When Lora woke with Robert's arm overlapping her body, she lay still for a while, listening to him breathe. It was cute, the way he gobbled the air like the strawberry pies he was so fond of. His grip had slackened enough so that she could slowly roll over and face him. In his sleep, Robert's face was limp. His goatee was slick with drool. He exhaled and his sour breath made her scowl. She wiggled away. He muttered something unintelligible, but didn't struggle or moan. She stroked his forehead, grown wider since more of his hair was receding, then got up to make food.
Robert was awake by the time she returned with a sampling of breakfast. She had made eggs and toast, scrapping anything to do with meat. After what she had watched last night, she couldn't smell bacon the right way. Not for a few days.
Robert groaned as he sat up, opening his mouth as Lora filled it with a piece of toast.
"There's more in the kitchen," she told him as he chewed. "I thought about bringing it to you in bed, but I don't feel like cleaning up after you."
"Mmm, this is good." He swallowed. "Don't worry, sweety. I would've licked those sheets clean."
"I thought you liked it disgusting." He scratched his hairy chest, grinning toothily at her. He stretched, twitching his arms, which were tattooed with the smoke-and-fire symbols of the Ashen Lodge. The look she gave him made him curl into a small ball like a clumsy porcupine, while his smile turned lopsided and strained. "I'll go and get dressed."
He wore the clothes he had on yesterday rather than slide on new ones, then eased himself onto the kitchen chair, peering at the spread before him. There was a jug of raspberry-pomegranate juice. Robert had never been able to stand orange juice or milk. Lora watched him pour a glass for her and then one for himself. His smile was large and infectious. It made him appear younger than his forty-seven years.
They hadn't had moments like these in nearly seven months, when they could just enjoy one another's company. They didn't live together; their jobs wouldn't permit it. While she stayed in a relatively comfortable house near the Eyrie's central, Robert lived in his Mjollnir mansion. In the past, the mansion would've overseen solar panels down below the cliff, a mark of his district's industry.
As a winner of the games, twenty-nine years ago, Robert was currently Mjollnir's sole victor. Looks no longer mattered. Now it was either luck or skills, and Robert had made no secret that he was good with firearms. He had admitted as much when he was interviewed, saying his family had been part of the company who fought against the Capitolites when they rebelled for the last time, taken part in the sacking of the Capitol city. He was trained, but had no experience, until he had crossed paths with a boy from the Bucket.
Lora couldn't remember the boy's name, but the boy had known Robert's. His pack contained a rifle. Robert only had a knife. The boy had been using the rifle as a club, screaming and crying. Robert emerged from the fight as Quickdraw, streaked with blood. He had saluted the nearest camera, thrusting the rifle in the air. "I dedicate this victory to our Lady of Flames! May we bask in her warmth and let our enemies burn!"
He was a loyalist, born and raised, and was among the first victors to be baptized to the Ashen Lodge. They believed in rebirth and saw it in the Mockingjay. But the speeches and promotions only showed one side. Everyone only saw an aging victor, Good Ole Quickdraw, who had driven young boys to swagger with toy guns in his heyday. They didn't see his retreats as a front, only saw the extremist's dead bodies in print as nothing more than the Oculi doing their jobs of weeding out those too violent, idealistic, or disingenuous, to rot in the Bucket.
Lora had folded her cards years ago. She was still known in that world, in her closeness with Robert. She was a bodyguard, a Gamemaker, a courier, whatever Mrs. Everdeen asked her to do, she did it. The Mockingjay's daughter wasn't ignored. Lora was thankful that she was still sought after despite the years, valued as a close friend of the family and not just for what she could do for them. Lora had started from dirt, in some small town in Windsor where the wheat extended for miles and miles, but she had been uprooted and planted in the Eyrie, and to the Eyrie she owed her loyalty.
Nineteen years Lora and Robert had invested in their relationship, and not all those years were spent together.
"Where's Abbie?" Robert asked. "She's not going to eat with us?"
Lora glanced at the empty chair between them. "No, she's gone off to run some laps."
Robert took a slow sip of juice. "Staying healthy?"
"She's preparing." There was a tense silence, broken by their breathing and eating. "I told her the Games are still weeks away, but she wants to stay focused. She's also been seeing her cousins more lately."
Lora gave him a small smile. "She's preparing for every scenario."
Robert smiled back. He was peeling the crusts off the bread, more out of distraction than any real distaste. "Has she talked about staying with me for a bit?"
"I don't know. You'll have to ask her."
"I wouldn't mind…if she stayed."
"I don't mind either. She should spend time with her father. She should get to know you better."
"Does that mean she already knows all about you?"
