live it out (it's a good story) Jun 1, 2018 22:31:08 GMT -5
Post by WT on Jun 1, 2018 22:31:08 GMT -5
content note: the section for the 71st touches on past suicide attempts, and the section for the 76th has current suicidal ideation as a major focus. the post won't not make sense if you want to skip those wholesale.64th
"So, Aranica, how have you been keeping busy since we last saw you?"
Aranica relaxes—not quite enough to sink into the plush chair they've placed her in, but enough to steady her breathing. As long as the questions stay pointed at her personal life, this is easy. "Chasing after Kieran might as well be a full-time job these days," she says with her first genuine smile since she stepped into the studio. "As soon as he learned to run it was all over for me."
Ghelfi laughs. "Champion Aranica Petros, outdone by a three-year-old."
Aranica forces out half a breath of something resembling a laugh and does her best to move on as though he hadn't spoken. "Formally, I'm a shopkeeper now. My guardian left her store to me when she died about a year and a half ago, and I still run it." Technically, she co-owns the shop these days, and if anyone can be said to run the place, it's Illario. Aranica handles her numbers competently enough, but she never had to learn to handle money; had Illario not stayed on after Ms. Cherise died, she suspects she would have killed the shop. Selling partial ownership to him felt both natural and fair. But Ara avoids dragging her friends' names into the limelight, and Ghelfi is hardly going to pry about the details. "The paperwork is a pain in the ass, but I get to talk to a lot of people, and it still gives me time to spend with Kieran."
Ghelfi beams at her. "He's splendid. We all look forward to seeing him, it's lovely that you bring him along every year." Before Aranica has to figure out how to respond to that without grimacing, he leans forward, head tilted conspiratorially. "But you must look forward to seeing us, too, right? Shopkeeping can't be an thrilling life for a Games victor!"
Aranica hopes she'll never grow out of feeling like she needs to vomit at the transition to talking about the Games.
"It's... a lot of excitement," she manages, forcing herself to keep her face relaxed. "And it's always good to get Mace and Kieran together for a while."
"Oh, we are all excited about District Twelve again this year." Ghelfi winks elaborately, whatever that means. "Are you proud to have a volunteer?"
Aranica shifts in her chair, resting one elbow on the armrest so she can hold the stone acorn necklace at the base of her throat, and hopes the gesture looks thoughtful instead of frantic. The rock hums soothingly under her fingers. Sierra is brave as hell—easily braver than Aranica, and probably kinder, for all that people keep trying to draw comparisons between small, brittle District Twelve underdogs. She's terrified of watching her die on the first day, and nearly as worried that the drama around her volunteering will overshadow Erik completely. He's a good kid, too. Maybe a little overeager to be here, but she's seen worse reactions. "Of course I am. Sierra made a difficult choice, and I'm always proud of our tributes."
(You too, Erinne, she thinks, but doesn't say. District Twelve's first chosen tribute got away with swearing at the district escort on camera; Aranica would rather let her luck rest.)
"Oh, that's precious of you," Ghelfi says, winking with the other eye, "but if you want to be honest, I promise to keep it between you and me and our closest fr—"
"Everyone who goes into the Arena does their best," Aranica cuts in. For a long moment she holds Ghelfi's startled gaze, then slides her eyes to the front camera, using the movement to surreptitiously blink down frustrated tears. She can't argue about it, but fuck Aelius Ghelfi if he thinks he can convince her to laugh at children for not dying elegantly enough.
"I am always," she says again, hoping that at least some of Panem hears that she's not only talking to District Twelve, "proud of our tributes."65th
The Capitol never fully settles down. During the day, Aranica has more important things to pay attention to; at night, it's insufferable. Even with her rock's steadying influence, she bolts upright at the thrum of every passing car and every set of footsteps passing her door.
To be fair, half the time she doesn't even try to sleep. Before the Games, the flood of training and planning and interviews and paperwork barely leaves her time to catch up with the other victors, let alone rest. During them, as long as her tributes live, she dozes upright in front of televisions in public rooms. Her nightmares are worse in the Capitol, too, and if she rarely gets back to sleep after one, that has little to do with the traffic.
Whether the noise keeping her awake is more inside her head or outside, she ends up in the same spot: leaning against her room's windowsill, watching the play of neon lights outside without fully seeing them. The only change is that tonight, instead of fidgeting with her necklace, she gently turns the mahogany medallion from Mace around and around in her hands. Occasionally she pauses to run one thumb over the rough edges at the outline of each letter in "BEST MOM EVER." Mace clearly engraved it himself, because of course he did; he's thoughtful, about things like that. Capitol rumor mill notwithstanding, they've never been in love, but she's so grateful to have a friend like him that she could cry about it. She did cry, in fact, when he gave her the medallion and hugged her while she mumbled that she still wasn't ready to be glad she made it out, but she was glad he was here, too.
She's still thinking about his last question, about what to say for this year's young batch of tributes. Unfortunately, her own training is a blur in her memory. Living off the grid kept her isolated from the Games as a preteen, and when she got to the Capitol she spent most of her time distracted by the excitement of making friends. If anyone gave her the kind of advice Mace is looking for, she doesn't remember it.
What she does remember is the night after her private training session, when everything caught up with her and the boy assigned to her room stayed awake to hold her hand until she cried herself out. She told Mace that story this afternoon, ending it a little haltingly with "I think making sure they don't feel alone might be the most important thing right now."
It's not enough, but wracking her brain for a better answer has left her feeling as empty-handed and helpless as she does every year.
