Note:

Hello and welcome to the 89th annual Hunger Games! That's not an arbitrarily chosen number – we're verging off-timeline, into an AU from roughly halfway through Mockingjay. The Mockingjay Rebellion was unsuccessful. Panem has changed, but the crucial skeleton that we recognize, the Games themselves, has been reinstated.

You are the spectator – these Games are the spectacle. The same way a Capitolite would get to know the tributes fighting for their amusement, so you will become acquainted with this year's cast. Your influence will help to keep your favorites alive and your feedback will shape the progression of the narrative.

If this 8,000 word introduction is intimidating, feel free to skip ahead to read the twenty-two character introductions. There's also a brief recap of who's who in Statice's chapter (District 11) so that's a good starting point. The purpose of this (updated, expanded) prologue is to better introduce the alternate-universe and its main characters in the Capitol.

That's because in the coming months, I'll be making an announcement about a future SYOT-model sequel, taking place in this universe, and it's important to me that you know what you're signing up for. Also, the Capitol-b-plot stays important throughout the story.

x

Her regime expires when
the moon meets the sun
on the horizon we can't see
because the sycamore trees

next door block our view.
Our world droops in anticipation.
We would like to exchange
the unkind for the kind but

we can't find the strength
to oust the inevitable. Instead
we joke about politics and watch
our neighbors arm themselves.

'Empress', Sally Van Doren

x

Margaret Lancaster, The Capitol (29th Hunger Games)

The smoke spiraling on the room's air currents overhead, in theory, could have gotten them into a lot of trouble, but it was university and nobody - not even the neighbors - really cared. This late in the Games, three weeks in and with the finale well in sight, what else was there to do but watch and smoke?

Certainly not her economics problem set, half-finished on the elegant wooden desk situated by the window.

Margaret was distracted, briefly, from the onscreen proceedings by the orange sunset over the neon-bright spires of the Capitol.

"Look, Annia," she said. "Isn't it beautiful? I keep waiting for it to stop being beautiful, but every evening, the colors surprise me again. Are you looking?"

Annia Neves was watching the screen before them, an abandoned notepad at her side.

"I can't miss this," she protested, extinguishing the burning roll of paper in her hand with a careless flick of her wrist. "My paper."

"Doesn't watching so closely get boring after a while?" Margaret argued. "I mean, the sun's setting there, too. You could write about that. Like, the significance of the time parallel in the arena with Capitol time, even when it's in a different part of the country. For immersion, or something. Or for betting. How do they make that work?"

"I can't do that," Annia replied with a long sigh. "I'd have to specify my major a lot further, pass a lot of security checks, and probably actually land a job on the Games before I'd lay eyes on a document that explained how they did it. If I had to guess, I'd say it's in post-production - even if it was, y'know, in this zone, they don't air it live. But they want to keep up the illusion."

"I think they're going about the Games wrong," Margaret announced.

Annia shushed her.

"Don't talk like that. You're already in trouble just for associating with Henry. If his dad didn't keep bailing him out every time they got him on sedition, he'd be tongueless by now."

"And wouldn't that be a shame," she shot back with a grin. "He's so good with it."

"You're going to let a boy ruin your future," Annia said reproachfully.

"Henry has a good heart. He's stupid, though. He could ruin my future, or I could make his. We'll see if he survives to graduation."

Onscreen, someone screamed, attracting both young women's attention. A tall redheaded woman sustained a deep gash to her arm as a muttation wolf closed in on her. The maybe-simulated sunset was beautiful on the snow, Margaret mused. Hard to imagine how they'd fake something that perfect, that lovely.

Of course, there was blood on it, now.

There had been so many slow, cold deaths that year. It was sad to watch, for the most part - but those who survived the elements were tough, and had banded together into little packs, like dogs.

"Harine from District Nine," Annia said aloud, watching the girl struggle. "She's been very kind, taking in her district parner, lost two toes giving up the socks under her boots to keep his hands warm… he died anyway, but it was very touching."

"Are you betting on her?"

"Ugh, don't remind me. My credits are on Woof, from Eight - it seemed like such a good idea when he was stitching hides together, that was brilliant, something only an Eight would think to do. Tailoring as a last resort in a crisis. But he's almost out of firewood, and the hunters are well stocked."

"I'm not betting. I always lose," Margaret laughed. "You can't predict these things, Annia. One of Henry's developer friends is trying to build an algorithm for it, and he's going broke in beta."

"It's an assignment," Annia sighed. "We place fifty credits at the beginning, watch it play out, and write reflections twice a week. At the end we'll have access to everyone's reflections to hammer out a unified theory of audience reaction for the final."

"Anyone bet on one of the hunters? That seems the easy route."

"Everyone else thought so too - for the assignment, at least, no one wants to admit they're not backing an underdog. Though I'm sure half of them have well more than fifty credits riding on Milo from Two or Purity from One."

Margaret sighed. The sun was slowly disappearing beyond the horizon.

"Well, when you're the next Thilo Flynn someday, I bet you'll tell a better story," she told Annia, taking a deep drag of the neglected cigarette smoldering in her hand.

