The 67th Hunger Games

Chapter 7

“As for the… inter… view, I want to go… with… sex,” breathes Pyrrhus, his voice both seductive and tremulous with excitement. “You're… the eldest… tribute I've ever… gotten and… you know how to… move. Plus… you… volunteered. I want to… show you… as the only adult… a bunch of… silly children.” That's how Iristina comes to be dressed in a floor-length sheath of gold silk with an asymmetrical hem, a deep v-neck and a slit that reaches up to her thigh for her interview. How, on the other hand, Gaspar came to be dressed in a silk tunic painted to look like chain-mail and leather trousers was beyond her. Pyrrhus, at least, has achieved his desired effect. When Caesar Flickerman turns to welcome her on stage, his customary parental encouragement dies from his eyes and his spine straightens.

“Well… wow, Miss Emmer!” he beams, taking her hand. He hasn't used any of the other tributes' surnames and she smirks at the feeling of being unique.

“Please… call me 'Ares',” she purrs, taking the extended hand.

“Well, I have to say… you look stunning, Ares,” he confides in a stage whisper.

“Thank you. I did notice your stunned look,” she flirts back, adding a wink, and he laughs. Then he leads her to the chairs and when she sits, crossing her legs, the slit parts so that the majority of her silk-clad right leg is on show. Caesar licks his gold-painted lips and a rustling comes from the stands as though thousands of people are shifting in their seats. She's always revelled in the power her beauty gives her, especially when it was the only power she did have, and now she's sure the Capitol can't ignore her.

“So, Ares, I have to say, I was very moved – and I'm sure so were many others – when you said that your district is your family.”

“Yes,” she begins, all seduction forgotten in her earnestness and leans towards him with her elbow on her topmost knee. “My district and, indeed, Panem have always been very important to me. My first loyalty will always be be to them as I have no family.” Caesar's face breaks into a broad grin.

“But there must be someone special cheering you on back home. A boyfriend, perhaps?”

“No boyfriend, no,” she laughs, taking vindictive pleasure in striking Krill from her narrative. “I'm a free woman.” Her smirk is wide and it takes a conscious effort to not recross her legs. “In fact, there's no-one special cheering me on from District 9, not even my best friend.”

“Why not?” Caesar asks, sensing juicy gossip. She almost regrets how easy it is to manipulate him. “Is she angry at you for volunteering?”

“No,” she chuckles and now she does recross her legs, conscious of every eye in Panem on her silk-clad limbs. “It's just that he's waiting backstage to come on once we're done.”

“Oh, you and Gaspar Barjon…” The host pulls back and reclines in his seat.

“Are best friends. Nothing else, I promise you.” She winks again and he chuckles.

“But you two looked very comfortable during the Tributes' Parade.” He waggles his eyebrows at her.

“Sorry, Caesar, no romance here.”

“But tell us, why did you both volunteer? You can't both win,” he reminds her, his voice caressing.

“It's not about winning,” she answers with quiet composure, flirtation having fled in favour of adult responsibility, just as Adolphus and Cai had advised her that morning. “Not for us. I mean, we'd like to win and get all that extra food for 9 but that's not why we volunteered.” She lets herself fall into a melancholy silence and actually requires Caesar's prompt to tell the audience the real reason she's doing this. “The children,” she responds in a tight voice. “In the last three years, District 9 has been represented by babies – tributes who were unable to defend themselves – and Gaspar and I…” Now, she chokes up completely, unable to stop the tears welling up. Caesar's face softens and he reaches for her hand. She clutches his extended and Gaspar and I…” Now, she chokes up completely, unable to stop the tears welling up. Caesar's face softens and he reaches for her hand. She clutches his extended appendage and smiles up at him, focussing on his face as she pulls herself back together. “Gaspar and I decided – after last year, when both tributes again died on the first day – that we couldn't stand aside and watch any more babies get slaughtered.”

“That's very brave,” murmurs Caesar. “To sacrifice yourself for all those younger children. Your district must be very proud and surprised by your actions?”

“I don't think anyone's surprised,” she tells him with a watery laugh.

“Oh? Do tell. Don't keep us in suspense, Ares.” He's flirting again and the whole atmosphere is beginning to lighten.

“When I was 13, a fire broke out at my school.” There's a chorus of 'oohs' and 'ahs' from the crowd that she has to let subside before she can continue. “I helped to get 24 of the youngest kids to safety.” A thought hits her and a genuine smile blossoms across her face. “In fact, Ashlee Briskman was one of those kids.”

“Ashlee Briskman?” inquires Caesar, smiling and frowning at the same time.

“She's the girl whose name was drawn at the Reaping this year.”

“Oh, so you've saved her life twice now?” he suggests and Iristina laughs, all easy coquetry once more.

“I guess I have, Caesar.”

“Are you friends?”