Another thought wrenches her back into the present. "Hey, speaking of not being alone," she murmurs to her acorn, "remind me to check in with Arbor tomorrow." Her relationship with Arbor has always been a little hesitant—neither of them has made themself easy to support, some years—and she doesn't know whether he and Brendon are close. Even so, she wants to make sure he remembers that he has company if he wants it and that he's not the only one looking out for Brendon, even if Ara and Heron can't make him their sole priority.
If you expect to have time, you should sleep.
"It would be easier to stay up."
You're not quite a rock.
Aranica screws up her face, but it's a good point. "I'll try."
She ducks into Kieran's room before she crawls back into bed. As she always hopes but never convinces herself to expect, he's exactly where she left him. One foot twitches, perhaps running in some dream; Aranica laughs under her breath at the sight, equal parts affection and relief.
It's surreal to be older than her tributes, and infinitely worse to be older than her ghosts. She may never reach a milestone without feeling like it should be Dru's. But she can't regret living long enough to stumble into this tiny family, and she's learning to be okay with knowing she's done her best, these last ten years. Whether or not she lives up to that medallion, whether or not she does enough for the tributes in her care, all she can do is try not to waste the years her sister made sure she would reach.66th
A few months after Anani crashed onto her doorstep and back into her life, he gave her a silver metal necklace to replace the fraying thread she kept her acorn on and wished her a happy birthday. Aranica hadn't even known it was her birthday; she and Ms. Cherise had guessed together on her paperwork, and spent the last two years celebrating it nearly four months off. Considering everything else about their lives, maybe it shouldn't have been a big deal, but they ended up in one of their increasingly hysterical cycles of apologies: Aranica for not knowing, Anani for not telling her earlier, Aranica for realizing she had missed Anani's own birthday the month before.
Even then, Aranica knew that she wasn't easy to live with that year. Sometimes she drifted out of her head for days, barely speaking and only getting out of bed because her rock walked her patiently through each step. Other times, she would feel fine all week until something snapped and she screamed at Anani out of nowhere, aiming for the things she knew would hurt: you only came back because I have money now, or Dru took better care of me than you and she knew me for three weeks.
But for all that he was at best an awkward comforter, and sometimes he snapped and screamed back at her, Anani never once left the house while she was upset. In between, on the good days, he would teach her how to cook their father's favorite stew, or they would go out on errands and end up holding each other upright while they laughed breathlessly at a joke neither of them would remember in five minutes. A little at a time, she allowed herself to believe that he really wanted to stay with her.
That birthday, when they calmed down enough for her to switch the acorn into the new necklace, Anani's badly hidden beam made her hopeful enough to plan for the future. She wanted to spend all eleven months making his next birthday perfect, to make up for the one she missed.
They never made it that far, but she's never missed a year at his grave.
His gravestone, which has as fuzzy a concept of time as any rock, rarely expects to see her. This is one of the surprised years, and she smiles a little at that as she kneels to brush away stray leaves and dust from his name. "It's been a while for me. Thank you for remembering him."
You never need to thank me.
"Of course I do." Outside in the wind and rain, Anani's name will wear away long before the gravestone itself crumbles. From any rock's perspective, this is a small favor. She still appreciates it. "You didn't have to be here."
It gives her an unintelligible thought tinged with embarrassment, then, Go talk to our cousin.
Rocks don't have the clearest concept of family trees, either. Aranica snorts but settles down agreeably, tucking her back up to the side of the stone and her knees against her chest. In his interview, Anani told her to watch the stars; she's never really seen the point in stargazing, but they remind her of him, so she does exactly that, waiting silently as the first few points of light appear.
"Hey, Anani," she whispers. "It's Nisa." Whether it ever truly felt like hers, she always loved that Anani had his own name to call her. It felt like the kind of thing normal siblings did. "Happy birthday."
She visits often enough to not have any major updates most of the time, so she meanders from one anecdote to another. Before long, of course, she lands on Kieran, whose most recent escapades include demanding that everything he eats come in sets of five pieces and asking everyone who stands still for two seconds what they think he should wear to his first day of school.
"I was worried he'd be scared," she adds, "but I think he's looking forward to seeing more kids his own age, it's cute as hell." She hesitates for a moment, then decides that if there's anyone she doesn't have to be embarrassed in front of, it's her brother, who knows exactly why she started school over half a decade late and never quite caught up. "I'm thinking about tutoring. For me, I mean, so I can help out if he ever wants me to. I don't know if he will, but... I don't know. That sounds like a parent thing."
She sighs heavily and wiggles out of the slouch she slipped into at some point. "I wish you'd met him, Anani. Our family didn't have to be the way it was. You'd love him so much, once you got over being scared of yourself."
She tries to tell Kieran about Anani. Someday she'll have to tell him the whole story, both because he deserves to hear it and because she doesn't want someone else to get to it first, but for now she lets it out in bits and pieces. She talks about him teaching her to cook, or the way Kieran looks a little like him, from time to time. Once she recites his favorite joke, just because it occurs to her; Kieran rolls his eyes at it, but she catches him smiling a moment later.
Anani found her ten years ago, and next Games it will have been ten years since he died. He was there before and after Dru, long gone before Mace and Kieran, only briefly and awkwardly overlapping with Ms. Cherise. She may have been the only person who loved him, but she did, she still does, and she does what she can to keep some part of him alive.67th
"You might want shoes for this, you know."
After twelve years, Aranica knows the difference between a casual suggestion and Bellezze trying to wheedle her into something. "You already made them, didn't you?"
She pulls a pair of slippers out of her bag. They're the same bright red as the dress shirt Aranica just finished buttoning; she can't make out the slightly darker overlay, but assumes it's something floral, to match the buttons and the ostentatious jeweled ladybug holding up her hair. "No heels!"
