FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,
FernWithy
fernwithy

The Last Tribute: Chapter Two

Haymitch barely makes it back to District 12 in time for the reaping, after a little unreported trip to visit Chaff and Finnick. He is drunk and tired, but manages to get on stage in time for the reaping of Primrose Everdeen, and the frantic entrance of an older girl who gasps, "I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute."


Chapter Two
No one seems to register what's happened at first, except for little Primrose Everdeen, who is screaming at the top of her lungs, and has jumped onto the older girl's back. The crowd of kids are looking at each other, confused. A big boy from among the eighteens starts to make his way out.

Effie looks over her shoulder at the site producer, who seems to be digging through the large Games manual. I doubt it's ever seen the light of day at a District Twelve reaping. Effie looks at me, wide-eyed, then bites her lip and turns around and says, brightly, "Lovely!" She looks at the producer briefly again, but gets nothing. She tries to improvise, but whatever skill she once had at it has been stolen from her. She lives by the Capitol's script now. "But I believe there's a small matter of introducing the reaping winner and then asking for volunteers, and if one does come forth, then we, um…" She shifts again, obviously waiting for a cue, which is not forthcoming.

"What does it matter?" Merle Undersee asks dully. He looks worn out. I realize that he must know the girl. She's the same age as Madge. They must be friends. "What does it matter?" he asks again, a bit louder. "Let her come forward."

"No!" Primrose screams, trying to pull her backward. "You can't go!"

The volunteer says, in a voice just a little bit too controlled, "Prim, let go. LET GO."

It's the sister, I realize. The older girl. The one who used to ride around on Glen's shoulders and sing at the top of her lungs.

I can't reconcile that child with the young woman I see now. Her face isn't hard, but it's closed off somehow, cold as ice. Whatever's happened to her since her father died, it's made her tough. Hard. I hope it hasn't made her brittle. Hard will be good in the Games. Brittle will be fatal.

The boy from the eighteens group reaches them and pulls the smaller girl away. She thrashes against him wildly. He whispers something to the volunteer then carries Primrose back into the crowd, probably back to where Ruth is waiting. He'll have to take his place among the eighteens again before the boy is called.

The volunteer comes up the stairs. She is holding herself very carefully, managing to be still even as she moves. She's aware of the cameras. She's already playing to them.

Effie leads her up to the center of the stage. "Well, bravo!" she says cheerfully. "That's the spirit of the Games!"

Looking at the girl's carefully blank face, the stiff set of her shoulders, and the distant look in the gray eyes now seen at a huge magnification on the screens, I think Effie's never said anything truer. The spirit of the Games, indeed.

Effie smiles. "What's your name?"

"Katniss Everdeen," the girl says, softly but clearly.

"I bet my buttons that was your sister," Effie guesses. Katniss nods. The blank look falters for a moment, but she regains her control. Effie grins more widely. "Don't want her to steal all the glory, do we?"

I close my eyes and try to pretend that this isn't Effie. That some other person just said that, anyone other than the girl who has held the hands of my tributes and comforted them in their terror. But I can't quite do it. Somewhere, deep down, she's still Effie. That makes it worse.

She turns to the audience. "Come on everybody! Let's give a big round of applause to our newest tribute."

It doesn't even occur to me to clap. Merle doesn't clap. The gathered children don't, and neither do the adults who ring the square. I am not surprised by this. Twelve may be beaten down and sullen, but it's never been owned by the Capitol. There was never a chance that they would go along with Effie's suggestion.

I am surprised by what happens next.

I don't see where it starts, though I'm guessing it's among the older people, since it's an old-fashioned gesture. It was even old-fashioned when I was a child. Someone begins, and it grows in a wave.

They touch their fingers to their lips, then raise their hands toward Katniss. I've only seen it at funerals, which the reaping is, in a way, no matter how perky Effie is about it. (And why not? In the Capitol, their funerals are called -- and treated as -- "celebrations.")

I can't do it -- not unless I want this one and whoever the boy tribute ends up being to be dogged by mutts from the Cornucopia on -- but I recognize it.

What this girl has done has touched the district. They are looking at her solemnly, respectfully.

She could say anything right now, and they'd listen. They might even act.

