Despite all sanity and common sense, Cassie can't help but feel a hiccup of excitement build inside her as the train pulls into the Capitol. Deena and Gene are glued to the window, taking in the sights. Cassie can't deny the Capitol's splendor, but all she can think about is Aftran. Soon, they will be reunited.
Winston takes a moment to explain to the tributes about the prep team and what they're going to do, while Tarquinius rhapsodizes on how lovely they'll look. Cassie keeps her skepticism hidden. The prep team could do a lot with Deena, but no amount of styling will be able to hide how gaunt Gene looks.
The platform is crowded with gawkers and TV personalities, and here Cassie forces herself to say a few meaningless lines, enough to sate the public for a while. Tarquinius has a hand on each tribute's shoulder and tries to show them off to the crowd, but they just look terrified. Winston corrals them all toward the building where the prep team waits. When they show up, Cassie takes her leave and goes upstairs to find Aftran.
She's in her study, reading messages and watching videos on her desktop projection. Walls of text and Reaping footage flicker in the air above her desk. When she hears Cassie approach, she swivels her chair around. Aftran is much prettier than anyone could be from genetics alone, but she doesn't look unnatural either. Her hair is a waist-length cascade of spun gold, every curl perfectly defined. She has high cheekbones under intensely green eyes, like the heart of a jungle. Her strapless dress and elbow-length gloves, glittering with black sequins, show off shapely shoulders and calves. When she stands from her chair, she's a head taller than Cassie, and leans down to gather her in an embrace.
"Cassie. I've missed you." She leans back and plucks at a belt loop on Cassie's jeans. Deadpan, she says, "And your denim, of course. Always the model of Capitol chic."
"I've missed you too," says Cassie. Then, in the sign language the Avoxes use to communicate among themselves, she adds the name she cannot say aloud: Karen.
Karen signs back, much more gracefully than Cassie, hands arching and swooping before her. How can you always tell?
You have a much better sense of humor than Aftran. In Cassie's clumsy sign language, it comes out more like You make more laughs than Aftran.
Her face more serious now, Aftran says, She needs a sense of humor more than I do.
Cassie thinks it's a miracle that Karen has a sense of humor at all, after growing up in one of the nursery-prisons they call "host farms." Karen and Aftran have told her that most hosts are so horribly abused that even during their brief moments of freedom by the Kandrona pool, they just sit and stare at nothing. Karen has fought hard for her humanity, and her sense of humor is a weapon in that long battle.
"How have you been?" Aftran says.
"You know. Helping out at the clinic. Living a quiet District life. How about you?"
"I had a few major jobs. And a promising new apprentice." This time it's Karen speaking. "He's worked in a few big-name boutiques, and he's on the prep team for District 11 this year. His name is Cinna Briarlock, and his work is positively visionary."
And he's like us, Aftran signs.
"What do you mean?" Cassie asks.
"He has such an eye for the client's individuality," Karen gushes, and as she speaks, Aftran signs, He's gone native. A host sympathizer. Their personalities have melded so that they're barely distinguishable. Trauma, you know. They complete each other.
"Wow," Cassie says. "Do you think he'll make Hunger Games stylist?" After, she signs, How do you know the truth?
"I hope so. I can't wait to see what he comes up with," Karen says.
We swapped hosts in secret, says Aftran. Both Yeerk and host were lost without each other for company. They haven't even created separate names for themselves, as Karen and I have. When pressed for an identity, the Yeerk said, "Call me 'The Conspirator.'"
Cassie didn't catch the last word, so she asks Aftran to finger-spell it, then repeat the sign. A conspiracy, she signs, testing the new word. It's shaped like a fist, with the thumb extended toward the body. It starts with the tip of the thumb pressed against the right side of her neck, then moving up and inward to the right corner of her mouth. What conspiracy? How?
"What district will he pick?" says Cassie, keeping up the conversation for the sake of anyone listening. "Has he caught the eye of any Victors?"
"Chaff and Seeder have liked his work for District 11, and of course Chaff has Haymitch's ear," says Karen, "but he might want to aim higher. I've told him he should get in touch with Finnick."
A conspiracy to promote sympathy between Yeerk and host, says Aftran.
"Finnick goes through stylists like tissue paper," Cassie says. Then she signs, That's dangerous. You could be killed. She thinks for a moment. And Karen would get another Yeerk. The other Yeerk would know about me. About what we do together.
"He won't toss Cinna aside lightly," says Karen. "He has a way with people."
I know, Aftran signs, her hand movements gentle. That's why I'm speaking to you before going forward with it. I'll let Cinna lead and stay out of the way if that is your wish.
"He'd have his work cut out for him," Cassie says. "He's not as sweet as he looks on television."
Cassie is overcome with gratitude and admiration for her friend. She would risk her life so that more hosts could live like Karen, healed by kindness from decades of abuse, neglect, and the most profound slavery imaginable. But she was also willing to give up this cause she so believed in, all for Cassie's sake.
Does Karen want this too? Will she be a conspirator?
There isn't as much that I can do, signs Karen. I'll be flagged as a troublemaker if I talk too much to other hosts. Pretty much all I can do is give them hope. But yes, I want this.
Then do it. This is important. I understand, Cassie signs. It occurs to her that Cinna, after the Conspirator was in Karen's head, would know about Cassie's history with Aftran. "Can I meet him?" she says.
