Day Five, morning. Dawn of the final day. Finale! And we're back in third person, because action sequences.

The first hint of daylight touches the horizon as the dragon, even larger than before, slinks into the great hall of the castle. Its smoky scales scrape against the ceiling as it folds its wings and crawls into the rafters- a perfect vantage point for the round table and the four tributes that sit at it, eyeing each other warily.

Cyrus chews his pear slowly, staring spitefully at Caelle as he thinks about the sword he has managed to slide under the table. In return, she tries to hide her bad arm as she selects a fruit pastry and bites into it a little too casually. They swallow at the same time, eyes never leaving the other. Around them, the empty suits of armor form a perfect circle, trapping all four tributes at the table.

Kepler knows that no one will be allowed to leave until a Victor is named. Althea gets the point just as quickly, and fights through her nauseous hunger to claim a small egg tart. Kepler waits as the others chew their food, his busy eyes roaming the table and assessing the layout of breakfast and blades.

Caelle's words cut through the silence, making Kepler jump and bringing all focus to her. "So. How are you doing?" Her piercing gaze never wavers from Cyrus, making it obvious the question is meant for him and him only.

He takes another bite of pear, chewing thoughtfully- and just slowly enough to piss Caelle off.

"I asked you, how are you doing?"

He swallows. "Fine."

Caelle smirks, polishing off her cherry croissant. Kepler takes stock of how she's nearly unable to move her arm. Althea sneaks glances at Cyrus, afraid he'll notice her scoping out his back injuries. The two Careers are unaware of everything in the room except each other.

Kepler looks around, keeping a nervous eye on the dragon above. He isn't quite sure why none of the others are panicking about the massive beast watching over them, but they all seem unbothered so he tries not to act concerned. Maybe they didn't notice and I have the upper hand by knowing it's even there, he tells himself in a futile attempt to boost morale.

As Caelle responds to her district partner with a snippy "Why don't you ask how I am?", Kepler reaches for a knife. He inches towards it, but as he gets close enough to grab it the knights behind him start to shift. He pulls his hand back as Althea looks over, and the knights settle down. He tries again, but as he gets close the sounds of armor pick up again. He doesn't want to find out what will happen if he does take a weapon while under such scrutiny.

Althea forces herself to swallow another bite of tart, but the effort nearly makes her puke. She retches, but keeps the food down. Caelle shoots her a dirty look. Cyrus glances away from Caelle for the first time, but he looks at the girl from Three with almost-concern. She shrinks under the sudden attention. "No, it's fine, talk to each other, pretend I'm not even here."

Kepler hides a smile at that, but nobody notices. None of the tributes are watching him.

Caelle and Cyrus lock their eyes back on each other in perfect District Two unison.

"It's been a minute," Caelle chirps, simultaneously over-familiar and cold as ice.

Cyrus rolls his shoulders back slowly, checking their range of movement. "So it has."

"The last time I saw you, this room was on fire."

"And you were holding a blade to my throat."

"So I was."

"I'd like an apology, if you feel so inclined."

"Only if you apologize for fucking abandoning me…" Caelle's unspoken 'for that Shelby bitch' still hits its mark in Cyrus, and he doesn't quite hide a grimace.

"Oh, for sure. I certainly am sorry, Caelle."

Althea's glance flickers to Cyrus. His 'sorry' was so undeniably petty. She marvels at the degree of pure shade he throws. It's been a while since she heard passive aggressiveness like that. It sounds like the Careers are making a truce, but Althea, master of double entendre and half truths, knows a red herring when she hears one.

Kepler, on the other hand, hears the Careers apologizing to each other and sees an inevitable double-edged attack. The two from Two teaming up to knock out the rejects, then they'll battle each other to the death in an epic Games showdown. He doesn't stand a chance. He's seen bar fights, but Wes has always kept him out of the fray. He survived the bloodbath and everything up til now, but he's never had two trained killers coming at him. There's no escaping this final hell. As the lump in his throat grows, his scientist's mind urges the need for a plan. A method. Something qualitative. The weapons on the table… they're his only chance. It's not like the dragon will help.

