The reaping for the Sixty-fifth Annual Hunger Games takes place on a miserable day in District Three. Increased demands over the last few years had resulted in the construction of six new factories much closer to the Town Square (the only available industrial space at present), including two which produce a newly patented structural plasti-crete in huge demand, the downside being the process creates substantial airborne emissions. The smog layer which usually thins out at the north end of District Three is instead nearly tangible and the stray sunlight which has forced its way through is an off-putting shade of dull orange. A thunderstorm last night has left the ground wet and in the summer heat (trapped in by the smog layer to multiply further), the air feels almost thick enough to stand on.

This apparently creates a crisis for the Capitol camera crews who have to re-think their lighting for filming the reaping – their original layout makes the stage look washed out and the rear-most roped pens of children are almost invisible in the haze. Peacekeepers and even some nearby district citizens are dragged into helping reposition the light towers in order to not be late for the broadcast.

The Capitol film crews are all issued with respirator masks and the Peacekeeper helmets include inbuilt air filters, so none of them suffer the foul-tasting throat-itching air and the subsequent cough. Those of us on stage are also not permitted masks (can't have the viewing Capitol public realize there's an issue with the air quality), though Gloria is given a personal breathing apparatus, cooling devices and throat lozenges to use until just before the broadcast goes live.

She fights through the choking air and the dripping sweat her sixteen-layer outfit causes to present her spiel without succumbing to the hacking cough, and quickly pulls the names of our two tributes. I breathe a sigh of relief as seventeen-year-old Joulian Litz and fourteen-year-old Eyjin Watt are called – Ezra's children had once again avoided the pens, as had Antimony's brother Wolf, but her fifteen-year-old sister Asta was a candidate.

Gowan doesn't quite make it through the recital of the Treaty without a few pauses to cough. I privately hope that this is enough of a failing to get him sacked, though I doubt it, and work to stop myself from interrupting him with my own coughing fit. Beetee, Antimony and I take shelter inside the Justice Building rather than waiting in the side-street for the cars to the train station where we're accosted by Eyjin's mother who accuses us of always favouring the male tributes with any sponsor gifts. A man who looks too young to be Eyjin's father – an older brother I guess – gently pulls the sobbing woman away before the closest Peacekeeper can intervene.

Antimony barely reacts – whatever she is on is clearly dulling her reception of the world as she would normally cringe away from the young man. Beetee and I share a look and shake our heads. Some people will see or believe what they want to when they get a thought in their heads, no matter what evidence is in front of them. Based on first appearances I doubt Eyjin has much of a chance, Joulian a little better purely by being older and a few inches taller. No doubt her mother will see her daughter's failure as proof of her beliefs if the girl dies before the boy does.

I shake my head again, forcing my brain away from the likely inevitable ends of these children now in our care – it's our job to help them live if they can and it doesn't start well by assuming they will die by default. We fight through the choking air to the air-conditioned cars for the brief journey to the train station and as I climb up the shiny silver steps into the tribute train I realize that I've actually missed this.

My slow recovery from my workshop accident combined with some changing priorities in the Capitol meant that I'd not set foot outside District Three in over a year. I do have several trips arranged in the months that will follow the Hunger Games to review design options in Districts Eleven and Ten at Othello Ramsay's request. These trips had originally been scheduled just after Oryx's highly awkward Victory Tour, but the Capitol man had been offered a promotion up the ranks of the Gamemakers and suddenly hadn't had as much time to spare for his business. I realize a part of my eagerness stems from a desire to get back into some of the rebellious work which I've been forced to the periphery of for most of the last year. Beetee has spent a lot of time on another Capitol-sponsored project he won't formally share, which means it probably involves Minister Redfern again; as far as I know he hasn't had any specific communication from the rebel network either and the long silence is a little concerning.

Then again, Othello and Plutarch still have their jobs and no-one else I know of who are involved seems to have disappeared or suffered any ill effects. With the unexpected and undesired victory of the simple Oryx from Ten being the highlight of the year, it's not unreasonable to imagine that some of our Capitol friends decided to lay low for a bit just in case President Snow decided to enforce some sort of crack-down on any areas he felt he was lacking in control.

