FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,

Repost: The Golden Mean, Chapter 23

Pretty minor tweaking here -- a call-back to the new conversation with Danny, more Philo stuff, bits of added thought.

Chapter Twenty-Three
While Finnick goes to greet Johanna, Jack Anderson and Philo Dillard wheel their tables over to join Harris and me.

I haven't had a good up close look at Philo for a while. He's never really been in my circle, and only wanders vaguely around the edges of the Games when he's here at all. Brutus has insisted on mentoring District Two every year since his own win, which leaves a lot of their male victors at loose ends. I remember that Philo was a bit of a smart-ass during his Games, often rolling his eyes at his allies and snapping at Brutus from the arena, which of course meant that I liked him. I know he and Brutus do not get along. Philo asked for a blow-gun and Brutus sent a knife, which ended up with Philo having scars all over his face from his final fight. He's never had them removed. In fact, he's had them enhanced with tattoos, probably because he'd otherwise be a good-looking kid, and the vultures would be all over him. He has shoulder length brown hair, small, sharp features, and blue eyes that dart around restlessly as he talks.

I don't know much about him, really, but Jack seems to be getting along with him well -- they're laughing at some shared joke as they move the tables -- and Jack's a pretty good judge of character.

"Allies?" Jack asks me. It's not entirely obvious from the arena, as Katniss has managed to say something while we were arranging ourselves that's caused Johanna to start screaming. I'm betting it's a delayed reaction to losing Blight more than any real anger at Katniss, but Katniss won't know about that, and dislikes her already. Finnick throws Jo over his shoulder and carries her to the water, dumping her in unceremoniously while Katniss and Peeta look after Wiress and Beetee.

"Sure," I say. "Can't you tell?"

Philo shakes his head at his screen. "Johanna doesn't seem to be Katniss's biggest fan."

"It's mutual," I assure him.

"Are you sure Johanna will stick with the alliance?" he asks Jack. "Now that District Three has the others to look after them, I mean."

"She'll stick with Finnick," Jack says. "He's her best friend. And he's sticking with Katniss and Peeta. And they're sticking with Wiress and Beetee."

Philo doesn't look like he believes this, but the discussion is cut short when a Capitol attendant approaches our happy little family and tells us that we're expected to appear at Claudius Templesmith's studio to give commentary on the alliance. We're approached by security, lest we mistake it for a casual invitation.

Effie takes our station, Harris's, and Jack's; Toffy picks up Philo's in addition to his own. This is all done with very few words, as we're hustled out of the building, piled into a car without further ado and driven to the Media Center. The Games are playing in the lobby, and I have time to register that Katniss is trying to clean Beetee's wounds before I'm herded into prep, where I'm glad to find at least part of Peeta's prep team, shaken up but in one piece.

Claudia's hands are trembling as she washes my hair and tries to style it.

"Are you all right?" I ask her.

"They came and asked me questions about Katniss's dress. If we preps were told anything. Is everything all right?"

"As much as it can be. Have you seen Katniss's team?"

"No. I tried to call Flavius, but his line's down for non-payment. Octavia hasn't been to her regular job. Do you think they knew about the dress?"

"I doubt it," I say. "Cinna probably just told them to do her hair and makeup in a particular way."

Claudia takes a ragged-sounding deep breath. "Are they taking it out on Peeta and Katniss in the arena?"

"I think they're taking it out on everyone in the arena," I say. I wait until she turns on a hair dryer, then I pull her down close enough to ask, "Are they watching you?"

She gulps and nods, then stands up and continues to work on my hair without speaking, taking herself out of the range of my voice before someone decides I'm speaking sedition to her. Sergius comes in, but he doesn't have much to do with my fingernails, and only applies a little make-up to cover the dark circles under my eyes. The thick make-up he's wearing is not covering up a dark bruise across his cheek, and one of his fingers is in a splint.

"Where's Valentine?" I ask.

"Do you need a medic?" Sergius asks.

"No. But you look like you do. Accident?"

"Yeah," he says dully. "Accident. Valentine and Claudia had one, too. Val patched us up, though. Where are Portia and Cinna?"

The question is direct, and for the first time since Portia's call, I remember fully that Cinna is not coming back. That he has had an "accident" of his own that can't be covered up with make-up or splinted until it heals. "Portia's been pulled in for... because she's not a Capitol citizen."

"Cinna's her sponsor."

"Sergius, Cinna's dead."

Saying it like that, into the noisy air of the prep room, it seems real. He's dead. Cinna, whose weird, living clothes fascinated the crowd. Cinna, who became a rebel because a complete stranger was murdered on his watch.