Caelle takes Cyrus's apology at face value. She knows it's not sincere, but it will have to do. It's a statement, and that's what she needs. A 'sorry' for the next fifteen minutes could be the key to saving her energy. If Cyrus gets rid of the others, she only has to fight Cyrus instead of all three tributes. His shitty little apology doesn't have to last long, as long as it gets the job done. The final truce.

Cyrus doesn't know what his 'sorry' means yet. He nervously taps his fingers on the hilt of the gift sword beneath the table. He wants this to be over so desperately, and the longer he sits at the table the less he cares about what "over" will look like. Yet, he can't bring himself to make the first move.

"In that case, I'm sorry too. You can at least have that much."

"I'm sure everyone at home appreciates us being so friendly here at the end."

The dawn's first rays break through the windows of the great hall, scattering light across the round table. Kepler, still unnoticed, grits his teeth and commits to doing something about the tension. Expecting the knights to move again, he reaches out just far enough to touch the hilt of a knife on the table. Eyes squeezed shut, he awaits the fallout. But… nothing happens. No clanking armor, no sudden movements, no screaming or explosion of action from the others.

He blinks, and slowly scans the table to see Caelle and Cyrus still caught in some sort of mental battle. Althea, though, looks back at him. They make eye contact and Althea raises an eyebrow at the hand on the knife. Kepler shrugs almost imperceptibly, but pulls the knife inches closer to him. Althea manages a tiny smile, and starts inching her hand towards the small axe near her seat.

"So, Cyrus, do you want me to take any messages back for you?"

He laughs dryly. "Yeah. Tell that asshole Klaus that I fucking hate him and his unborn baby. You?"

"I don't know. Let the district know I still want a statue of me somewhere, I guess. Oh, and something nice for my family."

This time, Cyrus's laugh is almost earnest. He takes the last bite of his pear and tosses the core into the center of the table.

The sunlight slants into the room just enough to dazzle Caelle, making her wince and glance around the table.

Her gaze lands on Althea, axe in hand.

"Cyrus. FUCK." She draws her sword and leaps up, toppling her chair to the ground.

The trance is broken. The knights do not move. The Games are back on.

Althea yelps and rolls off her chair and under the table, but Caelle is already charging at her across the table, scattering pastries and fruit in her wake. Althea scrambles around the table to Kepler, the only 'safe' option left for her in the room.

Suddenly the shape of the battle is clear. Althea and Kepler, joint underdogs, race around the outer edge of the table, avoiding Caelle's onslaught. Cyrus leaps to his feet and brandishes the one sword he has, but he makes no move to jump in on Caelle's behalf. There is no District Two alliance, of that much he is sure. "Sorry, Caelle" indeed.

"Cyrus, come on!" Caelle hollers, but she holds no authority. Enraged, she kicks a chair out and Althea trips on it, flying across the flagstone floor and bashing her chin on the stone dais. Kepler scatters to the other side of the circle of knights.

Caelle brings her sword down hard on Althea's head, but the other girl rolls out of the way and loses only a chunk of hair to the blow.

"You bitch! My hair!"

"The arena makes you almost as ugly as you act! Just fucking die already!" Caelle swings again as Althea almost regains her footing, and this time the blade slashes deep into Althea's shoulder. She screams in pain as Caelle screams in joy. "You've gotten in my way too many times in the last week!"

Althea sees red. The audacity of this pompous little snob! She hits back with the axe as hard as she can, forcing Caelle to step back.

Like a hound closing in on a scared rabbit, Caelle thrills at the sight of fear. She beats Althea back until she's pressed against the wall of armor, barely able to hold up the axe against the fury of Caelle's blows. The wooden handle splinters under the force of the sword. Caelle teases, jabbing at Althea's arms and smacking her fingers with the flat of the blade until she's speckled with blood and howling with terror.