"Sure," says Karen. "I'll be busy tonight, of course, but I know he'll be at Dominica Eclecta's party tonight to see the Opening Ceremonies. All the most sophisticated people in fashion will be there to talk about this year's outfits."
Cassie grimaces. "I can't reuse an outfit for a party like that. Is there anything I haven't worn I can break out for this?"
"Well," Karen says, drawing out the word thoughtfully, "there is the one I designed for your gig at Secretary Clemens' manse…"
"That I vetoed," Cassie says, crossing her arms over her chest self-consciously, "because it's full of holes where holes shouldn't be."
"But you haven't worn it, and it'll definitely blend in at the party," Karen points out.
Cassie sighs. "Fine. But there's no way I'm going alone."
Good thing she has a girlfriend who'll get the attention of the entire party, and enjoy it.
Cassie goes to check on Deena before getting dressed for the party. She's in her dress already, the wires beneath the billowing cloth forming a double helix shape, for the molecule she was named after. The prep team is applying makeup to match the silvery fabric, under Aftran's watchful eye.
"Not those!" Aftran scoffs when one of the prep team clowns picks up a set of enormous, glittering false eyelashes. "With lashes that heavy, she'll barely be able to blink. Have some mercy on the girl."
Cassie gives Aftran a wave and a little smile as she comes in.
"Go wash your hands, all three of you," Aftran tells the prep team. "They're covered in powder and who knows what else."
That's Cassie's cue. She has some space to squeeze Deena's hand reassuringly and lean to whisper in her ear, "How's Aftran treating you?"
Deena blinks. Maybe she doesn't realize that her opinion matters. It doesn't, really, because even if she doesn't like Aftran, they're stuck with each other. But it matters to Cassie. Finally, she whispers back, "She – she's not like the rest. She doesn't think it's a game, and I'm just a – a pawn. She thinks I'm a real person. It doesn't mean she's nice, exactly. But she sees me. Like you do."
"I try," Cassie says sadly. "Listen, Deena. I won't be back tonight until after you've gone to sleep. But I'll be with you first thing in the morning to help you plan out your training session, OK? And I'll be watching tonight, and cheering for you."
"Where are you going?" Deena asks.
"A party. Tarquinius will be out, too. We'll try to talk you up to sponsors." It's a lie by omission. Cassie will try to get sponsors, but there's really no chance she'll succeed. She has other plans for her time.
"Thanks, but you don't have to," says Deena. "I know I'm hopeless."
Cassie wonders if Deena read it off her face, or if it's just another manifestation of her despair. "I'll try," she says. "I have to. You deserve every chance you can get."
"Why do I deserve a chance?"
"Because everyone does."
The prep team comes back from the sinks, and Cassie waves goodbye to Deena and Aftran. She puts on Aftran's outfit, a richly violet dress with a keyhole over her modest cleavage and two slashes in the back that reveal her shoulder blades. She feels naked in it, even though Capitol citizens often wear much less. Drawing on lessons from Aftran, she puts on the minimum acceptable makeup for a Capitol party: foundation and purple lipstick to match her dress.
Paparazzi take pictures of Cassie in the taxi to the party. She lets them. If she doesn't give them something to talk about, they'll look into the parts of her life that are truly important. It's partly why she takes the time to talk with people like Tarquinius who she doesn't like. Let people make assumptions about who her friends are, so they won't see where her heart lies.
The party is in a rooftop garden. The taxi drops Cassie off in front of the building.
In the lobby, Rachel is waiting for an elevator.
Cassie stops to take in the view from behind. Rachel is wearing a sort of thick, gauzy cape, dyed a gold a few shades darker than her hair, which is gathered in a side ponytail. Through the gossamer folds of the cape, Cassie sees a bronze dress with a wandering hem. She wants nothing more than to reach out and touch, to surprise Rachel with the warmth of her hand – but Victors don't react well to surprises, Rachel least of all. So she reaches out with the warmth of her voice. "Rachel."
When Rachel turns, there's already a smile touching her face. There's no one to see them embrace but Snow's cameras, and he already knows about them. They press their mouths together, fiercely, and Cassie feels like she's melting out through her lips, flowing into Rachel until there's nothing left of herself.
They pull apart, breathless. "I missed you too," Rachel says. She reaches out, squeezes Cassie's hand, then lets go. The elevator is almost here, and they can't let anyone see. This frustrates Rachel, but Cassie isn't so bothered by the secrecy. Anything that all of Panem can see, Snow and the Capitol can corrupt. The more hidden it is, the more true and pure it can be. Cassie holds the secret of Rachel's love as close as she can.
There's no one in the elevator, thankfully. When the doors close, Rachel leans into Cassie and says, "How are we going to play this?"
"You're the distraction," Cassie says, snaking an arm around Rachel's waist and squeezing. "No one will think too hard about who I'm talking to."
Rachel gives her a considering look. "Tell me later?"
"What I can," Cassie says. The lovers in Capitol romances express their devotion by sharing all their secrets with each other. Cassie and Rachel aren't like that. Their secrets are their way of protecting each other.
"Don't forget," says Rachel. "After the party, meeting at the barn."
"I never forget," Cassie says with a smile.
They pull apart in time for the elevator doors to open on a rooftop garden. It's vast and dense, thick with palm trees and verandahs and flower-twined buffet tables, a tame jungle. Cameras flash the moment they step into the light of a rose-tinted lamp cleverly worked into a hanging vine. A group of women sipping cocktails as bright as their hair alternately whisper to each other and smile at them. They are adored, but not trusted. Even the most beloved pets can't be expected to follow the rules of polite society.
