"So… does this mean I get the next kiss or?" Finnick muses jokingly beside me. Athena's cheeks turn pink.
For a sickening moment, I believe she's going to explode into a fit of rage. But then, mercifully, she dissolves into a bout of laughter. It's a stunning, genuine laugh, and beside me I feel Ares' mood brighten slightly. It's so easy to get caught up in the beauty of it, that I momentarily forget our situation.
The lightness is short lived. As soon as Athena catches her breath, her brother brings us back to reality, "You two know this is going to be brought up tonight. You now have about thirty minutes to decide how you're going to play this."
Athena sobers quickly and answers, "Can't we just tell them it was a mistake? A one time thing?"
Ouch. I try not to wince at her words, but I'm positive I do because she immediately recovers, "Tide, I didn't… I just mean, I don't want to play the pathetic star-crossed lovers routine. I will not be some doe-eyed, damsel in distress who has fallen in love for the hero type."
She spits the words as if someone has already accused her, and it's obvious she's no longer referring to our situation alone. Finnick clears his throat, "No one has accused you of that, Athena. However, if you don't play this right, you can come across as cruel and easy. No offense, but no one is going to sponsor a heartless harlot."
Ares sneers, "Watch it, Odair."
Athena rolls her eyes at his protectiveness. "So what are our options?"
"Well, Tide's shiner is going to have to be addressed," Finnick adds quickly. "I mean, they did a wonderful job of preventing swelling, but the thing is already quite purple."
"Ares hit me," I blurt. Instantly, three confused expressions are thrown my way, so I explain, "Ares saw the video, and got to me before anyone had time to react."
"That also gives you the option of claiming you two are not together because of Ares," Finnick says to Athena.
Her cheeks turn a brilliant shade of pink, "Ares isn't the boss of me."
"Like hell I'm not."
"If I go out there claiming that I can't do something just because you told me not to, I'll look weak."
"So there are your options," I say. "You can deny it meant anything at all and be cheap; you can claim Ares told you know and be weak; or you can play along with it and be a star-crossed lover."
She pales a little, "What about Cato?"
I scowl openly, and she averts her gaze down to her hands. The room remains quiet for several heavy seconds until she looks back up to Ares. Tears are pooling in her eyes, "Are? What about Cato?"
Ares frowns, "After everything that just happened, Thena, I think it's best we leave him out of this."
She says nothing, just moves to the ottoman pressed to the window overlooking the city, pulls her knees to her chest, and gazes out into the streets. Ares sends us both a pained look, "You two should probably talk this over. We'll give you a minute."
Finnick nods and follows him back out into the hall, turning over his shoulder to say, "We'll be back in twenty minutes to take you guys over to the stage."
With that, they are gone, and I am left standing, staring at her as she stares fixatedly on the lights below. We hold this position for a minute or two before I can no longer take the silence. I walk over to the chair and sit at her feet. She still doesn't look at me, so I speak the first thought that comes to my mind, "You're going to ruin your dress sitting like that, you know?"
"Good," she deadpans, still looking out the window. I sigh and stand to leave, but she speaks again, "I'm sorry."
I blink at her, bewildered and unable to come up with a response. She continues before I offer one, "I'm sorry for bringing you into this. I'm sorry for kissing you back. I'm sorry for tying your fate to mine with this stupid alliance. I'm sorry Cato hit you."
"It's not your fault he's an ass," I snap.
The corner of her mouth twitches up, "No, but you shouldn't have been hit for an action that we both took equal part in." She turns to face me full on, and I'm thankful to see the tears subsided without spilling over. "And he's certainly not going to say sorry, so this will be the only apology you get."
I smile a little at her honesty, "Thanks. I'm honestly just glad he took his anger out on me instead of you."
She flinches like of slapped her, and I immediately regret my observation. He did take it out on her. My eyes involuntarily start scanning her for bruises or injuries, but I quickly come to the conclusion that it must have been verbal. When my gaze meets hers again, the concentration there shocks me. Her hand moves up toward my face and comes within centimeters of my newly bruised cheek before halting. She looks at me questioningly, and when I nod slightly she allows her fingers to delicately touch the tender skin.
"It's so cold."
"That would be the medicine they put on to keep the swelling down," I inform her. She nods guiltily before pulling her hand down and turning back towards the skyline. My curiosity peeks, "Athena?"
"I think I have a right to know what's going on with you and Cato."
She scoffs, "Do you?"