Bellezze has always made time for Aranica. A decade ago, she took it upon herself to make sure that she showed up for any meal that Ara would otherwise have spent alone, just to make sure she actually ate. Even though her strict priority has to be the year's tributes, she's never stopped making at least one umbrella every year. She remembers little things, and she pushes, but never insists—she coaxes Ara into wearing shoes in front of cameras ("it was cute when you were little, but sweetie, people say you're weird now") without ever asking her to wear heels, and always tells her team to make sure Ara's necklines accommodate her acorn. In another life, Aranica would call her a friend.
In this life, Bellezze cheerfully makes herself part of the Games every year. She was the first person to talk to Aranica when she woke after her Games, but she was the last person to speak to Anani before his and the last to personally escort tributes to their deaths every year that Aranica has been a mentor.
The end result is that Aranica ends up weighing every interaction with Bellezze in a way she does with no one else in her life. The criteria are endless, and fuzzier than she would like: Is she adequately paying back the time and energy given to her? Is she being unfair to the tributes under her nominal protection? Is she being unfair to herself? The whole calculation is exhausting.
"Do I need shoes?"
"It's a private gala," Bellezze concedes. "But someone might step on your feet!"
This isn't a battle worth fighting. "I'll try them on."
Bellezze deposits the shoes in front of her with half a curtsy and claps, a tiny motion that somehow only uses her fingertips. Aranica rolls her eyes, but looks right at Bellezze so they both know she's only doing it to be seen doing it, and lets her face soften when that produces the expected high-pitched laugh.
She still wrinkles her nose as she kneels to put them on. Hi, shoes, she tells them, in case they pick up on her reluctance. It's not personal, I just don't like not being able to feel the ground. You're very pretty.
They chatter back immediately and without the faintest sign of taking offense. By the time she finishes lacing them, both have called her sweetie and distracted each other at least once. All in all, they sound like Bellezze.
Despite everything, just for a moment, that makes her smile.68th
If Kette wasn't sure what to make of finding out that the cute boy she asked out two months ago co-owns a used goods store with Aranica Petros, she's really not sure what to make of being invited to Aranica's house for dinner.
When she asked him for advice, Illario warned her about the thing with the rocks. "I don't worry about it, it just seems to be how she processes things," he said with a shrug. "Just don't say you're looking forward to rain unless you're trying to end the conversation." Aranica still wears her token to interviews, but she hasn't actually talked about rocks in a long time, so Kette always assumed that either she'd grown out of talking to them or the whole thing had been a gimmick to begin with. Apparently, she just keeps it out of the public eye now. True to Illario's word, on the walk between the District Square and Aranica's home, she stopped three different times to exchange greetings with pebbles in the road. Once she patted one, but the rest of the time she might as well have been talking to thin air as far as Kette could tell. ("Do they have names?" she asked at one point in a vague attempt to figure it out, only for Aranica to tilt her head and say "No, why would they?") So that part is weird.
But other than that, Aranica seems... well, surprisingly normal. It's one thing to figure that someone is a probably a regular person, underneath the makeup and speculation. It's another entirely to eat sautéed vegetables at their dining room table while they sit across from you with their hair down and their prosthetic arm off. Out from under the microscope and the looming specter of death, Aranica laughs loudly, ruffles her son's hair, and asks a steady stream of what seem like genuinely interested questions about Kette's life. Kieran himself fidgets like he has better things to do than hang out with adults, but Kette has too many little siblings to take offense to that.
When they're done and Kieran has left to—presumably—do his homework, Aranica sets tea to cool and Kette insists on helping wash the dishes. The conversation lulls while they work. It's not entirely uncomfortable, especially as the work settles into a rhythm, but she can't stop sneaking glances out of the corner of her eye.
As she scrubs oil out of the last pan, Aranica catches Kette's eye and says, "You know I won't tell Illario you tried to stab me if you ask something impolite, right?"
Kette pulls a face. "Am I that obvious?"
Aranica laughs, not unkindly. "I spend a lot of time with people dancing around the same questions. Go ahead, I'll tell you if I don't want to talk about something."
Kette wants to take a moment to think about that, despite the reassurances, because she is trying to make a good impression here. Instead, she blurts out the first thing that comes to mind. "Will you tell me about Drusilla? I never got why you two got along." She blinks. "No offense."
To Kette's surprise, Aranica laughs at that, too. "None taken. Most people don't get it." She takes the washcloth back to the table as she speaks; when Kette starts to follow, she shakes her head, quick enough to shake the ends of her hair. "I've got this, go ahead and pour the tea? Thanks. Anyway—yeah, on paper Dru on I should have hated each other. She was there to win and I was there to... try be nice to people until I died, I guess." She wipes down the table with practiced motions as she talks. "But she was... she had a heart that a lot of people didn't see. And I think she respected that I listened to her without letting her boss me around."
That tells Kette more about Aranica than about Drusilla. "A heart how?"
Aranica's gaze goes a little vague. Kette lets her stall, watching without comment as she hangs up the washcloth and hoists herself onto the counter.
"I know she was pretending, at the end," she says finally. "About being possessed by clouds, I mean. I was mad for a while when I figured it out, but she was—I'd offered to let her eat me, you know? I wouldn't hurt her if I thought I had a choice. She wasn't the kind of person to throw a fight, but she gave me a chance. And she looked out for Argent and Shanks and Jango, too, longer than a lot of people would have expected her to. It's just that when push came to shove they were her allies and I was her sister."
"Thanks," Kette says, and passes her tea, because what else do you say to something like that?
