I have no idea where this came from and I didn't know where else to put it so it has ended up here - I suppose that it is part of this story really (the story that I had finished writing...). As ever, I'd love to hear what you think,
As I approach District 5 I can see that it is grey and raining. Even though I know there is nothing different or unusual about that, it somehow feels appropriate and definitely suits my mood. I walk away from the window to the other side of the hovercraft and sit down opposite my fellow mentor, Viola. She says nothing, but that is not unusual either recently. She has barely spoken since we left the Capitol.
As I feel us begin to descend, I think about everything that has happened over the past month. It is two days since the tributes from District 12 were crowned joint victors of the seventy-fourth Hunger Games, twenty-four days since a young boy from the poverty-stricken outskirts of District 5 collapsed to the floor with a knife in his back, and, perhaps the most vivid memory of all, eight days since the young girl whose courage, resourcefulness and astuteness never ceased to amaze me chose to end her life and win her freedom by taking the only way out that she could see. She was clever to the end, making sure that the Capitol would think that she ate those berries without knowing what they were and what the consequences would be, making sure that they would have no reason to punish her cousin for what were, in reality, her highly treasonous actions. Despite both her cleverness and her acting skills, I am surprised that more people haven't questioned the events of the sixteenth day of the Games. As if she would ever be stupid enough to eat the berries by accident. It is probably as well that so few people knew her well, because, such was her irrepressible intelligence, they would never have believed she would make such a mistake if they had had even one conversation with her.
So here I am, performing the same duty that I have performed virtually every year since I won the Games myself, escorting the bodies of my district's fallen tributes back to their grieving families, who already know the exact manner of their terrible and greatly premature deaths as they have been forced to watch everything that happened when it was broadcast live on television to the entire nation.
What am I supposed to say to them? I don't know. I have never known what to say, so usually I say nothing at all other than how I am so very sorry for their loss before retreating as far away from the main square as possible as quickly as I can so that I don't have to face their accusing stares. Every year the faces are different but the look is always the same, silently asking me how I managed to survive when their son or daughter did not, demanding to know why I didn't do more to help. What can I say in answer to that? The truth? I couldn't possibly. I couldn't tell them that the people of the Capitol barely provided me with enough money to send their child a bottle water when they were dying of thirst. And it was worse than ever this year. Despite Lysandra's talent for survival, which I am almost ashamed to say is so rare in one from District 5, the money just didn't come. By the time she really needed me I couldn't afford to send her anything. All of the money went to District 12 this year, and if not to them then it went to the ill-fated Careers from District 2. They were the four tributes that attracted the attention of the audience, theirs were the stories that stood out.
We are about to land in the middle of the district's main square when I remember that this year will have to be different. I will not be able to run and hide this time, for to do so would mean breaking the single promise I made to one who asked so little of me. I remember her last words to me before she was taken from the Training Centre to the arena. I think that I will remember those words until the day I die, not because she was particularly eloquent or because she said something unusually profound, but because her last thoughts before she was escorted to what she believed to be her execution were not of herself but of her cousin. She had wanted me to speak to Cassie, to try to console her and say something that would ease her grief if it all ended as she thought it would. All of the other tributes that I have ever mentored have either been in a state of silent acceptance of their fate by then, or have broken down before my eyes, begging me to save them and to make the living nightmare that is the Hunger Games go away, but Lysandra was different. Lysandra was always different. That is why I know that I have to find her cousin. I cannot let her down.
I make my way to the ladder and stand on the bottom rung so that I can be lowered down to the ground. As soon as my feet touch the muddy unpaved surface of the square I am surrounded by people, all here to get a glimpse of the wooden coffins that will shortly be arriving. In the past I have always thought that it was wrong of them to all gather in the square, that it was an intrusion on what should surely be a very private opportunity for relatives and friends to mourn such a public death, but this time my opinion is different. The people of District 5 should see the exceptionally gifted girl who refused to let the Capitol win in the only way that she could. They should honour her in death as nobody did in life, and then maybe one day the world will change enough for them to know the truth, that she defied the all-powerful, cruel and corrupt Capitol as much as, if not more than the pair from District 12. I hope that I am still alive to see the day that that happens, for that day, not the day over seventy-four years ago when the last district surrendered to the Capitol, will truly be the greatest day in the history of Panem.
I jump slightly as somebody touches my arm, thinking for a second that my mutinous thoughts had suddenly become visible for all to see, but as I turn I see that it is only Viola, pulling me gently away from the hovercraft so that it can disappear back to the Capitol once more. As soon as I have taken a few steps back, it vanishes and is replaced by a second craft, which hovers several metres above the ground, the underside doors slowly opening.
I can feel the crowd bunch together behind me as the simple wooden coffins are lowered slowly to the ground only a few metres away from where I stand. As far as the Capitol are concerned, this is the final part of the Games until the Victory Tour, which will not happen for another six months. Every year the scene is the same, the two coffins being lowered to the floor as the anthem is played, the timing worked out exactly so that the hovercraft vanishes at the same time as the last note sounds.
"The final insult," says a quiet voice, scarcely louder than a whisper, at my side.