"Sedition," Annia cautioned her friend, though a cheeky smile lurked behind her faux-concern.

"What's seditious about saying you'd be a better Head Gamemaker than him?" Margaret argued. "It'd be one thing if it wasn't true. But it's basically the same thing as saying that you'd do better than some starving District Twelve brat at… running a cash register."

Despite her friend's best efforts, Margaret was gratified to see she'd elicited a giggle from the put-together Annia, still in her beautiful, simple uniform from work - a crisp white button down and a fitted pencil skirt embroidered lavishly with golden images of birds and fish, though her heels were kicked off in the corner.

"I'm not sure what's worse - likening Head Gamemaker Flynn to a Twelve or saying I'd do his job better than him."

"You read the paper, you know he's done for - declining ratings since this arena. No one's happy all those poor children just froze to death without even a proper shot at things. He's pulling out all the stops, but the Games have been slumping for years," Margaret explained. "Everyone says so."

"Henry says so."

"You really don't like Henry!" she exclaimed. "Associating with a district-lover doesn't make me one. He's rich, he'll clean up well with some coaching, and I like his last name."

"It's just, you spend so much time with him, and you know he'll never live up to what you want to be. You're so much better than him," Annia sighed. "It's so… unfair, that it's so hard to get a foot in the door on merit unless you're a rich man or married to one."

"We'll do it, though," Margaret insisted. "Annia, I know it seems far away, and it may be, but you and me… we're what the country needs. We can… we can change things. I think you'd make a great Gamemaker, but there's other kinds of media, other ways of doing it…"

"Other than the Games," Annia continued, gazing up over the massive television screen, at something beyond the crimson blood on the glowing white snow as Harine from District 9 fought for her life.

"If politicians keep dropping like Twelves in the bloodbath, at least my path will be relatively clear," Margaret laughed. "Can I say that?"

"You're not wrong, Margaret," Annia replied sadly.

They sat in silence for a second. Onscreen, Harine screamed as a second overgrown wolf joined the first.

"President Lancaster, someday."

"President Templesmith, if Henry has his way," Margaret sighed.

"He'll catch the flu a day or two after you take office and you'll wake up one morning a free woman by your maiden name," Annia suggested. "I'm told that's how it works these days."

"It shouldn't," Margaret mused. "It shouldn't be like this, if we're really so much more civilized than… well, that."

She gestured at the screen, where Harine made a last-ditch attempt to menace the mutt wolves away with the sickle she'd carried since the Cornucopia.

"We could always be less," Annia agreed.

"Of course."

"We'll be more together, though."

Onscreen, Harine stumbled on an icy patch of ground. The wolf mutts seized the opening, the smaller of the two darting in and ripping at her fleecy outer layer jacket. Unsatisfied with the taste of the garments, it took her pale face, blistered by the cold wind -

"Together," Margaret repeated, taking Annia's hand.

Harine's cannon sounded.

They didn't look up to watch.

x

Margaret Templesmith, The Capitol (74th Hunger Games)

"Well, of course you can stay with us," Margaret reassured her friend, drawing her in from the rain outside. "Henry and I were just sitting down for the Games. We can get you set up in the guest room right away."

"Dear?" Henry called from the living room. "Claudius says we have to watch this one - there's going to be a big announcement. You didn't hear that from me."

"Annia didn't hear it either," Margaret called back quickly. "She'll be with us for a little while."

"I don't want to impose," Annia insisted, though she looked beyond bedraggled, her makeup smeared down her satiny cheeks, her braided updo soaked through, perhaps beyond repair.

"Nonsense. My door is always open for an old friend."

"It won't put Henry out?"

"He'll barely notice. He's been getting into the Games more lately, real man of the people since he finally got appointed general. Not to say it didn't happen fast enough. Things happen at their own pace," she added quickly, glancing around with palpable nervousness.

Hopefully Annia could tell - they were being listened to, at the very least. Watched. Always.

That was the price of Henry's promotions. Beyond the price in credits and dignity, bowing and scraping to Coriolanus Snow of all people, opening their pockets at his whims… they were observed.

Henry wouldn't be bothered by their taking in Annia, but someone listening might be.

She'd have to play it carefully.

"What happened?" she asked, praying for a normal answer.

"Someone sent TGN a copy of my term paper from ages ago on 'alternative entertainment', threatened to have them all hung as conspirators for employing me unless I was terminated immediately. Producers are more replaceable than… well, everyone's necks on the line," Annia said quietly.

Margaret could have seen that coming. Working for 'The Games Network', you're not likely to gain a sympathetic ear for your thesis on the potential benefits of non-Games alternatives to entertainment-sourcing from the districts. Annia could be so foolish. Thought so little of strategy and so much of art, of fairness.

Annia was the same person she'd been forty-five years ago, and not just because her alterations kept her perpetually in her twenties.

Life had dealt Margaret a different hand.

And this - this might be the draw that broke her streak.

Could Henry keep his position with a traitor in the house? Could she?

Her work organizing the extra-Capitol Peacekeeping forces' budgets was comparatively nothing of note, but she was certain that it could prove important someday. She had never truly underestimated the districts like so many in the Capitol did, working with military and civilian leaders in District 2. They liked her and she liked them. District 2 was a good, efficient place, where blending in and talking straight mattered more than gluing enough tiny gold butterfly sequins to the tips of one's eyelashes.

