Welcome to Ad Mortem! Hope you enjoy this opening chapter, and please see the bottom note for more info!

00 - Fit for a Quell

Even as she's in her mid-forties, it's difficult for Celestia to contain her excitement every time another Hunger Games comes around. She's always been a fan of the Tributes who come on TV, of the various costumes they'd wear in the chariot rides. There's always a certain level of drama to each Game—the kind that other events just can't seem to replicate. The parades through the gardens are just too colourful, the large plays that occur in different areas too predictable. If there's one thing that always keeps Celestia guessing and cooing, it's a good Hunger Games.

There's something special about this year's Game, however. She's been counting down the days on her calendar since the last, wondering deep in her chest just what the next Quell's theme will be. The last Quell had been made up of children just barely over the age of twelve, a complete slaughter of pre-pubescent boys and girls who'd thought just now entering the Hunger Games would lower their chances of being Reaped. The 75th Games made sure no one older than thirteen would be Reaped or could volunteer, as well. Celestia had enjoyed the footage of that year. She's more than certain she even recorded it all and kept it as a reminder that there'd only be twenty-five more years until the next one came around.

Only twenty-five years. She fixes her hair as she walks past her vanity table. So odd to think that she'd waited so long, yet so little, so another Quarter Quell to come around. It's almost like her younger self had been afraid it would be postponed or skipped at some point—after all, the uproar with Grandpa Corialanus's assassination was enough to have that year's Game moved to a later date. Maybe Celestia had been worried despite all the success that had come from it; but at the same time, she asks herself why she ever was in the first place. If there's one thing she knows about Panem, it's that the Hunger Games will last forever.

Two Peacekeepers follow her from her room, as per usual. There used to be more for the first few years after Grandpa's assassination, but Celestia still found a way to trim down those numbers and earn back at least some of her privacy. She isn't one of the District residents, she'd argued. Why be watched like one? They flank either side of her, weapons lowered and prepared to defend her if someone leaps out and tries to attack her.

Today is the day of the 4th Quarter Quell, Celestia thinks with glee, and she'll be front and centre to its opening act. She breezes past her assistant, who scrambles behind the Peacekeepers just to keep up with her. The woman is short and skinny, rarely ever seen gaining weight after eating anything—as expected of a resident who frequently eats, only to throw it all up again and eat some more. Celestia doesn't mind having her as an assistant, though; she's a hard worker and always knows how to handle a sticky situation. It's just a shame that Celestia doesn't bother to remember her name. She's been a key helper in organising meetings with the Head Gamemaker, and Celestia does love meeting with the Head Gamemaker.

The assistant stumbles past the Peacekeepers, finally able to make it to Celestia's side. "Ms Nero is waiting for you in the greenhouse, ma'am," she reports calmly. There's no exhaustion in her breath or wheeze in her throat to betray just how difficult it is to keep up with Celestia's long strides.

"Excellent," Celestia says sweetly. "You may go."

The assistant wastes no time leaving her side, scuttling off into another corridor as she checks over her timetable. Today must be a busy day, even for citizens of the Capitol. It's only the announcement of the Quell's theme, she reasons; it's not like it's a difficult thing to organise. Half of the Capitol would already be flocking to that podium and waiting for that announcement eagerly.

She doesn't remember the walk to the greenhouse taking as long as it does. Her fingers twitch eagerly as they pass each corridor, open each door, and greet each advisor. It must be the excitement of the Quell, she thinks. Every other day she's walked through these doors, there hasn't been a sense of impatience. Every other Hunger Games is fun in its own right, but the Quell is a whole 'nother level altogether. A level Celestia wishes they'd reach more than every twenty-five years.

Another assistant flanks her, this one holding a tray with her good tea set. She can smell the jasmine scent of her tea, see her reflection in the silver pot's coat as the assistant bids her good morning. Celestia straightens her suit jacket and bares her teeth at the reflection. Still presentable enough.

"Has Ms Nero been given anything to eat and drink?" she asks the assistant. The man hardly hesitates in his answer, less concerned about making a mistake than the last one to greet her.

"Peaches and white wine, ma'am," he reports. "Ms Nero requested she wait for you before having anything too extravagant."

"Lovely." Celestia smiles. "I'd hate to be the only one drinking this sublime tea this morning."

More doors and corridors, more small talk that makes her eager to see Malvolia. She has so much to ask about, but so little time before they draw the Quell's theme. After what feels like an eternity of walking, the glass doors of the indoor greenhouse come into view. Celestia speeds up her pace, forcing the Peacekeepers and assistant to hurry along with her.