I am shocked to hear Viola utter such rebellious words, words that I have heard once before and can recall clearly. When we had been watching the many televised replays of previous year's Hunger Games on the train on the way to the Capitol, it was Lysandra that had described the scene that I am witnessing now as such. She had taken great offence that the Capitol would effectively dump the bodies of the tributes, playing their anthem as if in celebration before disappearing without a trace or a thought for the families left behind to grieve. That it is Viola who repeats those words now shocks me, as not only has she never expressed even a mildly rebellious thought in my presence, but she also gave every impression that she disliked Lysandra intensely. I can still picture their constant exchange of glares and dirty looks and hear their sniping voices even now, so to see her standing by my side, following the slow progress of the coffins with her eyes, which appear to be full of as yet unshed tears, is entirely unexpected.
"She would be mortified if she could see this," I reply just as quietly, and Viola takes a small step towards me.
As the coffins finally reach the ground, my thoughts are interrupted by the sight of a person sprinting across the square towards me. Seconds later the person throws herself into my arms, crying and laughing quietly at the same time. I cling to her as fiercely as she clings to me, suddenly more relieved to see my intended bride than I have ever been before. I only let her go when I hear a frantic voice calling from somewhere in the crowd behind me.
"Let me through! Move out of my way! Please! "
I look at Poppy, telling her quickly that she should go back to her mother and father and that I will come to find her later but there is something that I have to do first. She does as I say and I watch her fade away into the crowd before I turn to start attempting to clear a path for the woman whose face I don't recognise but whose identity I know all too well. She doesn't even look at me as she passes, so intent is she on reaching the coffins, so I follow her, stopping a short distance away.
It takes me a couple of minutes to summon up the courage to take the remaining few steps needed to reach the nearest coffin, not the one that is surrounded by a single wailing woman and several starving looking children, but the one that is entirely devoid of mourners apart from a black-haired young woman, who kneels silently on the floor, her head bowed to hide her tears.
When she doesn't reply I turn to look at the coffin. They are always left open by the Capitol people so I am able to stare down at the tiny, serene figure of Lysandra, so perfectly preserved that she could have died minutes ago, miraculously healed of all traces of the arena prior to being sent back home. The first thing I notice is that she looks so much younger in death than she did in life. Lying there in a simple white dress, with her vivid red hair spread across the pillow, standing out against her flawless pale skin in the same way that it always did, she looks barely older than twelve or thirteen. It was her eyes that made her look even older than her real age, strange haunted-looking amber eyes that never missed a thing, eyes that are now closed forever.
After about half an hour, Cassie looks up at me for the first time, shaking her head slowly as she gets to her feet and steps back to allow the Peacekeepers to raise Lysandra from the floor and carry her across the square to the funeral pyre. I return her gaze, immediately seeing the family resemblance between the two young women despite the vast differences in their colouring. Cassie might have black hair and brown eyes but the angular features of her face are the same.
This is well past the time that I would usually walk away, but something makes me follow the procession of people, standing in silence with the rest as Cassie and Alecto's mother raise burning torches before lowering them down to light the pyres. The flames catch immediately, and soon Lysandra is surrounded by fire that burns as brightly as her hair. She should have been the girl-on-fire, then maybe she would be standing by my side today. I should have made her stylist do more. I should have done more. I should have forced myself to be strong enough to stand up to him, to silence his inane chatter and make him see that the life of his tribute is truly in his hands. But I didn't and I wasn't, so here I am watching her burn.
The crowd of people remain in the square for longer than they normally would, and I find myself wishing that Lysandra could see them, that she could see that even if she failed to win the support of the viewers in the Capitol, she succeeded in winning the hearts of the people of her own district. By the time the majority of them have left the sun has almost set and darkness is starting to fall. The mayor arrives to escort his wife away, and after one last look at the smoke that is still rising blackly from the pyres into the sky, Viola leaves without protest. Shortly after, Alecto's family leave as well. It is obvious to me that his mother and those of his siblings who are old enough to understand what they have witnessed are still overwhelmed by their grief, but that doesn't change the fact that the younger members of the family still need to eat, so I watch as they set off in the direction of their home, the youngest children dragging their mother away from the final resting place of her eldest.
That just leaves myself and Cassie, who hasn't moved an inch for hours, staring into the fire as it slowly burns itself out. Lysandra had been her only family and I guess that her job in the labs doesn't give her many opportunities to make friends. I keep waiting, feeling that although I am virtually a stranger to her, someone should stay so that she is not alone.
I am still standing next to the remains of the funeral pyre when the pale light of dawn breaks through the darkness. Not until the last flame has extinguished itself does Cassie raise her head and stretch her aching muscles.
"Thank you for staying," she says with a tired smile that doesn't reach her eyes.
"She deserves that much."
"Why did she do it? She was so close. There were only three others left."
"You knew her better than I did, I'm sure you could answer that question better than I. I know that she cared for you and wouldn't have wanted you to suffer. "
"Did she not think that killing herself on national television would make me suffer?"
"Shh," I hiss, "the walls have ears, you know that."
"Sorry. But she didn't have to do it. She still might have made it."