Lora shook her head. "Nah, not really."
The silence was thick and oppressive. Lora knew Robert was thinking what she was thinking, if not a slight variation. Abagail had come at a bad time, but they had both realized that any time afterwards would've been worse. Lora had been ready to retire, Robert ready to take a little less work. That was, until Robert had been kidnapped by the Family. When the ugliness of his capture had been settled and Robert was safe back home, there had been Robert's fits, his twitches and screams and trauma, and she couldn't subject their daughter to that. Abagail had been passed to one of many family members who took her for weeks to months at a time.
That also meant that, because Abagail was born in the Eyrie, she was an Eyrie citizen. When her name would be called up as arranged, she would represent the Eyrie along with her male tribute. She wouldn't have her father for a mentor. Robert insisted he was fine with it, that representing the Eyrie was better than the baked earth of Mjollnir, but Lora knew he was mostly fronting.
"Is something wrong?" he asked.
She looked up. "Huh?"
"You've just spaced out. Is everything alright?"
"Just thinking of the inevitable long day I'm going to have. I need to report to administration, talk to Missus Everdeen about our daughter, and see if I'm going to be relocated."
"Aren't you supposed to be retired from that?"
I hope I stay retired, she thought, but it wasn't with much conviction. "If they need me, I'll do whatever is asked."
Robert nodded. He understood that better than anyone. "If they do relocate you, I hope it won't be for at least another few days. I just got here."
"Do you want to go see Abagail while I get things sorted? I can tell you who she'll be visiting after her jog, and I'll let them know you're stopping by."
Robert nodded slowly. "I'd like that."
The center of the Eyrie was always bursting with activity.
Lora found it hard to believe that this place had once been one of the poorest places in the country. She tried to picture the Seam that the Mockingjay once spoke about, spreading out like some ugly scar across the sprawl that now stood in its place, and the thought…well, it was almost inconceivable.
It was market day in the middle of Hob Street, and the number of stalls almost blocked her view of the houses behind as she walked past. People jostled and walked with slack expressions on their faces. They smoked and spat and talked amongst one another in a cloud of noise and sweat. The majority of the people weren't coated in coal dust, their eyes weren't cupped in wrinkles, their skins weren't sagging or covered in welts and sores. That part of their lives was mostly over.
The Eyrie was no Memphis, lacking the same cultural refinements and flashing neon signs promoting drinks and sights and, in some cases, companionship. But here, walking through the simple multicolored tents of the city, always made her feel comfortable. It was not without drunkenness and debauchery, but then again, what place was free of that?
Right in the center of where the old Victor's Village had been was a garden, divided into fourths like a pie, and in the center of that was a massive stone state of Peeta Mellark as a young man. She knew before she approached that the plaque at his feet dedicated him a hero. He was breadless and ageless. He had died at the age of forty-five of a heart attack, twenty-four years ago. To this day there were still some conspiracy theories that insisted the Mockingjay had him murdered. Lora rolled her eyes. What drivel.
There were very few people in the Baker's Garden. Some were reading or walking with pets or children. A girl was running in the flowers, yanking them out by the roots and trying to braid them in her hair. Lora watched her with a curious glance and moved on.
Lora passed through a tent selling shirts and what the vendor insisted was authentic jewelry. Further away she could see a few people gathering by the soapbox the Ashen Lodge usually preached from come the weekend, which was currently being used to house this days' self-proclaimed social philosopher. There was only a few snippets of the conversation she could hear but the names "Billy Blake" and "Sherman" were enough for her to block the rest out, with a shiver down her spine.
A part of her considered stepping in. This isn't my life anymore, she reminded herself. Lora was a civilian like the rest of them. It was a numb, unreal feeling. She was going to be put with Mr. Everdeen, the Mockingjay's son, in preparing the arena. It was a full-time job, but she had to fill her idle hours with something else besides reading files detailing extremists she had to seek out as part of the Oculi.
A couple of children raced past her, almost making her fall over. She looked past to say something, only to pause as she saw the plastic gun and wooden sword in their hands, as they advanced upon each other, laughing.
A few weeks left, she thought to herself, a few weeks left to help create the perfect arena for my daughter.
It was her duty. Mrs. Everdeen had hinted it days earlier, making sure Lora would help her brother, as it was likelier something would go wrong if Mrs. Everdeen left Mr. Everdeen to his own devices than her being there to guide him. Lora owed Abagail that much and she wouldn't disappoint her.
The argument by the soapbox started to get heated as she left and the Praetorians had just started moving as she passed a corner. The commotion became a distant murmur behind her as she kept on walking. The dark building of the central administration drew closer.