She slides open the doors with a flourish of her arms. Without even daring to look where the Head Gamemaker would be sitting, Celestia announces her presence with an excited, "Mally!"

From the middle of a throne of roses, Malvolia Nero rises to her feet and throws her arms out wide. One hand holds a half-empty glass of wine, the other free of any obstacles to prevent them from shaking hands. It's been quite some time since the two have met—when was their last conference? Two months ago?—and Celestia can see the change in Malvolia's appearance since then.

Her short black hair is now stark white, long and curly as half of it sits atop her head in a loose bun. The remainder brushes against her tattooed skin—against the white patterns that curl and wrap around her olive skin. She's not wearing her usual suit and jacket like she does before she heads back to meet with the other Gamemakers. No, Malvolia dons a gift from Celestia: The white ruffled dress she'd given her upon her promotion to Head Gamemaker. It fits like a glove, and it definitely blends well with the rest of her appearance as she sets down her wine glass and moves away from her chair. Simply wonderful, Celestia thinks as she approaches her friend. Fit for a Quell in the making.

Instead of the crisp handshake she'd planned, Celestia and Malvolia embrace each other warmly. It truly has been too long since they'd last met, and a happy greeting is most definitely in order. Celestia unbuttons her jacket as she slides into the seat across Malvolia's, watches as her friend skips in her heels around the rose bush beside them. It seems that Celestia isn't the only one looking forward to today.

The assistant pours her tea, leaves a cup for Malvolia beside her wine, and bows his head as he tells them he'll give them privacy. Celestia smiles sweetly at him as he leaves the greenhouse, as he's followed out by the two Peacekeepers. They come to a stop outside the doors and turn their attention to the hall they'd walked in from, guarding the only entrance from intruders.

Celestia breaks out into a wide, toothy grin.

"One hundredth," she hisses. Her fingers shake as she reaches for her cup. Malvolia cackles and cracks her knuckles as she slides back into her chair, an equally wide grin on her face.

"I've waited for this ever since I watched the clips of the fiftieth." She downs the rest of her wine in one gulp, letting out a loud hiss as she sets the glass back down. "Forty-eight children. It was like two Games happening at the same time!"

"Shame that the winner was by sheer chance," Celestia notes around her cup. The jasmine tea tastes wonderful, as usual. She'll have to thank the assistant for picking it.

Malvolia nods. "Even more of a shame he became an alcoholic. I'd be profiting from my luck, if I were him," she huffs. Even at forty-five, Malvolia still has it in her to act like a twelve-year-old and stick up her nose stubbornly. "Who cares about him, though? I'm more concerned about the theme for this Quell."

Celestia hums in agreement.

"I hear you draw it from a bowl like the escorts do with Tributes," Malvolia goes on. She picks up her teacup and sips at the liquid. Her face scrunches up in disgust, but she keeps drinking it nevertheless. "The Head Gamemaker gets to pull it out and gives it to the President, and then the President announces it shortly after so there's no way to tamper with it. Dreadfully boring, but I suppose people from a century ago had a few bright ideas to last a lifetime."

She sets down her cup. "Definitely," Celestia agrees. "Pitting only twelve-year-olds against each other? Shockingly brilliant."

"I personally think that having an entire District vote on who gets sent out is much more eye-opening." Malvolia giggles at the thought. "Shame we can't do it again. I know we'd be getting quite a number of Avoxes this year, if we could."

Celestia can't stop the chuckle that escapes her. "Unappreciative things, aren't they? We send them people to replace their dead and suddenly we're the villains."

"District Twelve and District Eleven just doesn't like being reminded that they're essentially filth at this point. Just you wait, District Ten will start it up as well once they start going dry."

That'll be a problem. Celestia frowns as she downs the rest of her tea in one gulp.

"But that's a problem for another day," Malvolia goes on. The Cheshire grin is back on her face, her golden eyes trained on Celestia with complete and utter interest. "Today is the precursor to our fun."

At the sound of her voice, the doors behind Celestia slide open. The Peacekeepers have parted to let someone in, a tray being wheeled in as the doors slide shut behind them. The tray is covered in a silk cloth, flowers strewn about as a large, glass Reaping Ball sits at its centre. It's filled with folded slips of paper, wax seals holding them tightly shut and keeping the ideas from being seen by onlookers.

