The 67th Hunger Games

Chapter 2

As soon as the cameras are out of sight, she drops his hand and recoils. After peering over his shoulder to check Cotton isn't coming back, she thrusts her face into his and demands:

“Why did you volunteer?”

“Everything you do, I have to top it, right?” He's still grinning and she wants to punch him in the face.

“You're going to die!” she hisses, not wanting to draw any attention to them.

“You never know!” he laughs, his face glowing with boyish good humour.

“Gaspar, whatever else you might be able to one-up me in, I'm a better fighter than you.”

“Yeah,” he sighs, running a hand through his messy curls. “I know.”

“Oh, so you thought my compassion would make me spare you?”

“No,” he says, swallowing hard. “I want you to kill me.”

“What?!” He catches her elbow and drags her down the corridor in the opposite direction from that in which their escort disappeared. The second door he tries is a drawing-room even more hideous than that of the Briskmans. He leads her over to a mint-green suede sofa and they sit down together.

“Yeah, so I've got this plan… we team up.” She draws back from him and begins to protest. “No– look, I know we've never been the best of friends.” She snorts. “Yeah, alright, I was beastly to you when we were kids but we're not kids anymore. So, we team up and take down everyone else – the Careers, everyone – and then, when the Capitol is on the edge of their seats – wondering what these two best friends, who've made a pact to volunteer together to stop any of the little kids getting reaped, will do – I'll kneel down and ask you to kill me.”

“And why would the Capitol like that?” She can see some sense in what he's saying – the Hunger Games are a TV show and you need a narrative that the audience will buy but she can't see how killing her supposed best friend will endear her to them. He looks her straight in the eye and says:

“Because I'm already dying.”

“What?” This time the disbelieving question is barely a gasp.

“Yeah. I've got this disease in my lungs – from the forge – and the doctor says it'll kill me in less than three years”

“Are you going to cope in the arena?” She hardly wants an ally who could die any minute.

“Yeah, I'm fine. I don't really feel that ill but I'm gonna die – might as well do it on TV.” Suddenly, he's back to being the self-centred jerk that she knows and loathes.

“Fine!” she snaps, throwing up her hands. “So, we're best friends – have been for years – and we made a pact to volunteer to save the younger kids. Do we tell 'em about your disease?”

“No reason ter show our hand, eh?” he grins.

“Right. So, we play up the school fire – you saved the mayor's son–“

“And you saved all them younger kids. Bloody hero.” He sounds sour and she smirks, relieved that they can still be enemies in private.

“Also, if we ain't saying anything about your disease, we ain't saying anything about Krill either, deal?”

“Krill? Who be Krill?” he asks with fake bewilderment. A Peacekeeper opens the door then and looks between the two of them.

“Mr Cotton is looking for you,” he informs them in a flat voice, devoid of intonation.

“We're just coming,” Gaspar assures the stranger with a grin. When they re-emerge into the corridor, their escort is waiting by the door.

“Oh, at last! I was beginning to get quite anxious.”

“Sorry. We'd just been talking strategy,” beams the boy, clapping Cotton on the shoulder.

“Yes,” Iristina adds with a broad smile of her own. “We're going to be allies.” She sets off down the facing corridor with the two males trailing her, Siprian Cotton babbling in half-sentences.

To her open-mouthed astonishment, she is given a huge bedroom to herself with triple-fronted closet. In Krill's house, the only space that had been solely hers was one meagre dresser. They had shared his bedroom, of course, and the attached bathroom and yet here, on a train, she had a whole suite. It feels like she's in paradise and, when she opens the closet, it just gets better. She lets the green dress Krill bought her for her 18th birthday drop to the floor and wonders, idly, how long it will be before he finds another girl with no other options who will do everything he asks for a roof over her head and a full belly every night. She resolves to ignore any of the Capitol clothes in green and eventually settles on a scarlet shirt that leaves her arms bear and tight-fitting black velvet trousers. She is delighted to find a pair of platform heels in black and red to complete the ensemble. When the escort comes to collect her for dinner, he whistles.

“Oh, my dear, you look quite stunning and that's without a prep team.”

“Thank you, Mr Cotton.”