Margaret was, by now, a chameleon of sorts. Sixty-six, though she could pass for early middle age. Plain, because it suited her.

Annia had never learned not to stand out.

As she watched her friend, the tall poppy got cut down. Again and again.

"Thank you for taking me in," Annia said sadly, accepting the towel that Margaret offered her wordlessly. "You may still have some of my clothes from the last time. Which is great, because they'd changed the locks on my apartment by the time I got home."

Henry wasn't a general last time.

"Annia," Margaret said slowly.

"I know, I'm sorry," she replied, interrupting. "I keep doing this to myself. But I don't do small, Margaret, I have… I have ideas, like we used to have. Remember that? Do you remember what we believed?"

Beautiful, talented Annia, who wouldn't know self-preservation until it slipped poison into her cup.

"It's what the country needs from me - from us! Big things," Annia insisted.

"I'm… I'm so sorry," Margaret murmured. "You need to get out."

"What?" Annia said abruptly.

"Are you drunk?" Margaret demanded, feigning outrage that must have looked far too real to her friend. "You bring that kind of talk into my home?"

She could only pray that somewhere beneath her shattered expression, Annia understood what she was doing. The terrible situation Annia had put her in. Why she couldn't help her, this time.

"I… I'm sorry, you're right," Annia said slowly. "I've had too much to drink. It's been a long… two days. Just let me get the bag I left in your guest room, please. I'm sorry."

"Yes, please, take your things," Margaret demanded, her heart breaking with every word. "They reek of your … sedition."

The word caught on the tip of her tongue, but managed to spill out nonetheless.

Annia nodded numbly. Retrieved a single ornate suitcase.

"I'll… try to get ahold of my pa-" she began to explain.

"Don't tell me," Margaret snapped. "I have no use for your whereabouts. Get the hell out of my house."

She imagined the cameras, where they'd be. Feigned a cough so she could dry her eyes without looking too unnatural. Snow knew, of course. She wouldn't be surprised if Coriolanus, or someone close enough to him to know that she was the powerhouse behind Henry Templesmith's rise through the ranks… one of them must have sent the letter that got Annia sacked.

To prove they could do it. Henry was a general and it meant less than nothing.

For the same reason they kept her in the task that so many considered drudgery, communicating and working with the lesser beings that inhabited the districts. Even District 2. That was her place, no matter how high she could help her husband climb. She would never leave the first or second rung. She would be Mrs. Henry Templesmith on her tombstone, just as she was in life.

Annia closed the door carefully behind her, and Margaret wondered how things could have been different - drawing a blank.

"Hey, Margaret!" Henry called excitedly from the viewing room. "Rule change! That's never happened before! It's amazing - see for yourself!"

Shaking away her thoughts, she made her way to her husband's side.

"What's happened, love?" she asked.

"Two from each district can win! Isn't that amazing? You know, I met Coriolanus the other day - he says there's big things underway."

"A first name basis with the President?" she inquired. "You're even more of a star than I took you for."

"Well, he… he calls me 'Henry', which means something. Familiar, right? But no one… no one calls the President by his first name to his face, unless they mean real disrespect," Henry explained gravely, as though she must be hearing this for the first time.

"Still a star in my eyes," she reminded him, kissing the side of his jaw in such a way that he remembered he was bigger and taller than she was.

"Anyway, the rule change!" Henry continued blithely. "Two from a district can win! A pair! It's brilliant - district unity is such a big topic, the idea of how it could be used… y'know, so they police themselves a little more, need fewer guns pointing at them all the time."

"As general, your position relies on them needing guns pointed their way," Margaret said gently. "But that's very clever. Just try not to make yourself obsolete."

"You shouldn't worry about those things," he told her. "The main thing is, look at Cato and Clove from District Two! You're always in District Two, and they seem so pleased about the whole thing. That could be good for you."

Margaret grimaced internally.

If the Capitol ripped the rug out from under District 2, well… District 2 had enough strong cultural attitudes towards betrayal to fill a second honors thesis. As far as 'district unity' went, they already had it in spades, though with some tension between the mining and the military class.

It would mean a lot in District 2, to see big blond miners'-son Cato lock excited eyes with his ally, the darker-featured Peacekeepers' daughter Clove - it would mean something important. If they would only think to play it like that.

But this must, of course, be some gambit around the pair from 12.

"Peeta!" the poor deluded poacher-girl was screaming at the top of her little lungs, unaware that her presumed-lover was off dying on a riverbank.

Though she wouldn't voice it aloud, Margaret had her quarrels with Seneca Crane's style of Gamemaking. He loved his clever twists so much, but he was too clever by half.

"Where'd your college friend go?" Henry asked at last, as the scene cut to a commercial break advertising a pill that would, it claimed, change the scent of your sweat.

"Parents' house," Margaret explained shortly, knowing Annia's severe parents would take her in to keep her off the streets, though she'd have no easy time in the bosom of her family.