“Um… not exactly. She's the mayor's niece and Gaspar is good friends with the mayor's son, so I know the family and her parents have asked me to babysit some nights.” The image of her and Krill in the Briskmans' drawing-room floods her for a second but she shoves it aside.

“I'm afraid we're running out of time,” Caesar begins and the crowd groans. “Can you tell us – are you going to win?” She laughs and tosses her hair, so that the golden flecks and accessories catch the light. A proud smile settles onto her lips before she answers.

“I won't make promises that I'm not certain I can keep,” she grins and the crowd laughs with her. “However, I can promise you that, this year, both tributes for District 9 will make it to Day 2.” Caesar laughs and the pair rise together as the audience breaks into a storm of applause. As she stands there, listening to the crowd screaming her new name, Iristina feels like she's on top of the world.

“I like your confidence,” booms the man still holding her hand. “Iristina Emmer, tribute from District 9!” The cheering redoubles and Caesar escorts her to the stage exit.

They're all in the wings to greet her as Gaspar receives a thunderous welcome from the hyped-up audience. Daria hugs her tightly, Amina actually nods to her, Adolphus and Thell each grant her an approving nod and Cai smiles at her in the same way he had when she woke up that morning.

“That was… sen-say-tion-al,” slurs a stranger who has dark curls falling into his bleary eyes, coming over to them with a tall, dark-skinned friend in tow. “Every man out there wants to fuck you!”

“Only the men, Mr Abernathy?” she queries, proffering a hand and a self-satisfied smirk. “I seem to have missed half my audience.” He wheezes out a laugh and then plants a slobbery kiss on the back of her hand. Before he can say anything more or the District 11 victor can introduce himself, the applause dies away and Amina waves them all into silence.

“So, Gaspar, we've just heard from Ares, your best friend.” Caesar waits a beat and then adds: “Is that really all it is?” The host is waggling his gold-dyed eyebrows at the boy but Gaspar just laughs, a carefree laugh.

“As she said: sorry but there's no romance here. I know, she looks dazzling tonight–“ He's interrupted by a storm of cheering and Haymitch Abernathy claps her on the shoulder, Cai sends her a wink and the District 11 victor – Chaff Medlar, she remembers – has the presumption to kiss her on the lips. “Yes, she's dazzling tonight but we've known each other for… eight years. Yikes! That makes me feel old. Anyway, back then, she were this scrawny little cat and I've never seen her as anything but a friend.”

“Surely, a looker like you, must have girls throwing themselves at him, though? There must someone back home, am I right?” Caesar laughs and Gaspar joins in. Despite the ridiculous costume, he looks as comfortable on the stage as she had felt, which does nothing to make her feel better towards her district-partner.

“Yeah. Well… there was. I'd been going with my girl for a few months now.”

“But you still volunteered?” prompts Caesar, still hoping for a love story. “With the whole of your life ahead of you, you volunteered to go into the arena and fight your best friend. Why?” Gaspar gives a bitter laugh and there's a tinny quality to it. As he shifts into a combative posture, the costume stops looking ridiculous and instead looks like armour.

“No, I volunteered to help my best friend bring honour to District 9. As for the whole of my life… well, it's only another three years.” Iristina feels her mouth drop open and it sounds like the entire audience has let out their breath in a collective gasp.

“I thought… he told me we be keeping that silent,” she whispers at last.

“I thought the doomed martyr who wants his death to mean something was more heroic,” comments Amina Heslot, her tone matter-of-fact.

“Damn good strategy,” mutters the only surviving victor from District 12 and his friend nods. “Wish mine had a story.” She only half-listens to him or Gaspar as the boy unwinds his sob-story, giving greater detail than when he had told it to her. Her mind is occupied with trying to unpick the strategy constructed by her district-partner and his favourite mentor. The fear that Cai had managed to displace begins to creep back as she realises just what an accomplished story-teller he is, down to his uncanny ability to accurately assess his audience.

“So, is any of that story real?” she demands, rounding on the eldest female victor.

“What do you mean?” Madame Heslot is staring at her like she's crazy.

“He's been lying to her, too,” she mutters to herself and Cai crosses to her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.


“I'm fine, Cai,” she assures him with an irritable, convulsive shake. “Nice to meet you, Mr Abernathy, Mr Medlar.” Her sense of manners satisfied, she swivels in a hiss of silk and strides for the elevators. She forces herself to stop before joining the back of the crowd, turns back to the knot of victors, drops her weight onto her back foot and winks at them, a masking smile in place.

Cai catches her up before she makes it into an elevator and takes her hand, causing a silly grin to spread across her face. They don't have the car to themselves, however, so nothing more interesting happens on their way up to the ninth floor.

