The 67th Hunger Games

Chapter 22

The anthem plays and she rises to her feet, a smile of utter rapture on her face as President Snow approaches. His smile matches hers for wattage but, as he places the crown on her brow, she can smell the metallic tang of blood, which rather takes the shine off her golden moment. However, she can see the approbation shining in his eyes and hope floods through her. Then, he's stepping away and she has to turn back to Caesar. They play up for the crowd with jokes and flirting and finish with a waltz that takes them off stage.

“Ah, ha, ha!” he crows, his hands spreading out like blossoming petals. “You were divine! Now, we just need to get you to the president’s mansion.”

“You are coming with me?” she demands, reaching out and grasping one of his hands. She can't explain it but, suddenly, she's terrified of facing all those perfected faces without him.

“Try and stop me!” he laughs, pulling her closer. She goes easily, sliding into his embrace and submitting to his kiss without complaint. She still needs him, especially tonight; she needs him to give her the veneer of belonging to this new society, so she forces down any feelings she might have for Cai. “Now, come along, my car is waiting for us.”

“For us?” she teases, leaning into him and giving him the benefit of her best infatuated smile. “You anticipated having my company?” He laughs, uproariously, before looking down at her as they walk towards the exit.

“I live in constant, agonising hope that you will favour me with the least smile.” Now, she's laughing, too, and swatting him on the chest, unaware of Cai and the rest of her entourage lurking in the shadows at the edge of her peripheral vision. When she and Caesar burst through the rear exit, the car is waiting with its engine running and an Avox holding the door open for them. They slide in together – Caesar not taking his hands off her for an instant – and then wrap themselves around each other on the back-seat. As much as she wants to drink in every sight and sound and smell of the Capitol, she lets him fill her every sense instead. She sits in his lap without prompting, knowing he wants to take possession of her, and makes encouraging noises as he kisses her throat and runs his hands up and down her sides. In all honesty, he is far from the worst she's ever had and his kisses are far more arousing than Krill's ever were. However, nothing he does can ever compare to the pleasure of being kissed by a man from whom she expects nothing in return. In fact, in spite her best efforts, it feels like nothing can ever compare to Cai's kiss, a kiss that was not part of some tawdry exchange of services. When Caesar next captures her lips, his thumb finds her nipple and she arches into the caress. Then, the car comes to a halt and a different Avox is opening the door, so they have to pull apart but his hand is still on her breast when the first camera-flash goes off. Siprian is there to greet her – dressed in a gold tuxedo to match her dress – to draw her arm through his and take her into the Victory Banquet. He guides her through the hand-shaking and insulting praise, tells her when she can eat and what she should drink, and nudges her when she ought to thank the next well-wisher. She has just escaped the talons of a piece of mutton dressed as lamb, when she turns and sees that Cai is next in line. In the same instant, she feels Siprian's elbow in her ribs and reflexively frowns; she sees no reason she should thank him, he's her mentor and it's his job to help.

“Oh, this is Aulus Meyrick,” trills Siprian and she realises there is a man beside Cai. This is an older man with a cadaverous face and vivid, green eyes. In fact, except for his blue-and-white-striped hair and double chin, he looks just like District 9's chief notary – a man with a weak handshake and a limp prick, who had needed a ring to stay hard. “He's the one who paid for that final supper in the arena.”

“Oh, that wonderful basket?!” she gasps in feigned delight.

“Yes,” he answers with a predatory smile. “Although, Cai told me that he was going to buy a fruit cake, the scallywag.” His grip on her fingers is slight, the movement of his wrist weak and his palm sweaty as he shakes her hand.

“Well, I haven't much of a sweet tooth; I'd much rather have the wine,” she simpers at him, raising her glass. Their glasses clink and she inclines her head. “Thank you for your… generosity, Mr Meyrick.”

“Please, call me 'Aulus',” he implores, leaning in and brushing her cheek with puffy lips. Cai pulls him away without a second glance at her and she has to stop herself from wincing.

“I do not like that man,” she murmurs into Siprian's ear and the escort forces a laugh to cover the moment.

