As the wind speared through his thin work uniform, nearly knocking his cap off his head, Sami realized that he should've brought a jacket. Eventually he gave up squeezing the hat further down his scalp to provide what warmth he could seize, and shoved it deep into one of his pockets. It bulged from his hip like a tumor. He walked slightly bent and he bore the pain in his back with silent resentment, hobbling along like a cripple, grimy and sweaty as if returning from a forge. The booze would soon make him forget.
Sami had too much to think about, not just the spasms in his spine but his job in general. Ma wanted him to find a better job. "It hurts me to see you like this," she told him this morning, over a meal of beans and bread, "and if you want to still look good when you're in your twenties, I think you should stop now."
"I can't. Not now. I won't get paid the full bonus until I finished the whole year."
"Yeah, you've told me. Those kinds of jobs they used to give to the factory workers in Old Three, but you've got a little freedom to pick what you want."
"It's not about what I want, Ma. It's what's available. Do you have something else for me?"
"Have you been looking for another job?" she asked instead. She was no longer eating her breakfast, her arms crossed against her chest.
"I will, I will. I'm not like Frank."
Her eyes narrowed. "Why do you always deflect to him? You think I won't notice?" There was a smile in her voice even though her lips were slack.
"He's the one you should have this talk with, not me."
"I've already talked to Frank. I told him if I find any more drugs in his room, I'm booting him out the door, and I've told your father not to bring him back. And I'm warning you not to do him any special favors." She glared at him, inclining her head.
"I won't," Sami said, even though he wasn't sure how rigid that promise would be. Frank might be his half-brother, but he was still family. He didn't like to think of him begging for money in the streets. He couldn't think on it long. Reggie Sherman's death was there in his mind, like an eyelash caught in his eye.
When he entered Waterfront's loud and stuffed bar, he saw no immediate sign of his friends and coworkers. There were plenty of people though, most of them around his age and a little older: students having a good time. They gathered around the worn tables in a haze of body sweat and alcohol. The barfront was in the shape of a ship, with decorations strewn around the walls like trophies. It was a legacy of Tobar's home district and the closest most of the customers got to the ocean. A group near the front was using the maw of an extinct shark as a coat hanger.
His appraisal of the latter was far from the same awe that had hit him the very first time he'd entered the place, shocked at the fact that an animal of this size existed anywhere outside of his Ma's stories about mutts. He remembered asking his old childhood friend Calder about it, who'd then pointed to the front of the bar.
"Tobar says he speared the thing before he moved here," Calder said, gesturing over to the man at the front talking to some of the regulars. "Says it's some rite of passage for his tribe or something like that. Personally, I think it's a whole lot of shit. He probably just found the thing in a store."
After a bit of scouting, Sami eventually found his friends. Most of them were still in their Veston uniforms. There was a sloppy circle of empty glasses in the middle when Calder dragged a seat from another table and shoved it near the corner for Sami to join them.
Calder whistled, a high-pitched trill that brought a waiter over to their table immediately. "Git my boy a drink," he said, lofting his glass in Sami's face. He was grinning, his face flushed, the collar of his shirt gaping open. His dark skin gleamed with sweat.
"Hi," said Sami. It sounded weak and thin. He cleared his throat and ordered King Midas, a high-flown name for a mediocre beer, though he couldn't say it didn't deliver turning his piss into gold. He watched as the waiter tapped it in his pad, took Sami's payment, left, and returned quickly with his drink.
"Rough patch?" Calder asked Sami. He was wiry, had a thick chin, large brown eyes, and a prominent belly that he patted whenever he was pleased with something. His wide gestures meant that he was already well into being drunk.
"You think?" said Sami.
"Just a shot in the dark," said Calder. "Then again the whole stomped-while-doped-puppy-dog look you got going there could have something to do with it. Unless that's gonna be a new thing now."
Sami shrugged, smiling. "This is the last time I show up for you."
Calder laughed. "Thank shit for that."
"Your new boyfriend," a girl said from across the table. The lip of her beer bottle was brushing against her cheek. Sami had missed her name. "How old is he, like twenty?"
"Twenty-two," said Calder. "I thought I told you I'm into older guys now. And he's still far better looking than all you bitches." That brought sniggers and guffaws.
Nobody talked about Sherman. They must've talked about him long before he arrived, and now just arrived to hear about their own issues. Sami hoped that would made it easier for him to enjoy himself, but Sherman was still there in the corner of his vision, and gone when he turned. He rather liked Sherman, smiling at how he added his opinion to everything and not just reading off a card. Sure, Sami sometimes didn't agree with what he said in regards to the Games, but that was something he could've handled. Now there would be no grinning enthusiasm, just the reports about his bone-charred corpse.
Mac had laughed about it that morning. He was one of the few childhood friends that Sami still kept in touch with, so of course he'd been the first person Sami turned to after hearing the newscast. The waste manager uniform was loose on Mac's flat, thin shoulders. Sami had never felt so strongly in comparing Mac to the trash he gathered from bins and the streets. When Sami told him about Sherman, and Mac mentioned he already heard, Mac was grinning, rubbing his gloved hands together.
