FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,
FernWithy
fernwithy

The Last Tribute: Chapter Nineteen

We left our heroes in the middle of a significant bath.

Part Three: Nightlock


Chapter Nineteen
Peeta's bath goes on for hours. It doesn't just seem like hours, like so many things in the arena do. Going handful by handful, even an occasional bottleful, Katniss has to work her way through layers and layers of Peeta's camouflage. Mandatory viewing starts a bit early today -- pretty much as soon as school lets out in the Capitol -- and she's still at it. She's managed to work her way to his legs, and she is studiously looking away the higher she gets.

Ruth Everdeen comes back on for another rundown of what Katniss might know about treating Peeta. Some of it is literally repeated from earlier. She looks confused at the questions, but goes along with them. She even brings Prim up to talk about proper bandaging, though she says that they shouldn't bandage until it's clean.

It's not just the mud, of course. Now that the wound is in the open air, diseased pus is seeping out of it. She drains it no less than three times, using Rue's leaves, and each time requires another flushing out. His skin, as it comes out from under the mud, is shockingly pale, and from some camera angles, the bone can clearly be seen beneath the flesh.

She finally decides it's clean enough to bandage (in District Twelve, Ruth agrees; Prim is no longer in the frame). There's some white cotton in Marvel's first aid kit, and Katniss carefully binds up the leg. It looks less deadly, though I have his medical readouts, and I know that she's only bought him a little time. She stares at his shorts, which are still covered with mud, then hands him Rue's backpack.

"Here," she says. "Cover yourself and I'll wash your shorts."

Johanna, who's pulled a big blue couch over to my table and is sharing it with Finnick and Annie, bursts out laughing. It's a loud, genuine belly laugh. Annie puts her hand over her mouth and giggles, and Finnick snorts back his drink. The laugh starts to bounce around the room. Even Peeta seems amused.

"Hey, Brutus," Faraday Sykes says as Katniss starts washing the shorts. "You should get a message to Cato to attack naked next time. She won't be able to aim with her eyes closed."

"It's a good plan," Chaff says, leaning back. "And Thresh has the necessary weapons, too."

I make an obscene gesture at all of them, but I'm laughing, too.

I'm also calculating how this is going over with the sponsors. She's been good at being inspiring and brave, but I think this is the first time they've caught her being kind of… endearing. It wouldn't work if she faked it, but it's so clearly real, and so clearly Katniss, that I think she just became the silly best friend of half the teenage girls in the Capitol, not least because she's expressing something that I suspect most of them feel at one point or another, but which they must pretend, at all costs, to find ridiculous.

The laughter in the Viewing Center has barely died down when Katniss starts scrubbing the shorts between two rocks. Peeta, not as sanguine as he pretends, takes the opportunity of her turned back to pour water from the bottle over himself before putting the backpack right where she told him to. He's also careful to keep it at an angle that any camera would be hard pressed to get around, even while he's cleaning.

"You know," he says, "you're kind of squeamish for such a lethal person. I wish I'd let you give Haymitch a shower after all."

I blush. It never occurred to me for a second that he'd mention that, but I guess I'm fair game. Finnick raises an eyebrow at me.

"Drunk," I mutter, looking away.

Finnick doesn't say anything.

Katniss wrinkles her nose. "What's he sent you so far?"

"Not a thing," Peeta answers, and I want to crawl under the table, even though I'm working every contact I've got to afford his medicine. "Why, did you get something?" he asks.

"Burn medicine. Oh, and some bread." She doesn't specify that this wasn't one of my gifts.

"I always knew you were his favorite," Peeta says lightly.

"Please, he can't stand being in the same room with me."

"Because you're just alike."

Katniss purses her lips at this, but doesn't comment. I am not sure what to do with this conversation. My tributes have occasionally mentioned my name, but this is the first year that they seem to think of me regularly. Katniss thanked me for the burn ointment. Peeta is talking about how much like me Katniss is. And joking about who I like better. Like I'm a regular person who's in their lives, who they talk about like…

Well, like an annoying, drunk, rich uncle who might or might not send them presents, but that's about as close as anyone from Twelve has come to including me in their lives for years.

I have a brief and vivid daydream about having a picnic with them in Victor's Village, Peeta complaining that I never bring him food, and Katniss rolling her eyes at me and laughing. I laugh, too.

"Are you all right?" Finnick asks.

I shake it off. Stupid thought. Even if -- when -- I get them both back, the chances that they'll want much to do with me as I am in Twelve are pretty slim, and I'm not cut out to be anyone's crotchety uncle. "I'm great," I tell him.