Eyjin makes it to the meal carriage first, though she hasn't changed out of her dusty and dull district clothing. Gloria tries to talk the smaller girl into some soft silks, or at least something clean or colourful but the small girl wilfully shakes her head, crossing her arms stubbornly.

"I want my family to see me as me. I may die, but I'll do it as me," she declares.

"Well," Gloria says huffily, turning to myself and Beetee for support. "I suppose…there's no rule that says you must change your outfit for this journey, though I must warn you that you are losing opportunities to impress sponsors. Once we are in the Capitol, you will wear what your stylist provides you."

"I won't," Eyjin informs us haughtily. "Even if I have to go naked, I won't let them turn me like they have you. You'd have to kill me first, and you can't do that until the designated time."

She smirks at us, obnoxiously proud of her logic and petty defiance. I can't help but groan, seeing yet another fine (and possibly some harsher or additional punishment) for producing yet another uncooperative tribute.

Beetee shoots me a sympathetic look, taps his chin thoughtfully for a second, then tells our wilful little girl, "Your parents will see nothing if you don't comply with the minimum standards expected of a tribute."

He leans in, making sure she is looking him directly in those haunted eyes he has so that she understands. "Your behaviour will have consequences, the first of which will be the incarceration of anyone you care about at home. They will be made to suffer and if they are shown anything of you on a screen, it will be of your death. In high resolution, most likely repeated."

He leans back again, certain that he has her attention now. "Difficult tributes who refuse to cooperate have an unfortunate habit of ending up near dangerous people when the Games begin. I would suggest you keep these facts in mind while you decide how to act."

I watch as the girl looks from Beetee to myself (I nod pointedly to indicate my agreement with everything my old mentor has said) to Gloria, who our young girl glares at sullenly.

"I'm not changing my clothes," she states again, then reluctantly adds, "but I'll maybe see how bad the stylist wants to dress me and decide then."

It's all the concession we're going to get from her now. Beetee smiles thinly and sweepingly gestures for the small girl to help herself to the food buffet and take a seat at the table. I can see her mentally fighting the urge to resist, but the smell of the food clearly wins out and she glares at us all once more before loading up a plate with a pasta dish that she stabs angrily with a fork.

I have time to share a look of frustration with Beetee and throw a sympathetic smile to our Escort before Joulian arrives. To Eyjin's disgust, our male tribute has changed into a deep purple silk shirt and rich black trousers that shine as brightly as his polished boots. Joulian smiles brightly at the sight of the waiting meal and cheerfully joins Beetee in an increasingly less shy conversation about his studies and his moderate aptitude for building things.

My tribute sulks some more, ignores my one further attempt to engage her and finally struts off back to her compartment, Gloria's brief admonishment ringing behind her. Our boy tribute gives our Escort a small smile and asks us, "What's her problem?"

We all laugh and get on with our meal. Joulian asks intelligent questions about traps and snares that he could build, keeping us all engaged for the majority of the train ride. I decide to use the restroom about half an hour out from the Capitol and decide to risk poking my head in on the girl I'm supposed to mentor before I head back, just to make sure she's where she is supposed to be, if nothing else. I get no answer to my knock, but I try the door and find it unlocked. To my surprise, wilful, defiant Eyjin is curled up in the corner of her room sobbing so heavily that her whole body is shaking. She doesn't appear to have noticed my intrusion and I seriously consider retreating and leaving her alone, when she looks up her eyes raw and her face blotchy. I imagine Baliss in her place, my niece every bit as stubborn in her beliefs of petty defiance to stick it to unnamed authority figures and instead go sit on the end of the bed.

Eyjin blinks tearily at me for a minute, then shuffles over so that her shoulder is resting against my leg. I fight not to move away and push down the momentary panic.

"He was telling the truth wasn't he," she says, more of a statement than a question. "They would make them suffer. My mom, my brother. My Granma and aunt and cousins. They would be hurt because of me."

I nod slowly and she sucks in a ragged breath, wiping at her tear-stained face with her gray dress sleeve, leaving a dark smudge across one cheek. "They always said that the Hunger Games were rigged. Made so that people in power got to choose who wins and who dies. They said that people like you and the other victors went along with it because you made a deal to win in return. That everything was decided and forced and that it was sad how every year all the tributes just played along and never said or did anything."