She carries herself like an adult, and she has taken responsibility for her sister. I'm willing to bet that she's taken responsibility for her mother as well. She looks hardened and experienced, despite her youth. She looks like she's been through the arena already in the years Glen has been gone.

She looks like a victor.

I remember Chaff telling me that he knew on meeting me that I "spoke victor fluently." I proved it by knocking my mentor, Albinus Drake, on his back. Katniss Everdeen may not win -- I take nothing for granted -- but in her careful and controlled face, I see the faces of my friends. I see my own face. She's already become a survivor, and in the end, that's what it means to win the Games. She's already understood what it means to fight to stay alive, and she's won the fight.

She can do it, if I can get her through. And if she does, that look, the way the crowd showed her respect…

I force my mind away from that. The last thing I should be thinking about -- ever -- is how I can use a tribute if she wins. The Gamemakers do enough of that for everyone, and no matter what Plutarch thinks, I'm not one of them.

But still. There's power here.

I look up at the screen, at her hugely magnified face. The careful control is strained now. Her eyes are going wide. She's playing the game as hard as she can, but she's as taken aback by this demonstration as I am. Her control is going to slip.

I have to do something. I can't think. My head is still swimming, and trying to find a solid idea in my brain is like pawing through the filth in Danny's pigsty, searching for diamonds.

Of course, that's what they expect of me. I decide I can use that.

I get to my feet. The world wobbles, but that's all right. I'm a victor, and I'm moving. Therefore, the camera angles on the screens get wide enough to include me, and far enough away from Katniss Everdeen to hide the strain lines around her mouth and eyes.

It's disorienting, watching myself lurch forward. I look like a bum, no question about it, and a particularly creepy one as I clamp my arm over her shoulders. Part of it is to let her lean on me. Another part is to keep upright.

I have to say something. Anything. "Look at her," I say, though it's ridiculous, since no one is looking anywhere else. "Look at this one! I like her. Lots of…" I look around. My train of thought is disintegrating. When I was sitting still, I could think. Now, the crowd seems very far below us. Faces tip back and forth, and sounds have a strange reverberation, like I'm listening through the seashell Finnick brought us one year. "Lots of spunk," I finally manage, then glance at Effie, who's watching all of this with her glazed, drugged out eyes. "More than you!" The cameras are still on us, close enough to see the tremble in Katniss's lip if anyone's paying attention. I let go of her. Step between her and the camera. Point at it. Think about the audience on the other side… and the Gamemakers. And Snow. "More than you," I tell them.

My foot rolls over a power cable, and I look down. It's a mistake. The crowd seems to pulsate now, growing and shrinking, swirling.

I feel the blackness at the edge of my vision, then it swallows me whole. There's a brief sensation of flying, and then nothing.

I wake up inside the Justice Building. Someone is shaking me roughly.

"Hey," I say. "Come on. I…" I put my hand over my mouth to keep from throwing up, then I open my eyes.

Danny Mellark is standing over me, his big hands clamped on my shoulders. His hair is standing up every which way, and his eyes are wild.

"Wake up," he hisses.

I pull myself up until I'm almost sitting on the bench under the stairs. "Danny… I fell."

"I know. I saw you. All of Panem saw you."

"Sorry, I --"

"They took Peeta."

I blink. "What?"

"My youngest boy." He sits down on the bench beside me and puts his head in his hands. "You have to bring him back, Haymitch. I can't… I can't breathe…"

"Danny…"

"I know you're not supposed to have favorites. I love all my boys. But Jona and Eddie, they're Mir's, mostly. Peeta's mine." He starts weeping into his hands.

It's not the first time I've had a parent weeping beside me -- there's a reason they don't film here; even the Capitol realizes that they won't get happy parents bragging to me -- but it's the first time that it's a man who was a boy I grew up with, a boy whose parents took me in more than once while I was at my worst, a boy who always treated me as human, even when I was filthy and poor and wearing shoes held together with packing string. I put my hand on his arm and don't say anything. There isn't anything to say.

He manages to stop the tears, or at least slow them down. "Is this because of what I've been doing?" he asks.

I look around. This isn't filmed, but it very well could be bugged. He can't very well talk here about the messages he sends among the rebels, tucked under the lining papers of lovely cakes. I shake my head. "No, Danny. I… I don't know what you did, but it's not punishment. If I don't know, then nobody knows. There's no sign anyone knows anything about you."

