FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,
FernWithy
fernwithy

The Last Tribute: Chapter One

Okay. What the heck. I knew where it started, and I wanted to get on the train. Who needs a break when you're having fun? :D




Part One: Volunteer


Chapter One
I wake up buried in angora sweaters.

For a minute, I'm confused about where I am and why I'm here. I was having a dream about the arena, huddled under the blanket with Maysilee Donner. I reach for her sleepily -- and drunkenly, let's not forget that -- then remember that she's not here. She hasn't been here for twenty-four years. She's been dead considerably longer than she was alive.

I am in a trunk full of sweaters from Cinna's fall line, and the gentle rocking of the train tells me that it's still pretty early. As they decelerate in the approach to Twelve, there's a paradoxically more pronounced sense of motion. My knife is gripped tightly in my right hand, and I've managed not to cut anything with it. (I have many sheets and blankets that bear the marks of learning to sleep armed.) There's plastic under me so that no one will be able to tell that I slept on top of the sweaters, but six of them are my blanket. They're all sized for a girl much larger than any District Twelve girl will ever be. I can fold them up and put them at the bottom of the pile, with the plastic carefully stretched back over the top. They won't be used, so Cinna will just take them back with the rest of the unused sizes, wash them, and put them in his boutique.

There's carving on the side of the trunk -- Cinna's label, cut through the wood. Air holes. I can't see much through them, but there's a view of the door. I moved one of the mannequins in front of it before I went to sleep, making it look like it was accidentally shoved by a rolling wardrobe rack. Anyone coming in would have had to move both -- setting off a pile of clattering hangers I placed precariously on the top shelf of the rack -- and I doubt anyone would think to put it back. It's still there. I suppose it's possible that someone is lying in wait, but I think anyone suspecting that the wardrobe car is occupied is likely to come in with guns and drag me out. I wouldn't be wondering.

I put my knife away and reach into my pocket and pull out a little magnet contraption that Wiress made. It pops latches closed from the inside, and if I reverse its polarity with her little switch, will hopefully pop them open as well. Beetee's used it, anyway. I flip the switch and hope for the best.

It takes long enough that I'm starting to come up with bad excuses for Peacekeepers who ask how I got in here, but finally, I hear the little click of the metal letting go. I push the top up and climb out. I'm not as drunk as I was when I boarded back at the fueling station, where one of our District Six spies got me on board and hid me here, but I'm still a little unsteady, and my stomach is going to need settling pretty soon. I fold up the sweaters carefully and put them at the bottom of the trunk. the plastic is wrinkled, but I don't seem to have soiled anything in my sleep, which is a wonder.

I leave the top open to air it out, and go to the narrow windows. We're definitely in Appalachia now, but that's not surprising. The fuel station is just south of where the mountains start to give way to the red earth around District Eleven. We were probably in the mountains before I even dropped off to sleep. But I can see the river peeking out through the trees, the one that leads up toward Twelve. Maybe closer than I thought, then. It's hard to tell. I usually take freight trains for these things. This is the first time I've actually hopped the tribute train.

It was the only choice. Finnick's schedule was tight. They watch him more closely than they watch me and Chaff. Mags could cover for him for a couple of days, but that meant waiting for an empty cargo train heading up to Twelve to pick up coal. Chaff could join him in Eleven, and I could catch the loaded train down to the fueling station. Finnick and Chaff caught a second coal train back -- luckily, everything goes through Eleven and then on to the Rotation, so Finnick could get some other cargo train home -- but the only thing left going to Twelve before the Reaping was the tribute train. I had to wait in the woods for a day and a half for it. Luckily, Chaff brought me a couple of bottles of brandy that he distilled from his peach trees, and, as it turns out, I'm still capable of killing a squirrel or two, though they aren't resting very peacefully in my gut. There was no luck involved in remembering to bring a paperback. I got stuck for three days outside District Eight once, and I was bored out of my mind. I haven't traveled without one since.

I'm not even sure we needed to meet. They wanted to check on Cinna's status, and talk again about the many ways it could backfire if we start trying to use the Games before Plutarch is ready. I'm tired of waiting for Plutarch to be ready. I want Snow to realize that we can touch the Capitol. Maybe it's crazy. Maybe Chaff's right, and no one will care if I can make them love two tributes. But there's nothing to lose. My plan, worked out with Cinna this winter when he ostensibly came to "say hello" to his new team leader, is to visually and narratively pair my tributes. Make it impossible for the audience to see one without the other. Make them choose between two kids when neither deserves to die, the way every mentor has to make sadistic choices. Chaff says they won't care. Finnick isn't sure.