“Don't you look lovely,” she gushes, beaming at the male tribute from District 8, who is 12-years-old and got a two in training. He does look very dapper; his stylist has evidently tried to make him look older as he is dressed in a midnight-blue suit that's not dissimilar to Pyrrhus' style. However, the boy's floppy sandy hair keeps falling into his eyes, making him look even younger and she knows she could never kill him. She knows that if, by some miracle, it came down to him or her in the arena, she'd cut her own throat than his. Renatus' district-partner, Viatrix, and her mentor, Blight, are the other two occupants of their car. The girl is resolutely silent but the man chats happily enough.

“Cai!” he grins, clapping the older man on the shoulder. “Your girl here… you were sensational, Ares.” She smirks at the compliment, so similar to that of Haymitch Abernathy, and shakes his hand. “Have you seen the betting?”

“Yes! Gaspar's doing terrifically,” she exclaims with fake enthusiasm and a roll of her eyes. The man laughs.

“Sorry, that was a bit insensitive, wasn't it?”

“It's fine,” she assures him with a broad smile. “We're actually on very good terms.” She lets her eyebrows imply things that she and her district-partner have just been strenuously denying on national TV. The victor takes her coquetry in good part and gives her a kiss on the cheek before pushing Viatrix out of the doors ahead of him. She looks around and sees the little boy staring up at her with wide eyes. Unthinkingly, she reaches out and swipes the hair out of his eyes, he gives her a shy smile in response.

“I'll see you tomorrow, Ares,” he pipes up before exiting when they reach his floor. Once the doors have rolled shut again, she turns and presses her forehead against the crystal, tears choking her.

“Iristina?” whispers Cai, putting a hand on her bear shoulder.

“I know,” she squeaks out. “It's just so…” The doors open and she runs headlong for her bedroom, almost falling flat on her face due to the ridiculous platform heels Pyrrhus has her wearing. She chucks off the offending articles as soon as she's through the sliding beech panel and then runs for the bathroom sink to remove the light make-up that is beginning to run, thanks to her tears. He follows her, of course, all the way to the bathroom. However, it is not until she is devoid of powder, face cream, eye shadow, lipstick, eye-liner, mascara and lip-liner that she looks up at his reflection. “I can't do this, Cai! I can't kill all these children!”

“You don't have to,” he whispers, sliding his hands up her back to her shoulders and then slipping them around her neck. She smiles at him in the mirror and trips backward into him. They both chuckle and he hugs her tighter to him. “The Careers will kill most of them, you focus on killing Careers. Keep your allies close and Gaspar closer.” She laughs at that, leaning her head back against him. “And your knives closer still,” he adds in all seriousness.

“I know, Cai,” she assures him with a world-weary sigh. “I am going to make it through this, I promise. This…” She gestures helplessly at the mess of the sink. “It was a moment of weakness.” She shrugs. “I'm going to get into the shower. I'll see you at dinner.” He nods, kisses her temple and leaves. She sheds the dress, feeling hardly any more naked without it, and tosses the sheer-silk stockings, underclothes and jewellery on top of it. She takes her time in the shower, letting the warm water relieve her trembling frame of the goose-flesh that had risen in re-action to her emotional state. It occurs to her that, at the moment, she is living in the intervals between time spent in the shower or at the dining table. She laughs to herself as she realises just how absurdly luxuriant this lifestyle is in comparison to that of most people in District 9 and how she will be living in the arena. She shuts off the water, lets the dryer do its work, walks through to the wardrobe and grabs the sweater and pants combo she decided on before leaving for the interview. When she joins the others at the dining table, she's disgusted to see that Gaspar is still in his ridiculous costume.

“They say me you didn't stay for the end of me interview,” he says in greeting, looking up from what she guesses is not his first glass of wine. She grabs one from the tray held by a waiting Avox, downs half of it and then retorts:

“I've heard ya speak enough ter know when ye're selling some sucker a heap of bullshit.” She knows Madame Heslot and Daria's faces have gone slack with shock but this is the last night of life she's guaranteed and she's not going to pull her punches now. Gaspar jumps to his feet, knocking his plate and glass flying, a vein pulsing in his throat.

“How dare ye? Ye… cheap little whore!”

“That be the worse what ye can fling at me? I heard worse in me cradle!” She adds that derisive sneer that he could never walk away from as a kid and, true to form, he throws himself at her but Adolphus trips him up and he goes sprawling. She frowns at the mentor but then she crouches down on her haunches and takes her district-partner's face in her hands. “You can't hurt me, anymore, little boy.” She looks up at the adults with his face still pressed between her palms. “Don't pin all your hopes on this fool; there'll always be someone to bring him to his knees.”

