It is still dark the next time I wake but Thorn is already moving around the room. I see her back at work in the chair. I unconsciously thumb my finger and realize my ring is missing. I walk to Thorn in the big chair. She has my ring in her hand. She has mounted the porcelain frame, once again her care amazes me. She places it back on my finger, now Thorn will be with me in the arena. I just hold her against my chest. I will not push her, but it seems we both need this closeness. I am still in significant pain. As if she can read my thoughts Thorn pulls herself from my arms, she gets more blue pads and orders food. I see the tint of the sky start to change, I go onto the balcony. This room faces east. I call for Thorn to follow. I only have so many sunrises I can count on, I am going to watch this one. I hold her to me one arm around her waist one across her chest. We breath in one rhythm. The beauty is beyond any description. We stand in silence, a certain reverence, in the miracle of the new day, the rich reds, oranges, and purples, reflecting off the pastels glass of the Capitol buildings.
As the sky fades we return to the room. Thorn pulls me to the work table again. She lays me face down, and goes over each wound. Then I feel her removing the stitches, from my deeper wounds. It doesn't take long and she taps my hip. I roll over, and Thorn removes the blue pack from my face. She removes the stitches. I count forty three. She has me sit up. Then asks "Do you want to see the scar before I start to remove it?" I nod and she hands me the mirror. The scar starts just below my left tear duct, travels in and arc, at the edge of my cheek bone and ends just below the corner of my eye. It is one wicked scar, I ask Thorn to take a picture first. As if she has just remembered she asks "Do you want to know what caused this?" Again I nod, she goes over to the table and retrieves something. She hands me a black triangular shard about a half inch on the longest edge. I turn it over carefully. It is a piece of obsidian, a very sharp, glass like black stone "Where'd you get this?" Quietly, she replied "I pulled it out of your cheek it was embedded in the bone."
She explains that the next step is to abrade the scars and apply a thin layer of powder to the new wounds. She finishes all of my wounds. I hurt, it isn't as intense but I need to be doing something. I ask Thorn if I can go to the launch room. It takes some convincing but finally Thorn agrees. She calls Ezera to escort me and then Samme to give strict instructions. I just growl at her, and she breaks out laughing. I must be a sight with the blue pads on my wounds again. Somehow Ezera gets me to the launch room without being noticed. Only Samme is in the room, I am glad for that. Ezera doesn't even come in.
Samme sits curled on the couch watching a holographic video of a Bat'leth fight. The creatures fighting look like men but they have ridges along their foreheads. Their spine almost looks armor plated. Their hair is long and held back in a leather thong. They wear odd military uniforms. The Bat'leth in battle as these warriors are fighting almost looks like a choreographed dance. We watch in silence until the video ends. Samme looks the most normal I have ever seen her. She wears a white fitted tank top, soft pink valour pants, and flat white sandals. She has on natural makeup and her hair is in a messy bun on top of her head. She looks beautiful. "Interesting mutts" I say. "Not mutts, the twentieth centuries idea of aliens." I sit on the couch beside her "She continues, the battle we're watching is from a episode of a show called Deep space nine. It was part of a phenomenon called star trek. The show inspired much of the technology developed in the late 20th century." I am gaping at her, her eyes soften and she smiles. "I read a lot." we watch the next video that pops up, it is the chakram. I see several different versions of the weapon, including some that have three evenly spaced handholds where the outer edge is not sharpened, for hand to hand combat use. We watch specialty weapons videos until Maysilee comes in. I watch the spear weapons videos, while Samme goes over Maysilee's sessions from yesterday, and gives her instructions for this morning. Both Ruthie and Sage will be sleeping till lunch they were in the woods till four am. I am alone again with Samme.
Its time for me and Samme to get this straightened out. She will mean the difference between being on a train alive or in a box. And I am not going home in a box. Before I can say anything Samme announces "I think Ruthie may have been raiding your snares back in the district." I raise an eyebrow "Why would you think that?" She smiles wryly "She cleared and perfectly reset three snares in the time it took Sage to do one. And I doubt even you could identify which snares had been reset. Well, except Sage's that's clearly not yours" I knew I had a thief in the District but I never would have guessed a twelve year old community kid. No wonder she was still alive after 8 years in the community home. I realize this is my opportunity "A lot of things aren't what they seem, including you. You are the one person I need to understand and trust. You are my one life line so tell who you really are?" Her mouth dropped open in simple shock.
