Disclaimer: I don't own The Hunger Games.
Note: Honestly, this one probably won't make sense unless you've already read some of my other stuff. Yep, more than a year after For a Reason, I've decided to pop back into my first canon here. Keep your eyes peeled for the start of another SYOT once I get a bit farther into the Games in Mistakes of the Past. In the meantime, let's catch up with our favorite bartender...
Between the Sinners and the Saints
"I think I understand," Eldred nodded. Imalia smiled a little, then got up to rejoin her fellow mentors from District Four.
"No, you don't," Nicodemus said quietly, leaning back in his wheelchair. "It's not your fault. It's just hard to imagine something like that when you've had more than enough all your life. You can pity them, but you don't really understand their desperation, their need for a better life."
Eldred opened his mouth to respond, but thought better of it. Nicodemus was right. He still didn't understand – not really. After four years, he still didn't understand.
Eldred leaned forward a little. "Then show me."
Nicodemus cocked an eyebrow. "Show you."
Eldred nodded. "We all know what Imalia said is true; bartending isn't … well, it's not my real job. My real job – at least during the Games – is to watch you, all of you, and try to understand. But after four years, I still … I still don't. Not really."
Nicodemus shook his head. "Where's this coming from, Eldred?"
Eldred glanced around, wondering who else might be listening. The president hadn't said it was a secret, but…
"There's a reason he picked me," Eldred said quietly. "There's a reason I'm here, trying to get a better understanding of the districts, but … well, there's only so much I can learn from sitting and talking with all of you for … what? Two weeks? Three? And then I go back to—"
Nicodemus smiled a little, putting the pieces together. "The reason you're here – the reason he wants you to understand the districts – is it…?"
Eldred shook his head. "Don't throw me a party just yet. I haven't said yes."
Nicodemus nodded. "You'd be foolish if you did – say yes right away, that is. But I still don't understand … Why come to me?"
Eldred hesitated. Why had he chosen Nicodemus? "Because you're the only person I thought might say yes."
Eldred took a deep breath. There was no going back now. He had made up his mind a few days ago, but now that it came to it … it wasn't so easy. Maybe this was how Careers felt, just before volunteering for the Games. Maybe. Eldred smiled a little.
"I have a favor to ask."
"I won't be able to protect you."
Eldred smiled a little, shaking his head. "I never expected you to. That's the whole point. It has to be me, figuring this out on my own, or it doesn't mean anything."
Nicodemus shook his head. "That's not what I meant. I didn't mean I won't be able to shield you from what the districts are like. I know that's what you wanted. What I meant was that if you get into trouble – real trouble, Eldred – I won't be able to help you. Other Victors, in other districts … maybe they have some influence. Some authority – at least within their own district. I don't have that."
Eldred nodded. "Why do you think I picked you?"
Nicodemus smirked. "I think your words were 'Because you're the only person I thought might say yes.'" He leaned forward a little in his wheelchair. "How did you know I'd agree?"
Eldred took another drink, cringing a little. Whoever was in charge of drinks on the train clearly needed a little more practice. Of course, he wasn't really in a position to criticize. When President Grisom had asked him to serve as the bartender in the bar the Victors frequented during the Games – and as an unofficial observer on the side – it had taken him a while to get it right.
That had been four years ago. A little longer, actually, since this year's Games were now over, the title of Victor falling unexpectedly to the girl from District Eleven, an eighteen-year-old named Violet Levine. District Six's pair of Victors, Vernon and Nicodemus, were on their way back home.
And he was on his way to a new life. Or, at least, a new temporary one. It had taken some persuasion before President Grisom would agree to Eldred's plan, but he had caved once Eldred had made it clear that he wouldn't accept the position the president was offering without first putting his plan into action.
He must really want me to accept…
And now he was off to District Six. Without his family – his wife, his son, his two daughters. He would have no contact with them for … how long? Eldred's hand drifted to his pocket, where a photo of his family was safely tucked away.
It was one of the few things he had brought with him. He had brought a few sets of clothes, as well, but not too many, and nothing too fancy. He wanted to blend in. That was the whole point. To blend in, to observe, to become one of them for a little while.
To understand them.
Which was the answer he had been looking for. "Because you understand," Eldred answered simply. "You understand other people, and, what's more, you want everyone else to understand each other, too. You're still an idealist at heart, and that … well, that's saying something, considering…"
He didn't finish the sentence. He didn't have to. It wasn't just saying something. It was amazing that he could still look at the very people who had crippled him – as well as the thousands who had stood by and done nothing – and not only forgive them, but want to understand them. Want them to understand each other.
And he did. Ever since riots had broken out during the 42nd Games, Nicodemus had been a silent but driving force for peace in his district, cooling the tempers of those who wanted revenge – on both sides. Maybe he didn't wield the same influence as Victors in other districts – at least not over anyone in authority – but, for the most part, people respected him.
Which was why they had to part ways as soon as they left the train – or, better yet, get off at different times entirely. Nicodemus had offered to put in a good word for him, find him a job or a place to stay, but Eldred had refused the offer. Either he did this on his own, or he didn't. Either he could survive among the people of the districts, or…
Or he couldn't. But his life wasn't really in danger. He had no doubt that the president, despite Eldred's insistence otherwise, was keeping an eye on him. President Grisom had been reluctant to agree to District Six in the first place. He had wanted to send Eldred to a more Capitol-supporting district – One, Two, Five … maybe even Twelve.
Eldred hid a smile. Five years ago, no one would have thought to list District Twelve among the safer districts for a Capitolite, but after the events of the 41st and 42nd Games, everything had changed. District Twelve had been among the few to outright refuse an alliance with the rebels during the 41st Games. And when District Four's training center had been burned to the ground by one of their own Victors on the eve of the 42nd Games, it was District Twelve that had stepped in to claim the spoils: a portion of the weapons that had belonged to the training academy, with the rest going to District Five's fledgling Career system … and the right to train their own Careers.
So far, Brennan had encountered little success – and, as far as Eldred knew, hadn't been actively recruiting potential Careers. But the fact remained that Twelve now had a reputation for loyalty. Maybe not the fanatic loyalty of One, Two, or Five, but at least a history of obedience. Of not causing problems.
District Six, on the other hand…
Tributes from District Six, along with Eight and Three, had been behind the rebellion during the 41st Games. Like the rest of the districts, they'd been frightened back into submission with a series of brutal executions and the requirement of extra tributes during the following Games. But even if they had been bullied into obedience, Eldred had no doubt that, somewhere beneath the surface, their hatred of the Capitol still lingered. If word got out that he was a Capitolite…
So he would have to make sure that word didn't get out. His choice of outfits, Nicodemus had assured him, would be sufficient to convince most people that he was simply a somewhat well-to-do businessman now down on his luck. District Six was large enough that no one would question a new face, and Nicodemus had been coaching him on the accent – which mostly consisted of dropping some of the Capitol's eccentricities.
He already had a head start on that, of course. The upper echelon of the Capitol had a distinctly different accent than people like him. People who hadn't been born into the more fortunate class, but had worked their way up and gotten very, very lucky.
He had no delusions, of course, that his early life in the Capitol had been difficult. Compared to the descriptions he'd heard of the districts, he'd had it good. Very good. He'd never been in doubt that he could come home to a good meal, a warm bath, and a soft bed. Maybe he'd never been able to keep up with the latest fashions or trends, but his life had been a good one.
Whether it had gotten better or worse in the last few years, he wasn't sure.