Even the Capitol can't make much of the drying of Peeta's laundry. He falls asleep, so Katniss isn't talking. They go to the street to talk to fans, with the theme being couples where one person is very ill. They bring up Agathe the Last, the queen of Denmark during the Catastrophes, who stayed with her dying consort as the sea swallowed up the land. I've read a play about her. It's usually held up as a great romance, and I guess young actresses love to play the part, as it's more or less a solo show. Mirrem Mellark (though she was still Mirrem Murphy then) did the show in high school -- it was the last show before the government dissolved all non-essential activities at the school -- and Danny gave his all to the five or six times he was allowed to interrupt her monologue. I half expect the Capitol to come up with footage, but they actually miss this trick. Mir must be disappointed.

Other couples talk about their own experiences -- colds, injuries, in one case, an actual deadly disease, though it sounds like they cured it fast enough. An old woman with a dog says, "My first husband used to get the most horrible headaches! I sat by his side through them for almost the whole contract! Poor dear."

I imagine this is taken badly in Twelve. It's about the silliest comparison I can think of to Peeta's situation. But I'm encouraged by it. She's clearly seeing herself as Katniss, and enjoying it.

I don't get to see Twelve's reaction, because the reporters there are breathlessly sharing the information that the Everdeens, along with Katniss's "cousin" and "a neighbor girl" have retreated to the bakery with the Mellarks, and may be eating together even as we speak. They try to get a shot through the window, but fail miserably.

Mir and Ruth breaking bread together. I'm glad to be several districts away from that time bomb.

I look at Peeta's vitals. They're not good, and they're not stable. He's going to need medicine, or all the fans in the world won't make a difference.

I check our money, then look at the estimate that the Gamemakers are giving me now, expecting it to be just a shade higher.

Instead, I get a message that the item is no longer available to me.

I knew it was coming, but I thought they might try teasing long enough for me to beat them. I should have known better, though I guess it didn't matter. No matter what I offered as a price, they'd have raised it beyond what I had.

On screen, a teenage girl gushes, "I wish Katniss could just give him a magic kiss and bring him back to life!"

I think about the shards of pottery in Peeta's hands the night before the Games, and I'm not sure that's going to happen. It's too bad -- any hope she can give the audience of a happy ending will mean things I can buy them, even if it's not the medicine Peeta needs.

Or maybe I can talk Plutarch into putting it back on the list. No one would blame me for trying, anyway.

I tip the list in Effie's direction to show her the message, then say, "Going upstairs."

"Good," she says. "You tell them that's not playing fair."

"Yeah. Because playing fair is always their priority."

"Tell them I don't like it, anyway."

I smile at her. "I'll do that, Effie. Jo, help with the phones if they get nuts, okay?"

Johanna sighs dramatically and gets into my seat as I vacate it. "I don't know," she says. "My heart might not be able to take the strain of figuring out whether or not she's going to peek under that backpack."

"Want me to do anything?" Finnick asks. "I've got…" He wrinkles his nose. "Forty-five minutes before I have to 'meet' with Corvinus Eveleth."

I shake my head. "Use them to do something you want to do."

"Okay. See you later." He pauses, and I can see that he's got something on his mind, but he doesn't share.

I go upstairs and ask to see Plutarch.

"Mr. Heavensbee has another meeting," a secretary tells me. "He's off the premises."

"I can take the meeting," someone says. I look over my shoulder and see Seneca Crane coming out of his private elevator, smiling. He claps me on the shoulder and leads me toward his office. "What can I do for you, Mr. Abernathy?"

"The medicine Peeta needs…"

"We thought it would be more of a challenge to have Miss Everdeen retrieve it for him. The audience would like to see her fight for him, as he fought for her." He goes behind his desk and frowns. "Of course, you'll keep that to yourself."

I nod, resigned to it. I'm reasonably sure that, if I were to leak it, a mutt would eat Peeta on live television.

"Don't worry. We'll wait until he's strong enough to get by without her for a few hours."

"He could die in a few hours."

"So could we." Crane smiles. "But we won't. And neither will he. I have very qualified doctors monitoring his tracker data. None of their estimates give him less than three days."

"And if Katniss dies trying to get it for him? It would wreck the story."

"Well, I'd certainly be rooting for her to succeed! So would the audience. I haven't seen them take to a tribute so well since Finnick Odair. And in her case, there's great substance to it."

"Then there's no chance of getting the medicine back on the list?"