And again, I can't let myself really absorb it. Because the Games are on -- in the arena, and here in the Capitol. I have to go on stage and talk strategy. I can't do anything suspicious.

Hell, I can't even get drunk.

All I can do is close the door on it again, let it lie dormant until I can either drown it or give it the attention it deserves. It's a hell of a way to honor the dead.

Sergius blinks a few times, and doesn't look at all surprised. "I thought he might be. One of the... accidents... said something about no more pretty dresses. He laughed about it."

I can't think of anything to say that will make it better, or make it even marginally less awful, so I change the subject. "Effie's trying to switch Portia's sponsorship."

"That's nice. I would, but I have debts, so I can't sponsor anyone." He finishes up and waves me upstairs.

Philo's prep seems not to have taken long, because he's already waiting in Claudius's green room. "A clock," he says, pointing at the screen where the Games are playing. "My girl figured it out. Your girl figured out what she was saying. Whole thing's a clock."

"Yeah, I know."

"You know?"

"Caught it this morning, right after the Careers got steamed. Harris knows. I figured everyone saw it by now."

He frowns and watches for a few minutes, then says maybe the last thing I'd have expected: "Why do you call us Careers? I always wondered. Beetee and Wiress kept saying that all through training."

I look at him. The epithet is so common among my friends -- and in the public in District Twelve -- that I never even thought about how it sounded to the people in what Effie has always called the inner district alliance. I shrug. "All the training when you're kids. Which of course you don't do." I roll my eyes.

"Of course we train," Philo says, annoyed. "I don't know why you don't. It's not like you don't know the Games are coming. But the arena's not much of a career path. You either die young or retire rich. Not much of a career either way."

"Well, there's the exciting world of mentoring."

"Like Brutus would have let any of the rest of us come up here and mentor."

"What are they doing now?" I ask, looking back at the Games, where our alliance seems to be gathering up supplies and bundling Beetee to be moved.

"Dunno. Beetee's got that wire, which I guess he means to use. And then they decided to walk to the Cornucopia."


"Well, the clock's ticking in their direction."

"Why the Cornucopia?"

"Something about checking the theory."

I shake my head. "More like needing something to do for the cameras."

"It's a bad idea. You can see that island from everywhere. Look." He nods at the screen, which has switched over to the Career camp.

Gloss is at the edge of the woods, watching the beach with a wicked grin. He gestures to the others, who are dressing some steam burns. "Hey. Look."

"What?" Enobaria says, glancing over with a disdainful sniff. "They've got six people, all together. We've got four. Learn to count, Blondie. We should wait until they split up."

"Two of them are wounded," Brutus says. "Which means they're not fighting. And even if they weren't wounded, they're Nuts and Volts, if I’m guessing right. Which means the other four are going to have to waste time babysitting them."

Cashmere nods. "That's true. And if they're going to the Cornucopia, they may be low on weapons... and I don't think I really want them re-arming if they are."

Brutus snorts. "You could re-arm Loverboy with a nuke, and he still wouldn't be much more of a threat than Nuts. It just pains him so!" He mocks Peeta with fake tears. "Poor little tributes, I just can't kill them unless it's an accident, or they beg me! Because I am too good for the rest of you!"

"What's Brutus's problem with Peeta?" I ask.

Philo rolls his eyes. "Come on. You know Brutus. As far as he's concerned, being a man means making sure you don't have any feelings left. I'm not sure he thinks he's completely succeeded -- he still drinks at Drake's grave every year -- but he figures it's something to aim for. Peeta's not even aiming for it." He shrugs. "Hacked him off last year when 'Loverboy' beat his champion to a standstill in the woods, and walked away with half a crown after letting a girl rescue him. And there's something about moral prissiness, like he's too soft-hearted to make tough decisions that 'real men' need to make. Like which kids to kill first, I guess. Plus, of course, he's your tribute, and you're… how did he put it? 'The weeping drunk poet wannabe.' And your sponsors are all sentimental old women. I think that covers it." He watches quietly for a second, then says, "Just in case you're wondering, it's Brutus, not District Two. Personally, I like poetry. Which probably explains why he hated me from the start, too." He grins.

I try to absorb this -- it still doesn't explain why Brutus is like this, but it's more than I've ever noticed -- and turn my attention back to the Games, where the Careers are still debating the merits of an attack.

"I say we don't go," Enobaria says. "It'd be suicide."

"The vote's three to one," Gloss says. "Learn to count, Fangs."

"So we're all in?" Brutus asks.

Gloss snorts. "I think you're crazy to count the kid out. I did knife training with him. But you're right that they'll be stuck looking after District Three."

