DISCLAIMER: Anything you recognize belongs to Suzanne Collins and others who hold rights to the Hunger Games.


There's a hard frost on the ground when the Victory Tour for the 56th Hunger Games rolls into District Three. I flick the wall-mounted TV on in the lab I share with Beetee as mandatory viewing starts and watch as our newest victor steps out, shivering in the flimsy red-and-purple sleeveless dress, waving vigorously to try and warm herself up. Beetee shoots the screen a dark look—he hates noise distractions of any sort while he's doing fiddly work—and reaches out for the micro-screwdriver set I appropriated earlier. I hand it to him absently, still watching as young Cecelia Weaver delivers a brief (and clearly scripted) reply to the waiting reporters and hustles eagerly to the nearby car. She does well considering how mentally distraught she was just six months ago. In her post-Games interviews she was barely able to form a coherent sentence as she mourned the death of her district partner, whom she apparently fell in love with over the few weeks she knew him.

Of course, she found solace quickly enough in the dead boy's brother and their sweeping romance has been the talk of every news channel for the past six months as well as the subject of several terrible books and a thinly-veiled movie due to be released next month. Considering how pretty she is, I'm just glad for her that she's found a way to avoid sponsor "dates" in the Capitol. For now, at least.

I didn't really get a chance to interact with her during the Games (my tribute, a timid girl named Arissa died to the boy from Four in the bloodbath and I'd moved out of the Training Centre to my apartment by the end of day three) so I'm moderately curious to hear what she has to say for herself at the dinner tonight. Or what she has to say to Beetee; I'm not very good at keeping a conversation going.

"That's done for now," Beetee mutters behind me, brushing his hair from his face and readjusting his glasses. I pick up the now-enclosed casing, nodding approvingly at the miniscule screws holding it in place and rest it gently on our shared shelf of partially completed projects.

"You should probably-" I gesture at his flushed face, grease smudged along his left cheek, and his tousled hair.

"Wash up, yes," he replies sullenly, glaring again at the screen. "Oh well, I suppose it's just one night's work lost."

He stretches as he stands and, with an unenthusiastic wave, makes his way up the stairs to his house. I turn and head up my own stairs, stopping briefly in the kitchen to check on my brother, who is frowning at his homework. Malcon, despite his handicaps, has always been good at spatial problems and at following simple progressive logic and instructions. Today he appears to be working on a history assignment, his neat block-like letters surrounded by scribbled-out words as he chews on the end of his pen. I tap the table to get his attention and earn a vague smile, followed by a despondent head-shake as he mutters "Stupid writing."

His voice cracks slightly, though he doesn't seem to notice as he goes back to jabbing his pen moodily at the paper, trying to force out words that will make sense to others. He's not much better at that than I am. My mother smacks my hand as I wander through the kitchen and sneak a slice of apple from her in-progress pie, then reminds me that I'm just as much in need of a clean-up as Beetee was. She goes back to humming as she cooks and I wonder absently how my parents will cope with moving back to the small apartment in the district centre in a few years when Malcon turns eighteen.

At least they'll all have each-other as I doubt Malcon will have any interest in going his own way or trying to start a family. With Ezra, Laney and their kids only a few floors away, it will be me that is lacking for company when that day comes. As much as I enjoy my peaceful solitude and spending hours working with Beetee, I'm not sure how I'll cope with just the two of us clanking around the Victor's Village.

~xXx~

I visit Balia's grave as the Victory Tour train rolls out, continuing on to the last legs of its long journey. Poor Cecelia, who was partially responsible for the deaths of both tributes from One and Two, will probably have a rough time in the inner districts. Her sudden love affair with the younger brother of her district partner appears to be more legitimate than I thought, though, judging by her replies to Beetee's questions. She was practically glowing every time she talked about him and it sounded quite serious for a pair of just-turned-seventeen-year-olds. I toss a small flower to the wind to wish her luck with this and return to settling the rest of the bouquet on my little sister's gravestone.