There isn't. Crane keeps me a few minutes longer, talking about the stunning numbers of people viewing these Games during non-mandatory hours, and how much the public has enjoyed seeing District Twelve ("I understand that several shows are planning to do arcs related to Twelve over the next season. It's a hot property. You might even see tourism!")

He finally lets me go. I see Plutarch when I go out into the work area. His partner, Fulvia, is with him. She is still trying doggedly to fit in. She has silver flowers tattooed on her cheeks now, and a bright green wig. Neither helps. She still has a deeply serious, almost truculent expression on her face. I know that she more or less singlehandedly got Plutarch to beat the re-education he was given in Capitol Dreams, but I've never understood their relationship. He clearly adores her, and she's totally devoted to him, but I've seen more passionate brick walls.

She's also devoted solely to him. I asked her once how I could help Effie beat the same kind of re-education, and her answer was essentially that it didn't matter, because Effie wasn't important and didn't have fine sensibilities like Plutarch's, and so could hardly be expected to defeat the drumbeat of what she called the idiot culture. When I asked if she'd try anyway while I was gone during the year, she looked at me like I was speaking a dead language. Plutarch's no better on this. I'd say he treats Effie like an Avox, but that's too generous. He treats her something like a vacuum cleaner or a blender that happens to be in my vicinity, which he sometimes has to reach around if he's trying to get my attention.

Fulvia spots me and waves urgently, tugging on Plutarch's sleeve.

Plutarch turns and smiles widely. "Haymitch! I heard you were up here." He crosses the room quickly, Fulvia in his wake, and claps his hands on my arms. "Your tributes are great this year. I've been meaning to talk to you about some side marketing we have going. Do you mind?"

He leads me into a conference room and shuts the door. I hear white noise generators come on.

"What are they playing at?" he asks, keeping up his grin and pulling out a chair for Fulvia. Clearly, we can be seen but not heard. "I assumed you meant to inspire our friends, not raise money for the Games."

I lean back, trying to take on an insouciant air, like I'm dealing for doll rights. "They're my first responsibility."

"I have people watching this, Haymitch. They know you're one of us. They know you're trying to push the mockingjay." He holds out a file of pictures that, bizarrely, really do show a line of Katniss dolls. "They saw her on fire. Now, they see her as a nursemaid. They think the boy will be a better speaker if he's given the right lines, but they're not all that sure about him after that alliance."

"You want it back on track, get the medicine back on the list. No nursemaid if he's healthy."

"I can't push it." He turns a page and starts showing me mock-ups of the doll clothes, which include the arena outfit, the interview dress, the parade outfit (the flames made from flashing lights), and the reaping outfit. On the facing page is a disturbing bodyless head with Katniss's face and hair, surrounded by toy hairdressing tools. "I'm in a more delicate situation than you think. I can't afford to have people looking at me right now."

I stand and shake his hand, pulling the binder away. "That's your problem. Mine's my kids."

"Your kids."

"My tributes. I always call them that."

"No, you don't. At least not out loud."

"They're my problem right now. You worry about yours." I tuck the binder under my arm and open the door. The white noise stops. "I'll show these to Effie. She'll get a kick out of them. Thanks for showing me!"

"You let me know if you think of any other details," he says. "I'll get it to the manufacturer."

By the time I get back downstairs, Katniss has apparently decided that they've stayed in one place long enough. She's woken Peeta, and they're a few feet downstream from where he's been hiding. He's limping badly, and his face is the white of dried and cracked candlewax. As I sit down, she gets him into a little cave. If we weren't down to six tributes -- and mine weren't as popular as they are -- I'd think it would be a trap. It probably would have been, earlier in the Games. There are obviously cameras set up there to catch some kind of potential action. But now, I think they'll let it be. They still have to make Katniss fight for him, after all.

I check with Effie on the donations. We have a lot, but we can't use it. It's a very familiar feeling for me in my personal life, but it's new in the Games.

Katniss tries to force some food and water into Peeta, but he doesn't take it. I don't think it's a noble instinct to preserve the food for her. I think he can't eat. She manages to get a few dried pears down his throat, and some water, then tries unsuccessfully to camouflage the cave. She tears down her work.

"Katniss," Peeta says, and she comes over to him. She brushes the hair back from his eyes. It's a surprisingly tender gesture. He touches her hand with an expression of wonder. The Capitol will be eating this up, waiting for some magic, fairy tale kiss to cure him. "Thanks for finding me," he says.

She looks down. "You would have found me if you could."

"Yes. Look, if I don't make it back --"

She frowns. "Don't talk like that. I didn't drain all that pus for nothing."