It was clear she hadn't expected my statement and felt like a cornered animal. "I am not sure who I am, is an answer you are ready to face. A Victors reality is much different than most imagine." I just shake my head and wait patiently. She takes a deep breath and continues. "As a child my mother called me O.D., short for odd duck. I hated noise, lights and crowds. The District square was my worst nightmare. I spent most of my time in my room reading, by the time I was reaped I had already passed the mine engineer qualifying exam. After the Games I found out why I hate all those things. They are like assaults on my body, I have ultra sensitive hearing, sight and smell. In the end it is why I won, it also forms everything that I am." Samme slides up against me and nudges me to put my arm around her. I see no harm in offering her comfort, so far we have had a very strange relationship. I pull her against me so her head rests on my shoulder. She asks "Are you sure you want to know this going in?" I look at her, for the first time I see honesty "I am not sure I will come out if I don't. "
Samme pulls herself completely onto my lap and starts to speak. I am not sure I am okay with this but her words help and I adjust our position until we are comfortable. "I am scared every minute of every day I am away from my home. Not just really scared, absolutely terrified is the truth. For some reason you are comforting. " she takes another deep breath. "When I leave the house I need to take someone with me. But that isn't always an option. For years I had my groomer and stylist anytime I had to go in public. Now I can do 3 different looks and mannerism sets they taught me, without help. Every time I go out I have to practice over and over what I am going to do in my head or I just can't do it. If I am out alone I have to go over it as I do it, over and over every step. If something becomes routine, I can do it. I go to the bakery everyday. I get coffee and a poppy roll. It takes every bit of energy I have to keep from just running home.
Your mother is one of my biggest supports. She takes me shopping twice a month. The pretext is that she is making me a new dress, and of course she is, but she also takes me to every shop I need to visit. We go in the same order every time. If something happens I can do it alone, but it is really hard. She brings me my new dress, then we go shopping for the next dress. I wear each dress just once, the next shopping trip and then your mother gives it to a woman in the seam. She makes almost all my clothing. Another young girl from the seam, Hazelle cleans and shops with me the other 2 weeks a month."
She lowers her voice to a whisper up against my ear and I strain to hear her. "I have a very old screen. It has over a million books stored on it. I read all the time. It is quiet, it fills my head, it gives me images to hold, it gives me peace. It belonged to a bibliophile relative in the 21st century. There are notes in every book someone has read. I add my own. It teaches me that everything changes and yet everything is the same." That screen would be considered contraband and be confiscated if anyone from the Capitol knew. She would most likely be punished for having it.
She tells me about the three personas the Stylist has created. I laugh when she uses a Capitol accent to mimic her stylist. The woman we have seen in private is the woman the sponsors expect to see. It is the act that will get us the most support. She is practicing getting, ready, stealing herself, to act relaxed and confidante with a hard sexual edge. I have noticed her check her reflection in the glass several times. Making sure everything is going on plan, checking her expression, making sure the act is picture perfect, practicing over and over. It must be so hard to live like that. I have never been afraid like that.
There is only one thing I need to know about her Capitol act. "Are you really attracted to me?" She tilts her head up slightly, gazes into my eyes "If you were 30 instead of 16 it is my bed you would be sharing, not Thorn's. And if you crawled into my bed now I wouldn't ask you to leave." Then she kisses me. This time it is different. Soft, questioning, maybe even a little hesitant. I feel as if I am betraying Thorn and I pull away. Ezera arrives to take me back to the remake center. Play time is over. In a way I am relieved, in another disappointed. I want more time with Thorn, I need more time with Samme.