It had definitely gotten more complicated. Being a secretary under President Snow had been a somewhat menial job, but it had been predictable. Routine. Nothing was routine under President Grisom – not least of all because he wasn't a secretary anymore. He'd been everything from a bartender to a tailor to a hairdresser – the last of which especially amused the president, since Eldred was already balding. But this – this was different, even for him. This was dangerous. This was—
"Eldred?" Nicodemus' voice shook him from his thoughts as the train started to slow. "Last chance. Are you sure about this?"
No. He wasn't sure. Maybe he would never be sure. But he couldn't very well turn back now. What would the president say if he went back on his idea now? What would his wife say?
His wife. Eldred smiled a little. She would be relieved – that much, he was certain of. Millicent had begged him to reconsider. She would be overjoyed if he simply came home. She wouldn't even care about the explanation.
But the president…
No. It was too late to turn back now. Too late to start having second thoughts. He'd made his choice. And now he had to see it through.
No matter what.
How long would he have to wait?
Eldred paced the length of the train car again. Nicodemus and Vernon had disembarked at least ten minutes ago. Surely that would be enough to avoid any suspicion if he got off the train now. Surely the crowd – if there was one at all – would be gone.
Nicodemus had said, anyway, that there probably wouldn't be much of a crowd. There usually wasn't – not unless a Victor had returned home on the train. If not, it was usually just the parents of the fallen tributes, come to collect the bodies and bring them home. Four tributes. Four children. All dead.
The price of peace.
Of that, he was absolutely certain – that the Games were necessary. Horrible, yes. Cruel, certainly. But necessary, in order to keep the districts in line. That much had become clear a few years ago, when the districts had forgotten, for a little while, the price of disobedience. The Capitol had been quick to remind them, but the brief rebellion served as a reminder of why the Games were, in the end, a necessary evil in order to keep the peace.
At last, Eldred pressed a button near the door, which slid open. Sure enough, the crowd was gone. With nothing but the bag slung over his back and the clothes he wore, Eldred stepped off the train and into District Six.
The smell was the first thing he noticed – a deep, sickening smell in the air. Eldred took a deep breath, trying to work out what it might be, but was immediately overcome by a fit of coughing. People actually breathed this stuff? After taking a moment to recover, Eldred glanced around. He was still on the outskirts of the district. If the air was like this here…
But there was nothing else to be done. Nothing but keep moving forward, because the train was already starting to roll back down the tracks. Slowly, at first, but it had soon disappeared into the distance.
Eldred shook his head. First things first. The sun was beginning to set, and he certainly didn't want to spend the night by the train tracks. Slowly, he made his way towards the buildings in the distance. All he had to do was find a place to stay. How difficult could it be?
As he neared the first of the buildings, however, something caught his eye. A few teenagers, standing near one of the alleyways. Three boys – maybe fifteen or sixteen years old. Maybe not all that intimidating, but there were three of them, and there was only one of him. And everyone in Panem – in both the districts and the Capitol – spent a few weeks every year watching exactly what teenagers were capable of…
"Whatcha got there, Gramps?" one of the teens demanded, taking a step towards him. He was easily half a head taller than Eldred, and had muscles to match. Eldred glanced around. Where were the Peacekeepers? Weren't they supposed to be on the lookout for things like this?
Eldred kept his gaze down. "Nothing you'd want – just some old clothes." As soon as he said it, however, he knew it was absolutely the wrong thing to say. The three teenagers were dressed in little more than rags, and none of them wore shoes. "Please – I don't want any trouble." Where were those Peacekeepers? Weren't they supposed to be … well, keeping the peace?
"Well, that's good, 'cause neither do we," the tallest boy agreed. "Just hand over the bag, and you can go."
Eldred hesitated for a moment. A moment too long. As the three boys came closer, he took off running. But he'd barely made it to the end of the alleyway before something struck the back of his head. One of the boys had thrown a rock! Eldred kept running, but the second rock struck harder, and the third hit the back of his leg, bringing him to his knees. "Please. Just don't – just don't hurt me."
One of the boys – the tall one – laughed as his foot came down against Eldred's chest. "You had your chance to play nice, Gramps." One of them tore the bag from his grasp while a second raised his fist. Eldred closed his eyes as the fist connected with his chin. The boy raised his hand again, bloodied this time.
But, just as the fist was about to come down again, there was a shout. "Over there!" A blinding light shone down the alleyway, and the boys scattered – but not quickly enough. A half-dozen Peacekeepers rushed in, grabbing each of the three boys.
Eldred staggered to his feet. "Thank you. You're just in time. I was—"
This time it was a Peacekeeper's fist that connected with his jaw. "Quiet! You know the law. No brawling in the streets – and certainly not after curfew!"
"I wasn't brawling! They—"
"Silence!" The Peacekeeper – apparently the one in charge – flung him in the direction of a second Peacekeeper, who caught hold of his arm. "Take 'em to the square – all four of them."
Eldred tensed as the Peacekeepers dragged the four of them away. The square? He'd seen only two events take place in the district squares – reapings and executions. Surely they didn't mean to kill the four of them over a simple mugging. Especially when he was the one who had been robbed!
Eldred's mind raced as the Peacekeepers led the four of them to the stage, then ripped off his shirt and bound his hands together with a coil of rope. The rope was attached to a post, and the Peacekeepers gave a tug, drawing his arms up over his head until his shoulders felt like they might give out. Glancing around frantically, Eldred could see that the three boys had been strung up the same way. "Please, what are you going to—"
"I said quiet!" the Peacekeeper roared once more. "Five lashes each for being out after curfew, and five more for brawling, then leave 'em for the night."
"Please, you can't mean to—"
Another fist found his jaw. "And five more for this one, for making so much noise. Get on with it."
Eldred clenched his mouth shut, his whole body tense as one of the Peacekeepers raised a whip to strike the boy farthest from him. Once. Twice. Again. And again. Ten times, the whip struck, and still the boy didn't cry out. Maybe it wasn't as bad as it sounded. Maybe—
The lash caught him by surprise; he hadn't seen the other Peacekeeper standing behind him. Eldred cried out in both surprise and pain. Pain like he had never known before, coursing through his back. One of the Peacekeepers chuckled a little. "I think it's his first time."
"Won't be his last," one of them mumbled as the whip struck again, and Eldred's screams echoed through the square. "He's got quite a mouth on him." Again the whip struck. And again. Eldred squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block out the pain. Stop. Please stop.
But he didn't say it. Pleading would get him nowhere. Instead, he counted. Seven. Eight. Nine. The tenth time, the whip struck lower, tearing across his lower back. The eleventh blow was higher, across his shoulder blades. The twelfth missed entirely – or maybe it was intentional – and curled around his right arm. Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen.
Fifteen. It was over. Something was slipped around his neck, and the Peacekeepers' footsteps faded into the distance. Eldred tried to open his eyes, but it hurt too much. Everything hurt too much. His back. His hands. The strain on his shoulders as his knees finally buckled beneath him and the darkness seemed to grow stronger.
What had he done wrong?
"You really can't stay out of trouble long, can you?"
Eldred groaned a little as consciousness slowly drifted back over him. The voice. He knew that voice. Nicodemus? But what was he doing here? Eldred opened his mouth to speak, but his throat was too hoarse. How long had he been unconscious?
"You know how it is, Nic," came another voice. A younger voice. "We was just minding our own business – sure, it was a bit after curfew, but that's no reason for all this – not until this guy claims we tried to rob him."