"This Blake guy got some balls, eh?"
Sami had stared at him, incredulous. "A man was burned to death and you're laughing about it?"
Mac's grin had faltered. He blinked a few times, glanced nervously around him. "I didn't mean it like that, man. You think I would?"
"Well, just...be careful with what you say."
Sami wouldn't be surprised if Mac decided to stop seeing him just for that. Fucking Blake, Sami thought.
Everyone was drinking around him, losing themselves in alcohol and each other. Hands fell on his shoulders, trying to engage him. He heard a smattering of discussions, from the weather—"But it was really hot in the beginning of summer."—to specific people—"Yeah, she said it! I shit you not, she said those exact words!"—to locations—"Yeah, I think so too, but I'm not good with directions. I don't know Hephaestus so I can't talk with certainty." Sami was swimming in words as if in a large pool, and if he didn't keep his head above he would drown in them. His back tingled, but didn't ache. His head felt swollen and heavy, as if submerged in water.
"…in the Games?" Calder was saying. He looked over at Sami. "You?"
"The Games!" A girl punched him on the shoulder. "He's saying who do you think, out of all of us, would survive the Games?"
"I don't know."
"Bloodbath!" a boy yelled at him, slamming his bottle on the table.
Bloodbath was just a more dramatic and short saying of someone who was easy pickings. The Games were no longer set up around a ring of mined platforms around a cornucopia. The Mockingjay's Games or Capitol Games, whatever, Sami refused to be a part of it. Sami tipped his already empty bottle into his mouth, pretending to take a swing.
"Nah, Sami would break that bottle and cut somebody's throat with it," Calder said. "At least I would. They give extra points if you keep it going with the same weapon."
"Or if you kill a career monster," the same girl who spoke up added. Sami was still clawing for her name.
A hand fell on Sami's shoulder, this time from behind. Sami turned to look at Liv's strained, smiling face. She wore a heavy blue coat with black buttons down the middle. She smelled clean and fresh. When he took her hand, the one thing he had within reach, and kissed it on the back, she tasted salty, like the sea.
"You look like you could use an escape route," she whispered into his ear.
"Please," said Sami, and mostly meant it.
Liv plucked the bottle from his hand and plopped it on the table. "I'm sorry everyone, but I'm taking him with me."
Those who heard whistled, clapped, or tipped their bottles in salute. Her hands were rough on Sami's shoulders, prying him from the seat. He clung to her as she led him outside into the bitter cold air. There were people loitering outside in the night, cigarettes protruding from their lips or strung out on the street, trembling, their eyes glassy. None of them had Frank's distinctive orange-red hair. Liv led him past all that, leading him from Graff street and onto Tinkten.
"How are you?" she asked. She wasn't looking at him, but down at her feet.
"Better, with you here by my side."
She looked up and gave him a slanted smile. "Oh yeah?"
"Yeah," he said, rubbing at his head as if that would clear the buzz. "Now the noise only comes from one way."
"You mean your ass?"
"No, I mean—" Sami smiled. "Whatever, you ruined it."
They stopped walking. A banner flapped above them, but they paid no mind, staring into one another's eyes as they sought permission. Liv leaned in and Sami kissed her. He stopped himself from crushing her against his body in a hug.
"I've had a lot on my mind," he said softly.
"Sherman?" At his nod, she grimaced, "I didn't expect that. Not from Blake either."
Billy Blake, some low-ranked thug, a lifter, causing problems for Veston whenever deliveries were sent out to Lincoln. His co-worker Bitty had been behind one of the delivery trucks when Blake's men attacked, knocking her unconscious while they helped themselves to what was in the truck, taking what belonged to them and their people. She joked afterwards that she was lucky that was all they took and not her body. Sami feared a similar occurrence, the panic of seeing a truck or a bike flank him, bearing guns, forcing him to pull over. Now he feared those same men would tear him from his truck and light him on fire.
They were quiet again, Sherman heavy between them. They walked a bit apart, not holding hands, but brushing fingers, sometimes rubbing shoulders. When they passed by a store with reflective windows, Sami saw his blurred image alongside hers. Even distorted, Liv was beautiful, her features starkly contrasting his stunted, deformed ones. So what if her eyes were a little too far apart and her lips looked swollen? They were cute.
They were walking towards one of the many bridges crossing over man-made canals that came straight from the Thread river. It used to be called the Mississippi, and it had been much cleaner. Now it was a massive black thing, water shimmering like oil under the lamplights and debris bobbing like bloated carcasses. They found a place to talk, behind a restaurant with a loud motor roaring with heat and oil. It was protected by a spiked fence, though they discovered that if they clung to the side, legs dangling over to the river below, they could pass for casual lovers overseeing the boats and other things floating in it. Nobody was around. There were no windows pointing at the back, and anyone who wanted to hear them had to come within eyesight. Sami was sure they were safe. They've come here often enough to talk ever since Liv discovered it.