Thorn takes off the blue patches and cleans my face. She hands me the mirror. I have fresh pink skin, only a faint bruise remains from the fight in the square. When she finishes with some final oils over the scars she says "You are no longer required to report to the remake center. You'll need to start reporting to the tribute areas." I start to shake. "I can't sleep without you." She tries to assure me with her statement "You'll find your way. And if Angle needs you for any training we will see you." Ezera's knocking ends the conversation. She has the most uncanny timing. "Time for lunch in the launch room." I kiss Thorn almost desperately. She kisses me back, I can feel her saying good bye. My heart is shattering, an odd sensation, almost so painful it is numbing. I try to pour everything I feel into kissing her. If this is goodbye, I want to leave no doubts in her mind. Ezera is pounding and using her Capitol voice. Then I am leaving, there is nothing left I can do. I feel impotent again. These games have already taken more from me, than I was willing to give.
I'm last to arrive this time, everyone is there as always. Cossack looks at me and smiles. "Thorn always does such nice work. You look much better. Be careful it will be at least 12 more hours till healing is complete " Before he finishes Ruthie's arms are around me and she is squeezing the life out of me. "That was scary yesterday. What happened?" I smile "I lost a fight with an obsidian lined cave. I hear you are an old pro at resetting my snares. Your left handed, correct?" Ruthie's eyes got round "Only when I tie knots." I just laugh. "Wanna go for a swim after lunch? After session we should both sleep, we'll run the lines tonight. You want to right?" We have been studying the careers. Each night we run the lines, choose a spot, build a cooking fire and eat. Simple, we don't give anything away. They hunt us, and our mentors watch. We are learning a lot about them. They learn nothing other then that we can hunt, cook and eat. Ruthie squeezes me tighter. Her response "Really? Yes." Lunch is another strategy session. Samme mentions that some of the Gamesmakers are hassling the others about their aversion to squirrel. I notice the sense of comradery in our group. Only the careers have a similar appearance. Yet their interactions are stiffer more formal. We almost look like a family.
After lunch Ruthie and I head over to the pond. She takes another swimming lesson and I work with the fishing weapons. I notice a small eddy in the pool, near a wall. I investigate and find another cave entrance. It is slack tide so entering should be safe. But if the tube gets tight I am turning back. I take a deep breath and plunge in. The passage is wider than the first and only about fifteen feet in length. I surface in a small pool. The ledge to the left is about three feet above the high tide mark. I swim to the edge and hoist myself up. A small tunnel with water marks comes in near the ceiling. Light is coming in so the small tunnel goes to the surface and would act as a chimney. I know where Ruthie and I are eating tonight if she is willing and the tide is right. I return to the main pond. Ruthie's lesson is just ending so we play in the water for awhile. Ruthie seems to take such great pleasure in every new thing, she may actually confuse me the most.
We spend about 45 minutes at the water station. Learning about testing water, capturing the rain, and making water carriers. I spend the rest of my session between the spear station, the long swords station and camouflage. After the session I find an Avox to order supplies for Ruthie and my hunting trip. I stop in the launch room. Cossack is talking with Sage so I wave and head for our floor.
As I step off the elevator I am actually relieved to see Ezera, I want desperately to go to the remake center. We start towards the dining room. "Your schedule has you eating now, sleeping and back in the launch at 9:45. Angle wants to see you in the morning." I tune out from that moment on, all I can think is I will see Thorn in the morning. Besides Ezera will keep me on schedule so the details are unimportant. Ruthie is already eating so I sit with her. We watch the Capitol coverage of our training. It is just one more strategy session. There are images of me from both the spear and sword station. But I find the images of me throwing Ruthie around in the water the most interesting. We were really just goofing around but it makes us both look really strong and like great swimmers.
I head for my room. When I pass Samme's door I hear distressed noises coming from inside. I can't just walk past this time. I actually hope the door is locked, no such luck. I push the door open and walk in. Samme's naked body is tangled in her sheets. She is twisting, crying and moaning. I gently unwrap the sheet. At first she grasps at it but then she lets me take it. I cover her, look for a heavy blanket and turn down the temperature. I learned with my sister, holding her, distracting her from the night, the weight is comforting. I start to rub her back, when I realize I need to sleep or I won't be able to hunt. I strip down to my underwear, and crawl in beside her. Samme settles when I pull her close. I didn't realize how weary I am until right this moment. Samme's warmth pulls me under, she smells of lily of the valley, and her skin is very soft.