"Smart," Henry commented. "I've been thinking, if we're going to take in strays with Augur and Verres in the service, now, we should be altruistic about it. Did you know Claudius has been talking about adopting district orphans, of all things?"

Margaret swallowed the lump in her throat. Her sons doing a tour in the Peacekeeping force had seemed such a good idea to Henry, for god only knew what reason. She suspected Snow. She suspected everyone, though. 'Paranoid' implied that her fears were irrational, but they were very firmly grounded in reality.

Capitol Peacekeepers rarely saw combat, rarely died. This was a point of pride for the men and women she worked with in District 2. In District 2, they were proud to die for their country, onscreen or in white armor.

Still, she felt a profound solidarity with the those in the staff whose sons or daughters had been spirited off to the training facility. They knew they'd likely never see their children again, and they didn't waver.

Magnus Craig, the subcommander in charge of the remote training facility where District 2's most promising children were shuffled - out of sight, out of mind - had traded a hand-drawn portrait of his daughter for a last picture she'd taken of Augur and Verres, in uniform, before shipping out.

The scratchy watercolor depiction of a girl, no more than five or six, was dated a decade ago.

"Sullie's well on her way to serving herself," he explained. "Your boys have nothing to fear."

"They won't be useless layabouts, I've raised them better than that," she sighed, tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. "They'll be brave like Sullie."

"Bravery is no match for what they're taught in the Center. You should know that, yourself, by now."

"I'm sure you're right. With time, I hope I'll learn to be proud of their sacrifice - it would be a high honor to die with a young woman like your Sullie. I've already learned so much from District Two."

Magnus clapped her on the back, a friendly gesture that, from the mountain of a man, knocked most of the air from her lungs.

"We'll make a fighter of you yet, Mrs. Templesmith."

Her eyes watered, from the blow and from her tears and from her fear for Augur and Verres.

But she wouldn't let anyone see her flinch.

Despite all reassurances, the two empty bedrooms haunted her.

"Adopting is an… interesting idea," she said hesitantly.

"It wouldn't have to be forever," he added cajolingly. "We could get a nice little girl! Haven't you always wanted a daughter?"

"Let's… wait," Margaret suggested. "See how the promotion works out. I'm always traveling, that's no way to raise a child."

Henry sighed.

"Of course, dearest. We'll talk about it another time."

The screen shifted back to a jubilant scene between Cato and Clove, even battered as they were - hope was in the air!

Rain pounded the windows of the spacious apartment. All Margaret could smell was, beneath the perfume of the indoor space, a stomach-turning note of decay.

x

Margaret Lancaster, the Rebel Capitol (after the 75th Hunger Games)

Augur Templesmith has been killed in action in the taking of the mountain compound in the center of District 2's largest city. Verres Templesmith was ferried back to the Capitol, faced tribunal, and died alongside his father.

Now, she was really alone.

Was it enough, washing off her makeup, stripping the dye from her hair to return it to its natural grey, donning spectacles from before her vision had been bad enough to correct surgically?

She burned any identification with the 'Templesmith' name. The deed to her home. Every piece of correspondence between herself and Henry. The fool. The absolute fool.

The poor, dead fool, beheaded with his son in the central square alongside men who'd deserved it.

Her university ID still read 'Margaret Lancaster'.

She burned her marriage license once she found it. A real novelty, a book of hard-copy photos, including the one of Augur and Verres about to ship out - was it two years ago? All of it fueled the fire.

Margaret Lancaster. How long had it been since she was Margaret Lancaster?

Any minute, they could break down her door. They didn't, but she was ready with Henry's sidearm, knew exactly where to aim it so she'd go fast, before they could execute her like a common criminal in the square. No higher dishonor than to be executed as a traitor.

Her lines of communication were long since down, but she was sure that was what they'd done in the Training Center in District 2 - no triumphant word of its capture in the papers, no names she recognized at the guillotines. They must have killed themselves, all of the pushing-ten-thousand staff and trainees she'd overseen. Otherwise the rebels would be tripping over themselves to flaunt their capture, surrender, murder.

It was mayhem in the Capitol by the time she made it to the streets. Rebel control of the refugee population waxed and waned, and so did the refugee population itself, before the bullets of the rebels' rifles. She kept herself well-cloaked. Found a group of stranded Capitolites who looked competent. Suggested they should speak to their captors about how best to organize the refugee camp, as only a Capitolite knew the ways of other Capitolites, which were foreign to the district-born rabble wrapped in bandanas and stolen body armor.

She had never been a public figure like Henry. Few recognized her and any who did kept quiet.

She wondered whether they'd found Annia, whether her head rested in a basket in the square. Then again, would a disgraced media producer be sufficient target for the rebels' bloodlust?

Margaret Lancaster was good at keeping order, having learned, over the decades, to maintain tight control over herself and most everyone in her orbit. She reached an uneasy truce with the rebels overseeing the rehoming of Capitol refugees because she was useful, because she adopted the same businesslike mannerisms that gained her the confidence of the overseers, training directors, instructors from District 2.

"You don't seem like a Capitolite," one young rebel, a woman who couldn't have been more than sixteen or seventeen, remarked with skepticism etched across her face.

