I’m prepared before Rafe is. He’s not late – I’m early. There’s still some time before the parade begins. The horses are hitched to the chariots, but they’re not all lined up yet. Several other tributes in full dress are milling about, accompanied by their stylists, members of their prep teams, and in some cases their district escorts. I spot some victors. Capitol officials, Peacekeepers, and Avoxes litter the place.
Lucretia excuses herself to go consult with Otho, Rafe’s stylist. My prep team are accosted by some associates and I’m left to wander alone. I’m fascinated with the horses. I’ve never seen them in real life before. Like I said, there are very few animals in 8. I spot a pair with dappled coats and I magnetise toward them. They’re lovely, docile beasts. I have the urge to throw my arms around their broad necks and lay my cheek against their clean, satin-sleek coats. But I don’t want to risk messing up my hair or makeup or covering my costume in horse hair. So I just stand with them, stroking their velvety noses and scratching their ears and chins, until I hear a voice behind me.
‘Feel like switching sides? You look like you could pass for coal dust.’
I turn my head. Haymitch Abernathy, bottle in hand, is leaning against the nearest chariot. I can’t decide if he’s just being casual, or if he’s having trouble staying upright. He’s been groomed, Capitol style, since I saw him on the recap. He’s washed, combed, and shaven, and sporting some expensive finery. I turn all the way around to face him. His gaze drops immediately to my risqué attire, his eyebrows twitch upward. ‘Hm. Maybe not. Still, it’s bound to be better.’
I don’t have to ask what he means. District 12 has a history of being the worst dressed in the chariot parade. Year after year, they’ve been stuck with the least creative, most inexperienced stylists. Even the tributes from District 10, who are often dressed up as cows and pigs, end up looking prettier than 12’s tributes. I honestly feel bad for them… Not this year, though. This year, I’m glad. But I don’t say that to Haymitch. I say, ‘Hey, if you can get me the sponsors, I don’t care whose side I’m on.’
‘Now there’s a winning attitude,’ he says, finally bringing his eyes up to my face. If he’d stared at my body any longer, I would have started feeling uncomfortable. I make my own excuses for him by blaming the alcohol. Speaking of which, he takes a swig. ‘Nah, better not steal you. Woof’s a good guy. I heard what happened to his last victor-‘
‘- yeah, Flax. Heard what happened to him. Be nice for Woof to have another shot at it. Besides,’ he goes on with a bitter smile, ‘I wouldn’t want to ruin my streak.’
I don’t know what to say to that. He clearly has no faith in his own tributes. Which should be good news, but it makes me sad. My mind is racing over the other things he’s said. Does Haymitch Abernathy, winner of the second Quarter Quell, really think I could win? That’s encouraging. ‘Should you be talking to me?’ I ask. ‘You know, fraternising with the enemy and such?’
‘That hurts. Don’t you like my company?’
‘I can stand it,’ I say, casting him a cheeky look.
‘Then who cares? Besides, we were just in the same place at the same time.’ He nods toward the chariot behind me. ‘That your ride?’
I glance back at the dapple horses. ‘I don’t know. I’ve just never seen horses before. I liked the pattern on these ones.’
‘A girl from 8 who likes patterns. There’s a shocker.’
‘Hey! We’re not all a bunch of two-dimensional, fabric obsessed needle-threaders, you know.’
‘Yeah? What am I wearing?’ he asks with a smirk.
‘Looks like cotton,’ I say without thinking. I step close enough to touch the cuff of his jacket. ‘It is. Around three hundred and fifty thread count, I’d say.’ I slide my fingers up his wrist, to feel inside his sleeve. ‘Silk noil lining. Mulberry. Feels like fifteen momme.’
He just looks at me with that smirk and an eyebrow cocked.
I let go of his sleeve and blush. ‘Smartass.’
He shrugs. ‘Better a smartass than a dumbass,’
‘So does that mean you know all about coal?’ I ask, sceptic.
‘Of course I do.’
‘Well, tell me something about it, then.’
My lips curve slowly into a wry grin, but I refuse to dignify his mischief with laughter. He can see it in my face, though; I can tell. We look at each other for what feels like a long time. In reality, it’s less than a minute. He’s only three years older than I am, but the past five years have aged him. The alcohol is starting to give him a bit of a gut. He still looks young in general, just with tired eyes and some premature lines on his face. I can’t quite explain why it sends a pang of fear through me.
We’re interrupted by a gaggle of Capitol folk – prep teams, at a guess – who pause to compliment my outfit. I switch on my sickly sweet demeanour and respond with all the carefully constructed, polite humility I can muster. Haymitch takes an extra long pull at his bottle and belches loudly. The group clears off, looking at him distastefully. I stifle a smile.