I barely stop myself from rolling my eyes – Eyjin needs sympathy not cynicism right now, and while it's not my strong suit I can try to offer it. I do wonder how her strongly opinionated relatives reconciled people like unrepentantly suicidal Lizzi and the outspoken Nikon, both publicly defiant and whose families clearly suffered for it. How could they have watched people like Oryx win and think that it was all according to some sort of plan? I guess even District Three, which is generally known for its intelligence, has a gradient. And someone will always be at the bottom of that slope.

"Should I change?" Eyjin asks, gesturing with her gray sleeve pulled tight in her hand.

I shrug. "Now, only if you…want. Later, yes."

She thinks about it for a minute, then pulls herself up and pokes through the wardrobe of provided clothing. She pulls out a dark gray suit jacket and pulls it on over her dress. "It's a little cold in here," she says defensively, just a hint of her former defiance creeping back into her voice. In a way she reminds me of Antimony, initially wilful and difficult, quickly finding a compromise that ultimately led to success. Perhaps she will follow in our most recent victor's footsteps after all. I politely suggest that Eyjin washes her face to clear away the signs of her tears, as we are nearing the Capitol, and head back out to the dining compartment, where Joulian is still chatting away to an attentive Gloria about his family.

~xXx~

I realize there must be at least one interesting reaping when we arrive in the Capitol. The crowd at the train station is nearly twice its usual size and while the roaring cheer does drop off as they see which district's train has rolled in, it's still more overwhelming than usual. Joulian tries to wave to a few people as we head for the cars, then gives up when they ignore him to return to watching the empty platform. Eyjin manages to not look too sullen as she clutches the black suit jacket tightly around herself, arms folded defensively.

Unfortunately we don't get to see the reaping replays until the evening (supposedly to keep all of the district teams on a level playing field) so we're left wondering as Gloria bustles the group upstairs for dinner. As always, the Remake Centre room is plastered with fashion choices inspired by the previous Games. This year all of the furniture appears to be constructed from replicas of the wooden mace Oryx used to bludgeon his foes to death and the couches and floor are covered with wolf-skin throw rugs.

After a quick shower, I settle in on one of the uncomfortable couches and turn the television on, hoping to get a glimpse of whatever sparked the crowd at the train station. As always, the feed to the buildings involving the Games is restricted – currently showing a re-run of a gameshow involving spinning a giant wheel and answering trivia questions based on where it lands. Gloria returns from freshening up and sees me watching. She thinks for a moment, then taps her nose while declaring she must duck out for a minute to call her nanny to see if Bastilla is feeling better.

She returns before either of the tributes make it out of their rooms for dinner and in-between a long stream of worries about her two-year-old daughter running a slight fever, drops a note on the table between myself and a confused Beetee. All it says is 'Pelline's nephew. Mags' grandson.'

I nod at her in thanks and share a pointed look with Beetee, who removes his glasses and rubs his face. Neither of us are particularly close to the District Ten woman who is clearly being held responsible for Oryx's undesired survival, but both of us are quite fond of Mags from Four.

I think back to conversations I've had with her over the last few years, about her strongly rebellious opinions and her refusal to work with a Capitol-led rebellion that she feels are insincere. I decide if Plutarch or Othello were involved in rigging it out of some misguided sense of concern for her loyalty (or an even more misguided attempt to push her to joining) I will find some way of re-doing the wiring in their pretty little offices so that they get a painful shock every time they sit down. Then I realize that's unnecessary – if they had anything to do with it, Mags will probably find out just as quickly as I could and will cause them more severe and lasting pain than anything I could manage.

I suppose it could all be bad luck; the odds never do seem to be in the favour of victor's relatives. But I doubt it. If nothing else, it could be the new Head Gamemaker trying to spice up the Games before they've even started. Trying to avoid her predecessor's fate and have a more interesting and crowd-pleasing Hunger Games. Judging by the crowd at the train station, if that was the plan then it seems to have worked.

After dinner, when we return to the lounge for the official recap I make sure I have my notebook ready. I'd already spent the meal trying to recall what I knew of a boy I've met in passing on a handful of occasions – from my recall he'd only be in his first or second year of the reaping so it's not a given that he's in with the Careers and could be a good ally for an outer-district tribute.