"And I'm sure you weren't doing anything of the sort." From Nicodemus' tone, he didn't believe a word of it, but maybe he knew better than to argue. "Are you all right?"
Slowly, Eldred opened his eyes. It was morning – early morning, from the look of it, but the square was already full of people milling about, most of them paying no mind to the four of them strung up onstage, or the man beside them in his wheelchair. Nicodemus smiled a little as Eldred finally glanced in his direction. "There you go. You'll be all right." He wheeled himself over to the tallest boy – the one next to Eldred – and set to work untying a knot near the base of the post. "So what's your story?"
These boys tried to rob me, he almost said, but thought better of it when he saw his fellow prisoners. The boys had fared no better than he had; their backs were torn and bloody, and, from the scars that were already there, it wasn't the first time. So he simply shook his head. "Talked back to a Peacekeeper."
Nicodemus winced sympathetically, and Eldred knew that much, at least, wasn't an act. Nicodemus himself had done far worse than talk back to a Peacekeeper – and had gotten far worse in return. Finally, the Victor's crooked fingers managed to untie the knot that was holding the boy's rope, and the boy crumpled to the stage in a heap. "Sorry," Nicodemus apologized, but the boy was already getting to his feet, working his way free of the ropes around his hands. "Help me with the others, Duke?" Nicodemus asked.
The boy – apparently Duke – nodded, and set to work freeing his companions. Nicodemus, meanwhile, turned his attention to the ropes around Eldred's post. "Out after curfew, brawling, and insolence," Nicodemus remarked. "Someone's had a busy night."
"How did you—"
"I can read." Nicodemus nodded towards something that hung around Eldred's neck. Eldred glanced down. Sure enough, a sign around his neck read Curfew Breaker, Brawler, Insolent. Eldred gritted his teeth. It might have been comical, if it didn't hurt so much. Twenty-four hours ago, he had been a Capitol citizen. And now—
"There!" Nicodemus announced, and the ropes gave way, sending Eldred tumbling down in a heap, gasping for breath, testing his arms, his hands, his fingers. Everything seemed to work, but everything hurt. Nicodemus laid a hand gently on his shoulder. "Can you walk?"
"I…" Eldred hesitated, but then he saw the three boys, already on their feet. "I think so."
"Well, that's good," Duke scoffed, "because he certainly ain't gonna carry you."
That got a few weak laughs from his friends and even a good-natured chuckle from Nicodemus. "Fair enough. Let's go, boys." He turned and wheeled himself down the ramp and off the stage, followed by Duke and his friends. "Coming?"
Eldred hesitated. Where were they going? He had promised himself that he wouldn't rely on Nicodemus for help, but surely this could be an exception. He was hurt, he had no food or water, his clothes…
His clothes. That was the deciding factor. Whether the Peacekeepers had taken them or simply left his bag in the alleyway, Eldred wasn't sure, but all he had now were his trousers. His hand flew to his pocket, and he breathed a sigh of relief. The picture was still there. They hadn't found that. He had lost everything else, but…
Slowly, he followed Nicodemus through the square and around a few bends until they reached Victors' Village. "Come on in. I'll get you some fresh clothes. Help yourself to whatever's on the table. I've been gone a few weeks, so I'm afraid there's not much at the moment, but—"
A chorus of thank you's drowned out whatever the end of that sentence was going to be. "Lie down," Nicodemus instructed, motioning to the couch. "Let's have a look."
"Have thicker skins than you do. Lie down." He wheeled over to the kitchen, then returned with a bowl of water and a towel. Reluctantly, Eldred lay down. "What's your name?"
Eldred hesitated a moment before repeating the story he'd rehearsed so many times on the train. "Edsel Gudgeon. I'm a mechanic, or at least I – ow!"
"Sorry." Nicodemus shook his head, turning his attention back to Eldred's back. "But try not to offer up your life story when someone just asks for your name. No one's that trusting."
"Let me rephrase. No one's that trusting without having something to show for it." He patted the side of his wheelchair. "Let's try again. What's your name?"
"Can't even remember his name, huh?" Duke snorted a little, stuffing his mouth full of whatever he and his friends had found in the kitchen. "You sure those rocks didn't knock a few screws loose in that bald head of yers?"
Nicodemus shook his head. "And which of you was completely lucid after your first whipping? Spare clothes are in the box by the bed. Find something that fits, and then off with you before the Peacekeepers know you've been here."
Eldred waited until the boys were gone, then sat up a little. "They don't know?"
Nicodemus sighed. "Don't be daft; of course they know. But they pretend not to – as long as I don't let them stay too long. They don't mind if I clean up their mess, but … well, they don't trust me."
"So they don't mind that you—"
"Let you loose? No. Trust me, if they wanted you to stay up there, they'd have left a guard. They do, occasionally – leave someone hanging there longer, as an example. But not for something minor like a little after-curfew brawl."
"We weren't brawling."
"I know. And they might have let it go at being out after curfew if you'd kept your mouth shut. You're lucky they stopped at fifteen."
"How did you—"
Nicodemus shrugged. "Some folks, it's hard to tell the old scars from the new, but you – I doubt you ever got so much as a spanking from your parents, let alone a whipping." He lowered his voice. "I'm sorry you got such a rude welcome to District Six, but think of it this way: The hard part's over with."
Nicodemus chuckled a little. "No, but think of it that way, anyway. It'll help." He finished bandaging Eldred's back. "There. Now try to stay out of trouble."
"I wasn't trying—"
"And for goodness' sakes, stop arguing!" Nicodemus insisted. "Or the next time the Peacekeepers catch you, they might be even rougher."
Eldred tensed. The next time. As if it was just a given that, sooner or later, the Peacekeepers would catch him doing something wrong. Eldred shook his head. The other night had been a fluke. They'd been tired, or he'd said something wrong and gotten on their nerves. If he was careful, he could avoid them.
If he was careful…
"Ten minutes to curfew!"
Eldred breathed a sigh of relief as the whistle blew, signaling – he hoped – the end of the work day. The first time, he had been wrong, and it had only meant a brief rest for lunch. But even that had been a welcome break from the factory assembly line.
It wasn't a job he would have chosen, perhaps, but he hadn't had much of a choice. Shortly after he'd left Victors' Village, a Peacekeeper had grabbed him and demanded to know why he was out on the streets. He'd barely had a chance to get out that he was looking for work before he was shoved through the nearest factory door, greeted with an, "Oh, good, we needed another one," by a man who was apparently the manager, and shoved into place between an older woman and a girl who Eldred had thought would have been in school. Surely she wasn't much older than his youngest daughter, Rylee.
Despite her age, though, she was a hard worker – and considerably faster than Eldred. Of course, Eldred reminded himself, she'd been at it longer. How much longer? How long had this child been working in the factory?
He didn't dare ask, though. He'd tried to ask the older woman her name, and had received a lash from the Peacekeeper's whip for his trouble. That made the rules pretty clear; no talking was allowed.
Not that they would have been able to hear each other very well, anyway. The noise of the machines was deafening, the room so poorly lit that he could barely see the pieces he was putting together. He wasn't even sure exactly what he was putting together. It looked like a part for some sort of machine, but exactly what, he couldn't even hazard a guess.
And he already knew better than to ask.
"Ten minutes to curfew!" the Peacekeeper called again. "Get your lazy asses home, you slugs!"