Kepler tries to duck between the knights, but they force him back into the circle. No exit. Althea makes a break for it towards Kepler, trying to flee Caelle in any direction possible, and both of the lower district tributes run in blind terror until they're trapped between Cyrus and Caelle.

Caelle feints, jabbing first towards Althea's face but slicing the air by her ear at the last second. The wail of fear makes Caelle laugh, and she turns towards Cyrus, still expecting him to join her.

He's returned to the table and is chewing on a tiny egg tart, watching Caelle's reign of terror with something like pity in his eyes.

She screams this time, loud and furious and betrayed, but not quite willing to turn on Cyrus with two others alive. She whips her sword through the air, taking her anger out on Althea's barely-defended chest, but Cyrus blocks her killing blow with his sword.

"Where the fuck did you get that sword?" Caelle blusters.

"When did you get so cruel?" Cyrus tries to disarm her, but she deflects and lets him hit her bad arm instead. She groans through gritted teeth as fresh blood runs down her arm and drips from her fingers to the floor, but holds onto her weapon and tries again to finish Althea off. Althea, having scrambled two feet away from her previous position, avoids the blade but gets an elbow to the ribcage. Wheezing, she drags herself away from the Careers and collapses on one of the chairs.

Cyrus and Caelle slide into a pattern almost like sparring. The training of District Two etches itself into the very being of its trainees to the point where it overpowers the brain. Parry, dodge, strike, footwork, offense, defense. They lock hilts and find themselves truly face-to-face for the first time in a long time.

"Are you really sorry?" Caelle asks.

"Probably more sorry than you."

Caelle scoffs and breaks away, dropping low and striking hard to stab Cyrus in the thigh. He grunts, knee buckling, but tightens his grip on the sword and unleashes a flurry of strikes. They lock hilts again and this time she wastes no time stomping on his foot. He loses concentration but when she tries to overpower him he twists his sword and both of their blades clatter to the ground.

Fuck. He's stronger. Can't let him get the upper hand. Have to keep going. Keep him off guard. Caelle's strategic mind goes on autopilot and she lunges at Cyrus, aiming for his injured back. She digs in with her nails, scratching and tearing and scrambling for a headlock. He turns, but she's faster and stays behind him. He throws punches and elbows, but she gets an arm around his throat and starts squeezing. Cyrus gasps, seeing pops of light.

"I'll tear your throat out with my teeth, I don't care-" Caelle's threat breaks off into a whine and her grip releases from Cyrus's neck.

Kepler dashes away, small knife coated in dark blood and newfound courage immediately wavering. Logically it was sound, but now, with Caelle's attention turning his way... His wide eyes lock on Caelle as she staggers backwards, clutching the new gash in her side with her good arm. She sees Kepler for the first time, shocked and appalled, as blood oozes out onto her tunic.

Cyrus takes a ragged breath and turns to his suddenly incapacitated district partner. She snarls and charges again, but the beating takes its toll. Her entire body sags. She stumbles towards Cyrus, hand reaching for his throat, but he pushes her away. She collapses, but bounces back up. Smears of blood stain the stones around her.

Althea pushes herself back to her feet, regaining her breath after having the wind knocked out of her. Kepler looks shakily at the knife in his hands, quickly coming to terms with his participation in the Career fight. Both of them look expectantly at Cyrus.

"Fight me! Come on!" Caelle fumbles for her sword, but Cyrus scoops it up. He feels sick as he looks at his district partner, now as desperate to prove herself as she was the day she entered training. These other kids aren't going to do it for me.

Caelle scrambles for the weapons on the table, but Althea beats her to it, pushing any options out of reach. Kepler darts in and pulls Cyrus's gift sword away from her as well, although he can barely lift the thing to move it.

Caelle screams, all her glory slipping away as blood sprays from her side. Cyrus takes a deep breath, still reluctant, but she turns the full force of her fury back on him. She lands a punch on him, but Cyrus closes his eyes and impales her on her own sword.

Caelle goes down fighting, the only ending she could have been even somewhat satisfied with.