"Thanks for asking." Aranica smiles faintly into her mug. "It's nice to know people remember her."69th
Forty minutes ago, Aranica walked into this building under the firm impression that she knew how to dance. She's certainly done enough of it, especially in the last eight years or so, as she got old enough for her expected level of participation in mandatory promotional events to exceed "look cute."
One crash and two floor landings later, she's been gracelessly disabused of that notion. Whatever this style of dance is, it's not designed to let people have leisurely conversations on the floor. Everything requires at least six people, and it feels like every time she figures out who her partner is, the group has already started shuffling.
She is absolutely coming back next week.
She's also exhausted and still a touch embarrassed after the last fall, so she doesn't complain when someone calls for a water break. The one person she knows—Isabel, a former cashier at the shop and lasting friend who had extended the invitation—catches up with her as she sits down, plunking herself next to Aranica on the very edge of the bench with her elbows on her knees. The way she has to bend her neck to look at Aranica from that position seems uncomfortable, but she doesn't move. "Thought you said they teach you how to dance in the Capitol."
Not thinking about the Capitol was kind of the point of this. Aranica should like dancing—it's social and active without being competitive, and it demands enough attention to quiet her mind a little—but it's impossible to enjoy anything she associates with the Games, and she's tired of being anxious about literally everyone and everything she loves. She'd been honest when Isabel asked about her prior dancing experience, though, so she doesn't mind the question, even if she grimaces at it. "Yeah, I think that's the problem, actually." She takes another sip of water. "Galas are about networking, not dancing. It's all... they usually keep it simple. Two-person stuff."
"I'm teasing, Aranica," Isabel says. "Trust me, you are not the worst beginner we've ever had. Ask Chet about the time he gave me a bloody nose."
Ara rolls her shoulders. She's grown into her limbs as an adult, but teaching them to do new things still takes a while. Honestly, she's surprised she hasn't already fallen more. "Don't count me out yet."
"Nah, come on." Isabel pats her shoulder. "We'll do an extra walkthrough for the next one. And listen, make sure you get in a set with... there she is, get into a set with Ruchel." She points to a dark-skinned woman about Aranica's height, who notices them looking at her and waves amiably. Ara starts to wave back, then aborts the motion as she realizes she's still holding her water. "She's real good at steering people out of disaster. Don't worry if she sounds a little short-tempered about it, that's just her voice."
People have started meandering back to the middle of the floor, so Aranica drains the last of her water and stands, wincing a little as something pulls in her lower back. "I promise not to punch her in the nose."
"Good call, but Chet used his forehead." Isabel claps her on the shoulder as she stands. "Don't worry, we'll make a proper dancer of you yet."70th
"So you need me to balance the numbers."
"I can't do it without you, and I won't try." Aranica's dark eyes are as serious as Illario has ever seen them. "If anything goes wrong, I should be able to take the fall, but that's a huge should. I wouldn't take that risk without your permission."
"What about Kieran?"
"Mace's side of the paperwork should go through this month. Kieran's moving."
"Oh, Ara." Her voice was light, but her expression looks the way it does in interviews sometimes, too still to be entirely real. When she told him that she and Mace had decided to let Kieran move, he didn't realize they would get through the red tape so quickly. He suspects that neither did she. "Is everything else ready?"
She shrugs. "We've been packing on and off. I think we're all a little nervous, even Kieran, but it should be good for him. Mace, too. But he's—the point is he's not going to be dependent on me. If anything happens to me, he won't end up stranded."
"They could still..."
He doesn't want to finish the sentence, but she knows what he means. "I know. Every time I open my mouth on camera, I'm thinking about it. That's why I want to do something quiet."
"It's still breaking the law, Ara."
"To be fair, nobody ever told me I can't funnel Victor income wherever I feel like it."
"I think it's implied," he says dryly.
She sighs. "Listen, I'm—I do my best for our tributes. But I'm not a lot of use here, and this money keeps piling up. I might as well get it out to people who can do something with it. In a way that's more trouble to sensationalize than to bury, if I can."
That sounds uncomfortably like I need to justify my existence, and any other day he might put up a fight about that, but she's not going to hear it right now. Instead he flips through the ledger—not making plans, yet, but scanning for a rough idea of how their finances have shifted in the last year. "Reverse money laundering is more sustainable than firebombing the Justice Building."
He's joking—mostly—but she responds seriously. "Might be more traceable, though."
Illario marks his place with one index finger and eyes her. "Weren't you just trying to convince me that this is on the up-and-up?"
Ara does grin then, but only for a moment. "I meant it about not doing this without you. It's only an idea, and if you say no, I'll figure something else out. No pushing, no questions asked."
He looks back at the numbers, nodding slowly. "I need to tell Kette, and if we do this we need to take it slowly. Probably slower than you want. But... I don't think it's a bad idea." He catches Aranica punching the air out of the corner of his eye and looks up to point at her. "Don't get me wrong, this is a terrible idea. But not a bad one."
I swear, rock, Aranica says privately, I'm going to start having the conversation in my sleep.
The acorn rumbles a laugh, but refuses to answer. Aranica takes the hint and focuses on her interview. "Kieran wanted to live in District Ten. As long as we could make the logistics work, Mace and I thought that should be his decision to make."
Marcia Express leans forward to clasp Aranica's hand. "Is everything okay, though?"
Ara almost misses the question because she's busy trying not to flinch. Express is careful with her nails—she must not want to chip the ornate circuitry pattern painted on them—but they're unreasonably long, and the synthetic arm always feels more sensitive when she hasn't worn it for a while. It tickles. When the voice registers, a second late, Aranica flicks her eyes from their joined hands back up to Express' wide eyes. What exactly is she getting at?
The rock gives her the mental equivalent of a shrug. What do they ever ask?
That's not helpful.