Lazy! Eldred set his jaw indignantly. This was the hardest he'd ever worked in his life. He'd thought bartending was a demanding job – and he'd certainly pulled a couple long shifts or even all-nighters during the Games. But that didn't even come close to this.
And at least bartending was something he liked. This job was mindless and – at least as far as he could tell – completely pointless. He'd barely spoken two words since entering the factory. His only interaction – if it could be called that – had been with the workers on his left and right.
How did people live like this?
For a moment, he was so caught off-guard by the Peacekeeper's insult that he didn't even realize what else the man had said. "Ten minutes to curfew!" he shouted again, as people started milling about, pouring through the factory doors. Eldred followed, looking around helplessly. He'd been so concerned with finding a job that he hadn't had time to find a place to stay.
Before he could say so, however, he felt a hand on his arm. It belonged to the older woman who had been working alongside him, who quickly whispered two words: "Follow me." Eldred did so without question, following her out into the night.
Night! It was already nighttime. Eldred shook his head. He'd often wondered how people in the districts spent their days. Now, it seemed, he had his answer. Every bit of time seemed to be scheduled to prevent them from having any sort of free time.
Even the children weren't exempt, Eldred realized as crowds milled passed him in the square. There were hundreds of them – mostly coming from the factories. Had they been there all day? Or had they gone there after school? Eldred shook his head. His own childhood had been so different from this.
As they moved through the square, something else caught his eye. There was a young man onstage – hanging where Eldred had been only the night before. Beside him was a young woman. Both had been stripped to the waist with no regard for decency. Their backs, which faced the crowd, were torn and bloody. He wasn't close enough to read the signs around their necks. What had they done?
Of course, Eldred realized to his surprise, he had no way of knowing whether anything on their signs was true or not. His own sign had been horribly inaccurate. The only truth to it was that he'd been out after curfew. And that hadn't been his fault…
"Don't pay them no mind," the old woman whispered. "Just be glad they're not up there." She pointed above the stage, where ten large, spoked wheels were mounted on tall wooden posts.
Eldred shuddered. He had been there, in Snow's cabinet room, when the president had ordered the execution of the families of the tributes who had rebelled. He and the others had watched each execution in full. But though many had been horrific, it was District Six's that had stayed with him all this time.
Maybe that was because of Nicodemus. He never said much about what had happened, but his presence was a constant reminder of how brutal the Capitol's punishment had been. The punishment, of course, hadn't been meant for Nicodemus. They had been about to execute a young boy named Byron when Nicodemus had stepped in, redirecting the executioner's first blow, killing the boy instantly. It had been an act of mercy – and Nicodemus had paid dearly for that mercy.
Now the wheels simply stood there as a reminder. He had seen them on the screen during every reaping since. But surely they weren't still in use. "But they don't…" Eldred stammered. "I mean, there haven't been…"
The old woman shook her head. "No, not since Nicodemus. But they like to threaten – and they're still there, as a reminder of how good we have it now."
How good we have it. Eldred looked away from the young couple onstage. How could anyone think that they had it 'good'? They were still alive, of course, and they would survive … but at what point would death actually be kinder?
Soon, they had left the square, and the old woman motioned to a building. Eldred followed her inside, still surrounded by a crowd of people. Did they all live here?
Stairs led up through the building, and Eldred followed the old woman, who was surprisingly quick even on the narrow steps. At the fifth floor – or maybe it was the sixth – she opened a door that led to a hallway, then led him to a door on the right. "Come on in; we've got room to spare."
It certainly didn't seem like it. But he wasn't exactly in any position to argue. Eldred followed her inside, where at least a dozen people – mostly elderly – were already gathered. "Hello, everyone," the woman smiled. "This is – you know, I don't think I ever caught your name, young man."
"Edsel," Eldred replied quietly, looking around. "And you are…"
The woman smiled a little. "Just call me Gran. Are you hungry, son?"
He always seemed to be hungry these days.
Eldred wiped the sweat from his brow, trying to ignore his stomach. He wasn't starving, certainly. The factory provided a meager lunch – enough to keep them on their feet – and his wages were enough to help Gran buy a portion of food on Market Day, which never seemed to fall on the same day of the week. Eventually, he'd worked out that it was every nine days. But it was so easy to lose track of time…
In any case, he certainly wasn't starving. But it had been ages, it seemed, since he'd been pleasantly full.
Still, there were others who were worse off. The girl who worked beside him – Autumn, he eventually learned, in huddled whispers over lunch – was only fourteen, but had dropped out of school when her mother had fallen ill several months ago. Her father was gone, and she had two younger siblings – both of whom did their part in taking care of the house after school, while Autumn was at work. She rarely saw them, she said – only for an hour or so when she got home from work. Then they all went to bed, and she was gone by the time they woke in the morning.
Maybe that was why she was so open to talking to him, he reasoned, even though it was forbidden. Every chance she got, she told him more. She clearly needed to talk to someone, and he was the most convenient candidate.
Gran, on the other hand, was still a mystery, despite the fact that they'd been living under the same roof for … what? Weeks? A month or two? But every time he tried to ask her anything, she'd turn the question on him. It hadn't taken her long to figure out that would silence him pretty quickly. He didn't want to answer questions any more than she did.
He did manage to learn from one of his other housemates that Gran had taken it upon herself to invite them into her home – including several of them who were too old and feeble to work. She had formed her own little community, and all she asked in return was that those who were able did their part around the house, including caring for the others.
So maybe it shouldn't have come as a surprise when, after Autumn's mother passed away from her illness, Gran offered to let her and her siblings join them. She didn't usually take in children, the others said, but maybe she could tell that the girl had grown fond of Eldred, and that she and her little brother and sister clearly had nowhere else to go.
Eldred, for his part, welcomed the three of them eagerly. But even having the three of them around was no replacement for his own children. Every so often when no one was looking, he would take out the photo he had brought and just look at it. He had told himself, when he had suggested this endeavor, that he would be home soon. That he just wanted to see what life in the districts was like.
But the more he saw, the more he knew he couldn't leave. Not yet. There was still too much he didn't understand, starting with Gran. If he could just figure out what had made her open her house to complete strangers – including himself – then maybe he could figure out how to get the rest of the district to do the same.
Because that was part of the problem, as he saw it. All these people living in the same district, and they never spoke to each other. They didn't really understand each other, so how could they expect anyone else to understand them? If they could just help each other – even a little bit – then maybe things could get better.
Of course, that wasn't the only problem. The way their days were scheduled, there was precious little time for such interaction. But if they could prove that they could interact without mugging each other or plotting a rebellion or blowing something up, then maybe the Peacekeepers would relax a little.
And he did wish they would relax a little every now and then. It seemed like one or another of them was always looking over his shoulder, waiting for him to make a mistake. He hadn't, of course – not since that first day. He had been careful. But he sometimes wished he didn't have to be quite so careful every moment of every day. It wasn't as if he was actually doing anything wrong. Why would they waste their time worrying about him when there were actual criminals to catch?
It wasn't as if there was a shortage of actual criminals, either. Since his first encounter with Duke and his gang, he'd been mugged twice, pickpocked a half-dozen times, and threatened more times than he'd bothered trying to keep track of. From the smell of the apartment, someone nearby was dealing drugs. And the entire lowest level of the house was home to a group of prostitutes and gamblers.
But when he asked Gran why the Peacekeepers didn't bother doing something about that, all he got was a shrug and a dismissive, "They like the ladies." That much, at least, seemed to be true; Peacekeepers frequented the apartment as often as anyone else.