"Half the district thinks Glen's littler one was mine, and they took Peeta, too. What else could it be?" He starts crying again, more quietly this time. "He's smart. He draws. He decorates the cakes. He's strong, too." He wipes away the tears. "But they're all looking at her. I went to see her --"

"You what?"

He turns, blinking. "After I saw Peeta. When I said… when I said goodb…" He breathes very hard for a few seconds, but manages not to start crying again. "I didn't know what else to do. I couldn't go home. I had the cookies I always bring the tributes. I told her I'd take care of the little girl if…" He slams the heels of his hands against his forehead. "If she dies, because I want her to die. I want her to die so Peeta will come home. What am I, that I'd want that?"

I put my hands on his arms and try to think through the haze. It's lifting, but it's still there. "Danny, you've sat with a lot of parents for me over the years. You know how many of them say that."

"I never thought they meant it until now."

"You don't mean it, either."

"Yes, I do. Do you understand that? I want my son to come home."

"And you don't care what that means, and that's normal. You're his father. It doesn't mean you're really wishing any of them dead, least of all Ruth's girl."

He stares at his hands, looking lost, then says, "Don't listen to Peeta."

"What?"

"Don't listen to him. He wants her to live."

"Danny --"

"He said we should think he won, if she wins. And Mir said she has a good chance. She's letting him leave thinking that she doesn't mind if he dies. So he's going to try and die. Maybe she'll finally be satisfied with him." He looks at me. "Haymitch, please don't let him. Don't let my boy die."

"Danny, you're my friend. But he's my tribute, and he outranks you. I have to --"

"Talk him out of it!" Danny stands up. "I know you, Haymitch. I saw you go up and give the girl breathing room. I know you're looking at her and thinking just what Mir said -- she's got a good chance. And if it were anyone else in there with her…"

"I know."

"Try to talk him out of it, Haymitch. Promise that you'll try."

"I'll try," I promise. "But Danny --"

"I know . I know the odds. And Peeta's… he's a good boy. He has a good heart."

"And you don't think anyone with a good heart will make it through."

"No. You made it through. You have a good heart. So maybe." He looks at me with a miserable kind of hope in his eyes, then starts crying again. "But I know the odds, Haymitch. I'm the one you've talked to about them every year."

I put my hand on the back of his neck. I don't get much more than an occasional, "My little boy" out of him until Games security comes to take me to the train. Effie is waiting in the dining car.

"I've gotten them settled in their rooms to change," she says, pulling me inside. "Haymitch, you're a disgrace. You look like… I don't even know what you look like. But you smell like gin." She wrinkles her nose. "And a lavatory."

I can't think of a single counter to the accusation.

"I called a Mellark boy, but I had to come straight to the train. Is he --"

"Danny's youngest."

"We can work that angle, anyway," she says. "The son of the boy you collected recipes for --"

"Stop it."

"What?"

"Just… stop. I can't right now."

"Well, you have to." She looks around. "Haymitch, you have tributes!"

"I have my best friend's son, and a girl who just made District Twelve love her. A boy I care about, and a girl who could win. So don't talk to me about angles. I can't handle it right now."

I head down the train toward my sleeping quarters, a moving hotel room that Effie generally makes sure is dry, not that it does any good, given the presence of a bar car. She'll have it stocked with new clothes. She always does. There's a shower. I have no idea how that works on a train, but I've used it before. I'm rarely up to Effie's standards these days.

"Haymitch, I am not finished."

I turn. She's followed me most of the way through two cars. I didn't even notice. "What else is it, Effie? Am I supposed to be more cheerful?"

"It wouldn't hurt their chances, but no, that's not it."

I lean against the wall. The train starts to move, and I sway. "What, then?"

She presses her lips together in disapproval, then says, "You've already lost two sponsors."

"What?"

"The stunt on the stage. Coming up there drunk, and groping me, and then lurching around like a buffoon. Egnatia Collingsworth has been crusading all year against drinking --"

"And she was planning on sponsoring me?"

"I spent most of the year convincing her that you sober up for the Games. That you're a great example of how proper medication can control the addiction. She was on the phone before the stretcher got you away."

I rub my head. "And the other?"

"The Daughters of the Founding."