Celestia sips at her tea as she side eyes the Reaping Ball. "Already?" she asks lightly.

Malvolia giggles at the question. "Don't lie, Celly," she coos. "You're just as eager to see what this year's theme is as I am."

Her brows rise. She really can't deny that she doesn't want to wait any longer to know what this year's Quell will centre around. Perhaps a halving of Tributes? A vote? Or perhaps a Capitol citizen choice? There's a lot to consider that might happen.

"I suppose I can't keep it in forever," she sighs. There's a small smile on her face as she looks up at Malvolia. The woman has risen from her chair and has taken a stand beside the Reaping Ball, shooing away the assistant who had wheeled it in.

Feigning a submissive tone, Malvolia jumps on the tips of her toes. "Shall I reach in, President Snow?" she asks in a babyish tone. "Will you allow me to see the theme before the announcement?"

Celestia chuckles. "Of course, Gamemaker Nero!" she plays along. "Make sure to dig nice and deep—and may the odds be ever in your favour."

The two snort out laughs. Ugly, obnoxious laughter. Had anyone else witnessed this show of blatant disregard for the Capitol's adored catchphrase, Celestia is more than certain the people would throw a fit. Not that they know how to properly throw one, she reminds herself.

As Malvolia dabs at her tears with a dainty index finger, she reaches into the Reaping Ball and plucks the topmost slip of paper without a care in the world. "Any kind of theme is a brilliant theme," she reasons as she fans her face with the paper. It rustles loudly, the wax seal almost snapping open with each movement. As she holds it out to Celestia, manicured nails pressing lightly against the paper, she says, "Care to take a peek, Celly?"

Her heart hammers in her chest. Twenty-five years, she chants in her head. Twenty-five years, I've waited for this. Celestia reaches out for the slip with careful fingers, pinching it tightly between her forefinger and thumb. She's almost afraid she'll drop it. Smear the white surface with the tea from her cup. Stain its words with the scraps of Malvolia's peaches.

The wax seal pops open with little fuss. No tears at the paper, no smudges from the wax. Celestia feels herself let out a breath of relief. Malvolia watches her eagerly, leaning forward as she rests a hand on the table. Open it up, her gaze urges. Give it a read.

Celestia inhales deeply. She slowly looks away from Malvolia as she spreads the paper out from its folds. As she gazes down at the words, unable to read them at first, her breath hitches in her throat as the blurry letters start to form sentences.

Capitol children. Those words stand out the most. Of the long list of rules and conditions for this theme, it's every mention of Capitol children that stands out to her. Celestia blinks once, twice, before finally she's able to find her voice.

"What is it?" Malvolia whispers. She's closer to the table now, bending down to look at Celestia's expression with her whole attention span.

With a careful tone, Celestia reads the slip out. "For this Quell, children from both the Capitol and the Districts will be Reaped," she starts. "For the intents and purposes of this Quell, we hope to convey a message that no matter what, the Districts still require aid from the Capitol for survival."

A loud clapping sounds from Malvolia. She's standing up straight, wide grin on her face and splitting her cheeks in half. Celestia sends a smile up to her, amused by her enthusiasm, and hands the paper to the Gamemaker without another word.

Malvolia twirls on her heels as she reads the note silently. There's a small hum in her throat, a glint in her eyes as she flits from word to word. Celestia watches and pours herself more tea; she can't shake the feeling that Malvolia will try to suggest something fun, something interesting to the formula that would make this Quell better.

Instead of offering anything, though, Malvolia simply giggles. "A shame for my children, then," she says amusedly. Celestia quickly drinks the tea as the woman twirls once more before firmly planting her feet on the ground. The teacup is set down on the saucer as Malvolia skips back over to the table.

The paper is waved in Celestia's face almost invitingly. Malvolia's grip is loose and tempting, almost begging Celestia to take it from her.

"Shall we announce the Quell's theme, President Snow?" she asks sweetly. There's a malicious glint in her eye, a playful spark that won't be put out any time soon.

Celestia takes the paper with a smile of her own. "We shall, Head Gamemaker Nero."

So this is my first attempt at a SYOT in the Hunger Games section! I'm a bit nervous (mostly because it's the first time in a new section lmao) but I hope you guys enjoyed this! If you want to find more information or the form for Ad Mortem, please go to my profile and click the link titled "Hunger Games SYOT Forum". Everything with "Ad Mortem" in the beginning will be for this fic!