"They're just trying to make a living," Autumn pointed out one night as the two of them watched the ladies outside, calling to the Peacekeepers, hoping to invite them in. "I thought about joining them a couple times. At least that way, I could have kept up my schoolwork…"
Eldred looked away. Autumn was only fourteen. To have to choose between the education that could bring her a better life and the need to feed her family … it wasn't fair. Gran had offered to look after the others so she could go back to school, but she had already missed so much, she would never be able to make it up. And in a few weeks, she would be fifteen – when those who weren't in the top half of the class were expected to drop out and join the workforce, anyway.
The top half. At sixteen, the bottom half was cut again – and again at seventeen, leaving only the best and the brightest in the schools and most of the children in the factories. Eldred couldn't help thinking of his own children. Would they have been in the top half? The top half of the top half? Or would they have been condemned to the same life that Autumn now seemed certain of – a menial job in the factory, living from day to day on factory food and what little her wages could buy, sleeping in an overcrowded apartment that smelled of old people – when it didn't stink of urine or dead rats.
"It isn't so bad," Autumn insisted whenever he said anything of the sort, however. "There's always someone worse off than you."
And maybe that was true. But why did the person worse off than him have to be a fourteen-year-old girl who reminded him of his daughter?
Still, Autumn stubbornly refused to admit just how bad her life was – right up until the day Eldred came home and found her dead.
The day started off pretty much like any other day.
Eldred had grown used to that much, at least – one day seeming more or less like another. There was little to set this one apart. Autumn had had a bad cough for a few days, but that wasn't particularly surprising. It was no secret that the air in the district was terrible. It was a wonder, Eldred sometimes thought, that more people didn't drop dead simply from breathing the fumes.
After their lunch break, however, Eldred noticed that Autumn's work was becoming a bit sloppier. He didn't dare say anything, of course. Didn't dare draw attention to it – not with the Peacekeepers standing nearby. So he and Gran simply kept working until Autumn fainted beside them.
Only then did the Peacekeepers step in, dragging her from the factory. Eldred glanced over at Gran, hoping for some clue about what they should do next. But Gran simply kept working, so he did, too. He knew better than to cause a fuss. Whatever was wrong with Autumn, surely it could wait until the workday was over.
At least, that was what he thought.
He and Gran rushed back to their apartment as soon as the workday was over, only to find Autumn lying on one of their cots, her brother and sister at her side, crying. One of the older men approached Gran, shaking his head. "She barely made it back before…"
Eldred took a few hesitant steps closer. The two younger children – Bianca and Angelo, immediately ran to him, wrapping their arms around his legs. Eldred knelt down and held the two of them close. "It's all right. Come here. It'll be all right."
But he knew already how empty the words were. It wouldn't be all right. Their parents were dead, and now their sister, too, was gone. It wasn't right. It wasn't fair.
And there wasn't a thing he could do about it besides kneel there and lie to them.
"Edsel." Gran's voice was gentle as she laid a hand on his shoulder. Eldred looked up. She rarely used his name – or, at least, the name he had gone by for the past few months. Most of the time it was 'son' or 'young man.' But not this time. This time, there was something different about her voice. "Come with me."
Wordlessly, Eldred untangled himself from the two children and followed her into the next room. Gran shook her head and handed him a cup of tea. "Terrible, isn't it. And so unfair. She was so young." The old woman was near tears as she sat down on her cot.
Eldred took a sip of tea and wrapped an arm around her. "There wasn't anything you could have done."
Gran turned to Eldred, a strange light in her eyes. "That's the worst part – not being able to do anything. All of us – all we can do is make the most of the time we have." She smiled a little. "Like you and me."
Eldred raised an eyebrow and took another nervous sip of tea. Something was wrong. Everything about her words was off. Her voice, her eyes – they were saying something completely different. As if she was worried that someone might overhear…
He was accustomed, of course, to the idea of a room being bugged. One always assumed that someone else was watching. But the idea of keeping an eye on an old lady like Gran – it was almost comical. Unless…
Was there something else going on?
"Come with me," Gran smirked. "Let's go somewhere a bit more … private."
Private. Eldred stared, completely baffled, as Gran opened the back door and led him down the stairs. Down. Down. Past the neighbors who were probably in their beds by now. Past the ladies who were in their beds but not asleep. All the way down to the boiler room. Eldred finished his tea and set the cup down near the boiler, which was making such a racket that, even if by some chance the room was bugged, they wouldn't be able to pick up anything. "All right, Gran," he said at last. "What's going on?"
Gran smiled a little. "You're very good at that, you know."
Gran smirked. "Hiding your accent. It took me years to figure it out. Funny how you never think about an accent as something you have. You always think about it as something other people have – something you have to learn – when it's really a part of yourself that you're learning to … to shed. Like a snake, almost. Or maybe a moth."
Eldred shook his head. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"You don't have to lie anymore, Edsel." Her voice was different now – some sort of accent. But not one he was familiar with. "You're from the Capitol, or I've gone completely deaf."
For a moment, Eldred froze. There were so many things he wanted to ask. How had she known? How long had she known? And what was she planning to do with that information? Was she planning to turn him in? If so, why had she brought him down here? Why hadn't she simply gone to the Peacekeepers? And did she know exactly who he was, or simply that he was from the Capitol?
Probably the second one. If she had known exactly who he was, there was no way he would still be standing here. No, she was looking for information – the same was he was. But two could play this game.
So instead of a question, he smiled a little. "You haven't gone deaf. But neither have I. You're not from District Six, either – but you're not from the Capitol. So … who are you, Gran?"
Gran smiled a little. "All in good time. First – what are you doing here?"
"Looking for something." Vague, but true. "And you?"
"I was looking for something, too – once. Now … now I'm just here to help. To help people like you … people like Autumn."
"Autumn?" Eldred took a step forward. "But she's dead."
Eldred hesitated. He had seen her body. Her siblings had been crying. But was that enough to prove that she was dead? "I don't know," Eldred admitted.
"There you go," Gran nodded. "It's a freeing feeling, isn't it – not knowing? It's better to simply admit it. So I might as well admit what I don't know. I don't know why you're here, Edsel. I don't even know if that's your real name, or—"
"Eldred. My real name is Eldred."
He wasn't quite sure what had made him say it, but Gran nodded a little. "I suppose you think that earns you a little something in return. Fair enough. My name is Valerie. Valerie Meldair."
Meldair. Eldred cocked an eyebrow. "Any relation to…"
"Distantly. But that's not important right now. He did his best to stay neutral during the war. Truth be told, he was much to old to take part – on either side. I, on the other hand, was quite a fighter in those days. I was mixed up in the very heart of the fray – right up until the very end. I was there the day District Thirteen fell."
"District Thirteen," Eldred repeated. "But how did you survive?"
"The same way the others did."
The others. "There were other survivors … in Thirteen."
"Yes. More than the Capitol would like to admit. We went underground – safe from the Capitol's bombs – and that's where we've stayed ever since. Most of us, at least. Some of us were scattered throughout the districts. The eyes and ears of District Thirteen, preparing for the day when we can make a move against the Capitol."
Eldred blinked. Now more than ever, he was certain that she had no idea who she was talking to. If she knew who he was – and what the president had offered him – she would never have even thought of revealing this to him. In fact, she would probably have killed him on the spot. But he was still alive, and she was still talking.
And it was probably better for him if she kept doing so. The more secrets she spilled, the better. "But what does any of this have to do with Autumn?"