“Oh, no! None of that! You must call me 'Rian' or 'Siprian', if you absolutely insist.” Her face breaks into a broad, unaffected grin. “Oh, come now. The victors are quite anxious to meet you.” He offers her his hand and she takes it, still a little unsteady in the shoes. When they enter the dining-room, Caecilius Durum shoots to his feet, the other two men following him more slowly . “Oh, I must go fetch Gaspar. Please, do get to know everyone,” Siprian prompts before clattering off in his own platform shoes.

“My, my, my. Aren't you a sight?” croons the youngest man present. “Caecilius Durum but do call me 'Cai'.” He takes her hand and kisses it.

“Well, Pyr won't be able to put you in any little girl dresses,” sneers the elder of the two female victors. “Amina Heslot, if you don't know.”

“I do, actually,” Iristina answers with a crocodile smile. “Maura was one of the children I saved from that terrible school fire. I was so sorry when she… died.” Daria Barven and her husband both look aghast; Maura Heslot had been reaped three years before when she was just 12 years old.

“I see you didn't volunteer for her, though,” the grieving mother bites out and the girl forces her face to soften.

“I would if I could have but I was just starving urchin back then.”

“And how is Krill taking your departure?” challenges the elder woman, her eyes narrowing. Iristina is trying to think of some witty and cutting reply when Siprian returns with her district-partner, who has followed their escort's colour scheme by donning tight-fitting cyan trousers and a midnight-blue shirt.

“Starting the introductions without me?” Gaspar teases, slipping an arm around her and kissing her cheek.

“I was just expressing my sympathy over Maura's death,” she answers, repressing a shudder.

“Maura? Not our little blonde angel who you carried from the burning school? I never realised she was the same. Madame Heslot, I am so sorry.” He releases Iristina and steps forward to take one of the woman's hands in both of his. “She was such a delight… lit up the room when she entered it…” She knows it's nonsense – he probably never even met the girl – but, as she's alienated Amina, it makes sense to let Gaspar forge that link in the chain. If they are going to be a team, then it makes no difference if a mentor likes only one of them as both will still benefit. Besides, the other four are all looking at her with interest: Cai's eyes hold sexual desire, Daria's sympathetic compassion, Adolphus' disapproving intrigue and old man Thell is looking at her as though weighing her on some internal scale. He has mentored 114 tributes and six of those have come out alive, so she values his estimation most, even if he is too old to do any personal training anymore. When she had been planning her Hunger Games, she had planned on being mentored by Daria and Adolphus Barven. They are the Capitol's darling power-couple; Daria won her Games only eight years before at the age of 15 – making her one of the youngest victors ever – and, a couple of years ago, married her mentor. These two, like Cai, live in the Capitol and so know nothing about her, unlike Madame Heslot and Mr Thell.

“Oh, let's sit down to dinner.” Siprian claps his hands and Avoxes appear with serving dishes. Gaspar sits himself between Amina Heslot and Cai Durum, who won his Games at the same age Gaspar is now. So, Iristina takes the seat beside Daria and across from Cai, who gives her a wink.

“That young'n, Siprian, tell me ye're having a plan,” squeaks out Gaius Thell from the top of the table, once they have all been served with food.

“Oh, yes!” enthuses Gaspar, flashing that boyish smile around the table. “We been planning this since last Reaping Day.” She's interested to note he has decided to lie to their mentors as well but she'll play along; after all, this plan ends up with her as the victor, so what does she care about the means. “We're gonna be allies and take down all comers.” He sounds so naïve that she has to chuckle.

“It's not that simplistic,” she assures the mentors, who are all looking dubious. “We've known each other for a long time and we've practiced fighting together.” Not exactly a lie, if you count fighting each other as practice for the arena, which she does. “We're both good at hand-to-hand combat and can even fence a bit.”

“And Tina has them there survival skills – she spent years living off the land during the summers – and, o' course, I've got me strength. We ain't completely hopeless,” he adds with an engaging grin.

“I think you are a long way from hopeless,” rumbles Adolphus. “But what will you do if it comes down to just the two of you?” Iristina sets down her cutlery and turns an inquiring look on Gaspar. His grin falters and then returns, looking strained, and she wonders if he's acting or if this is genuine.

“I'm dying,” her district-partner admits in a low voice. “I've got this thing… in me lungs. Doctor say it won't kill me for three year and I'd rather die quick in the arena, knowing me best mate gets ter win.” He looks up at her and gives her a sad smile. Iristina feels herself beginning to believe in this story and she smiles back. Then, for good measure, she reaches across the table and grips his fingers.