The night is full of such encounters, of men – and women – who feel like they've paid the whore in advance and now she has to put out. It is a role to which she is well-accustomed and boredom is her primary reaction, although there is the occasional sponsor who truly revolts her. She is more than glad, when – around 5am – Caesar steals her away to dance. Her only act of defiance during the entire night is refusing to allow the current Head Gamemaker to cut in on her second dance with her current lover. Caesar doesn't seem shocked by her behaviour, however, so she assumes that Pyrrhus was right about the man having signed his own death warrant with that volcanic eruption. After a third spin around the dance-floor, she excuses herself from Caesar and joins Siprian at the bar.

“Oh, Ares, there you are!” She's a little taken aback by hearing the nickname that hasn't occurred to her since before she entered the arena but soon rallies.

“Sorry, Rian. Caesar was determined to trip the light fantastic,” she titters, leaning into him before turning to the man with whom he was speaking and holds out a hand. “Iristina Emmer. And you are?” The stranger smirks at her introduction and encloses her hand in both of his.

“Oh, this is Gratiano, Calidia's stylist.”

“Ah–bsolute pleasure, Ay–res.” As he releases her hand, she has the overwhelming desire to check it for oil as the man seems to exude the stuff but she contains herself. “Yoo–ou stole my prep team.”

“They were an absolute godsend. You should've seen this dress before they took it in hand. It was hideous!” She is a moment too late in remembering that it's Siprian beside her, not Caesar. “Oh, Rian! You know, I love you dearly but, darling, that man is incompetent.“

“Oh, you don't have to apologise to me,” the escort sniffs. “Oh, we– He and I parted company.”

“I'm sorry. I had no idea.”

“Oh… oh, well… oh, he, uh, got a promotion – because he dressed the victor – and he said, uh, that he had no further use for our… oh, arrangement.”

“Well,” she begins, treating him to her most radiant smile. “That proves just how much of a fool he is – he dropped you… and tried to dress me like a fish!” Gratiano bursts out laughing and Siprian manages a small smile.

“He didn't?” asks the District 1 stylist, elegantly wiping a tear from one eye.

“Yeah, he did!” she assures him with a pained smile. “Like I said, Clodia, Livius and Atia were an absolute godsend! I wish there were something I could do about him, though.”

“Something you could do about whom, my dear?” inquires an insidious voice from directly behind her. She spins around, reaching for a blade and only registers the prickle of fear that went up her spine once she is facing President Snow.

“My apologies,” she chortles, self-consciously releasing the handle of an imaginary knife.

“Not at all,” he answers with a smile that sends tendrils of fear out to her very finger-tips. “We cannot expect you to re-adjust all at once. The arena is a very stressful experience.”

“Yes.” She coughs, trying to clear her suddenly tight throat. “Indeed. In fact, if you'll excuse me, Mr President, I really should be getting back to bed. I need my rest.” He inclines his head and she bobs him a clumsy, little curtsey before turning away.

“Don't forget to take Mr Flickerman with you,” he comments, quietly, and she whips back with her perfect masking smile in place.

“Of course! How else would I return to the Training Centre?” Her smile has taken on a seductive curve and she can see genuine amusement glint in his cruel eyes.

“I look forward to meeting you after your interview.” Her hearts thuds once, heavily, within her chest and her fear is reaching fever-pitch but her smile doesn't slip for a moment, it's had too much practice.

“Until tomorrow, Mr President. Good to meet you, Mr Gratiano. I'll hope to see you at breakfast, Rian,” she adds, allowing a touch of familiarity to slip into the set of her lips. She whirls away from them and goes in search of her current lover. “We need to leave,” she hisses into Caesar's ear, once she's located him.