Gran nodded a little. "That was part of our job. You see, District Thirteen has plenty of resources. Underground, we could survive for centuries. But the one thing we are rather short on is people. So, as often as we can, we … send a few."
"Send a few," Eldred repeated. "People. To District Thirteen. How?"
Gran reached into her pocket and produced a small berry. "Do you recognize this?"
Eldred shook his head. "Should I?"
Gran smiled a little. "Probably not. Not exactly common in the Capitol. But they're one of the few things that still grows in District Thirteen. Very poisonous, but, over the years, we've learned to distill that poison. Instead of death, we've modified it to cause paralysis – for a short period of time. Enough to mimic death long enough to convince a person's friends and loved ones. Enough to convince the Peacekeepers."
Eldred cocked an eyebrow. "And then what? You bury them?"
Gran let out a laugh. "Yes. But only a little. The Peacekeepers don't suspect anything, of course – figure we only dig shallow graves because we're lazy. Or because we're only given a short amount of time to do so. In any case, a person in a coffin covered only by a thin layer of earth can last for days – long enough to be rescued."
"Rescued by you?"
Gran shook her head. "Now, what good would that do? I can't very well take them to District Thirteen – or I would do so without having to go through the trouble of killing them first. No, they're rescued by someone from Thirteen – someone waiting on the edge of the district for the right moment to come in and find them."
"And they just … wait there? How do they know? How do you know?"
"We have signals," Gran answered vaguely. "Things you don't need to know. I've already told you too much – far too much. But that's all right."
"Why? How can you be sure I won't go straight to the Peacekeepers with this?"
Gran smiled a little. "Two reasons. One – I don't think you're the sort of person who would want to get an old woman in trouble with the Peacekeepers. You know what they'd do to me … and how likely I would be to survive it."
Eldred looked away. That was true. If the Peacekeepers discovered that she'd been spiriting people away to District Thirteen, they might just decide that it was time to put those wheels back to use. Even if they were a little less creative, there was no way she would survive. And whatever he might think about what she was doing, the fact remained that she'd been kind to him. She'd taken him in, opened her house to him when she'd had no reason to do so.
Unless … Had she known all along? Had she known, ever since they'd met, that he wasn't what he appeared to be? Had she simply been waiting for the right time to reveal what she knew?
And why had she chosen to do it now?
"And the second reason?"
Gran reached out a hand – a hand that picked up the cup that Eldred had set down near the boiler. "I think you already have some idea."
Eldred froze. "What did you do?"
"Most of the time, the people I send them are in need of help – or an escape. Children who deserve better than the life they'll have here. People who are barely getting by. The elderly or the blind or the crippled who have no one to care for them. But every so often, as a token of goodwill, we send them someone … special. Someone who can help them. And you, Eldred – with your knowledge of the Capitol, your knowledge of the president…"
So she did know. Eldred took a step backwards, ready to run. But where? Where could he go? If she had, indeed, poisoned his tea, then it was only a matter of time before it began to take effect. Would he have time to tell anyone before…
Before what? Before they found him and assumed he was dead? How long would it take for word to get back to the president? Eldred shook his head. "No. No, Valerie, please. Please think. If you know who I am, then you know the president will be watching. If anything happens to me – Gran, they'll come looking for me. They'll discover what you're doing, and—"
"And they'll kill you."
"Maybe. But not before you're in District Thirteen's hands. And that's worth the price."
"It's not. Believe me, it's not. I'm a bartender. I don't know anything. Please, Gran, just think." He took a step forward, but immediately started swaying. "Don't do this."
Before he could get anything else out, however, his legs gave way beneath him. She caught him as he fell, whispering something he couldn't hear over the roar of the boiler. He opened his mouth to say something, but no words came out. There was nothing more he could do.
Maybe there was nothing more she could do, either. Eldred gazed up into Gran's eyes as she squeezed his hand reassuringly. Her lips were moving. It'll be all right.
But would it? If her plan worked – if they took him to District Thirteen – then what? That had never been part of the plan. Would the president even know where to look for him? Would they want information from him? Or would they simply kill him on sight? Eldred stared up at Gran, silently begging. Pleading. Whether for his own life or for hers, he wasn't sure. Don't do this.
Then she closed his eyes.
It was dark.
Eldred blinked a few times to make sure his eyes were, in fact, open. But it did no good. It was pitch black. Slowly, his other senses began to return. He was lying on something hard. No, in something hard. Only a few inches above him was a lid of some sort. Still a bit hazy from the poison, it took him a moment to put it together.
He was in a coffin.
She hadn't listened. Damn it. Eldred pushed as hard as he could against the lid, but it was no use; the coffin was nailed shut. Now all that was left to do was find out whether she had been telling the truth.
Eldred closed his eyes. Of course she had been telling the truth. What reason would she have to lie? If she had simply wanted to kill him, she could easily have done so. No, that only left two options. Either she was telling the truth, or she was crazy.
The second option was possible, of course. All of her ramblings about District Thirteen – could they have been her imagination? Could she have made up the whole thing? If so, he would die here, in the dark, crammed in a box beneath the earth. Would he starve? Would he die of thirst? Or would he suffocate first? How deep was the ground they had buried him in? Would any air get through?
Stop it. Panicking wasn't going to help. In fact, if anything, it would make it worse. Panicking would make him breathe faster. Okay. Calm down. One breath. Then another.
How many did he have left?
Just then, there was a noise. Some sort of footsteps. Eldred froze. He didn't dare call out – didn't dare waste his breath. But, finally, unable to bear the suspense, he reached up and tapped on the lid of the coffin.
"I hear you," a voice muttered. "Keep it down; I'll have you out in a moment."
So it was true. Eldred wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry or scream for help. Finally, the lid was lifted off the box, and a hand reached down. Eldred grabbed it, and a man pulled him out of the ground.
"Edsel!" The voice belonged to Autumn, clearly surprised to see him – maybe surprised to see anyone. "What's going on? Who—"
Eldred grasped her shoulder tightly. "Autumn, listen to me. You need to go with this man. He's going to take you somewhere safe."
"What about you?"
"I can't. You have to go."
The man shook his head. "I have my orders. I'm not leaving without you."
Eldred gritted his teeth. Just this once, would it kill them to listen? "It's not safe to bring me with you. They'll be looking for me. You have a better chance on your own. Now get out of here, before—"
Just then, a light switched on. A light from a hovercraft above them. Immediately, the man took off, but he wasn't quick enough. One bullet was enough to bring him down. "Freeze!" called a voice from the hovercraft. "Don't move – either of you."
"We're all right," Eldred called. "It was just a misunderstanding. We—"
"Silence!" A Peacekeeper strode towards them, gun in hand. "I've had my eye on you for months. Kept telling the others you were up to no good – and it looks like I was right. Pretending to be dead in order to sneak off in the middle of the night. Gotta give you credit for creativity, I suppose. Never had anyone try that before."
If you only knew. "Please, you don't know who I am."
"I know enough. Now, put your hands up – now!"
Eldred couldn't help a small chuckle as he raised his hands. It was absurd. It was almost unbelievable. They had been caught – not because the president had been looking for him, not because Gran had been discovered, but because the Peacekeepers had pegged him as a troublemaker.
It would be a lot funnier if he wasn't so terrified.
"All right, then, you two, start talking," the Peacekeeper growled. "Whose idea was it?"