The thing is, there are a lot of true answers to this question. Aranica will not admit most of them on Capitol television. No one in this room needs to know the way her heart raced when she caught up with Kieran in the Training Center yesterday, irrationally terrified despite all their calls that he no longer wanted anything to do with her—or, worse, that he thought she had agreed to the move because she no longer wanted anything to do with him. And while she can't refuse to talk about him at all, her unspoken policy is to steer questions away from Kieran's personal life. She's certainly not going to betray his confidence by airing anything about their intermittent fights or his trouble getting to know people in District Twelve.
"I miss him every day," she settles on, "but we still talk all the time. He's adjusting well."
Express bobs her head. "Sure, sure. Only we know your family history, and we know you're not the most stable, so I just wanted to make sure you didn't send him away because you're..." She hushes her voice, clearly under the impression that she's being delicate. "You know, worried about hurting yourself. Or him."
Aranica's mouth drops open a little. Whatever part of her brain remains attached to her body informs her that she's furious, but the rest of her processes that through a sudden, dense fog.
"Just making sure," Express repeats, patting Aranica's hand very quickly. Is she shaking? She might be shaking. That hand is very far away.
Privacy doesn't exist for Victors. She's only ever been subjected to the one in her presentation ceremony, but she knows both her suicide attempts are on filed footage. Anani told the entire country that he abandoned her after they were orphaned; despite his efforts to be discrete about the details, it didn't take long for someone to dig up a Detention Center report on Aranica Petros, 32, charged with and executed for three counts—retroactively corrected to one—of premeditated homicide. Capitolites, along with the occasional stranger in District Twelve, have spent years talking to Aranica like they know anything about Anani, their parents, or her feelings about her childhood. She hates it, but she's used to it. Someone casually invoking that history to ask whether she thinks she might kill her son is new.
With a herculean effort, Aranica closes her mouth. "I would chew off my other arm," she says, enunciating with painstaking care, "before I did anything to hurt Kieran."
Express giggles. "That would be quite the feat!"
"Uh-huh." Aranica makes a conscious effort not to press herself as far back in her chair as she can. "Thank you for your concern."
"We only want the best for you!"
Express still has her hand. She is never going to escape this chair. "So I always hear."72th
"Okay, you have the wrong idea," Aranica says, tapping a loose fist against the table. In retrospect, even with as closely as she and Illario guard their backs, she should be surprised that she hasn't had to have this conversation earlier. Someone probably would have approached her eventually even without the money situation; non-Peacekeepers with Capitol access are rare birds in District Twelve. That doesn't mean she likes that having it now. "I don't bribe, I don't take bribes, and I do not smuggle."
"I'm not asking you for gunpowder," Isaias says, as though the nature of the product he wants has anything to do with the risk he's asking her to take. "I'm a doctor."
"Yeah, and I'm a person who doesn't break the damn law when she has checkpoints to cross and eighteen cameras pointed at her." Folding her arms feels a little unbalanced without the prosthetic, so she puts her hand on her hip. "It's not personal, okay? I don't know if you've noticed, but my family consists of extremely public targets."
"What, so your own kid goes to Ten and suddenly that's all hot air, about wanting to help people here?"
"Oh, fuck off," Aranica says, mostly because it feels really, really good to be able to pick a fight with someone who has no power over her. But Isaias only raise his eyebrows, and after a moment she leans back in her chair with a heavy sigh.
No recommendation is a guarantee. On a professional level, she knows she can't trust this man. On a personal level, she wants to.
"What I do," she says, speaking slowly so that nothing about Illario doctoring their ledgers slips out, "is try to use the income generously provided to me by the Capitol to support the people who depend on this store for their livelihoods."
Isaias takes the hint immediately. "Hire me. As a temp, part-time, whatever."
"I don't make any decisions alone." Illario would be rightfully pissed if she made a deal on the spot, and he'll have a better estimate on the cost of transporting morphling anyway. She thinks he'll agree that this is a good compromise, though; everything will look normal, and if Isaias takes the money she gives him through other routes, there should be enough steps between it and her name to avoid trouble. Should, we're always working with shoulds. "Consider your application under review and talk to me next week."
He leaves as cordially as he'd arrived. Aranica gives herself a long moment sitting alone with her head in her hand, and hopes she knows what she's doing.73th
"May the odds be ever in his favor," Aranica says hurriedly, because she will cry or scream or both if this conversation takes any longer. "Excuse me, I have to check in for the ceremony."
"I'll just be a second!" The reporter moves with her as she tries to make a break for the door to the Justice Building. "Just one statement!"
During the Games, Capitol representatives shepherd Aranica everywhere. She knows perfectly well that it's not for her benefit, but it does shelter her from tabloid reporters. She would have expected things to be easier without an audience breathing down her throat, but shock has knocked all her carefully-rehearsed sound bites out of her head like the snap that starts an avalanche. "Excuse me, I really need to be on t—"
The reporter raises his voice and, to her astonishment, speeds up. "Do you wish you could be in District Ten? Are you excited? Do you think Kieran might carry on his family legacy? Did you and Mace buy tesse—"
"Kieran is his own person," Aranica snarls, and then she can't breath for a second, because holy shit, she cannot give anyone in the Capitol a reason to be upset at her family. She can't break character and she definitely can't imply that she wants Kieran out of the Games. Not any year, but especially not anymore. "Kieran doesn't have to be in the Games for Mace and me to be proud of him. I love him and I miss him, and I'll always support him."
"If he is Reaped, will you abstain from mentoring in District Twelve?"
"Stop monopolizing my Victor!"