I wake to Ezera's voice "Samme 30 minutes to your shift in the launch." I wonder if Ezera knows I am here. Samme shifts in my arms, it makes my acutely aware she is a woman. I find myself caressing her gently as she stretches. She kisses me, and I pull her closer, kissing her back, moving my body over hers. I am not sure what stops me but I pull back from the kisses. Holding her like this I realize how true some of the things my mother and her students say about men are. I don't seem to behave any better than the Ferrol dogs that run in the seam. "Samme, get in the shower before we both regret this. I'll get us coffee." Ezera knocks and gives a 10 minute warning. Samme yells back for her to let Cossack know she will be 5 minutes late.
Samme is completely naked and I can't help but look at her. Her dark hair is down and draped around her body like a cloak. Her overly pale skin is a stark yet alluring contrast. She seems more relaxed and real than I have seen before. She dresses in another pair of the soft valour pants and tank top this time both in shades of green. She puts her arms around me and leans into my chest. "Thank-you" then she takes her coffee and sits down. I want to say something, I just have no idea what. Instead I grab a brush and start plating her hair so I can braid it. I have had to help mom in the mornings, again having a sister is helping me get through. She breaks the silence l haven't slept without nightmares since..." her voice trails off, but I know what she was going to say. Then she continues "you made me feel safe. Rest a couple of more hours. You need it. " I know exactly what she means, I have felt that way sleeping with both Thorn and her in my arms. I wonder if that is really the lesson about the nature of humans in all of this. That we truly need one another to simply feel safe and whole. Samme tucks me back into her bed, covering me gently and kissing me before she leaves.
I wake, the sun is setting. One of my training uniforms and a pack are on the chair. My first thought is of Thorn, it distresses me. How would she feel seeing me asleep in Samme's bed. I feel guilty. When I check the pack it has all the things I asked the Avox for, he must have put these things here. I am relieved. I try to think of an excuse to go to the remake center. To find Thorn. I head for the dining hall instead. I grab a coffee and a plate of food. I am the only one here, so I watch more of the training coverage. I find the editing makes a huge difference in the way things look. They only show a couple of spear throws by the girl from district 11. They are weak, wobbly and off target. I was there when she practiced, those were her first throws. Then she picked up a different length and weight weapon and threw several perfect shots. But they didn't show any of those. Every segment of me shows my last few practice shots. Each almost perfect, each a kill shot. Based on what I see in the coverage I'd be betting on me too. They are making me look like a killing machine. Most of the coverage is of the careers. Ezera interrupts, letting me know I am supposed to be at the launch in 5 minutes.
Ruthie is already with Samme when I arrive. With her assessment of Ruthie's skills, Samme wants each of us to run one of the snare lines and meet at the squirrel snares. I counter that I'll get the squirrel snare then free hunt and gather while Ruthie runs both snare lines. Giving the careers more things to track. Then I tell them both about the cave. Ruthie is excited about our dinner plans. She said she was going to ask about the things in the pack she got but now she understands. Samme OK's the plan and we head for the arena. I grab the small recurve bow from the archery station and head north. Ruthie heads south for the far end of the snare lines. Each of the leaning branch snares has a squirrel but one also has a possum. I put the kills in my pouch and am resetting the snares when I hear a branch break. I turn and I am staring directly into the eyes of a large white tail doe. I never lift the bow. We hold each others gaze for just a moment. She turns and walks away. The encounter brings back every moment of the day I shot the buck. It takes my breath away. I take 2 rabbits and another squirrel on my trip.
I meet Ruthie at the appointed time by the pond. We both pull the underwater headlamps from our packs. I swim to the wall and find the cave entrance again. Ruthie is using the wall to rest before her first dive. I have her find the entrance herself and surface. I have a long rope tied from my ankle to hers, so all she has to do is follow. If something goes wrong I can pull her to me. We surface in the cave with out incident. The cave itself is actually glowing. Ruthie and I swim to the ledge, I have to boost her onto the shelf. We turn off our head lamps. The cave is spectacular. I didn't notice the lichen on the walls earlier, but in the true dark it is glowing. The cave has a soft green essence to it. Ruthie starts our cooking fire just below the chimney opening, as anticipated what little smoke there is, is pulled out the opening. As I clean the rabbits from Ruthie's pack I ask her "what's it like being a community kid?" Ruthie sits back on her heels and looks at me. It is the first time since the square I have seen her look upset.