I'm sure they'll care. Whether or not it will make a difference is a different question. I don't think Snow can brainwash hundreds of people at once, but he may have methods I don't know about to control a fractious Capitol population.

And of course, there's the matter of the tributes. If I get a pair of Career-wannabes, I doubt they'll put up with it, and I'll back their play. I'm a mentor before I'm a rebel, much to Plutarch's annoyance.

Nothing we talked about really couldn't wait for the Games.

But, like Finnick says, scratch a victor, find a thrill-seeker. Why just risk getting caught and questioned by Games Security in the Capitol when you can risk being caught in the out-districts by Peacekeepers who've had the go-ahead to shoot on sight since the raider attack? (Of course, they've more or less wiped out the bands of raiders entirely, but once they've been given an okay to kill, they're not going to let go of it.)

"Let's face it," he said as we huddled around our little fire three nights ago. "Once you've been in the arena, it's just not as thrilling when the other guy isn't trying to kill you."

I rolled my eyes. "Thrilling."

"Yeah, thrilling."

"Right," Chaff said. "I lay awake nights thinking, 'How can I be as excited as I was in the arena?'"

Finnick shrugged. "Tell me you weren't more alive when they were trying to kill you than you are now."

Neither Chaff nor I bothered to answer that. Finnick, at least, has a life after the arena, albeit one that's not exactly ideal. He's got things to look forward to. When the Capitol gets bored with him, he plans to marry Annie and have a family. Chaff and I pretty much plan to drink until we pass out for good. Even when I was as young as Finnick, I knew that the Capitol would never be bored enough with me to risk having a family, given what they did to the one I used to have.

We spent most of the night talking. We didn't even reach a conclusion. Plutarch has been making noises since Johanna's Games about a potential ally, but he hasn't gotten anything finalized, and won't talk until he does. He says that he picked up a weak signal while he was with Johanna in isolation -- something on a radio frequency that didn't belong there. He's holding it back like a tasty Games surprise, despite repeated reminders that we are his allies, not his audience. The only thing I can think of is District Thirteen. We've narrowed Johanna's stop to the islands in the North Atlantic, and that's not terribly far from where it used to be. But Twelve is even closer -- we've never heard a peep, or had mysterious visitors from the supposedly irradiated north.

I dismissed the idea out of hand at first, because everyone knows that Thirteen is dead. Then I started thinking about that radiation. All my life, it was a ghost story told around smoky campfires. If you go north, you'll get radiation sickness. People wandered out of the ruins of Thirteen having grown extra limbs and turned strange colors. But no one ever saw such a thing. No one ever ventured there and came back, even among the wilder daredevils of District Twelve. If anyone tried to get there, they never came back… which could mean that they died in the woods, or that someone was there to meet them.

If it is Thirteen, then it goes beyond a loose alliance. Thirteen, if it's not destroyed, has actual weapons. It means that, instead of an uprising, there could be a war.

I'm not sure how I feel about that, especially since our last potential allies turned out to be complete lunatics. No one blames Blight for thinking of the out-district raiders -- I'm sure we all thought about them a few times -- but we don't invite him into our councils anymore, either. It may not be logical, but I can't forget them threatening Effie and my tributes, and Finnick will never forgive them for scaring Annie before the Games. Blight's all tied up in that, and I guess, between that and his drifting away on his own, we can't really trust him anymore.

I look out the window for a few more minutes, watching the brown, wooded mountains go by. It's pretty, but monotonous. It's also exposed, if anyone chooses to wander in. I go back among the hanging wardrobe bags and pull out my book. It's a ridiculous, fully-approved-by-the-Capitol book, with a detective who works the bad side of the city and her plucky sidekick, a kid of uncertain origin who seems to know his way around pretty well. They've had sixteen adventures, and I've read them all, to my great shame (and Finnick's unending teasing).

I'm trying to figure out where the kid came from. I'm guessing he's one of the secret District kids that used to be so ubiquitous in Capitol fiction -- he has all the usual markers -- but someone in the Culture Authority has obviously been trying to stamp the type out, so the author seems to be settling on these little codes (a weird accent, an inability to understand Capitol society, and a certain willingness to settle problems violently). She'll have to eventually think of something else, though, or they won't publish it. I'm toying with the idea that he's really a rich boy whose parents disgust him, but I'm not sure even that much rebellion would be allowed. The current mystery involves a stolen statue and a society matron. I suspect the Gamemakers, but then, I always do. In the book world, I've got it down to either the restaurant owner who has a side business in scrap metal to be melted for ammunition, or the artist who thinks it was stolen from him in the first place.