“Oh, we can work with that!” beams Siprian. “The Capitol will feel so sorry for you: the dying boy who volunteered to help his best friend.”

“That's not why I volunteered.” His voice is tight with determination and he shakes his head vehemently at the escort. Gaspar looks back at her and she can feel her face twisting into the same expression of sorrow and anger as that visible on his. “We volunteered to stop another pair of babies going into the arena.” Iristina brings the heel of her free palm to her lips to restrain a liquid out-pouring of emotion.

“Excuse me!” She gets up and hurries from the dining-room. It's not all an act; Gaspar's words had conjured up the faces of the last six tributes from District 9. 12-year-old Maura Heslot and her 14-year-old district-partner, the two 13-year-olds from the year after that and the butcher's 14-year-old daughter and the 17-year-old boy with the mind of a child whose names had been drawn last year. She's glad that it's not Gaspar who comes after her. It's one thing to play best friends in front of everyone, it's another to have to deal with her old enemy when she's upset.

“Are you alright?” Daria asks, placing her hand on the girl's shoulder.

“It's just… all those children! Madame Heslot's daughter, the butcher's daughter and… How many children am I going to have to kill?” She turns away, disgusted with herself that she could have forgotten that her opponents were just children, probably with families who loved them.

“This life isn't for children,” Daria tells her and Iristina can hear a hollow bleakness in her voice. “Iristina… I'm going to tell you what no-one ever says.” The girl turns to face her chosen mentor. “The arena isn't the worst part. Surviving the arena is the worst part.” Daria is looking into her eyes and Iristina realises she's failing to exhibit the proper reaction but she can't bring herself to care. “I was lucky; Adolphus had already fallen in love with me and the Capitol adore our love story. But it's been hell… watching Finnick. You know who Finnick Odair is?” It's a stupid question as everyone in Panem has heard of the youngest victor in history. “He's only 16 now and, at 14, he was too young to become a victor. Do you know what happens to young and beautiful victors after the Games?” Iristina doesn't want to answer that directly, she doesn't want to betray her coarseness.

“Do you know why Madame Heslot despises me?” she asks, instead. Daria shakes her head, a frown of confusion knitting her brows together. “For the last two years, I've been the Head Peacekeeper's mistress.” She is looking the victor right in the eye and can see the moment when realisation hits the older girl. She can read the surprise as easily as she would read a page of text but Daria refrains from commenting.

“You know, my year, Adolphus was the only one who believed in me, all of the others thought a Career would win it.” Iristina is so relieved that Daria has decided against pushing her for details that she cannot summon up an appropriate response to this. “That's not true this year, we're all betting on you.”

“Only because Gaspar–“

“No! When you volunteered, even before you reached the stage, Gaius leant over and said he thought we had another winner.” She gapes at the mentor and Daria grins in response. “Didn't you know how impressed he was by your killing of that bear?” The young woman shakes her head. “He wouldn't shut up about it. Retold the story every time we saw him for the next year. He even told it to our two tributes their first night on the train. He's so pleased that you're here; not that he'd wish the Hunger Games on anyone, but… oh, you know what I mean!” Iristina nods her head in acceptance of the sentiment, regardless of how convoluted; after all, she has chosen to be here.

“Oh, there you are! The recaps are about to begin,” Siprian calls from the dining-room door, flapping his hands at them in agitation.

“Siprian!” Iristina beams and starts to walk towards him with a good measure of sex appeal transfused into her hips. “Would it be possible for me to have some paper and a… pen?” The escort swallows so hard that she can see his Adam's apple bob, despite the distance that still lies between them.

“Oh… well… that shouldn't be… a problem.” He gulps and then gives a slight shake, which reminds the girl of a hen settling her feathers. “Oh but why?”

“Oh, I have my own scoring system. Developed it years ago. It was very useful for laying bets.”

“You used to bet on the Hunger Games?” gasps Daria from behind her.

“Yes. In fact, the year you won and those either side, my winnings from the Hunger Games were all that kept me from starving.”

“But you were twelve!" Iristina's mouth twists into a bitter smile; Daria's father owns his own field and she had been popular at school, she had never seen the sharp end of life until her Games and, everyone had agreed, her Reaping was a tragedy. “Wait! People in the district were betting against me?”