"I was in the Games myself. I know that it won't make you feel any better to hear this, but if you haven't been there in the arena then you can never even begin to understand how desperate it can make you feel. She thought that what she did was the best option. Whether she made the right choice or not, it was still her choice alone and nobody else's."
I can see by her slight change in expression that she understood the hidden meaning behind my last sentence, and also that she shares my opinion of our dictators. We both seem to take comfort in our shared views.
"She asked me to find you and speak to you. She said to say that she loves you very much and that she wishes she could be with you now."
Cassie raises an eyebrow at me before narrowing her eyes in exactly the same way her cousin did when she knew she was being lied to.
"What did she really say?"
"To think of something good and tell you that she said it," I reply honestly. When she responds it is the first time that I have heard her laugh.
"That sounds more like Lysa."
"I called her Lysa once," I say with a smile of my own. "I only ever made the mistake once."
"It was her Papa that called her Lysa. After he…died…anyone who called her that regretted it. She only let me shorten her name when they returned her to the labs." After a short pause she continues, "She hated it here."
"She said once that she wanted you to get out of Laboratory Seven. She said that you deserve better, that you are clever enough to really achieve something."
"How can I? The Capitol control everything we do here. Lysa knew that as well as I did."
"That's what I said to her."
"And what did she say?"
"That if her mother can do it then so can you. I had no idea what she meant and she wouldn't tell me."
"Her mother was Mercia Whitehouse. You know, the woman from District 5 who invented the best-selling youth potion in the Capitol and has lived a life of luxury without fear ever since."
I recognise the name instantly but at the same time I remember Lysandra's interview. She had said with great conviction that both of her parents were dead. Cassie seems to read my mind.
"Mercia abandoned her when my uncle died. Lysa never forgave her, never spoke of her. It was less painful for her to say that her mother was dead."
I nod, once more learning something that leaves me even more shocked at the extent of Lysandra's courage and strength of mind. I hope that Mercia Whitehouse is out there somewhere, watching from her luxurious house, regretting the day that she abandoned her brave and exceptional child.
It is time that I left now. Poppy will be thinking that I have forgotten about her, something that I have become more convinced than ever over the past few weeks that I will never do. Once more Cassie seems to follow the pattern of my thoughts and nods to me, wiping the tears from her eyes.
"It's just Cassie," she says.
"I know, Lysandra told me."
I turn and walk slowly away, getting halfway across the square before I suddenly remember something. I immediately chase after Cassie, reaching her just as she opens the door of Laboratory Seven.
"Cassie! Cassie, wait! Lysandra told me to tell you to look under the loose floorboard below her bed. She didn't say why," I gasp, struggling for breath. She smiles briefly, inclines her head once more and passes through the doorway without speaking.
Four years later
It was exactly a year ago today that I heard the televised announcement made by Octavian, one of the two Capitol representatives based in District 5. The hugely fat and garishly coloured man had stood at the podium on the stage in the Capitol's City Circle to tell the vast crowd gathered there that the development of a new scientific process has been completed, that developments in genetic engineering discovered in the labs of his very own District 5 now make it possible for alterations to be made to a person's genes, therefore enabling their appearance to be changed without any need for invasive surgery.
The new process was, of course, an overnight success, and as Octavian claimed all of the credit for himself, it made him one of the wealthiest men in Panem. I don't pretend to understand much about science or about the way the labs are run, but I do know that a man like Octavian would never have the brains to come up with something like that in the first place, never mind to go on to develop the technique enough to make it safe and successful. Therefore it was no great surprise to me that first Laboratory Seven, and then a couple of months later the jewel in District 5's crown, Laboratory One, found itself with a new governor.
It is that same governor who I am on my way to visit now, walking up the luxuriously carpeted steps with my infant daughter in my arms. I knock on the door tentatively, despite the fact that as a Hunger Games victor, I have sufficient status within the district to make fear unnecessary.
I walk in to stand on the other side of the huge mahogany desk, facing the occupant of the office.
"Hello Cassie. It's been a long time."
"You have done very well for yourself these past few years." I say, and her face confirms what I have suspected all along, that she has been behind all of the recent scientific developments that have made our esteemed Capitol representative so very rich.
"I couldn't have done it alone."
"What do you mean?"
"You chased after me four years ago to say that Lysa asked you to tell me to look under the floorboard in her room." She continues when I nod in response. "She had been working on my project for months. I could not have done half of what I have done without her."
I smile, remembering the one tribute girl I have mentored that I've never really forgotten. My little girl wakes suddenly and raises her head, her wild mop of dark brown hair in complete disarray as usual.
"Is she your daughter? It was rumoured in the labs that you and your wife couldn't have children."
"We didn't think we could. But, yes, she is ours," I answer, unable to keep the pride from my voice. "I called her Lysandra."
I am surprised to see tears well up in the eyes of the woman who is now known to all as the formidable and often terrifying governor of Laboratory One, and we sit in silence for several minutes until she regains control of her emotions for long enough to ask me the question which was the reason for my summons to her office.
"What happened in the Capitol? Why could you not help them? For too many years I have watched as two coffins are lowered into the square out of one of those vile hovercrafts. There must be something we can do."