"Its not much of a life. We all share everything. There is one dresser, white cotton or black wool dresses depending on the season. No shoes April to November not even for school. We sleep in 2 rooms on straw that is changed twice a year. We get whatever tessera is left after the rest of the District gets theirs. It is often less than half a portion apiece. More than half of us die each year. I have been there longer than anyone. I turned 12 less than a month ago. If I hadn't been reaped some family most likely would have taken me in to collect tessera for them until I turned 18. If I was lucky enough to find a husband I might have made it. If not there are few choices and fewer jobs. I would end up in the stable for the peacekeepers to use. Its no life really." She pauses. I really look at Ruthie, she is an amazingly strong young girl. "Tell me about my snares." Her smile is back and she laughs.
"I was scraping in the mine explosion debris, sometimes you find a full lunch box. I know its morbid, but so is dying of starvation. I saw you slip through the fence so I followed. I saw you clear 6 rabbits in an hour. I snuck out that night. I broke off one of your snares so it looked like a deer got it and took the wire. I sat next to one of your snares for 2 hours tying that wire over and over till it was just like yours. I took 1 rabbit that night. I went to Greasy with it, I traded it to her for a small knife and a cleaning lesson. You kept me alive this winter, I took no more than 2 rabbits or squirrels a week. While the east mine is down tessera is being taken by almost everyone. We have been getting less than quarter rations in the home." I hand Ruthie 2 of the rabbits for her to start cooking. I empty the rest of my pack. Ruthie's eyes go wide with amazement. "You brought a feast!" Its my turn to laugh. I layout greens, bread, cheese, chocolate milk, yams and two huge slices of chocolate cake. We finish preparing our meal and eat in silence just enjoying the closeness of one another and the beauty of the cave. After dinner I roll out the small mat the Avox included. I lay on my back, and sigh. I call Ruthie over to rest with me. Its like an evening with my little sister. The moon light and glowing embers are playing with the lichens glow. The patterns are almost mesmerizing.
Then I ask Ruthie the thing that confuses me the most. "How can you laugh and smile through all this? Acting as if it is one great adventure." Ruthie is very quiet for a long time almost not breathing. Then she starts to speak. "When my name was called I was terrified. But then I sat alone in the justice building. I thought about dying. You know all of us die, not one of us gets out of life alive. And there are things much worse than being dead. We lost my mother when my sister was born. I was just 2. I still remember her screams, all of the blood, my father wailing. I was 4 when the mine ate my father and we were taken to the home. My sister starved to death when I was 8. There are things much worse than being dead. You know the life I faced. I decided right then I was going to take everything they had to give. See everything I could see, get every experience I could and revel in every moment. If they are going to take my life well then I am going to make it a life worth taking. It matters not when or how we die were still dead. It simply matters how we live." So much wisdom in her words, she has given me even more to contemplate. "So what's your favorite thing so far, chocolate milk, a bed, what?" Her answer is a whisper "having you act like an older brother. No one has ever cared for me really. Not in a very long time." I tousle her hair and kiss her forehead. "Your easy to care for." We rest until the embers die. Then we pack up and head back to the launch. An Avox meets me at the exit to take the game.
Cossack is in the launch when we return. The shift change was at midnight. It is just past 2 am now, we spent 4 hours in the arena. He tells us about the careers utter confusion in searching for us. They managed to follow us everywhere even to the lake. They had searched the area near the chimney, but the smoke was gone before they arrived. They couldn't find evidence of the fire or us being anywhere in the vicinity. We all just laughed.
I head up to the floor. Ruthie stays in the launch with Cossack. I am glad he is her mentor even if it is a cover for his real intent to mentor Sage. I go straight to my room, I am going to shower and try to sleep. I miss Thorn. I push the button sequence she taught me, and enter a fine mist.