District One and Two produce nothing unexpected, then the cut seems to be rushing through our own reaping to get to District Four. Thanks to Gloria's note, we aren't surprised when Mags' grandson Oris is called from the thirteen-year-olds section. I'm a little surprised that there wasn't a volunteer to replace him as there is for the girls, and then even more surprised when there is, in fact a volunteer. Beetee and I share another glance when a boy from the fourteen-year-olds pen puts his hand up to take Oris' place on the stage. My mentor appears confused and gestures to the note, but I recognize the classically handsome profile of the boy that takes the stage as the grandson's best friend (and legally adopted brother, I recall from my last visit to District Four, technically making him Mags' grandson too, at least on paper).

As a volunteer, the boy Finnick will undoubtedly do better at joining the typical Career pack than Oris would have. He also looks to be athletic and trained, and with his handsome smile and stunning green eyes that the commentators are still rhapsodising over as the girl from District Five is shown mounting the stage, he'll have sponsors lining up to throw money at him. I cross out my note about trying to seek an alliance – Eyjin simply doesn't have anything to offer for an ally like that and while Joulian might have enough charisma and potential to appeal to an out-districts alliance, his glowering at the screen as Finnick's reaping was shown puts paid to suggesting it.

Apart from a burly boy from Six, there's little interesting until they reach District Ten. Pelline's nephew Tarris is an athletic seventeen-year-old who may not be trained like the Career kids, but certainly looks like he's never missed a meal. It wouldn't surprise me if the boy had done some training in the last year, just in case. I expect him to be targeted early by the Career pack as the follower from last year's non-Career victor though. The girls from both Ten and Eleven look spirited as well; there could be some interesting out-district alliance options, a thought quickly brought down by both Joulian and Eyjin declaring that they prefer to work (and train) alone.

Beetee and I share an eye-roll once the kids return to their respective rooms – it's not surprising considering District Three is home to more introverts than just about anywhere else, but unless there's a good reason to go alone such as a hidden skill, alliances often keep weaker tributes alive for longer and tend to get more sponsors. Even just having some security that one or two of the other tributes won't be actively trying to kill you for the first few days while you work out how to survive the arena itself. Perhaps a few days of training will change their minds.

~xXx~

By the end of the tribute parade it is clear that handsome young Finnick from Four is a crowd favorite. The boy's popularity only seems to grow as each day of training passes. I manage only one brief hello with Mags during the training days as she is fully occupied with sponsor meetings and providing regular interviews for the hungry press– she apparently ran roughshod over district tradition and displaced the planned mentor for the boy with her usual disregard for inconvenient authority.

Several of the other Career mentors are less impressed – their sponsor base is generally a popularity contest and they usually see a more even distribution of the money and fans. What little of the Games popularity money isn't trickling into District Four's account ends up going to the pair from Ten, who have a formal alliance and appear the only real contest for the Career alliance.

Eyjin and Joulian are both pleasantly surprised to find they are amongst the lucky ones – our industry sponsors generally don't follow the popularity trends and are usually available to provide a few key items if needed. We did lose access to Plutarch's business empire as a sponsor when he took on the role of Gamemaker; they are not allowed to do anything which publicly influences the Games (Plutarch has informed us in private that there are many opportunities he and Othello have found to influence the outcome from the inside, but they don't intend to show their hands unless it's for a good cause).

I have a little trouble with Eyjin when preparing for the interviews as she doesn't really have anything going for her. Her training time was futilely spent trying to master increasingly unlikely weapons and her one evening sitting with me trying to design traps she could realistically construct in the arena seemed to leave her more confused than when we started. She was given a training score of 3, with only the boy from Twelve scoring lower. I can't convince her to try working with Joulian (who, to be fair, will probably do better without her than with her). Eventually we settle on her playing up the usual District Three angle of brains over brawn, pretending that she's been hiding her true skills from everyone.

It doesn't help that Eyjin dislikes her stylist (another rebound from District One who failed to impress the last few years, though at least this one is only mildly standoffish to me and is willing to collaborate with Lorcan for matching designs). The shiny black plastic outfits both kids were wearing during the tribute parade are emulated in Joulian's suit jacket and a one-shoulder dress that falls flatly nearly to Eyjin's ankles (apparently Drusilla was far more used to styling taller, curvier Career girls). After a lengthy argument between Drusilla, Eyjin and Gloria, during which I keep my mouth shut and pretend to be busy reading, our girl tribute finally agrees to wear the minimal heeled shoes Gloria negotiates for her.