I bring Balia flowers every week that I'm not in the Capitol and sit and talk to her about my life in my usual half-stuttering way. Some days when I close my eyes I can almost hear her taking up the other side of the conversation. More often than not the flowers come from our own garden these days, a greenhouse we convinced the district officials to build out here shortly after returning from that awful Quell Games. Seeder helped us stock it with low-maintenance plants and I sometimes go sit in there to read or nap when I feel the world closing in on me.

After I finish telling my sister all about our newest victor (who she definitely would have liked) I stand, stomping my feet to get feeling back in my legs and walk the last flower over to the more recent cemetery area. They keep the victors' graves separated from the mere tributes with a low iron fence and the headstones are fancier, with gold edging and a polished marble carving of the person's face. For whatever reason, they chose to make Cupros' bust look like his teenaged self. His sudden death nearly three years ago (the doctor said it was an apoplexy of the brain triggered by his long-term alcohol abuse) shocked us all. He pretended to be a grumpy old man, but he was there to help me when I needed it most and I always remember him in his better moments. A light drizzle of sleet starts falling, prompting me to head back inside to the warmth of my hard-earned home and my remaining loving family.

~xXx~

It rains at the reaping for the 57th annual Hunger Games. I watch from the slight shelter of the building roof lip as our escort, Gloria Goldacre draws our newest sacrifices, her intricate hairpiece sending off little cascades of water from its many-layered fronds. Herzty Howan and Zeedee Lam are also dripping when they reach the stage, and the boy interrupts Mayor Gowan's speech with a run of seven consecutive sneezes, earning a dark look.

It's only Gowan's fourth year in charge of Three but he has already managed to alienate the majority of the district through his harsh crack-downs on minor infringements and obvious pandering to the Capitol elite. He and I got off on the wrong foot right away when he made a comment during the Victory Tour dinner of the 52nd Games about the physically deformed and mentally handicapped needing to be put down as a useless waste of district resources. His blatant dislike of competent, intelligent women prevented any reconciliation and I've spent far too much of the last four years dealing with his petty rules and demands. He likes Beetee well enough though as my old mentor is a smart man who brings prestige to Three with his clever inventions and patents. The last time Gowan stopped by in the Victor's Village to pass on some paperwork I overheard him telling Beetee that he would try and get an unofficial "training program" started in order to get our district another victor who wasn't a nutjob.

Neither of this year's kids look like they'll be fulfilling his wishes; dark scrawny Hertzy, eighteen and doesn't look it, whose surname is most common in the poor end of town. The scroungers and scrappers are no strangers to the reaping stage (large families and low wages means lots of tesserae) and they generally don't go down without a fight. Unfortunately they also seem to have a stubborn streak that usually gets them killed early because they think they can win through the bloodbath. This girl looks no different, sullen scowl prominent as she shakes her head periodically to clear the rain from her face. Zeedee looks middle class, from Chinatown judging by the name.

In a mingled district of mostly Asian subcultures that have been essentially eroded over the centuries in Panem and Old America before it, only two 'traditional' groups still exist. Chinatown, who hold a monopoly on the manufacture of certain household appliances, from the designers and engineers through to the factory overseers, is by far the larger one. Beetee grew up in their close-knit culture until his reaping and the resultant fall-out with his family post-Games, and has explained a bit of it to me over the years. Apparently they are all about putting family first (something he presumably failed to do, though he never went into any details) and as a result they also draw above average tesserae numbers. Chinatown families also own all three of the district's restaurants, and as much as the Capitol pushes for complete assimilation, they've allowed them to keep many of their more traditional recipes. Probably because the Capitol Liaisons enjoy eating there as much as the rest of us that can afford it. I don't recognize the boy, or the boy's parents who hurry anxiously through the doors of the Justice Building to say goodbye, so I guess he's not from the restaurant branch. Beetee also watches them with narrowed eyes, possibly recognizing the family from his youth. From what he's said there's probably only a thousand or so of the traditionalists left, a small trickle in the vast vat of our district.