A short curvy woman sashays toward them through the trees, dressed in a swirling gown that looks it's made from jungle fronds and moonlight. Her smile stretches from ear to ear. It's a coup to get a Victor at an Opening Ceremonies party, much less two. She'll be the toast of the gossip circuit tomorrow.
"Nice zoo, Dominica," says Rachel. "Where do you keep the jaguars?" She doesn't know Dominica Eclecta to be on a first name basis, but Rachel's never cared about that kind of thing. She knows all the rules, but breaks them with casual arrogance.
"Who needs jaguars when we have you, my dear?" says Eclecta. Her eyes roam Rachel's body. "You're wearing one of mine. It suits you."
"I do carry it off well, don't I? Modeling is my talent, after all."
"I ought to make a new line with you as my inspiration. I'll call it Berserker. All shredded cloth and streaks of red." Eclecta gestures lazily behind her. "The screen is this way, ladies. The show starts in a few minutes." She bends to kiss Cassie's hand, then Rachel's. "Thank you for coming. Perhaps you'll finally take an interest in fashion, Cassie? And Rachel, always such a pleasure."
"We'll talk," says Rachel. "But we won't do Berserker. It'll be…" She smiles sharply. "Welcome to the Jungle." She walks away, and Cassie follows. "She's a great designer," she tells Cassie.
Cassie just stares at her.
"It's all bluffing. Like rams butting horns. She knows I can make or break her career by what I decide to model. So she pushes, but not too far." Rachel flashes her teeth in a fierce smile. "It's a working relationship."
They keep walking, and the trees thin out, replaced by a riot of tropical flowers. Among the flowers are seats made to look like stones and tree trunks. There's a holographic projector embedded into the edge of the roof, throwing up a vast image of the Avenue of the Tributes, lined with excited crowds.
Most of the guests are already gathered here. Many of them begin to converge on Rachel. She's not a mentor this year, but she's met the tributes from One, and would-be sponsors will want to get the inside scoop. Cassie and Rachel give each other little waves goodbye, and Cassie finds a seat shaped like a moss-covered rock that has a good view of the screen. The viewing area gets packed. Someone sits next to Cassie on her rock, but the music starts and she barely notices the party around her.
Cashmere and Jake's tributes lead the parade, looking as radiant as they always do – Rachel has always admired the work of One's stylists, if not their personalities. Cassie watches every tribute who passes by, partly to gather information to help Deena, and partly as witness to the children who are about to die – or live bloodstained in a golden cage.
Deena and Gene are matched in an elegant double helix scheme, built into the structure of Deena's dress and printed in black on Gene's silver suit. The clothes were made with creativity and care, especially Deena's. But the children inside those clothes tremble as if they were naked. Cassie thinks of the Edwin-Smythes back in District Five, watching and crying in sympathy for their daughter. She wonders if anyone is crying for Gene.
The Opening Ceremonies end, and the screen switches to commentary. All around Cassie, people turn to one another to discuss the tributes. Except, she realizes, for whoever sat next to her on the rock. That person is silent. She turns to see who it is.
Brown hair, brown skin, green eyes lined with gold, plain black clothing. Just as Aftran described him. But there's one thing Cassie didn't expect: a blue butterfly brooch pinned to his well-tailored shirt.
"Cinna," she says.
"Cassie," he says. She gets the impression that Cinna noticed her focus on the butterfly brooch, but he says nothing of it. "I think you might live up to what Aftran thinks of you."
"And what does she think of me?"
Cinna smiles, and it's one of the gentlest things that Cassie has ever seen in the Capitol. "That despite everything, you still manage to care."
"It hasn't been very long." Cassie's mouth twists bitterly. "Check back on me when I've been through this as many times as Helix, or Haymitch Abernathy. See if I still care then. And what about you? Do you care about your tribute?"
"Husker," Cinna says, putting gentle emphasis on the name, "is a very brave and loving young man. He'll do whatever he can to make sure his son gets to grow up with a father."
That rocks Cassie. It's never happened before in Five, to Cassie's knowledge – her district, by its nature, has more access to spermicidal and abortifacient chemicals than most – but she's heard about it happening in other Districts. Tributes who've already had children of their own, even tributes who are carrying a child when they're reaped – though none of them are ever pregnant by the time they show up on Capitol screens.
Then she realizes something else. Cinna is on one of the prep teams for District 11. Cassie knows the female prep team for her District. The young women – girls, really – are well-meaning, but they have no more emotional connection with the tributes they groom than they do with fictional characters in a storybook. They are so ignorant of what the tributes think and feel that their lives might as well be fairy tales written in a book, not even real enough for images on a screen. The tributes Cassie has known would never confide in them. She certainly didn't when it was her head on the chopping block.
But Cinna so thoroughly earned the trust of the tribute in his care, Husker, that he heard this intensely personal story from him. And he cared enough to remember it, and repeat it to Cassie. He cared, period. She could hear it in his voice.
Cassie leans toward Cinna. "Let's talk."
Somewhere, Rachel says something loud and scornful about Two's female tribute. This starts an even louder argument. It's a perfect distraction, but they still need cover for the type of conversation they want to have. She can tell Cinna's thinking the same thing, by the way his green eyes take in the ebb and flow of the party.