"I was born in the districts," she lied. "Adopted here."

She and Henry had never managed to adopt that hypothetical district girl. It was probably for the best that everything had gone to hell before they could drag another child into the mess.

Slowly, though, she was gaining traction in this new world, where she was Margaret Lancaster, a nobody who could somehow manage, better than most, to keep order amongst the refugees, knew the Capitol streets and its resources better than the average rebel. She supervised the rehoming of eight stranded Capitolites in what had once been her home with Henry, among hundreds of others.

The wife of Henry Templesmith was, to her relief, presumed dead.

If only Henry could see her now, watching on a grainy nine-inch screen as the rebel figurehead, the Mockingjay, was ushered out into the square. She held her breath as Coriolanus Snow, under whose reign she had once lived in abject fear, was set to be executed.

Gasped along with everyone else as the young woman turned and sent an arrow through the brain of the rebel President, Alma Coin.

It was mayhem, all over again.

At first, it seemed to be the product of the young woman's perfidy, that the command structure disappeared, half of Margaret's rebel contacts abruptly vanished and the other half abandoned rehoming efforts in favor of patrolling the streets.

How had Katniss Everdeen done so much damage with a single arrow?

Quickly, though, it became clear that this was not the influence of the Mockingjay alone.

It was a coup.

She didn't know - didn't know anything until her living-group's small stockpile of food began to run out and she ventured out into the streets and found them deserted. They were near the central square - most of the surviving structures suitable for habitation were.

Communications had been down for a week. She had no idea what she'd find there. But hoped it would involve food or a swift death, starving being a kind of low she'd hoped never to achieve.

Instead, the first white-suited figure she confronted - who seemed to be in charge of the hive of activity - whipped off his helmet to reveal a grim but familiar face.

"Magnus Craig?" she exclaimed.

He broke into a thin smile, about as good of a reaction as one could hope for.

"Well, sand me down and call me a marble countertop," he declared. "Margaret Templesmith."

"Lancaster," she corrected him. "Margaret Lancaster."

"That's you? The rebels we've tortured keep naming a 'Margaret Lancaster' as the Capitol's leader."

"They've killed the rest of them," Margaret sighed bitterly. "Henry. One of my sons died in District Two, the other… here, in the square."

"The taking of Mount Lupus," Magnus said, his expression darkening. "The scum killed my daughter there, too."

At eighteen, Lancaster remembered, Sullie Craig would have left the Training Center and entered the Peacekeeping force. Perhaps she'd served alongside Augur. Been there for that dreadful cave-in.

"Perhaps my son had the honor of dying by Sullie's side," Lancaster murmured.

Magnus nodded sharply.

"Well, I'm glad they've put you in charge," he said. "Everyone competent seems to be dead."

"I'm not in charge," Margaret laughed. "I supervise refugee rehoming and supply lines. I'm only alive because without a certain population density, the country will collapse. No Capitol citizen is granted a position of authority."

"Come with me," Magnus said. "We'll have to get you cleaned up, of course, but the troops need a commander, and it will do them good to see a familiar face."

"What troops?" Margaret demanded. "After Mount Lupus, half of your forces were wiped out, the other half imprisoned! Have you broken them out, somehow?"

"The Training Center still stood. While it stood, we had an army of unparalleled quality, waiting for an opportunity."

He lead her through a square packed with uniformed soldiers moving bodies, crates of supplies - dissembling the guillotines. On seeing Magnus' face, two helmeted soldiers opened the doors of the President's mansion, to reveal a control room packed with helmetless armored soldiers.

Few of them more than eighteen years old.

Margaret gasped. A few middle-aged women, one or two of whom she recognized, operated holo-screens or barked orders.

"Did you find the 'Margaret Lancaster' person?" one of them demanded. "Is this her?"

"Even better," Magnus explained, gesturing at Margaret where she stood, draped in jackets, grey-haired and barefaced and deeply confused but gamely standing up straight, raising her chin as though she had something left to be proud of. "Our old friend Margaret Templesmith, though… recently single."

"No," the woman insisted. "Really?"

"I never lost hope that your forces would prevail," Margaret declared with a smile. "I knew it was a matter of surviving until you found an opportunity to retake what belongs to us."

Lies, all lies, but that was what she knew now - how to lie, and how to smile while she did it.

She turned to one of the women she recognized.

"Is your son among our liberators?" she asked. "As I recall, Felix was just on the cusp of being accepted to the principal military force."

"He's alive," the woman said, looking thunderstruck. "I'm surprised you remember."

"I'll remember him with gratitude once all of this is settled," Margaret declared. "I remember all of you. You'll need help with the supply channels, but once we have those cleared - it'll be a swifter process now that we have real soliders on the job - I can resume my role organizing and provisioning your forces and rebuilding the Capitol, District Two, all the rest of it. If we move quickly, we can have fields cleared and ready by the time the snow melts, avert the famine we have looming over our heads."

'Real soldiers' was a strong word to describe the two armored young women, barely fourteen or fifteen, who seemed to be trying to eavesdrop from where they were sorting weapons in a pile on the marble floor. A stretch by which to describe any of the remarkably youthful boys and girls - Games-aged - who moved around the room in full armor.