“Because, if we don't, I'm going to start stripping off your clothes right here.” Her voice is taut with trepidation and she is speaking through gritted teeth but he takes it for lust; it never ceases to amaze her what men will mistake for lust. They don't make the customary round of farewells as he leads her straight out to his waiting car, where they do begin tearing each other's clothes apart, once they are safely ensconced on the back-seat. By the time his driver drops them at the Training Centre, she's in nothing but her underwear and he's down to his trousers, which he has to hold up as she threw his belt out the window some time before. They hurry across to the bank of elevators and, as soon as the doors are shut, Caesar drops his trousers and presses her up against one of the crystal walls. When they stumble out on the ninth floor, she's relieved to find that the communal areas are empty; if she were to see Cai now, she doesn't know if she could control herself. However, they make it to her bedroom without encountering another living soul and strip off the last shreds of cloth. She sits on the end of the bed and spreads her legs for him. He's only a moment after her, covering her with his body and driving straight into her, not even bothering to check if she's ready for him. She gives a gasp of discomfort that he takes for satisfaction.

“You're so tight, so hot…” he moans and she wants to roll her eyes. Instead, she closes them so he can't see her condescension and contempt. Although he doesn't seem to need any encouragement, she pushes her hips up to match his thrusts and sporadically lets out a whimper or a moan or one of those other sounds men like to hear during sex. After all the fore-play in the car, he is soon freezing up and shooting his load deep within her. She gives a drawn-out roar and pulls him more tightly into her. He seems satisfied, which is all that matters as all she can think of is Snow's cruel eyes and the warning in his voice when he told her not to forget Caesar. She knew this was a dangerous game she was getting into but, now that the Hunger Games are over, the rules seem to have changed and she can't tell whether she'll survive.

When she wakes, only a few hours have passed but she knows, instinctively, that it's time to begin for the day. She goes to get out of the bed but Caesar catches her around the waist.

“I love you,” he murmurs against her ear and her patience snaps. She can control herself no longer and bursts out laughing, her back arching as it should have done when he was fucking her. He pushes himself up onto one elbow and frowns at her, groggily.

“That's just a line to people like us,” she snorts, bitterly, as she pushes herself into a sitting position and away from his restraining arm. “We practice clever lines in everyday conversation, honing ways to obscure what we're really thinking.” She turns to smirk down at him. “If we say 'I love you', we probably mean 'you are useful to me at the present time'.” She claps him on the shoulder and then slips out of bed, calling over her shoulder: “If you really cared anything for me, you would have made me cum. You don't love me, you love my body and how it makes you feel!” She wastes no time getting into the shower, not wanting him to follow her. President Snow might want her to continue this farce of a relationship but Snow can't penalise her if it is Caesar who breaks it off because she has hurt his pride.

Her hair is still damp and she still isn't dressed when a knock comes at her bedroom door.

“Can you get that?” she calls out, thinking that answering her door will be a further insult to his pride. However, there is no answer, not even the sigh her mattress would make as he turned over. She walks out into the bedroom, still naked, and finds it deserted. She crosses to the door and debates whether to give the Avox the advantage of her full-frontal nudity but decides against it. Instead, she stands behind the door and sticks her head out, only to find it's her prep team on the other side. “I was just going to get dressed for breakfast,” she tells them, pulling the door open.

“Breakfast?!” gasps Livius. “My dear, breakfast was over an hour ago.” She groans and rolls her muffled head across her aching shoulders.

I have only been to sleep for two and a bit hours. I definitely need coffee and would prefer some food, too,” she informs them, vehemently.

“You left before I did,” squeaks Atia. “How is it that you got so little sleep?” Iristina throws her a look and the older girl blushes. “For all that time?!”

“Well, it's hardly the shortest car-ride from the president's mansion to here,” the victor answers, shrugging into a sky-blue kimono. “Right – five minutes to grab food and coffee, then I'm all yours.” She darts out to the communal area before they can object or stop her. She finds the Barvens, Amina Heslot, Siprian and, to her surprise, Caesar all still sitting at the breakfast table. She's torn between snogging the master-of-ceremonies, to rub it in Madame Heslot's face, and snubbing him, so that she can escape this arrangement without incurring Snow's wrath. She decides that her freedom is worth more to her than sticking it to the woman, so she walks right past Caesar and helps herself from the wide array of bread products.

“There's a seat here, Ares,” offers her lover, giving her a pleasant smile. His behaviour makes her suspicious, although not as suspicious as the fact he's dressed in an immaculate midnight-blue suit.