Cinna puts a hand on the nape of Cassie's neck, pulls her toward him a little, and leans in to whisper in her ear, "Is it all right if we play it this way?"
His intent is clear. If they retreat to a shadowy corner and touch each other the way Cinna is touching her now, everyone will think they know what they're saying to each other. It's the way Finnick conducts much of his business, Cassie knows. It's not a strategy Cassie has used before, but in this case, she finds she doesn't mind. She angles her mouth toward Cinna's ear. "Sure. Lead the way."
Cinna moves his hand from the nape of Cassie's neck to the small of her back and pulls her upright with his other hand. She reaches around to grip his shoulder, and he steers her into a deep shadow between two jungle trees, dense with flowering vines. They turn so her back is against one of the trunks, one hand on his neck and one on his shoulder. His knee is between hers.
Cassie looks into the eyes of Cinna, the Conspirator, and whispers, "Tell me why you love each other."
Cinna nods. He understands. She needs to know why he started this conspiracy. She needs to know how human and Yeerk came to understand each other, despite all the bloody history between them. And she's asked him in such a way that he can answer without sounding like the host sympathizer he is.
"You must understand," he says. "Asking me that is like asking me why I love myself. But I'll try."
Cassie squeezes his shoulder, encouraging.
"Imagine a boy," he says. "A boy with the soul of a poet, raised humble."
Cassie inhales sharply. Raised humble. Code for raised in a District. Cinna-the-human didn't come from a host farm.
"A boy with talent like no one's ever seen. He shapes art with his hands from almost nothing. His creations are noticed, and he gets an opportunity that few receive."
He gets to go to the Capitol, Cassie fills in silently. She shifts against him a little.
"And as he learns, he gets even better. But then the madness comes. Feelings like he's never felt. Visions of things he could never have imagined. It inspires him to a new art like he's never known before. But in between the visions, despair that crushes him so that he can barely stand, let alone hold a pencil. He would do anything to be able to let out all the images blooming in his mind.
"Now imagine someone else. Someone old, who has seen everything of the world, who has had hosts of every shape and age and gender. Not a thing on the planet is new or interesting. Decadence is the only thing left, and even that grows stale. Then imagine that Yeerk loses a host in a freak accident. Reeling from the shock, yet empty inside.
"And then these two find each other, and give each other what they need. One gives order to a chaotic mind, and the will to live and make art again. The other gives comfort, kindness, and something new in the world. Something that's never been seen before. That's where love is."
"I'm in," Cassie says. "Anytime you need me, I'm in."
Cinna studies her, and Cassie tries to fathom the mind behind those green eyes, madness and ennui tempering each other into a functioning whole. She realizes she's a little jealous. What if her every despairing thought could be soothed away by a trusted friend the moment it appeared? She and Aftran could be that way.
"Do you trust me?" she asks.
"I've seen you," says Cinna, "the way Aftran sees you. She loves you." He leans in. "Welcome." He makes a fist with his thumb pressed against the right side of his neck, and draws it up to the corner of his mouth. Welcome to the conspiracy. The motion draws Cassie's eye to his mouth. Cinna has a lovely mouth.
Suddenly, Cassie wants. She wants to devour him, and understand him. She and Rachel are allowed to sleep with other people – they agreed on that from the beginning. It's only practical. They only see each other two months of the year, give or take, and sometimes the comfort of spending the night in a lover's arms is one they can't afford to live without. Besides, it helps them maintain their cover.
Cinna catches her staring. "You don't have to do that. No one's looking."
Cassie's gaze darts toward the crowd, all of them absorbed in one another, then back toward Cinna. "I know. That's why I want to."
Cinna's eyes find Rachel, holding court in an adoring knot of fashionistas. He looks back at Cassie, expressionless.
Cassie takes in a breath. He knows. How? She says, "We let each other find pleasure wherever we can. Goodness knows it's difficult enough."
At that, Cinna's eyes soften. As he draws close, Cassie feels like she's falling into them. She keeps her own eyes open through the kiss, watching. His eyes flutter open and shut by turns, as if he can't decide whether to look or just surrender to the softness and the gliding of tongues. It's startling to realize that human and Yeerk can share this simple pleasure, that when his tongue quests deeper into her mouth, it's both of them exploring her at once.
The kiss is long and slow and gentle, and when they finally pull apart, Cassie sees languid contentment relaxing the muscles of Cinna's face.
"If you want my help," whispers Cassie, snaking a hand between Cinna's shirt and close-fitting jacket, "contact me privately." She finger-spells the name of an Avox she trusts against Cinna's shirt.
He nods to show his understanding.
"If you want anything else," she adds, flushing at her own boldness, "then you can use this." She signs her phone number.
Cinna doesn't quite smolder, but the corner of his mouth turns up lazily.
Cassie presses a quick parting kiss to his cheek, and goes off into the party to find any sponsors she can – and to watch, from the corner of her eye, as Rachel twists their Capitol tormentors around her pinky finger.
The barn at the Cornucopia Lounge is safe ground.
The owners of the Cornucopia Lounge, the Kings, walk a tightrope with their business model. The Lounge attracts patronage from Victors because of the camera- and microphone-free VIP lounge, and gains cachet among Capitol citizens as a known Victor hangout. But because their place isn't bugged, the Kings are under constant suspicion from the government.