Althea grabs a fresh axe from the table and lunges at Cyrus, trying to catch him in a moment of weakness. Her clumsy attack snaps him out of it and he finds himself almost comfortable being on the defensive. It's so much easier to fight back rather than kill for sport. He shoves Althea away as Kepler comes up on him with a dagger, trying to surprise. One blow from a trained hand makes Kepler wobbly, like he's a tuning fork being rung against metal. Althea gives up on any kind of truce, striking out at Kepler when she sees he's weak. He retreats from the hit, crying out, but the knights close in. No retreats allowed.

Cyrus turns back to Althea, aiming for a leg shot while she chops at Kepler. Two blows land at once- Althea cuts Kepler's forearm as Cyrus slashes her hip. Neither of the wounded crumpled, but both strike back. Althea uses the axe handle to deliver a strong uppercut to Cyrus.

The three break apart, dodging and retreating, but the knights close the circle even more. Althea feels dizziness coming on, and she briefly acknowledges the fact that she's hit her head and had the wind knocked out of her in the last ten minutes, not to mention the blood loss. Kepler's vision wobbles through tears, and he wipes his eyes hard to get rid of the offending emotions. Cyrus loathes himself more than he ever thought possible, and the throbbing pain in his back and leg seems to combine into one massive hurt.

Althea makes another effort to attack Cyrus, but her blows don't break through. He rebuffs her with some difficulty, using all his strength to toss her across the circle before Kepler can attack at the same time. The other boy is trying his best not to cry, but as he brandishes his knife he can't help losing his emotional battle just a little bit.

All of my suffering, and for this? This is where it ends?

Cyrus knocks the knife away from Kepler, and pities him for a moment. He couldn't choose this. "I'm sorry. Really."

He kills Kepler quickly, straight through the heart, and puts him out of his misery.

Althea, slow and shaky, wails at the cannon. It's not that she cared about Kepler- of course she didn't, really- but here at the end of it all he was the closest thing she had to a connection.

The two tributes size each other up, and all they can see is pain. Both of them are breathing hard and are bleeding from fresh wounds.

Cyrus and Althea sit back down at the round table. For a moment, the only noise in the arena is the labored breathing of the final two and the dripping of blood.

The dragon rumbles, reminding them of the situation's peculiar urgency. The Capitol has an agenda.

Althea drags her fingers along the wood grain of the table. "You don't seem horrible."

"Neither do you… Althea." Cyrus gives his final opponent a tight smile.

She laughs. "No, I'm a total bitch, don't be polite!"

Cyrus shakes his head, not quite willing to make eye contact. "You know, I think that's probably a good thing. You'd make a better Victor than me."

"Dude, what? Me, versus a beefcake like you? Nah, the Capitol wants you. District Two poured all that training into you, so you being Victor is just getting the returns. Whereas my personal trainer doesn't have a stake in all this… I'm sure my parents fired them the second I got Reaped anyway."

"No, it's not about any of that. You're here making jokes, I've been trying to decide whether living is worth it for days now. You'd last longer as a Victor. You'd… be able to handle it." Cyrus swallows hard, realizing that if he wins, he will be stuck with the Capitol forever. And if he uses their gift, he'll owe someone some sort of debt.

"At least you have a family that wants you back. You'd have support. I'd just be a business pawn." Althea pictures Cyrus's family. She tries to conjure the happy parents and boisterous brothers that Cyrus talked about in interviews, but she can't. The only faces that bubble to the surface of her mind are the sour scowls of her disappointed parents and siblings.

"Hell, my family- I broke their hearts, volunteering."

Althea rolls her eyes. "Still better than my parents. I think they'd rather see me die." And if I live, they'll only want to use my status for their own gain.

"I'm sorry."

"You've been apologizing an awful lot for the Hunger Games."

Cyrus shrugs, still staring at the gift sword lying abandoned on the floor. Everything in life- his loving family, his friendliness, his loyalty, his humor- brought him to this point. Trying to convince his opponent that she deserved to live more than he did. Looking the proverbial gift horse in the mouth and turning down an advantage from the Gamemakers. "I feel like it's the least I can do. Considering."