"My brother," Liv blurted out. "He's getting worse."
"Henri?" Sami asked, then tried not to wince. Of course. Who else? "What happened?"
Liv was searching the space around them for something to throw in the water and gave up, pulling at her hair distractedly instead. "He keeps on calling us and he doesn't say anything. Mom or Dad pick up the phone and all they can hear is him breathing. When they try to start a conversation, he just stays quiet or hangs up. I swear it happened like four times just this afternoon."
"You sure it's Henri?"
"It's his number that keeps showing up. He doesn't say anything. Not a damn word. We've tried visiting him, but he won't let us. Always says he's got people over. The other day my mom and I even tried to talk to the other victor, Ames, to see if he could do something with Henri. He seems to make it work with his own family, visiting them at least once a week." Her voice grew hard and Sami stared at her as her cheeks and ears went red. "But he didn't. He swears he talked to Henri and everything, but he's still the same as before. Fucking asshole."
"I'm sure Ames tries."
"It's times like these that I wish Henri just've died. Just like Simon did. He shouldn't have come home from the arena. Did you know that I was seven years old when he won? Seven." She repeated again with emphasis when Sami's eyes widened a little, not in shock but in clarification. "And it was great because despite what he did, at least he came out alive and had a small body count. I thought it wasn't that big of a deal, you know. I told you this before and it disgusts me to realize how stupid I was back then. Ames came out fine despite the fact that the kid he bonded with was playing his angle to stay alive, and Chipper…
"I don't know if you remember, but when he was called up for the post-Games interview, when he was asked about how he became so good with his slingshot, he said something…wait, let me remember…he said 'my dad took me out to hit cans with one until I was a good shot' or something like that. Then he mentioned that whenever a rock hit a kid between the eyes or when he—when he—" Her voice shook and Sami squeezed her hand. Her jaw tightened and her lips peeled back. "—when he brained them, he said it was like how he hit the cans. When he was able to hit one and not miss. That fluttery, warm feeling in his stomach." Her voice rose and she brought a hand against her forehead. "If that's what comes out, they should all just walk into the first damn trap."
"What do your parents say?"
"My parents? Oh, they told me it was necessary. Chipper killed them fast, they didn't see it as a problem. Something about him being able to deal with it his own way, because you wouldn't get anything done otherwise."
She wasn't crying, but her voice was high on the words. Sami tried to swallow and couldn't without it hurting. She had been carrying this, he realized. She had told him about Henri before and he had seen bits of him to know that what she was saying was truth and not some exaggeration. But this was the first time she was nearly screaming, talking so fast like she wouldn't have the chance to speak again.
Sami had been as young when he watched Henri win on the screen. The Axeman of Hephaestus, the change so sudden it was like turning a page and seeing someone else. A boy who had become a man. Sami had wanted to be like him. He carried a rubber axe and wrested with his sister and stepsiblings, the battle being one confusing mess, where they contradicted one another and voiced who they were, like Lacey "The Hangman's Daughter" from the Sprawl or Robert "Quickdraw" from Mjollnir. They had even said that the Lady Mockingjay should bring back the Quells, like the Games in the past, and put their picked heroes in to fight again, as a repeat of the Third Quarter Quell. He wondered what Liv would say if he told her that, if she would welcome it if it gave Henri the death she wanted.
"Maybe it's the drugs," he said softly. When she took a shuddering breath, he added, "I delivered some to his place a while back. He could be taking them to escape."
"If he wants to escape, he should just off himself. He didn't hesitate while he was in the arena."
"Maybe because he's…realizing it's wrong. Like how we…"
"I don't want to talk about it. I—" Now her voice broke and she wiped her tears roughly and shied away when Sami tried to hold her. "Let's just…I want to feel good. So stop talking."
Sami grunted as she shoved him onto the concrete surface. Liv straddled him and his body responded. They fumbled awkwardly and frantically at one another, delivering sloppy breathless kisses until Sami couldn't tolerate the pain that shot in the back of his head and spine. They picked themselves up, found a cheap room to bed for the night (which took a long time considering Sami had less money than he thought), and when they were alone, there was the frantic undressing, the contraceptive being applied, and the sticky tearing noise of their flesh as they came together and pulled apart.
Sami had an image of Henri and the woman he had been with, the last time Sami saw him. They had more in common with Henri than they realized, or maybe did realize. Simple, simple and nice, he thought, before his mind fragmented when Liv's head emerged from between his legs, her lips moist. Forget, forget, and his worry ebbed away inside while his strength kicked up, raw and primal and hot. He ignored the pain in his back, in his gut. Liv was breathless on top of him, smelling so strongly of salt, her belly taut, her hair wild around her face.
It's not just fucking, he thought, breathless as she was. It's more.