I glance up in disgust as the rain turns into a true downpour and wait for a nearby Games staffer to offer me his umbrella before making the dash to the waiting cars. After eight years I've become used to the ritual of the Games and its four general steps:

Firstly there's the reaping, where we get to see whose blood is added to our hands this year. Since Balia's death, none of our tributes have made it past the fourth day in the arena. Over half have been dead in the first hour and the few that have escaped have spent their remaining short lives running and hiding until being caught and killed by hunting Careers. The only one with any real fight was Beetee's boy a few years back who managed to grab a knife and gut the girl from One with it during the opening minutes. Of course, this made him the pack's primary target and he died a slower and more painful death on the second evening.

The second stage of the Games for us mentors is the week of lead-up, where we are required to pretend that the chosen kids have any sort of chance of surviving. This includes arguments with stylists (Dido takes our girl every even year; the odd years have been older stylists bumped down from their senior districts for too many failures who know that this is their last chance to impress), futile attempts to attract new sponsors and pointless strategic discussions that never come to fruition.

The third stage, the actual Games, is generally quick for us. It's been four years since I had the money and a reason to send a sponsor gift and neither Beetee or myself have troubled our industry sponsors for funds. We do continue our work for them though, a continuous insurance against the slim chance we get a tribute who could defy the odds. This generally blurs into the fourth and final stage of finding enough distractions to allow me to escape from the spotlight and from my nightmares until the whole thing is over for another year. The last two years I holed up in the Mastersons' workshop once our tributes were dead, only returning to my apartment in the Victors' Spire to eat and sleep as I tried (and eventually succeeded) in fixing one of their ongoing problems.

Thankfully most Capitol citizens aren't all that interested in the odd, stammering girl from Three any more. They have their new favorites, the strong Career boys like Brutus, Noah and Felix. The cunning Career girls Felina and Gabriela. The ruggedly handsome outsiders Haymitch and Blight, and now the romantic sob-story beauty Cecelia. Apart from the two formal interviews, one during the training period, one following the death of my tribute I don't generally get dragged in front of a camera at all. If it weren't for the deaths of twenty-three children, the latter days of the Games would almost be a pleasant holiday.

This year is not much different to the last six. Both tributes spend the train ride arguing with us about going in for the good supplies at the Cornucopia. Our stylists (Lucia still for the boys, though I don't know why she hasn't been dropped, and Andromache who Diya gloats about losing to us) dress the kids in silver and yellow, respectively. Andromache tries to gel Hertzy's hair into lightning bolts but the thin, slick strands droop in the heat and she just looks like a mess. Zeedee laughs at her and she retaliates as soon as they're in the lift, cracking one of his ribs with a vicious shove into the railing. They both fail miserably at training and score predictably low in the rankings. Hertzy spends her interview pretending to be a vicious fighter who isn't afraid of anyone. The boy from Two leans at her as she re-takes her seat and she nearly falls out of the chair in fright, making everyone laugh at her and us. Zeedee, still a little high from the drugs that re-knitted the broken bone in his side, is only marginally coherent and loses the last thirty seconds of his interview time for swearing.

Zeedee lasts almost two and a half minutes past the opening gong, dying to the girl from Four who kicks him in his not-quite-recovered side and rams a knife through his throat while he's gasping in pain. Hertzy almost looks promising when she listens to my advice, grabs a handful of mediocre supplies and runs. The arena, a sparse forest filled with inter-connected underground cave systems, should be ok for our district. At least there's the opportunity to be clever with the underground transits and to set traps in the darkness.

