FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,
FernWithy
fernwithy

The Last Tribute: Chapter Seventeen

Aargh, this section is difficult!
Anyway, Rue has just screamed.

Chapter Seventeen
Marvel, the boy from One, is only a fraction of a minute faster than Katniss. He's been setting these traps for a couple of days now, and I think he's almost convinced himself that they're some kind of exotic set dressing. The look on his face when he sees that one of them has worked certainly admits no possibility that there's a real twelve-year-old girl caught in a death trap. Instead, he's wearing the gleeful expression of an inventor whose machine has just worked exactly as it's supposed to. The expression doesn't change as he hurls his spear, or as it enters Rue's body. He just stands there, blinking, as if waiting for a pat on the back for a job well done.

What he gets instead is Katniss.

He hasn't even registered her presence when she fires an arrow into his throat. He touches it in wonder, then stupidly pulls it out. He bleeds out in seconds. From the corner of my eye, I see Gloss go to the booths.

Beside me, Seeder's hands are curled into hooks against her face, her eyes wide and horrified. Chaff and I each take one of her hands, pulling them away, and hold them tightly as Katniss looks for more enemies to shoot.

Finally, Katniss seems to realize that she and Rue are alone, and Rue is dying. She kneels down beside the fallen child.

"You blew up the food?" Rue asks.

"Every last bit."

Rue nods solemnly. "You have to win."

"I'm going to," Katniss says. Her voice isn't cool, like it usually is, and her accent is stronger than I usually hear it. "Going to win for both of us now."

"Don't go."

"Course not. Staying right here." Katniss brushes Rue's hair back gently, like she's calming little Prim after a bad nightmare.

"Sing," Rue says.

Katniss blinks, taken aback, almost afraid. Other than the brief mockingjay tune, I wonder if she's sung since Glen died.

But she does not deny Rue.

She sings the Meadow Song, a lullaby that every child in District Twelve knows -- a simple, comforting song, meant to reassure a frightened child that there are safe places, even in the world we know. My father sang it to me (nowhere near as prettily as Katniss is singing), and I sang it to my brother from time to time, before he got too big to put up with it. It's a song that's sung within families, a song of love and belonging. That Katniss is singing it to a child from another district, sharing that primal bond…

I doubt anyone at home will miss the significance (in fact, on the split screen, I can see several people in the square singing along, as if offering the same comfort to Eleven that Katniss is offering Rue). It may not have the same meaning in Eleven, but there's a feed on another screen and I can see them watching solemnly, quiet and serious, until Rue slips away. Katniss kisses her forehead.

The woods are silent as the song ends, then the mockingjays pick it up, spreading it through the arena, carrying it to the audience. On some of the cameras covering the Capitol, I see people sit down on park benches and begin to weep.

"I'll make the call," Chaff says quietly.

Seeder nods, barely keeping herself from crying as he goes. I put my arms around her. She grabs onto me tightly, and the tears start to come. I don't say anything. There's nothing to be said.

I am looking over her head toward the booths, watching for Chaff to come back, when she suddenly gasps and pulls away. "Haymitch…"

I look at my screen.

Katniss has begun to pull up white flowers, and she's carefully laying them around Rue's body, creating an angelic shroud, giving her funeral rites.

In the past twenty-four years, I have seen a lot of death in the arena. I've seen tributes celebrate it, and I've seen them mourn it. I've seen them rage over it, as I did, and I've seen them wearily ignore it.

I have never seen a tribute behaving as if she is not in the arena at all, but at the scene of the horrible death of a friend at home, giving love and respect to the dead.

Memorializing her.

Treating the death of a tribute not as a necessary part of the Games, or even as a casualty of war or an object of rage, but as the death of a child who was loved and valued.

I remember her mother doing that, when we found a girl from District Six dying when she was unloaded from a train, her back covered with infected whip marks. It was before my Games. Danny and I brought her in so she wasn't alone when she died, and Ruth and Maysilee wouldn't let her grave remain unmarked… though we had to be careful about it.