It was a flattering word, though. That seemed to be what Magnus and the others thought, watching her with some unclear emotion.

"Does that not sound appropriate?" she asked, noting their pause.

"Well, we'll need a President," Magnus said.

"Give me a name, I'll get him for you and rally the survivors of the Capitol behind him. There must be some remaining leaders who've done as I did, and there were hundreds if not thousands of evacuees who'll be returning once the smoke has cleared and you've restored order," she said, already prepared to slip into whatever role they wanted for her.

She was hungry, but hopefully the layers of coats concealed her growling stomach. She'd seen the crates of supplies - they must have food.

"That sounds unnecessarily complicated," one of the women laughed. "Given that you already have a plan to rebuild. And with our existing relationship…"

"What we're saying is, Ms. Lancaster," Magnus added, "if you'll get washed up, someone needs to address the troops and get the stone rolling. Like you said, we'd prefer to have things in order before winter ends. The population crisis you described is a real risk if we don't find a way to distribute what we already have, and half the rails are destroyed - can any of your well-dressed refugees operate a hovercraft?"

"I'm sorry," Margaret asked, wrestling with the implications of what the leaders of District 2's military coup were trying to tell her. "You want me to… what?"

"You've been doing it already - for decades, Ms. Lancaster. We want you to lead."

x

President Margaret Lancaster, The Capitol (81st Hunger Games)

She shouldn't be zoning out, it was a terrible habit.

The colors of the sunset above the spires of the Capitol, though the skyline still marred in places by cranes and construction scaffolding, were very beautiful from the penthouse window of her office.

"Mr. Rometo," she sighed, tearing her gaze away from the massive pane of glass that took up the whole westward-facing wall, "You're not in trouble."

"Fired sounds a lot like trouble," the man snapped.

"I didn't say 'fired'," she insisted.

Chiron Rometo, a middle-aged man, one of the last of the 'old guard' of Gamemakers who'd survived the Mockingjay Rebellion, stood, fuming, before her desk. He was on the stocky side, tall, with dark hair and a beard colored shiny bronze. In much finer garb than President Margaret Lancaster in her staid grey skirt-suit.

"'Retired', at fifty-five?" he countered.

"You've accomplished a lot since the 76th Games," she argued. "More than you ever could have hoped as a simple apprentice of Seneca Crane, so many years ago."

"Exactly, what fault do you find with the quality of my work?"

"Your ratings in the districts are abysmal. You promised me that Cereus from Eleven, in the 79th Games - you claimed you'd replicate that success. The highest district viewership in years, as he won. But Sequin from One, last year? And now you're set up to crown Lucian from District 2, a trite, overplayed volunteer villain if I've ever seen one?"

"So you just want more district victors? Then say that! I can crown more district victors!" Head Gamemaker Rometo insisted, his voice ticking up slightly in timbre.

"I don't like your arenas, and neither do the districts," the President continued, pursing her lips. "Cereus Gardner got lucky, in a shopping mall arena, for heaven's sake. Who in the districts has ever seen a shopping mall? It smacks of the artificial, of everything they were taught to hate about the Capitol. Your 'highway' arena, the cars… they don't know how to drive! They don't know what they're looking at!"

"You correct my errors and you order my resignation in the same breath," Rometo seethed. "District viewership wouldn't be an issue if you would mandate it."

"There's a disconnect, here, because you've clearly been ignoring my reports on the Games' success for the last five years, each one laden with these exact recommendations," Lancaster explained frostily.

Head Gamemaker Rometo, still sullen, looked anywhere but in her eyes.

"Or didn't you think I would last this long?" she continued evenly. "What was I thinking, appointing a member of the old guard? I should never have hired you."

"I was the only one who knew how it worked," Rometo explained through grinding teeth. "The only one left alive."

"You're alive because the rebels didn't target incompetent apprentices," Lancaster shot back. "Over forty, still without a real job. You'd be nothing without me, and back to nothing you'll go."

"Because of your… limp-wristed, district-loving…"

"I told you, I wanted them to be proud of the Games. I wanted them to want to watch, just as the Capitol does. They shouldn't just be a tool to placate the Capitol, to reinforce that hierarchy - now that the districts have the vote, I'm sure the Games can be a tool to elevate them, not to subjugate them as a homogenous mass."

"They've always been a tool for subjugation! It's in their DNA! You can't… revise history like that!" he declared, clearly flustered, in contrast to her icy calm affect. "You don't get to say how it was, and you can't just declare that killing off their children is empowering now! You put me in an impossible position."

"I'm the President," she told him calmly. "I'll say and do and ask whatever I want. You'll remain on the staff until preparations for the 82nd Games have been completed, sharing whatever is necessary with your successor to ensure her success."

"Who?" Rometo demanded. "Who will you bring on? Who will work with you on this fool's errand?"

She pressed a button on her desk, buzzing in her next visitor.

A tall, beautiful, dark-skinned woman in an intricately braided updo and a fine gown of red-wine velvet stepped into the penthouse office, looking absolutely petrified.

"Meet Annia Neves," President Lancaster declared. "Your successor."