"I know, but just in case I don't --"

"No, Peeta." She puts her finger on his lips. I look around. The other mentors are watching with varying degrees of curiosity. Some of the Capitol street-cams, not showing on the main screen, show girls with their hands clasped over their hearts in anticipation. "I don't even want to discuss it."

"But I--"

She kisses him.

As kisses go, it's not much -- a dry, nervous peck, obviously her first attempt at such a thing. She blushes wildly. On the street, people cheer. Effie clasps her hands and smiles brightly. The phone starts to ring.

"You're not going to die," Katniss says. "I forbid it. All right?"

"All right," Peeta whispers. The look on his face tells me that he'd agree to abide by anything she said, if he could just hold onto that minute.

The audience loves it.

I pick up the second line and order some chicken broth to be dropped for Peeta. It will help him to get some nourishment, and I'm pretty sure that Katniss will know I approve as soon as she sees it. It's cheap. It won't interfere if I need something important later.

Soup is a standard in the supply crafts, and they drop it immediately. She's gone outside to cool off when it comes, and she looks a little disappointed when she opens it. Probably hoping for the medicine, but she obviously gets the message, because when she takes it in, she kisses him again to wake him up (he seems as dazed with happiness as he is with fever), and says, "Peeta, look what Haymitch has sent you."

She kisses him quite a lot to get him to eat the broth. I'm not entirely convinced that she's not doing it because she wants to, no matter how useful it is for other purposes. She certainly seems to be getting better at it with practice. She finally gets all of the soup down his throat, and lets him fall asleep again. She gives him a fond smile, then tears into her own leftover food.

There have been no deaths today, but it's clear from the aftershows that it's considered a very exciting day anyway. A few people leer that they're going to have to start watching late night. Most people that they talk to are nearly fainting at the great romance. They can't wait for Peeta to wake up again, so the show can continue. Meanwhile, Katniss is standing guard over him, her night-vision goggles on and her bow at the ready. I have absolutely no doubt that she'll shoot anyone who dares to come close, but no one on the street seems to see that as romantic. I wonder how it's going over at home.

I send Effie to sleep the early shift. Finnick must be finished with his date, because he's back on television talking about how much he wished he had Peeta's luck. This is probably true -- he's had plenty of luck at falling in love, but none at all in getting the Capitol to accept it -- but obviously played to the cameras. They catch Johanna in a flashy club a few minutes later and ask about our non-existent affair and she repeats the business about me being her fake father, and being jealous of her fake sister. At the next table, Chaff is highly amused by this, and starts teasing me about my advanced age.

I go to get Effie a few minutes after two, and crash down onto the bed to sleep. I dream that Maysilee is forty and living in Victor's Village. I'm still sixteen. She berates me until I age myself up to my current state, which she rolls her eyes at. Johanna is running around in the pigtails she wore for her reaping, sneezing out the last of the flu. Finnick and Annie are in the garden, down near the Cornucopia statue... though it's been replaced by Mimi's fountain. The word "REAPED" stands out, but it doesn't matter. They've already been reaped. The worst has happened. They survived. He's pushing her on a tree swing that doesn't exist. I sit down, and Peeta is a baby again, on my lap, drinking milk off my fingers and looking up at me with those big blue eyes, waiting for me to tell him some interesting story. There's another baby in a bassinet, who I assume from context is Katniss. Maysilee has pinned her diaper with the mockingjay pin, at any rate. Or maybe it was Cinna. Maybe I've hired a stylist to do her diapers. It makes as much sense as anything else.

I glance over at a mirror in the nursery. I'm definitely my age, but I'm not drunk or sloppy. My clothes are mostly in order, except for a spot where Peeta threw up on me. It smells like white liquor. The dream changes into a memory of the train. He didn't throw up on me. I threw up on him. He cleaned me up.

I wake up feeling low and useless. I don't need any prompting to tell myself that I'm not who Maysilee would have wanted me to be, let alone my mother or my girl.

When I get back to the table, Katniss is up and trying to get Peeta to eat berries. He claims to feel better, and makes her go to sleep, though I can't imagine what good he thinks he'll do on watch. He promises to wake her in a few hours. He holds her until she goes to sleep, and I'm reasonably certain this time that she doesn't mind at all. It's dull storytelling, but the girls on the street are utterly enraptured. I call Cinna and ask him to make a video for all of the sponsor stations, to talk about how much the "star-crossed lovers" will need help. Effie goes to help him do it.