To appease any curiosity about what happens in the VIP lounge, the Victors sometimes "accidentally" leak a video of something happening in the back: Jake and Gloss wrestling on the floor, Rachel modeling an outrageous new outfit, Marco and Finnick in a passionate clinch on the floor, even a giant cuddle pile of six Victors all morphed into something cute and fuzzy. As long as everyone thinks they know what happens in the barn, they can keep the Kings and themselves safe.
As always, Rachel and Cassie let the Cornucopia Lounge's clientele get a good gawk at them before going in the barn. They order drinks. Cassie morphs dragonfly wings through the slashes in the back of her dress. Rachel alternately praises and snarks at the outfits of everyone else at the bar. Then they go to the back.
The divider between the lounge and the barn looks like nothing more substantial than a gauzy black curtain, but it's soundproof and only lets Victors walk through. The curtain parts for them, and suddenly they're in a cozy room that's the closest thing to home any of them have at the Capitol.
The back room looks rustic, at least to Cassie, who grew up with the brushed metal of District Five labs and clinics. It's made of what looks like old wood, with rafters lining the ceiling. The lighting is warm and a little dim. There are no chairs or sofas, only large brown pillows, some scattered on the floor, some piled on wooden boxes. This is why the Victors' VIP lounge is better known as the barn.
The moment they're past the curtain, Cassie twines her fingers with Rachel's. Here, their love is no secret.
Bale from Ten and Cecelia from Eight are having a quiet, intent conversation in a corner, and look up only to give Cassie and Rachel acknowledging nods before turning their focus back on each other. In the back of the barn, Haymitch and Chaff are in a loose-limbed, drunken sprawl, clutching bottles of liquor and laughing.
Spread-eagled on a floor pillow, Marco is telling Jake a story. Jake is cross-legged on his pillow, elbows on his shins, leaning forward to listen.
Jake spots them and smiles. "Good timing. You'll want to hear what Marco has to say."
"Since when do I ever want to hear what Marco has to say?" Rachel says, but she pulls over two floor pillows anyway.
"You expect them to come in at this point in the story?" Marco says to Jake. "When they haven't even heard about my exploits? How I chose my outfit? How I figured out which party to go to? What happened before the – "
"Yeah, yeah, I'm sure we'd be very impressed," says Rachel. She leans back against Cassie.
"Well, after some brilliant manipulation and, of course, charm," says Marco, "I managed to get into the party as Viatrix Amphion's escort, which got me access to the VIP area."
"What did you have to do to get that?" Cassie asks, soft and low and concerned.
"Nothing I can't afford," Marco says firmly. "So anyway, I get back there – and there's Tom with all the bigwigs."
Cassie feels Rachel stiffen against her. Jake leans toward Marco, intent.
"As soon as he sees me, that jerk Iniss starts putting on the act like he's Tom, because he knows of course that I can pass on anything I see to the two of you. He knows we know he's infested Tom. There can't be any doubt about that now."
"What did he say to you?" Jake asks.
"Not much. Just chit-chat, some questions about our tributes this year. One Victor to another," Marco says, sneering the last part. "That's when I went into stealth mode. I grabbed a couple of emetic cocktails from the bar and went to the bathroom. Made sure to throw up all over the floor so no one would want to come in. Then I went fly."
"Nobody thought of that? That you might have morphed?" Rachel says.
Suddenly, Marco goes intense, his face tight. "They forget you can morph. They keep you as a pet for long enough, and they forget you can bite." His smile is like a shark's. "After all, I'm just a silly drunken playboy they keep on a leash. If I spend too long in the bathroom, well, I'm probably just riding out all the booze and drugs and emetics. Nothing to worry about."
Cassie's arms tighten around Rachel. No one ever forgets that she can bite, but who could, after watching her Games?
"So I morphed fly and went back to listen in." Marco looks at Jake and Rachel, eyes grave. "Iniss is with Violante Mallius. I mean, with her."
Rachel's hands tense into fists. Jake goes white as a sheet. They've heard, from the Victors whose bodies are sold, about the pleasures Justice Mallius prefers. The idea of Tom's body being used by his Yeerk as a puppet for sex is bad enough, but using his body for that is even worse.
"Iniss fawns on her," Marco says, disgusted. "Or at least he pretends to. I think he has ambition beyond being her yes-man. But I'm not sure what. They kept talking about 'the truce.' Whether the truce would be broken or not, and what would happen next. I have no idea what they meant. But whatever happens, Iniss is going to try to come out on top." Marco folds his hands in front of his face and sighs. "I'm sorry, man. I don't know what's in the cards, but Tom's in it deep."
"Why?" Rachel grinds out. "Why Tom? They breed hosts like farm animals, made to order in every size and shape. Why buy Tom as a host when Iniss could have a farm-grown body, raised for nothing but slavery?"
"It's cover," Marco says. "Even most Capitolians don't know Tom's infested. They think he's one of the Careers who come to live in the Capitol for one reason or another. Iniss looks like a well-connected Victor partying it up in the Capitol instead of a real political player."
"You're probably right, Marco," Cassie says, "but it could be more than that. Simpler. I know how Yeerks think."
They all flinch at that, even Rachel. They know about what Cassie and Aftran did during her Victory Tour, and they accept it, but they don't approve.
"The hosts they farm here are broken. They've been abused and neglected all their lives. By the time they're infested, there's not much left of them. The main reason Aftran and Karen get along the way they do is because Aftran chose a child for a host, too young for them to break her completely. But while broken hosts are easier to control, they don't make good company. Aftran's had both, and she likes being with Karen a lot more."