"Yes, I do. I've been assaulted twice now-"
Her head whips around lightening fast, "Twice?"
Whoops. "Er, yeah. Once tonight, and once when I actually kissed you."
She rolls her eyes, "That protective prick." I don't answer; I only wait expectantly. Anger begins to seep into her expression, "I've got demons, okay? Blonde haired, blue-eyed demons. But what's important right now is how we're going to play this tonight. So? What do you want to do?"
I'd like to snog you right here until our faces turned blue, if nothing else just to piss your asshole of an ex off. "Does it really matter what I want at this point?"
"I'm not a heartless monster, Tide." Her eyes sadden as if recalling a painful memory. "You don't think I am… Do you?"
"Not in the slightest."
She purses her lips, "Then tell me what you want."
I clear my throat, "Athena, I'm realistic about how much time I might have left." She winces, but I continue, "And I'm not really in the business of denying myself simple pleasures while I'm still here. And you're the most pleasurable thing I've experienced for a long time."
Her eyes dart down to my lips, almost imperceptivity. She swallows thickly, "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't physically attracted to you. Honestly, you're the only person who's looked at me like this in years."
I can't help but roll my eyes, "Yeah. I'm sure that has nothing to do with the fact that everyone you know is terrified of Cato."
Immediately, I regret saying his name. Her eyes widen and the sadness is back. She closes them and tilts her head down, "You know, I wish you wouldn't talk about how your time is limited."
I notice her language, her wording. My time is limited; hers is not. She's confident she will survive. I glance down at my hands, "So you know, then? You know I'll never be able to go through with it, with killing an innocent person."
She continues to stare at the floor, but I can see her nod slightly. Shame courses through me, and I can't pull my eyes off the floor. Suddenly, her small hand is on my chin, forcing my eyes up to meet hers. The blue orbs are blazing with intensity, "Stop. Don't drop your head like you're the one that has anything to be ashamed of. I wish I were like you, Tide. Revering human life is not a weakness. In fact, I believe true bravery is being willing and able to sacrifice your own life for another's. But I'm not that brave. I'm not that selfless. I'm a monster for it, I know. But I want desperately to come back here. I want to see my brother again. I want to be loved again, and I'm willing to sacrifice another person's life to do that. And that is the weakest, most cowardly, most shameful statement I will ever make. But it is also the most honest."
For a moment, I am speechless. The intensity in her eyes bubbles over into humiliation, and I realize that, though I denied my believing so, she clearly does believe she is a monster. "Athena Laud, you listen to me," I command, grabbing both sides of her face. "You are not a monster. You are a vibrant, beautiful woman. Headstrong and prideful? Without a doubt. But you are not a monster, and you are certainly not heartless. A heartless person could never believe those things. You are not kind, and you are not humble. But you are smart and strong and brave. You are passionate, and you secretly have a big heart. So stop feeling sorry for me, for yourself, or for anyone else. These are the Hunger Games. Be the champion you have trained to be."
As soon as I finish, I am nearly knocked over by her lips crashing into mine. At first, I am too stunned to respond, but it only takes a few seconds for me to fervently reciprocate. Her hands lock into my hair, and heartbeat races. My hands find her waist, and I'm pulling her into my lap when she pulls away, looking guilty but grateful, "No one has ever said anything like that to me before. In fact, it's always been the opposite."
I frown, "Anyone who calls you heartless has no heart themselves."
"No one ever claimed Cato had a heart," she blurts. Her hands fly to her mouth and I scowl, "He better not have told you that."
"That's not even the worst thing he's said to me today," she mumbles.
I feel my blood start to boil. "What did he say to you when he saw the video, Athena?"
Her eyes get big, "It really doesn't matter. It's over now and we-"
"Tell me, or I'll announce in my interview tonight that you pulled this whole stunt for sponsors."
Her jaw drops, "You wouldn't."
She crosses her arms over her chest and purses her lips. You look so much younger when you pout. "Fine," she concedes. "He… He basically accused me of sleeping with anyone who came along. He called me a slut and… He uhm… He said he was a good thing he left me."
I gape at her, shocked and confused, "I don't understand. Left you?"