Bellezze's dainty gait doesn't lend itself to stomping, especially in the flimsy pencil skirt she's wearing, but she makes a good show of it as she rushes down the steps. "Put in an interview application like everybody else. I need to get this girl dressed."
"But what if— People want t— Can we—" Every time he starts a question, Bellezze jabs him in the chest with an umbrella. "Sorry Ms. Petros I'll find you later please think about my questions!" he says in one rushed breath, and finally takes off in a small storm of papers and cords.
Bellezze immediately turns to hug Aranica and press the umbrella, a small green-and-white number that must match the outfit waiting for her inside, into her hands. "Looks like someone in security dropped the ball," she says with a sniff. "I'll see whether I can get the footage from those camera glasses confiscated."
"I didn't even notice them," Aranica admits, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands. She can't let these questions shake her so much in official interviews. Victors' families already feel disproportionately Reaped; no need to bring extra attention down on Kieran because his mother is too scared to hold her tongue.
Bellezze swats her hands down. "Don't make your eyes pink, sweetie. And don't worry so much. Count on Mace's glower to keep paparazzi away."
Ara groans. Thanks, Belle, I needed something else to worry about.
She's trying to help.
I know, that's the problem.
Oblivious to that conversation, Bellezze shoves Aranica's shoulder just hard enough to move her toward the door. "Get inside, kiddo, Ambroos thinks your dress might need shortening. Why he thinks I don't know how tall you are, I do not know, but he won't give either of us any peace if he doesn't get his hands on you soon."
Bellezze only calls her kiddo as an invitation to banter, but with the momentary relief of losing the reporter fading, Aranica can barely stand to look at her without flinching. This woman held Kieran before even Mace got to, watched him grow up, and played with him on the train while Ara kept new tributes company. If things were slightly different, she would have been thrilled for the chance to design a tribute outfit for him.
Hugging the new umbrella against her chest, she goes.74th
Erasyl's first impression of Aranica Petros is that she's overly familiar. Within half an hour, he's added the observations that she's exactly as emotional as she acts on camera and she seems flighty until she comments on something halfway across the room that you didn't even realized she'd noticed, let alone paid attention to. None of it is actively offensive, but the overall effect is unnerving, and he's looking forward to getting out of her company.
She's also overpaying him for two rabbits, so it's not exactly a hardship to help her carry feed and hay to her house and look over her rabbit-proofing. It's just weird.
Right now, she's crouched next to him on the floor of her own living room. They've only been here for a few minutes, and he's starting to get tense from the way she's staring across the room at the crate her chosen rabbits are refusing to exit. "Can I do anything to make them less nervous?"
"Travelling makes rabbits nervous. Life makes them nervous." Erasyl sighs. "They'll come out when they come out, Miss Petros." Honestly, he can't tell what she's so worried about. The little agouti is inching steadily toward the blueberries outside the crate door; the mottled brown and white one is still sitting back, but watching the agouti's progress intently. They'll be fine.
"Okay," she says, but without taking her eyes away from the rabbits. "How does Liddy sound for the white one?"
She'd asked him about Sycamore, too. He still has no idea why she expects him to have an opinion. "Sure."
"Liddy," she repeats softly, nodding. They watch the rabbits in uncomfortable silence for a few more moments. "Thanks for doing this. I know it's not exactly your job."
That's true. He raises the rabbits for the local butchers, and most people in District Twelve have better things to spend money on than a pet that can't even mouse for them. Again, though, she's overpaying him. Truth be told, he'd sell them at a regular price as long as he had the stock to spare, but the extra money definitely doesn't hurt. "You're not that far out of my way." In the interest of keeping the conversation from steering anywhere weird, he adds, "Why rabbits?"
"It just gets kind of quiet around here," Aranica says.
He meant why not a cat or something, but sure. "I get that. Our youngest daughter moved in with her wife last year."
She lights up, which makes Erasyl feel a little warmer toward her. "Oh! Congratulations!"
"Thanks. They're sweet. Does get lonely at home now, though."
Aranica nods. "I'm never alone, but the house feels so still, you know?" Erasyl glances around and, failing to find shoes or any other sign of another inhabitant, furrows his brow at her. "Oh, no, someone stays over once and a while but it's—" She holds up her necklace. "I've always got my rock, I mean."
He should have known she'd find a way to say something weird anyway.
The agouti saves him by taking the bait at last, scrambling out of the cage and grabbing a blueberry. The other rabbit hesitates a little longer, but must decide that whatever doom she's imagining is worth not letting someone else eat all the berries, because she follows almost immediately. Erasyl stands. "Alright, I'll show you how to fold up the crate. You're good from here?"
Aranica stands too, nodding. "Don't crowd them, leave hay out all the time and if they stop eating it's an emergency," she says. "Leafy vegetables, watch their ears—"
"Yeah, you're good," he says, before she can recite an entire primer on lagomorph care. "Rabbits are easy after keeping a kid alive."75th
As long as Sage is alive, Aranica's only priorities should be keeping an eye on him and worrying about sponsors. The part of her that's been doing this for twenty years, the part that keeps running every Games after the first tribute dies and the rest of her shuts down, is still keeping track of those things. But he hasn't been on screen since he last fell asleep, which means nothing can be immediately imminent, and Kieran is—probably still awake himself, actually, but last Ara knew he was at least trying to sleep. And the other Victors have scattered, and all she can think to do is visit Lethe.
It can't do Lethe any good. Even if she was awake, there's nothing to say. As it is, Aranica can only sit by her bed and listen to her breathing and the steady beeps of the machinery monitoring her sedation. Ara hopes that keeping her under for now is kinder than making her watch the rest of the Games; watching the way she shifts whenever a dream breaks through the drugs, she's not convinced.