It was the first act of rebellion I ever took part in. I remember saying that it didn't matter, that the girl wouldn't care, because she was dead. Ruth said, You're not dead. It matters what you treat them like. Makes a difference about who you are.

I've been a part of a number of plots since then, most of them fizzling out to nothing, or blowing up in our faces like the alliance with the out-district raiders did, but the burial of the stranger from District Six, which had no impact on anyone but us… I sometimes feel like it matters more than the others. I'm sure Johanna would laugh at me if I said that -- just as I laughed at Ruth -- but my instincts still tell me that it's true, and what Katniss has just done here is more important than the pin, more important than her tantrum at evaluations, and more important than anything I'm doing here in the Capitol.

Of course it's not being shown on the main screen.

They go briefly to Eleven, then cut away when it becomes clear that a man there is grieving wildly. They go to Finch's nervous foraging. They point out another bush full of nightlock berries, as if we haven't seen her steer clear of them several times. Then there's a shot of Thresh (who won't know Rue died until tonight), and one of Clove and Cato, who are being kept from the scene by a fight with a mutt bear. There's even a brief shot of Peeta asleep in the mud.

"Seeder."

I feel her move in my arms, and look up to see Chaff, who looks grave.

"Are they all right?" Seeder asks.

"They're under guard," Chaff says. "There's a riot in the square." He grinds his teeth. "Damned hotheads. They're going to get themselves killed."

I glance at the screen that was showing District Eleven a moment ago. It's black now, with a technical difficulties graphic at the center.

"They had to express themselves somehow," Seeder says.

"Maybe one of the big girls throwing rocks in the square could have expressed herself by volunteering," Chaff mutters.

Seeder holds up her hand and closes her eyes. Chaff backs off.

It takes fifteen minutes for the screen from District Eleven to come back to life. The crowd is smaller and completely subdued. The shot is also tighter. I'm guessing if the cameras pulled back at all, I'd see Peacekeepers stationed in towers with their weapons drawn.

Seeder excuses herself to go mourn. Chaff gives me an earful about idiots in District Eleven getting themselves into trouble again, and demands to know how I keep the lid on District Twelve, since so far, we haven't ended up with a full-scale prison wall around us and a mobile army of Peacekeepers roaming the streets. "They know those boys can shoot," Chaff fumes. "They know it, and they still practically dare them to do it."

I let him go on. We both know the answer, and we both know that Twelve has been known to pull stunts like this, too, but with a smaller physical area to fence off, the government has never seen a need to turn it into a highly expensive fortress. Eight thousand people in a small town with nowhere to hide are never going to be seen as the same kind of threat as a district of over a hundred thousand with thousands of square miles for rebels to hole up in.

Katniss is wandering aimlessly now, looking spooked and empty. Her bow is raised, but she looks like she might start firing at shadows if she doesn't get herself under control. The main coverage switches to an analysis of Peeta's injuries, conducted by a jovial Claudius and a Capitol doctor who shows the fight from several angles, and deduces (a bit late in the game) that Cato missed the femoral artery, but Peeta has an infection. It's the most they've shown, and I hope it inspires people to send money for antibiotics, but most people are still focused on Rue.

After an hour or so, Seeder comes out of the lounge, her face washed and her clothes changed. She goes to the booths and makes a call. It lasts for a long time. Then she comes back to the table and takes my hand. "Thank you, Haymitch," she says. "And the McKissacks and their friends want to thank Katniss for… well, things they didn't see, but they know anyway." She picks up the table phone, identifies herself, and says, "Please re-direct Rue's gift to Katniss Everdeen of Twelve, by request of the sponsors." She pauses. "I realize it's a district present. They are quite adamant on the subject." She hands me the phone, and I authorize the gift to Katniss. It will be a small loaf of bread. Nothing important in the scheme of things, but, like her action in showing respect to Rue's body, it means more than it really is. It's an alliance. A permanent one, by the look of it.

In the arena, the sun is beginning to set, and Katniss comes to the base of a tree. She tightens up her things (now including Rue's things and Marvel's things), and braces herself to climb.

A silver parachute floats down beside her. She looks at it curiously. She's not hungry or in trouble, so she must know that it's not about survival.