Jake chokes. "Are you saying Iniss wanted Tom as a host because he was… lonely?"
Cassie spreads her hands. "Think about it. In Five, we could make mutts for hosts that look like anything. Even going back to the Invasion, the Yeerks could have killed us all and infested coyotes or kangaroos or horses instead. But instead, they infest humans. Maybe they're used to sharing a body with another intelligent mind. Maybe they secretly like it that way, and breed abused hosts only because that's what they think they want."
The others look skeptical. They prefer Marco's reasoning. It's more cold-blooded, self-interested, a motive they can securely pin on a Yeerk. To accept Cassie's argument, they first have to accept that Yeerks can have feelings similar to theirs. She can understand why that's hard for them.
"So you got away with it?" Rachel asks Marco.
"Viatrix was a little upset I was in the bathroom so long, but you won't see me crying a river."
"Thanks, Marco," Jake says quietly. "You didn't have to do that. It means a lot to us."
"I like thumbing my nose at those sons of bitches anyway," Marco says cheerfully.
"So, where did you go this evening?" Jake asks Cassie and Rachel.
Just then, the curtain parts, and two more Victors come in. It's Finnick, leading in last year's Victor, Johanna Mason. Her face looks the same as it did on television, all flat planes and dark slanted eyes, but her hair is now short, sticking up in uneven tufts from her scalp. Her scowl is ragged enough to match. Not even her shimmering skintight catsuit is enough to make her lovely – and no wonder, since it looks like she'd rather squirm out of it and be naked than have to wear it a moment longer.
"Hey, you pack of drunks," says Finnick, raising his voice to carry through the back room. "I've got someone for you to meet."
Bale and Cecelia break off their conversation and turn to look at Finnick and his guest. Chaff and Haymitch straighten from their drunken slouches.
"This is Johanna Mason," Finnick says, "from Seven."
"She looks like she chewed her own hair off," Haymitch comments loudly.
"Actually, I put it in a woodchipper," Johanna says. "Like I'm gonna do to your balls if you keep up the sass."
Haymitch and Chaff fall against each other laughing.
"Those two jokers are Haymitch and Chaff," Finnick says. The rest of the Victors introduce themselves with more grace.
Johanna's demeanor is only a distant cousin to how she acts on television, but that's no surprise. Finnick puts a hand on her shoulder and guides her to a floor pillow with the rest of the young Victors. Rachel straightens a little in Cassie's lap to size up Johanna. "So. Our newest Victor."
"Welcome to the freak show," Marco says.
Cassie gives Finnick a covert glance, asking with her eyes if Johanna knows the score. Has she figured out what it really means to be a Victor?
"Welcome to Snow's collection of chew toys, you mean," Johanna sneers.
"She learns fast," Rachel says.
"School of hard knocks," Johanna says, taking a swig of her drink. That makes them all fall silent for a moment. The Victor's school of hard knocks is one of the hardest. Whatever Johanna's been through that's taught her the way things are, they don't want to stir it up.
"Rachel and I went to Dominica Eclecta's party," says Cassie, "so I could meet Cinna. Have you heard of him?"
Finnick stares at Cassie. "How do you know him?"
"Aftran told me about him. He's like her. A sympathizer. They're planning something. A movement to get other Yeerks to sympathize with their hosts."
"Sympathizers?" Johanna spits. "Yeerks who say they feel sorry for the humans they enslave? Fuck that. If they really felt sorry, they'd be back in the dirty pools they crawled out of."
"It's not that simple," Cassie says. "Most Yeerks didn't ask to get their own personal slave. They've been on this planet for almost 200 years. The ones alive now aren't the original invaders."
"But they still do it," Marco points out. "Johanna's right. They could just stay in their pools."
"Could they really?" Cassie says. "I don't know everything about other districts, but in Five, we have a North Side and a South Side. The North Side is richer and has better jobs. The North Side kids start looking down on the South Siders from a young age, but it's only because they don't know any better. Their parents taught them to treat the South Siders that way. Most Yeerks don't know any better either, and they don't even get to meet humans who haven't been neglected and enslaved all their lives."
"They meet us," Jake says.
"Yeah, they meet us," Marco says thoughtfully. "It's no wonder they keep us on such a tight leash. Don't want Yeerks to start thinking we're good for something besides meatsuits, workers, and toys."
"How do you know they're really sympathizers?" Johanna says, arms folded across her chest. "They could talk all day about how they love their hosts but treat them like shit anyway."
Cassie, Jake, Rachel, and Marco exchange looks. They're the only ones who know about what Cassie and Aftran did during her Victory Tour. Cassie can predict how Johanna will react, but she isn't sure about Finnick.
"The answer to that question," Cassie says, "is dangerous. Are you sure you want to know?"
Johanna's hands clench and unclench. Finally, she says, "You know what? Fine. I want to know. Give it to me."
Finnick looks to Johanna and back to Cassie, then nods.
"All right," Cassie says. "But you have to swear to me by whatever matters to you that you'll keep this a secret."
"I swear by the sea and all its hidden gods," Finnick says.
After a long pause Johanna says, "I swear by their graves," without specifying which graves she might mean.
Cassie morphs. She becomes the blue butterfly and settles in the curve of Rachel's palm, held out for Finnick and Johanna to see. She speaks in thought-speech, the only way to be truly sure that no one listens in.