"The 81st Games aren't even finished, and you expect me to work with some green…"

The President interrupted before he could say anything insulting.

"Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. Ms. Neves is a brilliant producer, a talented scriptwriter, and a valuable, creative, progressive voice, unlike some people I could name. Please show her to her new office promptly and get to work on the statement you'll read at the conclusion of this year's Games announcing your retirement."

She pressed another button on her desk, and four helmeted Peacekeepers entered the room to ensure he did exactly that.

"It's… an honor to see you again, President Lancaster," Annia said, bowing deeply, trying to ignore what was going on around her.

"Likewise, Annia," the President said with a smile.

A genuine smile, for the first time in a long time.

When she met Annia's eyes, though her old friend had barely aged since their last meeting, she couldn't help but observe that the woman's eyes were dark with fear and her expression was haunted.

It wasn't an uncommon look, among those who'd survived as refugees during rebel control of the Capitol.

But it would be fine. This was good. She'd have Annia back, a piece of her past, a piece of who she really was, no more of this dreadful man, Chiron Rometo… It would be better now. Easier.

So little was easy these days.

They would be more together. Like they'd always planned. And Annia was competent, capable, willing to take orders, unlike members of the old guard, who seemed to be waiting for her to… fall apart, lose her post, lose the reins of the country or plunge it into ruin.

Panem was not in ruins. Panem was healthier than ever, District 9 and 11 turned to places of bounty after Reconstruction, District 2 was well into the process of restructuring the training program to reform the manner by which Peacekeepers were imposed on district populations. Her old friends now commanded a sprawling military that included recruits from all districts.

And no one wanted to see things go back to the way they were, during the Rebellion and the terrifying years before her administration really came into its own and restored the Games.

They were such a small price to pay, to give her legitimacy in the Capitol, and she was sure - so sure - that the districts could be taught not to resent them so.

Annia would teach them.

Together, they would make the Games something the districts could be proud of - as it had always been in District 2.

Together, they would create the Panem they'd always hoped could exist someday.

x

The Present Day (The 89th Hunger Games)

The dust hadn't settled on the completed arena before a hovercraft descended in the early evening, perching delicately on a barren patch of earth. It was a newer model, constructed with a designer's eye for demurity rather than the eagle-like ostentatiousness of slightly older government models.

The woman who stepped briskly from the belly of the machine, flanked by two Peacekeepers in immaculate white uniforms, was tall, dark haired but greying, neatly groomed and apparently in her early fifties. While her movements were light and calculated, she carried the weight and shape of a life with little physical exertion and no shortage of good food.

"It's hot," she noted, raising her hand to cover her eyes as she gazed up at the clouds.

Her excruciatingly modest grey skirt suit, the hem of which brushed her mid-calf, couldn't be helping with the balminess of the afternoon.

"That was the goal you highlighted on the arena proposal," a second woman, exiting the hovercraft, replied.

This one appeared a little less homely, more tailored and fashion-conscious and refined. There were brush strokes of the artificial in the thirty-something image that she willfully projected – features a little too perfect, face a little too symmetrical, skin too tight around the jaw and eyes. Her glossy skin was the color of darkly stained mahogany and her wild, natural hair, so black as to be nearly blue, was braided into a carefully nonchalant updo.

She walked with the same approximate character as the President, though, suggesting that, while appearances did differ, the actuality of age did not.

"Any particular reason you thought to bring me here at what I assume is the least temperate time of day?" the President asked, a touch of annoyance coloring her voice.

"You can't see temperature on a screen." The second woman shrugged.

"You wanted me to praise your arena," the President clarified. "I won't disappoint. Well done, Annia. We've been working on the Games together for near a decade and your work has never yet fallen short of the high regard in which I hold you."

Annia smiled genuinely, revealing a set of beautifully straight teeth.

"Where are we? I lose track of your arenas so readily, forgive me."

"This one is about two hundred miles south of the District 11 border. One of the boundaries is the ocean – we saved a great deal of money, limiting the necessity for a force field. Trust me, we'll make short work of anyone who thinks to escape via the soft boundary. And it'll make for good television besides."

The President nodded appreciatively. "You've never given me cause not to trust you, Annia."

"President Lancaster, not that I don't adore your company, but why exactly did you want to be shown around the arena in the first place? You said it yourself – it's not exactly comfortable."

"In general, I defer to your judgment on these matters – but I wanted to see it myself, this time. Your last several arenas have been very successful. I really appreciate the return to the foundations of the Games, the simplicity – you should have seen the awful attempts at modernization that your predecessor would show me. Shopping malls. Dreadful."

Annia's legacy was not one of risk-taking - a classic desert her first year. They'd carved out a slice of territory not too far south of District 1. An icy forest the next year, a straight shot north from the Capitol itself. Frozen tundra the year following, dotted with thickets of weeds and not much else. A mountain enveloped from base to zenith with a massive force field. 'Back to basics' was the name of the game.

"For the most part," Lancaster clarified, "I just needed to talk shop with you. And get out of my office. There have been threats, lately - unrest is spreading in the Capitol, which I scarcely thought possible."