The only thing I can think to do is get ready for the inevitable "feast" -- the moment they will try to draw the tributes into combat by offering them things they need. They don't do it every year, and my tributes have never been involved in one. I make a broad suggestion to Chaff that historically, this sort of thing has happened, and we "theoretically" discuss what to do if it should. I can afford almost everything in the book, but I can't think what would help Katniss. Armor would slow her down. She has her best weapon.

Meanwhile, Thresh and Cato get into a no-holds-barred fight at the river, which is only stopped by the Gamemakers sending a water mutt between them. They're evenly matched physically. Cato seems to suspect that Thresh knows where Finch is, and is hiding her. I don't think he does, at least not anymore. She had been taking bits of his food, but not much of it, and she's been getting strange in her isolation. She seems to fear Thresh now -- she's actually closer to Katniss and Peeta -- and she won't eat anything growing in the arena. She's tried to catch animals, but the Gamemakers are playing keep-away with her, sending in mutts to guard even the things she can eat. I guess they want to force her to a "feast" as well.

Jo comes back and picks up the binder of doll pictures without comment. She leafs through it. "My dolls didn't get nice clothes like this," she says. "Trees. They were always dressed like trees."

"Sorry."

She scans the pictures, then frowns. "Wow. Lots of costumes. Thirteen of them. And thirteen kinds of brushes and combs. Who knew there were thirteen ways to make a brush?" She raises her eyebrows.

I take the binder. I hadn't noticed it at all.

Thirteen.

I remember talking about it with Chaff and Finnick this summer, this secret that Plutarch was holding back. Is that who's watching? District Thirteen?

I go through the pictures more carefully. There's a motif drawn around the doll's accessories -- feathers. Thirteen feathers. The braid on the disembodied head has thirteen segments. There are, as Jo pointed out, thirteen brushes and combs.

I have a feeling that I know who Plutarch's meeting was with. I think he was making an alliance.

I look at Jo. We can't say anything here. I put it away.

Peeta lets Katniss sleep all day. She's annoyed when she wakes up, but I'm glad. If they're going to have a feast, it's better if she's not sleep-deprived.

They joke a little, and Katniss obviously doesn't believe Peeta's lie about drinking water during the day, then she starts to take care of his wounds.

When she takes the dressing off his leg, every thought outside the arena leaves my head.

Peeta has blood poisoning. I've seen it from time to time at home, and kids in the arena have died of it many times over the years. There's no hiding it, and Peeta knows exactly what it means.

Katniss tries to lie about it, but does a terrible job. She retreats outside to make soup, of all things. Most likely an excuse to let the horror she obviously felt show on her face as she works. She uses hot rocks to heat it up. When she goes back in, Peeta asks her to tell him a story. She tells him a long, rambling tale about how Primrose got her pet goat. She ends up talking about the goat licking Prim's face. I hope Prim is listening and taking notes so she doesn’t contradict it.

Peeta wants to know if she left the pink gift ribbon around its neck, so he can make a perfect picture of it in his head.

I'm guessing he's delirious.

They're joking around about how much he's costing her when Claudius interrupts the scene with an announcement of a feast. All more or less as I expected, until Peeta grabs Katniss's shoulder and says, "No. You're not risking your life for me."

"Who said I was?"

He doesn't believe her for a moment, even when she tries to elaborate. ("Never gamble at cards," he tells her. "You'll lose your last coin.")

She loses her temper and insists on going; he threatens to follow her.

I check the list, find that I can get some sleep syrup with just a small nudge to our donations, and send it out to the sponsor boards. It's a cheap medicine in real life, but in the Games, it's going to take my whole stash of money, plus some. Again. I hope they don't decide to pull it from the list as well. I get a few supportive donations from Twelve -- nothing that makes a dent in the cost, but certainly enough to know that they'll support a decision to knock Peeta out for his own good. Most of the names attached are merchant names. One of them is Delly Cartwright, the girl who they pretended looked like our Avox.

They eat the soup, which Peeta pretends enthusiasm for. Effie gets back and points to the boards. We've outdone our goal. I order the sleep syrup to be dropped as soon as Katniss goes outside.

She goes out to wash up after the soup, and again, doesn't initially seem thrilled with the gift… but it doesn’t take her long to see the point. She mashes berries in the soup bowl, then mixes in the syrup, then goes in, gushing about finding a stash of "sugar-berries," which Peeta just has to taste.

Peeta figures it out, but he's far too late. She holds his jaw shut until he swallows.

He passes out, giving her a look of sheer fury before he slips under.

She wipes a berry tenderly off his chin, and says, "Who can't lie, Peeta?"

Then she bundles him up, curls up beside him to take his warmth, and waits there beside him for the dawn.
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