The atmosphere at this night's meal isn't much of an improvement on the night before, despite half of the diners keeping up a brittle conversation on light subjects. Gaspar is glaring daggers at her and she is fighting mounting fear of what is to come tomorrow. Even through the interviews, sitting curled up in her favourite arm-chair, she can't concentrate on anything but her forebodings. When the screen fills with her own visage and everyone else gasps, she can only groan at how very obvious she was. They all adore her, as do the audience, but she wishes she had been more herself. That thought brings her up short; who is she? Is she really anything more than a cheap little whore who can be bought for the price of a bed on a wet night, three square meals a day or a kind word in the Hunger Games commentary? Is there really anything more to her? Perhaps not, she concedes, but she knows that could all change, if she wins. So, she forces her body to relax, stretches her toes out into the brown lambskin rug and winks at Daria and Cai, who reward her with grins. She can play this game, has been since she was 13, and then she can re-invent herself after she wins. Maybe she'll take up something ladylike and genteel as her talent. Finally,Theodoros finishes, the anthem plays and then they are free to go to bed for the last time before the Games begin.

“Goodnight,” Gaspar growls before stamping off to his room. Iristina, on the other hand, takes her time. She knows this will be the last time she will see most of the team before the Games. She stands up, stretches her arms above her head – giving them the advantage of her full height and a glimpse of mid-drift – and then begins to make her way around the room.

“Gaius… it's been such a pleasure to finally get to know you. Perilla, an honour. Pyrrhus, I'll see you in the morning, bright and early. Rian–“ Whatever she had planned to say is knocked out of her as the escort wraps his arms around her tightly and begins to weep into her shoulder. Eventually, the stylist pulls his bulky lover off of her and Iristina staggers over to the Barvens.

“We will be watching,” Adolphus tells her, gripping her fingers. She looks into his eyes and nods, showing him that she has taken in his message.

“I'll be praying to you,” she jokes before turning to Daria and embracing the older girl. “Daria… me darling dear.” She laughs as she realises the old adage has slipped from her tongue after all. “Get me a sponsor or two, eh?” They both make an attempt at laughter and then she steps back, turning to where Cai had been standing.

“He went after Gaspar,” Madame Heslot informs her with a sneer as she steps forward to shake hands. The girl doesn't disabuse her but shakes the proffered extremity. She smiles at them all, a little weakly, and bows her head to this ring of Hunger Games notables. This time next year, she'll be one of them; she hopes.

As she expects, when she enters her room, Cai is waiting for her. He's lounging across the end of her bed in nothing but an open shirt with sleeves rolled to the elbow, socks and underwear. She chuckles at the image of perfect ease he's projecting.

“Cai…” she sighs.

“What?!” he demands, sitting up immediately.

“Not tonight, Cai.”

“Why not tonight? Tomorrow you'll be in the arena.”

“I know,” she breathes out, heavily. “I wish I could but, I told you, I wasn't angling for a victor and, if I'm going to land my fish, it will be tonight.” Cai stares at her, disbelieving.

“What was I? A one-night-stand who can help you in the Games?!” She winces as his rebuke cuts a little too close to the bone.

“While it's true that I have only slept with you one night and you can help me in the Games, that's not why I did it.” Suddenly, he's in front of her, gripping her elbows.

“Then why, Iristina?” She sighs and lets her head droop.

“Because… you made me feel special. No-one's ever made me fell like I was… important before, no-one's ever cared if I lived or died, if I was happy or not before.” He starts to chuckle deep in his chest and she looks up with wide-eyed confusion.

“You can be incredibly self-centred, sometimes,” he tells her, still chuckling. He cups her face and presses a kiss to her lips. “Come back to me.” She freezes in his arms.

“If I come back, it won't be for you, it will be for me. Cai, I am my own person.”

“Yeah,” he snorts. “Don't I know it.” He kisses her forehead and leaves, although she can tell he isn't happy. However, at three in the morning, her decision is proved correct. She's wakened from a fitful doze by a triple tap at her door and, when she opens it, she finds the man she has spent all night trying to bait waiting for her.

“Mr Flickerman,” she gasps in fake surprise.

“Please… call me 'Caesar',” he whispers into her ear as he edges past her.

“What're you doing here?” she asks, wide-eyed, once the door is safely shut behind him.

“I couldn't let you go into the arena without telling you, privately, how much I admire your spirit,” he smarms, stepping into her personal space. She knows he expects her to act demure, so she retreats until her back is against the wall. “Come now,” he purrs into her ear. “I know you're more spirited than this… I saw it tonight.”

“Mr Flickerman–“

“My dear,” he growls and palms her left breast, making it impossible for her to conceal her arousal. “Stop playing games.” She lets out a breathy laugh at the irony of his instruction before pressing herself against the length of him and crashing her lips against his. They rip the clothes from each other's body – she hopes she has done permanent damage to that ridiculous suit – and stagger to her rumpled bed, locked together. He's decidedly more aroused than she is and requires no extra attention from her to be able to perform the deed, neither the first time nor the second.

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