She opens it and finds the bread, then looks up toward the setting sun. The reddish rays fall across her face, and the cameras catch the shattered prisms of light coming through the trees, surrounding her with golden light. She is again the girl on fire, but this time, it seems that even the arena is conspiring to create the illusion.

"My thanks to the people of District Eleven," she says.

It's a live broadcast. There's no time for it to be censored at the moment, though it will certainly be cut from the final compilation.

But they see it now -- the connection between Eleven and Twelve. The acknowledgment of one another's humanity.

Of course, the commentators cover as fast as they can, turning the subject to how she knew the bread was from Eleven, and twisting it into a conversation about how Peeta taught her about bread, complete with the ubiquitous pre-Games shot of them in the training center. I'm sure they think they're averting everyone's attention from what's actually happened, but going straight back to the romance narrative isn't going to help them in the end. Peeta's story is as dangerous as Rue's. In fact, when they move to the Capitol news, the people are already talking about how, now that poor Katniss has lost her friend, it's even more imperative that she reunite with Peeta. I give Seeder an apologetic glance -- it's subsuming Eleven's gift in Twelve's story -- but she smiles wearily and shakes her head.

"The Gamemakers do what they do," she says.

A runner appears from nowhere and tells us both to report for an interview. We're taken to the studio, but set up outside, as if we're just checking in from our Capitol revels. Seeder remembers Rue, and will not be taken from the topic. I have a feeling she won't be shown. I'm handed a bottle and asked about how wonderful Katniss is. I tell them she's a fine human being. And that I also hope she finds Peeta soon, as he's a great kid.

None of this is live -- they didn't trust us to keep on script -- and it airs after a brainless comedy on late night coverage, which I watch from the Viewing Center. To my utter disgust, they ask Finnick what he thinks of Marvel getting a kill with "his" tactics. I've never seen Finnick so glad to be called off on one of his "dates." If the reporter had pressed more, I think he might have snapped. My interview is next, and it's kept strictly to extolling Katniss's virtues. Seeder's isn't shown at all, though they do show her talking to a commiserating patron in a high end jewelry shop.

Effie goes to bed.

Finnick, Annie, and Johanna slip back into the Viewing Center a little past midnight and pull chairs over to my table. Annie is rocking back and forth, muttering Rue's name. Finnick has his arm over her shoulders tightly. I'm guessing that Jo was on Annie duty while he was on his date.

"Keep me awake, Haymitch," he says once he's got her settled. "I'm going to end up with arena flashbacks after that."

"Like that would be new."

"It is for me. I don't think about it. Honestly, I don't." I don't believe him about this, but I don't call him on it. He shudders. "How much of that mess of an interview did they show?"

"Just you looking annoyed."

"He kept following me -- the reporter. Kept asking if I thought Marvel had done justice to my technique, like it's some kind of dance move I invented."

"And Marvel was crap at it, anyway," Jo contributes.

"I used it against kids who were bigger than I was, because there was no option. At least not one I could see. I haven't thought of one since, either."

"Sorry they did that."

"Then my good friend Mr. Hooker -- save the sarcastic comments for later -- decided that he wanted to hear all about that, too, after we finished our… other business. He wanted me to show him how to cast a net and spear someone. Using a silk sheet as a net."

"I'd probably have given him a full demonstration," I say.

"Yeah, that would go over well." He snorts. "So tell me you have something to keep me up for a while, and talking about something else."

I pick up my handheld and say, "Let's go for a walk."

We don't go far. We don't need to. There's a fountain out front, and everyone knows we gather there. I press a signal to the Gamemakers that I'm leaving the building. A few minutes later, a green light comes on -- Plutarch. We're clear.

I sit down on the wall. "I want the public clamoring for dual winners by tomorrow," I tell them.

"What?"

"Peeta can't wait much longer for treatment." I sigh. "And it's not just that. I think we can do it this year. I think we can seriously twist the Games themselves. There's already rioting in Eleven. And those shots of Katniss… they're gold."

Johanna nods. "True enough. But pretty much, she's the one being all inspirational. He's… well, Haymitch, the first thing he did was ally with the Careers."