"The Daughters? But they've always been…"

"Oh, a lot of members are still on our rolls, but the organization itself doesn't want to be associated with you anymore. You've become an embarrassment."

I try to remind myself that the whole thing is an absurd show anyway -- they're a bunch of old Capitol biddies with a lot of ancestors and no descendants. I'm just a curiosity with a "quaint" accent to them.

But the truth is, I like the old biddies, no matter how silly they can be. I don't like that I've let them down, and that's not even getting into the loss of sponsorship money, which is substantial.

I shake my head. "Get me the medicine, and I'll sober up in the Capitol. I'll get them back."

"You got cut off."

I turn. "What?"

"They changed the status of your medication. It's supposed to be monitored every week now, a check-in with a Capitol doctor. I had one lined up for you when we get in, but…"

"But what?"

"But it was Egnatia Collingsworth."

"Just perfect." I grind my teeth. "Don't tell me that there's nowhere in the Capitol to buy medicine without the right paperwork."

"There may very well be somewhere, but I wouldn't know where it is."

"Of course you wouldn't." I take a few breaths, trying not to lose my temper at Effie, who actually seems to have made more effort than anyone else would.

"Well, you'll have to do something."

"I know." I look around. "Can you help me?"

"How? I'm not going to get wrapped up in your life again."

This has been her refrain for almost four years. They have her convinced that she was "burying herself" in me, and that I somehow expect her to continue doing so, at grave danger to her mental health. "Just for the Games," I say. "Nothing long term."

She considers it. "All right."

"This thing that makes my brain wrong -- I can't just stop. It makes me hallucinate. It could kill me. That's not going to help anyone. So I have to drink a little. I need you to cut me off if it looks like I'm not stopping. And don't tell the kids. They have no idea that this isn't how I always do things. They don't need to know that I'm trying to white-knuckle it when their lives are in my hands. I just need you to take the booze away from me -- subtly -- if I'm not taking care of business."

"Right. I'll just duck your knife."

"I'm not going to hurt you."

"You scare the hair off me when you're drunk sometimes."

"Which is why you're not going to let me get drunk. Starting tomorrow." I look out the window. District Twelve has slipped behind us, and we're in the wilderness now. "I gave you something a long time ago. My district token. Do you still have it?"

"It's somewhere in my apartment."

"I want you to find it before the Games start. Wear it where I can see it."

She sighs heavily. "All right. If you think it will help."

"It will."

She nods, looking confused, then regains her bright escort smile. "Now, we are going to need to do damage control."

"Not now, Effie."

"But --"

"I'll do it in the Capitol. Let me be for now."

"You're going to drink."

"Yeah. I'm going to drink. I'll sober up overnight. I'll be all right in the Capitol. It doesn't matter until then."

I move away from the wall and head on down the train. I pass the tribute rooms, on either side of a wide car. They're both changing behind the screens. Katniss has dropped her blue dress on the floor, and Peeta's good suit is thrown over a chair. Peeta has a box of his father's cookies open on the dresser. It doesn't look like he's eaten any.

I move past them. My compartment is across the corridor from Effie's. She's got her wardrobes organized carefully, but it still looks like a candy store exploded in there.

I go into my space. As I expected, she has shopped for me. Suits, sweaters, comfortable pants, shiny shoes. All so tasteful and heavy with gravitas that it's hard to imagine they were chosen by the same woman who filled the room across the way. These are things I'm very used to these days. I look at them hanging there. Danny doesn't judge me for dressing in these things any more than he ever judged me for the clothes I wore when I was poor. Other people do, I'm sure.

I think about the people of District Twelve, raising their hands to Katniss Everdeen. The cameras that were on her loved her. She may or may not have spunk -- that was a good word to use on television, not too threatening, though I have only the vaguest idea what it might mean in connection with Katniss -- but she does have presence. She'll command Caesar's stage, if we can just get her to realize that she's in control, and can make people see the emotions that will get them on her side.

I can work with her. She speaks victor.

And if she wins, Danny will lose his youngest son.

I held Peeta once when he was a newborn, told him stories, fed him milk from my finger. I haven't kept up with him. I wouldn't know him from other merchant boys on sight. But he's not a stranger. I don't think you can be a stranger to someone who once fell asleep on your shoulder while you told him a story.