"Yeah. You said you wanted to know our story? You want to know what's going on between us?" She refuses to look me in the eye, but for some reason she trusts me enough to continue, "We… Well, Cato and I, we… Since I was eleven we've kind of been inseparable. At first, we were just friends, training partners, but eventually we became much more. For six years, we were basically each other's whole lives. We were going to enter consecutive games, emerge victorious, and live out our lives together as trainers and mentors in victor's village…" She pauses with a sad smile. "I was so in love I couldn't tell up from down. I always thought he was too, but the night before he leaves, I find a letter taped to the inside of my locker door at the training academy. He said he never wanted to see me again when he got back, that he would be able to move on to bigger, better things and that I would never be strong enough to really be able to be with him. He couldn't even tell me in person. I was devastated. I didn't sleep or eat for three days until Ares force-fed me chicken soup with a sleeping drug in it. When he won, he stayed true to his letter. He constantly had a harem of women at his beck-and-call, and he relished in every opportunity he had to remind me I would never be enough. I could never be a victor. Since the reaping things have been… different. I thought for a moment that it had been some misunderstanding, that maybe he could still love me. But tonight proved me wrong. He doesn't want me back. I'm not sure he ever did."
By the time she's finished, she appears to have become transfixed with a spot on the rug. My fists clench involuntarily at my sides. Without thinking, I reach out and grab her and pull her into a firm hug. She buries her face into my shirt. "That bastard," I say quietly, "I'm so sorry, Athena. You deserve so much better than that."
She pulls her head up and nuzzles her face into the crook of my neck. I smile, "I don't mean to rush you, but we need to make a choice."
She steps back and pulls her hands self-consciously behind her back. It would be absolutely adorable were she any less lethal. "I suppose we could just go with it. It's already been done."
I don't try to suppress my grin. She smiles brilliantly back at me, and suddenly I'm hit with a terribly cruel idea. "How would you like a small bit of revenge? It's the least I can do."
When the elevator doors open onto the second floor, I nearly collapse out of them. There is not a soul here, as everyone has already left for the interviews. My hands are shaking out of a combination of rage and fear. What have I done? How did things end up so wrong? I plop into a seat at the bar in the kitchen area and burry my face in my hands. I know I lost my temper, but the pain was overwhelming. How could she do this to me? A small voice in the back of my mind reminds me that this is largely my fault. At the time, she thought I hated her. Can I blame her for finding solace and happiness in someone else? Yes, the unreasonable, heartbroken part of me argues. To be honest, in this moment, I don't want to be reasonable. I just want the pain to cease, or at least dim.
I glance at the clock. Still thirty minutes until I need to be at the theater. I reach over the counter and grab the closest bottle I can reach and rip the seal off the top. The liquor burns as it goes down, but at least it momentarily distracts me from other pain. Half a bottle later, I hear the elevator doors open.
"I've been sent to fetch you, Mr. Can't-Control-My-Temper," Johanna singsongs as she saunters into the room. She sees the liquor bottle in my hand and rolls her eyes. "Yes, what a great idea? Why don't you get rip-roaring drunk, Cato? THAT will surely help you contain your anger issues."
I frown, "Unfortunately, Jo, I am not yet drunk. I'd like to be, but I've only managed a steady buzz so far. Care to help?" I ask offering her the bottle.
She shrugs and takes a long swing, "Why not? Can't let you have all the fun, can I?"
I snort, "Yeah. I'm having plenty of fun over here."
She takes another large drink and hands the bottle back to me. "I'm not interested in your moping, princess. Have another shot or two and lets go."
I glare at her, but I know that she's right. We quickly finish the bottle between ourselves and walk… er, stumble our way onto the elevator. Images start to blur, and thoughts become hard to connect. I glance down at Johanna, who has been staring at me and immediately bursts into a fit of giggles when we make eye contact. At least I won't be the only one intoxicated in our group.
We reach the main floor and begin to make our way over the theater where the interviews are conducted. In order to avoid mass mobbings by fans, the victors are walked through a side entrance, around the back stage area, and up to our seats. Jo and I arrive a little late, so it is likely all the other mentors are already in their seats. As we walk towards the backstage area, I begin to get the feeling that I should not be back here, but I can't seem to figure out why. I'm a victor. This is the way victors get to their seats.
We round the corner, and my heart stops. Suddenly, I remember why I should not have come this way. In a group with other tributes waiting to enter the stage, Athena stands facing away from me. In the small of her exposed back, Tide's hand is making soothing circles.
"I guess he doesn't want to keep that hand," I mutter to no one in particular.
We are too far away for the tributes to hear us, but Johanna understands me, "Cool it, Cato. You're drunk. Don't cause a scene."