“No,” the girl chuckles as they approach the room in which she and Gaspar had conferred earlier. “One does not simply bet on the victor. I called the number of tributes to die in the initial bloodbath each year, number of days the Games would last and I even predicted your training score.”

“Why did you bother to predict my wife's training score?” Adolphus is looking at her with a glint of amusement in his eye.

“She was betting on the Hunger Games! At the age of eleven!” The amusement in the middle-aged man's has changed to shock, Madame Heslot's expression to one of disdain, Cai's face has gone carefully blank and Thell is considering her with his head on one side. She shrugs, trying to make her past mean nothing.

“It kept me from starving.” She's aiming for joking dismissal but the mentors do not seem convinced.

“That survival instinct of yours: that's why ye're gonna win,” Gaspar grins, holding out a hand to her and she takes it because that will keep up the fiction of their friendship, not from an over-whelming need for human contact.

“Oh, look! It's starting,” gasps Siprian, passing her the writing materials she requested, and they all turn to the screen. As usual, the Reaping in District 1 starts with a pan across the children, all of whom stand like Peacekeepers on a parade ground. This year's volunteers are a boy who looks like he's all muscles and no brains, and a girl who appears small and slight. Iristina puts the girl into the 'Dangerous' column on her notepad and both of their names under the 'Career Pack' heading. District 2 is much the same, although in this case she suspects that the boy is marginally more dangerous. He looks to be only Gaspar's age and, unusually for 2, he didn't volunteer, it was his name drawn from the bowl. The boy from 3 is a scrawny little thing, one of the youngest, and Iristina pencils him into the 'Bloodbath' column. Both of the tributes from District 4 look incredibly nervous but, as the boy is clapped on the shoulder by a grinning Finnick Odair, she notices that the pair are similarly built and Odair is the youngest victor to-date, so she puts Glaucus on the Dangerous list, too. The pair from 5 are mere babies and both of their names go on the Bloodbath list with the girls from 4 and 6. Iristina watches District 7 more closely; it's been a long time since they won and both of these kids look like underdogs – perfect fodder for the TV event of the year. On the whole, she finds herself more worried by the girl. Viatrix might be one of the youngest but she looks truly manic. The tributes from 8 are far from prepossessing – the boy has to be only 12 and the girl is a clumsy confusion of arms and legs. In their own district's Reaping, Ashlee and Silvanus aren't shown at all. Instead, the audio recordings of Iristina and Gaspar volunteering are played over the film of them stepping out of the crowd. Then, there's Siprian standing at the microphone with them on either side of him – the two of them wearing matching proud smiles – as he announces:

“The tributes for District 9 – Iristina Emmer and Gaspar Barjon.” Finally, they roll the film of the pair standing at the train doorway with broad grins on their faces and their clasped hands raised high. She smirks as she realises they look happier than any of the career tributes did. In fact, she can't remember the last time she saw two tributes who looked so happy to be going into the Games, the Capitol are going to love them. However, she doesn't have long to dwell on thoughts of their impending fame as the film of District 10 begins to roll. Their tributes are betwixt and between all around – middle of the age range, average height, average musculature. They both fall into the 'Wait & See' column. In complete contrast, the tributes from 11 are easy to categorise. The boy is another of the babies and looks like he's ill to boot, so his name goes into the Bloodbath column. On the other hand, the girl is one of the eldest and holds herself with the same poise as a Career, so her name goes down on three lists: Dangerous, Career Pack and Potential Allies.

“It depends on how much of a threat she seems to the Careers but she could make a good ally,” she muses out loud and sees Gaspar give a sharp nod from the corner of her eye.

“I have never had a tribute planning their allies on the train,” observes Adolphus but his voice sounded as though he approved, although Iristina can't tear her eyes away from the screen to observe his expression. As usual, the tributes from District 12 look worst. Despite the fact this is Reaping Day and everyone dresses in their best, these two kids are grimy and their dark hair looks like it hasn't been washed in a week. The girl reminds Iristina, painfully, of herself before she killed that bear and she hopes the girl will be killed in the bloodbath, so she doesn't have to do it. The boy looks to be her own age but he's all skin and bones, no meat on him at all. It's no wonder 12 only has one living victor but, Iristina remembers, he won during the last Quarter Quell with 47 opponents, so she can't wait to meet him.

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