"He's probably right," Philo says. "Wish I could say he wasn't. I'd like nothing better than to make Brutus eat about half of everything he's ever said."

"You don't have warm, fuzzy feelings for mentor?"

"Got him to thank for my pretty face." Philo wrinkles his nose.

"He's a whole lot crazier than Wiress."

Philo nods. "Yeah. Lyme said that just before she left." He grins. "Gave me a present, too." He pulls back the hair by his ear and reveals one of her flame-shaped gold earrings. "Brutus and the Gamemakers," he says. "She told me they were the craziest of all."

In other words, Plutarch hasn't a clue about this particular ally, and Lyme doesn't trust the grand plan all that much. I have a suspicion that she'll find a way to vanish in District Two as soon as she gets there.

The coverage cuts to the Cornucopia, where Johanna has found the tomahawks Cecelia wanted to give her and is throwing them into the soft gold.

Jack and Harris come up together. Harris looks more or less as he usually does. Jack has gone for the full Capitol look, with loopy make-up and a fright-wig of orange and yellow extensions in his already-dyed hair. The attendants take us straight up to the stage. Claudius has a doctor on, talking about Beetee's wound and Katniss's treatment of it (apparently, she did as well as it was possible to do given the arena's resources), but the mentors of the "new power alliance" are more of a priority. He scoots the doctor off and calls us out like we're his long lost best friends. I'm sure on television, it looks like we are. But close up, I can see that his eyes are colder than usual, and I wonder what he has in mind. If Caesar Flickerman can be trusted to help tributes and mentors, Claudius Templesmith can be trusted to twist us around and mount us like collected butterflies if given a chance.

"Please, have a seat," he says. "It seems your tributes have made quite the alliance -- half of the remaining field, in fact."

I look at the screen. It's muted at the moment to prevent feedback. There's an earpiece I can put in if it becomes necessary to hear. I can see Peeta trying to draw a map of the arena while Katniss watches. Wiress is scrubbing a roll of copper wire and singing. Gloss and Cashmere are swimming along one of the spokes, as quietly as they can, only surfacing to take deep breaths. Brutus and Enobaria are coming from another direction.

"Looks like we may have a fight coming," Claudius says. "How do you think your alliance's chances are?"

"Four against six, when one of ours is an expert with ranged weapons, and two of the others have good throwing weapons?" Harris shrugs elaborately. "I'm not worried."


"Oh, I'm always worried," I say. "Fighting's no joke in the arena. But I’m not more worried than usual."

"And Jack Anderson, of Seven. I haven't seen you since Johanna Mason competed. Nice mentoring there -- was it your idea or hers to play helpless? And since she could hardly do that here, what is the strategy? Are you worried?"

Jack starts wailing as sarcastically as Brutus did in the arena and says, "I'm scared, Claudius! Hold me!"


He sits back and snickers. "I'm not worried about Jo Mason. Her strategy's always going to be whatever makes the most sense to her at the moment. It was in her Games. I didn't know what she could do until she did it. I'm not sure she did, either."

"She seems hostile to her team members. Do you think she may be planning another surprise turnaround?"

"Well, since you seem to expect it, it would hardly be a surprise."

Claudius turns to Harris. "In your own Games, you allied with Districts One and Two until the melee at the end. How do you see the melee playing out in this alliance? Does Finnick Odair have any advantage over his teammates?"

"I’m sure Finnick would say that he's prettier."

"But in terms of hand-to-hand combat skills..."

"Claudius?" I interrupt. "Have you seen this arena? I doubt it will get to a melee."

"Then you find the arena itself to be the biggest threat."

"It's caused every death since the battle at the Cornu--"

But I don't finish, because as I'm speaking, Gloss slides silently from the water, sneaks up behind Wiress, and slashes her throat. I stop talking and put in my earpiece.

Claudius grins smugly as Katniss looses an arrow. This one finds its target, and Gloss falls beside his last victim. I remember that he admired Katniss's archery skills. Maybe he should have kept them in mind.

Cashmere is barely out of the water when she takes a tomahawk to the chest from Johanna. The field has been cut by a quarter in less than a minute, and it had nothing to do with the arena. Enobaria and Brutus attack Finnick and Peeta, and Finnick takes Enobaria's knife to his thigh in the process of blocking Brutus's spear, which was aimed straight at Peeta. Peeta raises his knife and goes after Enobaria, but she doesn't underestimate him, and runs for the water. Finnick grabs both Brutus's spear and his own trident and raises them threateningly.