"You're drunk, Jo," I rebuttal like a petulant child. We get closer, and I can see their expressions. He says something in her ear, and she tosses her head back in laughter, those gorgeous curls cascading down around her face. I think I'm going to be sick.
I miss the command in my drunken haze, but the tributes begin moving very deliberately. Lining up, I realize, to enter the stage in order by district. As he leaves her to take his place, Tide leans down and places a delicate kiss to her temple. Jo must see this because she immediately begins pulling me in the opposite direction. It doesn't matter; they've already started entering the stage. In the state I'm in, I'm sure I couldn't make it to them in time.
Then, right before he's about to walk on, Tide turns and winks at me with his blackened eye. Johanna's jaw drops, and I see red. I storm off to our seats, not bothering to wait for Jo. By the time I make it there, I'm fuming. In our row of seats sit Haymitch, his friends from District 10, Peeta, Katniss, Finnick, and Ares, and there are two empty seats available for Johanna and I. I plop down in the seat beside Ares, trying my best to resist an outburst of rage.
Johanna finally stomps up to the aisle, panting and saying a little too loudly, "What the hell, Porcius?"
Ares grabs her by the waist and pulls her into the seat to his opposite side. He puts a hand over her mouth to keep her from screaming before shooting me a contemptuous look and whispers loudly to me, "What the hell? Did you two rob a liquor store?"
Johanna rips his hand away from her mouth and mimics his tone, "Cato here was trying to drown his sorrows. I did what I could to limit his intake."
Ares rolls his eyes. "Just sit down and try to shut up, both of you."
Katniss leans around Finnick and Peeta to get my attention, "Holy shit. Did you do that to the poor kid's face?"
I shrug and offer no answer. Finnick shifts uncomfortably beside me. I grimace at him apologetically, and he smiles, "I understand, but just this once. If it was Annie, I'm not sure I could have exercised as much restraint, but he is my little brother. So cut the macho act." He glances over his shoulder and drops his voice even lower, "At least until we get them out safe and sound. Then I don't care if you feel the need to fight him, as long as you fight him fair."
I nod, but say no more. The boy from 1 has already started his interview, and I'm trying to sober up and focus a bit for my tributes. In what seems like seconds, Copper's buzzer sounds and Athena is standing, gracefully making her way to the interview seat. She bats her eyelashes at Caesar, and my heart speeds up.
"Athena, my lovely, you are absolutely ravishing in that dress. Isn't she?" Flickerman asks and the crowd sounds its agreement.
"Oh thank you, Caesar. You're too kind," she coos in a voice that is far too sweet. She bites her lip and bats her eyelashes again. A man whistles from somewhere in the crowd.
"I certainly am not. I think you have quite a few admirers, Miss Laud. Including a certain green eyed, bronze haired hunk from District 4!"
"Oh my!" Athena feigns shock. "You don't mean Finnick Odair, do you?" She turns to our direction and waves to the seat beside me. "Oh Finnick, dearie. I'm sorry you feel that way, but you know I'm already taken."
Finnick chuckles and waves back. He blows her a kiss, playing along, "One day you'll learn he's not enough for you. Upgrade to the deluxe version while you still can, love."
He arcs his eyebrow suggestively, and I can see Athena genuinely blush. Caesar and the rest of the Capitolites are beside themselves with glee. "Now, don't play coy with me, Athena dearest. I think you know who you're referring to!"
Athena blushes again. "I heard that word might have gotten out," She murmur bashfully before turning to Tide. "I think we've been found out."
Caesar laughs heartily, "Yes, I'm afraid it was me who let the cat out of the bag. It really just slipped. I hope I didn't get you into too much trouble."
Athena lays a comforting hand over on his arm. "I came away unscathed in the aftermath. I'm not sure I can say the same for Tide, here."
The lights focus on him for the first time, and his black eye is grimly apparent. The audience gasps, and the smug smile on my lips is not alcohol related. Caesar clicks his tongue disapprovingly as the buzzer rings to signal the end of her interview. Athena stands and blows several kisses out into the audience before making her way back to her seat. I'm almost positive I see one aimed in my direction, but part of me believes it is just wishful thinking.
Katniss's head pops back around the corner to look at Ares and I. "What the hell was that?" She whispers.
"A teenage girl so in love she can't control herself," Ares hisses back. "You of all people should know what that looks like, Everdeen."
Katniss looks as if she is about to say something very rude, very loudly, but Peeta reins her in and whispers something in her ear. She settles for flipping Ares off when Peeta isn't looking.