I've been reading for about half an hour when the door opens, and I draw back into the shadows. Effie Trinket comes in. She's got her face painted white, and she's wearing a bright pink wig. She moves across the car with the quick, determined steps that I've learned to associate with a particularly recent dose of whatever they've had her on. I can't hate her. I also can't stand looking at her like this.

She moves aside my mannequin and wardrobe rack and examines the boy tributes' potential outfits. She doesn't look impressed. Cinna is far too low key for Effie personally, though she seems at least interested in what he'll do with the parade costumes. He's kept the same prep teams, though, and Effie wrote to me that they like him. That means something.

She bites her lip and looks at a moss green sweater. It looks like Cinna has planned for Seam coloring, which is usually smart.

She moves on to the girls' outfits -- dresses, skirts, big thick sweaters. She pauses at the open trunk, and I think she sniffs the air a little bit, but if there's one advantage to what they've done to her, it's that she's ultimately incurious about things. She takes whatever she sees as a matter of course.

She stares at the trunk, then closes it and leaves the car.

I hate the Capitol.

I can't get back into my book after she leaves, so I open up Chaff's brandy again. It's very sweet, and it goes down warm.

The train starts decelerating ten minutes later, and twenty minutes after that, we come to a stop in District Twelve. This is the tricky part. I have to somehow get off and be wandering in from Victors' Village before the reaping starts.

On the cargo trains, this is easy. I could be shipped. A spy from Six could unload me. But there's no cargo coming off of this train. There are no floor panels to left up and escape along the track. The only exits are the proper doors, and beyond them, the Peacekeepers are guarding the road to town for the Games production crew.

I'll have to find a way to move along the fence.

I'm starting to regret the most recent brandy. My brain is not coming up with any good scenarios.

I manage to get out of the wardrobe car by waiting for the Peacekeepers to deploy outside, but every time I check along the length of the train, they're at the doors. I can't very well attack one with the others around, either.

They finally start to get sparser as I reach the end of the train -- the observation car, with its glassed in sides. It's not as fancy as the tour train's observation car (presuming they still use the same one I was on), but it's definitely meant as a high class lounge for the trip. I have never made much use of it.

I'm able to get down from the train, though there's a dangerous moment when I lose my balance (and am in danger of losing the brandy in my stomach), but I realize that there's no way I'll be able to go through the fence. It's reaping day. The electricity will be on, especially around the train station, to prevent another attack. Maybe, when I was a boy, I could have fit under it somehow, but now?

I duck under the cover of the scraggly bushes that line the verge around the track.

Think.

I look toward the small gate that leads from the tracks into town. Beside it is a dilapidated old depot, not used for travelers since the Dark Days, though kids go there to do whatever they feel a need to do away from their parents.

It straddles the fence.

It's kept locked on this side, of course, but there's a loose board. I used it once before, getting through from the other side. They'd see me go out on the town side, of course, but I think I can get around that.

I make my way there carefully, ignoring the spins that keep trying to send me rolling down the verge. The board is still loose. The opening is barely big enough for me now -- the boy I used to be would have found it roomy indeed -- but I manage to squeeze through. I douse myself in brandy, grab a tarp from the corner, and sit down against the wall. The room seems to rock.

According to my watch, it's almost two. If I don't get to the platform soon, there'll be hell to pay.

I realize that the brandy isn't going to stay down, and I guess vomiting is as good an announcement as any. I open the door of the depot, lean over the railing, and retch into the bushes.

"There he is!" a Peacekeeper calls. "Abernathy! What the hell are you doing there?"

I stand up and put a little more sway than I really feel into my walk. "Officer? Aren't I s'posed to be here? Isn't it time to leave? I got in a little early. Didn't want to be late for the train!" I lean on his shoulder. "I figured I'd do my drinking here, instead of at home. Save some time."

He shoves me off. "You're disgusting. And you know perfectly well that you have to go to the reaping first."

I am manhandled along the road to town. People gape at me as they lead me along the streets where latecomers have to watch the reaping on the screen. Sae, set up as usual in her squat near the hob, gives me a frustrated look.

The Peacekeepers shove me.

"Hey!" I shout as we get to the stairs that lead to the stage. "You don't have to do that, I can get there!" I can see Merle Undersee up there already, giving District Twelve's proud history of victors. Duronda and me. A drunk and a suicide. It's no wonder we're so well-loved. The world spins around me.