I grab hold of one of the wardrobe racks and fling it across the car. It makes a satisfying crash against the metal, then tips over, spilling the season's finery over my bed.

"Do you need help, Mr. Abernathy?"

I look over my shoulder. A bellhop from District Six is looking at me curiously.

"Gin," I say. "Whatever you've got a big bottle of."

"Miss Trinket said not to give you gin."

"I'll pay you better than she did."

"Yes, sir," he says, and disappears toward the bar car.

I should go see them.

I should do it as soon as I get changed. Leave off the gin. If I'm going to be sober for several weeks, what's the difference between starting now and tomorrow?

Maybe I'll surprise myself. I think I've done four or five weeks before without medication. It was a long time ago. It was the year I dated a tribute. Only she wasn't a tribute then; that came later.

For a long, frightening moment, my mind blanks out her name. I've sworn not to forget any of them, but I can't remember who she was. Blond. Merchant's daughter. Tailor's daughter. She sewed a button on my shirt.

"Violet," I say out loud. "Violet Breen. Her name was Violet."

I go through my mental list of the others. There are a few more frightening temporary blanks, but eventually, I find them all.

All forty-six kids I've brought to die. I make myself remember something about each of them.

Somewhere in the middle of this, the gin comes.

What will I remember about Katniss Everdeen, my first volunteer? What story will I tell my friend about his son's conduct in the Capitol?

I drink, and recite the names backward to myself, making sure I have them.

I get all the way back to the beginning, to Elmer Parton and Ginger McCullough. Wiress's year.

Only that wasn't the beginning, was it? They weren't the first. The first was Gilla Callan, the poor little girl who was made happy by a day of pretending to be a Capitol model. Or Beech Berryhill, the stolid, earnest boy from the Seam who couldn't figure out how to work the shower.

Or Maysilee.

But I didn't mentor her. She mentored me.

I sit down at my desk with the list of sponsors in front of me (two reproachfully crossed off), and try to think, but the ghosts keep at me. I drink without even really noticing it going down.

I think about Nasseh Rutledge, and my disastrous attempt to communicate with him in the arena. I managed to convince Effie -- I think -- that overdosing after it was an accident, instead of an extremely calculated attempt to get out of my own arena. Poor River Boldwood, so slow and so unable to deal with what came to him. Johanna doesn't talk about her alliance with him. She doesn't mention his name. But he lives between the two of us sometimes.

Mostly, I think about my friends. Danny. Ruth. And of course, they both lead me back to the Donner twins. To Maysilee, and her wild ideas about rebellion. I promised her I'd take the Capitol down. The most I've ever done is mildly irritate Snow. Oh, there are personal rebellions -- our ill-advised train trips, the forbidden books I've found floating around the Capitol's shadow side, many of which now live in the secret compartments under my floor. But we're no closer now than we were on the day I made her take off the pin that she fancied was a rebel symbol. The mockingjay that survived the Capitol's plan for extinction. I wore it to the Undersees' wedding, the day that, if anything, marked the end of District Twelve's rebellion. Maysilee would hate that.

She would hate me.

I pick up the gin bottle to refill the crystal glass beside me, and I realize that it's far too light.

I've drunk my way through half. The world around me is glassy, and I feel like I'm wrapped in cotton.

I stand up. My stomach lurches with the motion of the train.

Too much.

It's all too much.

I need to stop.

I grab the table for support and knock over the bottle -- that problem is solved, anyway -- and think vaguely that I'd best get somewhere that there's company, and maybe some bread. I haven't eaten solid food since the squirrels in the woods, and there's nothing in my system absorbing the gin. I try to look out the window to gauge how long I've been drinking, and I see that it's late sunset, but I can't look very long. The motion is making me sicker.

I go out of my room and down the train to the dining car. I see Effie with them -- with Danny and the girl. Not Danny. Danny's boy. And the volunteer girl, Glen Everdeen's girl.

I have to choose.

Peeta stands up -- sort of -- when I come in and ask about dinner, and I want to say hello to him, but before I can, I see Katniss. She is dressed in a dark green top.

Displayed against it, like it's flying across the forest, is Maysilee Donner's mockingjay.

There's no stopping it. Everything I've drunk all day comes out of me and onto the floor.
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