Cassius' interview is short lived and boring. He grunts monosyllable answers to all of Caesar's questions. It's as if he genuinely doesn't care whether he receives any sponsors or not. I am reminded of our conversation in the living room. "I can't wait to watch the hope seep from her eyes and know that with every drop of blood she looses, it's killing you, too." The familiar red tint starts to creep its way into my peripherals. I guess he's decided he should try to get sponsors because I'm not going to help him anyway. Smart kid.
When Cassius is finished, my stomach starts to churn. Only nine minutes until that little bastard begins his interview. What will he have to say about the incident? My eyes gravitate toward Athena. She's fidgeting her hands, popping her knuckles. She's nervous. A lump forms in my throat. This is not a good sign. The two tributes from 3 and Finnick's female tribute's interviews pass painfully slow. Athena's hand movements get more frantic. Is she biting her lip? Shit.
I turn to Ares, "What the hell is about to happen?" He blinks at me in confusion. I roll my eyes, "Look at Athena. She's popping her knuckles and ringing her hands. And look! She just bit her lip again. She's nervous about something. Very, very nervous."
He gives me a confused look, "Are you drunker than I thought? I have no idea what you're talking about. Maybe you should go lay down."
I huff in annoyance and lean back to see the youngest Odair take the stage. Guess I'll find out soon enough.
The crowd roars in excitement as he shakes Caesar's hand. "Well, well, well. Tide Odair! I must say I've been excited to get to you this evening. What do you say we skip the formalities and dive into the questions we've all really like to ask?"
Tide shoots an award-winning grin out into the audience, "I've never been one to waste time, Caesar."
Flickerman laughs, "I'd say not, my boy! You obviously didn't waste much time with Miss Laud!" I grimace at the statement and dart my view to Athena. She's blushing, but I can tell she's angry with Caesar for being so brash. Tide, whose cheeks are a bit pink as well, notices her reaction and sends her a warm smile. The entire crowd sighs in appreciation of the gesture. The little shit just smiled at her, you idiots. Quit acting like they're in love.
I snap out of my line of thought to hear that I've missed the question Caesar has asked, but Odair's head is thrown back in laughter. He looks back at him and replies, "It's not too bad. It looks a lot worse than it feels. Honestly, when they told me the video had gotten leaked, I had expected Ares to come after me."
Flickerman's artificially colored eyebrows shoot up. "Oh? So it wasn't her brother after all?"
A wicked grin spreads across Tide Odairs face, and I can feel my blood start to boil. Don't you dare, you little fuck. I swear to God I'll rip you limb from limb, no matter whose brother you are. He laughs maliciously, and I know he's going to say it despite my unspoken warnings. "It was actually Cato, her mentor."
Caesar's eyebrows rise even higher. "Really? Good gracious! I'll bet he was under the impression you were trying to undermine his tribute."
"I'm rather under the impression he has a little crush on her. It's cute, really. A little pathetic, but cute."
A spotlight materializes around me, and I don't even attempt to hide or alter my scowl. I hear several citizens from the audience calling for a fight. I roll my eyes and respond through clenched teeth, "Remember your place, Little Odair. Unless of course, you'd like a second purple eye to match your other?"
Tide turns to Caesar, "Oh no, Caesar. I think we've hurt his feelings."
The audience roars with laughter. My hands are beginning to shake, and I'm physically restraining myself from leaving my seat and throttling the bastard. The only thing keeping me firmly planted in my seat is the knowledge that he's just trying to get a rise out of me on national television. Even still, I can feel that I'm fighting a losing battle with my self-control. Beside me Ares shifts and whispers, "I'm sorry, Cato. I honestly had no idea they were going to pull this."
I nod slowly, trying to focus on my breathing. I barely make it through the rest of his interview, which I do my best to block out. When he's finished, I stand. Calmly, but hands shaking almost imperceptibly. Finnick sends me a weary look, but says nothing as I leave. I know the reporters will have a field day tomorrow with the fact that I left the interviews before they were halfway finished, but I cannot bring myself to care. I need to get out of here. I need a distraction. I need something, anything that will seep the pain from my system.
So... I know that's kind of a cliffhanger, but this was already a little too long for me. ANYWAY, there's one chapter left until the games begin (finally), and I have a LOT planned so get ready.
Thank you so much to everyone who favorited and followed and especially to my sweet reviewers! You honestly don't know just how much it brightens my day to hear from you all, and I like taking into consideration what you want to see happen. So leave a note and let me know what you think!