It doesn't really end up mattering much as no-one is particularly interested in our tributes. Hidden amongst the Career kids, especially as they are followed by the insanely popular kids from Four, I doubt anyone recalls anything either of them said. Joulian heads for bed straight away, claiming he wants a good night's rest going in. We wish him luck and Beetee assures him we have his back.

Eyjin starts to do the same, then hesitates. I point to the balcony and she nods, letting me lead her outside where the bright lights and thrumming music of the city echo off every corner.

"I guess I'm probably not coming back," she says bluntly, then looks at me, waiting for a response.

I consider my options, then shake my head. "No. But neither was Antimony. Neither was I. Sometimes it just…works out."

She frowns in thought, then shakes her own head. "No. I saw the replay of your Games. You had a plan, and all those clever skills at making things. And Antimony had her ally for most of it and that fortress they built. I have nothing."

She droops across the railing, her face resting against her hands, muffling her voice.

"I didn't want allies. I knew I would screw it up or they would turn on me and make it worse. I'm so scared. I don't want to die. I don't want to die slowly and painfully. Why me?"

It's the same questions most tributes are asking themselves. It's the question many of us are secretly working to end, someday. I'm not sure whether she wants suggestions or is just seeking sympathy, but the latter isn't going to do her any good tomorrow.

"Two options," I say slowly, pausing to let her tell me that she doesn't want to hear it and continuing when she stays quiet. "Run and hide. Survive. Risk slow painful death. Get the best chance of living. Or do the opposite. Run for good supplies. Maybe get them and live. Or die fast."

Eyjin considers, then slowly nods. It's the same thing most of our tributes who genuinely lack any specific advantage will go for.

"Tell them I fought," she says softly enough that I have to strain over the street noise to hear it. "Please. Tell them I argued and fought and that it was just bad luck if I don't make it. They won't believe it, at least not right away and they'll be rude to you."

"I'll tell them," I promise her. I remember her mother accosting us in the Justice Building, claiming that we always favored the boys over the girls.

The sounds of shouting, a bellowed argument starts echoing up from the street about whether the boy from Two or the boy from Four is more primed to sweep the competition. Eyjin decides she's going to bed and I think I catch a soft whisper of "thank-you" from her as she passes.

Twelve hours later I am on the phone to the Watt family, who are rude and dismissive when I tell them haltingly how Eyjin fought and argued. Her mother blames me openly for her daughter's death.

"At least it was quick," Eyjin's brother says, earning a glare from his mother and a small moment of validation for me. A single kick to the ribs and a swift knife-blow which hit her spine. Dead to the girl from Two inside the first minute, with only a few seconds of pain. For a tribute with no real chance, it's about as good an exit from the arena as they can get.

I disengage awkwardly from the call and turn to the other set of screens in our District Three mentor booth, where Beetee is frowning as he watches Joulian struggling to climb a tree. Our boy tribute had told Beetee he was planning on running initially, then doubling back and raiding the Cornucopia once the Career pack left it unguarded. He seems to have enacted stage one of his plan just fine, though running away from the fight was the easy part.

I finish up my notecards for the outgoing interview and chat for a while with Antimony and Sarnia, who are still hanging about the lounge area. Antimony still seems more lethargic than she used to be, her response times slightly dulled and her appetite diminished. She's lost around ten pounds in the last year, most of which she didn't have to spare. Sarnia declares that they are going out to a dessert parlour on Honeysuckle St and will eat until Antimony has put back on at least half the missing weight in chocolate. I wish them both luck and don't expect to see much improvement, though if anyone can get through after myself, Cobalt and Asta all failed, I'd be putting my money on the overly cheerful victor from District Five.

~xXx~

As always when one of us has a viable tribute, I end up trading on and off with Beetee to keep an eye on Joulian. Not that we can do much to help him; the Gamemakers increased all of the prices of sponsor gifts more steeply than usual in response to the absurdly large District Four fund. The boy Finnick is still wildly popular, both for his phenomenal good looks and his likeable light-hearted humor (mostly at the expense of his ally from One). Even the Games purists can't dismiss him outright as he easily out-fought the largest tribute in the arena at the bloodbath, killing the bulky boy from Six with a single spear-thrust.