They stood for a moment under the sweltering heat of the early afternoon sun, the drone of insects' wings harmonizing to a steady chord played continuously in the background. Masses of vines engulfed the surrounding trees, a brilliant green accumulation of organic material that rippled gently in the sparse breeze.

The earth on which they had landed was perhaps the only truly dry ground for miles. In patches, this moisture turned the vegetation a rich green – in large part, though, oversaturation yellowed the grass and left shallow pools of fetid water simmering beneath the sun.

"Well, you couldn't get further from the Capitol than here," Annia commented.

"I do like this arena. Don't look so tense." Lancaster laughed, placing a hand on the Head Gamemaker's shoulder. "Really, it's been months since I've seen you outside of a meeting room – and I am glad for the company."

Lancaster's strength, during her rise to power after the turmoil of the Mockingjay Rebellion, had been as much her military backing as the nonthreatening demeanor she exhibited.

A harsher hand could not have restructured the fractured government. But Lancaster had been calculated, and her influence was exerted with delicacy and finesse. Her message – a return to the way things were – resonated with a country suffering greatly in the aftermath of a failed rebellion. Not forgiveness, but fairness, she promised.

Panem-that-was, but lead not by a madman – by a sensible, practical, mothering type who wouldn't dream of touching poison or steel, god forbid.

She kept the needs of the districts in mind, even if she didn't precisely put them first. She responded to the crisis in District 5's gas fields with a practical, measured, well-thought-out seizure of northern territory, introducing an element of district cooperation between District 3 and District 6 in order to develop the necessary technology to keep the oil flowing from the freshly acquired tar sands. Showed an aptitude for that sort of engagement with the districts – carefully regaining their trust in the central government.

When asked, about the abandoned districts, she would smile. "Panem has no use for near-empty coal mines or a smoking crater where traitors used to do their business. District 12 was useless, and District 13 has hurt this country quite enough. Some things are better left in the past."

Her decidedly maternal appearance and frequent appeals for civility and stability worked well in the aftermath of the chaotic violence of the Mockingjay Rebellion.

There was a deep appeal to her mantra of stabilization. Even the most machiavellian Capitol politician had to admit – it was easier to manipulate the government when there was a government to manipulate. While Lancaster made sweeping reforms to avoid corruption leading to a repeat of past instability, she couldn't entirely eliminate the problem, and likely didn't wish to do so in any meaningful way beyond a campaign promise. Fair enough, transparent enough, good enough.

She promised Panem the way it used to be, but better. It was little things that added up that kept her neatly in power – improvements to the quality of tesserae, electricity that flowed consistently to all eleven districts, supervision of Peacekeeper tribunals to ensure that those convicted of egregious crimes did not repeat them. Little promises that invariably went fulfilled.

For a nation exhausted by failed rebellions and false prophets, the reinstatement of the Hunger Games seemed a small price to pay for the promise of stability, security, and a steadily improving quality of life.

"It feels different, from the inside," the President noted, scanning the horizon as though deep in thought. "Bigger."

The sun was beginning to set, painting the horizon brilliant colors - pink, purple, gold.

"It'll be a job keeping them close enough together to keep the interactions interesting, but the landscape alone is rather captivating, I find. We've got swamp, shore, and chaparral, all within a few miles. Some fascinating muttations," Annia added, her enthusiasm apparent.

"I'm glad – just remember, with all this in progress, I need you looking forward to next year's Games as well. Your job never really ends. We have that in common," the President sighed. "I did want to talk to you alone."

She glanced unappreciatively at the Peacekeepers. "Can you imagine, though, these dears haven't been willing to let me out of their sight."

"Death threats do tend to worry professional bodyguards," Annia noted wryly.

"It's not even from the districts! – they seem rather calm, though there's some division in District 3. Would you believe, there's some movement towards a 'Training Center' like they've been doing in District 4? And the accompanying countermovement, of course. Fascinating – but really just intensifying District 3's nationalism." She sighed. "But between myself and the Capitolist faction, there's no love lost. All they've succeeded in doing is keeping me out of the fresh air."

"I can't blame you for coming, out, then. And you can count on me, you know. We've got a nice island arena in progress for next year, and we've been meeting with the mentors recently – you're always talking about district unity, so we're stressing the fact that tributes, especially tributes from Centers that benefit from Capitol funding, ought to espouse those values."

"I'm very glad, Annia." Lancaster eyed her sadly. "Of late, I find myself missing you more than ever. Presidency is a lonely business."

"I understand."

"Come on, now, we should be heading back to work. This was much more pleasant than being shown a simulation – thank you for having me."

"Of course, President Lancaster," Annia replied, her smile dimmed only a little by the character of the conversation.

For a second, their hands brushed as they turned back the way they'd came – neither jerked away, but Lancaster looked up as though she'd touched a cattle prod, crossing her arms with marked discomfort.

The two Peacekeepers escorted the pair back onto the tiny, delicate hovercraft, port door sealing shut just as the first cicada of the evening began to shrill in earnest, heralding the setting of the sun.

In their absence, darkness fell over the arena as it had fallen many times before. It wouldn't be long until the screaming insects and crashing waves would have twenty-two children of the districts for company.