She was a civilian now after all, and she did have an appointment.
Mrs. Everdeen was leaning back in her chair when Lora came into her office. She was dressed casually, wearing a gray shirt, her uniform hanging on a peg behind her. Her black hair came straight and long down past her shoulders with no bangs, making her forehead large and severe. Her blue eyes looked Lora up and down, and she smiled lopsidedly. Like the name she and her brother shared with the Mockingjay, Mrs. Everdeen resembled her, down to her looks; the way she smiled, and the stubborn set of her chin. She frowned over Lora's shoulder and Lora turned around to see the female guard who had let her through glance nervously around the office.
"What is it?" Mrs. Everdeen asked her.
"You want to be alone, Ma'am?"
"Yes." Mrs. Everdeen leaned back again. "I'm sure the ones up front have done their job well and relieved Missus Calhoun of anything that could cause me harm."
The guard still looked a little uneasy, but nodded. "Alright. I'll be outside if you need me."
Mrs. Everdeen waved her away. When the door closed behind them, she grinned, "Charming, isn't she?"
"I assume she's new?"
"Yes, and like always they think they're the first ones to come up with even the most basic concerns. But I suppose they all have good intentions. You've found your way here okay?"
The administration was constructed to confuse and intimidate. There were always guards on patrol outside, letting in people who had appointments, and letting friends or relatives wait outside. Even though Lora was an old time friend of the Everdeens, she was still stripped and searched, and most of the things she had taken with her had been confiscated until her return. She had been led through one of the passageways with no fewer than two escorts.
Lora nodded in response.
"Sit, sit, I don't want you to remain standing like some servant."
"If that's your wish, milady."
"Oh, stop. We know one another too well to play this game. Leave it for the children." Mrs. Everdeen folded her hands on her table. "How are you holding up? I know that you and Reggie had a history together."
"He was a friend," said Lora, unsure by her comment of history, "but regardless, it was hard having to see that. I've never seen one burnt like that. They got it done."
Mrs. Everdeen grimaced. "Billy Blake's getting what's coming to him. I received reports about his work before then, but a couple of local malcontents in Lincoln raiding trucks didn't seem like they required our attention." She kneaded her face. "If we keep to the usual one-third hating our guts, we'll do fine. We don't need Lincoln wrapped up in this."
"So the rest of the country is stable?"
"Yes," Mrs. Everdeen replied, with a slight emphasis on the word. It made Lora sweat.
What was Mrs. Everdeen holding back? Could it be about Aztlán? They had rebelled forty-five years ago, during President Klein's rule. Aztlán hadn't made another attempt, not since the Mockingjay had allowed them to keep their old holidays and traditions, after promises from Klein, Tucker, and Dawson went unanswered. Aztlán wanted independence, but realized they would stand alone against the might of the other districts.
Lora pondered before she asked, "What about Pacifica?"
"They're a special case. Most we've ever had to worry about them is the inland clans or whatever new old tribal issue they decide to bring up, but it's only between themselves, not us. I think a lot has to do with their portrayal in the Mockingjay's memoirs and how eager they are to distance themselves from the past. They went from lapdogs to pack leaders when she took the reins. They don't want to be viewed like everyone sees Glitter Gulch. Or be made into a second Bucket…but then again who would? We might've been having troubles with Columbia had not our Lady and President Paylor shifted the blame to Coin's shoulders alone. That was a smart move. That helped prevent another war and keep their tech under our control. We hope to keep it that way.
"Regardless, Blake's little stunt might get some repercussions. It might set off some folk in Pacifica, mainly the groups and collectives who want to branch away from Panem, be their own republic. To keep that down to a minimum, the Mockingjay has asked me to send resources down that way."
"You want me there as well?"
Lora almost sighed in relief. "I hope my services aren't being forgotten," she said, trying at a joke.
"No, since Joel is your replacement. Humanitarians usually make the best doctors, soothe wounds, make sure it's alright." Her smile slanted. Lora knew that look. While Joel was there quelling the obvious, an open target like himself would lure out whatever hidden threats might intercept the deal for Mrs. Everdeen's Oculi. "You're retired from that business."
"I don't mind helping you."
"Yes, but I would prefer you stay away from that for now. Do your job. Stay with my brother and help him with the layout of the arena. It's just about worked out for this year's Games, from what I've heard."
Lora wondered how the Capitol, in their heyday, had been able to do it, build seventy-five arenas, all automated and elaborate, scattered throughout Panem. They had been resources better distributed amongst the populace and Lora was thankful that at least the arenas of today weren't so extensive. They only used the one located in Memphis, reinforcing it little by little, and then working with the layout from before. Below the arena, wires had to be checked, cameras had to be repaired and set, the arena's inner layout had to be planted for it to bear fruit in spring.