I use our meagre sponsor funds to buy her some water purifiers while they're still cheap and open up discussions with the Mastersons and the Dixons in preparation of future possibilities. I watch on, spelled often by Beetee as the girl slowly becomes comfortable with the oppressive darkness and manages to successfully hunt and kill a bat which she eats raw. Clearly her years of living poor have given her a strong stomach and a creative survival streak, as she goes on to chip out two functional stone knives, wrapping their hilts in pieces of her shirt-hem. She even uses them to fight off a large blind rat-mutt which takes a bite out of her ankle. I start looking into the price of medicine when, on the fourth morning, she decides to limp out of her cave hide-out and refill her water bottle at a nearby stream in broad daylight. The Careers spot her, chase her and eventually catch her.

Swallowing down the sour taste of hope gone to failure, I scribble down a few lines for my final interview (Caesar knows to make the questions predictable for me if he wants anything close to coherent), trade a few words with Felina, the mentor of my tribute's killer and collect up my bags to be sent over to the Spire. I join Diya, Seeder, Chaff and Haymitch for a quick lunch, where the two men make a good start at another day-long bender. The young man from Twelve was quickly adopted into this group of victors and I like him well enough when he's not busy getting black-out drunk. As he picks a slurred argument with Diya about which of the remaining nine tributes will win (Diya called Evanna from Four from the start, while Haymitch is favoring either of the pair from One) I wonder why someone who is nearly as intuitively clever as I am feels the need to constantly pickle his brain. He and Chaff crack another bottle of spirits as I leave.

I stop by Lorcan's place after my outgoing interview. As Dido's second-in-command he now also only works every other Games year, spending the rest of his time managing her high-end clothing store. Over the years he and I have come to a pleasant understanding of friendship and he is one of the few Capitol residents I always make time to see. He greets me warmly, waving me inside where I see both his kids curled up on the couch for the evening mandatory viewing. I've met nine-year-old Portia enough times that the girl waves cheerfully at me. Her five-year-old half-brother scoots closer to her, probably not remembering me from visits in the past. He looks far more like his mother, a former prep-team member who I never got along with and who thankfully moved on to another job two years back. That was around the time she and Lorcan split (again) which apparently was somehow my fault as well as his. On the plus side, she gave Lorcan equal custody of their boy, something I know my old friend wanted badly as he generally only gets his daughter when her mother is off on some busy artistic tear.

I join them on the couch, forcing a smile as the girl starts telling me all about what I've missed in the last hour and about their general opinions of this year's Games. Young Portia has decided that she likes Topaz from One, an athletic eighteen-year-old with long, dark blonde curls and unusually pale brown eyes, the best among the tributes. Her opinion, she assures me is in no way biased by the fact that she has similar hazel eyes and a nearly identical hair-style, while her father rolls his eyes exaggeratedly, clearly amused.

I stay for dinner, watching with them as the Career pack hunts down the boy from Seven after spotting his sponsor-gift parachute. Little Flavius cheers as his favourite, Mighty from One, easily defeats his smaller foe. To the applauding little boy on the couch, and to most of the Capitol, the tributes are just characters in an exciting TV show, to be discussed and admired and, when their time is done, forgotten. There are some people, like Lorcan, who see it for what it really is though. They're the other people I sometimes meet with outside my usual small circle of scientists and engineers. Some of the other victors happen to meet with these people as well, as friendly acquaintances or potential sponsors, of course. It's not uncommon that they invite us to noisy restaurants for talks and meals, or down to the lakeside where the lapping of the water, the crunch of the stony path and the frequent wind gusts make it difficult to overhear. So far we've not achieved much more than a network of like-minded people. Unlike the previous Capitol rebel group I interacted with, these people are genuinely in agreement with the proposed changes we hope to see and I have a cautious hope that someday we may actually see the world change for the better.

As Portia starts discussing her future plans (right now she's tossing up becoming a hair stylist or a fashion model of her father's clothing, though she wouldn't say no to a role on her other favorite TV show or being a professional horse-rider) I force my mind back to the present. Maybe someday, should our group of like-minded thinkers come together with a plan of action rather than just talk, the children from the districts will be able to aspire to such lofty futures too.