«The year of my Games, Aftran was the only person from the Capitol who was kind to me. Flickerman doesn't count. He makes Victors look good so that he looks good. Aftran was kind to me when no one was watching. It was for me, not for her. I loved her for it. But after I came home to Five, Winston and Helix told me the truth about the Capitol. About the Yeerks. It horrified me to learn that the face I thought was Aftran's was really the face of her slave. I decided her kindness was all a lie.
«When I saw her again for the Victory Tour, I gave her the silent treatment. I only put up with her when I had to. Finally, she asked me why I was acting that way. I asked her how she could treat me with kindness, but at the same time be so cruel to her host. She admitted that before she became a Hunger Games stylist – before she met me – she thought of humans as beneath Yeerks. After all, her host was pathetic and stupid, and the children she saw in the Hunger Games acted like beasts. But then she met me, and wondered why I was so much more passionate and interesting than other humans – until she realized that I wasn't. When she gave Karen – her host – a chance to speak and be herself, she was even more admirable than me.
«I didn't believe her, of course. Why should I? I couldn't stop thinking about how she was using Karen's mouth to shape the words she spoke to me. I kept wondering what Karen had to say. And there was only one way to find out.»
"You didn't!" Johanna hissed, flinching back as if hit. Even through butterfly eyes, Cassie could see the way she stared.
«I did. I could have put Aftran in a bowl of water, I guess, but there was no way she'd agree to that when I could just kill her when she was vulnerable. So I let her into my head.»
"She could have just stayed there forever," Finnick says, wide-eyed.
«Not really. She would have had to go back to the Capitol with me to get access to Kandrona, and then there'd be a lot of questions about why a relatively low-ranking Yeerk had a body as valuable as mine. So she would have had to let me go sooner or later, but she still could have done a lot of damage while she was in me. And she saw all my secrets, of course, as a Yeerk may. But it was worth it, because I got to hear Karen speak. And she – well, she's amazing. A worthy friend for anyone to have. But more than that, she told me what it's like for Capitol hosts. The way they're made, the way they're grown, the way they're broken. And it's about as bad as you can possibly imagine. But not all of them break.»
"I never really thought about it," Finnick admits. "I always thought they were collaborators, that they chose that life so they could live like lords. I guess I've always wanted to think that, because then I could hate them."
Cassie shivers a little at that, wings fluttering. She thinks of all the people he's been forced to take as lovers, and what it must be like to realize that the true owners of the bodies that violate him are the victims of a rape so profound it defies imagination. She looks at Johanna. Her face is a stony blank, tight around the eyes and mouth. Cassie has a sinking feeling that she might know how the newest Victor learned so quickly about the true nature of the Capitol.
«I can't tell you how to feel about them, Finnick. All I know is what Karen told me. Aftran, too. After Karen told me about Aftran's change of heart, how she started to listen to her and treat her better, I trust her too. She let me go and went back into Karen's head. But every time I come to the Capitol, I have a ritual with her. We go to a special place, and we switch. I give Karen a couple of hours of total freedom and privacy in her own head – and I give Aftran the power to morph, for a little while. That's how I know that Cinna's a sympathizer, Johanna. Because Aftran told me.»
Cassie demorphs. Johanna's curled in on herself a little, mouth pressed in a tight line, staring into the middle distance. Finnick puts a hand on her shoulder. She doesn't react, but Cassie figures that from Johanna, any reaction to touch short of violence is like open arms and a smile.
"Cinna's story is different, though," Finnick says. "He is a District boy. He did choose his life."
The other young Victors look at him with varying expressions of amazement.
"I should know," says Finnick. "He's from District Four. He had gotten offers to go to the Capitol with his art before, but it was my stories about the Yeerks that made him finally decide to go."
"Finnick," Marco says slowly, "do I know this guy? Because I don't think I've ever met anyone who would want a slug in his head."
Finnick shakes his head. "He was West Coast, like me. You wouldn't have known him. If you had, you would understand. He was mad. The most brilliant artist I've ever met, but mad. It was the only thing that held him back. He thought that if he could get a Yeerk in his head, it would fix his madness." He tilts his head inquisitively at Cassie. "Did he get his wish?"
Cassie shakes her head. "Not exactly. It's still there, but the Yeerk helps him deal with it. It doesn't get in his way anymore. Now I don't think they could live apart."
"Maybe I should give him another chance," Finnick murmurs.
"Are you out of your pretty-boy mind, Finnick?" Johanna says, wheeling on Finnick. "You're gonna let another slug fuck you, after everything all the rest did? Why don't you just open your ear and your legs for him, just like this little slut did for – "
Here Johanna stops, on account of Rachel's fist slamming into her mouth.
"If you say one more word about my girlfriend, Mason, I'm going to spice up the interior decoration with your intestines," Rachel snarls.
Johanna spits blood on the floor. Her lip is split. "Fine, I get it. We're all a bunch of freaks trying to survive, right," she says. "So I won't bash your fucking skull in. But don't expect me to stick around while you talk friendship and brotherhood with those slugs." She shoots Finnick a hurt look and storms out. With an apologetic frown to the rest of the group, Finnick follows her.
Cassie kisses Rachel gently on the lips. Rachel likes it when Cassie is gentle with her after one of her rages. It reminds her that she deserves gentleness, despite everything she is. Johanna deserves gentleness, too, and someone to remind her of it. Cassie can't blame her for her feelings. She hates the Yeerks, too, for what they've done. But individual Yeerks she can learn to forgive.