Mrs. Everdeen laughed. "It keeps the people happy. It definitely takes a load off my shoulders, knowing that it'll soon be all they ever talk about." She quieted for a moment, regarding Lora. "Your daughter will still be selected, fighting for our honor. You haven't told her about the arena, have you?"
That came so suddenly that Lora couldn't speak. Mrs. Everdeen was smiling, but there was something off about it. It looked like an imitation of a smile, as if it was something she had seen in pictures and she was trying to remember how to stretch the proper muscles. "Don't worry," Mrs. Everdeen said softly. "I know you haven't been giving her arena advantages. I'm just messing with you."
"There's the girl I know," Lora said, as if Mrs. Everdeen was seven instead of thirty-seven. It was still somewhat apt, as Lora was seven years older than her.
"Go home, enjoy yourself. It's only going to get hectic from here."
Lora realized that Mrs. Everdeen was dismissing her. She stood up, caught herself for a moment, and said, "I hate to say this but…is Billy Blake the only main concern?"
"You mean to add others to that last, yes?" Mrs. Everdeen shook her head. "They're not necessary. I've already sent men to root out Brother Steele from his hole. You need not concern yourself with them anymore. It is no longer your business."
No longer my business, Lora thought, repeating the other woman's words bitterly in her head. She noticed Mrs. Everdeen watching her. The woman's smile was almost gentle.
A wave of relief went through Lora's body as she left the office, giving the clerk by the desk scant notice. Everything was going to work out. She wasn't going to be forced out of her own retirement nor was she going to have to leave her son behind. Mrs. Everdeen's promises were enough to lift her spirits and ignore the suffocating air on her journey past the bright walls. There was a part of her still chastising her selfishness with images of Reggie's smoldering body, but it was a small concern. She could suffer the nightmares and blame at a later point, because right now they were a distant reality.
She gave the guards her thanks when they returned her stuff to her, and she stood outside for a moment, allowing the sun to bake her chilled skin.
Then Nordgren stepped into view.
He was a gangly, awkward man, wearing thick-rimmed glasses, and his stomach looked like he'd swallowed a basketball. He was in his late forties, and looked like he was caught halfway through melting. Age pulled at his throat. His eyes were cupped in baggy sockets. His light blond hair, streaked and spotted with white, was slicked back with grease.
From just the awkward walk and look, Lora wondered how anyone could view Nordgren seriously, and yet here he was. He didn't reek of booze. That would've been one small victory, to see him drinking on the job instead of at home where he could congeal into his couch or whatever, a sack of self-pity about failed liberations and cajoling the people, a glass rolling from his limp hands.
Joel Nordgren was a supposed humanitarian, related to Tom and Ida Nordgren, who had lived in Windsor. She knew little about the Nordgrens aside from the fact that they had been very politically charged against most of President Dawson's policies, and very dead as a result. In their disapproval of the last president, Lora supposed they shared a grudging similarity, as Dawson's incompetence at keeping Panem stable had been the cause for the Capitolites to rebel, and the main reason the Mockingjay took control. If it hadn't been for the Mockingjay, Panem would've been brought back to the way it had been during the Capitol's power.
The Nordgrens had published books about liberating the career districts. Lora had never bothered to read their books, even before they had been banned. She saw Joel's sudden appearance as their lost child as a kind of juicy scandal. The Nordgrens had a daughter who died alongside them. And then there was Joel, who was alive because he believed in the Mockingjay.
The Mockingjay might decide to accept Joel into her flock, but that didn't make him less of a shot or a windbag to Lora. They might come from Falun, Windsor. They might glance one another in passing at the administration, might hear of one another's work for the Mockingjay and the Everdeens, might even have decent houses even if she were here and he was now living in Glitter Gulch, but they weren't friends.
"Missus Calhoun," he began, inclining his head, sliding his glasses further up his nose. "What a surprise to see you here."
"Joel," she said simply, trying to display a strained smile of her own. "It's been some time."
"It certainly has, dear," said Nordgren. "The public office treating you well?"
"Yes," she said. "In between the money and recognition, there are also the benefits. Not all of us can be rewarded for spending our time drinking whiskey from the drawer. Someone has to actually do some work."
He smiled, making his second chin wobble slightly. "I've almost considered paying you a visit every once in a while to rekindle it, but like you said, that's valuable hours I wouldn't be drinking." He sounded a little hard at the end, like a child threatening their own parents to leave them alone or else.