"You're already late," the Peacekeeper says. "Bad enough you look like a bum and smell like a day old turd. You can at least manage to move faster to the one job you have to do in a year for your salary."

"What do you know about what I get paid for?" I yell. "I'm paid because I'm a victor. It's all back pay. I -- "

I am shoved out on to the stage, and very legitimately lose my balance. Effie looks up at me, dismayed. She always looks dismayed now. She didn't used to. She used to think I was wonderful. I remember that. She kissed me once. Maybe twice.

I lean over and hug her.

She pushes me away and gets me turned around and into my seat. Her wig is askew.

Merle gives me an exasperated look, though he should at least know the score. He was the one who was supposed to be making sure no one knew I was gone, so at least he knows that much.

And it's not like they don't know I'm a drunk.

He calls Effie up front, to stand between the reaping bowls.

She puts her hand on her wig to straighten it, then says, as always, "Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor!"

That's a laugh. I know it's a script, and all of the escorts need to follow it. I know that Effie is very good at her job, and whatever they did to her in the Capitol, it's made her insufferably bubbly about it, which the Capitol audience loves. But District Twelve is the smallest district. Everyone's odds are worse than anywhere else. I look out at the see of thin, hopeless faces in front of me. Who am I going to kill this time?

I see the eighteen year olds in front. Strong, skinny boys who are about to go to work in the mines. Willowy girls who will be working alongside them, even though they don't look like they could lift the pickaxes. I know from experience how wrong that is, but the sponsors don't. They think our girls look weak.

Danny's middle boy, Edder, is in this group. He's a town kid. He'll be broad-shouldered and blond. I don't remember much about him. Since the boys stopped needing someone to watch them while Danny and Mir bake, I've lost track of them. I see one of the merchant boys who might be him. He doesn't seem to have much interest in the proceedings. Why would he? I doubt he's had to take any tesserae, while the boys beside him are most likely covering huge families.

Beyond the eighteen year olds, I see the kids getting younger and younger as the crowd reaches to the back of the square. Sometimes, I've had kids called from the back. They come home in boxes the same size as anyone else's, but they're too small. Once, drunk on the train, I opened Treeza Murphy's casket. They put in a shelf under her feet so that she wouldn't slide down.

"It's such an honor to be back in District Twelve," Effie says. "In fifteen years as your escort, I know how very strong and brave you are!"

This isn't even met with dutiful applause. There's been another round of gossip about Effie's transfer application. She jokes about it with me sometimes, though she seems not to understand when it is and isn't okay to tell a joke. She manages not to make one this time.

"I just know that we'll have wonderful tributes this year, who will bring honor to the District."

Again, there's no response.

She smiles woodenly, then says, as always, "Ladies first!"

The name she pulls is Primrose Everdeen.

I know the name. I knew Glen Everdeen. He gave me information on the mines for the war chest before the accident that took two dozen miners four years ago. Glen's daughter. Ruth's daughter. Is this the one that half the district (including Mir) thought was really Danny's?

If so, I can understand it, as she walks forward from the back, where she's standing with the other small children.

I think of a shelf in the casket and close my eyes.

This doesn't make the image go away.

She has lovely, golden blond hair that she's wearing in two braids. Large blue eyes. She's dainty and fragile-looking, like Ruth. It's hard to imagine big, tough Glen as her father. But I know he is. Both of the men involved fumed to me about the situation, and insisted that there is no other possibility.

I force my eyes open.

She is still coming forward. Against all logic, she seems to be getting smaller.

I think about my half-baked plan to use the Games to create an image. As always, any plans about the Games shatter when I see the tributes.

The kids.

This poor girl will have no chance in the arena.

She holds her head high as she passes the group of sixteens, where another girl is staring at her, dumbfounded.

This is the usual way.

It's always the same. I try to think of some way this tiny child is going to survive, and can't think of one. There's nothing anyone can do.

"PRIM!"

I look up.

The girl I noticed earlier runs forward, surging toward the stage. "Prim!" she screams again.

The Peacekeepers grab at her and try to hold her back, but she threads between them like a fish swimming with the current. She moves easily and quickly, and with a single, clear determination.

She reaches Primrose at the bottom of the stairs and drags her backward, shielding her from all of us.

I sit forward, the brandy-haze lifting a little bit.

There is something that can be done for Primrose Everdeen. It's something that's never happened in Twelve, at least in my memory. Something that's utterly insane.

"I volunteer!" the older girl gasps. "I volunteer as tribute!"
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