‘You’ve got a handle on the bootlicking,’ Haymitch remarks when they’ve gone out of earshot. ‘That’s smart. It’ll win you a lot of favour.’
‘Yeah, Woof said that. It’s funny though; every time I talk to someone from the Capitol, I get this queasy feeling...’ I wave my hand. ‘I’m sure it’s unrelated.’
He holds out his spirit bottle. ‘Settle your stomach?’
I reach for it, then pause. ‘This sabotage?’
I take the bottle and put it to my lips. I watch him with mock-suspicion as I take a swig. I grimace. ‘Ugh. Tastes like Pinnie’s infamous Mystery Malt. She used to brew it behind the toilets in our dorm.’ I take another sip before handing it back to him.
‘That’s a coincidence,’ he quips, ‘I found this behind a toilet.’
‘How’d you know?’ He tips the last of the liquor down his throat and hides the empty bottle under the chariot. He’s come prepared. In two blinks of an eye, he’s procured a flask from inside his jacket. He unscrews the top while he says, ‘Well, as long as you can keep your lunch down, keep up the sweet talk. You’ve got a way with these folk… Maybe not so much with the Peacekeepers.’
‘I knew it!’ I step closer to him so suddenly he flattens himself against the chariot, staring at me. I’m brushing against him, my face inches from his. ‘I knew it,’ I repeat, lowering my voice. I glance around, looking for any prying eyes or eavesdropping ears. ‘You saw it, didn’t you? You put two and two together. Does everyone know? It was a bad edit…’
He relaxes and resumes opening his flask. ‘Yeah, I saw it. And yeah, everyone knows. Everyone in the districts, at least, from what Chaff tells me. Nice aim, by the way, might come in handy.’ Then he adds, echoing my thoughts at the time, ‘Shame he had his helmet on.’
‘You don’t know the half of it,’ I mutter. Then, anxious, ‘Do you think they’ll punish me?’
My heart drops when he says, ‘Without a doubt.’
‘In the arena?’
‘Maybe…’ He takes a drink from his flask, thoughtful. ‘…But I doubt it. It’s already looking like you’ll be a fan favourite. Put on a good show and they won’t try any harder to kill you than normal. They know they can get you afterwards if you win. If you don’t, it doesn’t matter.’
‘What will they do then?’
‘Got any family? Parents, siblings?’
‘No. I’ve been living in the orphanage since I was eight. I was my parents’ only child.’
‘Ask me again when you win.’
‘No, no boyfriend.’ Ruben and Marcus flash through my mind, but even if I considered either of them my boyfriend, they’re both fairly safe. I think.
‘Really?’ He looks my body up and down again. ‘Seems like you’d be popular.’
‘I am.’ I don’t offer any further explanation. ‘No boyfriend.’
‘Friends, then,’ Haymitch says. ‘Don’t be surprised if you find yourself a little lonelier.’
I nod. I feel a little dizzy and I know it’s not the alcohol. He confirmed my fears. ‘And there isn't a thing I can do?’
‘Just one.’ He takes my hand and presses the flask into it.
‘Right. Okay. I see. Thank you.’ I’m not being sarcastic. I really do appreciate his honesty. I take a swallow from the flask. A bigger one than I intended. I hope it loosens me up enough to perform well in the parade. I stare at the flask until Haymitch gently separates it from my fingers.
He presses his lips together and sighs through his nose. He looks regretful. ‘I’m sorry, Renore,’ he says, using my name for the first time. ‘I shouldn’t have brought it up. Be strong. All eyes are gonna be on you soon.’
‘You’re right. I’ll do my best. And maybe there is one thing I can do – try to survive.’
‘You’re a fighter. Refreshing to see that from a non-Career district.’
It’s almost time for the parade. The horses, at the sound of a whistle, begin lining up. They’re very well trained. They don’t need a driver and they know their places. Haymitch is nearly sent sprawling when the chariot he’s leaning on pulls away. I steady him. ‘Anything else you can tell me?’ I ask.
‘You smell nice.’
‘Thanks. You stink.’
‘Thanks. Well, I won’t offend your pretty little nose any longer; my tributes are coming.’
I look around and see the scrawny pair of Seam kids in their predictable miner’s costumes coming this way. They look so scared and devoid of hope, I can’t quash the surge of empathy I feel for them. They see my costume and look despaired. I don’t know what comes over me, but I turn around and seize Haymitch by the lapels. ‘Listen. I shouldn’t be saying this, but… You can’t just abandon them, okay? Don’t just drink yourself into a stupor until it’s over. Try to help them.’
He doesn’t speak, just studies my face the way Violet does. He regrets talking to me, I know it. He wasn’t counting on liking me. But he does. I turn to leave. He catches my arm and I turn again. ‘I shouldn’t be saying this either,’ he says, ‘but good luck, Renore.’
He lets my hand slide out of his and I walk away.