The cannon booms three times, and the camera switches to Enobaria, who has pulled herself up onto a spoke of land and is screaming at Brutus to abort the mission. Brutus hesitates a moment, then, swearing at the top of his lungs, follows her.

Katniss pulls an arrow from her quiver and starts to follow, then something that makes no sense happens.

The island spins.

Most of the arena remains stable, but the central island, where the Cornucopia stands, spins like someone has released a spring. The bodies are thrown out to sea, along with Beetee, who doesn't have the strength to hold on. Finnick, Johanna, Peeta, and Katniss claw at the sand to keep purchase. I have no idea what Plutarch's game is here. Katniss could have had a clear shot at Enobaria. Brutus wouldn't have had time to adjust.

Which would mean that all of the remaining tributes would be ours (except Earl, but I doubt he's exactly in Snow's fan club, either), and the Capitol would insist on deaths before Thirteen could get here.

The island stops sharply, throwing all of them a few feet along the sand.

"Well, that was interesting!" Claudius says. "I wonder if this will have any effect on their understanding of the arena's clock-like features!"

None of us offers an answer. Finnick has to swim out to rescue Beetee. Katniss spies something, and swims out toward Wiress's body.

"What's your girlfriend after?" Johanna asks Peeta.

Peeta looks completely confused (and more than a little green), then light dawns. "The wire. Beetee's wire. The one he wanted so much."

Johanna kicks at the sand and makes a sort of growling sound. "That wire! That..." She can't seem to think of anything rude enough to call the offending equipment, and just throws her bloody axe into the Cornucopia again.

"Johanna Mason's response to Beetee's wire is quite odd," Claudius says to the audience. "As Katniss Everdeen reminded us in their earlier conversation" -- I must have missed this while I was in prep -- "she does habitually call him 'Volts,' his common nickname among this year's tributes. She must remember how he won his own Games." He turns to Jack. "Why do you think she's acting like she's forgotten?"

"You need to take a trip into the arena, Claudius."

"I've visited many of the arena sites--"

"While the Games are on. It gets real easy to forget things like how someone got his nickname. Or what you had for breakfast, or what day it is. Everyone calls Beetee Volts. They called him Volts when I was a tribute. I probably introduced him to her as Volts. It doesn't mean she remembers exactly what he did."

"But Katniss Everdeen just reminded her."

Great, I think. Just what we don't want anyone thinking about.

Which Katniss would know if I hadn't been too clever for my own good, doling out the truth the way she and Peeta tried to dole out my liquor.

"In case you didn't notice," Philo cuts in, "they were just in a battle. You watch someone get cut, the little things tend to fly out of your head again."

On screen, our alliance is trying to figure out which way to go, which the programmers don't find terribly interesting, so they switch to Enobaria and Brutus, who are having a screaming match.

"It's an even count now!" Enobaria says, pushing him backwards. "Just you and me, and we have an equal vote from now on. That little operation worked well for you, didn't it?"

"You shut up. If you hadn't been slow on the uptake, we'd have gotten through Odair."

"I'm the one who actually hit him. And that's why he missed you with that trident. You were busy trying to get a clear shot at Mellark."

"I had a clear shot. If Odair hadn't gotten in the way, we'd be down one more."

"Or Peeta would have grabbed you like he grabbed Clove last year, and had you crying to do whatever he wanted, just like she did. Only you wouldn't have had an alliance to trade for it."

"You're nothing!" Brutus yells at her. "You run the first time that useless kid waves a butter knife at you."

Philo makes a face.

I still don't know why Brutus has become so focused on Peeta, even he dislikes him. Last year, he was contemptuous, but I assumed it was part of his show for the cameras. In the arena, he seems to be offended by Peeta's very existence, murderously annoyed by everything about him.

"It was a Bowie," Enobaria says, "and if he hadn't killed me, Finnick would have. Or Johanna."

"Maybe I'll kill you."

"You can try. And then, if you live -- which you won't -- you can try to take them on five to one. In case you didn't notice, you lost the rest of your allies. Which is exactly what I said was going to happen."


"And don't forget, there are two more out there. Next thing you know, there are going to be seven of them. Do you have any idea where Chaff is?"

"I think I can handle a one handed old man."

"And Earl?"

"He's got two hands, but he's still old."

"You're not exactly tribute standard age yourself," Philo mutters in the studio.

"That brings up an interesting question," Claudius says, turning away from the screen with a malicious little grin. "What role is age playing in these Games? Haymitch -- you've been around the longest of our mentors. What do you think? Did Peeta Mellark volunteer for you because of your age, or your well-known struggles with alcohol?"