"Yeah. But trust me. Peeta's got his own rebellion going on. It's about…" I look at Jo, leaning forward aggressively. I'm not sure she'll understand what Peeta's rebellion is about.

"It's about love," Annie says abruptly. It's the first clear thing she's said since they came over.

"Love?" Jo repeats dryly.

Annie looks at Finnick. "They hate it when we love each other. Finnick and me. You and me."

"You and me," Jo repeats, bemused.

"I love you," Annie says, surprised. "Of course I love you. You're always there for Finnick and me, even when you pretend you don't love us. We do know better, you know."

Jo squirms uncomfortably.

"And I love Mags, but they hate it when I go and sit with her in the hospital. They keep saying we should let her slip away, since she's old and there's brain damage. Even though they're doing really well with it! She's talking almost normally again."

"No offense," Jo says, "but so what? What does that have to do with anything? What does it have to do with the famed Star-Crossed Lovers of District Twelve?"

"It's something they can't abide," Finnick says. "And if we use it to twist their own Games…" He looks at me for confirmation, and I nod. "Then it's a crack in their power."

"You're kind of a bastard," Jo says, looking at me sideways. "Don't get me wrong. I appreciate that in a person. But you're going to use that little girl's death to push your story. You want people to start feeling sorry for poor Katniss, and how she's lost her friend, and now she needs to find her one true love. Right? And then you're going to work it for every bit of goodwill you can get."

"I'm going to put Snow in the position he puts everyone else in. He has to either give in, or lose something that matters to him."

"What matters to Snow?"

"Keeping the circus going. Making sure no one sees the wires." I look out over the Capitol, twinkling in the dark of the deep part of the night. "And I know I'm a bastard. But I'm giving Rue her dying wish. I'm getting Katniss out of there. I don't think she'd mind."

We talk a little bit longer, then the green light on my handheld goes red -- someone is listening. By this point, we've pretty well shifted to the efforts to retrain Mags after her stroke, so it doesn't matter, but it does prompt a little playacting from Finnick, who jumps up joyfully and declares that he hasn't danced enough with his two girls. He proposes hitting the parties again.

Effie is up when I get back inside, and she sends me off to sleep. I suppose no one would buy me at the parties, anyway.

I fall asleep quickly and dream of nothing I can remember in the morning. Effie has coffee at our table. Katniss is up and hunting. Peeta is unconscious. They're showing footage of the school in Twelve. It's been so long since I've had anyone in the final eight that I'd forgotten how the kids there decorate the halls with wishes for the tributes. Mockingjays are drawn all over the walls. The kids all look dazed.

The Capitol coverage turns to people on the street. Their wishes are becoming open now. It's made the morning news shows. Annie, of all people, has taken to the cameras with gusto, talking about love and loyalty. "And since there are two district teams left, wouldn't it be wonderful for them to win together?"

Jo, beside her, rolls her eyes. "Besides, if Katniss Everdeen gets out of there, you wouldn't want her stuck out in Victor's Village alone with Abernathy, would you? Talk about a fate worse than death."

Annie gives her an exasperated, "Jo!"

"Haymitch," Effie says, "this is… this isn't how it's done…"

"I know. It's great, isn't it?"

She smiles and nods.

"You want them both back, too, don't you?"

"I do." She looks around nervously and pushes an egg sandwich into my hand. "You best get your strength up, Haymitch. I have a feeling you're going to have a long day."

"Can you hold down the fort, or do you need more rest?"

"I'm fine. Go work the problem."

I leave.

Usually in the Capitol, I avoid the crowds -- usually, I'm not doing anything I want to be seen at -- but today, I dive straight into the biggest parties I can find. I don't say anything directly about dual victors, even though they ask me about it, and how I would feel about that kind of a rule change. I point out that it's the Gamemakers' prerogative, and I wouldn't presume to question them. But I tell them about how Katniss watches out for her family, and Peeta is the son of the boy who took all the bread recipes from my Victory Tour. I talk about how much Peeta loves her, and how I think she'll realize that she feels more for him than she admits… if only they have time. I talk about marriage in District Twelve, and how my parents loved each other fiercely, and stayed together until Daddy's death, and how he told me that Momma was the best woman who ever lived.