"Well, I don't see you killing yourself to let me walk away, so yeah. Least you can do." The world dips and swims in Althea's vision, courtesy of whatever got knocked around when she hit her head on the floor. She winces, not caring to hide it anymore. The jokes and jibes come naturally, but there's nothing behind it. She tries to summon anger, fear, adrenaline, anything, but it's useless. She doesn't feel anything.

Cyrus ruefully thinks for a second that dying by his own hand would probably be the most noble way to go, but he's not strong enough to consider that.

The knights pound their shields in unison. Althea sighs and staggers to her feet. "Well, I guess we should finish this. May the best fighter win, and the better person die?"

"Whatever works." Cyrus clenches his teeth and hefts Caelle's well-used sword.

They stand and face each other, ragged breathing the only sound in the room. Blood stains both tunics, a mixture of old brown crust and fresh crimson smear. The pulse of two heartbeats seems to slow to a crawl. Althea and Cyrus creep around each other, feral dogs too cowardly to bite. They look each other in the eyes now, intense hard stares.

Althea, feeling the dizziness come and go in waves, tries to take a deep breath and the air rips through her lungs. "Come on, why won't you fucking attack me?" she screams hoarsely. Cyrus limps just out of reach, holding his sword halfheartedly. "I don't want to wait it out. I don't want it to be slow."

Their flinty eye contact softens just a bit as tears start to well up in Cyrus's eyes. Althea's breath hitches. "Don't start that. Fuck you. Fuck you and fuck this and fuck my motherfucking family!" She charges him, swinging blindly and nearly sobbing.

She's nothing but a scared girl. Cyrus loses the nerve to justify a killing blow, but the pity isn't enough to override his self-preservation. He dodges Althea and delivers a sloppy backstroke, cutting her shallowly across the shoulders. She screams, unable to hide any of her pain, and the guilt hits Cyrus like a Peacekeeper's shield. He throws up, spewing chunks of pear across the floor, and his gagging sends Althea into a dry heave. They retreat for a few seconds, wiping their mouths, but the knights have no time for rest. They force both tributes into an even smaller ring, right on the stone dais by the thrones.

Althea grabs Kepler's knife from the ground and throws it at Cyrus. The handle hits him where he was stabbed in the leg, and he groans and drops to his knees, letting Caelle's sword clatter away. Althea sways as she watches him ride out the pain, but she loses focus as she nearly passes out.

"I'm tired of hurting," she mutters to herself.

Cyrus stumbles back to his feet, but his eyes roll back in his head with the effort. "I'm so tired of all this." He grips the knife with white-knuckled fingers.

They lock eyes again, and all that exists between them is an ocean of exhaustion. Summoning all their remaining strength, they stagger towards each other and Althea throws her full weight against Cyrus in an attempted bodyslam that looks more like a hug. Her axe cuts into his shoulder and he hisses in pain, but the new wound barely registers. He wraps an arm around her, and with all the guilt in the world pressing on his shoulders he buries the knife in her stomach.

She whimpers and goes slack, and her deadweight brings both of them crashing to the ground.

Althea doesn't savor the pain, but she doesn't run away from it either. There's nowhere left to run. It fades quickly, too, from the sharp throb to a gentler ache. There's only the cold stones of the ground, and the feeling of sleep descending.

"Took you long enough," she coughs.

"I'm sorry," Cyrus chokes.

"Don't fucking bother."

Cyrus rolls onto his back, Althea slumped over his arm in an almost-embrace. As he lets the exhaustion wash over him, the knights swarm forward and pull him upright, carrying Althea's body away to who-knows-where. They frog-march him to the throne and dump him unceremoniously in the seat.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, we are pleased to announce the Victor of the Twenty-First Annual Hunger Games: Cyrus Augustin of District Two!"

Cyrus tries to cry, but there's nothing left in him. He lets the knights lift him again and carry him away to the waiting shuttle.