They all know that someone dies no matter what. Aranica struggles with that every time she answers a question or fills out a sponsorship form, and she knows she's not the only mentor who loses sleep over it. The problem is that the Games work because everyone knows that, but you can't say goodbye to your sibling or your child or the love of your short life without hoping to see them again.
Believing in people—making the conscious, daily choice to believe in them, despite seeing the worst of them every year—is all that keeps Aranica from letting herself drown in how bad things are some years. That's the main reason she's always made an effort to get along with Cricket. They don't exactly seek each other's company, but they've never fought, and until this year she always found it mildly comforting to see someone in the Victor crowd thriving instead of withering under attention.
Eden is dead, her skull crushed by a boy who didn't make it half a day further. By the end of the week, forty-nine more children will be dead; many of them already are. Cricket didn't walk any of them to the stage, but Aranica is no longer inclined to be charitable.76th
The year after Kieran moved, Kette and Illario made sure to be there when Aranica arrived at the train station. The moment they established that she didn't have plans with the other District Twelve Victors, they badgered her into coming home with them for dinner. Neither of them wanted her going straight home to an empty house, and apparently neither did Aranica, because she agreed without a fuss.
It became tradition, reassuring and immutable. Every year after Aranica makes her goodbyes to Arbor and Heron, she comes home with them for dinner, and when she starts to yawn one of them walks her home and promises to see her in the morning. Over the years, the only changes have been the additions of Vibeke, then Rune, and most recently Sycamore and Liddy, who stay in the Krines' house while Aranica is away. So Illario's stomach wrenches when Aranica clings to him at the train station and asks, "Can the furballs and I stay with you for a few days?"
"Any time," he says, at the same time that Kette says, "Of course." They do actually have dinner plans in a few days, but Aranica doesn't ask for things lightly, and they haven't broken this routine in years. If she hasn't gone home by then, rescheduling won't be a big deal. "You wanna talk?"
"Maybe tonight." When the kids are asleep, he decodes.
The kids in question lose their patience exactly then, barreling past him to clamor at Ara about how well they looked after Liddy and Sycamore. She lightens a little at that, scooping Rune onto one hip and hugging Vivi against her other sider while she half-shouts back that she won't believe anything until she sees her rabbits safe and sound. Kette joins in, mock-offended on her children's behalf, but catches his eye over Ara's shoulder when she's distracted.
They agree with a nod that they'll hold her to that talk.
"I didn't wear my arm to the Reaping," Aranica says later. She hasn't changed out of the sequined teal gown she was given for the ride home, but leaning against Illario's shoulder on his and Kette's floor with her bare feet tucked up under her and Sycamore nestled in her lap, she barely looks like the same person who stepped off the train. She barely looks like herself at all, right now. "I always keep it on in the Capitol but I don't think about it here, right? And on the train the escort gave me this, this... he dressed it up, but he went on about—gratitude, whatever bullshit, how I shouldn't—someone decided I was trying to remind people that the Games damaged me."
Her grip on her token is starting to turn her knuckles white. Kette bumps a foot into her knee, and Aranica takes a shuddering breath, visibly forcing herself to relax her upper body. "It's so stupid. Lots of people do fine with one arm, I don't fucking care, I care about Wendell and Dandy and Dru and our team and Anani and—"
They'd wait if she ran through every tribute from her Games and everyone she's mentored since, but she cuts herself off with another of those slow breaths. Illario squeezes her shoulder silently until he's sure that she isn't going to go on. "This is about them?"
"Sort of." Ara scratches Sycamore's ears absently with her free hand. "He kept saying this cryptic shit about how other people have"—she cuts into a bad imitation of a Capitol accent for a moment—"so much to lose, and I keep—sorry, sorry." Somewhere in that sentence she started crying.
"You're fine," Kette says softly, passing her a grey handkerchief.
Aranica takes it, doing something with her mouth that might be an attempt at a smile, and blows her nose before speaking again. "I don't know—if it was supposed to be a threat, but I kept—every time I saw Kieran or Dandy or Wendell, I—" She blows her nose again. "I kept thinking they'd be safer without me. But I think maybe that's just—how I'm giving myself permission to want to die."
Kette shifts Liddy from her own lap to the floor so that she can scoot in a half-circle, from in front of Aranica to leaning against her open side. "Do you want us to argue right now?"
"I know when I'm not being rational."
"Still nice to hear it from someone else sometimes."
"Not right now." Aranica lets go of her acorn long enough to link her elbow through Kette's. "I just need to be with people until my brain is back from—" she waves her free hand vaguely in what Illario is pretty sure is not the direction of the Capitol, but the point is clear. "All of it."
"You're welcome here as long as you want," Illario says, as Kette nods emphatically.
"Thanks." Aranica settles her hand back on Sycamore's fur. "I know this shit isn't easy on you two, either."
"Oh, this sucks," Ketta agrees with no heat in her voice. Ara snorts. "But it's better than the alternative."
"We're glad you asked," Illario adds. Now feels like the wrong time to say he's proud, but that's true, too. The Aranica he met as a jumpy, bottled-up teenager had a habit of trying to kill herself first and asking for help later. He doesn't think Kette realizes how much of an improvement this is.
"The rocks nagged me about it," Aranica admits.
Occasionally Illario wonders whether he should talk to her about that—less because of the rocks, more because of how distressed she gets when it rains. Moments like this are among the reasons he never has. "That's good."
They sit in silence for a bit, Ara rubbing Sycamore's ears and hiccupping out more sobs while all of them watch Liddy roam the room. Eventually she speaks again, her voice smaller than before. "I thought I'd grow out of this. Or at least not let—twenty-three kids just died, I don't get to feel sorry for myself."