Gran's. It certainly hadn't been his idea. But the Peacekeepers needed someone to blame. And if it had to be one of them…
Eldred looked at Autumn, who stared back, her eyes wide and pleading. Too frightened to say anything. Too frightened even to blame him. Or maybe too loyal. Maybe she knew. Maybe she could tell that it hadn't been his plan, either. Maybe she even suspected who the real mastermind was but didn't want to betray one of the few people who had ever shown her kindness.
Eldred took a step forward, his hands still raised. "Mine. It was my idea. The girl knew nothing. I drugged her because I wanted some … company … for the journey."
"The journey where? And who is this man?" He nodded in the direction of the body.
"The journey away from here," Eldred answered vaguely. "And if you wanted to know who he was, then maybe you shouldn't have killed him."
Eldred anticipated the Peacekeeper's first punch and managed to duck in time, but the second one caught him squarely in the jaw. "Edsel!' Autumn called, but Eldred grabbed her, holding her back, placing himself between her and the Peacekeepers. Whatever he thought of Gran's plan, Autumn was innocent. And if not for him, she might have been safely on her way to District Thirteen, along with her rescuer. There wasn't anything Eldred could do for him, but maybe he could save Autumn.
"I'm the one you want," Eldred insisted. "Let her go. She knows nothing."
The Peacekeeper scoffed. "Nothing. So be it, then. From now on, nothing is exactly what she'll say, too." He nodded to one of the others, who grabbed Autumn and shoved her into the hovercraft.
"Where are you taking her?" Eldred demanded, but that was all he had time to ask before the Peacekeeper's club jabbed him in the stomach. He collapsed, gasping in pain, but the Peacekeepers quickly hoisted him up on his feet again.
One of the other Peacekeepers scoffed. "Be glad he's in a good mood. She got off easy. But you – trying to leave the district is treason. Wherever you were going, whatever you were thinking of doing – is it worth dying for?"
Treason. Death. Eldred's mind raced, trying to find the right words. The words that would spare him. He could tell them who he was, of course, but why would they believe him? He had no proof – nothing except the photograph in his pocket. If it was even there. Had they taken it when they'd buried him? And as proof went, that wasn't very concrete – for all they knew, the photograph could be of anyone.
But there was something else. One chance. Maybe a slim one, but maybe the only chance he had. "Please … wait until morning."
The Peacekeeper chuckled. "Wait a few hours? Why?"
Eldred shrugged. "So you can televise it."
This time, there was only one word.
Eldred clenched his teeth as the Peackeeper draped the sign around his neck. "Treason." Only one word, but it was enough. Enough to ensure his death, if his plan didn't work.
If they had killed him in the middle of the night, it might have been morning before anyone found out. That would have been too late. But if they televised it, someone would see it. The president. Someone in his cabinet. One of the Victors. Maybe the Peacekeepers would even request that Nicodemus and Vernon be present at the execution. Although considering what had happened the last time they'd asked Nicodemus to show up, they might decide against that…
One of the Peacekeepers pulled him to his feet. They'd kept him in a cell since they'd found him. What they'd done with Autumn, he couldn't be sure, but one of the Peacekeepers had said that she'd get off easy. Maybe that meant she was safe…
Stop worrying about her. It was his own life he needed to be concerned for now. Eldred took a deep breath as the Peacekeepers led him out into the early morning light. There were already people in the square. Workers on their way to the factories. Children on their way to school. Eldred tried not to look at them. Focus. Where were the cameras?
Two Peacekeepers dragged him roughly up the stairs to the stage, where they positioned him between two of the posts. One of them bound a rope around his right wrist, the second around his left. Each rope was looped through a metal rung at the top of one of the posts and slowly stretched until they were taut, drawing his arms above his head and as far apart as his shoulders would stretch.
Eldred clenched his teeth, bracing himself for what he knew was coming. One of the Peacekeepers drew a knife and sliced down the back of his shirt, exposing his skin. Another raised his whip. Crack. Eldred set his jaw, stifling a cry as pain shot through his back. People in the Capitol were watching. Maybe his wife and children were watching.
He wasn't going to let them hear his screams.
The second blow was sharper – and the third. Still, he managed to remain silent. One blow. Then another. Soon, his back was bleeding, but they still weren't satisfied. One of them tore what remained of his shirt from his back. Eldred glanced around frantically, looking for the cameras. Someone should have seen him by now.
But instead of cameras, he only saw another whip. A cruel, jagged whip with several lashes – and at the end of each lash a shard of metal. Eldred clenched his fists as tightly as he could.
But it did no good. The whip tore fiercely into his back as he forgot his promise not to scream. Pain ripped through him – first his back, then his arms and legs. Blood stained the stage. His clothes lay shredded around him. His legs gave way as the whip tore across them, forcing his weight onto his shoulders.
He passed out after the tenth blow.
"That was quite a risk you took."
Eldred smiled a little. Pain still coursed through his body. His back felt as if it had been torn apart and put back together again. But that voice – that voice made it all better.
It meant he was safe.
"It was the only thing I could think of at the time," Eldred admitted. "Asking them to televise it – it seemed like the only way of letting people know that—"
"What are you talking about?" President Grisom asked. "They didn't televise anything."
Eldred opened his eyes. The president was serious. "Then how did you—"
"Nicodemus called me. Said some old woman came running up to his house, screaming that they were about to kill you. Naturally, I ordered the Peacekeepers to stop, but if he'd called me any later…"
Some old woman. Gran, he was certain, but he didn't say so. He simply nodded. "Good timing, then."
Grisom nodded. "The Peacekeepers were horrified, of course, when they found out who you were. They rushed you here as quickly as they could. You've been out for a few days. It'll be a bit longer before you're completely healed, but apparently you'll make a full recovery. They can surgically remove the scars, if you'd like."
Eldred nodded. "Yes." If they hadn't televised it, then his wife didn't know. She didn't need to know. His children… He closed his eyes. His children. He would see his children again.
For a moment, that was all that mattered.
But then her face came rushing back, and his eyes snapped open again. "Silas, there was a girl with me when the Peacekeepers took me. Her name's Autumn. What happened to her?"
"They didn't say anything about a girl. I can find out." He hesitated. "I don't suppose you want to tell me why you were pretending to be dead and trying to sneak away?"
"Later." Eldred closed his eyes. "I promise, I'll tell you later. It's quite a story…"
But it would have to be a story for later. He could feel sleep creeping over him again. But this time, he would sleep well.
He was safe.
Eldred nodded, sitting up a little. "Underground, apparently. She's been sending people there for years – or so she says. I'd assumed they were all killed in the bombing, but—" He stopped short when he saw the look on the president's face. "You knew. You knew there were still people alive in Thirteen."
"And you never told me."
"You didn't need to know."
"Well, it certainly would have helped!"
Silas cocked an eyebrow. "Really? Would you have done anything differently, if I had told you? I knew that there were people still alive; I had no idea there were underground movements transporting people there. I certainly wouldn't have been able to warn you about Valerie. So what difference would it have made?"
Eldred sighed. He had a point. But that didn't mean he had to like it. "Is there anything else I don't need to know?"
Silas smiled a little. "Plenty. But before I tell you more, there's one thing I need to know first."
"And what's that?"
"Whether you intend to accept my offer."
Eldred nodded a little. He should have expected that. It was why he'd gone to District Six in the first place, after all. To understand. To figure out whether he was ready.
He still didn't understand – not completely. And maybe he would never be ready. But there was one thing he did understand: he needed to do this. Maybe all of Panem needed him to do this. "Yes," he said quietly. "I accept."