"You know, for all the doom and gloom, we still control the narrative. For all the "what ifs", it's our choices. We are the Gamemakers, after all. The whole point is that we create the stories. They are what we want them to be. Two will love having a new Victor, it'll spur them into a frenzy of training and Cyrus has too good of a heart to not help out the next generation- but he's too soft for Capitol life. Calling it now. They always seem to be. Althea would have made a killing here, selling her family secrets for a new kind of fortune. That's what I wanted. I wanted her under our control as a Victor- it would have been stellar. So it goes. Things don't always go according to plan. Anyway, what we have the most control over is editing. They see what we want them to see. So if a tribute needs to shit? We can cut away. The gory bits? We get right in close. But in special cases… we can cut off the cameras just a second early, call a cue quicker than needed, so we can get what we want for the story. It's all episodic, you see. All about the scene work. And in this case… what they didn't see was that little Althea was still breathing when her cannon fired. And as the knights led Cyrus to his Victory, they carried Althea out of the arena into the waiting arms of my med team. And the Biachi heiress will spill her secrets, one way or another. Call it insider trading, if you will. There will never be a scandal, and as soon as she's no longer useful we'll have her disappear anyway. That's the way things have always worked. Entertainment, politics, business… one and the same. And we don't do this often… but a good Gamemaker knows when to call the shots for a special occasion. And rushing the end of a morbidly slow finale is a pacing issue for the Capitol edits, really. We're just tying up some loose ends on the business side before packing up the arena leftovers."

4th: Caelle Lovage. Ace, thank you for your submission.

3rd: Kepler Mallis. Nate, thank you for your submission.

2nd: Althea Biachi. Remus, thank you for your submission.

1st: Cyrus Augustin. Sophia, thank you for your submission.

Thank you all for letting me explore so many arena possibilities that I was never bold enough to try in the past! For me, starting this SYOT as a satire opened up a lot of story options that I otherwise would have considered too cliché/unrealistic/gimmicky/etc (arena "romance" although it wasn't really, religion in Panem, multiple survivors, my whole 'gay rights Panem' subplot that I've had going since SITG) because I was afraid of exploration in storytelling. It's been great to write a more curious story!

Goodbyes next chapter… because of course I still need to do an epilogue… but tribute obits now. Including the alive ones because everyone dies eventually!

Cyrus: A classic Nice Career, I truly loved diving into his disillusionment and reevaluation of life. Nice Careers are often tricky because you want to like them as people but they're also supposed to be murderers, so what's a healthy boundary? Answer: there's no such thing as healthy boundaries in the Games, so of course Cyrus is gonna be super messed up. And getting messy with it is the very best part!

Althea: I never thought I would enjoy writing her so much but Remus, you gave me a character with a powerful personality with the perfect amount of backstory to match. She came alive on the page and after her first scene I found myself shocked by considering her an early Victor. And she kinda made it, too! Definitely one of the most dynamic characters I've ever gotten to play with. I spent the better part of a year trying to decide who would receive the Victory before deciding hey... I'll bake a cake and eat it too, right?

Kepler: Nate… Kepler was genius. I think this story was his perfect environment and I felt like he thrived. Not in a good way obviously… but he had a complete arc with a deep subplot and this was the ideal story to match his character needs. I loved breaking him down and creating something new with him. You let me explore a new aspect of this story world, and I am thankful for the opportunity!

Caelle: A QUEEN. She would definitely crush the competition on any one of those survival game shows. When I got her I knew exactly where I could take her (and although I didn't have her burned at the stake like I had originally planned, she really went through her own personal hell of doubt). She was a plot-driving force and so valuable to have on this team.

Sharif: Subtle king. He was the antithesis to Althea in terms of personality, but his voice came to me just as surely. The question of loners in SYOTs always feels like a big one, so I was happy to bring him so far along.

Shelby: I loved this mess of a girl! When I ask myself 'who would be dumb enough to volunteer for the games if they're not totally brainwashed Careers?'… yeah. It's this one. Her downfall was that inability to take things seriously, but man oh man did she bring some much needed levity to the story. I appreciated her vast humor, her spontaneity, and the way I was able to use her to explore the Games world from an almost naïve yet unafraid view.