Kette bumps their shoulders together. "I'd be more worried if you didn't come home kinda fucked up every year."
Aranica's laugh is a wet, rattling sound. Hearing it almost hurts Illario's own throat, but it also loosens something in his shoulders. Aranica won't be okay in the morning, but she'll be alive to wave at the kids on their way to school and bully Kette into letting her make breakfast, the way she always does when she stays over. For now, that's enough.77th
Spending one lunch with a moderately annoying airheaded Capitol girl who won a raffle is a miniscule price to pay for even part of Mila's antivenom. Aranica reminds herself of this for the third time in five minutes so that she doesn't roll her eyes at a teenager half her age. This entire conversation is ridiculous. "It's not that I've never gone out, it's just never been anything long-term." The reasons for that range from "intense rabbit allergy" to "we both got angry about having different ideas of boundaries" to "I'm starting to wonder whether I'm just not cut out for romance," but if this girl wants Aranica to consider any of that her business, she needs to start asking more specific questions, and she needs to do it in approximately the next forty-four minutes.
"I understand," the girl says, with the brash self-assurance of someone who has no idea what they're talking about. "You never forget your first love."
You're seventeen, how many loves have you had? Aranica thinks, and then, Oh, no. After everyone stopped grilling her about Saffron—who is a perfectly pleasant human being, honestly, she has no idea what they all expected her to say—she thought everyone had given the subject of her and Mace up as a closed case. Maybe she still underestimates how hungry some of these people are for a meaningless tragedy, or the way she's never quite grown up in the Capitol's collective eyes. "That's not what I meant at all," she says. "I've never clicked with anyone, that's all. It's okay, there's more to life."
That gets her a blank stare. Evidently, this girl has heard the story she came to hear, and nothing Aranica can say will help her case. Mila's antivenom, she tells herself fiercely, and makes an effort to change the subject. "How about you tell me who you were talking about, just now?"
The girl collapses back in her chair and launches into a tirade involving a party and a band that collapsed before its first show. Aranica folds her legs to listen, nodding as encouragingly as she can, and hopes this story takes a long time.78th
The first child from District Twelve to make it out of the Arena since Heron is another underdog: Stella Blakesley, a dancer who spun a double-digit training score out of thin air and cried when she killed Euley. Her presentation ceremony is the first time since the helicopter delivered her that Aranica has seen her for more than moments, and it breaks her heart all over again. The doctors and stylists know their jobs, but she knows Stella hasn't been keeping food down, and she intimately recognizes the smile she puts on as the crowd cheers.
She keeps her eyes down when she sits for the video, though. There's no room for true relief, but Aranica exhales with the tiniest of nods; Stella's nightmares will be bad enough without new perspectives to inform them. Snow must be furious about it, but he can't stop the ceremony, and he barely bothered to hide that he already hates Stella anyway. That's no surprise, though it does worry her--Saffron's victory tour sets a disturbing precedent for security failures, and if Stella gets through her own tour unscathed, there are plenty of ways to wear her down here.
Aranica will do her best to look out for her, the way she tried to do for Heron so many years ago, the way Arbor did for her before that. Any of them can only do so much, but she'll redirect what attention she can, offer Stella an ear and a shoulder and someone else's room to hide in if she wants them. Stella has family waiting for her at home, but in the Capitol and on the trains, all most of the Victors really have is each other.
Sorry, Stella. She rests a hand over her rock and looks away, staring vacantly at a spot next to the screen. She can't protect Stella from the world's eyes, but she can give her this tiny sliver of privacy from one person she'll have to ride home with later. You did the hard part, but it's all hard parts, now.79th
Whatever happens this year, Kieran will never really be safe. In some ways, being part of the Capitol's favorite soap opera probably grants him some protection, but Aranica has always wished he could rely on the safety of anonymity, and wishes so even more since Katelyn's disappearance. Whether or not the Gamemakers orchestrated that, no one has so much as tried to officially explain it, so they're clearly willing to let Capitolites explain suspicious events befalling public figures to themselves.
Selfishly, she's also worried that with adulthood will come the end of Kieran's open license to accompany Mace to the Capitol every year. She'd give up the right to even call him on the phone, of course, if she thought it would keep him safe; still, she doesn't relish the idea of spending the rest of her life wondering how age sits on his face and wishing she'd hugged him longer, last time.
Despite the fears, something that feels suspiciously like fledgling hope is settling into her heart. After Anani, she knows better than to let it stretch its wings before the Reaping, but sometimes she passes the old medallion sitting on her dresser and thinks please, please.
For now, if she spends a little more time on the phone than usual, no one gives her grief over it. She and Kieran stick to their more or less monthly calls, as they've tacitly agreed on for years. They get along better now than they did when he was ten, to her infinite relief and gratitude; the years of distance have hurt, but in the end she thinks the move was for the best, after all. Mace has been busier since his election, but they still make time to talk, too, whenever their free evenings line up. Two Districts apart as they are, they're family in their own right, not just half-strangers connected through Kieran.
She's on the phone with him now, cross-legged on the floor and idly waving a toy back and forth for Liddy while they trade updates.
"I'm doing good," she says, and right now, with the ever-present roll of nauseous anxiety quieted by one of the most familiar voices in the world, she can believe it.
Turns out eight years on, and whether any of it fits a post or not, old-school Metric is still my Aranica music of choice. (The title song here is "Live It Out".) Main exception: I listened to "Are You Cleaning Off the Stone?" by The Mountain Goats on loop while writing and editing the Anani segment. Good decision? Bad decision? Yes.
Me, nodding proudly at Aranica Petros, a woman more than half again my age: that's my girl.