“Sorry,” she chirps. “I have to head straight back to my dragons; they're insistent we need” – she checks the clock – “three hours to make me ready for the cameras.” She drops a kiss on his powdered forehead before turning to the escort. “Rian, darling, could you mosey along for a chat once you're done here?”

“But you'll be naked!” protests Caesar, making a weak attempt to sound good-natured, and she laughs in his face.

“The whole of Panem has seen me naked. I'm only wearing this in deference to her sensibilities,” she adds, gesturing at Madame Heslot, who jerks up into an even more rigid posture. “See you in three, Caesar.” She carries her plate and cup down the corridor, a malicious smile curving her lips.

Siprian turns up just as Clodia and Atia are attacking her finger- and toe-nails, respectively.

“Oh, are you alright, Ares?” he asks, hovering by the bathroom door.

“For the moment,” she answers, rapidly. “Listen to me, Rian, I have a problem: President Snow is in favour of my relationship with Caesar Flickerman.

“Oh, well, that's a good thing, isn't it? You couldn't carry on without his approbation.” She stares at him, open-mouthed, wondering if it's too late to ask Adolphus, instead.

“Siprian,” she begins, tipping her head down to glare at him in spite of Livius' hissing. “You don't seem to follow. He expects this… arrangement to continue. He probably expects me to marry the man.”

“Oh, isn't that what you want?” Her jaw drops again.

“Whatever gave you that idea?”

“Oh, well, you're, uh– oh, I mean– oh, Pyrrhus told me about that morning before the Games and, then, last night…”

“Siprian,” she sighs, tipping her head back into the Livius-approved position. “Yes, I've been sleeping with Caesar but–“

“You've been sleeping with Caesar Flickerman?!” squeaks the male prep-artist.

“Yes but only so he would be on my side during the Games! Have you never noticed that the tributes Caesar and Claudius like get more sponsors than the others?” She can't see Livius' expression as he's behind her but Siprian is gaping like a fish out of water.

“Oh, does he know?” the escort finally squeezes out.

“Of course not! But now you see why it would be impossible for me to continue this… this… charade, don't you?” She knows her voice is rising into hysteria but she can't help it.

“Oh, well… Oh, why are you telling me?”

“Because I need your help and advice,” she explains, her voice and heartbeat beginning to return to normal. “I have no idea what one has to do to make a resident of the Capitol understand that one is no longer interested in him.”

“Why don't you just end things?” suggests Clodia.

“Because I doubt that President Snow would take that kindly.” The maroon curls bob and Iristina is re-assured in her belief that she can trust these three.

“Well, my sister can never keep a man,” muses Livius, beginning to comb the now-solidified serum out of Iristina's hair. “And that's because she is the most critical woman I have ever met. Truly, she told her last boyfriend how much she disliked the alignment of his teeth at a friend's birthday party. Plain insisted that he get them surgically altered or she would break up with him.”

“Did he do it?” she asks, pleasantly scandalised.

“No! Broke up with her on the spot!” Iristina leads the laughter but, underneath, her mind is working furiously. She is about to have the perfect opportunity to embarrass Caesar in front of the largest audience possible but she will have to do it subtly or it will reflect badly on her.

“Whenever I want a guy to back off,” twitters Atia. “I just ignore him and flirt with other people.”

“Oh, yes!” puts in Siprian. “I had a boyfriend who would not take the hint – I mean, I even changed the locks! – so I would never speak to him in public and would flirt with all and sundry, yet he still dragged me back to his place every night. In the end, I had to ask this Peacekeeper – who I dated next – to sort him out.”

“What about you, Livius?” she teases. “Any ex-boyfriends like that?”

“I” – he gives the comb a particularly vicious tug – “have been happily married for twelve years.”

“You got married when you were 8?!” she squawks and everyone chuckles, although she thinks he must really have been very young when he did get married.

“So, all you have to do is criticise him in public and flirt with every other man in sight,” declares Clodia, setting down the nail-buffer with a decisive tap. Everyone smiles and the victor begins to feel better; there might actually be a way out of this insupportable situation after all.

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