"What do you want?" she asked.
He glanced at his wristwatch. "I have a few minutes to spare before my appointment. I was wondering if you wanted to have a drink with me? Tea," he added at her upraised eyebrow. He pointed. "At the Brew and Barrel."
"Very well." They weren't going to get any enjoyment out of this, but she was pretty sure she knew what he was asking.
It wasn't very full. It was warm, light, with smooth wooden tables and soft stools to sit on. Joel flashed his badge at the waiter, who quickly sat them down at one of the enclosed lounges. Joel ordered apple tea while Lora was fine with water. She watched him pretend to be immersed in the tea for a moment, giving it a good sniff before timidly taking a sip. He was waiting for the right time, thinking she wouldn't notice if he didn't come off as too eager.
"Internal affairs have started leaking some verbal trailer," he said, looking up at her. "For some reason nanoswarms seem to be a popular subject for the new arena."
He was trying to draw her out, temping her with candy. Too bad the candy he was bribing her with was stale. Nanoswarms had been considered for a while, as Mr. Everdeen had been quite enamored by the prototypes the R&D crew had displayed. It had been scrapped pre-production. It was difficult to control something that could kill every tribute in an instant, and everyone else if the swarm managed to escape the arena.
And nanoswarms wouldn't give Abbie any advantage, she thought.
"Can't give out any spoilers, Nordgren," she replied matter-of-factly. "Those non disclosures we all had to sign are there for a reason."
"I understand. I'm just asking, as a concerned parent to another."
Lora drank, pondering. She had never seen Nordgren's son, but Banner, one of the electrician in charge of wiring the arena, insisted he had. Banner told her the boy looked a little like Nordgren, in that he was tall and blond. There had been no mother involved. Nordgren had picked up the boy like one would do a stray wandering down the streets. It certainly made Nordgren look amenable. People tend to ignore the fact that if Nordgren was able to have one child, he was certainly able to have more, what with his salary.
"Your son is just as eligible for glory as the rest of the children," she replied. "There's no special treatment, as you know."
Nordgren's brown eyes regarded her for what seemed a long time in the humid air. "Yes," Nordgren said slowly, softly. "I'm sure he is. I've been told as much. Regardless, the odds are always odds, and I'm sure no matter what that they'd fall…favorably."
Lora raised an eyebrow. "I beg your pardon?"
"Didn't think an eye stopped being an eye until it was gouged out," he said, his eyes staring into hers. "It must be hard to restrain yourself, with all that training about keeping yourself in the loop. It must be infuriating."
"It's never fun to be out of the loop, to which I can fully understand your position. You are a parent yourself, so you might understand my position in turn."
She pushed her glass away. "Nordgren, we're not friends. It's not wise to tell me you're breaking the law. That little tag-" She pointed at the card dangling from a plastic strap by his breast pocket. "-isn't enough to save you."
He said nothing. Instead he glanced down at his tea, as if realizing it was there.
"Have a fun trip out west, Nordgren," said Lora. She left him with his mostly-untouched tea and the bill.
The door was unlocked when she returned.
A part of her didn't think much of it. It might have been that Abbie had returned home and just gotten settled in the kitchen. She half expected to see her and Robert sitting together around the table and chatting heartily as she'd enter.
And yet another part inside her held back. Her hand tensed on the handle and she craned her neck towards the nearby window. The curtains were half-drawn, like a slitted eye. She went towards it, then halted abruptly.
What the hell am I doing? she thought. You're a civvie now. Try to act like it.
She entered her home and her paranoia spiked in her like quills. There was nobody in the kitchen and it was much too quiet.
No. She heard it. A faint muffled noise, almost subdued, like it was being pushed underneath the door in secret.
She sagged in relief. It was Robert.
"Think you could come in here for a bit?" he called out from the living room.
"Sure," she replied, hanging her coat on the peg by the door. "Is Abbie here?"
"Just get in here, please."
Robert's reply was too curt and blunt. Her hands itched against her waist for an invisible gun. She could hear the screen in the background, but not Robert or an assailant. He hadn't used the code phrase, "I've left my keys in the sink" to warn her that there was somebody there. It could be nothing like that. She had to approach to make sure.
When she entered the living room, she did so slowly, inching her head. When she caught a glimpse of the screen, she froze. She recognized the bloodied face of Sherman, squatting down on the ground while hooded men taunted him in a sloppy half-circle. Her eyes shifted to Robert on the couch.
"I was looking for a rerun for Abbie when I found this." He sounded haggard, as if saying this much had taxed him. He looked up at her and she flinched at the impact of his eyes.
"I think we need to talk."