Rachel needs Cassie now, to come down from her towering fury. Cassie needs Rachel too, to remind herself to tend to the fire within her own spirit. Fortunately, the back room has another feature that will let them do this for each other.
Cassie holds Rachel's hand. For a moment, she considers asking Marco along, because beneath his sarcastic armor he's sweet and aching and motherless, and he ought to experience sex the way it should be, all about yes but always taking no for an answer. But it's only her first night back in the Capitol, and it's been so long since Cassie's had Rachel. This night is for them alone. Besides, Cassie muses, glancing at Jake and Marco on their floor pillows, maybe on his own he can find the lover he deserves.
Cassie and Rachel exchange a look. "We're going to the back rooms," Cassie says.
"What do you think gave it away, Jake?" Marco says. "The homicidal threats? The bedroom eyes? The 'we're totally going to bang right now' sign flashing in neon over their heads?"
Jake rolls his eyes at Marco. "Goodnight," he tells them firmly, and starts laying into Marco for talking about his cousin having sex, how gross is that.
Cassie and Rachel morph mice and slip through cracks in one of the wooden boxes into a tiny trapdoor hidden underneath. They follow a tunnel that feels very long in their mouse bodies, but only leads to the rooms behind the VIP lounge, reserved for Victors to bring their lovers and bedmates the Capitol doesn't approve.
In a room that's little more than a nest made of pillows and sheets, Cassie makes love to Rachel without a sound. She wishes she could make noise, let Rachel hear how she feels, but secrecy and silence are such close brethren in her mind that it's hard to keep one without the other.
Long after the sighs, the clench, the release, their cooling bodies lie tangled. Cassie says, "Your tributes have some chance of winning. Do you ever tell them the truth?"
"What truth?" Rachel asks.
"Any of it."
"No," says Rachel. "If I did, I don't think they'd survive."
"60. 59. 58," Claudius Templesmith announces.
Deena Edwin-Smythe stands on her starting plate, face pale and set, looking out on a bleak gray landscape.
"49. 48. 47."
Somewhere in the dark, Cassie's hand finds Rachel's and squeezes.
"41. 40. 39."
Deena lets out a long, rattling breath, and makes her decision.
"28. 27. 26."
"Mom and Dad, I'm doing this because of what you taught me," Deena says. "I'm doing this for you."
"Ten. Nine. Eight – "
Deena squeezes her eyes shut and steps off the plate.
Deena won't have to deal with the mess of her own death. It will be for Cassie to bundle up what remains into a coffin and send it back to her parents.
Cassie wonders if Deena figured out, before the end, that she was one of the lucky ones.Endnotes
So there's a lot of worldbuilding in this fic, and I thought maybe folk would like to know some of the background I've built up in my head.
This fic is based on book canon, not movie canon, so there are three districts for which an industry was never named: Five, Six, and Nine. Fanon is that District Five does bioengineering and mutations, based on Foxface's strategy in the Games and the fact that there's a lot of genetic engineering in the Capitol and it had to come from somewhere. This felt like a better fit for Cassie's family than District Ten, where they would have been vets for livestock only, and probably much less educated. To me it's important that Cassie's parents are wildlife vets, and that they come from a privileged, educated background.
The racial division between the North Side and the South Side of District Five is based on the racial division between the merchant class and the Seam in District Twelve. The darker-skinned Seam people get the dangerous job of working in the coal mines and live in poverty, while the lighter-skinned merchant class gets safer jobs and are at no risk of starving to death. Of course, racism is going to manifest itself differently according to District, but I tried my best. Naturally, all the District Five victors are South Side, because they're poor, sign up for tesserae, and make up most of Five's tributes. Cassie never took out tesserae, but the odds just weren't in her favor.
Boisduval's Blue Butterfly is native to mountain valleys in the Rockies. Canon indicates that the Capitol is in the Rockies, probably Denver or Aspen, so Cassie and Aftran could go to a valley-turned-garden and see them and all the other lovely butterflies found in that region.
Cinna's "madness" is unspecified in the fic, based on Katniss' reactions to people with mental disabilities. She calls people with cognitive disabilities "simple" and calls Annie "mad" with no attempt to further classify what sort of "madness" it might be. I assume this attitude is common in the Districts, so Cinna keeps things simple and explains himself to Cassie as mad. However, if you're curious, Cinna has temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) and depression (which is more common among people with TLE than in the general population.) TLE seizures don't necessarily produce unconsciousness or spastic movements. The type of TLE seizures Cinna has (simple partial seizures) manifest as extremely vivid hallucinations that can affect any or all of the senses. The famous Russian author Dostoevsky had TLE, and it served as inspiration for his writing.
With Cinna, and this fic in general, I allude a lot to the assassination of Julius Caesar, as Collins' trilogy does. At the time of the assassination, there were two well known Cinnas in Rome. One of them was part of the group of sixty Roman senators who conspired to kill Caesar, called the Liberators (thus the fic's title.) The other was a famous poet, known for his themes of erotic love and metamorphosis. According to some, Cinna the Poet was mistaken by a mob for Cinna the Conspirator and lynched to avenge Caesar's death. Thus, the Yeerk half of Cinna calls himself the Conspirator, while he describes his human half as "a boy with the soul of a poet." Both Cinnas, conspirator and poet, in one.