It's not just Katniss, you know. Peeta wouldn't have let you go in there to die if he had a way to stop it. He's frustrated with your drinking, but he actually loves you. Do you know that?

I shut out Danny's voice in my head and ignore that part of Claudius's question. "There are nine tributes left. Four of them are older. Five are younger. Age doesn't seem to be that big a factor." I consider adding that of the older tributes, at least two -- Mags and Seeder -- went out on their own terms, defending other people, otherwise they'd still be there, but it would just get cut. I'm not sure whether or not Berenice is considered old or young.

Claudius looks nonplussed by this. He turns to Jack. "If Haymitch is wrong and the arena does not result in more deaths, do you think Johanna Mason is capable of taking on her long-time friend, Finnick Odair? And how do you think she'd fare against Katniss Everdeen or Peeta Mellark?"

"Johanna can take on whoever she wants to take on," Jack says. "But she's never going to want to take on Finnick. That's why they're allies."

"You killed an ally in your Games," Claudius says, and cues up the video. It shows Jack, twelve years ago, looking much more normal than he does now, at least physically. He's skinny and dirty, and his mop of straight sandy blond hair is merely tangled and full of dead leaves. The video shows him battling at the edge of a cliff with the boy from Six, with whom he had been considerably more than friends by the end of their Games.

Jack goes pale, and I can see his knuckles turning white. He was as broken as Annie for most of his first year after that. I reach over and put a hand on his shoulder, and he takes a breath, forcing himself to focus.

"If I recall," Claudius says, "this entire fight was sparked by a missing piece of bread that he'd received, and agreed to share with you." He turns on the audio -- where Jack is, indeed, screaming at the top of his lungs that the bread hadn't been divided equally -- then smiles complacently.

Jack speaks in carefully measured tones. "We were starving," he says. "That won't be a problem here. They're at the sea with a fisherman, and in a forest with a hunter."

We all know that the Capitol could change these conditions at any moment, but we also know that we're not leaving any of them in that arena long enough for it to come to fighting each other or starving.

Claudius doesn't really care about this. Obviously, his job today was to shame us as much as he can. He turns on Philo. "I suppose Beetee is hardly in a position to fight, when it comes to it. Then again, you weren't, either -- you'd won your melee with your allies, but there was still one tribute left. If you could advise Beetee now, what advice would you give him?"

"Blow gun," Philo says breezily. "What about you, Claudius? If you were in there, and you had to fight against, say, Haymitch and Jack and Harris and me, how do you think you'd do? How long do you think you'd last? What's your kill count?"

"I'm a Capitol citizen. I have no treason to atone for." Claudius turns away disdainfully, and returns coverage to the Games, where our alliance has finally chosen a path to the forest, discerning by the sun that it's monkey hour, and choosing a spot with no visible monkeys. They're convinced that the spinning of the Cornucopia has disoriented them entirely, though the map shows that it ended in the same position in started in. I guess they really don't have any way to know it. This doesn't seem like a good strategy to me on its face -- going straight to the monkeys and staying on the beach would be better -- and it's made worse when Claudius projects the locations of the tributes on the arena map. They're ahead of the monkeys... by one hour. Whatever happens at four o'clock will happen to them.

And at five, the tracker jackers will wake up in the segment where Chaff and Earl are currently sleeping. They'll only have the dragon to run to, unless they join up with Finnick's team at four to deal with whatever the issue is. Unless they defeat one of the traps, they're going to be chased around the clock until they die.

Enobaria and Brutus ran the other direction, back toward the wedge they came from -- eight o'clock. They have a few hours before they need to worry, unless they decide to kill each other first, which Brutus, at least, seems to be contemplating. Enobaria has resorted to the silent treatment. She is presently eating from a picnic basket someone has sent her, and not sharing.

In our group, Peeta offers to get water, but Johanna demands another map, insisting that Finnick get the water while Katniss guards.

"What kind of strategy is this?" Claudius asks. "Have Finnick Odair and Johanna Mason decided that their District Twelve allies are no longer useful now that they have one another?"

I know better (I'm pretty sure Jo wants to keep them separate so that they don't run off together) but I realize with a sinking heart that Katniss doesn't. Claudius's guess makes the most sense in terms of the arena. It won't occur to Peeta, who obviously trusts them, but Katniss has a look of narrow, hostile suspicion on her face as she follows Finnick to a tree. She is waiting for a betrayal.

I am waiting for her to try and anticipate it, take the first step, fire before she's fired on.

Claudius is waiting eagerly for the show.

None of us expect what actually happens.

Somewhere in the jungle, Primrose Everdeen screams.

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