They eat this up. It's not a surprise. I've been observing the Capitol for years, and I know how hungry they are for normal families, even if they don't realize it. How they never get enough of love stories. How Mimi Meadowbrook whispered into the darkness that she wasn't doing too well at being a better person, no matter how hard she tried.

They want to be heroic and romantic. More than that, they want to be normal. And most of all, they want to be clean. They want to scrub their souls the way Katniss has been scrubbing her skin and clothes.

They want to be on the side of the angels who lit up the night at the parade.

I have lunch in a crowded pavilion, and Chaff and Seeder join me. Seeder praises Katniss fiercely, and says she doesn't just want the girl to win for Rue. She wants her to be happy for Rue.

At two-thirty, I'm called back to Games Headquarters, where a frustrated looking Plutarch -- he doesn't like it when he doesn't know the plan -- takes me up the elevator to the Gamemakers' office. Brutus is already there.

Of course, most of the Gamemakers are running the arena right now. I can see them gathered around their projections. The screens are silent here; each technician is listening to a different sound feed. I see Katniss forcing herself through the day.

But the important Gamemakers are here. Plutarch. Seneca Crane. Genesia Kellogg. A man I've met a few times by the name of Marcus Gray, who always wants to know what I think of the arenas. (I've held my tongue. Mostly.)

"Both of you still have viable district teams," Crane says.

"'Viable' may be an overstatement for Twelve," Brutus sneers.

"Living teams," Plutarch clarifies.

"There's quite a storyline from Twelve. They've been together from the beginning. From that spectacular entrance on." He steeples his fingers in front of his mouth. "I think the audience would love to see it through to the end. I know they would. I've been getting calls all morning." He gives a sheepish smile. "I admit, I would, as well."

"You plan to rig it for the girl?" Brutus asks, rising.

"Of course not!" Crane manages to look offended at the very thought that the Games could be rigged, which must qualify him for some kind of acting award. "But since we do have two teams, it occurs to me… a team could win."

Brutus sits down, still looking suspicious. "A team."

"Yes. I've had our researchers going over the laws of the Games all morning. While it hasn't been allowed before, I think it would be in the spirit of the Games… yes. The spirit. The nobility. The storyline."

I glance at Plutarch, who's keeping his expression deliberately blank. It occurs to me that Seneca Crane may well believe his own lies. He really isn't in it for the political statement. It's the show he loves.

I try to look surprised.

"I want your thoughts, as mentors. I don't think I could do this if only one pair was still alive, even if they are popular. But Clove and Cato haven't exactly been seen as partners. Just allies. Can we make their story compelling as well?"

Brutus looks utterly wounded by this idea. His notion of a narrative is Kill them all..

So I spend the next hour helping the Gamemakers come up with a story for Cato and Clove. It's too late to play a romance, and they wouldn't know to play along anyway, but they have been working well together. I manage to get Brutus to contribute a little bit about District Two, and how they know each other there, then I work with Plutarch and Crane to craft a story about a respectful friendship, with both of them standing up for each other. It will fit what we've seen in the arena, and Brutus thinks the families will be able to pick it up in interviews.

After we decide on the story, Crane has to take it to Snow for approval. If there's a moment it could fall apart, that's it.

Plutarch looks like he wants to talk, but I ignore him. I get in the elevator. Brutus follows. He hits the stop button almost as soon as we're away from the Gamemakers' floor.

"This is crap," he says.

"You're rolling in it, too."

"My tributes could both win on the merits. They don't need to play this sentimental game you like."

"Brutus, if they do, then maybe you can take them both home. If you don't go along with it, you'll lose one of them one way or another at least."

"That's the way the Hunger Games are played! It's about being strong, not about being… stories."

"I want to save both of my tributes. And if they die, I wouldn't argue with saving both of yours. Either way, it's one less dead kid this year."

I start the elevator again.

We go back to the Viewing Center, and wait for the verdict.
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