Silas nodded. "I was hoping you would. In that case, ask away."
Eldred hesitated. He had so many questions. But one was clearly the most important – the one that had lingered in the back of his mind ever since the president had offered him the job. "Why me?"
Silas leaned forward a little. "Do you remember the first conversation we had, Eldred?"
"Of course. Misha had just burned down the training center in Four, and you asked if I knew why you didn't have anyone else executed."
"And do you remember what you said?"
Eldred shrugged. "Not particularly. But whatever it was, it apparently made an impression."
Silas smiled. "It did at that. You told me about your daughter – how she had disobeyed you and ended up breaking her arm, and how the consequences of her actions had been punishment enough. In that moment, I knew I'd found what I'd been looking for – even if I hadn't realized I'd been looking for it. You understood the relationship between the Capitol and the districts in a way that most would never think of it. Where some people see a master and servants, you saw a parent and her children."
Eldred nodded. "One of the perks of being a father. You start seeing your children everywhere."
"And they're going to need that," Silas agreed. "Because, as a father, you understand that … that growth and change are a part of any child's life. And that any parent needs to be able to guide that growth, to be willing to grow alongside their child, to adapt to find a path that will best help them both."
"You're saying we need to change."
"Did you honestly spend three months in District Six and not see anything that needed changing?"
Three months. Had it really been three months? "Plenty," Eldred agreed. "I just wasn't expecting you to—"
"To agree so readily."
"You forget that I've had to change, too. I lived through the rebellion as a young man. Practiced law for a while afterwards. Mentored District Twelve. Served on Snow's cabinet. And now I'm the president." He shook his head. "That doesn't happen without change – or without recognizing the need for it. Why do you think I agreed to let you go to District Six?"
Eldred smirked. "Because I asked so nicely."
Silas chuckled a little. "Well, there was that, I suppose. But if there's any district where the need for change is evident … it's there. And change is necessary … but change doesn't happen overnight. I need someone who recognizes that. Someone who won't try to force changes to happen too quickly. Someone who realizes the value of patience … and the cost."
Eldred nodded. "So what's the plan?"
Silas shook his head. "There is no plan. Not yet. It needs to be your plan, or it will mean nothing. This has to come from you, if it's going to have any chance of working … Mr. Vice President."
Vice President. Grisom had made it clear, when he'd offered the position, exactly what it would entail. In a few years, when Silas stepped down, he would name Eldred as his successor. The presidency would be his.
There was a part of him that wanted it. And a part of him that didn't. But there was also another part – bigger than either of the others – that knew this was what he needed to do. This was what he needed. What the Capitol needed. What Panem needed. Silas had chosen him for a reason – and a good one. Now he just had to live up to that reason.
Eldred leaned back a little. Patience. Whatever the plan was going to be, it could wait. Days. Weeks. However long it took to get him back on his feet.
Silas nodded. "I know you're tired, but … there's something else. Someone else who wants to see you."
He opened the door, and a girl stepped in. "Autumn!" Eldred beamed. So they hadn't hurt her. And they had brought her here. That was more than he could have hoped for. "I'm so glad you're alive. When the Peacekeepers took you, I—" He stopped short when he saw the look on her face. "Autumn. What's wrong?"
Autumn looked away. Then back at him. At last, she put a hand to her mouth and shook her head silently. "I'm sorry, Eldred," Silas answered. "By the time I found her, it was too late. They'd already…"
"Made her an Avox." He clenched his fists. It wasn't fair. Autumn hadn't done anything. None of it had been her fault.
But, before he could say anything else, she was at his side, shaking her head, a small pad of paper in her hand. Quickly, she scrawled four words. You saved my life.
Eldred shook his head, tears in his eyes. If not for him, her life would never have been in danger. He opened his mouth to say so, but those weren't the words that came out. "I'm sorry," he whispered, and Autumn wrapped her arms around him.
When she finally pulled away, she nodded and held out her pad, which held two more words. I know.
How was he supposed to tell her?
Eldred turned his photograph over in his hands. It was torn and crumpled, stained with blood and barely recognizable. The Peacekeepers had managed to retrieve it from what had remained of his clothes. But the man in the photograph – the man smiling happily with his wife, his children – that man was gone.
Eldred could only hope that a better man had taken his place.
Finally, summoning his courage, he tucked the photo back inside his pocket and knocked on the door. He hadn't told Millicent that he was back. He'd wanted to surprise her. Now he was wondering if that had been a mistake. Would she be upset that she hadn't heard from him in so long?
It had been longer, after all, than he'd ever intended. Longer than he thought when he'd woken up in the Capitol. It had been months since then. He'd meant to come home sooner, but there had always been something – some reason he could find to avoid going home just yet. He wasn't fully healed. He didn't quite feel strong enough.
But, finally, Silas had insisted that hit was time for him to go home. And Eldred was grateful for that, at least. Whatever awaited him once that door opened, at least he would find out soon, rather than worrying about it for another month or so.
Just as he was beginning to wonder whether he should have called ahead – at least to find out whether or not she would be home – the door swung open. Millicent practically screamed as she threw her arms around him, calling to their children to come quickly. Soon, Eldred found himself engulfed in a pile of hugs.
For a moment, none of it mattered. What he had gone through in District Six. The pain. The fear. For a moment, it was all over.
"You're back," Millicent cried, tears streaming down her cheeks. "You're really back. You're alive. The president kept assuring us that you were, but I was beginning to think … I didn't know what to think. You never said how long you were going to be gone, and I—"
"I know." Eldred held her close. "I know. I didn't know, either. But I'm back now. I'm here and I promise…" He squeezed her tightly, then each of his children in turn. "I promise I will never leave you like that again."
And that was a promise he meant to keep. Whatever his duties as Vice President, he would never have to be away from his family for so long again. He would be able to see them whenever he wanted. They would never have to fear for his safety again.
Maybe. That last part was a bit tenuous, of course. President Snow, after all, had died in office without any sort of prior warning. But Snow was different. Snow had made enemies – too many enemies. So many enemies that the authorities had never been able to figure out who was behind his assassination – whether it was one of his political rivals, some rebel plot, or simply a dissatisfied underling.
He wouldn't make the same mistakes.
President Silas Grisom
He wouldn't make the same mistakes.
Silas shook Eldred's hand warmly as the crowd applauded their new Vice President, then turned to Millicent and each of Eldred's children in turn, shaking their hands. A gesture of welcome. Of trust.
That had been Snow's biggest mistake, in the end. He hadn't trusted anyone. And because of his own paranoia, he had never appointed a successor, and his death had left a vacancy until Silas had been called upon to pick up the pieces. He didn't intend to make the same mistake.
And as he watched Eldred and his family give the cameras a big wave and a long bow, he knew he had made the right choice. It wasn't a choice that would please everyone, but, in the end, trying to please everyone was as big of a mistake as not caring about pleasing anyone.
Eldred wasn't a politician. He wasn't a businessman or a tactician or a strategist. He would have to rely on others for that. But maybe, in the end, that was a strength. A man who knew his own limits was a man who would ask for help before things blew up in his face, not after. He would ask for advice, and, just as importantly, he would listen to the answer. A man like that, he could trust with anything.
Even the future of Panem.
"Life doesn't discriminate between the sinners and the saints. It takes and it takes and it takes and we keep living anyway. We rise and we fall and we break and we make our mistakes. And if there's a reason I'm still alive when so many have died, then I'm willing to wait for it."