Just after Agrippa manages to wrestle me into my room, a very ruffled Woof follows us in. This is the closest to angry I’ve seen him. And it’s still pretty mild. His face is red and his brows are knit, his mouth stern. But it’s his eyes that strike me dumb, make me stop struggling with Agrippa and hang my head. His eyes are disappointed. I didn’t realise quite how much I hunger for Woof’s approval until the shame pierces through me. I barely know him, yet he’s the closest thing to a father I’ve had in a long time. I’m angry with myself now. I lost control again. I’ve been so careful, but my temper keeps getting the better of me.
But Rafe had no right to make that kind of assumption about me. How can he think that way about someone when he knows nothing of their real motives? Nobody likes being judged at the best of times; I certainly can’t abide it when my judge is so utterly out of order! My defiance resurfaces and I lift my chin to meet Woof’s gaze.
‘Thank you, Agrippa,’ he says, moving away from the door. ‘Give us a moment alone, if you would.’
The younger man releases his grip on my arms, gives them an apologetic little rub and silently leaves the room, closing the door behind him. He pauses only to flick a concerned glance my way.
Alone, Woof and I continue to stare each other for a moment or two. He doesn’t bore right into me the way Violet and Haymitch do. Rather, he waits for me to show myself. Realising this, my instinct is to go into camouflage and play whatever role will be most effective. Hang dog? Frightened? Stupid? But not only does Woof know I’m not stupid, scared, or sorry; I don’t want to lie to him anyway. Not ever. His kind eyes with their knowing twinkle, his warm words and his soft voice, his quick, subtle wit, the way he didn’t look down on me when he learned what I was… He has already gotten his claws into me. I want to be honest with him. So I let him see the hurt behind the anger. I apologise wordlessly, not for attempting to transplant Rafe’s nose to the other side of his head, but for making Woof’s job that bit more complicated.
To my gratification, he reads me loud and clear. His expression softens as a long breath escapes him. ‘I can’t blame you, Renore,’ he says at last. ‘I have no real idea what he was talking about, but I know he was out of line. It’s an awful thing to accuse someone of.’
‘It doesn’t turn me on!’ I blurt out, suddenly desperate for Woof to understand. ‘I only did Peacekeepers because they could pay and they were always willing. It has nothing to do with my parents. I just wanted to be strong, to be ready for the Games if I was reaped! I-‘
Woof closes the gap between us and interjects with an embrace. ‘Now, now, thimble, there’s no need to work yourself up again. You don’t need to justify yourself to me. I might not understand everything about your past, but I do understand the kind of person you are and because of that I trust that whatever you’ve done, you have a perfectly good reason for doing it. If you still feel you need to tell me, I’ll listen – of course I will – but I don’t require any explanations. I don’t think badly of you for any of this.’
With my head pressed against his chest I can hear his words burble up from within him as he speaks them. It sounds like they’re coming from his heart. I put my arms around him. ‘Are you still upset with me?’
‘I’m not sorry about Rafe.’
‘I know.’ Woof breaks the hug and stands back so he can look at me. ‘I’m not asking you to be. But you understand how this could put ladders in the stocking, right? Are we going to have to keep the two of you apart entirely? We can’t have you going at each other again. Forget that it’s prohibited, one or both of you could wind up injured before you go into the arena. And I don't need to tell you why that would be undesirable.’
‘I can control myself, if he can,’ I say.
Woof looks sceptical. ‘Can you? I don’t doubt what you said about having to act in your career and you do exceedingly well in your conduct with the Capitol people, but you have a violent streak that you need to manage better. It’ll do you many favours in the arena, I’m sure. Until that canon fires, you need to keep up appearances. You’ve avoided disaster so far, but if your temper takes over where the cameras can see you, it could do a lot of damage to your image and consequently your sponsorship. This, at least, was only seen by our own team.’
I’m forced to concede to his wisdom. Hadn’t I thought the same thing myself? ‘I’ll do better,' I tell him. 'I promise. I know I need to keep cool. The thing at the train station could’ve killed me before I even started. I’m still kicking myself for it. I’ll do better.’
‘When you spat in Flint’s face? Yes, that was dangerous. I lost a lot of sleep over that. I think I understand why you did it, now. Thankfully, there hasn’t been any public interest in it so far. You should be safe for now.’ He gives me a pointed look. ‘As long as you can control yourself for the rest of your time here.’
‘So, are we going to try again? The recap will be starting soon. You should make your apologies to the prep teams beforehand.’
I understand. Even though I didn’t aim anything at them directly, I may have offended their sensitive Capitol sensibilities simply by being unladylike in their general vicinity. I remember how horrified Otho and the rest of Rafe’s prep team looked as Agrippa was dragging me away. And the stunned look on Felix and Cassius’ faces. Felix had had a bit of food hovering in front of his mouth. I have to stifle a smile as I give Woof the affirmative. He sees it, though, and grins.
‘Don’t let it get into your head that this is funny,’ he warns me with very little seriousness in his tone. ‘We don’t laugh about any of this until it’s all over. Deal?’
From anyone else, I might have thought that was a stupid thing to say. When it’s ‘all over’, either Rafe or I or both of us will be dead. But Woof isn’t being insensitive. He has a way with tactful evasion that makes you want to follow him right into the fantasy. He could almost make me believe that we were all going home tomorrow.
‘Deal,’ I agree.
Woof squeezes my shoulder and leads the way into the hall. To my surprise, Agrippa has been waiting outside. When he sees us emerging, he straightens up from where he was leaning against the wall. He looks askance at us both and I smile my reassurance. ‘Ah, Agrippa,’ Woof addresses him. ‘If you would, please escort this young lady to the sitting room. I’m going to go have a talk with Rafe, now.’
‘Of course,’ the artist replies and he and I watch Woof head further down the hall to another door. Agrippa turns to me with a smile and offers his arm. ‘Shall we, starbuck?’
‘It’s okay,’ I smirk, ‘I can walk back. Although I may need you to drag me away from the wine, later.’ But I take his arm anyway as he laughs.