Malek: My first potential Victor, not gonna lie. He hit my soft spot from the moment I got him. And eventually that's why he had to die- because in stories past I had such a habit of letting the sweet ones survive even if they didn't logically deserve it. He was so much fun, though, and I was sad to let him go!

Inaya: Every good medieval tale needs a damsel in distress even if I don't believe in that trope… and Inaya's paranoia and pain let me explore the very real terror of the Games in a way I think is usually overlooked by us writers who are desensitized to the horrors of death in search of a good story. The pain is always real and we usually numb it with plot devices or other story tricks. Inaya reminds me of the truth of the Games. Poor sweet dear.

Andros: The ill fated strong man. I was so glad to have this level headed weirdo in my Pack, as an anchoring force for the nearly whimsical personalities that surrounded him. A keeper of secrets, more loyal than expected, always willing to kill. A classic Career, but his nuance keeps him from becoming another Shark Mason. In the 'real world', most likely to win. In a SYOT, not quite emotional enough to make for a satisfying Victor, but if this story hadn't had Andros I don't know what I would have done with the Careers.

Calandra: I love my slightly-hippie-nice-D11-girls and Calandra was no exception. I got deeply emotional writing her intro scene knowing that she was too sweet to win and I'd eventually have to kill her :/ but she was a plot-starter, an emotional catalyst, and a character I could really turn to for solid, authentic interactions. I'm so glad she was in this story.

Eliana: Alison, I feel the need to apologize for my bias here. Eliana was a stellar, complex character, probably one of the very best in the story, and I think in many other stories she would easily make finale if not become Victor. But, for personal reasons, no one who hurts their partner could possibly win my Games (sorry to insert morals into a story about kids killing each other… but I'll die on this hill). I loved getting to explore her mind, and you truly gave me a character that scratched a neat little itch in my brain.

Redmond: This dude brought me back to my youth in trying to create a younger voice for him. I felt like this story skewed older since I'm older now, so building Redmond's mindset was an unexpected challenge for me. I really appreciated that and he found his niche among the rest. I'm blown away by the thought of how different I might have written him seven years ago when I was a teenager- and glad that he made me reflect on the way we grow up.

Loren: The thing about sweet Loren is that she was too kind for her own good. In this story she was another exploration of pain- what happens when allies and plans go horribly, horribly wrong. When coming up with plots, we love to see things follow through, but often it's more realistic and more difficult for things to fail. Loren drew the short stick for that one, and I really put her through the hell of finding and losing, finding and losing.

Gareth: For me, Gareth was emblematic of teenage loneliness and awkwardness, which I found delightful to write. He had specific reasons, but at heart he felt so genuine, so youthful, and so deeply in search of community and kindness. I love writing for this kind of character because the things they face can feel like an entirely different world from the plots of the Careers and other tributes saturated in the history of Panem. The tragedy of the Games, of course, is that good things never last for long.

Val: I'm a sap for a coming out story, and honestly I could see teenage me volunteering along similar lines. I tried my very best to bring Val out of the closet and into humanity as a tribute, but she didn't want to win. She came to the Games to die and she knew that. I loved having her and she let me reconnect to my favorite subplot of Gay Panem. I hadn't been able to explore lower districts yet, and she gave me that chance to worldbuild.

Timo: Another question I've always had about Panem is… how big are the districts exactly? Timo's personal history dealt a lot with the outer regions of his district and that really captivated me. He was such an Everyman archetype and it felt so valuable to have him in my cast of characters. As most early deaths go, I unfortunately had a harder time pinning down his personality for my writing style. Nonetheless- I truly enjoyed having him! Choosing deaths for this story was so difficult since I was able to start the story with a full set of characters I really liked.

Okay all- I'll get emo about retirement when I post the epilogue. Thank you all so much and if you're still reading, I hope you are not only surviving but finding joy and community in your lives! All my best.