fine with you, Deena?"
She gives a tiny nod.
Tarquinius has been watching all of this with a faintly bemused expression. This is all so far from the world he knows it might as well be from another planet. In the Capitol, the people are pale, but they dye their skin every color of the rainbow. He might not even know what Gene meant when he talks about North Side and South Side. He holds up a pie plate and says, "Cinnamon chocolate tart, anyone? It's exquisite."
"What's wrong with him?" Gene asks Winston. "Are all people from the Capitol like that?"
She wants to tell him that he shouldn't hate or fear Capitol citizens. He should pity them. But she shouldn't talk about that in front of Tarquinius – and anyway, even if she did explain, Gene probably still wouldn't understand.
"Plenty of them are worse," says Winston. He tries to pass it off as a joke, but it has the unmistakable ring of truth.
She sees that Deena is just moving her food around on her plate, not eating it. Cassie leans toward her. "Would you like to have a talk in private, Deena?"
She eyes Cassie cautiously, then nods. They get up. "Excuse us," Cassie says, and leads Deena to the next room on the train. This one is mostly windows, and the terrain rushes dizzily past them. Deena stares at the scenery for a while, then joins her on a plush sofa. She looks at Cassie, then bursts into tears.
Cassie gathers her into her side, wrapping her arm around Deena. She can hear her say something between sobs, but it's too muffled to make out. She waits. Deena's sobs ease into a steady flow of tears, and this time Cassie can hear her say, "I don't want to kill anyone."
Cassie gives her shoulder a squeeze. Deena relaxes a little into the touch. "I just can't. My parents say that it's never OK, not even for the Hunger Games. If I kill anyone they'll never forgive me."
"They might, if it means you get to come home," she says.
"They won't. And even if they would, I can't. I couldn't make myself do it. It's not worth it." Deena buries her face into Cassie's side again and cries. Then she pulls away, looks at Cassie with huge brown eyes, and says, "Couldn't I do it like you? Win without killing anybody?"
"No," Cassie says firmly. "No, Deena. You're better off just killing them. It'd be kinder than what I did."
"How can you say that? You won the Hunger Games without any blood on your hands. Aren't you grateful?"
"Deena, I wish I didn't have to tell you about this, but you need to understand," she says, pushing Deena away a little. "What I did to them wasn't a mercy. If I'd killed them, they would have suffered for a moment, but then it would have been over. But I trapped them in morph instead. They may be alive, but they suffer in ways you can't imagine. Think of what it's like for them, having to live forever by nature's rule, eating or getting eaten. Think how lonely it must get in that arena. Think about never seeing your family again, but also that secret relief, knowing they don't have to see what you've become.
"And it gets worse, because sometimes they bring in Capitol citizens for tourism. People who want to see the arena of the famous bloodless victory, and meet the losers. They come to gawk at the nothlits and ask them how it felt to lose to kind, gentle Cassie. That's what it's like for the four nothlits I made. For Cory, Evelia, Miracle, and Lysander."
"You remember their names," says Deena, her eyes welling up again.
"How could I forget?" Cassie whispers. "They're still suffering now. Every day I hope they've died so their torment can end."
"That's not what you say in the broadcasts."
"I'm not sure I've ever spoken a word of truth in a broadcast. You've got to learn how to do that too. It's as important a survival skill as knowing how to light a fire." Cassie isn't very good at it. Rachel and Marco can wrap the press around their pinky fingers. But she's all Deena has.
"What's the point? I don't want to survive. Not if it means I have to kill. And it doesn't seem like your way is any better. So I'll die, and it won't matter what the press thinks of me."
"That's a legitimate choice. And if you want to make that choice, I won't try to stop you," Cassie says. Deena looks surprised at her words. "But let's give it a couple of days, all right? Take some time to think about it, and make sure that's what you want. In the meantime, play along and do as I tell you. Does that sound all right with you?"
Deena chews her lip. "I guess."
"Thank you. I just wanted to make sure you make the choice that's right for you. Now, let's pretend you do try to win the Games. What skills do you have that might help?"
They talk shop for half an hour. Then Deena tells Cassie about her family. Everything she'll miss about District Five. Despite their agreement, Cassie can tell that Deena's already made up her mind. She knows that she isn't coming back. Cassie can hear it in the desperate longing in her voice when she talks about her house in the North side, the sound of water boiling for tea in the morning, the dress her parents wanted to buy for her next Reaping.
Cassie brings her to her bedroom, and hopes she dreams of home.