The District Four girl is also popular, and the pairs from Two and Ten essentially claim all of the remaining fans with money. While we do have the option of our industry sponsors, Joulian's hiding place is almost on top of the Cornucopia, where the Careers have piled up all of their supplies and have so far left their stockpile well-guarded. Joulian managed a very brief raid on the first night after the girl from One briefly took to the bushes to do her business. It got him a small bottle of water and an apple, though he only barely made it out before she returned and resumed her guard. If the girl hadn't had compromised vision from a blow to the face during the bloodbath, she probably would have seen him scurrying back to the tree-line and followed him for an easy kill.

These few purloined items keep him going for a few more days and provide enough energy for Joulian to make several more abortive raids on the Cornucopia from his nearby hiding place. Unfortunately, the Careers never leave their supplies unguarded again and the boys from Two and Four both almost spot him trying to sneak through the tree-line when he starts considering desperate night-time raids on the small chance the Careers are sleeping. Because of his hiding place – so close to the Career pack, Beetee is forced to hold off sending any sponsor gifts as the parachute would just tip them off. The pack had already proved they were watching the sky for signs, successfully hunting down the boy from Nine when the smoke from the boy's early morning fire was correctly picked as different to the fog by big Marcellus from Two.

Finally the Careers move on, though the boy from Two spends half a day of his guard shift destroying the remaining supplies that the pack doesn't need. Marcellus hacks apart two tents, five sleeping bags and some plastic sheeting, then tosses the whole mess, along with all of the remaining weapons deep into the nearby lake full of piranha mutts. When the rest of the group returns from an unsuccessful hunt to the south, they gather up the remaining food, water and first-aid supplies, and march off to the north. A few of them eye the bushes near Joulian's most common hiding place suspiciously, but our boy had already relocated to a high tree to watch the departure.

He grins as he sees them away into the forest, then dashes out to the Cornucopia, his long waiting game finally over. Except that there's nothing really left for him there. A few scraps of plastic sheet, a sword that he drags from the nearer edge of the lake, and a pair of fish that the boy from Four caught the day before, which the group had ultimately decided not to risk eating while they had plenty of safe food.

Joulian doesn't stop to think about the risks of eating mystery fish which have been sitting dead in the hot sun for most of a day. He uses the sword to clumsily cut them apart and tries baking the pieces on the metal of the Cornucopia. Starving, after nearly five days with only an apple, a handful of sour berries and a few bitter leaves to eat, Joulian shovels down the fish pieces, skin, eyes and all. He throws it back up a few hours later and, weak and shaking, crawls down to the lake edge to scoop up some brackish mouthfuls. I think back to my own Games, where we were explicitly told to avoid the still water near the edge of pools or lakes and to stick to drinking the fresher running water. Previously, Joulian had been drinking from a small creek that ran from the lake but now he doesn't seem to have the energy to return to his hiding place.

He's sick again and crawls away from the lake, angling back towards the trees, but he doesn't make it much further than the golden horn. Beetee returns from giving another interview and checks the sponsorship balance and our private notebooks of promises from our industry sponsors, should they be required. After a few quick sums, Beetee realizes that we can't afford water unless we request a hefty sum from several of our Capitol associates. I wordlessly hand him the piece of paper with my own scribbled calculations, coming to the same conclusion. Joulian goes into convulsions after another bout of vomiting and we both make the hard decision that he's beyond saving. Our industry sponsors can't afford to help out every year so we try to only call on them when the tribute has a genuine chance.

It's pretty clear that the Gamemakers and general Capitol crowd alike are keen on the handsome young Finnick from Four. Both tributes from Two are also pulling decently well, and the pair from District Ten, especially Pelline's nephew Tarris have some fans as underdogs. Like the girl from Eleven, who has spent her time fighting off mutt attacks in the southernmost point of the arena, or the pair from Eight (who didn't start out allied, but teamed up when they met in the arena, missing out on the valuable time to become an interesting duo to the audience), Joulian is seen as little more than set dressing. And a few bottles of water aren't going to get him far without the ability to provide food as well.

"This one's on me," Beetee assures me as we choose not to call in any favors. Joulian only lasts another day and a half before his body gives out. He never makes it back to the tree-line and dies in the shadow of the Cornucopia like so many tributes from our district before him.